Perhaps surprising to those who know me, the problem I see is not that young adults are not for the most part blindly following the doctrinal assertions of their elders but that they are. Blind theological conservatism is a blight on the NZ church and may end up being the demise of significant portions of it. I have various issues with mainstream church life and doctrine amongst churches which people in my age group are attending in large numbers; most significant I think are some serious problems with theological method. I’m not a theologian and perhaps it is arrogant of me to pretend to have informed views on these things; I’ll let you make what you will of this. I’m sorry for not sticking to the stereotype of the mindless carefree happy-clappy Christian – I freely admit that my cynicism often exceeds what might be useful for edification. Feel free to blame the university, prideful intellectualism, cognitive dissonance brought on by studying bio/phil, or what have you for this woeful situation; but please do keep reading regardless.
The main stream of young adults who’ve stayed within the protestant/charismatic churches beyond their teenage years are not, in my experience, wildly off-centre in their theology or practice. Sure, there are unhelpful emphases out there, and some trajectories in the messages that are being most regularly heard (e.g. a focus on feelings, ad hoc inclusion of diverse theologies based on their attractiveness, prosperity theology, shallowness, naïve panderings to postmodernism, lack of interest in Bible-focussed discipleship …) are quite concerning, but overall I think things are kept roughly in line with historic orthodoxy through the sheer impetus which the evangelical movement with its associated ‘parachurch’ resources & organisations has built up around itself over the last 50 years. The evangelistic impulse is also probably quite important. That evangelicalism today has a soft theologically ‘liberal’ fringe which goes largely unchallenged suggests to me that the central truths are held to for largely historical reasons rather than as a matter of conviction and understanding.
The widely accepted theological conclusions of yesteryear are still widely accepted, and this situation is I suspect helped in a short-term way by a general antipathy towards questioning things in evangelical circles. The problem is that young adults don’t know why the conclusions associated with evangelicalism are held; the reasoning behind the results is opaque, because the memory of this subculture, in its pragmatism and experientialism, has forgotten it. Some people will trust their elders on the matter, but when push comes to shove and the elders get questioned, those facing doubts are likely to be left with platitudes and anti-intellectual admonitions rather than the substance of the Christian faith. With the assertion that questioning is bad goes the assumption that questioning will result in rejecting the core of the faith; in actuality, questioning can lead to clarifying what is at the core and rejecting what is merely the accumulated debris of misled tradition. Regaining the reasoning in some institutional way is absolutely crucial if evangelicalism is to retain its focus and effectiveness. The substance required constitutes not only a list of reasons, but a method for working out true conclusions, along with a justification of that method. I think we still retain most of the conclusions today, but having lost the method and associated discernment, the future is wide open, and disturbingly so.
Evangelicalism is a confessional stance rather than merely a tribal affiliation or aesthetic preference. Some will push back and say that it’s all about a relationship, not mere religious doctrine – and I agree that ticking the boxes on a list of doctrine does not suffice. What is needed is a total orientation of one’s volition, one’s ‘heart’, towards the only true God, who is revealed in Jesus Christ. This is a relationship made possible by God’s free revelation of Himself (rather than our own studying or efforts in any way), and should be accompanied by zeal, but this zeal if it is to be directed truth-wards must be founded on knowledge (Romans 10:2). Following on from this, the appropriate method for gaining theological knowledge will involve paying close attention to God’s revelation – i.e. studying the Bible. This may seem to some like either dry rationalism (how medieval to consider that old book central! Can’t God just speak to me directly?) or naïve fideism (that book is irrelevant to life; if a deity actually exists, it’s not to be found in there!) but it is neither. It is not dry or irrelevant, because the living God has chosen to reveal Himself in this way, and it is not senseless because the claims do stack up when considered in relation to external factors and internal coherency.
Modern evangelical/charismatic Christians will give lip-service to the Bible, but will often prioritise their own intuitions and cultural understandings of a passage, seeking primarily to find out something that speaks subjectively to them rather than to seek in the text for the original objective intention and its reasonable application today. Any conclusion that ‘sounds right’ (a kind of aesthetic criterion) will suffice, and must be seen as an equally valid interpretation to any other, regardless of the actual logic of the passage; when one person’s interpretation doesn’t sound right to another, then things get awkward, but so long as noone gets judgmental there’s no real issue – or so the standard line runs. There is more that could be said, but I’m not the person to say it – it just seems to me that if we actually want to hear what God is saying to the Church, we need to inculcate the habit of careful exegesis of individual passages combined with systemising across the whole canon in light of norms found running throughout scripture. The end results of this project will differ in some points, but adherence to a common method and common basic values is a far safer basis for evangelical theological unity than adherence to statements of faith for their own sake. (Statements of faith can be very important, but we need people to know why we hold to them, not just that we do. A written statement of faith isn’t a bad start though, and probably better than an amorphous sense of what the lowest common denominator amongst our ‘theological tribe’ is, as such things can shift rapidly in response to cultural pressures).
In saying all of this, the astute amongst you may detect hints of the ‘new reformed’ movement influencing me. And you’d be quite right; the significant growth in the ‘young, restless, and reformed’ across the globe has been to my mind a remarkable move of God which will hopefully bear a lot of fruit. The movement at its best is intellectually serious, passionate, creative in its methods, concerned with reaching our post-Christian society rather than just building another subculture, and has a hard edge to its teaching which the church in the West has largely lost. Reading and listening to resources coming out of the Reformed tradition has I think got me to grasp the kernel of the gospel more clearly, to hold more firmly to Christ’s sufficiency, and to piece together a more consistent theology relating to a range of issues; and I am most grateful for this. But it is not perfect or completely independent of some unhelpful trends in the wider culture, and like all movements has some blindspots – perhaps more on these challenges in another post; for now, I hope to see more people engaging more fully with God’s word, in community, for His glory and the common good.