“Taste and see” doesn’t involve force feeding

by Kristin on January 15, 2013

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by thepinkpeppercorn

Nothing surprised me about the first installment of NPR Morning Edition’s new series, “Losing Our Religion: The Growth of the Nones” (unless you count the fact that I missed the beginning of the interview and thought for a minute or so that they were saying more women were becoming nuns, which really surprised me).

No, unfortunately I was not at all surprised to hear that “one-third of Americans under 30 have no religious affiliation,” or that young adults, who “were coming of age…in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics,” are rebelling against institutionalized religion.

I was also not surprised to hear Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, say this:

Well, in our polling we definitely find that the religiously unaffiliated do express the view that they think religious organizations are too involved in politics. They think religious organizations are too concerned with rules. They think they’re too concerned with things like money and power.

Or to hear Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, say this:

I think the single most important reason for the rise of the nones is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.

(The full transcript of the interview is here.)

I didn’t find any of this surprising or even enlightening. I just found it extremely disheartening. As I listened I experienced that sinking feeling you get when your worst suspicions turn out to be true. I like being right as much as the next person (and perhaps even a little more), but there are definitely times when I wish I could be wrong—when I wish I could find out that my perceptions have simply been skewed or exaggerated by the media, or that my analysis was flawed.

But assuming that the Pew research is an accurate portrayal of how young adults in America are viewing religion, we have a problem on our hands. And I’m certain it isn’t a problem with God, it’s a PR problem (I have to give a shout-out here to the best Twitter handle: JesusNeedsNewPR). The problem lies with how we present and represent Christianity to the “outside world.”

The “simple” way to fight this battle—to demand that people “Keep politics out of religion,” or that they simply change the way they understand the Bible, because clearly they’re reading it wrong—ends up not being simple at all. While I do wish churches and religious leaders would set politics aside, we can’t expect individuals to do so. What I believe about God and what he desires for the world impacts how I live, what I stand for, and how I vote—as I think it should. And while discussions and debates about different ways to interpret the Bible are important, they can only be taken so far before they begin to break down and result in more divisiveness than in finding common ground. That divisiveness, in turn, drives more people away from the church.

Perhaps there is a truly simple approach, though, when it comes to approaching and interacting with those who aren’t sure about their beliefs or about organized religion. It starts with a simple suggestion, an invitation without strings: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” When we want our child to try avocado, we don’t shove a big piece in their mouths, nor do we force them to eat an entire avocado in one sitting. We put a little piece in front of them and say, “Taste this—I think you’ll find that it is good!”

This is what I believe is at the root of young America’s distaste of religion: the force-feeding of full meals. We don’t just set God and his word before them, to taste, we also pile a whole plate with specific interpretations, specific lifestyles, lists of rules and expectations, and particular politics and world views. Then we say, “Eat it all. Now.”

Back in 2009, I wrote a post called “Tasting faith, potluck style,” in which I observed that “too many churches and religious groups deliberately focus on an all-or-nothing approach to evangelism and outreach.” Here’s the “Taste and see” alternative that I suggested could be effective for Christians of every denomination and political persuasion:

What if belief was presented less like a pre-plated meal, with the objective being to entirely clean your plate (or you won’t get any dessert)? What if it was more like a potluck, with the immediate goal simply “being fed,” even if it’s just a snack, or dessert before veggies?

Maybe we’re afraid of our faith being partially accepted and partially rejected, because it makes us uncomfortable and defensive. But shouldn’t we be more concerned that people leave our table hungry and wanting? Or that they are inclined to avoid it altogether?

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  • http://www.faithpermeatinglife.com Jessica @ FaithPermeatingLife

    Amen to this. I think part of the issue is too much use of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy — you can’t be a Christian and believe this, do this, be this. So it’s as if we’re saying, “Please! Become a Christian! But of course, to be a true Christian you have to change this, this, this, this, and this about yourself because people who do those things aren’t true Christians.”

