The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 3


In the prior two installments (Part 1, Part 2)  of this limited series, we examined the problems facing ministry to youth. Today, I want to unpack some further issues and provide answers to why we continue to lose kids and how we can not only stem that tide but reverse it.

Rather than have some great build up, I’ll head right into my thoughts:

1. Encapsulating the Gospel and then preaching it is our highest calling.

When the Church no longer knows what the Gospel is, it can’t transmit that Gospel to the next generation. How scary is it that many of the most learned and vocal Christians out there, the ones often in leadership roles, can’t articulate what the Gospel is?

We can only fool kids for so long. Today’s teens are experts at analyzing sales pitches. They are far more savvy consumers than even their parents, and they recognize when they’re being manipulated. So an attractional youth ministry model that has no genuine Gospel meat on its bones won’t be a tempting meal for them.

We also fail when we do not show consistently how the Gospel destroys all competing worldviews. Instead, by failing to understand competing worldviews, we allow people in our churches to synthesize Christianity with social Darwinism, pragmatism. American Dreamism, and any of a thousand other -isms that stand against the true Gospel.

Every Christian must understand the world in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. We must try all competing worldviews and reveal how each sets itself up against the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

If we don’t start fixing this lack of instilling a Gospel-based worldview, nothing else that follows will do any good.

2. A complete cradle-to-grave educational plan for people in our churches is essential.

Increasingly, I believe this is the single most devastating systemic problem in our churches. No church has a handle on a complete educational philosophy. A church can have 10 pastors and not a single one is devoted to ensuring that people of all ages learn the fundamentals of the faith. That’s a genuine scandal.

In my radio interview in July, I mentioned that we need to ask our church leaders about their cradle-to-grave educational plan and ask for point-by-point, and age-by-age details. Listen to the response; it will be the most telling thing we hear about our church.

I also believe that every age group within a church should be hearing the same message, only geared for the appropriate age group. If the pastor preaches on John 1, then every instructional group in the church receives teaching on John 1, from the nursery kids in Sunday School to the mid-week adult small groups. Millions of pages of Bible learning and commentary exist, so it’s not as if the source material is so paper-thin that we can’t mine it for all its worth in a given week.

The mishmash, every-class-does-its-own-thing disaster that is the educational plan at most churches explains much of the state of the Church in the West. It’s one reason why parents give up on their children’s spiritual educations. The church splits the family the second it hits the lobby on Sunday, with everyone going his or her way. Then when the family reconvenes, each person has been schooled in disconnected topics, which makes it impossible for parents to discuss those topics with their kids.

But with everyone learning the same basic topic, conversation opens up. Parents don’t spend all their time trying to tease out what the kids studied. They know because they studied the same topic.

The lack of a comprehensive educational plan (and the church leadership’s lack of constant selling of such a plan to the people in the seats) is one of the reasons why its so hard to get people to volunteer to teach in a church. No one gets a complete vision of the direction for growth. If the goal is vague, why would anyone sign on?

Another scandal in this regard is that our churches spend hand over fist for stupid programming that has no lasting value, but we can’t see the need to pay someone to coordinate and enact the educational vision for the church. One of the worst trends in the last 50 years in our churches is the wholesale elimination of  paid Christian education staff in favor of volunteers. The results are obvious, though, and we need to get serious about the horrendous state of Christian education in our churches.  Most seminarians and pastors never got the training to coordinate the educational direction of a church that we believe they did. So, pay a trained Christian educator to do the job and stop grousing about it. Otherwise, keep the status quo and continue to reap the whirlwind.

3. A youth ministry model based on young men moving from the farm to the factory is passé and must be replaced by a model that meets modern needs.

How many of you, before you read the first two parts of this series, knew the genesis of youth ministry as a response to a shift from rural agrarianism to urban industrialism in the first half of the 19th century in England? Now that you understand this, how appropriate does our contemporary youth ministry model, which is nothing more than an outgrowth of that change, seem?

The model no longer applies, folks. It’s time we replace it it with something better. Acknowledging that broken model is the first step toward a more biblical and relevant one.

4. The youth minister’s job should be to work himself out of a youth-only job.

I do believe that we still need youth ministers. However, their job responsibilities must be completely rethought.

For millennia the most effective youth ministry model involved parents teaching their own children the faith. This has indirect and direct benefits:

1) Parents had to know what they were talking about. It meant they had to understand the faith too. Plus, they exercised valuable teaching and communications skills usable in other situations at church or in life.

2) Kids got their information from the one source most important in their lives, both in terms of total time spent together and in authority. The faith had greater meaning because they saw it modeled by their parents rather than by “professionals.”

