There is great value in connecting our worldly experience to our spiritual experience

Deacon Lori Schultz reviews the book Already Gone by Ken Ham (Master Books, 2009, http://www.answersingenesis.org/PublicStore/product/Already-Gone-Book,6131,224.aspx)

 “If you look around in your church today, two-thirds of the young people who are sitting among us have already left in their hearts; soon they will be gone for good.”

Ken Ham (founder and president of Answers in Genesis) and Britt Beemer (founder of America’s Research Group, a behavioural research and strategic marketing firm), along with Todd Hillard (published author of young-adult books), teamed up to do some specific, critical research that has led them to make such an emotionally charged statement. Beemer surveyed 1000 twenty-something young adults who, as children, regularly attended Bible-based, Bible-preaching congregations, but who are no longer attending church. In their book, Already Gone: Why Your Kids Will Quit Church and What You Can Do To Stop It, Ham examines the research and makes some startling conclusions as to why these young people have left the church. He also draws some interesting inferences on how to stop the mass exodus that we, the Church, are experiencing in North America and deduces what might be done to bring them back into the fold.

If there is truth in their statement that young people have already left the church in their hearts, as brothers and sisters in Christ we have a responsibility to take note and action, especially within our Lutheran circles, against such an extreme attack of Satan (1 Corinthians 12:25-27). One might begin by examining the authors and their research. It is clear from their writings that Ham and Beemer have an extreme bias toward Creation apologetics. It is important to note that of the 1000 young adults interviewed, only 136 were Lutheran (and it is unclear from which synod they hail.) Many Lutheran readers might want to know more about how and who they classified as “Bible-believing congregations and Bible-preaching pastors” (p. 27). It could be tempting to focus on the methods used to define the subjects and to scrutinize the research procedures so as to discount the results and declare them irrelevant for us as a denomination. However, it would be quite naive to think we are immune to this “plague” so brilliantly described in all of its ugliness by Ham and Beemer. To do so could prove catastrophic!  We would do well to take notice of the reality before us: 

A mass exodus is underway. Most youth of today will not be coming to church tomorrow (p. 22).

Ham states that young adults who are missing from our churches today were “disengaging while they were stilling in the pews.” For some, doubt was fostered by evolutionistic beliefs taught within our schools and surprisingly even within our church walls. Others have retreated, unable to reconcile the Biblical truths they were taught and believe with the ungodly behaviour of church members and the non-Biblical legalism enforced within congregations. Over the past 10 years, I have travelled to many of our LCC churches across Canada and spoken with many parents, youth leaders and pastors. My experience clearly points me to believe that within Lutheran Church–Canada we suffer from this same “plague.”

 

Satan’s most formidable attack against the Church is the same today as it was when he first tempted Eve. Did God really say…? Did God really say that He created the world in six, twenty-four hour days? By attacking the foundational truths of Creation, Satan calls into question Biblical reliability and relevance. According to Beemer’s research, this accounts for a significant number of young people’s lack of faith. This is startling news but, hopefully, moving enough for us to finally launch a counterattack.  However, I am compelled to disagree with Ham on his following comment:

 

“American Christianity could be on the edge of obsolescence in less than two generations” (p. 165).

Given our state in original sin, following Christ could never become obsolete! However, it may be that in two short generations a significant number of people will perceive it to be so.  A shield and a sword may prove useless and become abandoned in hand-to-hand combat if one does not, first, know what each tool is capable of; second, have knowledge of how to use them and, third, have  experience wielding them. In the same way, if we only preach the doctrine of the Word of God but do not teach believers how to understand and live lives according to it in relation to our real, experiential world, it stands to reason that faith in our Lord Jesus will be considered obsolescent by many. 

As Lutherans we rightly stand assured that our doctrine is solely based on Scripture. However, the very truth for which Martin Luther risked his life, we have failed to put into practice.  While we teach the truth in purity, we often do not teach it in its entirety in this way. For example, we often communicate Biblical accounts both in classrooms and from the pulpit as “stories,” robbing them of their historical relevance. Instead of hearing chronicles of our past, we perceive a fictional fairy-tale that has a nice moral flavour. God in His wisdom connects the spiritual (e.g., forgiveness) with earthly things (e.g., water in baptism or bread and wine in Holy Communion) and so must we!

