[Another guest blog by Abby Thornton, from the “Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity” conference in Washington, D.C.]
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I spent the first 20 minutes or so of Brian McLaren’s keynote presentation at the Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity conference feeling really depressed. As McLaren began to address the critical question of why this conference is needed, the rationale behind it started to feel like yet another doomsday report on the state of the Church.
Perhaps you have been present for something like this: I listened to McLaren point out that much of the church still lives in a place of wanting to recreate the perceived “glory days” of the 1950s.
That the dropout rates from church for both Protestant and Catholic youth by the time they hit high school and college are astronomical—greater than 80 percent. That, despite our efforts to bring in flash and technology, “if you can track a better than 20% retention rate, you had better let the rest of us know what you’re doing right.”
That the institutional church seems either unwilling or unable to adjust creatively to a rapidly changing culture, stuck instead in ruts of putting out fires and simply trying to survive.
That the majority of people my generation and younger, according to researcher Dave Kinnaman’s study “You Lost Me,” categorize Christians and the Church as being overprotective, shallow, anti-science, repressive, overconfident and unwilling to entertain doubt.
As a young(er) adult who loves the church and still believes both in what the church already is and can become, in spite of VAST flaws, litanies like this break my heart as they seem to lead us towards despair. What’s the hope, then? Do we just need to start the whole thing over from scratch?
In a way, yes: in McLaren’s words, it’s time to break open the box we have placed the faith in and reclaim “whole-life spiritual formation.” For the Church to play its vital role as the Body of Christ, we must step back to examine how we are doing things and ask fresh questions that might lead us onto a healthier course. I am going to spend a lot of time in the coming weeks thinking about a quote McLaren shared from researcher Otto Schmarmer: that “the quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which the people in the system operate.” Ministry with youth and children will flourish, in other words, when all of us—in all age groups—commit ourselves to deepen our own awareness of the task before us. Shaping our youth requires each of us to be reshaped ourselves.
So how do we go about this? McLaren laid out seven things that the church must take on if we are to have the awareness needed to evolve for rising generations: theological detoxification, Christian identity formation, integral mission, lifelong spiritual formation, doctrinal reformulation, rebranding, and sustainable (regenerative) systems. I could spend time unpacking these seven things, but better than these complex terms to me were the questions McLaren challenged us to ask in conjunction with each. What better way to cultivate awareness of these areas of needed growth than with really thoughtful questions such as:
- In a time where “we are dealing with the possibility that Christians will blow up the world,” how do we deal with scriptures and ideas that have become loaded weapons that empower religious violence?
- How can we help our communities claim strong Christian identity without being hostile towards other identities—be they cultural, sexual, religious, or political—developing an “us-ness” that welcomes “other-ness” into “one-anotherness”?
- How many how many culture wars, nuclear wars, and sea level rises will our kids face, and how do we shape a more holistic view of mission in light of this?
- How can we discover new ways of thinking about the biblical narrative that bring healing teaching rather than destructive dogma?
- Instead of wanting to protect our past names by working to save “Baptistism” or “Episcopalianism,” can we seriously consider what we want future generations to call themselves and be known by?
As much as the conversation about how the church is failing depressed me, these questions gave me hope. They certainly don’t provide us with answers; but the exchange of crucial questions can go a long way. On Sunday I preached on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch from Acts 8:26-40—a dialogue that took place entirely in the form of questions but that helped reshape the future direction of the church.
Perhaps this is our time to climb into the chariot together and walk into the baptismal waters with one another simply to exchange questions. In doing so, we might move towards becoming the “regenerative system” McLaren spoke of—one that, even amidst realizations of the depth of work we have left to do, can see the excitement of being at the ground level of something new. I am grateful to McLaren for leading us past the valley of despair into these questions that can help us shape a new kind of future.
[Abby Thornton is pastor of Broadneck Baptist Church in Anapolis, MD. She writes youth Bible study curriculum for Gather ‘Round, a joint publication of the Mennonite Church and Church of the Brethren; and has written adult curriculum materials for Smyth and Helwys, Cokesbury, and the United Church of Christ. For another take on McLaren’s keynote address, Mennonite minister Matt Hickman has posted here. Matt is Associate Pastor of Youth and Family Life at the Mennonite Church of Normal, Illinois. The Twitter stream for the conference is #cynkc.]
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.