Some parents will research and  slave over a Powerpoint presentation they must give (which no one will remember a week later) before a group of corporate bigwigs (who don’t really matter) as part of their job (which has few eternal benefits), yet they can’t spend five minutes telling their own kids about Jesus—mostly because they haven’t done the research themselves. What terrible priorities we have!

I understand that parents have it rough. Fact is, parents have always had it rough. That we have made things even rougher for ourselves by poor priorities will be addressed later.

But back to that youth minister…

The present-age role for the youth minister should be not as a semi-cult leader for teens but as a resource for parents. The youth minister’s main goal should be not ministering to teens directly but teaching parents to become the primary transmitters of the faith to their own children. And frankly, that needs to start long before the teen years.

Parents don’t teach their kids the faith because

they don’t know it themselves,

they don’t know how to teach,

and they can’t find the time.

Let’s be honest, though; today’s parents can’t shoulder all the blame. As I noted in my prior post in this series, parents have been robbed. They weren’t given the right tools to do this all-important job of transmitting the faith. Sadly, what little they do transmit will be the entirety of what their kids call upon when they have to teach their own children.

And so the great mind-wipe carries on until nothing is left.

The youth minister, in conjunction with other church leaders, is the one to address that issue.

There will always be a need to minister to those kids whose parents are not Christians or who do not attend the church, so yes, someone must coordinate that work. That’s the next step.

5. The entire church is responsible for passing along the faith to the next generation.

Somehow, our churches have devolved into age and affinity group ghettos. We’ve lost the coherence of a family, of being the Body of Christ wherein one organ cannot exist without the others. Instead, we break down everything—and everyone—into their generic components.

That’s wrong.

The church is a family, a community unto itself. And as much as I hate to reference Hillary Clinton, it DOES take a village to raise a child.

We’ve forgotten this, though. Our churches separate the elderly from the youngsters. We put the singles into their group and isolate them. We do everything we can to frustrate the mission of the church as a whole by not seeing the value of all people in the training up of the next generation of Christians.

When we plan our cradle-to-grave educational philosophy, we must begin to incorporate a more holistic view of ministry not just as a collection of nuclear families, with parents teaching their kids, but as a church family, with people of all ages serving as instructors to children.

Our programming should always include all people, if possible, and value their contributions. Tribal people understand this and have maintained their traditions. We, however, have not. We devalue the tribe, and in doing so dilute its traditions.

6. “Tribal” rites of passage in our churches must mark adulthood.

I was blessed to grow up in the Lutheran Church and experience a conscientious confirmation and catechism program. Together, confirmation and catechism provided a gateway into adult life and membership within the church. Once past that mark, we were no longer children but full voting members of the church on which certain responsibilities now rested. We could hold board positions and lead groups.

I cannot stress enough, given the astonishing lack of appropriate rites of passage in our society, how much we need Christian rites of passage. When we wring our hands over teen sex, drinking, drug use, and so on, we have only ourselves to blame. We made those our primary rites of passage into adulthood.

I believe Christians must wholeheartedly counter this societal deficiency. Yet what are the rites of passage from childhood into adulthood in the average church?

Each church or denomination must work to formulate rites of passage for its youth. I believe that all ages, experiences, and marital statuses must be involved in creating adulthood curriculum and teaching it to our kids.

In my Lutheran church, I was grilled by the pastor and lay leader on points of doctrine, my understanding of them, and how I applied them in my own life. If I didn’t answer correctly, I had to try again later. That was hard, but it was also life-changing.

So why aren’t we doing this with our kids? Why do we just naturally assume they should be church members by parent proxy rather than by earning it themselves? Why don’t we promote spiritual understanding and show its value through such rites?

I also believe that we can’t start early enough with our Christian kids on classes in being proper husbands and wives. We also need to teach them how to run a household. This should be part of the passage rite.

And as Protestants, how is it that we have downplayed ceremonies? What better ceremony can there be than to present a young person as a full adult member in the church, a title  earned through hard work and study?

Once those teens have passed the rite, push them. Billy Graham noted long ago that the one thing all teens need today is a challenge. By destroying the agrarian lifestyle, we relegated our young people to purposelessness. With no real need for them to help support the family, teens looked anywhere they could for meaning.

Our churches have to give them that meaning and work to involve our teens in the adult life and purpose of the church. We must stop looking down on the inexperience of teens and instead stoke the mission God is giving to each of them. We need to encourage their gifts and get of the way as they use them. When teens feel needed, they are less likely to drift away. Attractional ministry will only hold teens for so long; instead, they need to be integral to the Great Commission.

Too many Christian parents see getting their kids into some elite college as the be-all rite of passage and the only true mission for their kids. We have to rectify that mistaken priority, and that will involve other life changes.

