Viewpoint: Christadelphians and young people

By Phynnodderee

One of the main reasons why the Christadelphian community is in decline is the fact that it is failing to retain its young people. There are many reasons why people leave the community, but is there something that makes it specifically unappealing to young people? And are there reasons why a young person should think carefully before committing?


Style of worship
Let’s start with the general atmosphere in the meetings. The Victorian origins of the Christadelphian community are still very much in evidence, with many ecclesias maintaining an atmosphere of stiff, even wooden formality. Informality is mistakenly confused with irreverence or lack of seriousness. The unofficial dress codes reflect the norms of the early or mid-twentieth century, when suits were the everyday attire for men, skirts or dresses for women, and jeans nothing more than practical workwear, never seen on Sundays. Many Christadelphians still insist on reading nothing other than the King James Bible, and the sound of its ponderous, antiquated phrases mingles with some frankly depressing Victorian hymns to produce a style of worship that is not likely to appeal to young people.

As well as being stiffly old-fashioned, the general atmosphere is stern and emotionless – joy and exuberance are frowned on. Yet joy and exuberance are innate qualities of the young. The mistake Christadelphians make is to assume that true faith cannot be joyful or expressive; that heartfelt emotion can never be dignified enough for worship.

Changing times, unchanging ideas
The Christadelphian community has a mostly conservative outlook and maintains a certain distance from the rest of the world. This results in a lack of awareness and understanding of the issues facing today’s world, and a tendency to resort to outdated narratives which are unsatisfying to young, intelligent, informed minds. The times change, but the thinking doesn’t.

Young people naturally revolutionise and remake the world. But in Christadelphia, rebellion and revolution are simply not on. You accept the status quo, or you leave. Christ is at the door, and the Christadelphian’s duty is to preach the word and remain steadfast in the faith in these last days – not engage with the issues of the day and come up with new ideas in response.

Defeatism vs optimism
I submit that Christadelphianism is essentially defeatist. Christadelphians believe that the world is hopelessly evil and careering towards inevitable destruction. They believe that God’s plan to get rid of evil is to kill everyone (except a chosen few). This is, to put it mildly, a rather defeatist point of view. We are so inherently evil and incapable of saving ourselves or each other that the only thing to be done is to wipe us out. That’s how hopeless the human situation is.

I suggest that most young people would only readily accept a view like this if trained to believe it from an early age. Youthful optimism automatically wants to try and improve things and build a better world. Christadelphia, on the other hand, is based on a cynical view of humanity and its future. It’s no surprise that many young people choose instead an outside world where idealism and wanting to make a positive difference are no crime.

Life before death
The focus of the Christadelphian faith is on the soon return of Christ, and consequently Christadelphians tend to downplay the importance of this life – including the opportunity for personal fulfilment and the opportunity (indeed responsibility) to be of service to others.

In terms of one’s personal life, young people have been dissuaded from entering higher education and developing their full potential. Advice on education, careers, and life generally is given by an out-of-touch community whose primary concern is with moulding young people to carry on the tradition, not encouraging individual development. As for serving others, there has traditionally been a reluctance to participate in any kind of activity that might actually make a long-term difference to human suffering. This has its roots in the views of Dr John Thomas, who attached little importance to any kind of ‘social gospel’. By contrast, young people today are more likely to see themselves as global citizens with a responsibility to their fellow humans.

Loss of freedom
Finally, my primary concern with regard to young people is that joining the Christadelphians is likely to place considerable constraints on an individual’s life. It involves surrendering a degree of freedom to make your own decisions – from choice of career to choice of marriage partner. Consider carefully whether you are happy for other people – no matter how kind or well-intentioned – to make these important decisions for you. As a member of an ecclesia, then depending on how strict the ecclesia is, your conscience may never be fully your own: ecclesias consider themselves to have the right to criticise individual behaviour and mete out discipline where appropriate. In some ecclesias you may also be expected to fall in with the views of the most dominant members, even if these views seem to you unreasonable or ill-informed.

The poet A. E. Housman wrote: “Now, of my threescore years and ten/Twenty will not come again.” When you’re young, all of life is spread out before you with its endless possibilities. Don’t let them tell you this life doesn’t matter. Don’t let them tell you it’s a waste of time to pursue happiness in this world – your own, and that of others. Decide for yourself what constitutes a life well spent.

Looking ahead
Can Christadelphians make their faith attractive to young people again? Only time will tell. But if the current mindset continues, I believe the community will continue to dwindle away as its young people seek a better and more meaningful life elsewhere.

13 comments:

  1. Yes. I was going to say particularly paras 3, 4 and 5, but I'll change that to all of it. Thank you.

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  2. Excellent article, thank you.
    In my experience the christadelphians are still retaining some of their youngsters and having the occasional baptism, but they are few and far between. In my day speakers could spout any old nonsense, and we had no way of verifying what was claimed, other than going to a library and wading through piles of dusty books. Nowadays, a world of information is contained in most people's pockets and facts can be checked almost instantly.
    Sadly, the only young people who get baptised nowadays are deeply indoctrinated and join despite all the evidence to the contrary at their fingertips.
    I'm sure Sunday school and youth club discussions would have been much more lively, if my peers and I had access to such contrary information!

