The following essay is a guest post by my daughter Shannon. It is a thoughtful and prophetic perspective on faith through the eyes of a millennial.
“So, what’s it like being a pastor’s kid?” I always laugh awkwardly after that.
To answer the question: It’s fine, really. I don’t mind it, not other than the old white members of our Baptist congregation putting my life under a spectacle. Maybe they wondered if I would be the third generation of my family to go into ministry, or maybe they wished I would just stop wearing jeans to church. I’ll never know, but when it came down to it, calling Reverend Doctor Tim Deatrick my father was a plus. I had the easiest access to knowledgeable answers when it came to the tough questions, and I swear 75% of our church brought money to my graduation party. I’m just being honest, it was a good place to be. Still though, I was similar to any other high school student you would meet. I was highly involved in a range of activities, but I hit valleys of depression like so many other teenagers in today’s society. Though sociable, I would say I was alone. I only pretended to have confidence, I lacked consistent friendship, and I punished myself for it when I didn’t understand. It was fine though, I had Jesus twice a week.
I was having coffee in October with my teammate and friend. I didn’t know a lot about her beyond the surface, but I did know that she was an atheist. So when the conversation somehow hit faith and she asked me what I believed in, my brain pilot hit the panic button, strapped on a parachute, and leapt. In other words, I was flustered. I had never been put on the spot when it came to my beliefs, and though I attended church more times in a week than some Americans do in a year, I had no idea how to articulate the tenets of my own faith.
Probably because I didn’t have much.
So how does this happen? There are places in the world where citizens have to meet secretly to read the Bible and risk their lives in doing so, but in America, being a “Christian” is barely more than a cultural label. The Barna Group’s research shows that “in just two years, the percentage of Americans who qualify as ‘post-Christian’ rose by 7 percent,” and on top of that, perceptions of those worshipping a God of love and grace are only growing more negative. In fact, the most common associations when it comes to Christianity are anti-homosexual, hypocritical, and judgmental. We can try to pin it on a rebellious generation that is disinterested in their parents’ bland tradition, but when the topic is boiled down, Americans are turned off to the idea of Christianity because of “believers” who claim to be transformed, yet live their lives in a way that fails to reflect the teachings of Christ.
The afternoon I stumbled through that conversation with my friend, my own blindness was out in the open. I sat on my bedroom floor that night and wrote under the title, “What I Believe.” Like a friendship, my time spent in church did not equate to a strong relationship. You can know a person inside and out and neglect to trust and respect them, and making the realization that my faith was not what I thought it was changed a lot of things about my life from that point on. I had an urgency and a thirst, so much so that I organized a mission trip to Belize and sold art until I could take advantage of a mission opportunity in the Philippines as well. A key thing I learned from these experiences was that being an American “Christian” is not like being a Christian anywhere else. In preparation for the Philippines, our leader told us to be ready to answer to any given stranger that might ask you about your life or for encouragement. Most of us had the same panic that I did with my friend. Revealing the faith that drives our morals, values, character, and life to a stranger would be an uncomfortable experience at best. In American “Christianity”, beliefs are separate from the rest of our lives. Discussing Jesus is nothing like reflecting on what you had for lunch yesterday. There is this “sacred/secular divide” that makes talking about Jesus awkward and unnatural because we often live our lives one way on Sunday mornings and another for the remainder of the week.
In the squatter villages of the Philippines there was no divide. The Christians that we collaborated with along the way were whole-heartedly devoted to the needs of others, even if all they had to offer was love. It was vital that they be consistent in their faith-based actions because the need of the community was so blatant that they had nothing to hide behind. No iPhone 6 could shield their desperation, and as we entered the homes composed of garbage and tin, family after family poured out their desire for protection, opportunity, and above all, hope. Authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert analyzed diverse personal stories from those in poverty and came to this conclusion:
While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms… Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humility, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.
I can tell you from experience that the studies are spot on. On the streets of Manila, where there are 2.2 million children without homes, we met Girlie. She was found by the orphanage we were volunteering with several years ago. She didn’t have a family or a name, and they guessed her age based on her dental records. No one should ever have to experience the abandonment that she did, and yet, the first time we met her, she greeted every person in our group with a hug and a smile that still radiates in my mind.
