Category: Young Evangelicals

The Value of Complex Questions

This morning NPR had this piece titled “More Young People Are Moving Away from Religion, but Why?”. It’s a 7 minute clip from what David Greene reports was a two-hour discussion with six young adults in New York. Three men and three women participated,  ranging in age from 23 to 33. They come from a variety of faith positions: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Adventist, and undisclosed “Christian”. In listening to their comments several times, I was struck with how their struggles relate to questions at Christian universities.

All of these folks are older than my students and we weren’t told anything about where they went to college themselves. There are all kinds of questions I’d ask about sampling and representativeness. But still, there are interesting patterns in their answers. And those patterns align nicely with the kinds of things the Barna group found on evangelical young people. When you listen carefully to their comments, they aren’t rejecting religion per se. They are rejecting an overly structured apologetic. It’s not religion that failed them — it was the structure of argument that the were substituting for religion.

For example, one young woman speaks of her Catholic schooling and how she had questions about what she was taught about premarital sex and homosexuality. But she says that she moved from her faith because she couldn’t support such “core beliefs”. The young man with a cross tattoo rejects “religious doctrines” (Greene’s phrase) of a literal hell and homosexuality as sin. The Adventist young man has issues with theodicy — he can prayer be effective when bad stuff was happening in his family and his prayers didn’t stop it. And if the failure of efficacy was him failing some test, wasn’t that as cruel as “burning ants with a magnifying glass?” The Muslim man struggles with a literal understanding of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Why would God expect such a thing? And isn’t someone who claimed that God wanted that somewhat unhinged?

These are all good questions. They are questions that Christian universities should be engaging better than anyone. We have the ability to separate “core doctrines” from the various social, behavioral, and scientific factors that present challenges. We are able to handle the ambiguity of scriptural texts, recognizing their difficult implications, without abandoning scriptural commitments altogether.

But if our approach to challenging issues is to offer up pat answers, we put our students at risk. Because if a few years, they will be confronted with others who don’t share the easy responses we offer. And when that happens, they run the risk of being in some NPR interview sometime in the future.

The key factors that arose in David Kinnaman’s work in You Lost Me (about disaffected young evangelicals) were judgmentalism, inability to deal with doubt, and lack of complexity (particular on issues related to science). Christian Universities should deal with the grayness of the complex questions. It leads to a deeper faith walk (relates to James Fowler’s stage 5 and above) that isn’t shaken when life challenges the pat answers we had folks memorize.

Today’s Christian University Students

I’m launching this blog as a means of exploring issues within the realm of higher education and the popular culture that directly impact how we think and act as Christian educators. Over the course of my more than 30 years in Christian Colleges and Universities, I have seen a marked shift in my students. This has been true since roughly the beginning of the 21st Century.

In my experience, Christian Universities have been slow to respond to these shifts. Many have gone out of their way to reinforce messages from 40 years ago and take pride in “holding the line“. In the process, they run the risk of making Christian Higher Ed increasingly irrelevant to larger and larger numbers of young people.

I began focusing on this question more academically over the course of the last two years. Jeffery Jensen Arnett‘s work on Emerging Adults is particularly interesting in terms of what is happening with the current generation of 18-30 year olds. I’m currently working on a book for freshmen entering a Christian University that builds upon some of his work.

In September, I made a presentation at Spring Arbor University (where I now teach) summarizing the challenge this postmodern generation brings to Christian Higher Ed. Some of it relates specifically to life at Spring Arbor (the reference to the Concept and the Clock Tower) but most of it can be generalized to other Christian Universities. Here’s the link to the video. If the PowerPoint goes too fast, here’s another version.Community of Learners 9-21-12.

This fall, I had the joy of listening to the audiobook of Rachel Held Evans’s wonderful book, Evolving In Monkey Town. Rachel is a popular blogger in young evangelical circles (including some readers like me who are no longer young!). She grew up around Christian apologetics, Christian high schools, and Christian Colleges. But in her early twenties, she began asking herself hard cultural and intellectual questions that her safe Christian mental models really couldn’t reconcile. She’s not new in that regard — the same has happened to bright, reflective evangelical students over the years.

Many Christian students who face deep questions take one of two tracks: either they compartmentalize their reality so that they just hold to their prior position (“God’s ways are not our ways“) or they junk the Christian presuppositions altogether. Rachel describes interactions with friends in both camps.

What makes her book so important is that she models what it means to embrace the tension. It makes life much more complicated but also more authentic. My presentation to the Spring Arbor Community summarized some research findings from the Barna group on the disaffection of young adults in the evangelical church. There are several themes David Kinnaman and his colleagues uncovered, but central to them is the idea that the evangelical church doesn’t deal with complexity.

As I interact with today’s Christian College students, I find some who compartmentalize and some who abandon. But there seem to be significant numbers of  students attempting to follow Rachel’s more demanding path.

This bodes well for the Christian University. If we can be the places where students begin to work through their challenges, we can provide models and supportive environments where questions are welcomed because we have nothing to fear.

On the other hand, if we insist that our Christian universities can only be places for people who hold the party line we will miss larger and larger sectors of the young adult population. This is not only bad for the universities, it’s damaging to the greater culture.