A long while back I read a Slate article expounding on the conclusions reached in the book Forbidden Fruit, written by a sociology professor and consisting of several comprehensive surveys that were conducted with young adults about their views on sex and religion. While 80% of teens who identified as evangelicals believed they should wait for sex until marriage, the number who actually put this into practice is a lot smaller. Only 16% surveyed consider their religious beliefs as extremely important and actually appear to practice what they believe.
Based on what I read, 1 out of 5 evangelical teens don’t even believe sex outside of marriage is wrong. 80% say they do, but roughly 60% of them don’t really have the strength of their convictions. That leaves only 16% of the demographic of evangelical teens that a truly devout Christian teenager might have anything in common with.
I’m of the view that these numbers probably mirror the state of Christian churches as well. Imagine picking a church at random and realizing 80% of its members are either apostates or frauds. To clarify, I regard You might think you can still find camaraderie within the 20% who take their beliefs seriously, but there’s a caveat to consider here as well: I found when seeking out this 20% they tend to be of the very legalistic sort. There is a fervor to their beliefs that the rest of the 80% don’t have, but they also exhibit a cold, arrogant, detached personality reminiscent of the ancient Pharisees. Sadly, I’ve made the mistake of believing these were the real Christians and initially sought their company out in the past, desperate to find people who believed as I did, and perhaps within that circle finding a wife who loved God and sought to live a life pleasing to Him.
Instead I seemed to exist in this weird murky area where I wasn’t sinning enough for the nominal Christians, but I was sinning too much to be accepted by the legalists. The remnant of believers that I might actually have anything in common with was indeed a lot smaller than the 16% who consider their religion “extremely important,” because it doesn’t screen out for those who take a pharisaical/legalistic approach to their Christian beliefs.
Note: there’s been some confusion regarding these labels in the comments. To clarify, I regard hypocrites/frauds as those who pretend to be perfect Christians while either hiding or simply ignoring their sins. Legalists are those who aren’t so two faced, tend to be more “learned” so to speak, but they lack charity and have a smug sense of self-righteousness. The real Christians are those who sin, but they acknowledge their sin, and they try to do the best they can to live as holy a life as possible. They don’t pretend to be perfect, but they strive for it, which is a key difference.
Presuming that most churches have a predominating mix of apostates, frauds and legalists, should I still give it a chance, as long as the preaching itself is good? It should matter more what’s coming from the pulpit than what the makeup of the congregation is, right?
I have two issues with this: one is that the message from the pulpit tends to define the audience. People aren’t going to stick around for preaching that pricks them to the heart and convicts them of sin, unless they are willing to lead sincere Christian lives. More often than not the nature of the congregation will reflect what’s coming from the pulpit.
The second issue has more to do with my introverted (INFJ) personality. For most people, the disingenuity that exists in many church members is something they can merely observe, but for people like me it’s something that we actually feel. We don’t merely observe it; we sense it as well, and with that level of sensitivity comes a great deal of agitation and oppression. Sitting in for a sermon, I can sense the spiritual wickedness around me in ways that others can’t (others more secular would call it bad energy or vibes). It is painful to endure and there is no relief from it until I finally leave.
The only exceptions I’ve found was when attending prayer meetings. I did so a few times at a church boasting over 1,000 members, and while I had no peace sitting in for Sunday sermons, attending the men’s prayer meeting was a different experience. The nature of these meetings tend to draw the most devout, sincerest Christians from the rest of the congregation, and it was then that I could finally enjoy true fellowship with other believers, even if it was in a limited capacity. I did find it very telling that despite a church of over 1,000, only 3 people showed up to pray the last time I was there (4 when you include me).
As important as church is, I can’t accept that God would require me to subject myself to agonizing oppression and despair every Sunday just to fulfill my obligations to the body of Christ. For others this level of spiritual sensitivity is switched off, enabling them to function even in the midst of evil and being in a position to reform the churches from within. Such does not seem to be the case for me. That’s why I relate more to John the Baptist and Elijah than I do the likes of Paul, men who dwelled in the wilderness and separated themselves quite physically from the rest of the civilized world. It was probably the only way they could cope with the wickedness of humanity without going insane.
My experience with prayer meetings makes me wonder if there’s a middle ground to all this that I could pursue instead. I could attend bible study or prayer meetings rather than participate in Sunday services, though these tend to require you be vouched for by a regular member of the group before joining, which I can understand. Other times it’s over the top, such as barring people from signing up for ministries to feed the hungry until you’ve been a regular member of the church for at least 6 months. To set up such roadblocks just to perform charity work is something that’s offended me to no end, and rather than play by those ridiculous rules, I’ve chosen instead to do any charity work independently and directly, without dealing with the oversight of churches and groups I have no reason to trust with my time or money. Sad, but as I’ve written so many times before: it is what it is.