Ham describes Western culture as mostly “post-Christian” and warns against making an assumption of knowledge of even the most basic Christian doctrines (p. 87). Within Lutheran circles, we would be hard pressed not to agree with this assertion. How often do we have students enrol in catechetical instruction, who have not been raised in the faith at home, arrive at class to endure instruction for the sake of a grandparent or parent, knowing little (if anything) about Scripture and the God of which it reveals!

When examining how we as a Church go about teaching Biblical truths, Ham asserts that Sunday School and youth programs permit parents to shirk their God-given responsibilities as Christian role models, teachers and caregivers for their children (p.45). Although this may not be an intentional outcome of such programming, my experience as a director of parish services (DPS) leads me to concur that this can and does happen. I once had a parent expressly “remind” me that, as a church worker, it was my job to teach his children about God and give them Christian morals.  He could not afford the time, with his more than full-time job and running his children back and forth to hockey, basketball and many other after-school activities. In addition he felt he lacked the expertise I was given through my education. God clearly states otherwise in Deuteronomy 6:4-10 and Ephesians 6:1-4. It is the job of the Church, however, to support and equip parents in their work—not to do ministry independent or in spite of them.

Ham also points out another significant mistake we make as a Church. We have abdicated instruction regarding the history of the universe (e.g., the study of geology, biology, astronomy, anthropology) to the secular world and chosen to focus solely on doctrine, “concentrating on the spiritual and moral aspects of Christianity” (p. 78). Many of the “facts” being taught in conventional education contradict the truth of the Scriptures. Ham warns that when we allow such compartmentalizations, we begin to support the idea that Christianity is irrelevant. He notes a Church-wide shift in focus, where man’s ideas are used to interpret the Bible, rather than using Scripture to evaluate man’s ideas (p. 76). Perhaps we need to evaluate what we do to help children, youth and young adults refute these claims.  Ham writes:

We must make a connection between fact and faith so that the Scriptures again become authoritative and relevant in the Church and in the culture (p. 137).

As Lutherans we have done a superb job at protecting our children from false teachings, but in doing so we have failed to adequately prepare them to defend their faith. There is great value in connecting our worldly experience to our spiritual experience—not in order to make the Word authoritative and relevant, for it is so already—but rather that we might reveal its authority and relevance! We clearly communicate what we believe and where that teaching comes from, but we do little or nothing to explain why we hold these beliefs outside of mere trust and faith in God. Students learn:

The facts are relevant; faith is not. If you want to learn something that’s real, important, and meaningful, you do that at school. If you want to learn something that is lofty and emotional, you do that at church (p. 98).

We leave them with lingering questions which, when left unanswered, can lead to the assumption that we have no answers, suggesting faith is irrelevant. Students are not able to “discern the difference between observational and historical (origins) science; …it is all science” (p. 96).

For this reason, it is of utmost importance that we “appraise the teachers teaching Sunday School” (p. 48). Being equipped with a warm body and a willing spirit does not qualify someone for or make someone worthy of such an important faith-building responsibility. However, it would be non-Scriptural and impractical to conclude that only those with a higher education in theology (like pastors and DPS’s) should and can teach the Word. Instead it is the responsibility of those who are educated to ensure that those entrusted to teach are knowledgeable of doctrine and capable of faith application and apologetics.

One important research-based observation, and perhaps a significant “surprise” to some, surrounds the role of music in reaching our twenty-something young people. Thankfully some congregations within the Church (even some within our Lutheran synod), have taken notice of the mass exodus happening around us and have attempted to address it.  However, Ham states that we have wrongly focused on music as the inoculation for this spiritual black plague.

 

 We add guitars and drums to the service. We think that the Church needs to follow the culture in order to be relevant. But cultural forms do not make you relevant, they just make you cool. Truth makes you relevant. It doesn’t mean that we can’t make such reforms to be more contemporary—but the motive and priority are what is so important (p. 110).

Again, this is not to say that how we praise God with some form of music is irrelevant. God certainly calls us to

praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals (Psalm 150:3-5).

