An opinion piece recently published by USA Today is titled by the plea of a teen girl who says, “Churches could win back teens like me if they were more welcoming and less judgmental.” You can read the piece written by 15-year-old Stacia Datskovska here.
Having served as a pastor to students and families before, the context for such a piece made some sense to me. Books like You Lost Me by David Kinnaman and Christian Smith’s Soul Searching offer real-life scenarios of students and young people who have walked away from the faith in one way or another. While this separation from their childhood faith ranges anywhere from outright rejection to a “spiritual, but not religious” approach, the conversations reveal a disillusionment and disappointment with the church for its inability (or unwillingness) to deal with life’s biggest questions in a real, substantial, and relevant way.
Kinnaman and Smith use these stories and conversations to reveal some very real weaknesses in the modern church in hopes that we might lay down our religious platitudes and cross-stitched Bible verses and pick up the true weightiness of what it is we claim to believe. Kinnaman and other family and youth ministry voices call youth pastors and the whole church to re-examine what we mean by “youth ministry,” and actually give young Christians the deep, ancient substance of what Christianity actually is.
“I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs… As we dig deeper into the historic faith to nurture younger generations, the entire Western church will be renewed.”You Lost Me, by David Kinnaman (Baker Publishing, 2011), p.202
Datskovska’s approach is… well… not that.
“And now for something completely different.”
The article is pretty brief, so I think the best way to sort through some of the thoughts here is to just take each paragraph as it comes, offer some feedback, and ask some serious questions.
Datskovska’s thesis is stated up front and guides the rest of the piece:
“Church should offer more open-ended resources such as meditation, discussion groups and even nature walks. Let teens come to God in their own way.”
I like meditation, discussion groups, and occasional paved, well-lit, and not so natural nature walks. Are they ways in which we can come to God? If we’re talking meditating on Scripture, a particular doctrine, or the sermon from last Sunday… Sure! Discussion groups that review a recent sermon, discuss the Scriptures together, or go through a helpful study together? Yes! Nature walks in which we take time to pray, meditate on Scripture, and worship God? Absolutely! But that is not the aim of the author’s claim. The real agenda here comes with that last sentence: “Let teens come to God in their own way.” Datskovska’s point? There are many, many ways in which people experience God and come to their own understanding of God… None of them should be rejected.
Datskovska tells the story of how her mom was pants-shamed when entering church one Easter Sunday. This, it seems, is the springboard off of which she dives into the true thesis of her argument: “If Christian churches weren’t so… Christian… and churchy… young people, like me, would return” (my paraphrase, of course).
Datskovska’s feelings of alienation in this anecdote correspond to many of the things Kinnaman found in his research. Old, grumpy, pharisaical people like this pants-shaming gal are a problem in churches and certainly do make some people feel unwelcome and unloved. This is a shame and this story is certainly a shame. But this isn’t Datskovska’s major issue with the church. It’s merely a part of the whole of her complaint.
“You have nothing to teach me.”
Turns out, Datskovska’s real enemies are three: Tradition, doctrine, and authority.
For Datskovska, “tradition” is represented by the old lady from her story: Stuffy, critical, old, “musty,” and alienating. But her characterization of “tradition” is so undefined and so loose that there is no real, substantial argument. She simply throws “tradition” out there as the enemy. Her only definition of tradition seems to be the traditional teachings and practices of Christianity (seemingly from the Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions in this case) and all religious authority. These are the bad guys in Datskovska’s story. They are the villains and the antagonists that keep the real protagonists (like her and her doubting friends) from truly discovering who God is… of course apart from all of that churchy tradition and Bible stuff.
I don’t think Datskovska (and the millions like her) realizes the ludicrous nature of her complaint here. In short, “I want to be a Christian and go to church… I just don’t really want any of the 2,000-year-old tradition, foundational texts, or any other authority to tell me anything about God, Jesus, salvation, and the rest.”
She wants Christianity without all the baggage… and by “baggage” I mean Christianity.
“Indoctrination” is especially called out as a negative aspect of Christianity. Nevermind that the primary command of the Great Commission is to “make disciples” (learners, one being instructed, one who learns from another) (Matt. 28:19-20).
Datskovska’s pretense of humility crumbles beneath the weight of the immense hubris of such a statement. Datskovska would say to 2,000 years of church history, all of the Bible, and every church authority, “You have nothing to teach me… But I have much to teach you.”
“Bend to my will.”
The second major section of the piece is devoted to what Datskovska calls “flexibility” in worship. Again, the major argument is that modern sensibilities are ever-changing and, if the church hopes to keep up, she will be ever-changing as well.