7. We Christians must start questioning and fixing how we spend our time.

We are all too busy with the perishable, which amazingly enough causes us to ignore the imperishable: the next generation.

If you have been a reader here for long, you know my pet peeves concerning how we spend our time. But for those who have not, I will outline them briefly (I hope).

Work/Jobs—I believe that Christians must find a way to speak to the devastating work and job choices we have created in our modern society. The same conservative Christians who wrap themselves in the American flag, talk about the Founding Fathers, and go on and on about how America once was are the same folks who seem to endorse the postindustrial work world of America 2010 that is at complete odds with American work life circa 1776 (when BOTH parents worked from home).  While the stay-at-home mom is lauded, we want dad to be 30 miles away slaving in a cubicle for 12 hours a day, driving an hour through gridlocked traffic, slamming down a cold meal, spending “quality time” with the kids, and then romancing his wife the way she wants and all the Focus on the Family literature says he must. Somehow, we think that is normal—and possible!

Or we once did. Economic realities in 2010 have put dad out of work, or in a sub-optimal-for-his-training job at a sub-optimal income, which means mom now must work. The irony is that she may be better paid, which torches all the Christian literature about dad being the breadwinner.

Ten years ago, most of the households of people I knew were single income. Today, none are. And many of those households were adamant about dad working and mom staying home.

Some Christian leaders, those with a national pulpit, have got to start discussing alternatives to the way we Christians work. The work world of today is broken, and it not only breaks parents, but it breaks their families. For too long we have made the self-made man and his self-made wife and self-made kids the poster faces of the Christian family, with the accompanying McMansion, private Christian schools, and Christian cruises in the Caribbean. Perhaps we should be thinking more downscale.

When we talk about parents educating their children, we’re not really talking about parents; we’re talking about moms. And it’s been that way for a long time, and still is, even with moms working.

Why is it not possible to rethink the way we Christians work so that BOTH mom and dad are home? We hold men up as breadwinners, but the way our society functions, that breadwinner role more often than not completely removes fathers from educating their children. Boys, especially, suffer for not having their fathers around, particularly as spiritual examples.

One of the major reasons youth ministry is failing goes beyond spoken words. Yes, preach the Gospel to kids and their parents. But more than anything else, our culture, which has heard enough words about Jesus from myriad sources, needs to SEE the Gospel message PRACTICED. Nothing is more true than this for kids. Their hypocrisy radar is always cranked to 11. When they go to church on Sunday yet fail to see their parents actively practicing the faith—and I’m not just talking about reading the Bible and praying, but feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and so on—then they will note the disconnect. The first chance they get to bolt, they will.

This happens because families cannot have the world’s mammon and the Lord. Dad’s 60-hour work week and Blackberry slavery when not at work leaves no time for genuine practice of the faith. With this increasingly the case for mom as well, how can any kid not see the disconnect between what we say and how we live?

Dealing with the outrageous inflation of college costs will also force Christians in the near future to discover better ways to prepare their children for work. Yet where are the Christian voices proposing a rethinking of apprenticeships and Christian alternatives to college as work prep?

Christians MUST find alternatives to the contemporary work world. If that means moving downscale, exploring alternative community living, or going back to an agrarian lifestyle—whatever—we need to get our brightest and best together to deal with this most pressing of problems.

Because most adults today spend the majority of  their week at their jobs. If Christianity cannot speak to this, then we are ignoring the most time-consuming portion of people’s lives. And our failure to speak and act on this has brought enough damage already.

Organized Childhood—The other form of slavery Christians endure is organized child events. The worst offender here is sports.

When I was a child, we played kick the can in the street. Our backyards became small softball fields. As most yards were unfenced, we’d string a few together to play touch football. In the summertime came the neighborhood chess tournaments, with kids lined up to play on our front porch. Later, we got into wargames and D&D. We found a way to fill our own leisure time.

Today, most children are shuttled constantly between organized activities. Kids can’t throw together an impromptu game of whiffle ball because all of them are now on Select sports teams. And pity the poor loner who isn’t! Those organized leagues have two-hour practices several times a week, with a couple games at ludicrous times spread out over a 100-mile radius, running parents and kids ragged.

The number one excuse I hear from folks with children as to why they can’t make a church event or just get together to hang out as the Body of Christ is their kids’ organized sports.

When you truly get down to why this devotion to sports exists, it’s hard not to shake the truth that many parents harbor the hope that Johnny or Janie will be the next Drew Brees or Mia Hamm. Sports has become the ticket to an elite college, and for too many parents, that college education trumps everything. Fact is, among parents identified as Evangelical Christians, the majority claim that getting into an elite college is a higher priority for their children than knowing Jesus, according to a George Barna poll from a few years back. Get a sports scholarship, get drafted, and make a mint.