This being said, if studies reveal that poverty boils down to a psychological mindset rather than a caliber of material objects, and if people who have come from the worst can be revived without diamonds and a beach house, then I would say that America is as spiritually impoverished as anywhere. We are poisoned with a different disease, and it is so much easier to hide. In countries that we would consider impoverished, the evidence of their collective need leads to an understanding and unity between the people. They suffer together, but what we don’t realize in America is that we are all mutually broken. As we advance in technology, knowledge, and power, I hear daily claims that we have outgrown religion, but is that all we’re moving away from? What about the desire to connect and empathize? Each and every one of us is facing a battle, and rather than being transparent so that we can help one another, we do as much as we possibly can to suppress our struggle and pretend that it isn’t there. Our desperation pushes us not to find help, but to avoid it or even temporarily forget about our stress. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that “By 2020, mental and substance use disorders will surpass all physical diseases as a major cause of disability worldwide… [Anxiety and depression] frequently co-occur with each other and with substance use disorders.”I myself am guilty of hiding out and avoiding help; we’re afraid of vulnerability because we associate it with weakness. Without steadfast peace, we resort to masked lifestyles centered around personal gain and goal of living in comfort under the umbrella of “enough”.
The idea we have of enough is a tricky thing though, as the finish line of our dreams is a moving target. “Enough” is unattainable in America because we can see that there is always a gadget we haven’t bought, a car we haven’t driven, or a style we haven’t tried on. We are bombarded with advertisements and commercials highlighting people that have something we don’t, and they always look that much happier. Author John Brueggemann describes what he calls “Everest Psychology” in his book Rich, Free, and Miserable. We are already so close to what we think is the top the mountain, and we will be satisfied as soon as we grab hold of that one last thing. If I could just get into my dream school, if I could just marry the perfect guy, if I can just find the right job— there is nothing wrong with short term goals, but once we rely on these for our fulfillment, we miserably find ourselves depending on what can only provide temporary happiness, and “the elusive summit is always within sight but just out of reach”.
Not only are we increasingly materialistic, but our generation’s individualism has surpassed the simplicity of having a unique personality. Defensive individualism has translated to a mindset that says, “you do whatever it takes to make you happy, I’ll do whatever it takes to make me happy, and if we all do this while simultaneously staying out of each other’s way, we will all be united in happiness.” Again, you would think that this existentialism would make us more peaceful and accepting, yet it still fueled by selfish ambition and tolerance rather than love. We are incredibly defensive, easily offended, unforgiving, and still dissatisfied.
As faith diminishes in our country, we are left trying to give our own lives purpose. We all want to be remembered for how good we were and all of the positive things we accomplished, but if a street is not named after you following your death, then did you really live? If one day we’ll all be nothingness in a black hole of the universe, then what really is the purpose? The verdict on Christianity in America is that it can be revived, but it certainly won’t happen overnight. Media has skewed perceptions, whether it be the news channels making Westboro Baptist Church the mascot of what Christianity represents, or popular TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy that depict Christian characters as comically annoying and unreasonable. Although the media certainly hasn’t helped the favor of Christians, I will reiterate that they are not where complete blame falls when it comes to American post-Christianity.
Redirection has to come from followers of Christ. The actions of Christian hobbyists in America have diluted the themes of “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and turned the label of “Christian” into a pride-driven battle between who is right versus who is wrong. For some, it’s a faith so shallow that their ego turns sour just by the sway of an election.
As complex issues such as gay marriage and abortion rise in our politics, it is easy for the religion to “become famous for what we oppose, rather than who we are for,” so it is vital to keep in mind that the kingdom is not built by political reformation or through legislation. It begins with personal responsibility and spreads through the influence of our character.
This character is not that of a picket sign: shameful, condemning, and fueled by hatred. The walk of a Christian should actually be the polar opposite. That is not to say it’s always easy to love the people you disagree with, however, by connecting with those that come from different backgrounds, statuses, and beliefs, we are given the opportunity to share on a personal account why we live our lives the way that we do. When churches become exclusive social clubs, and when we keep anyone who lives their lives differently at an arms length, we lose this connection, and we trade our intended mission for our own comfortable “Christianity”. If 1 John 2:6 urges that “whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did,” then why are Christians starting disputes under YouTube videos in the comment sections and passively spewing opinions in 140 characters or less? We should be less passionate about spiteful debates, but absolutely fervent in connecting with the marginalized, the broken, and the lost. Thousands of people followed Jesus eager to hear what He had to say, not because He forced it on them and hatefully condemned their lifestyle, but because He had a genuine desire to invest into the lives of others, and in doing so, revealed the greater love and hope that comes when you choose to live your life to glorify God. Our calling is not to judge and divide. Above all, we are to be bold in love.