From the Editor: Firewall

Ray Waddle

“Why don’t more young people go to church?” You can Google and get answers, lists of them, in a matter of nanoseconds. The answers and reasons are many and familiar, sometimes contradictory. Emerging adults are overwhelmed and overscheduled. “Christian” is politically discredited. They’re sick of fast-paced worship entertainment. Or, real-time worship is too slow. Online spirituality is more immediate. Or, ancient liturgy is more authentic, something real to the touch.

A lot of these make sense. But after a while, I quit searching the question. An orthodoxy of answers solidifies. A faint scent of blame comes wafting across the tidy bullet summaries – a blame of younger people.

Missing from these lists and litanies, often, is an acknowledgement by elders that young people are living in moral and psychological conditions they inherited, conditions created by others. An older crowd – my crowd – has overseen or prearranged much of it: a world of stark inequalities, computer takeovers, political dysfunction, Wall Street worship, pluralism, automation, debt, and noise.

Two themes especially come to mind.

1) Since the end of the Cold War, a new revolution has been unstoppable – an efficient partnership between globalized capitalism and technology that is remaking social expectations and behavior. Today’s go-go yet so-so economy rewards multitasking, speed, 24/7 networking, the next sleepless competitive edge.

Indeed, for four decades we’ve seen an intensification of corporate branding, individualism, and entrepreneurship. In his book The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics, Bruce Schulman says the counterculturalism of the 1960s got revised in the 70s, and today we live in its aftermath: Capitalist entrepreneurship, not street protests and technocratic solutions, has become the engine of social transformation and personal empowerment.

This has reshaped the spiritual quest. It’s more personal, customized, improvisational, less reliant on the formulations of tradition. People are curating their own narratives.

2) The word “Christian” itself has mutated over the last 40 years. The public career of the word since the 1970s deserves a book in itself. Bluntly put, “Christian” has been weaponized. In the public mind, “Christian” has become synonymous with conservative ideology, voter blocs, tax relief, and war. As a result, the word “Christian” has been dramatically forsaken by potential believers – and by droves of active churchgoers – who don’t share the politics. This includes young people by the millions.

Despite an ear for liturgy and a heart for Golden Rule, moderate and liberal churches have been unable to break this retail monopoly of Christian identity by others. Seeing no room for their own imagination in the available choices, younger people move on. They seek freedom elsewhere.

Owning up to these developments, we might start a new conversation about the secular values that really rule the day and how a more honest gospel witness is a joint adventure between generations.

Preparing this Spring issue of Reflections has made me more hopeful of the possibilities. In these last several months, talking over coffee or witnessing their worship experiments, I’ve met admirable individuals – young ministers, theologians, musicians – involved in a serious search about the meaning of God and discipleship, a hunger to embody belief with practical action, an impatience to leave behind many of the debates of old.

Whenever I’ve mentioned to them the good old days when public theologians landed on the cover of Time (Reinhold Niebuhr in 1948, Paul Tillich in 1959), and Billy Graham was America’s pastor, they shrug. They have no nostalgia for that. Things weren’t so great back then: Cold War, segregation, the silence of women and minorities. Young people are defining their own debates. They’re waking up to a new world every day, one they didn’t necessarily ask for, but they’re entering it with good will and verve. They’re alert to new moves of the Spirit.

I’m grateful to the contributing writers in this Reflections issue for sharing their insights, allowing readers to eavesdrop on a spectrum of arguments and intuitions that are finding the light of day in this new unfolding era.

A recurring theme in these pages is that the face of Christian faith will surely change but it will never disappear. My stubborn hunch is that the church will always provide a firewall that resists the bullying of ideology and the corrosions of hopelessness – a firewall of baptism, scripture, prayer, bread, wine, eye contact, hospitality, and reconciliation. The next generation, and the one after, will see to that.