It’s a false dream, though, as noted by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. A kid’s month of birth may have more to do with his success than any talent he may have. Not to mention the minuscule pool of pro athletes today.

And for those who say that all this builds character, well, there isn’t much character in sports today, especially with everything being about money. I’ve seen coaches of 6-year-olds screaming at them for a simple mistake on the field. My own kid suffered at the hands of a coach who made winning everything, even if it meant calling on his handful of superstars to crush the same hapless (read: played even the less talented kids) opponents week after week.

If our kids are spending ten hours or more a week on a playing field somewhere, when are they getting time to hear about Jesus? And what message does all our organized child activities speak about the priority we make Jesus in the lives of our kids? A couple hours a week about Jesus versus a couple hours a day practicing piano is the wrong proportion. Should we then be surprised when our kids are a mile wide in soccer skills and an inch deep spiritually?

Community—We talk and talk and talk about community in the American Christian Church. But when we look at genuine practice, we’re pretty much strangers to each other. The early Church met in each other’s homes every single day, and in the temple for worship. That was normal. In contrast, our normal is their “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”

We have made the busyness caused by work and organized child activities the main enemy of Christian community.

Kids see this. Again, the hypocrisy of what we say compared with our practice speaks (and teaches) louder than our words.

Kids who are NOT regularly surrounded by a multigenerational group of nonfamily members grow up seeing other people as competitors for an increasingly smaller portion of the pie. Our lack of genuine community breeds distance, which abets social Darwinism and the kill or be killed mentality we foster in our business practices. If we need examples, look no further than the highly educated kids from elite colleges who knew they were selling air through mortgage-backed derivatives that precipitated the collapse of our economy. All the postmortems paint those folks as knowing exactly what they were doing to other people, but the opportunity to make a killing at the devastating expense of others proved too great. All ethics, if any existed previously, were dumped in the trashcan.

Technology also hurts community. I watched my teenage niece repeatedly text a friend of hers. Amazingly, the friend lived a couple houses up the street. When I asked why she didn’t walk a few feet to talk with her friend, I got a bunch of responses that I couldn’t understand. Studies even show that today’s teens have greatly reduced vocabularies and an inability to read body language thanks to their dependence on cell phones and the Internet. In addition, social groups depend on these devices, as one parent I know who was strongly against cell phones caved to the pressure when his once-popular 11-year-old son got left out of his peer group because the boy didn’t have one.

Adults fall prey to this too. Most of the Christian small groups I’ve been a a part of don’t meet anymore, or they meet with increasing irregularity. The voices are strong on Facebook, but we just don’t see each other much.

Our busyness, technophilia, and pursuit of mammon have killed our community, hurt our families, and left our children with a distorted view of other people. We have gone so low as to substitute face-to-face gatherings with a fired-off, dozen-word update on Facebook. I believe wholeheartedly that we are in a time when our distance is only breeding contempt, as it seems that fewer and fewer people genuinely like each other, with more and more finding nitpicky, Seinfeld-esque reasons to avoid other people entirely.

These are enormous issues that better minds than this writer MUST address. Yet I hear almost no one in the Christian community with a national voice speaking to them. Instead, those leaders often extol these deficiencies. What these lacks do to our kids, though, can’t be ignored.


I believe that the seven points above, when properly addressed within the American Christian Church, can stem the tide of teens leaving our churches. Empty pewThe generation now coming up is one of the least churched in American history because our youth ministry models failed it.

We have got to change! But those changes will need to be drastic, which is why I am not confident that those churches that claim to adhere to Christian doctrinal truth can pull off the fixes. We’re too obsessed with the failures of the culture around us and not ruthless enough in fixing our own deficiencies.

But if we don’t, our lampstand will be taken away—if it hasn’t been already.

Previous posts in this series:

The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 2


In the first part of this limited series examining why the modern youth ministry model fails to reach and hold young people, we looked at the basis for youth ministry and why its founding principle no longer applies. What began as a response to rural youth in mid-19th century England leaving family farms to work in urban factories now attempts to reach suburban youth who don’t need to work to survive and who continue to live with mom and dad. The increasing lack of success in reaching kids in this much different world demands a better response.

In this post, I’ll further examine the issues facing youth and our attempts to minister to them, especially given the model we continue to endorse.

