Irrelevant is a word that has been thrown around a lot to describe church. Some churches have worked hard to be relevant to their culture. It usually means attempting to get people to go to church. But young adults are increasingly choosing not to go to church. Do they feel it is irrelevant to their lives? Has being relevant made us irrelevant? It could be that we have lost the commitment the Gospel asks of us. What we have taught youth has come back to bite us. That is why theology matters.
In my own setting of a small church it is easy to track young adult attendance. Some come weekly, most come a few times a month, and then others about every 6-8 weeks. This could be said of many church attendees, but in our context the youth are the most infrequent in coming. There are a lot of factors. One that seems obvious is that they do not see church attendance as essential to their life. It is optional. What is their outlook to church? Church is fine. They are just not attending.
Where does God fit? Where does a gathering to encourage faith fit? After beginning to read Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean some insights became apparent. She was involved with a national study of youth. Those involved with the study concluded that most youth’s beliefs were what they called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. What does that mean? That’s where the importance of theology comes in. To understand what we believe and why we believe it is crucial for faith. A nonthinking “Folk Religion” is not adequate to be really relevant in our shifting culture. David Ford says that without a commitment to a faith community, God becomes a vague idea in people’s thinking. (p.34) When there is no defined Christian commitment, people do not have a framework for integrating their faith. (p.145-148), Christians become spiritually anemic. One generation may attend a church that has a low commitment to live Christianly in the world. The next generation could interpret that as Church being irrelevant.
Back to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It means that youth believe in a God who is not involved with their life except when they need help. God wants them to be good so they can go to heaven when they die. Lastly, feeling good and happy is a primary drive for their lives. (Dean p.14) It is a faith without personal involvement. Where did they learn it? Kenda Creasy Dean states bluntly that they learned it from the previous generations; “We’re responsible” (p.3). David Ford talks about many different theologies, but reminds us that theology is thinking about God, its does not begin with us. The self-focused Gospel that some youth have heard has led them away from church not toward it. Being relevant alone can get us in trouble. The trends are coming and going too fast. We have to be open in dialogue with youth about the Gospel commitment and keep a high challenge environment to it. That can be the first step to engage the youth again.
David Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.