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    1. Mark,
      From what I can tell (anecdotally and through contacts), is that the retention rate of children lies somewhere between 30% and 60% with many of the retained ones being what might loosely be termed low achievers who don't get ( or can't cope with)the world experience that a higher education brings. High divorce rates amongst the followers helps this, since even if one of the parties involved remains "in" the exposure of the children to the religion and the world beyond is changed.
      Further to what you have touched on above, it is now about 18 years since widespread internet access took of in the UK, and about 10 since the mobile revolution. This means that all but the most cloistered young people under the age of 18 have had good information access for their entire lives, and can do the checking you describe.
      Of crucial importance is the point made in the article, that John Thomas did not preach any type of social gospel AT ALL (unlike mainstream churches), and this is directly at odds with the thinking of today's young. The sight of elderly Christadelphians enjoying a luxury lifestyle whilst denigrating those around them actually does turn the young away from following them.

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    2. Joseph, I agree with your thoughts.
      The youngsters who I know of, who have recently been baptised are the rather more naïve and sheltered kids and have a rather simplistic view of the world. The kids who were more worldly and streetwise have long since escaped the clutches of the CDs and made their own way in life.

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    3. What you say about information availability is very true, Mark. The more alternative ideas young people are exposed to, the less likely they are to simply follow in their parents' footsteps. This is true for all belief systems.

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    4. Even though young people will be exposed to a wider range of alternative ideas in these scientific enlightened times, and probably then in their teens, children of CD`s will have had several years of (most likely) intense indoctrination into Christadelphian ways and beliefs. Enough to cause their brains to react against ideas which conflict with their indoctrination.

      Let me give you an example. On my very first day at primary school, rising five, I was reprimanded for praying in assembly with clasped hands, when every other child`s hands were palm to palm and pointing upwards, as depicted by saints. I "knew" this was wrong. I had already been indoctrinated at that tender age.

      It is to be hoped that CD children, even though having been well dosed with Christobabble, may be influenced in teenage to examine their beliefs, by their more worldly-wise teenage non-CD friends and schoolmates.

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  3. I absolutely agree with this stuff and, not long before leaving the Christos gave a talk on this subject at the Summer School - yes, that Summer School.

    The gist of my talk was about Generation X & Generation Y (young people). I explained that Gen. X are much, much more different to the previous generation than were previous young people to previous generations. E.g. Gen. x are picture & film based in their communication (Internet & Youtube) but the Christos are word based - and 500 year old out of date KJV word based at that!!

    I said that unless Gen X got involved in their way of communicating to other Gen X, the Christos are finished. I pointed to the photograph of the Summer School for that year which had about three Gen X people in it and only, me (I'm Gen X) doing a talk at the Summer School.

    And it's much, much more than putting on an occasional (boring) film on, on a Sunday evening. In so many ways, Gen X and especially Gen Y speak a completely different language to the status quo of Christos. I summed this up as accelerated culture - spearheaded by the Net. I also referred to (Bro) J Bilton's brilliant, "MIssion Statement" talk on this subject.

    After my talk, one sister said "we need to make very small changes - gradually" - completely ignoring my point that things are changing so fast & exponentially with Gen X, that there is no time!

    From the non-response of this well prepared & evidenced talk, I realised that the Christadelphians were totally screwed - Gen. X are not there in any numbers. It was the following year that I left the Christadelphians - what was the point in staying, if the Summer School, does not get it? But why would they - they speak a completely different language to Gen X & Y!!

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    1. Interesting that your talk met with such a disappointing response, Max. As you say, if the Summer School crowd fails to respond, there doesn't seem to be much hope! Perhaps the sister who was in favour of 'small, gradual changes' was expressing what she herself would have been comfortable with, not what would actually help a flagging community?

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  4. A very insightful analysis. Your description of Christadelphian views, norms and practices is pretty accurate according to my experience.

    Another viewpoint that's worth throwing into the mix is that young people in general are becoming less religious right across the world and this trend has been occurring for quite some time now. It's not just that people become more religious later in life either, since religiosity seems to be decreasing over time regardless of age group.

    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2006.00328.x

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    1. Thanks, Thom, that helps to put things in their broader context.

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  5. I think another big problem is their denial of vast swathes of science. It might work on brainwashed children but how successful do they think they are going to be walking up to the man on the street and telling him that 98% of scientists are wrong and evolution is a lie! I wonder how many years until they die out entirely?

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    1. Good point, Anonymous. I did consider mentioning this in the article, but in the end I decided the science issue probably wasn't unique to the younger generation as there are also older Christadelphians who are frustrated about the anti-science stance. On the other hand, young people today are more scientifically literate than their parents and much more so than their grandparents, so there probably is a generational difference at work and the anti-science sentiment is quite likely to be driving young people away.

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    2. The level of science denial that some of them engage in is staggering. However I doubt any Christadelphian would walk up to people in the street and explain that this is what they believe, that is simply not how they operate.
      Perhaps even more dangerous than science denial, is the pushing of pseudo science, flood geology, hydroplate theory, evolutionary creationism, etc, things that have an air of plausibility about them to those kept ignorant of real science.
      I would agree with Phynnodderee that some older Christadelphians will be frustrated by the stance, but disagree that the young are better informed. Like my late parents, I was blessed with children later in life and although at both "grandparent" age (I'm also as old as at least 75% of this country's Christadelphians), I still have a young teenage child in my care, as well as an older one.
      Science education has not changed substantially in the UK in the last 50 years, and indeed some of the text books are the same ones as were used in the 1970's, albeit updated editions (Chemistry In Context for example).

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