The Agrarian/Industrial Issue

The social upheaval that led to the establishment of youth ministry came due to a need to secure the spiritual futures of young people leaving the family farm for the factories. Urban centers in the 19th century swelled with this influx of young men, who rapidly fell prey to the temptations of the city. They worked long hours in punishing conditions, and when they finally crawled out from under the industrial millstone, their thoughts weren’t on heaven. The term juvenile delinquent entered our language.

Today, the issue is not 17-year-old boys working 14-hour shifts in a primitive steel mill a hundred miles from mom and dad’s house. Nor is it those same boys farming their parents’ land. In essence, we’ve swept away both industry and the farm for our kids.

At one point in history, our children made the difference between life and death. Kids worked their parents’ farms and made them successful. Having children, and the more the better, ensured that a family could prosper.

But with a move from agrarianism to industrialization, the child as an important cog in the family machine waned. The death blow came from an unlikely source. With the farm replaced by the factory, our entire social model shifted. With any shift comes the inevitable shaking out, and Christians, who once saw the factory as the engine to spread a Christian empire across the globe, soon saw that the factories ground young people to dust. Then came the protests and discussions, and reforms put the child laborer out of work.

The factory killed the farm. And child labor laws killed the factory for our youth.

With no farm and no factory, what good was the young person? What did he contribute to the family’s survival?

And so we created a vacuum of purpose. Why have a large family? In fact, why have children at all, as they only take and their dividends remain small?

By the 1920s, this disconnect had grown wider and more threatening. With outside schooling mandatory, the job of the young person was to make something of himself, not to make something of his family. Society pushed a sense of purpose into the future, skirting the present. The teen was left with nothing else to do but go to school and hope that one day, some day, he might be someone useful.

At the same time that a lack of purpose seeped into the lives of young people, parents suffered. Without Johnny on hand, the farm could not survive. Lineage broke down, as kids no longer wanted the heritage of the land, which instead became a burden. Without support from their kids, adults saw their farms fail. Entire families ended up in the mills—until reforms kicked the kids out. And parents struggled to maintain a family in which children made no contribution.

The agrarian model shattered, parents could not maintain traditional learning venues for their children. This signaled the ascendancy of public education, which took the job of parenting and schooling out of the hands of parents and into those of the state.

The Parent Issue

This quote from a USA Today article about the loss of teens in churches points the usual finger:

“I blame the parents,” who didn’t grow up in a church culture, says Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan.

Frankly, for that specific reason, I blame the parents for very little. You can’t pass on what you don’t own, and the cultural, social, and spiritual inheritance parents receive grows slighter each year.

Take the spiritual, for instance. The last great revival in the United States, Azusa Street, happened 100 years ago. That’s a considerable chunk of time. No one living today is in a position to remember that revival and transmit it. We’re at least two generations removed. The First and Second Great Awakenings fueled America for 100 years and culminated in Azusa. At least it appears they culminated there, as dry as it has been since.

The cultural and social suffer too. Global communication and transportation make it easy to get from here to there and understand what there’s culture is like, but with the onslaught of information comes a diminishing by overload of what our own culture and society mean. Parents, unable to keep abreast of the latest new thing, instead shut down, their psyches shielding them from too much “much.”

The media is to blame for some of this. My post “Fumbling the Torch” discusses how media robbed prior generations of the skills essential to maintaining the bedrock assumptions of our society, especially those that focus on Jesus.

Now add the usurping of a child’s education by the state. In that aftermath, which parents out there have the requisite skills to actually teach their children anything? Despite howls of protest from homeschoolers, the fact remains that most parents are poorly equipped to teach. Pick a random parent off the street and ask them to explain the rules of the boardgame Monopoly to the point the game could actually be played correctly. I can promise you this: It wouldn’t be pretty.

And yet we somehow expect parents to be perfect founts of knowledge when it comes to training their children in the finer points of theology or cosmology.

But unless we address with radical solutions the ways our entire society and culture function, blaming parents is a ridiculous notion most often expressed by folks who think they got it all from their parents and are now transmitting it all perfectly to the next generation despite the great, ongoing mind-wipe.

The Awareness Issue

All that said, the generations have progressed in some ways compared with their predecessors, though some would argue the merits.

One obvious upgrade: Kids today are far more aware of cultural and societal deficiencies.

When I was a boy, if I passed an unkempt, immobile man on a sidewalk with a bottle in a bag next him, I would think he just decided to take a nap.

Today, if my son passed the same man, he would think that man might be drunk, homeless, and probably in need of assistance.

This generation today, which is far more aware of breakdowns in our rhetoric about societal excellence, is less likely to be satisfied by simple answers. If I had inquired of my parents about the man on the sidewalk, a “he’s just sleeping” would suffice for an answer. My son would not tolerate that same reply.

