By Derek Penwell
“What do you want to do when you get out of college?” That was the question on the table. Summer camp. We were gathered together with one of the grizzled veteran counselors to talk about what we planned to do with our lives.
Having just graduated high school, we found the whole conversation a bit abstract. We didn’t know. And we certainly didn’t want to be reminded about the fact that we didn’t know.
But somebody asked the question, and we were all raised with the kind of manners that wouldn’t allow us to say what we were thinking: “I really don’t want to think about this. Ask me about the beach, or about what we’re going to do when we get to college. After college is just too far away.”
One girl said, “Well, I don’t want to have to do a job I hate, where I’m stuck doing the same thing over and over—like a factory. And I don’t want to work someplace that makes me do busy work just to satisfy some kind of Human Resources directive intended to create a ‘positive working environment.’”
“Ok. What kind of working environment do you want to work in?”
“I don’t want work with a lot of passive-aggressive people—you know, the kind who get mad about little things and start putting up signs about not eating their yogurt or taking the stapler off their desk.”
“You run into a lot of sign hangers, a lot of yogurt and stapler thieves in high school, did you?”
“No, but I hear my dad talk about it all the time.”
A long-haired guy in a denim jacket and boots said, “I don’t want to have do any job that requires me to wear a name tag or be a part of a ‘team’” (his use of air quotes tipping us off to his studied use of sarcasm.)
I jumped in and said, “Look, I just don’t want to have to get up too early in the morning.” I was not particularly ambitious.
The counselor, showing signs of frustration, said, “You’ve obviously thought about this. Here’s what I want, though. Tell me what you want to do, not what you want to avoid doing. What are your dreams? What makes you excited enough to get out of bed in the morning? What do you care about so much you’d be willing to die for?”
The impression many young adults who’ve lost any desire to associate themselves with the church feel like they’ve heard ad nauseum an answer to the questions, “What do Christians want to avoid? What do Christians hate? What kinds of things are Christians willing to kill for?”
As cliché as it may sound, more people in emerging generations know Christianity by what it stands against than by what it stands for. Jesus, though he clearly had strong opinions about what people should stay away from, seemed on balance more concerned about the kind of things in which people should be investing their lives.
This full-throated commitment to doing something got Jesus in trouble. In Matthew, he is contrasted with the ascetic John the Baptist: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!’”
It’s important to point out that Jesus drew the contrast between himself and John the Baptist to indicate that there’s just no pleasing some people, no matter what you do. However, it is worth noting that Jesus developed a reputation not for the things he avoided, but for the things he threw himself into.
In a post-denominational world the church must be aware of the widely held perception that it cares more about keeping people from doing things than in giving them the resources they need to live and flourish, and, finally, to follow Jesus. As commitment to mainline denominations deteriorates, the church would do well to think more intentionally about how it embodies its vision of the reign of God.
Justice. Equity. Mutuality. Community. Compassion for the poor, the outcast, the powerless. These are positive visions.
“But isn’t that just a rehash of the traditional liberalism mainline denominations have been trying to interest people in since the latter part of the nineteenth century? If it were such a winning strategy, why are mainline denominations dying?”
Excellent point! I realize I’m trying to thread a pretty fine needle here. What I’m suggesting, though, isn’t a strategy (I don’t think traditional liberal mainliners necessarily thought the Social Gospel was just a strategy either). Making strategic decisions about justice in God’s reign as a way to attract more people misses the whole point. Justice, equity, mutuality, etc. are what we think Jesus came to establish, not well-devised membership recruitment tools.
In a post-denominational world the church needs to quit thinking first about how to save its own bacon, and start devoting more thought to doing the right thing—because we have no other way of conceiving our lives as followers of Jesus.