A Church for the Next Generation, Part Three

In the past two posts, we’ve looked at whether young people are going to church less, and why some young people leave the church. Now I want to answer another why question: if the church is as stuffy and old-fashioned as we’re always hearing, why do so many young people go to church anyway?

First of all, it’s important to note that the Church of Jesus Christ is going to outlast all the doom-and-gloom predictions and continue its work in the world because we’re not in charge. It is God’s work that has made the Church what it is, and it will be God’s work that determines what the church will be in the future.

But that doesn’t mean that we can sit back, relax, and let others do the heavy lifting. In the simplest possible terms, God is the boss, and we are His workers. If His work is getting done in the world, it’s probably His workers doing it. So we can’t just throw up our hands and say, “God will help young people thrive in the Church when He’s good and ready.” If you are a church leader or, especially, a parent, then you are not just a bystander–you are one of the workers God has appointed to help young people find a home in the church. So we have work to do.

A big part of helping young people thrive in the church doesn’t have to do with the church at all: it has to do with parents. At a basic level, if you love and respect your parents, you will be drawn to the things that make them lovable and respectable. If your parents take their faith seriously, and if they raise you to take it seriously, and if they respect you and take you seriously, chances are that you will end up as a believing young person.

This is a simple equation: Christian parents in the church lead to Christian children in the church. Faith is heritable. It can be passed down from generation to generation–but this doesn’t happen automatically. There are many, many ways that you can screw this up, as a parent. Even the best parents on Earth don’t get it right 100 percent of the time. For most of us, the margin of error will be much higher.

One sporadic churchgoer, now entering middle age, reflects on the influence his parents played:

My own childhood experience with religion was peripatetic. My parents divorced when I was three. Weekends and holidays were split between my father, who converted to a stringent brand of evangelical Christianity, and my mother, a classic “religious seeker.” One weekend with my father could include a Saturday-night showing of the Christian rapture epic, A Thief in the Night, in the gymnasium of a non-denominational Bible church. The next weekend with my mother could find me as the lone male at a Wiccan retreat (Sundays at the Unitarian Universalist church were more typical). I gravitated to evangelical Christianity out of fear and out of a desire to connect with my father. In my early teens, after witnessing it countless times in church and at summer Christian camps, I performed the “sinner’s prayer,” which I was taught moved me from one side of the eternal ledger to the other. Yet by college, I had abandoned conservative Christianity…

Although the writer eventually finds a home in an evangelical church, his belief system has fundamentally changed. Much of this could have been prevented, I would argue, if he weren’t subject to religious schizophrenia from both of his parents. My childhood was similar in some ways (the divorce), but had less of the religious uncertainty the writer mentions. It was my mother who took my brother and I to church, every week without fail. The stability and unreconstructed piety of the church where I was raised are in a large part why I think my faith is worth fighting for. My mom made the church a part of my childhood, and if my wife and I are blessed with children, the church will be part of their childhood as well.

But I don’t just mean “the church” as something to pass the time on Sundays. I’m using the term as shorthand for the the necessity of personal salvation, prayer, the sacraments–all the breadth and richness of Christian faith.

Young people thrive in the church when they are able to see the Church for what it really is. It is not the caucus of some political party. It is not a food bank (well, maybe soul food). It is not, by all that is holy, a country club for the white middle class. It is the center of God’s kingdom, and the storing place of many of His gifts, here on Earth. Each church that teaches this truth is part of the massive gift, which began with Adam and is perfected in Christ, to the world.

There are many young people hovering around the fringes of the church community. Parents, you can help bring them back to the fold. It may take humility, it may mean eating humble pie. On the other hand, it may require you to stand up straighter and point more vehemently to the church as the place where young people, and all of us, belong.

We, the people inside the Church, don’t have to have this all down perfectly. There is grace for us, too. We need the faith to uphold the true worship of the true God in this generation–that is the most important thing we can do. And we need to fling open the doors of the sanctuary for those who come after us. That is our earthly duty.