What motivates us to reach out? Can you picture anyone making the effort to invite others to church for the church’s sake? That seemed the sentiment coming out this past GA. While we should feel urgency for the institution, it will only stay healthy as long as we have a genuine love for people outside of it. Genuine love means that we are interested in pursuing others’ spiritual growth, not merely social justice. But since we have exchanged true evangelism for a frenzy of special interests, we hardly use the institution to grow people, rather, we tend to see people as a means to grow the institution.
In fact, with such an emphasis on personal autonomy, there is little mystery why the institution is shrinking. We have so championed the cause of the individual, pursuing justice on each individual’s own terms, we are left with the form of a national church, but little substance. If individual rights is our cause, then individualism will be the result. We are becoming a loose collection of persons in close proximity who value different things. What shared vision can we transfer to the next generation? We have a shared form, but do we have shared substance?
An example of form without substance involves a Presbytery youth rally I attended. The form of this event came from the Baptists to show kids across the city that they are part of something bigger. But what was that bigger thing? No one mentioned the name of Jesus at this event or at subsequent Presbytery events. Students were left with a “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Later they asked, “What was the point? If it was just a social gathering, then forget it. We can do that better on our own.” Can we win hearts with something only vaguely spiritual? Do we believe we can transfer institutional loyalty without addressing people’s deepest spiritual need?
Most of those students—almost a thousand—are now finished with college and thinking about a career and a family. Obviously their spiritual lives do not hinge on that one event. But any lack of commitment to the church that we see in younger generations has everything to do with this kind of method-without-message approach. If our form lacks substance, if it omits a clear call to Christ, then what will the next generation see in the church that it cannot find elsewhere?
What I experienced in Richmond this past summer was consistent with that youth rally. There was passion for the church, but where was the passion for Christ? People are hungry spiritually. Until we repent of our apparent shame of the Gospel that meets this need, then we will and should continue to shrink. As Chesterton warned years ago, “I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it.”
What will inspire the next generation to take the baton? The answer is not new methods alone, or some general call to institutional loyalty. Certainly we should try out new forms. As Leith Anderson says, the seven last words of a dying church are: “We’ve never done it that way before.” But first and foremost, we need to imitate Christ. After all, it was not Paul’s compassion for people that made him so effective in reaching them; rather, it was his passion for Christ.
TIM FILSTON is minister of congregational life at Signal Mountain church near Chattanooga, Tenn.
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