    • kt_writes

      Exactly! This idea that there can’t be many different expressions of a Christian life that are ALL Christian drives me crazy. Just look at the variety of God’s creation! He didn’t create a cookie cutter humanity, so why would he expect us to live cookie cutter lives?

  • Alison

    Double amen! Like you, I am disheartened at the turn that the spiritual debate has taken, and the resultant shift in attitude among “nones”. I truly believe that as we pattern a Christ-like stance, rather than polarizing (and politicizing) others, they will want to taste and see… and eat heartily!

    • kt_writes

      I love this, and I believe it right alongside you: ” I truly believe that as we pattern a Christ-like stance, rather than
      polarizing (and politicizing) others, they will want to taste and see…
      and eat heartily!”

  • http://www.ashleybuerkett.com Ashley

    Interesting article. Personally, I tasted it, swallowed it, then puked it up because my body rejected it. When you say “I’m certain it isn’t a problem with God, it’s a PR problem”… it just seems like you don’t know the real definition of atheism. It IS about God and about the fact that some people can’t just choose to believe in one, even if they try. I know that, to your point, a lot of people are turned off by some religious followers and the whole evangelical thing definitely gets exhausting, but for an atheist, it always boils down to the fact that you have to believe in something that has no proof of existence and this is exactly why an atheist is an atheist. This point alone leaves me without anything to take away from this article, to be honest. It’s kinda like how you can polish a turd all you want but it’s still a turd.

    And another thing… I don’t know why you need to feel disheartened. If you’ve read any of Sam Harris’ books or watched any of his talks you might come to realize that atheists can still obtain good moral values through science. It doesn’t make us any less of a decent human being or any kind of a danger to you or your children. I just find it really bothersome that Christians and other religious followers are allowed to be disheartened by us and yet if we share any kind of opinion on them we are being irreverent or disrespectful somehow. Religious people are allowed to get us to try and “taste and see” (evangelical, no?) but somehow atheists are expected to keep to themselves.

    • kt_writes

      I really appreciate you taking the time to read my post and comment, Ashley. First of all, it’s important for all of us to hear a wide range of perspectives on this issue. We can all stand to be stretched in new directions. Your comment also gives me a chance to clarify a couple of things I was too vague about in my post (this seems to always happen—it’s hard to write a relatively short post on a complex issue without leaving something out!).

      I should have been clearer about the groups of people in question. For the most part, I am thinking not about atheists but about people who believe in God and feel a pull toward spirituality, but have been turned off and alienated by their experiences with churches and Christians. And this follows: I am not disheartened by atheists, agnostics or people who don’t go to church, but rather by the current state of Christianity in our country. Of *course* people are allowed to have their own viewpoints and opinions, and should come to their own conclusions about faith, but if they have essentially been driven away by a group of people who are acting *against* the very foundations of the belief, THAT is disheartening. I think you’d probably agree if you came up with a non-religious example of something you love but others oppose for misled reasons (like misrepresentation).

      At any rate, I am not disheartened by you or anyone who is being thoughtful, honest, and informed about who they are and how they live, and I *certainly* don’t think you have to be a Christian to have “moral values” and do good things in the world!

  • http://www.leighkramer.com/ HopefulLeigh

    Such good thoughts, Kristin. Thank you for this.

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com/ Jennifer Luitwieler

    What a Greta image. Force feeding. That is exactly on the money. And taste has such an intimate evocation, such a kind and sensual (not that kind of sensual) connotation, that we ruin it by jamming a fist full of beauty in someone’s unprepared gullet. Who wants that?

    • kt_writes

      “…we ruin it by jamming a fist full of beauty in someone’s unprepared gullet.”

      YES. Such a poignant and true way of putting it.

  • BrennaDA

    “What if belief was presented less like a pre-plated meal, with the objective being to entirely clean your plate (or you won’t get any dessert)? What if it was more like a potluck, with the immediate goal simply “being fed,” even if it’s just a snack, or dessert before veggies?”

