"Where are my children?" is a question every parent has asked. "Not in church," is a likely answer.
What if Jesus wasn't kidding when he asked, "When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith upon the earth?" Too often we've taken this statement as a kind of hyperbolic warning. What if it is a serious possibility?
Historically, religious nones—the sociological term used for those with no religious convictions or institutional identification—have numbered around 10%. Today the number is 20% for those over the age of 30. And it's a staggering 33% among those under the age of 30. This younger generation is beyond being biblically illiterate. They move beyond disdain to indifference. When it comes to the church, they are so over it. Traditional religious convictions—particularly on matters of sex and marriage—for many modern young people are not simply irrelevant, they're implausible.
A movement dies when it is no longer able to pass its beliefs from one generation to the next. A quick assessment of the spiritual state of our children is a pretty good indicator. I include myself in this critique. Our children care about a lot of things—Darfur, the melting ice cap, racial profiling . . . and they may even wax eloquently on matters of "spirituality"—but the church is not one of them.
David Kinnaman, in his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith, categorizes our children as falling into three distinct groups: prodigals or those who have lost their convictions, nomads or those who are disaffected from the church, and exiles or those who are increasingly living their callings with tension. This tension or cognitive dissonance is both uncomfortable and potentially a good thing. The tension of being an exile, and I consider myself one, can force one to clarify things that one may have taken for granted.
Like the Jews in Babylon, we are not surrounded by a culture that supports our assumptions about some of the most basic concepts of life. We are increasingly cultural strangers within our own land. Many don't know how to be a respectful or constructive minority. Most Christians just shut up, go with the flow, and gradually adopt the assumptions of their surrounding culture. The force field of culture overwhelms us and in time we adjust our internal polarities.
Like doubt, the cognitive dissonance of being an exile is a halfway position that is not easily sustainable over time. Typically, one either strengthens one's convictions or abandons them. Consider deism. Deism is a halfway position between theism and naturalism. Deists' children rarely remain deist. So too the children of exiles—apart from the sovereign grace of God—are most likely to become prodigals or nomads.
We face a crisis in the generational transmission of faith. As a father of three and grandfather of four, this is disheartening and sobering. Jesus must have felt the same emotion when he asked, "When the Son of Man returns will he find faith upon the earth?" What will be the spiritual heritage of my grandchildren?
It is apparent that we are cultural exiles and we don't know how to remain exiles. There are benefits of living in a culture that is hostile to our faith. We should be grateful. Casual, halfhearted convictions will not cut it. A failure to lean into our culture, to develop a countercultural backbone, will soon have us aping its patterns and beliefs. We need an ongoing friendship with Jesus, a daily appropriation of the resources from the kingdom of heaven, and disciplines that counter the most dominant and destructive cultural patterns—the loss of personal reflection, respect for authority, and submission to design to name just three. Without regular resistance, we will accommodate to our surroundings. That is just the way we are made as social beings.
The Jewish experience of being exiles as described in Jeremiah 29:4-9 provides lessons. We are to identify with our surrounding culture—acknowledge that we're in this situation for the long haul, 70 years in their case. "Settle down," God advises. This is not a short-term mission trip or somehow avoidable by moving to the South. This is our life and the life of our children and their children. Seventy years from now should have us adjusting our life-decision horizon minimally to 2083.
Second, we're advised to build institutions—"plant and marry." Create things that will last, things that provide resilience for the long haul. Rather than a play for heaven, we are told to bloom and be fruitful right where we are planted in the here and now.
And finally, we're told to invest in our surrounding culture—"seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon." This is not a passive agenda, but an active one. It will mean rethinking our metrics of success from those that are synagogue-centred to those that are Babylon-centred. We want to be league-leaders in assists—setting up scores not by the church but by the institutional gatekeepers in our culture. What will make Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Wall Street prosper? We need faith communities that exist to assist the central institutions in their cities. This is a completely different game than the one that most evangelicals have been seen to be playing.
And perhaps, just perhaps, this kind of exile will so demonstrate the life and love of God towards our neighbour that our children will sit up and take notice. When Pope Francis got out of the popemobile to bless a disabled man in St. Peter's Square, we noticed. It's not as impossible as we might have thought. As Mother Teresa urged, let's start with small things done with great love.