Growing Up Christian in Secular America

Christians have yet to fully assess the pressures of growing up in a pluralistic society. We are not sure what do with the feelings we have. The doubts that fill our hearts seem unsettling at best and horrific and unspeakable at worst. For many young Christians, an open ear does not exist, and the church has been of little help. Young people are not sure what to do or where to go. This has left me wondering: have we unknowingly aided our youth in their secularizing flight from God? If so, what can we do?

As I look back on my experience and see how so many of my friends have left the Christian faith or become complacent, I, like many others, have desperately sought to find answers to what we experienced and what we see around us. The unanswered questions and feelings in a teens head and heart are, at the time, seemingly unbearable. Besides all the changes of entering into adulthood, growing up in secular America makes it even more difficult for Christians.

The Pressure of Pluralism

The pressure of living in a secular world is very subtle, even subconscious. The very fact that our classmates, neighbors, and friends don't believe what we do, or have the same lifestyle we have, makes a huge difference in how Christian kids growing up in secular America perceive reality. The very fact that our culture has built its empire on the idea that we can live life without a commitment to some vision of ultimate reality creates a tension within us. The idea that there might be some other true answer out there can, and does, cause many who grow up in the church to leave the faith.

I was just talking to an older woman in her seventies who still struggle with this tension created by pluralism. How can we really know the Bible is true when there are so many other people claiming to be right? How can we say that God blesses us and our lives when our non-Christian neighbors look happy and healthy? How can we say that we are better than those people out there who only want to be loved? I mean, isn't that just human? "I am human and I want to be loved, just like everybody else..." to quote the rock band The Smiths. If God wants us to be happy and healthy, whos to say that there is only one prescribed method for pleasing God? If God exists...

These tensions and questions are all given a voice in music, in schools, and in movies but rarely within the church. When I was growing up, they were either squelched with authoritarianism or sentimentalized. Adults at the time (and even now) often reacted in these two ways: either our feelings were dismissed as the result of not having enough faith or they were ignored by giving us too much bad pizza and CCM. The bad theological answers that we often heard (and hear) sounded like prosperity gospel-lite. If you live in this manner, God will not bless you. If you don't take his word on blind faith, God will not give you your heart's desires.

Could it be that we were accidentally given a small vision of what it means to be human and a miserly vision of God? The middle-class love for the American dream seemed a lot like serving mammon, while at the same time denying decency to people struggling with their identity, sexuality, and sense of purpose. How are we to make sense of this?

Believing While Doubting

James K. A. Smith in his book How Not to Be Secular (Eerdmans, May 2014) talks about the experience many young people go through and how it affects faith. The conditions concerning what is plausible to believe have shifted dramatically in the secular West. The social and moral conditions that made the faith plausible for so many generations have slowly eroded. Through their influence in institutions, mass media, music, schooling, and the legal system, the secular elite have created a new way for people to live in this world. It is the water we all now swim in. This ecosystem is radically different from what my grandparents and even parents grew up in.

What is believable is different. What is conceivable about what is good, just, true, and beautiful is different. "Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don't believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We're all [Doubting] Thomas now," Smith writes (Smith, 4). The very way we have faith has been challenged, because the social conditions of church, life, and family have been radically altered.

Yearning for Something More

Growing up in such a world, we are left desensitized and yet also yearning for something more. In a real way, our youth have grown tired of the cliche theologizing, the cheap grace, and the lack of love. This tension has created a people searching for transcendence — people looking for love and life. And that is not such a bad thing. The expressive individualism of our culture leaves us alone because it is alone. The fear of boredom becomes the fear of life itself.

Although the secular elite would want us to believe that the search for God and meaning is over — that we make our own meaning — cracks have appeared in unforeseen places. The world is still haunted by God's presence even while our world seeks to give us meaning without the hope of real salvation or forgiveness. Everyone lives in what Smith calls the cross-pressures of our pluralistic society. The ancient traditions of Christianity in the West haunt the minds of those who feel abandoned in the world. Our age has merely created new distractions that hide our desperate search for God!

Digging Deeper for Answers

So what are we to do in such a world as ours? Well, in many ways we need to dig deeper than ever before into the truth and realize there are good, plausible answers to what we feel and think and see around us. No one lives in the fundamentalist camps of either extreme atheism or religion anymore. Most people occupy the space in between those extremes and are constantly haunted by the other position: Am I missing out on something? Maybe, God is denying me the life of happiness I should have. Or, maybe this life of pure pleasure seeking is empty and hollow. Is there anyone out there? Is there anyone who can hear my pain and emptiness and actually do something about it?

This space is where the church should have been and needs to be. What most people need is someone just to be there with them and recognize the pain of life and existence itself, that getting up each day and putting on clothes can be a desperate act of faith in such a world as ours. The church needs to be a safe place where we can question things, look and dig for answers with each other. We need to be the Christians who give plausibility to the faith once for all delivered to the saints by having sacrificial lives of love and forgiveness. In such a community, let's delve deeply into God's Word and seek out the best answers we can have. Let's enter together into the mysteries of God which alone give life and light to all we say, do, suffer, feel, and experience.

Having Questions is Okay

It is okay to have questions. We all have questions. And yet, serious scholars have spent time studying the resurrection of Jesus, the reliability of Scripture, the problem of evil, the goodness of God and his character, the relationship of science to faith, etc. There are answers.

We need to have grace with each other, not only with those who doubt but with the Christians who have gone before us who did the best with what they had. Gods grace is greater than all our failures, doubt, and shame. His life alone provides what this world offers in its cheap imitations and tricks. So, let us all go to the source of life. Let's seek to know the triune God together!