The Christian Century included a brief article in its October 26 edition about a research project conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute on people unaffiliated with any religion, the “nones” of which we hear so much about. I have no knowledge of how the project was undertaken, so am simply commenting on what was cited in the article.
One finding was that 60% said they simply stopped believing in their childhood religion. Good for them. Childhood religion is infantile pablum served up by well meaning church school leaders well beyond the time children should have been weaned from it. At the very moment when most children are being prepared for the intellectual rigor of high school, they are elbowed out of church school still being taught bible stories more suited to the very young. It’s not entirely the fault of their teachers. Many of them never went beyond a juvenile understanding of their faith, which they have enthusiastically but uncritically held onto for a long time, and they are teaching from materials that don’t encourage intellectual curiosity. Others were pressed into service against their better judgment, and their teaching betrays it.
People, the bible is not fragile! It can stand up to serious inquiry and debate! Children are capable of critical thinking, especially as they enter into their preteen years. Jesus is not made of clay. He can be engaged in serious conversation. God does not remain distant and aloof. God can be confronted, challenged, as in the story of Job. In fact, Job as instructive myth is not hard for kids to grasp. Children are not infants. They can be, want to be, led into deeper, more profound engagement with God. When church school and parishes don't let that happen, why bother going on at all? They have better things to do, and besides, what is taught in school counts, what is taught in church doesn't.
If there are adults who stopped believing in their childhood religion, it is because we left them with a comic book version of it when their comic books had long been boxed up in the attic. OK, I’m showing my age. We left them with a Sesame Street version of it long after they had stopped watching Sesame Street. It would be relatively easy to recover if it was only a matter of adults who once attended church but do so no longer. Sadly, we are now into the second or third generation of those who have never been in church because it was their parents or grandparents who left their childhood religion behind. It’s not easy to share the good news of God as revealed in Jesus Christ with people who are not interested, and can’t see any reason they should become interested.
Aren't you concerned about your eternal soul? No, not particularly. Don't you want to go to heaven? Well sure, if there is one, but I don't need religion to get there. OK, then you'll burn in hell for all of eternity. Oh really, you should get a life, you bible thumping nutcase.
St. Paul had it easier, a lot easier. He went to people who believed in gods of some kind, and in the religion that worshiped them. Gods and religion were important. They were an accepted part of the fabric of life. All he had to do was point them in the right direction. Our best option, it seems to me, is to focus on those whom we know were brought up in church, at least to the point of giving up their childhood religion. At least they have a handle to grab onto. Working with them to guide them into an adult way to engage with scripture that will help them gain an adult understanding of God, and what it means to follow Jesus is a doable thing. Church then becomes not a thing one goes to, but a community of which one is a part. Religion becomes the way in which God is shared in communion with one another, and not facile entertainment or dry rote liturgical exercises. Among them, hopefully, will emerge some whose formation in discipleship will enable them to "witness" as adults to to other adults outside of church about the God they never knew.
Well, it's something to think about.