The Problem With Assuming That It's the Millennials' Fault for Abandoning Religion

By Derek Penwell

[Note:This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]

I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.

If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?

But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” -- all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.

Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that -- with the application of a little intellectual candlepower -- it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.

Now this shedding of responsibility can come in two different forms. The first type is what I call “the slippery blame-caster” -- able to weasel out taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong by deflecting it onto someone else. This is the person who always seems to be standing behind you when the boss is around, pointing a finger at you when she thinks you’re not looking.

The second type I’ve labeled, “the belligerent blame-thrower” -- unfailingly staking out the moral high ground, convinced that culpability must lay with someone of obviously inferior moral fiber. This is the person who is sure you’ve screwed up somehow, but hasn’t quite figured out your tricks yet -- because you’re a slacker, and who else would do something like this?

I find the belligerent blame-thrower much too regularly in the church. Something goes wrong and this person’s default posture is “it’s not me; it’s you.” I knew a leader at one church who -- if he showed up late for something -- wouldn’t think of apologizing for keeping you waiting, but would proceed to blame you for giving bad directions, or changing the time, or failing to remind him.

I thought about that guy the other day as I was reading an article about whether Millennials are leaving religion because of the treatment of LGBT folks. The author cites a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey entitled, A Shifting Landscape: A Decade of Change in American Attitudes about Same-Sex Marriage and LGBT Issues, which indicates among other things that (31 percent) of Millennials say they are leaving religion over LGBT issues. Interesting, but come on, we pretty much knew that, didn’t we?

No, what I found particularly difficult to wrap my mind around emerged as I read the last part of the article. Turns out that, at least when it comes to appearances, fully 7-in-10 Millennials “believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.” That is to say, (70 percent) of people born between 1980 and 2000 believe that the church is hostile enough to LGBT issues that it’s driving people away.

On the other end of the age spectrum, however, only “roughly 4-in-10 (43 percent) members of the Silent Generation believe that religious groups are alienating young people, while nearly as many (44 percent) disagree.” That is to say, after looking at the decline experienced by American religious groups over the last fifty years,1 a larger portion of the Silent Generation responded to the trend by protesting, “It’s not us; it’s them. We don’t know why they’re leaving, but we’re pretty sure it’s nothing we did.”

I find this stunning lack of self-awareness on the part of older generations of religious people troubling. Notice I didn’t say that I find the inhospitableness of older generations troubling (although, the survey numbers do suggest that the older you are the less likely you are to be welcoming of LGBT folks). My problem has to do with the apparent inability of older generations to understand how they appear to others. Saying, “Well, I’m not intolerant of LGBT issues, and I’m tired of getting blamed because people misunderstand me” misses the point.

Pro tip: If you don’t consider yourself anti-gay, but you find yourself expending energy repeatedly defending against charges of homophobia, you probably ought to consider the possibility that maybe you’re not just being misunderstood.

This penchant for viewing the problem of the exodus of young people as unrelated to anything you’ve done is very near to the heart of the problem.

Case in point: One of the commenters on the article, a man who appears to occupy the graying edges of the age spectrum, implied that Millennials leaving religion because of anti-gay bias is their problem: “Saying, ‘I am not going to church anymore because of their hostility to gay and lesbian people’ is akin to saying, ‘I don’t eat seafood anymore, so I am not going to eat in any restaurant.’”

Now, the commenter may be right that young people have just misunderstood the message that religion presents on LGBT issues, but that misses the point. If you desperately want young people to help you stem the tide of religious decline, blaming them for not coming to your aid because you’re misunderstood, only soothes your own sense of inadequacy by blaming someone else for it.

“It’s not me; it’s you” is the death rattle of the isolated.

  1. 1. While I’m thinking first about the majority of those religious groups associated with Christianity, Judaism is also experiencing difficulties around declining membership. ↩

An Atheist Reminder of How Christians Appear to Everybody Else

By Gregg Cooley

As a child of the 60’s growing up in Chapel Hill, NC, I remember well the days of racial segregation, Jim Crow laws, separate water fountains, and very specific “lines” between White communities and Black communities (most of which were nothing more than rotting shacks with dirt floors and maybe an old wood stove for heat). Racism and bigotry was, and still is, a horrific blight on America’s promise of “liberty and justice for ALL,” and that “ALL people being created equal.”

