A reader reached out to me this afternoon to thank me for the “Seminary Confidential” post, saying that it completely resonates with his experiences. He is an Evangelical and a veteran of college ministry. We ended up having a conversation about what it’s like to minister to college students today. He told me a lot — and I can’t identify the man or his university — but one thing stood out in particular. He said that in his experience, most of the students he works with graduate holding orthodox Christian beliefs on sexuality, but quickly capitulate. I asked him why. He replied:
You could probably guess it all:
- visceral aversion to being thought a bigot;
- not wanting to sacrifice professional success;
- not wanting to be hated by elite institutions;
- not knowing how to hope the best for a neighbor/friend without shifting moral norms (not understanding how to differentiate a pastoral mode from a legislative one);
- being sick of the church;
- deriving very little joy and peace from worship;
- a complete lack of appreciation for traditional civic and family structures;
- a failure to see the end game of identity-politics liberalism (to reduce all mediating institutions to naught, leaving us as a plain of individuals linked to the mother state where super-powered minority identities bring life to all as they self-achieve)
The minister told me that he doesn’t have any formal studies to back up his observations; these are simply things that he has seen over the past few years in his work. I’d like to start a conversation about these observations. Let me say clearly at the start: if you have nothing to say other than “the church is full of haters, and college graduates are right to reject haters,” then don’t bother. I want to hear from thoughtful theological conservatives and liberals, especially those who were theologically conservative, but then changed.
From this list the campus minister shared with me, several stood out.
First, I believe that the first three items in his list cannot be overemphasized. Most Christianity in this country is deeply middle class and conformist. People who are really engaged with theology, on either the traditionalist or progressive side, are very few. Most people just go along to get along. Perhaps it has always been this way. When the broader culture was conservative on sexual morality, so were the people in the pews (at least publicly). When it shifted, so did the views of the people in the pews. Now that same-sex marriage is totally bourgeois, we will see most churches accept it, because it’s the easiest thing to do. A big reason same-sex marriage was accepted so quickly, and so thoroughly, is because many people realized they were only against it out of uninformed prejudice.
I recall a professor at a conservative Evangelical college telling me that the students at his institution are all products of youth ministry culture, which is entirely relational. When they graduate and get outside the Christian college bubble, he said, and they find their views challenged in a serious way, they often collapse. “They are terrified of being seen as mean,” he said.
Anyway, if a Christian young person is going to stand firm on Biblical truth on these issues, he is going to have to be deeply grounded and formed in the faith, and have a sure sense of himself. Otherwise, the ordinary pressure of social conformity is going to overwhelm them.
I also think that “being sick of the church” and “deriving very little joy and peace from worship” are underappreciated reasons. A couple of years ago, when I was in Nashville, I met with some thoughtful conservative Evangelical pastors, some of whom were doing campus ministry. I heard an earful about Donald Trump, and the effect of Trumpism on the Christian students. I happened to meet with them a day or two after the Nashville Statement came out. I voiced qualified support for the statement, which reaffirmed orthodoxy on sexual issues, but some of these Evangelicals who spoke up criticized it as a pastoral disaster. This part from my post at the time really stuck with me:
That last one — the Trump factor — deserves some commentary. A couple of people in college ministry were at the table. They said that it is impossible to overstate how alienating the enthusiastic support their parents gave to Donald Trump was to their students. A number of college students have left the church entirely over it.
“How is that possible?” I asked one of the campus ministers. “How do you decide to leave Christianity altogether over who your parents voted for? That makes no sense to me.”
He said that in Evangelical circles, it’s common for college students to be skeptical at best of their parents’ theological views. For a lot of them, their parents’ backing of Donald Trump made everything they had been taught as kids about Christianity a lie. Their parents were the primary face of Evangelical Christianity to them, and to see this happen was shattering. They concluded that Christianity must be all about the economy, or tribalism, and so forth. One pastor said that a young man he ministers to in college posted a criticism of Trump on Facebook, and was cut off financially by his parents because of it.
Listening to these pastors and laypeople talking about the Trump effect on younger Christians was quite sobering to me. An older pastor said that it is impossible to separate the Nashville Statement from the massive support white Evangelicals gave to Trump. Impossible to separate, I mean, in the mind of the young.
“But Russell Moore signed it, and other Trump critics among Evangelicals,” I said.
“I know, and I’ve tried to tell people that,” said this pastor, a conservative Evangelical. “It doesn’t matter to them. All they see is a bunch of leaders of a movement who voted for a sexually corrupt man like Donald Trump are now trying to take a public stand on sexual morality for gays. It’s totally hypocritical to them. I don’t know how the Nashville Statement drafters and signers didn’t see this coming.”
I’m sure this has something to do with recent college graduates being “sick of church.” But I do wonder why so many fail to derive joy and peace from worship. Note well, I’m not asking in a critical way; I genuinely want to know. My correspondent listed that in a series of reasons why recent college graduates fall away from orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality. I think he must have meant that the experience of church for them is empty or otherwise troubling, and that fact compels them to reject aspects of church teaching that are hard to affirm in the current cultural climate.
Logically speaking, the fact that your church’s services are dull, depressing, or troubling in some way should not cause you to reject the church’s teachings. But that’s not how most people are. Last Sunday, my pastor said to our congregation that when people come to visit our church, they should look for Christ in the faces of the congregation. If they don’t see Him there, then they should go find a church where they can meet Him in the people. I think that comment showed a lot of pastoral wisdom. Our pastor can tell you why, from a theological point of view, that all Christians should be in communion with the Orthodox Church. His remark was a call to all of us who are Orthodox to deepen our conversion, so that when visitors come, they can know that ours is a meeting place of true believers. If knowing and worshiping Jesus does not bring us joy and peace, then there is a problem somewhere — maybe in the church community, maybe within ourselves, maybe both.
Joy and peace are fruits of the Spirit. If a young adult is struggling with certain doctrines of the faith, and their experience of church is unhappy, then they will find it easier to rationalize rejecting those doctrines. This is just a human reality. Intellectuals love to stand firm on logic and law, but that’s not how most people are. We are not disembodied brains; we have hearts too.
One more thing: at another conservative Evangelical college I visited a few years ago, I was startled to hear professors around a dinner table tell me that they didn’t believe that most of their undergraduates — most! — would be able to form stable families. That astonished me. Why not? I asked. “Because they have never seen one,” said one professor.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to put yourself in the perspective of a 22-year-old Christian student who has seen lots of sexual dysfunction and familial instability all around her growing up, and who wonders why her church makes such a big deal about homosexuality when its straight members can’t form stable marriages. The failure of straights to live out Christian truth on marriage does not logically negate Christian teaching on the meaning of marriage and sexuality. But from a human perspective, it does make it harder to receive and affirm.
What do you think? Which of the minister’s list strike you in a particularly strong way? Are there others? Did this happen to you? Did you regain orthodoxy? Why or why not? What made a difference? What might have made a difference? What might have made a difference to Christian friends who abandoned orthodoxy on sexual issues?
Again, I’m happy to publish comments critical, from the Left, of church belief and practice, but if all you want to do is spit venom about churchy hypocrites, save it, because I’m not going to approve your comment. I’m not really interested in having people argue about this stuff; I’d rather this be a thread in which we try to understand what’s happening, and why.