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Essay

Loosening Our Grip

By May 9, 2014 No Comments
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In my past life I was a high school baseball coach. I remember trying to teach 14-15 year old kids to pitch. Most of them would grab the ball and chuck it as hard they could, usually over throwing the catcher. If they had never pitched before they would usually hold the ball with a death grip like they were trying to crush the life out of it. Inevitably, it would sail wide left or right of the catcher and go the backstop. “Loosen your grip,” I would say. “Hold the ball like you’re holding a girl’s hand”—blank stares. “Ok, hold the ball like you’re holding an egg.” Sure enough, most of them developed better control as they loosened their grip.

A similar situation is developing in North American Christianity. The research suggests there is a crisis of faith among young adults as they leave traditional forms of Christian faith—sometimes leaving the church altogether.  Understandably, pastors and parents are anxious, worried about the faith lives of young people and the future of the church as a whole. Some blame the church for not engaging the issues and questions young people are facing. They suggest that if the church took seriously the lived cultural experience of young people, if they engaged such issues as vocation and sexuality for example, young people might be more inclined to be part of the Christian community. As it stands, young people are going elsewhere for answers to their questions. Others blame the adults of the community, suggesting that the beliefs and practices of many churches have veered from orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right practice.) Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book Almost Christian,  argues that the belief and practice of many adults in the church can be described as a form of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”—a term coined by sociologist Christian Smith to refer to a generic “God will help me with my problems” type of Christianity.

This suggests two poles—two ways by which the Christian community attempts to address the problem of young people and faith. Either they circle the wagons and focus upon developing the right form of belief and practice, teetering on the edge of a sectarian separation from the world, or they go down the path of accommodation, trying to fit the gospel into the categories and questions of the broader culture. The problem is that they are both grounded in anxiety; they both hold on too tightly to the lives of young people by working to keep them in the church.  I would like to suggest a third way: let young people go.

What I mean is that the church should remember why it exists. It doesn’t exist for itself, it doesn’t exist to keep people in; it exists as a sign of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. This means that while the church must take theological belief and liturgical practice seriously—as these beliefs and practices are essential to the identity of the community—the function of belief and practice is to form and shape people to go back into the world. At the center of the Christian life, according to Paul, is the practice of love.  Love does not control or anxiously hold on to people, love opens us up to the other; we let go of our agendas and projects and enter into the lived experience of young people.

Our task is not to make sure our churches still exist in 50 or 100 years, nor is it making sure young people come to church. Our task as the Christian community is to enter into the lives of young people, to be present with them in the midst of their joy and suffering, as signs of God’s love for them in Jesus Christ.

This post was originally written for another blog that can found here:

http://yalt.crcna.org/loosening-our-grip/

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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