The modern version of Jim Crow Laws aimed squarely at the LGBT community are being proposed from one end of the USA to the other, in Russia, and throughout Africa, all of which are connected to US Christians and Evangelicals in positions of power and influence. There is nothing “Christ-like” about these laws and initiatives; this hatred is certainly not the “will of the God” that I learned of as a child attending Episcopal Church every Sunday. I learned that God was LOVE, though my thorough reading of the Bible would eventually steer me toward atheism, and teach me of many instances where God was anything but loving, but I digress.

I have had friends and family tell me that I paint Christians with too broad a brush, and that I’m basing my opinions of them on the actions of a few.

My response to that is: If the actions of those few paint you in a bad light, then it is your responsibility as a Christian to scream just as loudly as you can, and to call-out in the public square, that the hypocrisy of those who act and legislate in such a hateful un-Christ-like manner are the true abominations in the eyes of your God.

These laws are resulting in the murders, suicides, and imprisonment of innocents, whose only “crime” is being born with same-sex attractions … if those of you who are Christians in the truest sense of the word do nothing to denounce the actions (loudly) of these impostors, then you are as guilty as they are through your acts of negligence.

A Faithful "NO"

A Letter to Indiana Legislators

By Doug Sloan

One of the overarching messages of the Bible is that it continually calls us to grow and to move beyond where we are now and to more fully live as a community of God. Even the proponents of HJR 3 demonstrate this when they advocate only for Leviticus 18:22 and not for Leviticus 20:13. Both verses prohibit sex between men, but the latter stipulates a death penalty. HJR 3 does not require a death penalty and its supporters are not clamoring for it. However slight, this is a move forward and a sign of a growing understanding and a maturing faith.

The Bible was not written in English. Consequently, any English translation – at best – can only approximate the language, meaning, and connotation of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. For those of us who do not read ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, we must study the research and opinions of biblical scholars who do and who have access to the biblical source documents. The hundreds of biblical source documents range from complete scrolls to fingernail-sized fragments, were written over a span of several centuries, and source document copies of the same text can have significant differences. The books that are selected to be included in the Bible varies throughout the world – there is no single universal authoritative version of the Bible. The source documents span a lengthy time and clearly document that the text itself changed over time as it was copied. Most importantly, there are no original documents and there is no way to verify how closely the source documents replicate the original documents.

Over time the understanding of the Biblical texts has grown and matured. Slavery used to be the norm. Now, we reject it and advocate for its global abolition. Racial discrimination used to be the norm. Now, we reject it and advocate for global racial equality. Women as chattel used to be the norm. Now, we reject it. Women can own property, vote, and have access to a wide range of educational, economic, and ecclesiastical opportunities. Like the struggle for racial equality – the struggle for sexual equality continues globally, including the United States. Through all of these changes, the text of the Bible did not change. What did change was our understanding of the Biblical message, our understanding grew and matured.

Torah (best translated as “instruction”), the first five books of the Bible, has 613 instructions for the ancient nation of Israel – substantial evidence that they took seriously the call to be a people of God. The specifics of most of those instructions for the ancient nation of Israel have no relevance to us. We are neither controlled nor obligated by them. What remains is the message, gathered from the entire Bible, that we worship a God of unrestrained boundless love and unconditional grace whose deepest and most passionate desire is that we live long healthy joyous lives as a community of peace, justice, and compassion and as individuals of generosity, hospitality, and service. We do not worship a god of war, suffering, exclusion, vengeance, condemnation, sacrifices, blood debt, torture, abuse, shame, of neither punishment nor reward. We reject the universalism that declares every person is born into a state of hopelessness and condemnation. We continuously engage in lengthy, serious, deep scholarly study and prayerful contemplation of the Bible. Consequently, we proclaim the Good News that as a community, we are divinely called to a life of inclusive justice that repairs, rehabilitates, restores, and – where possible – reconciles. As a community, we are divinely called to be a people of abundant generous compassion that feeds, quenches, clothes, heals, houses, visits, and welcomes without exception or qualification.

Because it is contrary to the Good News, contrary to what God wants for us, and contrary to how God wants us to treat each other; vote “NO” on HJR 3.

