THE DROP OUTS By Peter Corney (This article was first published in “Equip” magazene, Feb 2013 .)
Why is it that an increasing number of Baby Boomer (1) Christians who, not having lost their faith, have nevertheless dropped out of church or become so disengaged they still attend but seem to be just going through the motions?
There are a range of reasons and some of them are not unique to this cohort. Some of us have simply been seduced by our affluent Australian life style. There are more options when you have more disposable income, like the holiday house you need to visit regularly on weekends. When the kids leave home you are now free and have the resources to take weekends off to interesting places. The cost of this affluence is hard work and demanding jobs that require more and more of the time of both husbands and wives and so we feel we need the weekends away to recover and relax. We don’t want to be tied down with other commitments like church rosters and teaching Sunday school.
Some have begun to sit more loosely to church attendance because they have never really worked through satisfactorily some of the intellectual and faith questions they had in their twenties. They put them on hold and attended to the needs of their young families for some years, going to church regularly was part of that. Now they are revisiting the questions and doing so in a much more aggressively secular environment which further unsettles them. They probably find that normal church doesn’t really address their questions deeply enough. While their professional work development continued their faith development went on hold. Unfortunately they generally don’t take the time to read seriously or seek out the help they need and so they do not resolve their problems, or they tend to drift to the reductionist solution – they just keep reducing the challenging bits of Christian faith and morality to fit the prevailing cultures plausibility structure and so they gradually drift away from orthodoxy.
There is also the general sense of discomfort and disappointment many people feel who have been Christians for a long time. They now find the general culture and values of the society they live in so disturbing and unattractive that it can have a dispiriting effect. Like Israel in exile in Babylon they feel like strangers and aliens in the culture. Their hearts echo the cry “How can we sing the Lords song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137.) It is not just the aggressive secularism but the sense that there is no cultural memory left of the Christian heritage, perhaps two generations now with cultural amnesia.
Then there is the constant background noise of the popular media; films, T.V. programs, video games and radio, with their coarseness, violence, cruelty, exploitive and distorted sexuality, confused morality and superficiality. Add to this the internet where every possible form of pornography and human degradation is available to anyone on line at the touch of a keypad or IPhone. This is a reflection of the majority culture now and its values. We are the minority. They see their children and grandchildren soaked by this wave of pop culture and drifting away from the Christian faith and are very disturbed.
This produces a variety of reactions. Some take a very proactive stance and join groups like The Australian Christian Lobby or ‘Saltshakers’ or create or join on line forums like EA’s Public Theology discussion to try and put alternative Christian ideas and values into the public forums in an attempt to retake some of the lost ground in the public square. Others retreat into their Christian world of church, Christian school and the social life of their Christian friends and try to have minimal engagement with the culture, although their daily work makes this difficult for most to do completely. Then there are those, who are in some ways a bit like the group just mentioned above, who drift indecisively to the place where it’s just too hard in this culture to be distinctively Christian any more in a public way and so just go with the flow of the culture, their Christian faith retained as a private truncated experience and the whole ‘church thing’ is just let go.
Another group are those who just stopped serving, leading small groups, caring, and discipling others and became passive consumers. They probably got over busy in their jobs or got over committed and felt they needed a rest and never got started again! They forgot the spiritual maxim that if you don’t keep serving you will stop growing in your faith.
When you have been going to church for a long time and hear sermons on themes you have heard many times before and passages you have read many times the familiarity can breed superficial listening or a critical attitude and then boredom. Someone said ‘routine is the enemy of wonder.’ Of course the quality of some preaching does not help! The challenge is to discipline oneself to listen to the Word of God afresh and to ask ‘what is God saying to me today?’ There will always have to be teaching that is pitched at the level of new Christians in the congregation and inexperienced people will need to be given experience in preaching to develop their gifts, the mature Christian should be happy about that and not a complainer. Mature Christians must take some responsibility for their own growth. There has never been more excellent Christian books and study materials available than there is today and at a reasonable price. The fact is that so many mature Christians do not make it a priority in their reading and time. As a result their Christian minds shrink and atrophy just like our relationship with God does when we stop praying and being attentive to His presence with us every day.
