Making the most of college: Recovering the lost logic of church

"Why bother going to church when I don't feel like it?" Cannot a walk in the woods be as spiritually meaningful? Cannot a latté at Starbucks be as deep a time of fellowship? Cannot sleeping in on Sunday morning be as personally refreshing?

Appears in Fall 2007 Issue: Making the most of college (second annual)
September 1st, 2007

Personal spirituality v. organized religion

Book after book and survey after survey tell us what any parent can easily observe by watching their "twenty-something" children: "spirituality is cool, church is not." Dan Kimball's book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations (Zondervan 2007), is representative of this. For the emerging generation, "church" is too homophobic, too male-dominated, too judgmental, too negative, and too political. Kimball's conclusion is that the traditional church is significantly "out of synch" with postmodern youth. As with many others, he suggests changing the style without changing the substance.

There is more at stake here than what first meets the eye. The generational fault line is actually more than style. Ceding style usually results in ceding substance as well. This strategy is an example of well-intended incremental decisions that frequently lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

Price of consumer religion

Consider for a moment the typical beliefs of the emerging generation. For them, religion is a personal experience relegated to one's private life. It meets a personal need and is chosen accordingly. For those born after the cultural dislocations of the 1960s, religious truth is subjective—that is, person-specific. When I'm talking about "spirituality," I'm talking about "my" truth. I dare not impose my views on you, and the reverse is especially true. If religious truth is subjective, if authority is personal, and if religious experience is individual, then church as the traditional, institutional locus of religious authority has no place. In reaction, church leaders appeal in myriad ways to the consumer preferences of a particular target market. But in so doing a consumerist mindset is reinforced and the authority of the institution is ceded to the individual. Under these conditions, the church no longer claims any binding address on the person. The threat of excommunication or withholding the Eucharist is of little consequence when one can go down the street to sample from a different religious brand. This is the cultural situation that Nietzsche foresaw, when he stated that it would soon be impossible for any institution—family, church, school, or state—to say with any meaningful conviction, "Thou shalt not." In consumer religion, the consumer rules.

Under these conditions, many ask, "Why bother going to church when I don't feel like it?" Cannot a walk in the woods be as spiritually meaningful? Cannot a latté at Starbucks be as deep a time of fellowship? Cannot sleeping in on Sunday morning be as personally refreshing?

The church has lost its logic for church.

Church and college life

This is especially true for college students. College life has its own rhythms and church is not one of them. Only 20% of students who attended church regularly before college will attend church at all after two years in college. There is an 80% drop-off rate. Only 10% of students who identify themselves as Christians attend church regularly while at college. But regular church attendance while at college is the single strongest, statistical indicator of whether or not a person will maintain their faith commitments after college.

These statistics prompt three observations: the church has lost its logic for church attendance by young adults; the typical way the church is seeking to restore its rationale—by becoming more appealing—is counter productive because it doesn't address the underlying issues; and church attendance is the most important variable for maintaining an ongoing relationship with Jesus while at college. This is a significant, personal and institutional problem.

History of skepticism

A student in college does not lose her faith overnight. It is a gradual process, but slippage can be profound within a single semester. In Tom Wolfe's novel about contemporary, college life, Charlotte Simmons lost her faith and her virginity by the end of the first semester of her freshman year. As with Wolfe's character, it is not the academic subjects that present the greatest spiritual dangers, but the social environment. The Christian student wants to fit in, and only later uses pseudo-intellectual rationalizations to defend his loss of faith. The process was described brilliantly by William Wilberforce in the nineteenth century:

A typical case of such unbelief begins when young men are brought up as nominal Christians. Their parents take them to church as children and there they become acquainted with those passages of the Bible used in the service. If their parents still keep some of the old habits, they may even be taught in the catechism.

But they go off into the world, yield to youthful temptations, neglect to look at their Bible, and they do not develop their religious duties. They do not even try to reflect, study, or mature in the thoughts that they once might have had as children. They may even travel abroad, relax still further their religious habits, and tend to read only about those controversial issues of religion.

Attending church occasionally, these occasional incidents more often offend such youth than strengthen them. Perhaps they are tempted to be morally superior to those they think are superstitious. Or the poor examples of some professing Christians disgust them. Or else they stumble because of the absurdities of others who see they are equally ignorant to themselves. At any rate, they gradually begin to doubt the reality of Christianity. A confused sense of relief that it is all untrue settles within them. Impressions deepen, reinforced by fresh arguments. At length they are convinced of their doubts in a broad sweep over the whole realm of religion.

This may not be universally so, but it may be termed the natural history of skepticism. It is the experience of those who have watched the progress of unbelief in those they care about. It is confirmed by the written lines of some of the most eminent unbelievers. We find that they once gave a sort of implicit, inherited assent to the truth of Christianity and were considered believers.

How then did they become skeptics? Reason, thought, and inquiry have little to do with it. Having lived for many years careless and irreligious lives, they eventually matured in their faithlessness—not by force of irreligious strength but by lapse of time. This is generally the offspring of prejudice, and its success is the result of moral depravity. Unbelief is not so much the result of a studious and controversial age as it is one of moral decline. It disperses itself in proportion as the general morals decline. People embrace it with less apprehension when all around are doing the same thing.