Douglas C. Sloan, Elder

Central Christian Church

Terre Haute, IN

No Telling What God Could Do

In the wake of the recent resolution (GA-1327 Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All) at the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we're going to offer over the next few days some of the sermons preached by Disciples ministers who are attempting to confront the difficult conversations that will inevitably ensue.
You didn't burn the beer.jpg

No Telling What God Could Do

(Luke 10:38-42)

Last week, some of you may recall, was the parable of the Good Samaritan.  And it’s important to recall that the parable of the Good Samaritan was a response to the questions: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “Who is my neighbor?”  

The lawyer, who approached Jesus to ask those questions, demonstrated his knowledge of the content of the life of discipleship.  He got the words right: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus told him that he got that part right, and that he ought to begin to live that knowledge out.

The point, I think—at least on a very basic level—that Jesus was trying to make was that it’s possible to know the right stuff without ever having to go to the inconvenience of actually living it.  

But the church isn’t principally concerned with having us know more about Jesus; what we care about is helping us to look more like Jesus.  Discipleship means getting in the game and getting our hands dirty, not just knowing the rules.

It’s not enough to know the right thing, following Jesus actually means doing the right thing.

I want to suggest to you that the story of the Good Samaritan and today’s story about Mary and Martha are placed back to back on purpose.  

Why do I say that?  Well, what’s the story of Mary and Martha about?

Pretty simple, really.  Jesus goes to Mary and Martha’s house.  While Martha’s in making the congealed salad and deviled eggs, sister Mary’s in the billiard room with the boys.  

Apparently, she’s forgotten her place—which is where?  In the kitchen.  “She’s supposed to be in here peeling potatoes, not in there chewing the fat.”  At least that’s Martha’s position.  And, if you listened to the story of the Good Samaritan last week, you can hardly blame her, can you?  

You’ve gotta walk the walk, right Jesus?  It’s no good just talking about it.  You’ve got to get in there and get your hands dirty, right Jesus?  It’s not enough to know it, you’ve got to live it.  

You can understand how Martha’s a little confused.  Didn’t we just go over this?  She’s just living out the truth of the previous story Luke told.  “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to quit passing by on the other side of the road, and get in here and help me.”

Wasn’t that what we said Jesus was pushing for?  No more sitting around talking about it.  No more sitting around studying it.  It’s time to get in the game.  We want to see the fur flying.  We’ve had enough of this egghead stuff.  Let’s get to work.  Isn’t that what Jesus was saying?  

It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re in there doing something.  We don’t need any more navel-gazing.  Let’s get busy.  Good Samaritan.  Lazy lawyer.  Right Jesus?  Tell her to get her to get her body in here and start sprinkling paprika on the deviled eggs.  Talking ain’t gonna get the banana pudding made.

And what does Jesus say?

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

What?  What is that all about?  I thought you just said, get busy.  Get in the game.  Quit thinking about it, and start living it.  What’s Luke doing—besides offering paradoxes, which only give navel-gazing clergy-types something else to help them avoid doing real work?

Well, let’s look at Mary and Martha for a minute.  Jesus seems to be contradicting his wisdom from the Good Samaritan, doesn’t he?  

If the point of the exchange with the lawyer that led to the telling of the Good Samaritan was—it’s not enough to know about the life of discipleship, you’ve got to live it—then the point of Luke’s telling of the story of Mary and Martha is that it’s not enough to do good works, you have to spend time reflecting on the good.  

Jesus as much as says this to Martha, doesn’t he?  Relax a little.  Take it easy.  Don’t work so hard.  The most important thing to do is think.

Is that what he’s trying to say—that thinking is more important than doing?  Well . . . sort of, but not exactly.  

What exactly does that mean?  

It means that doing is not nearly as important as knowing why and on whose behalf we’re doing it.  And you can only know that after you’ve sat at the master’s feet.

Why?  Because we often confuse busyness for faithfulness.  If it’s not enough to know the life of discipleship without practicing it; it’s not enough to do good works without knowing why or the one for whom you’re doing them—because if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, it’s not always possible to tell if work is good or not.  

Remember, following Jesus and the things he asks from us are more often than not counter-intuitive, crazy sounding—loving our enemies, doing good to those who persecute us, going after one lamb while the other 99 sneak off to Atlantic City.  

Discipleship isn’t just common-sense niceness—it’s radically subversive dependence on God to meet the needs everyone else tells us we ought to be meeting on our own.  In this story, once again, Jesus is telling us to do something that’s a tough sell in our busy world.  He tells Martha, “Don’t just do something.  Stand there.”

How do we know that’s what this story’s driving at?  

Look at the context.  Where does this story take place?  In Martha’s house?  

