June 27, 2012 36 Comments
I have met dozens of young adults (20-35 years old) over the last several years who grew up in the churches of Christ but no longer attend one. I’ve met dozens of others who still attend a church of Christ, at least somewhat regularly, who feel that such a church is no longer the ideal place for them but know of nowhere else to go. I am primarily concerned in this essay with the latter though I will make some reference to the former. These still-attending-but-uncomfortable CoCers are uncomfortable in the churches of their youth for a variety of reasons, the most common of which are:
1. A rejection of the teaching that the only Christians can be found in “the one true Church,” namely the churches of Christ. These young adults, either through their own theological reflection or interaction with Christians not in the CoC, have come to discern that God’s work and people is much bigger than the few million people who attend CoCs around the world. Thus, hearing sermons and attending Bible studies where their friends, who often display the spirit of Christ in ways they haven’t experienced in their own church, are condemned to hell are moments that scream to them “you and those like you aren’t welcome here.”
2. A rejection of what they interpret as an overbearing legalism in the CoC. For example, they find the arguments about the use of instruments in worship, or more recently “praise teams,” to be narrow-minded and intended to exclude people from God’s church more than to be faithful to God’s will.
3. A dissatisfaction with the teaching and ministries in many CoCs. These young adults feel that church curriculum is either geared toward youth, married couples with children, or the elderly, and that they are, therefore, implicitly excluded from the work of the church. In addition, they find the focus of CoC ministries so overwhelmingly centered around Bible study that they feel the CoC is all “talk” and no “walk.” They often yearn to find a CoC with thriving service and justice ministries that engage their community in an intimate and helpful way.
4. A discomfort or rejection of the ways that many CoCs are explicitly or implicitly aligned with the conservative political movement in the United States. These young adults are either politically progressive or liberal or are simply uncomfortable with the political zealousness of the leaders in many congregations. They don’t recognize an easy alliance between the Christian faith and conservative politics (or any political parties/ideologies at all). If they don’t identify as conservative but believe the ethos of the church is one where faithfulness = conservativeness they intuit that they are unwelcome.
5. A desire for racial and cultural diversity that is sorely lacking in the CoCs they know. CoCs tend to be rather homogenous and segregated. Young adults today, especially those who grew up in/live in metro areas, experience diversity at school, work, and at play. They simply don’t understand how the church can still be so segregated and, quite frankly, feel uncomfortable about it and feel that it is a sign that something must be wrong.
However, these young adults also love the CoC. No, they really do. They appreciate the ways they were taught the Bible as a child (and know it much better than their friends who grew up in a different church tradition). They have fond memories of church potlucks, retreats, and camps (especially in youth group). They actually prefer acappella worship to singing with a praise band. They love the relationships they have forged with fellow CoC members. These young adults are CoC through-and-through and don’t want to be any other way.
Except they feel as if they have no other choice, but they don’t know which choice of other church to make. And so they remain. Uncomfortable. Unfulfilled. And gradually losing the vitality of their faith.
Often young adults who feel this way make their way to an American evangelical-type church. This makes sense for a lot of reasons. The main ones being their congregational nature and their emphasis on individual reading of scripture, without the same ethos of exclusion and legalism. (There’s also the distance from the rest of the Christian tradition that CoCs and evangelicals share.) Such young adults often make their way to some local megachurch or community church and feel like they’ve found a place familiar enough to be comfortable but different enough to have made a real change.
“Homeless” young adults haven’t made such a drastic move, or are uncomfortable with having done so, and still feel some sense of loyalty to the CoC. However, they often know that if they don’t live in a select few major cities (Atlanta, Austin, Dallas, etc.) or near a flagship CoC university (Pepperdine, ACU, Lipscomb) they won’t ever find a CoC in which they can feel comfortable.
And so they float from church to church never making a deep commitment to a place. Clearly, this is problematic for a number of reasons. As much as Americans want to think otherwise, the vast majority people cannot have a thriving and healthy spiritual life outside the regular fellowship with and deep commitment to a community of believers.
Some of these young adults are lost to the CoC; our churches failed them. They found another home. However, many are still “homeless.” And if you, ________ Church of Christ, hope to keep them off the spiritual streets you must address the concerns listed above or a significant portion of an entire generation will be lost to you. You must move beyond exclusion, legalism, the religious right, and the cultural homogeneity of your congregational life.
And to the homeless CoC young adults I’ve been writing about, I encourage you not to give up on those people who loved you, formed you, and introduced you to Christ (at least not with haste). No, they are not perfect, but neither is any other church. And please think long and hard before becoming an evangelical. Believe it or not, they can be just as legalistic and exclusionary; they have often acquiesced even more to the not-so-laudable aspects of American culture than the American-bred CoCs you know; they are just as committed to right-wing politics; and they can be just as racially and culturally homogenous. On top of that, they have often abandoned those things the CoC got right; namely, a love of and commitment to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, a desire to read scripture as more than just a feel-good devotional book, and a robust commitment to and theology of “the Church.” If you have made the decision to “go evangelical” I do not begrudge you, but if you haven’t yet and are considering it I encourage you to do so only with deep discernment. [And believe it or not (and I know we were taught not to), going to one of the "denominations" rather than an evangelical church might feel more like home (once you get used to the liturgy). Most of them do practice baptism and the Lord's Supper, after all.]
Finally, if you are “homeless” and can’t find a home in a CoC don’t give up on church altogether. Go somewhere else. God will meet you there even if those you love in the CoC of your youth won’t. And it may be home.