Have you ever been to a church and felt bored out of your mind, like the people there just went out of habit and didn't have any depth to their beliefs? Did you ever feel like people in a Jewish student organization were more concerned with their own social group than the greater existence outside their narrow social circle? Did you ever meet a Unitarian who just didn't seem to believe in much of anything? Or how about people who aren't religious at all, and just don't seem to have any meaning in their life?
Fundamentalism is not the only problem.
Often, people tend to see religious fundamentalism as the biggest, sometimes the only big problem within religion. It's possible to have a religious community or a religious belief system that is accepting, open-minded, and doesn't believe anything that's outright wrong, yet that doesn't really do much good in the global scheme of things. In fact, most churches fit into this category--most churches are filled with good people, they are not overtly hateful or oppressive of anyone, and they do a fair amount of good in the community. But the question is: is this good enough? Are these churches doing any damage?
I believe that in these mainstream churches, there are deep, fundamental problems that have terrible effects on society. Some of the signs of these problems become evident when you look at the demographics of most churches, as well as when you examine the politics associated with these churches. It's easy to look at a church like this, even participate in a church like this, and feel like it's a great place, making a small but substantial positive impact in the world.
Where are the young people? Does the church stand for complacency?
Some people out there have admitted that there is a crisis within mainstream (i.e. non-fundamentalist) Christianity, in that there is an age-gap in which people do not show up in church. Children who grow up in the church and often stay in the church through high school often leave the church during or after college, and do not return until they in turn have children of their own. The glaring question is: why?
Many pastors and authors have addressed this question. Mary Hammond delves into this question among many others in her ground-breaking book The Church and the Dechurched: Mending a Damaged Faith. Other pastors won't touch the issue with a ten-foot pole. Interestingly, in Mary Hammond's book, outside of the overtly negative experiences people have with the church (which one would expect to drive them away), a number of people talk about leaving the church because it lacked relevancy to their lives. Why is this the case? What role is religion playing in peoples' lives, compared to the role it could be playing and should be playing?
I believe that the age gap in churches is strongly connected to the way a lot of churches are more about feeling good than they are about doing good--a church does a moderate amount of good in the community so that people can feel like they're doing good, and then people feel good about themselves, without fundamentally changing anything in themselves or in society. This belief of mine is based mainly on my own personal experiences and the experiences of my friends and family members: we (and most young people) have not been alienated from the church by any overt injustices, but rather, we just feel like the church is not a powerful, dynamic institution.
So what should the church be like? The church should be hardcore. What does it mean to be hardcore?
- Standing up for your beliefs in the face of strong opposition is hardcore.
- It is hardcore to integrate your beliefs with all elements of your everyday life.
- Changing the direction of your life based on your beliefs is hardcore.
- It is hardcore to undergo a major change of religious beliefs, so long as that change is thoughtful and deep and is not done on a whim or based on social pressure.
- Examining your life and changing your lifestyle based on your beliefs is hardcore.
- Meditation, prayer, and ritual can be hardcore, but only when it is sincere and not when it is done out of mere habit or as a display for others.
- Religious literature, art, and music can be hardcore when it is created thoughtfully and sincerely, as opposed to being created for superficial qualities or popular demand.
- A community can be hardcore by providing a strong support structure while being flexible and accepting.
Most people would agree that the qualities in this list are highly desireable in a religious system or community…and if you briefly examine this list, you see exactly what is wrong with mainstream religion. In most churches:
- Most people don't ever face much opposition to their beliefs; they go to church where everyone agrees with them, and the rest of the time they don't express their religion much.
- Most people have religious beliefs that don't require much integration into their life--they can do everything that a normal person would do, and their beliefs are sort of like icing on the cake, instead of being the flour in the cake.
- Few people in mainstream churches change the direction of their life, or change anything major in their life based on their beliefs…for the most part peoples' beliefs in mainstream churches are made to integrate seamlessly with what they do, and what they have always done.
- Most peoples' religious beliefs in mainstream congregations don't change much, and when they change, it's usually in small ways and over very long periods of time--and more in response to subtle changes in society than personal religious experience or conscious deliberation.
When you look at things in this light, you see the problem--that a lot of modern religion really doesn't stand for anything; it's not hardcore. Religion should be hardcore; it should push people to the edge, and make them question their actions and struggle with difficult questions and problems. The age gap in mainstream Christianity is a symptom of religion being insufficiently hardcore, an indicator of a deeper problem. The solution is to create and embrace belief systems that push people more to the edge, and are hardcore.
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