The great downgrade of the Church since the 19th century is that we once owned the answers to questions of life and societal deficiencies, but they have since escaped us. The postmillennial fervor that promised that the Church of the Victorian Age could usher in a transformed world led to the founding of thousands of parachurch organzations to meet the perceived need. Sadly, as time rolled on, those organizations lost their rooting in Christ. The social gospel eclipsed the Gospel as Christ.

Don’t believe me about this downgrade? Reread my first post in this series and remember the organization that spurred the growth of youth ministry, the YMCA. Does anyone look to the Y for spiritual guidance today? Anyone attend a YMCA-sponsored Bible study?

But the most damaging aspect of that downgrade is that now those secularized organizations that had their founding in the Church compete against the Church for the hearts and attention of others.

Our more aware children no longer need to look to the Church for answers to the drunk, homeless man. Thousands of aid groups offer them an alternative, many of those groups once inextricably linked to the Church, but now with no more than a secular initiative to guide them.

The Technology Issue

Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it excises the inefficiencies of life. But on the other, it carries the blade that slices apart.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that any technology that worms its way into interpersonal relationships damages as much or more than it helps. We can see the roots of this in the destruction of the agrarian lifestyle by the industrial revolution. Families were torn apart, land inheritance lost, and lineage damaged.

Today, we communicate with each other through machines and the Internet. We hide ourselves behind a curtain of technology that gives the illusion of community but offers nothing of the face-to-face interaction that drove our civilization for millennia. Child on a cell phoneIf our only connection is a text message such as “c u l8r,” what hope do we have for solving real problems that afflict our society?

Studies show that our children, raised as they have been on tech, cannot read nonverbal communications from others. Other studies show a rapid loss of vocabulary in those kids who rely on text messages. And more studies show that we have come to prefer communication by devices to gathering in person to connect with one another.

All this poses a genuine threat not only to the Church, commanded as it is to gather together in shared worship of Christ, but to our society as a whole.

These four issues—and more exist—challenge the way we deal with our young people, especially within the Church.

In my next post, I hope to provide solutions. Stay tuned.

Other posts in this series:

Tragedy in Three Acts: A Revolution, a Theory, and a Theology That Devastated Western Christianity, Part 2


In Part 1 of this examination of three ideas/trends that rose to prominence in the 19th century, we looked at the industrial revolution, social Darwinism, and postmillennialism and how they fueled each other to wreak enormous societal change. Today, we look at their effects on Western Christianity and the Church’s response.

As the industrial revolution swept England,  society shook under the massive move from the countryside to the city, from the farm to the factory. The agricultural revolution that had been instrumental in bouying the fortunes of those families that had once labored under feudalism crumbled under the competition from factories, leading to a renew servitude. Cottage industry gave way to heavy industry. With young people fleeing farms for factories, many enchanted by the lure of “progress,” the small landowner system collapsed. Soon, entire families were working the mills under what quickly became inhuman conditions.

To the powerful, little of this made a difference. In fact, they had good reason to believe it was all for the best; their theology and science said so.

That theology was postmillenialism, which postulated that Christ would return to a world perfected by Christians through science, education, the arts, and high culture. The rise of postmillennialism went hand in hand with industrialization. They fed off each other. The poor, “godless” underclass was simply the labor in the machine of progress.

The science was social Darwinism, the idea that some prosper because they are inherently more fit to live than the underclass, an idea that arose out of On the Origin of Species. To the upper crust of England, this proved a most intriguing explanation for the distinction between the classes. In many ways, it was used to justify the factory system, especially by the ones who owned the factories. They were, as they saw it, the superior race. (Their workers, on the other hand…)

Caught in the middle of this perfect storm of industrialism, social Darwinism, and postmillenialism was the Church. And it was caught unprepared and without thoughtful leadership that questioned the rush to empire.

While a few Christian leaders showed some dismay over the societal upheaval, the most influential bowed to the spirit of the age. The allure of  heavy machinery and the efficiency of the mills and factories sucked in many Christian leaders. It was new and exciting. It was the triumph of the genius of man. The fervor of the factory powered the idea that no challenge was unmeetable, even one of Christianizing the world. With the locomotive and the steamship, no region lay unreachable.

Social Darwinism also affected the Church. The theory provided scientific evidence for the superiority of the aristocratic English lifestyle. The good, churchgoing person was among the fittest, while the savage in the jungle was not. The Church dealt with this by splitting into two halves, one that saw this disparity as surmountable through Christ, the other accepting it as a permanent state of God-ordained distinction between themselves and the rest of the world.

The half of the Church that rejected the perfectibility of the “inferior” classes/races began to see the Bible as less capable of  explaining the world than science.  The subsequent release of Darwin’s The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex only confirmed their suspicions. This led to the rise of liberalism and higher criticism of the Bible.

