Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Bubble Generation... A View on Christian Faith

(this is a post on my religious views. just a heads up since most of my blog readers come here for thoughts on tech and entrepreneurship)

Several weeks ago at my church, John Ortberg talked about how the Christian faith spreads. He said the number one problem is that so few of us have friends who are not also self-described Christians and the number one reason people give for not propagating the faith is that they are too busy. He went on to explain one reason they are too busy is because of church commitments. To this Ortberg declared, "If you find yourself too busy doing church stuff to make friendships outside of church, quit doing so much church stuff and form friendships with people who are far from God."

These words were refreshing and took me back almost twenty years to my freshman year in college when I decided to reject the Christianity of my youth and take a different course. The witnessing I was taught back then was tactical and not practical. I realized that I wasn't truly friends with some of the people I referred to as my non-Christian friends. They were friendships with a purpose so it wasn't sincere, no matter how great the cause I had in mind. I also became aware of how much I lived in a bubble. My life revolved around my church and fellowship groups. Eventually I asked myself, "How can I share my faith and the impact that Christ has made in my life if I'm around Christians all the time?" I realized not just the witnessing I was taught but the whole Christian life I was exposed to was neither practical nor effective.

Living in Silicon Valley and working in the technology space, I hear a lot of chatter about whether we are living in another tech bubble -- meaning overvalued companies and hyped technologies. In Christian circles, I believe there needs to be more discussion about another type of bubble. The bubble that we surround ourselves with is that which isolates us from the world, and weakens the foundation of our faith and immune system to the temptations of the world.

Over the past few years, various research studies have found more than 75% of Christians leave their faith after high school and of the remaining ones, more than 60% of those abandon their faith after college. Whether the real numbers are far less or greater, these studies are of grave concern to me, and I have anecdotally seen this drop-off since my college years. Some have suggested this is due to the recent growth of the new atheism led by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others. Some have pointed to poor parenting and the lack of Biblical teaching in the home. While these are factors and personal reasons for many people, I believe the problem is deeper and has gone on for at least for a couple of decades since my youth if not longer. The problem is that we are a Bubble Generation.

This generation lives in a bubble that attempts to separate the good air from the bad air. It seeks protection from a world of unknowns – unknowns that oddly enough were created by the great unknown, our God. The consequences are numerous, and I think, ominous.

The social underdevelopment of Christians. Many Christians grow up socially inept and cannot function outside of a Friday fellowship or church picnic. Some organizations create an atmosphere of exclusivity or arrogance that furthers the isolation between them and the people they are supposedly trying to reach. In my involvement with Asian American ministries during college, I saw many campuses divided between the churches and non-church organizations fueled by Pharisee-like behavior from the Christians.

The social ineptness is most pronounced after college and is, I believe, why more than 60% of Christians leave their faith after college. I remember various campus ministries in the Midwest and East Coast that made this problem worse by coddling graduates and creating new programs so they could continue to be involved in their college groups instead of adequately preparing them for transition to the real world. This is a failure of leadership within these campus ministries and churches. I have seen some of these campus ministry post-graduate programs, and observed that fear of what was outside of the bubble was a driver for many of their members to join.

Several years ago, I was speaking with a staff member of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) who discussed how a fair amount of their participants were having difficult transitioning into the real world and their current programs were just transferring people from one bubble to another.

Lack of a solid foundation of faith. Whether during high school or college, Christians fail to build a solid base for their faith. Whether it is Biblical knowledge, apologetics, or a general inquisitiveness about their faith, various factors create a shaky ground for many. Again, this is a failure of leadership within the church. Some pastors are too busy trying to convert people instead of building a solid foundation for their congregation. It is not surprising that the Pew U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008) found that the top reason (32%) 13-17 year-olds moved from identifying themselves as religious to non-religious was intellectual skepticism and disbelief. I remember being surprised during college and afterwards at how so many people could not adequately answer the question, "Why do you believe?"

It is almost comical, but I know many sad stories of college graduates losing their faith after getting drunk at a work party or with friends. I know of others that lost their faith after one discussion with an atheist friend. How weak was their foundation to lose their faith so easily? This also gets back to John Ortberg's point about having non-Christian friends. Real friends. Close friends. We need foundations of faith that can not only weather challenges but also enable us to embrace everyone in our lives with the love of Christ.

Lack of leadership within the church.
The bubble culture perpetuates because leaders in our churches have failed - whether they have arrogantly avoided significant engagement with sinners, fearfully avoided the intellectual strength and logic of the Bible, or created an environment of guilt instead of triumph within the souls of believers. Many churches have developed cultures where church activities consume all the free time of members, and build a bubble of separation. Some of these churches I have seen I would almost classify as a cult. Chastising their members for hanging out with non-Christians, enforcing certain church activities, and making their life decisions dependent on the words of a pastor or leadership team. I know of a fair amount of people bitter about their church experiences from their college days or in their twenties, and most of it points to the leaders of their churches.

This failure goes beyond those who have rejected the faith of their youth, to people who have slipped away from their churches but still hold strong to their faith. There are an estimated 13 million Americans who say they are "born again" and are unchurched, and an estimated 112 million churchless Christians worldwide. Alan Jamieson, author of "A Churchless Faith," found that 94 percent of these people were previously leaders within their churches. 32 percent had been full-time pastors.

This past Sunday at Menlo Park Presbyterian was "Senior Weekend" to recognize the graduating high school seniors at my church. One young woman had a story I hear often from short-term missions, generally to the effect of how she found it much harder to live the Christ-centered life when she got back home. It is easy to live in the bubble of a short-term mission trip, campus fellowship or home groups at church. All these environments are spiritually beneficial, but they should not be enclosed and isolated. We were meant to interact in the world, actively work in the world and affect people through visible actions and not behind closed doors.

So what can be done? I believe most of the problems start at the top, so I believe there needs to be an examination of how pastors are trained. Pastors need to learn how to connect on numerous levels with their members and the world. As with the top MBA schools, seminaries should require a minimum numbers of years that students should work before entering. How much more important is ministering souls than managing consumer products and accounting systems? Pastors themselves need to live out of the bubble before they can effectively engage the world as God's shepherds.

Parents need to take their children out of the greenhouse. Some plants nurtured within a greenhouse environment quickly shrivel in the wild. It is no surprise when children enter college or beyond that the world consumes them. There is a balance between nurture and control that can be sought out.

Last, I would revisit Ortberg's practical advice, and just stop doing church stuff if you are not building friendships with those who do not believe in Christ. Your faith is not only active within church walls, but at work, home and your local Starbucks. Christians need to engage the world in all aspects of life and start popping the bubble that permeates throughout our culture.

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