For about a year in middle school, my constant companion was an old hardback edition of Grimms’ Complete Fairy Tales. I read the whole thing through at least five times, at turns delighted and gripped by a macabre fascination with these stories, more bizarre and gruesome than anything Disney serves up. As is common with folktales, Grimms’ fables tend to serve an instructional purpose, impressing vivid moral lessons upon young listeners. In “Mary’s Child,” for example, a queen is nearly burned at the stake and her babies are abducted by the Virgin Mary because she refuses confession.
Other cultures have their folktales, too. In American evangelicalism, one of our most common stories might be called “The College Student.” This is the warning tale of a young person who is raised in church and loves Jesus— but attends a secular university. Confused and isolated in this foreign land, she meets daunting foes, like the Evil Atheist Professor and the Relativist Roommate. No longer able to uncritically accept the tradition she knows, the student abandons faith entirely to become the newest member of the “nones,” those who exit the Church (or never join it) not because they’re converting to another religion or embracing atheism but because they believe nothing in particular.
The basic fear in this folktale is not wrong: The ranks of the nones are expanding, and a single generation, millennials, makes up nearly half the demographic. Young people really are leaving organized religion at unusual rates.
But that does not mean these caricature foes (or any other external factor) are the crucial cause of their departure.
I believe a far more important factor is that we in the Church and Christian education have failed to provide a solid grounding in the lively theological diversity within orthodox Christianity, both historically and around the world today.
In other words, perhaps millennials and nones are leaving because they simply haven’t met enough of the family.The most important factor in the rise of the ‘nones’ may be that we in the Church and Christian education have failed to provide a solid grounding in the lively theological diversity of orthodox Christianity. Click To Tweet
Too often we don’t understand what Christians in other contexts believe, why they believe it, or how it relates to what we believe. We aren’t familiar with other ways of following Jesus. We don’t understand the widely varied forms orthodoxy can take.
So when “The College Student” encounters compelling new ideas in college or the world at large that seem to contradict a shallow, rigid faith, her “faith” is unlikely to survive. Deprived, however unwittingly, of the theological and spiritual resources of the Church universal, such a faith has nowhere to grow or change once seriously challenged.
It can only die.
What Happens to the Believer Who Has Been Taught The Single Branch Is the Whole Tree
The longer or more formative our experience of a single Christian tradition, the easier it becomes to believe the one branch of Christianity we’ve encountered is the whole tree. Other traditions begin to feel foreign—maybe even suspect. Add in cultural and political differences, and another church may seem as strange as another religion entirely.
In other words: A too-limited understanding of the Church universal leads us to mistake one version of the faith—usually our own—for Christianity itself.
This ignorance often goes unnoticed, as we see no need to explore what other churches think and do while content in our own context. But it has serious consequence once we find ourselves in a season of doubt or deconstruction.
“The dechurched who grew up in church exit because they find the version of Christianity they’ve grown up with unconvincing, uninspiring, and irrelevant,” says author and pastor Andy Stanley of the nones. But they “don’t perceive their understanding of Christianity as a version of anything. For them, their version is the only version,” he continues. So when, like the fabled college student, they “find their version of faith ill-suited for the undeniable realities, both scientific and sociological, of the world in which they find themselves,” they believe the faith must go. When they start to question the tradition of their childhood or conversion, they assume they are questioning Christianity itself—so if they begin to reject parts of that tradition, they assume they are rejecting Jesus.
These assumptions are wrong and dangerous.
John Williamson at The Christian Post writes:
Deconstruction is a careful and deliberate examination of one’s beliefs from the inside. It’s about coming to terms with what you believe outside of your inherited beliefs. It’s about growing INTO your faith, not out of it.
Or at least, it should be.
But when deconstruction is paired with ignorance of the great variety of belief and practice within orthodoxy, it ceases to be an opportunity for maturation. Rather than an opportunity for sanctification, it becomes instead an unmooring.
It does not have to be this way.When deconstruction is paired with ignorance of the great variety of belief and practice within orthodoxy, it ceases to be an opportunity for maturation. Click To Tweet
What Could Happen If We Introduced Young Christians to the Whole Family?
Church history is full of one argument after another, as faithful and orthodox Christians have sincerely (and yet vehemently) disagreed with about a huge range of issues. That disagreement is not ideal: In a perfect world, the Church wouldn’t be divided. Christians would have full knowledge of doctrinal truths and worship together in a visibly united universal Church.
But we don’t have that perfect world. Jesus’ mustard seed kingdom is already, but not yet. It’s growing, but not grown, and church history is rife with violent growing pains.
As part of a tradition (Mennonite) whose members have a history of getting burned at the stake by other Christians for believing the “wrong” thing, I’m happy a lot of those growing pains are past. But watching people leave the Church over a too-narrow understanding of our faith, I see diversity within orthodoxy as a strength, not a weakness.
This is the value in introducing Christians to our siblings—and even our distant cousins in the faith who seem weird to us—particularly if that’s what it takes for some to remain in the family.
If there’s a version of Christianity someone can accept, why would we present them only with a version they have to reject? If there’s a version that can bring them through crisis and on to reconstruction, we can and should offer that lifeline of faith.
Portions of this article are adapted from the book, A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today, by Bonnie Kristian. Copyright (c) Bonnie Kristian by Faithwords. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.