As you’re undoubtedly aware by now, there’s a growing chorus of believers concerned about the so-called “dumbing down” of Christianity and the “falling away” of some prominent evangelical icons. It should be noted — particularly for the sake of blunt honesty — that by “some icons” we’re really only talking about two specific people: Joshua Harris, author of the renowned “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and Hillsong singer-songwriter, worship leader and musician Marty Sampson. Both men released public statements to their followers essentially stating that they had become disenchanted with Christianity and were leaving the faith. The secular news media and Internet trolls have done their usual bang-up job at making the whole thing sound far more broad sweeping than it actually is. Contrary to popular belief, there is no epidemic of hoards of Christian leaders committing apostasy throughout America within the last week. And, to be fair, Sampson did subsequently walk back his statement and position, saying that “he hasn’t renounced the faith.”
That being said, I do think it’s important to address what is happening with these popular Christian figures and to touch on a disturbingly common trend among the church culture of elevating young leaders simply because they look cool, sing well, or speak eloquently. Let’s tackle the latter first.
You might be surprised to know — or you might not — that the Apostle Paul warned against this in chapter five of his first letter to Timothy: “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader. Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” (1 Timothy 5:22, NLT) Some translations use the expression “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (NAS) and indeed the original Greek refers to “the laying on of hands.” While this phraseology might be citing the early custom of laying hands on a penitent sinner, it’s also possible — and more likely — that it is referring to laying hands on a man in order to ordain him to a position or install him in an office of the Church.
It should go without saying, but apparently it must be said, that there is an inherent danger in promoting or advancing a leader before he’s qualified. You wouldn’t put a 21-year-old White House intern in charge of the nuclear launch codes. That’s a really good way to accidentally blow Greenland to smithereens. You wouldn’t replace the CEO of McDonald’s with the lady who just got hired yesterday as a cashier. That’s a really good way to destroy an entire fast-food corporation. By the same token, you shouldn’t expect a young or inexperienced man to be able to tend to the souls of the bride of Christ or to be a shining example of the faith. That’s a really good way to lead an entire church flock right over a cliff to meet their death on the rocks below. Paul’s admonition to Timothy is to avoid making the mistake of promoting or designating a leader unless that man has proven himself to be mature, proficient, and equipped. I don’t know for certain that this is what happened in the case of Harris or Sampson, but it’s certainly possible and therefore worth mentioning.
Before I start getting hate-mail, allow me to clarify that this is in no way a jab at “young” pastors or worship leaders. Some of my best friends became pastors in their late 20’s and early 30’s. My own father was licensed to preach at 20, but spent many years accumulating experience and gleaning insight, advice, and wisdom from godly men before serving in a full-time pastoral capacity.
As for this notion of “falling away from” or “out of” the faith, this is all terribly worded and often misconstrued. If Harris and Sampson are truly saved, then they are not “unsaved” simply because they suddenly find themselves struggling with doubts or questions. The very nature of God’s grace and forgiveness supports this. Of course, in the case of someone like Harris, who publicly renounced Christianity, openly declared that he is no longer a believer, separated from his wife, and apologized to the LGBTQ community, you could certainly make a theological argument that he’s intentionally rejected the Holy Spirit. Sampson, on the other hand, still seems to be hanging in there, albeit on “shaky ground” by his own admission.
But, rather than get bogged down in the theology of it all, I’ll close by mentioning what I think happened with these two guys, and has indeed happened with many in my generation in particular: Their faith was or became more about emotion than truth. One of the biggest problems we face in the modern church culture — and American society in general — is an environment where feelings reign supreme. In the church, this has sadly taken the form of Christians who love to worship and listen to sermons, but fail to realize that the essence of genuine worship and the pulse of sound teaching is reflected by a humble obedience to an almighty and infinite God and an unwavering belief in solid doctrine. Faith isn’t just a momentary emotional or spiritual high. It’s a daily lifestyle that values the truth of the Word over our emotional, and often childish, whims, wants, and desires. The truth of what we believe doesn’t change just because our feelings about it change. Unfortunately, Harris and Sampson seem to have indulged in their emotions and chosen their feelings over their faith. This is truly a travesty.
To any Joshes or Martys who may be reading this: I empathize with your struggles, the disillusionment, the disenchantment, the exhaustion that stems from trying to reconcile the Christian faith with the current modern American culture. I write about it all the time. I know it can be discouraging and disheartening. Even as a pastor’s son, I’ve wrestled with comprehending the nature of God in the wake of the moral decay happening around us. I’ve questioned, I’ve doubted, I’ve studied. And while I certainly can’t identify with the pressures faced by so-called “evangelical celebrities,” I can offer this encouragement to fellow believers: Hang in there. Tough it out. Endure. Don’t give up. Yes, there are some things about our faith, and about this life, that we will never understand until we enter Eternity, but the promise of Jesus is worth so much more. And I don’t know about you, but…
“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold. I’d rather be His, than have riches untold.
