The Nitpicker’s Corner: Church

By taking a fly-on-the-wall perspective of twenty-something males who think they know everything, I should go ahead and clarify that I am well aware of the potential Catch-22 here. By writing about how obnoxious it is that twenty-something males believe they know everything, it  in turn could very well sound like I’m doing the exact thing I find so annoying—claiming I know everything about the twenty-something male and why he is wrong; in other words, acting exactly like the thing I find frustrating. This is why from the outset I admit that I’ve been guilty and am still guilty from time to time of climbing up on that high horse, that colossal Clydesdale, and proclaiming myself all-knowing. But God continues to give me rude awakening after rude awakening, and the insight he gives me is not the kind that emboldens my faith in my own knowledge and understanding; rather, it convinces me of just how clueless I am, how much humility I need, and how plainly inept I am apart from his grace. So when this post examines why twenty-something males who were raised in the Church seem to have a vendetta against her, I write this not boastfully, but rather, ashamedly as I have had my moments of being content to stand on the front lines of those intangible demonstrations.

You go to a religiously-affiliated university where legalism—rather than freedom in Christ—is rampant, and suddenly you’re confronted by everything that makes your religious foundation spin. Rather than being content to have Christ as your perfect peace and just leave it at that, you decide to try and restore the conditions of things around you, all the while believing it is done for the glory of God, when in reality it is steeped in nothing but your own selfishness. Fast forward to my junior year of college when I have friends asking me if I like anything about church. My cynicism (which to myself I denied existed) was repulsive and possessed no shred of redemption or restoration, which people always long for.

Us twenty-something males have easily convinced ourselves we aren’t being cynical, that what we’re speaking is truth (because we are so wise). We begin to tell ourselves this dissatisfaction is actually healthy and that it’s the eternal optimists who won’t ever do very much because they never think anything is wrong in the first place (while there can be some truth to that, it doesn’t come close to possessing as much of a black-and-white nature as know-it-all males might hope). And so, we’re under the impression we’ve assumed a balance between obnoxious happiness and parasitic negativity. In reality we’re probably further on the end of the latter because you know it’s bad when one of your closest friends looks at you and asks, “Is there anything about church you think is good?” My answer to that question was, “Of course there is,” but thankfully this friend would not let me off the hook so easily and asked, “What then?” I couldn’t answer her.

The twenty-something male wants to rally people to his cause, but he doesn’t realize he repels them again and again. Now, we do need to ask a question so as to not be completely down on all those guys who think they know everything, and that is, “Is there any truth in what they’re saying?” Yes, there is. Peel away the selfishness and standoffish behavior, and there are actually good, right intentions beneath it all. But those things of nobility turn up missing when these guys go about fashioning their opinions in such a distasteful way. I firmly believe it all comes back to listening. The man who is not slow to speak has little good lying ahead of him.

As far as I can tell, most of these twenty-something males believe this: they put no stock in church, but they have tremendous belief in community. This is a good thing worth encouraging. Our hope is not in cathedrals. It is in Christ who, being the very nature of God, is essentially relational. But beyond that belief, irony seeps in because most of these guys’ actions make their own stance, beliefs, and arguments illegitimate. They reject the Church because it doesn’t provide true community, but by rejecting the Church they shun its people, and by shunning its people they close the door on ever attempting community with those individuals of the same faith. In their search for community, they end up destroying it. The result is these guys and their agendas now lack substance. And just about everybody can see the contradiction except them.

I’ve found myself in this weird limbo between two generations of thought. The older generation—say, my parents’ and grandparents’ age bracket—places so much importance on church. If things aren’t going very well for you, the answer is always, “Well have you been going to church lately? You should be going to church,” as if this will fix everything. On the other end of the extreme you have people from my generation who believe we should just entirely wash our hands of the whole thing because of how there doesn’t need to be any stock put in church. And the odd thing is that both sides are right in some ways and wrong in others.

My parents’ generation has to stop believing church is the end-all answer. That puts more pressure on churches than they can stand up under. They’ll collapse. Many of them do. My generation, though, doesn’t seem to understand that, in their search for “true Christianity” (is there such a thing?), they’re shooting themselves in the foot with their approach. They’re negating their own argument almost before it ever leaves their mouths.

If they’re always referencing how bad the Church is, but they’re doing nothing to engage it in a non-confrontational manner and not willing to walk alongside it and within it, they need to stop talking. But usually my generation’s decision is to just withdraw when they get frustrated. That is incredibly weak. But even if they do stick around, their response is to try and change everything to the way they like it. This is an asinine goal to try and bring about because the moment you create the Church that has everything the way you like it, you will cease to grow. But they try anyway, and all it amounts to is their possession of a combative personality. Rather than let themselves be challenged (and, thus, grow from the older people around them), they want to challenge everyone else. They want to lead and never follow, even though I would very matter-of-factly speak for my entire generation and admit right now, “We know nothing,” and could stand to learn from people decades wiser than ourselves.

