With them and like them

I think I had a bit of an epiphany today. For several years, I’ve been asking myself why not only the mainline liberal churches are hemorrhaging their younger generation to the world (which makes a certain amount of sense, when you think about it), but also conservative churches – and more importantly, conservative churches that are doing fairly sophisticated worldview training and cultural engagement/analysis, and trying hard to keep their preaching in touch with the real world their people live in – are losing their second generation nearly across the board. I have been in conservative churches that deserve to lose their youth, because their presentation of the gospel is comprehensively boring and out of touch; but what of churches where youth are getting neither the typical entertainment fare of evangelicalism, nor chalky lectures on Reformed topics of dubious relevancy, but discussions of a Christian philosophy of life in lively conversation with the leading contemporary expressions of culture? In other words, why do youth seem to abandon good fare in these churches as readily as they abandon bad fare elsewhere?

Part of the answer, it occurred to me today, is that conservative churches have not been prepared for the way human community has changed over the past half century; and this is tragic, because community controls the destiny of youth. Children (younger and older) will always follow those they regard as their community. Those of whom they say, “My people,” will ultimately hold the key to their hearts, their interest, and their devotion. The people of whom they say, “I want to be with them; I want to be like them” – those are the people they will go after, even if they happen to disagree with them on various points of ideology.

There is a quite ridiculous notion afoot in conservative churches (especially the Reformed stripe) that because ideas have consequences, all we need to do is present the right ideas in an exciting and stimulating way, and we will have no problem holding the allegiance of our next generation. If we can mold ideas, we can mold lives. Of course, this is at best a half-truth, at worst Cartesian balderdash. It is the one who shapes a person’s identity who will claim that person’s allegiance, and social connections have far more to do with shaping identity than communication of ideas. A teacher may be a brilliant communicator of her subject matter, but if she cannot form a bond with her students such that she inspires them to come with her on the adventure of learning – if she is unable to make them want to follow her, and to imitate her learning (in short, to take something of her identity as their own) – she will be powerless to hold their allegiance even over against the allure of perfect idiots in their peer group. The same goes for parents, pastors, youth leaders, and what have you. It is not that children must find their community in their peer group, but let us be honest: most of the time it is peers who are most effective at shaping identity, and the community that shapes identity is the community that will prevail in the end.

This is why it is essential that churches define themselves not first in terms of ideas but in terms of relationships. Before someone screams “Liberalism!” let me explain. The church is not first a community that holds to a certain creed; it is first a community that worships and serves a certain God – the God who is Himself three Persons and one God. We are those who have been invited into, and are defined by, communion with the Triune God; and we enjoy this communion as the communion of saints, bound to all of our fathers who worshipped Him, and to our brethren in all the world who worship Him. We are a people, bound to each other and to our God; and while we certainly want our children to learn the creed with us, more fundamentally we want them to say of this God, “my God,” and to say of His people, “my people.” We want them to have a sense of ruling identity shaped by the love of their Father, their Messiah, and their Teacher-Comforter, in fellowship with His saints. We want them to be so accustomed from their youth to the experience of worshipping God with His people, and of working, playing, eating, drinking, rejoicing, and weeping with those people, that when other communities vie for their attention, there really isn’t much allure. And make no mistake: if our children lack a sense of community within the church, rival communities will find it easy to pick them off. Demas didn’t leave the church and go to the world because he found an ideology he liked better; he left because he “loved” the present world, because it won his heart, and he wanted to be with, and be like, the enemies of God.

I said above that conservative churches have been unprepared for changes in human community over the past half century. Many have been totally unprepared for what technology is now doing to human community. Parents and church leaders have no answers to the fact that the youth of a congregation may be in up-to-the-minute communication with their peers for sixteen hours each day. A child’s community is no longer geographically limited, it is no longer local. It is present in a handheld object during all waking hours. It is accessible from every electronic portal in the cosmos. Add to this that family communal times, and church communal times, are shrinking to the point of near-nonexistence: How many families are getting quality hours at meals together or in meaningful conversations or activities? How many members of the average congregation are sharing life together in any significant way? Do we really think ten minutes of family worship, or an hour and a half on a Sunday morning, will somehow counteract the omnipresent influence of the generally pagan community surrounding our adolescents (and now our pre-adolescents)? Are we that naïve? Do we actually think a couple hours of top-flight worldview training on a Friday night will captivate our youth, when they already identify with, and frankly prefer the company of, an unbelieving community elsewhere? If so, we are very, very stupid indeed.

I believe that unless conservative churches are willing to spend as much time building the bonds of community in their midst as they are debating the fine points of theology (and please spare me the charge that I am unconcerned about doctrinal precision), they will continue to lose the rising generation. We must share life together. We must worship together, feast together, educate our children together, work and play together, weep and rejoice together. We must tell the stories of our fathers in a way that creates a sense of solidarity with God’s people of old. In short, we must live in such a way that our children want to be in the company of the saints rather than elsewhere – so that they say, “I want to be with them and be like them.” This hardly insures against every case of wandering, but it’s a far sight better than the insurance of mere good ideas. Our children need the gospel in spades, but they need it embodied. The Word must take flesh, and they must live in its presence. Perhaps then we can be the church of a thousand generations.

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