    I think, based on my personal experience in past churches especially, that this is the problem. There is an sentiment, not expressed aloud, of resentment. If WE have to eat our veggies, so should they! Why should they get to skip right to dessert? Just like my older kids get mad if the little one doesn’t have to eat as many veggies, the church can become indignant when a new believer or searcher seems to get the benefits of Christianity without the “sacrifices” that they believe they have made.

    I think it ends up being a reflection of the Church’s health – there is something missing if our first reaction is defensiveness mixed with bits of hostility instead of rejoicing that we get to share EVERYTHING that’s on the table.

    • kt_writes

      You really nailed it, regarding resentment. It’s so true! “…the church can become indignant when a new believer or searcher seems to
      get the benefits of Christianity without the “sacrifices” that they
      believe they have made.”

      Sort of reminds me of the parable about the laborers in the vineyard. We want things to be fair, but God’s justice doesn’t work the way the world’s sense of it does.

  • rayhollenbach

    You wrote (in that original post), “too many churches and religious groups deliberately focus on an all-or-nothing approach to evangelism and outreach.”

    True, yes, but not true enough: In my view, too many churches offer up a plate of more than “all-or-nothing.” We offer a plate that serves side dishes of conservatism (or liberalism), or side dishes of cultural expression (“don’t dress like this, don’t talk like that, do act like this”). We serve up Christian with whatever else we think goes along with the faith, but we tell others, “this is what the faith looks and tastes like.”

    C.S. Lewis observed that whenever we add something extra to Christianity, it ceases to be Christianity. “Christianity And . . . ” distorts the faith and requires us to accept something other than God. No wonder so many turn their noses up at it.

    • kt_writes

      As I read your comment, I kept thinking “Yes, yes, YES!” And I love the C.S. Lewis observation. But then I got all tangled up, again, in that endless question: So what *does* it look like to live as a Christian in THIS time? At some point, all of the foundational truths about Christianity have to translate into specific actions and lives, so what does that look like? And what does it mean when it looks completely differently to different people? Suddenly things seem really sticky again…

  • http://twitter.com/LisaColonDelay Lisa Colón DeLay

    I’m not at all surprised either.
    I just wonder if the church has lost the true meaning of community. (We may all have a bit) Do people feel they belong? This has to happen really before they come in the doors. Is there a draw? Is sacrificial love (like Jesus showed) emanating out to attract the thirsty ones? I doubt it. (Brene Brown says that belonging means 1. They are where they want to be 2. They are wanted there)

    I think it’s all about relationships, not programs. That’s when it gets difficult and messy.

    Personally, I find myself being drawn to the very ancient-inpsired outcroppings of Christianity…probably b/c the sheer depth and breath of the Christian faith tradition itself can even offer peace. (pardon me too…b/c I’m reading the early devotional classics…!)

    Church can just feel so very shallow. I’m not sure I’d go either if I didn’t know that somehow it was probably mostly good for me…a tribute to early engrained formation. If that’s missing, I’m not sure how things turn out.

    Great thoughts too. . . force-feeding….It’s like all pre-packaged too, huh?

    • kt_writes

      Bringing community into this discussion REALLY makes it complex, but I think it’s exactly what needs to happen. We have to be drawn to something—what we long for needs to meet up with what we’re sensing and experiencing about a group of people. I love Brene Brown’s take on belonging. Thanks, as always, for giving me lots to chew on.

  • http://twitter.com/erinblueburke Erin Burke

    Really good thoughts. I’ve been listening to that series on NPR this week as well and thought is was very interesting. But I agree…disheartening as well.
    It disappoints me sometimes because that God that is portrayed by so many popular churches right now doesn’t seem like the God I know at all. And for people who have lost their faith in religion, I want them to know the God that I know, because I think they might like God then.