I realize that this blog has turned more into a music space than anything, but sometimes I need to post things that relate to nonmusical subjects as well. Feel free to move along, or read if you so desire. It’s probably going to be long and boring. I might even use big, theological words. So here it goes.
This isn’t a new topic of discussion for people involved in ministry. In fact, it’s kind of old news. Youth are leaving the church. Young adults are virtually nonexistent in most circles. Studies have been done. Books have been written. Seminars have been had. Yet the problem remains.
Recently, this article was published on a blog I don’t read, but to which my attention was drawn after my friend Jon wrote a two part, denominationally specific response. (pt. 1, 2) I wish to respond a little to his response- adding my own view as a young adult who has grown up in that denomination- The Salvation Army,- who has worked in full time, pastoral ministry for them, and who recently decided to leave the denomination behind. Hopefully it may provide some more insight on the subject for those interested. I realize that much of what I’m about to say lands on the negative side of the fence, but in my experience, the SA has an overabundance of hand-holders and soothe sayers, and not enough people who are willing to stand up and point out that the Emperor has no clothes. I’m ashamed it took me until after I left the church to say something, but better late than never, I guess.
To begin with, I should start out by saying that I feel like the Salvation Army (and in a broader sweep, the “Evangelical” movement) has failed my generation in a big way. Probably several big ways. There was this move to become “relevant” along the way, and unfortunately, “relevance” almost always comes at the cost of actually teaching spirituality to people- not to mention the fact that the church is often really bad at imitating culture, and so “relevance” doesn’t even really happen. Instead, the church ends up creating its own subculture in which it is perfectly happy to exist- damn the rest- for the rest of its meaningless lifespan.
The SA is particularly good at this: fooling itself into thinking it is “relevant” to peoples’ needs, while the truth is that they are swimming around in something of an unfiltered fish tank- their own muck so thick that they can’t see what’s going on around them, simultaneously blocked off to what’s just on the other side of the glass. But what do I mean specifically? I mean things that work to segregate rather than integrate. I realize that the SA comes from a proud (albeit rather short) heritage, and keeping in the spirit of that heritage, I believe, can be a good thing. The problem, though, lies in just that- the SA is happy preserving the actual practices (brass bands, the uniform, war rhetoric, not practicing the sacraments, too many songs about itself, even newer traditions within specific churches or areas based on what kind of programs to run, services to extend, etc etc) without taking in to account the spirit of why the SA began doing these things in the first place. What we end up with, then, is a mess of rules and practices akin to the Pharisees’ long list of laws in Jesus’ day, as opposed to the Ten Commandments, or even simpler, Jesus’ teaching of “Love God and love your neighbor.” The end result is that the SA creates a culture even further removed from the already segregated ”Christian bubble,” where they are quite happy to remain.
That problem, I feel, would take care of itself, though, if there was actually a community centered on spiritual development and discipleship. Unfortunately, once again, the SA is great at fooling itself based on ancient or one-time successes that it is doing well in this area. However, because there is no solid baseline of spiritual training for its leaders, those who are placed in charge are most often times completely ill-equipped to address the very real needs of those under their care. This has been happening for several cycles, and the evidence is apparent in the level of spiritual astuteness of even veteran officers- not to mention cadets and lay leaders. If they are not getting competent theological training on their own or from another source besides the SA, many won’t get it at all. And so the cycle continues when those whose training has been neglected are asked to serve in some leadership capacity; though they may have the heart for the task, they often do not have the competency.
This is a truth that has been brought to the front of the SA’s conversation many times by many people more qualified and influential than I. I see it dismissed time and time again, however, using out of context scripture or poor logic or spouting misguided theology. The truth is, as they say, in the pudding, though (I don’t actually know who the ‘they’ is that says that, I just thought it was a funny way to put it), as more and more youth and young adults become dissatisfied with what they are receiving from the SA and end up leaving. Some, like myself, leave in search of a deeper spiritual experience, a more authentic sense of community. Others leave out of bitterness or anger at any number of things- exclusion, hostility, spiritual abuse… And the fact is, the World oftentimes offers a more authentic experience of community than the church. Christians would see it as a twisted, misrepresentation of community, but in the moment, for someone who is broken and hurting, escapes like sexual promiscuity, gangs, alcohol and drug abuse, etc often offer what the church is not offering: solace, acceptance, and a judgement free environment. The World knows that everyone is screwed up, and they accept you as you are. Unfortunately, the church currently does a terrible job at this.
You see, we aren’t stupid. We don’t exist completely inside that Christian bubble 100% of the time. We know the truths of the world. We have gay friends. We have lost loved ones. We see the natural and man-made disasters on television. And we have questions. The things we’ve grown up being taught aren’t fitting together. A “gospel” that’s essentially “believe in Jesus so you don’t go to Hell” isn’t really good news. Not really. And focusing on the morality aspect of Jesus’ teachings isn’t enough, either. Every religion has something similar.
The idea here is for the church to come to terms with its identity. The SA needs to find its identity. There needs to be an enormous shift in priorities, and in theological perspective. Instead of shaming our people and creating an “us” and “them” mentality, the church needs to focus on preaching the resurrection and the restoration of all creation. Inclusion needs to become the focus. The walls built over the years need to be torn down. Real spiritual training needs to take place; Living Water needs to be provided. Those interested in continuing a culture of exclusion and hierarchy- who live to perpetuate the old ways with no regard for the needs of others- need to be cut out and removed. It is only if this massive repurposing takes place that real growth will begin to take place. Otherwise the SA, and the church, will continue to rot and die inside the bubble it’s created for itself.