This is a guest post by Daniel Darling, author of the new book Real: Owning Your Christian Faith. Real is being released tomorrow.
In the last several decades there has been much angst over the exodus of young people from the evangelical church. Seems every year there is a survey letting us know how poor of a job we are doing at retaining our young. And as I speak, books are continuing to hit the bookstore shelves with all sorts of prescriptions for stemming the tide.
Interestingly, the solutions are all over the map. Critiques of the Church come from the left and the right, from rock-ribbed creationists and theistic evolutionists, from serious Reformed types to pragmatic church growth gurus, from right wing political provocateurs to left wing prophets of justice.
There are good elements of truth in most of the anti-Church screeds. But I wonder if, in all our self-criticism, we’ve missed a simple, yet profound truth at the heart of 2nd Generation rebellion.
It’s the old-school doctrine of original sin. Of course every self-respecting evangelical would easily stand up and defend this doctrine as essential orthodoxy. But in our practice, in our angst about the next generation, we subtly deny it. In our faith statements we’ve become John Calvin, but in our assessment of the Church, we’ve become Charles Finney.
Let me explain. There is an unwritten rule in evangelical parenting that goes like this: if you raise your children right, “God’s way,” then you are guaranteed success. Your children will not only be converted, they will grow in the grace and knowledge of God. And if they don’t, then something is wrong with your parenting or the methodology or the systems in your faith environment.
Nobody quite says it like this, of course. But we easily point to Proverbs 22:6 and misapply this verse as a proof text for the right parenting formula. We forget that a) proverbs are proverbs, not commands or promises. Furthermore, we forget that even children born into spiritually rich, grace-based, intentional environments possess a depraved heart set against God. We forget that the work of conversion and sanctification cannot be produced by tweaking the system or changing the paradigm.
This supernatural work can only be done by an invasion of the divine, by God’s Holy Spirit.
Now I’m not saying parents and churches and systems have no influence or are unimportant. The Scriptures a full of parenting and discipleship guidance. Parents bear an enormous responsibility and churches are tasked with discipling the children in their midst.
But, humans are not tasked with the results. God is.
This paradigm shift is huge. It frees us from the pressure-based, peer-reviewed, competitive parenting that pervades many evangelical churches. It invites a spirit of repentance, dependence and faith on the part of parents and key spiritual influencers. And it keeps us from usurping the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping our children’s hearts.
An Acute Problem
This misplaced emphasis is why I think growing up in the evangelical church has its unique struggles, struggles few understand. And it’s why I wrote my book, Real.
Now don’t get me wrong, I loved growing up in the faith. I loved being in Church and hearing my father read the Scriptures to us as children. I loved the spiritual discussions we had. And today I love the church so much I decided to pastor one.
So unlike most coming of age church memoirs, this one is not an anti-church screed. Instead, I speak to 2nd Generation Christians about our unique struggles and how we can make the faith of our parents our own.
Let me explain. My parents came to faith as adults, so the decision to follow Jesus was a big one, especially for my mother who was raised in Judiasm. They had seen the emptiness of life without Christ and had no desire to go back.
But for me, it was a different story. I became a Christian at the age of four. And while my conversion is no less miraculous as my parents and my heart was no less darkened, I did not experience the vivid contrast between life in Christ and life without Him.
So inside my heart, there was always this little whisper, Maybe this Jesus stuff is a bit overblown? Maybe the world is actually more fun and less miserable than Mom and Dad say it is. Maybe other religions really are equal to Christianity?
My heart, to quote the hymnwriter and preacher, Robert Robinson, was “prone to wander.” There was always within me a lurking desire to chuck everything I knew and explore life on my own.
This wasn’t a reaction to legalism or abuse or anything in my church or home environment. This was just purely a heart of rebellion.
Of course every child of God is tempted to run from the One who redeemed him, but for 2nd Generation kids, I think it’s particularly acute. Mainly because we have not know anything but Christianity.
I’m not discounting negative factors that drive kids from the church. But I wonder if these are merely factors, not causes. That perhaps the enemy targets the hearts of those closest to Jesus by whispering the lie he first uttered in the Garden, the lie that Christ is not sufficient to fulfill all of life’s deep desires. That there is a world out there the Master has forbidden you from exploring.
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