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A curious confluence of contradictory signs is cropping up about young Americans’ changing relationship with Christ. To sort things out, do we need a sign from God?
Some experts claim that Christian evangelicals, seemingly at the height of their political power on the national scene, are praying they aren’t simultaneously on the precipice of extinction, as church leaders fear an apocalyptic prediction is coming true.
“Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be ‘Bible-believing Christians’ as adults _ a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation,” according to a report in The New York Times this past week.
Conversely, the author of a new book, “Righteous,” says Democrats need to embrace the burgeoning movement of young evangelicals as a way to stem the loss of followers to the GOP. The Washington Post recently ran a review of author Lauren Sandler’s book that said, “(Journalist Sandler) urges her fellow liberals to embrace the tactics of the evangelical youth movement. An unlikely amalgam of Christian skateboarders, pierced and tattooed pro-lifers, hip-hop and rock musicians, and straitlaced Christian college debate champions, the movement includes creation-science buffs, former drug addicts and the sons of the well-known Christian evangelists James Dobson and Jim Bakker.”
Why should Democrats risk losing mainstream believers, agnostics and nonbelievers, many of whom are alienated by in-your-face evangelism and its attendant proselytizing, if young evangelicals are on the brink of becoming non-believing adults?
To hear evangelicals tell it, church leaders young and old, whether wearing vestigial tabs or Jesus T-shirts, are helpless against the Internet and Madison Avenue. Mainstream culture trumps God’s word. Its magnetic power lures young Americans by mocking religion and making it seem passe. Even a hotline to Jesus does not allow them to compete with a nation they see as glorifying casual sex and hyper-sexuality while genuflecting to rap and hip-hop music whose lyrics preach sex, violence and materialism.
The Barna Group, a California-based polling firm that specializes in Americans’ religious attitudes, may have the answer, which is somewhere in between The Washington Post’s “teen Jesus freaks rule” approach and the Times’ feared loss of young adherents for Christ. More Americans, teens included, are believers, according to the Barna Group. But they’re believing at home instead of joining a church. Barna’s research seems to have uncovered the rumblings of a possible radical shift in the way Americans see religion and Christianity. More of them, young and old, believe faith is in the heart. They are worshiping at home with friends and family, without the guidance of an ordained church official. They see routine churchgoing as unnecessary for an individual’s spiritual development.
What’s facilitating the growth of home churches is, oddly enough, the Internet. We all know American teens are much more technology-savvy than their parents or grandparents. E-communication is making it easier for small groups of like-minded believers to find each other and buck large church organizations.
So while charismatic pastors pass the plate on Sunday to build and maintain ostentatious mega-churches, spiritual teens may be yearning to return to Jesus’ ways in the New Testament. Maybe they have more sense than their parents. Maybe they seek simplicity and yearn to revive the tradition established during Christianity’s first three centuries in which home churches were the norm: “Aquila and Prisca greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.” (1 Corinthians 16:19)
Maybe they’re just smarter than their parents and grandparents in this way. Maybe they realize that speaking in tongues, meeting in a large building on Sundays, and supporting a possibly corrupt and probably self-interested church leadership doesn’t bring happiness and has even less to do with inner peace.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)