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or land. I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand.
Than to be the king of a vast domain and beheld in sin’s dread sway.
I’d rather have Jesus than anything this world affords today.”
Thousands of followers and zero friends.
That’s the Millennial Generation in a nutshell these days, at least according to a new survey by YouGov, which found that about 30 percent of the 22 to 37-year-old demographic “always or often” feels lonely. This means that, in comparison to the Boomers and Gen Xers, Millennials are now the loneliest and, ironically, most social media savvy generation in the country. In other words, we’re pros at making “friends” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, but when it comes to real life, well, not so much. The poll also evaluated responses from 1,254 adults ages 18 and older and found that 27 percent of Millennials have no close friends, 25 percent have no “acquaintances,” and 22 percent have no friends at all. Only about nine percent of the Boomers and 15 percent of Gen Xers reported having zero pals. As you can see from the numbers, we’re not exactly doing a bang-up job at the whole companionship thing.
Much can and has been said of Millennials over the last several years. I’ve personally written an array of columns about my generation’s tendency toward laziness, our affinity for choosing poor political candidates, and for making even poorer life decisions. (Skinny jeans and avocado toast not withstanding.) But rarely does anyone ever stop to ask what factors might be contributing to our problems. Rarely does anyone take the time to analyze why we do what we do. Our culture simply acts as if the modern day Millennial is some kind of mysterious extraterrestrial who crash landed in central California and emerged from a dented rocket ship sporting a man bun and clutching a participation trophy for his first successful spaceflight. Or maybe he’s more like the Rodents of Unusual Size in William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride,” lethargic, smelly, unkempt, yet always poised to viciously attack anyone who might dare enter his domain with a worldview that contradicts his own. Our society studies these bizarre creatures and airs documentaries on them, but only observes from a safe distance.
Of course, the truth is that Millennials are neither space aliens or giant swamp rats. They are human beings possessing the same spectrum of complex emotions as everyone else and are therefore subject to a whole variety of feelings and psychological tendencies. Among those is the capacity for loneliness.
But why do we feel this way? Who or what is to blame for our loneliness? While the culprits may differ in a few select and specific situations, I don’t think we can continue to blame technology and an addiction to social media platforms. That’s a massive oversimplification of an inherently complex problem. We honestly can’t even blame employment, environment, transportation, or finances. I’m an epileptic Millennial with a driving handicap, living at home, dependent upon my parents and friends for transportation, working part-time for my dad’s nonprofit organization and a local lifestyle magazine, while occasionally cutting grass on the side, and I still manage to find time for social interaction, dating, and the like. Enough with the excuses.
The real reason most Millennials “feel” lonely, and report a lack of friendship, is because they actively and intentionally choose to isolate themselves and avoid meaningful connections with other people. Something within their emotional and psychological makeup decides that they would rather get by in life without developing deeper relationships. Sure, they might spend eight to ten hours a day with their coworkers at Burger King or at the office, but when they clock out and go home to an empty apartment or to mom and dad’s house, they still feel overwhelmed by a sense of emptiness. Some of them might even go to church once or twice a week, but never take the time to form a substantial bond with another human being or have coffee with a few peers. They live lives of utter seclusion, totally cut off from the rest of the world, all while wondering why they feel so alone. This is not healthy.
Whether they’re glued to Facebook or textbooks is irrelevant, so let’s stop having the social media debate. We all know young people are typically active online and, more often than not, are glued to their smartphones or laptops. But even married Millennials often report feelings of loneliness due in large part to spending their days consumed by their jobs and only ever seeing their coworkers and spouses. These couples spend little time with family, friends, other couples, or a local church which, again, are all intentional choices. And at the end of the day, isolation is isolation.
I’m making sweeping statements here, but they’re accurate statements nonetheless. Many Millennials have fallen victim to a dangerous mindset that independency and the coveted solo-life are so desirable that, in doing so, they’ve completely ignored the truth that mankind was not meant to try to survive life alone. The numbers simply don’t lie. And I think it’s important to address this detrimental behavior and to issue a couple of reminders to my generation:
1) Don’t get ahead of yourself in life or become discouraged because you haven’t obtained certain social accomplishments like a career, an apartment, a house, a marriage, or whatever. Your peers and your Facebook friends might have those things, but it doesn’t mean that you need them yet.
2) If we’re ever going to break the cycle of Millennial loneliness, and negate all of these new statistics, it will mean getting out of your isolation bubble and making some friends beyond coworkers, classmates, or even your spouse.
These are basic fundamentals, guys. And I really don’t think it’s asking too much. Good luck and Godspeed.