“Is your preferred religious movement growing? I don’t care. Is it shrinking? I don’t care. Does it provide social cohesion? I don’t care…. Here’s what matters: trying to discern what’s true and then trying to live in accordance with that. That’s all.”
Alan Jacobs, newly appointed distinguished professor of the humanities at Baylor University, made that disclaimer late July via Twitter.
Although the object of Jacobs’s critique is the way religious groups exploit statistical data in the interest of self-promotion, his basic principle is both clear and refreshingly obvious: truth – and faithfulness to that truth – is what really matters. As Christians, we’re called to follow truth wherever it may lead.
But this pilgrimage isn’t after some metaphysical notion of certainty; rather, it’s after the One who called himself Truth (John 14:6). The crucified Son of God who conquered death is the one with whom we Christians are to be ultimately concerned.
A harmful element
These verses have echoed loudly in my mind as I’ve read articles pondering young people’s exodus from church life, most recently “Why don’t young adults go to church?” in the August MB Herald.
In that piece, Peter Epp critiques the consumerist attitude of the young churchgoer who supplies a list of needs a church must meet before he or she will commit. Epp argues that the Millennial generation (of which both he and I are a part) talks a lot about changes that ought to be made in the church, yet rarely sticks around long enough to actually implement anything. In terms of Epp’s clarion call to commit – the invitation to “walk the talk” as it were – I’m in wholehearted agreement.
However, I’ve come to be convinced that there’s a seriously harmful element in many of these discussions – namely, Christlessness. We’re discussing a piece written about the church – the body of Christ, the community of Spirit-filled people, the family shaped by the gospel of God – yet neither the Triune God nor the gospel are discussed.
It ought to catch our attention when the only characteristics that uniquely define the church are not once mentioned in an earnest reflection on the church.
Epp’s response to those who ask him why he still goes to church is wonderful in many respects. The church is the place where he grows in community with people he wouldn’t otherwise interact with. He draws attention to the depth of diversity among his congregation – different ages, opinions, backgrounds. This is all well and good. The problem is, if I ask, as Epp did, “Where else can I find such community?” I can provide several answers. “The church” is not by any means the sole contender to answer this question.
For what question is “Where else?” the right response? Perhaps we find guidance in Simon Peter’s response when Jesus questioned the Twelve: “‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’… Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:67–69).
Diverse community is a wonderful thing – and we ought to pursue it and rejoice in it. But it can easily be appreciated elsewhere, sometimes in more robust measure. What’s a Millennial to do when, after attending church solely for its sense of community, he or she realizes an even more diverse/vibrant/accepting community is to be found elsewhere? If community is the sole criterion, the choice is already made.
Unless Christ is part of the question, the church is never the necessary answer.
If our answer to “Why church?” is ultimately rooted in anything other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are occupying strange territory. Indeed, it is territory that has proved disastrous throughout history. Anabaptists know this well. Much of the impetus behind the Radical Reformation was the fact that the answer to the questions, “Why church? Why baptism? Why communion? Why fellowship? Why Bible?” was one and the same: we have believed that Jesus is the Holy One of God.
Perhaps the Christian church needs to remind herself of what sets her apart from any other community that has existed in history. And it’s not anything – it’s not anyone – other than Christ. It is his life, work, death, resurrection, ascension, and eternal reign. It is the gospel.
—Michael Morson is director of young adults at Forest Grove Community Church, Saskatoon. He is currently completing an MA at Regent College, Vancouver.