A few years ago my church went through a vigorous and drawn-out debate over whether or not we should serve fair-trade coffee. At the time I had two roommates: one from a lapsed Catholic family, the other culturally Mennonite. Neither was a churchgoer, but they were both interested in and appalled by the debate. They saw Christians who said they believed in love, grace, and justice hesitating to embrace a practice that embodies all those principles. To my roommates, this confirmed their belief that church was not for them.
I was thinking of that experience while reading recent Banner articles written by other young women of my generation. I’m glad to see the Christian Reformed Church engaging the questions young people have. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty regarding my postmodern peers, some of it fostered by misunderstanding and misconceptions. Seeking to understand is a good place to start.
Churches need new ways to communicate with and engage the postmodern generation. But the reality is that we’re not less interested in truth than previous generations—we’re just more reluctant to accept the idea that authority resides in structures like the church or in meta-narratives like “churchianity” without asking questions about values and consequences.
Recently some friends noted that sermons at our church often make sweeping judgments about our culture as selfish, individualist, and materialist. These friends pointed out, however, that many young people of our acquaintance, Christian or not, are actually trying to live out of a very different ethic. They worry about a sustainable lifestyle, the future of the planet, and horrific imbalances between rich countries and poor. These are young people who want to live counterculturally, inspired by what they believe.
Churches have been slow to acknowledge one of the major strengths of the postmodern generation: regardless of their religion or lack thereof, they’re ready to engage in a respectful dialogue of values.
By creating space for honest engagement, we can create room for understanding and respect. But never forget that young people who don’t go to church are still watching how we integrate our values in our community life and our lives as individual Christians. They want to see the difference our values make.
Many churches are much better at stating what we believe than living it. What does it mean to live as people reconciled? Does it make a difference in how we resolve conflicts and disputes within the church? Do we seek to ignore conflict, or do we strive to build peace? How do we project Christ’s love, not only for those who are coming through our doors, but for the neighborhood in which our church is located? Do the love, transformation, and justice we proclaim mean anything to our world?
What does it mean when we preach hospitality? Do our programs and even our seating arrangements on Sunday mornings send the subtle message that single people are inferior to married people? Or that nontraditional families are less Christian than traditional nuclear families? How do we promote genuine diversity? How do we avoid tokenism? How can we stop sending the message that white European families are the norm?
How do we integrate care for creation into every aspect of our communal lives? Does our worship have a negative carbon footprint on the earth? Do we make sustainable choices? Do our building and purchasing choices reflect our values?
Young people want to know that our Christian beliefs really mean something. All our doctrines are great, but if they make no difference in how we live as Christians, then they will make no connection to the lives and concerns of the postmodern generation. If what we believe is true, then everything must reflect that.