So what?  What difference does that make?

The very fact that you could ask that question locates you at a certain point in history.  Our modern, liberated views about women haven’t been held by all people in all places.  

Most of history has understood women as nothing short of the head chef and nanny, something to do on a Saturday night when the poker game’s been canceled.  Typical understandings of women throughout history have called for female exclusion when it comes to business or education.

Parenthetically, the church, as often as not, has contributed to this hidebound view of women as the “weaker sex.”  We must confess our sins—that we’ve often been the problem and not the solution.  The church certainly has much about which it must repent with respect to its treatment of women.

But here in our Gospel, Jesus went to a woman’s house, and he was teaching a woman.  

Now, that might not sound like a big deal to you—and frankly, I’m glad we’ve moved beyond some of that diminished view of women.  But because we live in liberated times, we aren’t nearly as shocked by this story as we ought to be.  Jesus crossed some pretty profound sociological lines to go to the home of a woman, and teach another woman.

Do you see?  

But what does that have to do with what you said about it’s not enough to do without knowing why and who you’re doing it for?  Now I’m confused.

Let me see if I can bring this home.  What Jesus does in taking this radical step of meeting with and teaching women is to highlight the fact that what’s important in the service of Christ—is Christ.  


Because we’re always prone to thinking that what we need is to do something, anything.  We’ve often acted as though the success or failure of the work of God rises or falls with us—so we’d better get busy.  

Enough sitting around, thinking, praying.  We need to get in the game and do something.  Otherwise things might fall apart.  We’ve convinced ourselves that we need to find the right program, the right youth leader, the right minister—then we can insure our success.  Who’s going to hold things together, if we don’t?

But what Jesus points out to us in our frantic efforts to secure our own future is that he doesn’t require much in the way of personnel to get the work of the kingdom done.  He doesn’t need movers and shakers to accomplish his purposes.  He can use folks that the rest of the world would never consider to do his bidding: a Samaritan, and a couple of women.  

Why?  Because it’s about him—not us.

What about this church?  What about DBCC?

What’s at issue here is not our abilities, our competence.  What’s at issue here is whether we seek to discern God’s will together, and then to do it.  

Our prayer isn’t, “God, make us bigger or more successful,” or “God, give us some more young families and help us to look the way we think we ought to look.”  

Our prayer is, “God, give us the strength to be faithful, and the courage to allow you to do with us what you will.”

Because God, in the final analysis, is responsible for what we’ll eventually look like.  We’re responsible for trying to discern where God is moving in the world, and then working our tails off to be there—with full minds and dirty hands.

We never know where the train’s going.  We’re just praying to be on it when it leaves the station.

This past week, for example—due in part to the vision of this congregation in the Highlands as the first sponsors of the resolution we passed at General Assembly—our denomination has spoken publicly about the need for the church to welcome and affirm all people, regardless of race, gender, age, nationality, ethnicity, physical or mental ability, political or theological perspective, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Because of your work and a lot of other people’s, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) now calls on the church to become a people of welcome and grace to all.

Listening to God, struggling to understand God’s will and then to be faithful to it, and a handful of people on the corner of Douglass Blvd. and Bardstown Road have helped to make history and change the world.

Here’s the thing: the juxtaposition of these two stories in our Gospel for this morning forces us to see that doing and reflecting are indispensable to discipleship.  It’s not enough to think without doing, or to do without thinking.  


Because the real juice behind it all is God—not us.  

But God we’re afraid.  We’ve worked long and hard—us and the generations that came before us—and we don’t know where this is heading.  We’re worried about what will become of us.  We’re afraid that one day we’ll wake up and we won’t recognize the church we’ve known and loved.

God whispers gently to us, “I know.  I know of your service, your dedication.  I hold you and your work close to my heart.  But there are even more people out there I want to hold close to my heart, and calling them to come home will require perhaps some different work than what you’ve done before.  But don’t worry, my family is held together by my love—and not by anybody’s work (no matter how good).”

Trusting God to make of us what God wills may not be a formula for success the way we’re trained to think of success.  But, then, God’s always doing crazy things.

None of this should surprise us, though.  We serve a God who, as Martin Luther said, can ride the lame horse and shoot the crooked bow.

We serve a God who thought nailing a guy to a tree would turn out to be a good idea.  

And if God can pull a miracle out of that particular hat, there’s no telling what God could do with us.