As if the mission of the church was to be conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2, 1 Jn. 15:18-27).
She sites some research done by the Barna Group (of which David Kinnaman is president) to make her point that teens still consider themselves quite “spiritual,” even if they don’t necessarily identify as “Christian.”
The conclusion for Datskovska is quite simple: Since many teens are generically and not-very-specifically “spiritual” and not necessarily “Christian,” the church should become more generically “spiritual” and not necessarily “Christian.” You’d get more teens then! And after all, isn’t that the point?
The most audacious statement of the whole piece comes at the end of this section when Dastkovska says:
I attend [church] only biannually because of the strict standards and pompous preaching that relate to anything but true spirituality. When I do go to church, I am among only two or three other teenagers in the room, which is both saddening and alarming.
The absolute lack of personal awareness in this admission is astounding.
Let me translate:
“I don’t really feel a connection to my faith or church… Also, I only go twice a year.”
“How dare they have rules that correspond to their traditions and preach things from that book they believe to be God’s Word!”
“While I only go twice a year… I’m really sad that more teens aren’t at church.”
I would ask Dastkovska to identify the real pompous character here.
Is it this “preacher” who willingly and knowingly embraces and submits himself to the traditions, authority, and teachings of a church to which he is responsible for upholding those very traditions, authorities, and teachings?
Or is it the 15-year-old teen who, overcome with a sense of her own enlightenment and entitlement, would demand that a millenia-old tradition now bow to her own definition of “truth”?
Same Song, Different Tune
Of course it all boils down to the same criticism that seems to permeate the post-Christian conversation about Christianity… It’s too exclusive.
For Datskovska, Christians shouldn’t look to their own tradition or teachings to find the answers to the questions being raised by the society around them. No! But we should look to Judaism, the LGBTQ+ community, Buddhism, and any other non-Christian, not-Bible source.
The most laughable part is when she mentions the Unitarian-Universalist Church as a “Christian denomination.” This is a “church,” which by its very definition, rejects the central claims of historic Christianity (the reality of Heaven, Hell, salvation through Jesus Christ, the unique and sole authority of the Scriptures, etc.). She praises them for taking their young people to worshipping communities of all faiths, not just to observe and appreciate different cultures and faiths… but to, “[welcome] all ways of worship equally and even [incorporate] them personally.”
So… really the same as before: If Christians would become not-so-Christian and encourage their teens to embrace not-so-Christian teachings and practices… perhaps more teens would be Christians… or not-so-Christian… or something like that.
This argument means nothing.
Datskovska, go be a Unitarian-Universalist! That’s what they do. But don’t ask Christian churches to be slightly-less-Christian so your post-Christian philosophies can feel at home.
The truth is, Ms. Datskovska is not a Christian. I am not making a baseless judgment call on her spiritual and religious views; I am stating the obvious.
She wants faith to be a “choose-your-own adventure.” That simply isn’t the message of Jesus who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; No man comes to the Father, but through me” (Jn. 14:6).
This Jesus… the one for whom Christianity is named… demands our whole body, mind, soul, and heart. Every ounce of us must bow to him as Lord… Or we are not Christians in any sense of the word.
The only teaching and authority pastors and priests would render in Dastkovska’s world would be mere “support” and encouragement as we try to find our own way. No real answers, no real conversations, no real truth; Just speculation, conjecture, and open-ended discussions. Where does that leave us? No further than where we started.
Pack It Up and Go Home
I’ve always said that if I did not fully embrace and believe the teachings of the Bible, historic Christianity, and the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection… I would simply quit; Not only as a pastor, but as a Christian.
Seriously, if Christianity has nothing unique to offer the world, let’s just board up our windows, sell our building, stop sending missionaries out, and simply go join social organizations that do good for society and may have spiritual discussions from time to time.
If Christ is not raised from the dead and if he is not Lord and if he is not the only way to the Father; What does it all really matter after all?
The “Christianity” of Datskovska is good for no one because it offers nothing to anyone. To quote Shakespeare:
[It] struts and frets [its] hour upon the stage,. And then is heard no more. It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.Macbeth
But the Christianity of… Christianity; True, biblical, historic Christianity, offers a “a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3).
I appeal to Stacia Datskovska, and to all who seek hope, to look to Jesus, the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).
I implore you to stop trying to make a God after your own image and to “be reconciled to God” through the person and work of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:20).
Lastly, I ask Christians to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
We don’t need to reinvent, bend, or conform to anything. Simply preach the Gospel, proclaim the Word of God, and point people to the only Savior, Jesus Christ. There alone is hope and eternal salvation.