A few months ago, USA Today published an opinion piece by Stasia Datskovska entitled, "Churches Could Win Back Teens Like Me If They Were More Welcoming and Less Judgemental." It's an article I'd highly encourage you to read, as it seems to be an accurate barometer of our cultural movement and the felt needs of the next generation. There is undoubtedly much to be affirmed in her frustration; early on in the piece, Stasia recounts her anger when a woman in the church chastised her mother for wearing pants instead of an ankle-length skirt for Easter Sunday mass. As a pastor, I'd be frustrated by that exchange, too; nobody is ushered into the kingdom of God through the ministry of the "dress-code police." But she misses the mark in the subsequent paragraph, where she offers her prescription for necessary changes in the church:
From the standpoint of teens like me, many Christian denominations are too deeply rooted in tradition. Whatever this "tradition" comes dressed as, we find it a turnoff. Because of this, church should offer more open-ended resources to teens — such as meditation, discussion groups and even nature walks. In other words, the Christian church experience needs to start transcending the traditional and adapting to the times. Only then can teens start finding meaning in church beyond traditional mass, and realizing they can come to God in their own way without indoctrination or an intermediary.
Several things strike me as odd about this proposal. The first is how consumeristic it is. It's as if to say, "Teens like me don't want what to buy what you're selling; here are some new products you should offer." To be clear, Christian theologians in every age must do the hard work of contextualizing the gospel and making use of the social and technological resources that God gives us. I think that's a good thing; I am, after all, writing this as a blog. But it's hard to escape the fact that Stasia talks about the church as though we are a business selling a product, and since nobody she knows likes the product, the church should diversify their inventory. It's an illustration of the way western consumerism has found its way even into our spirituality. When the church becomes nothing more than a store with declining sales, it's easy to suggest that maybe Christians should start selling something else more profitable. But this is not what Christianity is. We are not selling a product, but proclaiming a gospel, we are announcing the decisive and saving action of God in history through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. How we contextualize and articulate that will change across time and cultures, but as long as the church is Christian, this gospel remains the only product on our shelves.
It's also interesting to see Stacia long for a church that encourages people to "Come to God in their own way without indoctrination or an intermediary." At its core, this is a fundamentally unchristian way of understanding our human condition. From the Old Testament onward, one thing is clear: We are not in a position to approach God on our terms, we approach God on His terms. Whether those terms are through the complex rituals of purification for the high priest, or St. Paul's statement that there is one mediator between God and man. We may all have our own stories and our own journey's towards faith, but we all enter into communion with God through the same door: Jesus. Christianity cannot be a choose your own adventure, which all ends up at the same destination. When we attempt this, we may have religion and spirituality, but we no longer have Christianity.
I've been critical thus far, yet I do think there's much to commend in this article. I, along with Stacia, long for a church that fosters discussion about the most important issues in life. Indeed, I think it's critical at this moment in history. The next generation is not asking the same questions as the previous one. There's no way that they could. Our world is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Those who've grown up in our current climate have a different set of concerns, and they need space to give voice to them. We, in turn, need to hear them out. The hard work of contextualizing the eternal gospel requires that we listen well. Sometimes, we will find that there are questions we have not thought to ask, and it will drive us back to the Scriptures to think more carefully. We might also find that bringing the eternal gospel to bear on a new generation requires us to rethink, not what we communicate, but how we communicate. Even here, we are not in uncharted territory, and this has always been the case. Yet whatever harvest may come from this new season of the church age, it is must grow from the eternal soil of the faith delivered to the saints once and for all. Every other field is fallow ground.