The subject of this column’s previous article was the story of a young woman who grew up in a nondenominational church and subsequently found her way into the Christian Reformed Church. I’d like to engage the flip side of that conversation: why do so many young people who grew up in the CRC leave for nondenominational churches?
Having worked at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich., a nondenominational hot spot for young people led by the now-well-known pastor Rob Bell, I’ve had the chance to make a few conclusions regarding this topic.
The first is that young people often feel the faith they receive from older generations is too dogmatic. I’ve heard countless remarks on how church is just a place where doctrines get “crammed down your throat.” With the influence of postmodernism, young Christians can be especially sensitive about anything that is claimed as “truth.” Of course, you can’t be a Christian if you aren’t willing to believe in truth, meaning, and the redemption God is working in all creation. But in nondenominational congregations, young people often feel freer to search for a meaningful faith. If people who accept postmodernism are to be reached at all, the church needs not only to teach orthodox Christian doctrines but also to describe the history behind our Christian doctrines and give reasons for why we uphold them.
For example, a young person might ask, “Why does the Nicene Creed say that Jesus was ‘begotten, not made’? Is that just some arbitrary statement?” Of course it’s not. This statement emphasizes that Jesus was not a creation of God the Father, but that he is also God himself. As more than a mere human, he can offer us salvation. So we see that this seemingly dogmatic statement instead assures us that Jesus is capable of offering salvation.
A second struggle I’ve heard young people express is that the church talks a lot about what to believe but doesn’t concern itself enough with missional living. That isn’t true for many churches, of course. But young people today are wired with a concern for social justice. Some care about HIV/AIDS in Africa, others about environmental conservation, others about alleviating poverty in Third World countries. It’s popular today to care about social justice, and Generations Y and Z have a strong desire to make the world a better place. For example, Mars Hill has a mission to help build affordable housing in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area and also to alleviate poverty by providing economic opportunities for individuals both in Grand Rapids and in the poverty-stricken country of Burundi.
Since the worldwide church’s identity has always included the need to care for the poor and marginalized, traditional churches could easily renew their missional identity and in so doing create a place for young people to get involved.
A third and final issue is that, in today’s culture of 22-minute sitcoms, three-and-a-half-minute songs (all available at the spin and tap of an iPod), and information of all sorts available instantly via the Internet, young people have come to expect accessibility. But the life of faith is a long haul. You can’t learn to pray in 22 minutes; it takes a level of discipline and patience that we may not be accustomed to in our fast-paced culture. Hymns are often longer that three-and-a-half minutes, but they are loaded with rich theology and beautiful prayers that can only deepen our faith. And learning more about the Bible isn’t something you can master with the click of your mouse; but during days and years of study, we grow closer to God simply by time spent searching him out.
I’d like to challenge traditional churches to be willing to learn from the younger generations. And I’d like to encourage younger generations to be willing to give traditional churches a chance. My guess is that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.