My belief is the twenty-something males (but they’re certainly not the only ones) have forgotten about the root purpose of the Church—to be the hands and feet of Christ, and thus, a conduit for service. Young people will say the Church doesn’t serve enough, and that’s what’s so frustrating to them. But again, withdrawing from the Church doesn’t solve that problem; it just spreads it. The youthful know-it-alls throw up their hands when something upsets them (a.k.a., doesn’t suit them), but the Church has never existed to serve us. I do not walk through the doors to get; I go to give because almost always it is through serving that you will be fulfilled and nourished (i.e., you will grow). When you pour yourself out, you leave ample room to be poured into. The twenty-something male rarely gives of himself (other than dispensing hot air), and he leaves no room of his vessel to take on new life from those around him who possess a much stronger, calmer faith.

Are there twenty-something males who aren’t like this? Yes, and it’s interesting how the older generation describes them as being men of character, wisdom, and maturity beyond their years. You know things are bad when it’s a sign of abnormality to be coolheaded, patient, and a listener.

Now, for the people dissatisfied with the Church we can ask the following question: is there a time to have thoughtful, respectful conversation over what we could work together on in the Church to improve it? Absolutely, and those dialogues will need to have the perspective of the discontented brought in. But we also have to let the older generation speak because 1) they’re not stupid, 2) they’ve lived longer, 3) they know more about life than we do, 4) God loves them just as much as he does the twenty-something male, and 5) just because they’re older doesn’t automatically qualify them as wrong. In fact, they’re probably right more of the time than we are. I think some of the older generation is just as idealistic as the current younger one. They’ve simply lived long enough to finally realize how hard it is to bring about change, how much tears, effort, and time it requires. In other words, their impulsivity has been put in check. People my age, though, see that and label it as apathy and stringent traditionalism. Is that a fair analysis sometimes? Depending on the church, yes, it definitely can be. But it’s probably not as frequently accurate as we make it out to be.

Even so, I would posit the possibility nitpicking is okay as long as there is a redemptive quality to it. To just sit there and say, “This and that are stupid,” and then walk away from it is excruciatingly pointless. But to call out that which is detrimental and say, “We need to change,” while simultaneously identifying that which is beneficial and saying, “Let’s encourage this,”—that’s something that glorifies the Spirit.

And this is where a realignment in focus could be needed. It’s not about fixing the Church. Our goal is Christ and living a life which continually reflects his praise. Some people (young and old alike) are going to spend all their time preaching so as to resurrect the Church, when in reality the only thing worth preaching is the already resurrected Christ. And the latter is wholly independent of taking place within the confines of a building with a steeple slapped on top of it. But even so, it’s also not about being down on the Church. After reading through Ephesians and really digging into it, it’s nearly impossible to be negative about the Church’s true role. Quite the opposite: it’s very hard to not be excited about it. The only disappointment will come when you see people in the Church not living in freedom and in the Spirit. But washing your hands completely of the entire institution? Paul would be aghast at such an idea.

Maybe the twenty-something male wants it to be an either/or, when in actuality it’s probably going to be a both/and.

Is today’s American Church far, far, far from what we see in Acts? Obviously. Without doubt. Would it be great if it were closer to what the early Church was like, being followers of the Way and not followers of capitalism, the Stars and Stripes, and Western ideals? Again, yes, that would be wonderful, and we must be diligent about putting to death those American gods of the Church. And are most American churches already dead because of their endless affairs with Lady Liberty and Wall Street? Yes, they are. But for those rickety, erratic churches that are still having some impact, we would be remiss to believe we’ve somehow constructed a religious institution that, as a whole, is completely impervious to God’s ability to still work through it. Despite all its imperfections, he still can. He still does. And it’s not our job to try and rewrite the book, but rather, to simply seek his will and then do it, and that will require a lot of dross being scraped off a multitude of congregations. Not that the Church is the answer for effecting God’s will, but to withdraw from the community of faith entirely because it rubs you the wrong way probably won’t increase your chances of achieving his will, either.

But what do I know? So very little. I still have so much life to live, or so one would hope. And I expect each day to make me feel smaller and smaller in the wisdom of God’s presence. What’s the verse? “He must become greater; I must become less” . . . something like that, I think? Most twenty-something males could probably stand to make that their mantra. It’s hard to nitpick in the face of such a dictum.

Much love.

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