What Wilberforce described is the gradual decisions and the subtle changes in priorities that undermine faith. Rarely is the loss of faith the result of careful inquiry or a single experience. It's more like gaining weight than falling off a ladder. When your friends, your roommate, and others in your dorm all treat church as irrelevant, it is easy to adopt the same attitude. Arguments against organized religion are used to bolster these already formed attitudes. If a relationship is involved, if casual sex is in the picture, then the arguments take on a particular inevitability. Let's be honest: if you are sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend there are a lot of things one might think about doing on a Sunday morning at college, other than attending church.

Signs of apprenticeship

However, if you are serious about being apprentices of Jesus, you will go to church each Sunday. Gathering with the people of God was Jesus' practice from youth. It will become yours. Luke writes, "He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day" (Luke 4:16). Wanting to worship with other believers is a sign of genuine belief. The Psalmist observes, "As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight" (Psalms 16:3). As with David, attending church will not be a burden, but a joy: "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the LORD!'" (Psalm 122:1). But proof texts don't constitute an argument.

The institutional church only makes sense if truth is objective, if belief is determinative, if plausibility is communal, and if real presence is uniquely promised.

Truth is objective

If truth is objective, then the source of truth is outside myself. I am no longer the epistemic centre of the universe. I stand under truth—both that revealed in nature and in Scripture. I am accountable to truth, and I need others to help me guard against my own intellectual self-deception and behavioural rationalizations. We harbour suspicion of institutions because it is often easier to see the failures in institutions more readily than in ourselves. But at a deeper level, we don't want to acknowledge the authority of institutions over ourselves. We are rebels. Paul warns his spiritual son, "This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith" (1 Timothy 1:18-19). We must hold on to a body of doctrine. Faith is more than having a religious experience. It is a dynamic ongoing relationship based in truth about the Truth. We need regular instruction in God's Word and for others to hold us accountable to God's Word.

Beliefs are determinative

Our beliefs determine our behaviour. We may not live what we profess, but we always live what we believe. Wrong behaviour is symptomatic of what we really love, trust, and follow. Over time our beliefs will always be revealed in our practice—most honestly in what we do in secret behind closed doors away from public view. This is why we need public confession before others and accountability to others. Although little practiced in Protestant circles, we are commanded for good reason to "confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16). There is more honesty in the local Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than in most church services on Sunday morning.

Plausibility is communal

Social context determines the plausibility of belief. The pious quip, "One person and God is a majority," may be good theology, but it is terrible sociology. Social context does not make something true, but it can strengthen or weaken whether or not I think it is true. Take heroin, for example. The average student will readily acknowledge that heroin is dangerous. But consider the seventeen-year-old over-dose victim who taught Sunday school at a local church. She told Newsweek, "In the beginning I was so against it. I was raised in a real strong Christian home, and I'm strong-willed. But once you're around it every day, it becomes pretty ordinary. Then you get curious, and you think it's not a big deal to do it one time." Without constant resistance, we will inevitably mirror our immediate social context. The pervasive culture on college campuses today combines nihilistic hedonism with metaphysical naturalism. Meaning is personal pleasure. Life is an accident. Everything else follows naturally from these two beliefs. Unless one makes the choice to go to church, to place oneself periodically in the context of those who believe the truth about reality, this unreality will become one's own personal reality. Attendance at campus parachurch activities, however valuable, are no substitute for going to church, because they do not really break one out of one's insolated sub-cultural reality, nor are they God's chosen institution. At their best, they should point one to church rather than being a substitute for church.

Real presence is promised

Most importantly, we are promised that God uniquely shows up at church. Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (Matthew 18:20). We come to church to be with Jesus in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. We need real presence. We need an encounter with the living loving, communicating Heavenly Father. We need a sense of the sacred, a space and time set a part from the routine of daily life. The Sabbath is not a day of leisure, but a day when we rest or stop our daily routines to receive spiritual nourishment. It is to be both "holy" in the sense of "set apart" and "to the Lord your God." The purpose of keeping Sabbath is directed by this defining relationship (Exodus 20:8-11). It is a creational ordinance that we disregard or dilute with serious consequences.

"In synch" with reality

The church is collectively the Bride of Christ. There are no "Lone Ranger Christians." We are part of a body, an institution. The church is Christ's idea. Uniquely through it we are nourished to do His work. Through it His Word is received. Through it His body is give as food. Contemporary, western culture is "out of synch" with God's reality. If the emerging generation is individualistic, subjectivistic, consumer-oriented, anti-authoritarian, anti-institutional and consequently anti-church, then they are in great peril. If we want to know how we can grow spiritually—to increase in love and good deeds—the author of the Book of Hebrews writes, "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

We need each other because we need Jesus. He is the Rock on which He builds His church (Matthew 16:18). To deny this anchor is to be set adrift. Church leaders must do more than pander to the preferences of potential participants. They must address underlying assumptions that make church a personal, consumer option . . . instead of a spiritual necessity.

Topics: Education
 

Dr. John Seel is the former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. He is currently principal at John Seel Consulting LLC, a cultural impact consulting firm specializing on millennials. He, and his wife Kathryn, attend Cresheim Valley Church and live in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

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