However, according to this survey, “music is not a fundamental factor” in determining whether young members will remain within or choose to separate themselves from a congregation. The decision to leave or remain is mostly through the examination of what is being taught (truth) and how it is taught (a connection to the real world). The old judicial oath proves accurate—we must teach “the truth, the WHOLE truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God!”

The good news is that about half the young people Beemer surveyed have not turned from the faith. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, some young people have a strong desire to be true followers of Christ. They want to honour Him with their lives and strive to be more like Him. However, since God has created us to be part of the Church (1 Corinthians 12), membership is not optional for a believer. So what has repelled them? Hypocrisy and legalism. When members of the Church do not live according to the Word, either by not behaving in godly ways or by getting caught up in enforcing man-made traditions as the laws of God, young people leave to find other groups (in person or on the Internet) that will help them become more Christlike. They have consciously chosen to break fellowship with the body of Christ and (but?) hope someday to return to the fold. 

Ham poignantly points to the words of Jesus:

 

And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8).

The Church will always be full of hypocrites due to the nature of our old Adam…people who preach one thing but live another. However, Ham points out that hypocrisy runs much deeper than simply an inability to fulfill God’s precepts. We enforce our own legalism on others and are quick to pass judgment on those who struggle with temptation, all the while blind to our own failures and sins.

Perhaps you are tempted to sigh in relief, believing that this could not pertain to our conservative, evangelical denomination. We pride ourselves in “doing things by the book.” Ham challenges us to take a closer look at how we live out and do the work of God.

 

In the Western world, when you say “church,” at least four things immediately come to mind; a building, an order of service, sermons/Sunday school, and musical worship. That’s biblical “church” right? You tell me! How many of these “church” things are found in Scripture? How many of them are man-made traditions (p. 125)?

How might you feel if your congregation decided to do away with Sunday school, for instance? You might be aghast at the idea of abandoning this long-held tradition. Its demise would signify the end of the church for some. However, it was almost 1700 years after Christ that Robert Raikes of England introduced the idea in 1780. Intrinsically the idea of Sunday school is a good one; however, it is a man-made one. If you search the Scriptures, you will not find it listed as an essential element of worship.

As a young girl in Sunday school, I remember my pastor, now our president, Rev. Robert Bugbee teaching our members a song that described the church as God has defined it:

 

The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple,

The church is not a resting place, the church is a people.

I am the church. You are the church.

We are the church together.

All who follow Jesus, all around the world,

Yes, we’re the church together.

The Church is not necessarily prescribed rites and ceremonies, it is not the music or Sunday school and it certainly is not found only within Lutheran Church–Canada circles. And yet we sometimes equate the Church with what we, as humans, have deemed church to be.

Ham reminds his readers that Christ gives us the freedom to change most everything within our churches, so long as it coincides with and does not contradict God’s Word. He makes a number of excellent suggestions to parents, Christian educators, youth pastors and all other pastors at the close of his book that are worth review. However, readers are encouraged to evaluate their congregations and feel the freedom to leave their home church if they deem it a place where sharing God’s word, defending the Christian faith and following the principles for Christian living as laid out for us by God are not priorities (p. 134, 146). Instead, would not God call us to speak out in love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, as Paul did to the Ephesians and the Corinthians?

 Ham and Beemer are to be applauded for bravely asking some difficult questions, the answers to which many would prefer never to know, let alone explore. Just as one might not wish to know that a cancer is within the body, one might also prefer to pretend there is no illness within the body of Christ. However, ignorance does not negate truth. It is time for us to sit up, take note and take part in the ministry to which God calls ALL believers, teaching the Word in its entirety—defending its truth and living lives worthy of the sacrifice Christ has made for us!

Deacon Lori Schultz is a parent and serves Grace Lutheran Church in St. Catharines, Ontario as director of Parish Services.

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One Response

  1. Good review. I have not read the book, but from your review I can understand what the authors of “Already Gone” are saying.
    I agree that a big part of the problem can be laid at the feet of the parents It’s their responsibility to bring their children up in the fear and love of God.

    Maybe the parents attending bible class should be a requirement. Our children brought home more questions from school for Dad or Mom to answer.

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