The result for the half of the Church who believed that Christ could raise the state of all men was the modern missionary movement, which was primarily conservative and  evangelical. Marrying postmillennial fervor with a mandate to perfect the rest of mankind, this movement sought to make the world’s unreached peoples as fine and fit as the missionaries who reached out to them. Christ in them was the goal, but, in keeping with postmillennialism and industrialization, so was enculturation.

(A perfect illustration of 19th century Evangelicalism’s synchronistic purpose for evangelizing the world can be found in an episode involving Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission. On returning from the mission field to report on his work, Taylor scandalized his Victorian-era  supporters when he appeared in native Chinese garb and confessed that it was a means to show himself to be one with those he served. To the mission supporters, it seemed that this example of prime English gentility was being enculturated by those he was sent to save rather than the other way around. This was the premise of social Darwinism, which the Western Church of all persuasions readily accepted, brazenly turned on its head.)

So what we have in the 19th century Western Church is an imprimatur regarding the spirit of the age, with full-fledged support for industrialism and postmillenialism, and a bifurcated response to social Darwinism that accepted the science fully, if not the inevitable outcome of its conclusions.

The result has been a litany of social tragedies that the contemporary Church has not been able to overcome:

Families split to pursue industrialized jobs. Long-standing communities were subsequently decimated, resulting in weaker local social ties. Social Darwinism spurred the idea that it was every family for itself, further weakening interpersonal connection while strengthening the need for each family to be self-sufficient, which led to duplication of effort, the need for multiple sources of income to pay for that duplication, and what would eventually become consumerism. The communities, particularly the church community, that had been charged with the care of people on a local level was forced by this increasing pressure to abandoned that care. The state, caught off-guard by this abandonment and the need to be socially aware given the times, rushed in to fill the void. (Which is why complaints by modern Christians about state intrusion into “hallowed” institutions rings so hollow, as it was the Western Church that abandoned its role.)

In that same way, children abandoned the care of their elderly parents to others, leading to a growing reliance on state-run welfare systems, and a further fracturing of the family bond.

Children who moved to factory work no longer took over family lands, which led to inheritances issues (and a dependency on the state to sort them out), the rise of industrialized farming, and a weakening of the genetic diversity of harvested food sources, which threatens modern food supplies. (In a similar creation care vein, industrialization led to environmental pollution.)

As parents were forced into industrialized work, they no longer worked from home in cottage industry. This placed additional burdens on raising children, which fed the public school system. The home lost its place as the source of income, work, and education, transferred instead to factory and state. Cottage industry, which had led to improved incomes for a wide range of demographic groups and better living conditions in general, was wiped out indiscriminately, leading to a degradation of lifestyle and overall health for those affected.

Children lost their role as an essential part of a family’s survival, a pivotal place in what had been an agricultural society. Industrialism at first enslaved even the young, but brutal factory conditions led to laws that took children out of the factories and rendered them a burden on their families rather than a necessity for survival. For this reason, the birth rate dropped in industrialized nations. (Which also explains today’s increasing Islamicization of Europe.) It also contributed to juvenile delinquency, which Christians countered with youth ministry (which, with 80+ percent of Christian youth abandoning the faith by their final year of college, has proven to be a dismal failure).

The influence of social Darwinism and industrialism altered the way businesses operate and how people work, mostly for the worse. Social Darwinism fed into capitalism and created a dog-eat-dog corporate world that chews up those who work within it, reducing people made in God’s image to “human resources” and increasing ethical failures by business leaders who live by the motto Only the strong survive.

With the above factors in place, human life cheapened, as people became cogs in the machine of progress. The eugenics movement grew, often supported by Christians who saw it as a way to prevent the suffering of the deprived underclass. As social Darwinism became the prevailing wisdom, blockades to political embodiments of the ideology fell. (For this reason, the rise of Hitler and the “Final Solution” met little opposition from liberal, and even conservative, Christians in Germany.) Abortion as a state-mandated right was inevitable, as will be euthanasia.

The Church let social Darwinism into its “house” rather than keeping it outside where it could be more easily addressed. This led to a splitting into liberal and conservative factions that have warred ever since. The conservative branch, caught up in postmillennialism and the spirit of the age, married Christ with that other spirit and exported both to the world. This created the “Ugly Missionary,” who went beyond simply preaching the Gospel to preaching the Gospel and 4:00 tea time. Sadly, some cultures more readily adopted the imported culture and ignored Christ. (Japan comes to mind.) By embracing the missionary’s culture rather than accepting his Lord, those nations became innoculated against the primary message, undermining the growth of the Church.

