I've been speaking at many small colleges that have historical ties to the oldest mainline denominations in the US. I have been noticing something interesting: a terrific hunger for a deeper spirituality on the part of many young people who come from evangelical backgrounds like mine and also like me are looking for something outside of the right wing conservatism they come from.
I've also noticed that while some people in the so-called emergent evangelical movement are reaching out to these young people the leaders of the mainline denominations both locally and nationally often seem blind to a huge new opportunity for growth and renewal staring them in the face. That new opportunity is the scores of younger former evangelicals diving headlong out of the right wing evangelical churches.
What brings those suffering from spiritual burnout to my talks is that I've been there and done that. I usually get invited to speak because someone at the school shares my former evangelical background and has read one of my books like Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. I'm invited as a speaker who talks about both the religious and political sector where I've been arguing against the "politics of hate," that has overtaken the far right.
The title of my talk is usually something like "Saving Faith from Politicized and Poisonous Religion." I speak about how as someone born into a leading evangelical religious family I found a deeper faith by embracing mystery and paradox.
My college talks are thronged by young people who have gotten tired of being told they have to vote for conservative Republicans in order to be Christians. And they are tired of the false certainties not to mention the relentless gay bashing.
I'm interested by the fact that when I ask them if they go to church they either say no and are of the "spiritual not religious" persuasion, or they have hooked up with formerly evangelical groups that now have reshaped themselves as more progressive. What I don’t often hear is that they have turned to the older mainline more liberal and progressive denominations. This is a surprise since in terms of world view the older denominations should be a good fit for the progressive former evangelicals. I’ve asked many of them, “Has anyone from the mainline churches made an effort to connect with you?” Most say no.
In my talks argue that spirituality without community is hollow and self defeating. I ask "So where do you DO community?" And that question (mostly asked during the Q and A sessions) leads to discussion of options for going to church. And what amazes me is the invisibility of the mainline communities when it comes to the literally millions of former evangelicals I know are out there.
In fact most of the bright young students I talk to think that the word "Christian" means evangelical/fundamentalist. They are barely aware of any alternatives.
I don't get it. Where is everyone? Why is the “emergent” evangelical church reinventing a wheel that’s been around for centuries? And why aren’t the mainline churches letting us know they are there?
Because of the thousands of emails my books about my journey out of the evangelical right have generated, I know that there is a vast movement afoot of individuals who feel they are alone. Each one writes to me as if we’re the only people thinking “this way.” However I know of few mainline efforts to reach out to these lonely former evangelical younger folks who may feel alone but who actually number countless people.
There are some good things happening. These things are mostly the creation of a few individuals not so much the official high priority work of denominations. Here are a few great examples that might inspire others to replicate them:
Darkwood Brew is an online program put together by Rev. Eric Elnes pastor of a United Church of Christ parish. It is a groundbreaking interactive web television program and spiritual gathering that explores progressive Christian faith and values.
Living the Questions is not the product of a denominational workgroup or other institutional effort aimed at simply dressing up the theological status quo. Instead, it is the response to the search for a practical tool to bring together, equip, and re-educate thinking Christians. The idea for producing a program to help people wrestle with basic questions often avoided by the Church came out of the real world needs of pastors Jeff Procter-Murphy and David Felten, both of whom serve United Methodist congregations in Phoenix, Arizona.
The Wild Goose Festival. This is not a denominational effort but does involve social justice projects that tie in with most mainline churches. We (I say "we" because I'm one of the speakers) take inspiration from many places, such as Greenbelt in the UK, Burning Man, the Iona Community, SXSW, and others. The festival (June 21-24) is open to everyone; we don't censor what can be said; we invite respectful - but fearless - conversation and action for the common good.
And then there is the wonderful chapel program at Maryville College (Maryville, TN) run by Rev. Anne McKee. Maryville College proudly claims its mainline Presbyterian heritage. While holding strongly to the Presbyterian connection, the college honors and welcomes students and church connections from a broadly diverse faith community. The chapel program has the strong support and participation of the students. Whatever Rev. Anne McKee is doing should be copied.
Why aren't the mainline denominations pitching their churches’ tolerant noble humanistic and enlightened views about individual empowerment, community and spiritual rebirth to the spiritually disenfranchised on a larger scale? The examples I mentioned here show that religion -- even “church” -- can be presented in a way that works and draws young people in. As someone once said “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest” (John 4:35).
If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they'd be bursting at the seams.