There are of course those who have hung in there for a long time in boring, uncreative, intellectually unchallenging, inward looking churches, where the teaching and preaching was either so bland, or so liberal, that they finally gave up the unequal struggle.
Then there are those who were switched on in their youth in the early 1970’s and 80’s through the excitement of the changes sweeping through society and the church with the counter culture, the Jesus movement and the charismatic movement. They got a taste of how powerful and radical the Gospel and the Kingdom of God could be. They experienced emotional and powerful worship, music that tapped into their culture and souls. They caught a glimpse of the implications of the Gospel for personal conversion and social justice. They tasted the fellowship and the energy that real Christian community could generate. They had their idealism switched right on! Many of them went on to leadership in their churches; others became the backbone of many congregations exploring change and new ways of doing Church. They played in contemporary church music bands; they got involved in aid and development groups like Tear; they provided the manpower for creative para – church missional initiatives. It was rewarding and exciting stuff.
If you were part of what I have just described and your present church experience is a long way from that, as well as being bored, you may now be tired from trying to sustain or create that liveliness in your congregation. In your tiredness and disillusionment you drop out. Maybe you just do your social justice thing but have given formal church a miss.
Two things happened in the late 80’s and 90’s that contributed to this scenario. First the charismatic renewal in main stream churches began to run out of steam and second the large regional church development took place. The energy at the local church level began to drift to the large churches and the already growing decline of small suburban churches accelerated. If you were left in a small suburban church that had experienced some renewal but has now declined you can feel that the struggle is too hard, of course you may also have forgotten that you are now 20 years older and your energy level isn’t the same! The average age of most of the members of these churches will now be 6o+. The next generation, X and Y, seems to have disappeared.
If you are in a large regional church then there will be more action, the music will be better, (although still not as rocky as it used to be), the initiatives for outreach will be greater, the youth and children’s ministry will be better, there will be active social justice programs, small groups, etc. But there is a danger that you can become a passive consumer, just a passenger in the bus that’s rolling along. In the end this can lead to personal inaction in ministry and create a sense of disengagement. Some large churches are trying to counter this with ‘second half’ and special volunteer programs for able and skilled retirees but the temptation exists to coast and enjoy the freedom of retirement and your accumulated superannuation.
The last reason that comes to mind that affects us all is the tough challenges of life. No one gets to their 50’s and 60’s without having experienced some pain, sadness and disappointment in their life. Sickness, losing your job in a ‘downsizing’, children who haven’t followed in the faith, the death of friends, broken marriages, bad church experiences, the list goes on. Maintaining trust in Christ, being an active member of a community of believers and staying the course – the “long obedience in the same direction” – is hard. It is even harder in our contemporary culture that encourages individualism over community that emphasises the autonomous self over the obligated self, which places my rights over my duties, my self-discovery and fulfilment over service to others. The Boomers had their expectations raised very high by the late 60’s and 70’s culture in which they were nurtured, perhaps too high for the realities of life. That can lead to cynicism or disillusionment which in turn can lead to disengagement. (2)
The Boomers have contributed significantly to the changes in modern society and to the reshaping of the contemporary Protestant church in Australia. The question is as the leaders of change with high expectations will they cope with their dreams not being completely fulfilled? Will they cope with the changes the next generation will initiate? How will they cope with the changes and limitations of their own ageing? I have a vision of them being bussed from their retirement villages to concerts to listen to Mick Jagger and The Stones, still on stage but now in wheel chairs, singing “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
(1) The term ‘Baby Boomers’ generally refers to the generation born after WW2 from 1946 – 1964. They are now between the ages of 49 and 67 years. The author of this article is a pre Baby Boomer, born before WW2, who spent a large part of his ministry working with the Boomers.
(2) Within the Roman Catholic Church the dropout rate from regular Mass attendance has been escalating now for years. The hopes of a whole generation of Catholics were raised by the reforms of Vatican 2 and the continuing possibility of even greater change but these have been dashed by the Vatican’s swing back to conservatism. The possibility of married clergy and the ordination of woman have been killed off by the last two reactionary Popes. Added to this, the uncovering of the extent of the abuse of children by catholic clergy and the hierarchies cover up, has left many lay Catholics in despair. We are already seeing them join Protestant churches and I suspect this trend will increase. However most will simply drop out and stop going to church anywhere.