This splitting created the liberal branch of Christianity that cherished its position as the upper class within social Darwinism. This branch, enamored as it was of Darwinian theories, began a systemic dismantling of its own past theology, resulting in higher criticism of the Bible and increasing concessions to science over Scripture.

Because of this split, the contemporary Church finds itself on opposite sides of the culture wars, confusing the lost and damaging its ability to be a beacon of light in a dark world.

In fact, it is hard to find a  modern dilemma, social ill, or ethical issue that does not owe some of its presence/difficulty in modern society to the tragic alignment of the industrial revolution, social Darwinism, and postmillennialism. Exponential increases in latchkey children, teen pregnancy, divorce, depression, interpersonal distance, consumerism, and others have derailed the Church, as it has gone off message by fighting the culture wars that resulted from this alignment.

This is not to say that these issues never existed previously. Sin is sin and there is nothing new under the sun. But the combination of events detailed here drastically rewrote the way we live and think as a modern society. They contributed to a Pandora’s box of issues that have plunged us into more grief than we might have experienced if the Church had viewed industrialism, social Darwinism, and postmillennialism with more discernment.

In short, we have done this to ourselves. We Christians fight vigorously for the preservation of the family today because we preferred industrialization back then. 1984--or is that 1884?Our ancestors may have seen that it was okay for some families to rot in factories, but now most of us are under the thumb of industrialization and the sterility of the modern business world. Our families are the ones that are torn apart as dad works a job downtown, mom works ten miles away, and the kids are spread out among various public schools. All rush together for brief , unfulfilling interaction in island-like homes that keep the rest of the world out. Meaning is lost. Community lies shattered. Psychoactive drugs are bestsellers. Yet our churches continue to lobby for this lifestyle, the unholy result of what we thought was liberation through industrialism and empire.

Today, there are few Christians who excuse the Crusades. We all realize they were a mistake. However, we have been loathe to acknowledge the mistakes of the 19th century Church that birthed the mess we find ourselves in. That Church jumped on the empire bandwagon and failed to ask hard questions that may have tempered the enthusiasm and give us a more healthy modern world.

How can we as a contemporary Church deal with what our 19th century ancestors in the faith wrought?

We Christians need to “swallow the red pill” and spur on our best thinkers and leaders to begin to address the fallout from the tragic synchrony of the industrial revolution, social Darwinism, and postmillennialism. Too few Christians understand this history and the Church’s role in enabling the mess. Fixes will only come when we awake from our stupor.

We must acknowledge our failure to respond properly. In large part, we Christians are responsible for many of the problems we face today because we did not react with discernment back then. This is a humbling truth and we must face it humbly and with contrition. Sadly, too many want to excuse us from culpability, but it is impossible to view history and not see the Church of that day leading the gung-ho charge. Yes, these three may have seemed from a fleshly perspective to be worthy of support back then, but then again, Christians long ago felt the same way about the Crusades.

We must realize that the Church cannot let the spirit of the age determine our theology. Our theology must stand apart from the age and work in judgment of it. Failure to do this changes the Church rather than the other way around.

We need to revisit life before the arrival of industrialism, Darwinism, and postmillennialism and learn from that history. Few in the West have a good understanding of the many benefits of the agricultural revolution, cottage industry, and the lifestyle benefits enjoyed by people of that age. We need to examine what worked then and how those ideas might help us reverse some of the damages we experienced from their loss. Ironically, many pro-family, pro-America, Christian organizations idolize that pre-industrial era that graced America at its founding, yet they fail to understand that industrialism, which they also embrace, was what contributed to its demise.

We must find a better way to frame industrialism and Darwinian theory. While evolution is a whipping boy among conservative Christians, succumbing to a kill-or-be-killed mentality of natural selection informs much of how we live. Our worldview, therefore, is not as inherently Christian as we may believe. As George Barna noted in his polls of Christians, more parents are concerned that Junior grabs an exclusive spot at an Ivy League School than for his knowledge of Christ. There is merit in acknowledging our tendency toward that belief as natural men while understanding that Christ offers something better. In the same way, it’s foolish to abandon industrialism altogether—imagine trying to build commercial airliners otherwise—but we must see its limitations and prevent it from running roughshod over viable alternatives.

The confluence of the industrial revolution, social Darwinism, and postmillennialism shattered our society in myriad ways, making us poorer in key areas that are of great interest to Christians. Sadly, we are so used to our condition that we have failed to question the foundations of modern society. So we fight culture wars we helped create because we built a world that rested on faulty premises.

If we Christians in the West don’t like the world we see around us, we need to look no further than the mirror for part of the cause.