Saturday, August 27, 2016

Is there a Brain Drain in the churches of Christ and is it being led by ministers?

I want to start this post by sharing a screen shot of Rich Little's FB status, as a way to introduce my thoughts:

(Facebook post from Rich Little) 

If you pause to consider it, ministers are called to think, a lot.  We think about sermons we are writing, future classes we are preparing, personal studies with others, how to address challenges within our congregations, what to do when counseling people, etc. So, basically we should spend much of our workweek in thought.  What happens though, when a movement or denomination discourages their ministers from thinking, or from expanding their thinking?

When I was a Bible major at Harding, F. Lagard Smith’s book “Who is my Brother?” was hot off the press. It was also a time when some within our brotherhood wrestled with questions over our identity. Particularly, are we “evangelicals,” and if not, what are we? I also remember during this period Flavil Yeakley warning our class, unless trends in attendance improved, the church of Christ could be nearly nonexistent by the year 2020.

Along this same time, over hushed cups of coffee shared in closed quarters, preaching students and Bible professors discreetly talked about our longings to be able to think freely, to rethink some of our methods of Biblical interpretation, and how to implement change in church settings while remaining faithful to our heritage. But dim clouds hovered over us, for our concerns were not merely of being ostracized, but of being dismissed and becoming unemployable.

At this same time, several established and trustworthy leaders voiced concerns in the classroom and in chapel over a potential division brewing on the horizon: Would the controversies over women’s roles cause a great schism in the churches of Christ as we entered the 21st century? Some predicted a fourth branch of the Restoration Movement was imminent.

Meanwhile, a slow but budding exodus populated by people who weren’t worried about those questions would gain momentum. As ministers and then a new generation of believers, believers who grew up going to VBS, Winterfest, Bible camp, and Lads to Leaders & LTC gradually disengaged from their congregations. Yet, no one seemed alarmed.

The tension that we face over losing some of our best and brightest minds isn’t unique to us alone. Searching articles in the Washington Post, the Huffington post, and other major news outlets will reveal many articles which highlight the slow attrition of ministers and the siphoning off of the Millennial generation from churches in general. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public life, and the Barna Group have both shared startling statistics detailing the loss of faith many young people experience as well. What I think is missing from the analysis of this trend is the disillusionment people feel when they can’t be transparent or vulnerable with the people they break bread with and when “questions” are discouraged.

Young people today aren’t looking for laser light shows, lattes, or laid-back worship services, and, our preachers aren’t interested in these “church fads” either. Attempts at being “cool” will not recruit Millennials to our pews. This generation of young people in their 20’s & 30’s seek significance from their faith and the freedom grow intellectually and experientially. If they can’t find this freedom from within our heritage, they are going to continue to look elsewhere for substance-- far from what they perceive as closed-minded or sectarian churches.

For too long, we asked question about how to keep certain people happy, how to not rock the boat, and how to make sure no one was ever offended. Are we facing consequences for worrying more about not disrupting the way things have always been done than over worrying about being led by God? Our younger generation doesn’t see the relevance of fighting old battles which were initially proposed by people long dead, and our ministers are suffering burnout over fighting for ideas they don’t personally embrace. But I do not think all is lost.

Even though the vast majority of my college classmates have abandoned full time ministry, and I’ve seen countless young people walk away from church, I’m hopeful for our future when I see the lineups at events like the Tulsa Soul Winning Workshop and at some of our Bible lectureships. As we invite in solid intellectuals who are deep thinkers, like N.T. Wright and Scot McKnight, and as we host events where passionate speakers like Francis Chan and Bob Goff can speak to our people, I see hope for our ability to integrate into their ideas into our theological framework.

A recently released movie, “Concussion,” is based on the true story of NFL players who suffered major brain damage from multiple head traumas they received playing football. The tension in the plot is over the fact NFL leaders knew about the dangers to the players, but they were afraid to reveal the truth. Could someone write a script for our circumstance, “Concession?” If we continue to discourage our preachers from stretching the comfort zone of the congregations they serve, if we do not find resolution for the stereotypical confrontations between elderships and their preachers, and if we do not find ways to help our young people transition into adulthood with their faith in tact, Flavil Yeakley’s prediction might come true for the church of Christ.

The above picture up top is a screenshot of Rich Little's Facebook post where he shared his exit from ministry.  I met Rich in the late '90s when the word on the street was he was being groomed to replace Dr. Burkes as the next president of Harding University; Rich was a student at Trinity and he was preaching at the Naperville church of Christ at that time.  After Rich defended his PhD., instead of returning to Harding as planned, the Naperville church brokered a deal with Harding to keep Rich on staff in Naperville, and then eventually Rich left Naperville and went to Malibu Ca.   I really don't know why he choose to leave vocational ministry, I would say though that his leaving ministry illustrates the struggle I'm describing well, that of thinking-intellectuals wrestling with finding a place in some of the churches of Christ.

Presently, I myself preach in a non-denominational church, New Song, and we are heavily influenced by the Restoration Movement.  I found salvation in a loving mainline church of Christ, actually the Naperville Church of Christ.  I have no ill-will towards the churches of Christ, and if the right fit were possible & if God someday led us in that direction, I would one day gladly preach in a church of Christ again.  I'm saddened that people with such great potential have these struggles, but I'm sure this isn't unique only to them.  I'm guessing many congregations of many stripes are suffering from this brain-drain too; I'm afraid these are simply the consequences and the fruition of sectarianism.

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