Wednesday, December 1, 2010


In the past few weeks I have read a number of items dealing with why young people seem to be leaving the Church and the faith.  You get the typical answers about college and bad influences, about love and shacking up, about intellectual curiosity and expanding doubts, etc...  You hear the same time worn complaints about how irrelevant the Church is and how the whole idea of submitting to a God is foreign to a will seeking to dominate and make all things submit...  Not a whole lot new -- been there... done that (well, some of it, my youthful rebellion was somewhat tamed by living in a dorm at a church college, you know).

Then I read a line (from which source I cannot recall) that said something about when the conflict between belief and behavior becomes unbearable... then something has to give...  Now that set me thinking.  First of all it is a great line -- I wish I had written it.  But it is the crux of the religious dilemma prone to mankind.  The conflict between belief (values, morals, ethics, virtue) and the reality of behavior (real life lived out in the sticky mud of wrongs too easily embraced and rights you cannot get yourself to pursue) -- that is where we are stuck.

The author had it correct.  Something has to give.  You cannot maintain a belief system that is at odds with your behavior for very long and something will give way -- either the belief system will adjust to the behavior or the behavior will be forced to change.  The only other option is unbearable despair that the good that I would, I cannot and the evil that I would not, I do (seems like I have heard this one before).

It seems to me that the bulk of the movement in this tension (at least among younger folks) has been to change the beliefs.  Those under 25 or 30 are much less likely to have a problem with pre-marital sex, homosexuality, recreational drug use, divorce, the morning after pill, the abortion pill, a little theft on the job, internet porn, and, situation ethics, in general.  Now, don't get me wrong -- I am not saying that they have a corner on sin.  But youth have learned well the lessons of their forbearers and have done a pretty good job at relativizing their beliefs to fit what works in their lives.  A little sex, a little drugs, a little rock and roll... (to paraphrase a sing and a movie) how bad is it, really?  Since for many young folks, going to Church equates with a guilt trip, ditch the guilt trip and stick with what feels good.

I suppose I could talk about changing the behavior to match the beliefs, but that seems rather obvious.  So these two choices or despair is the only option, right?  What about grace?  St. Paul seems to know well the conflict between belief and behavior and even the choice toward belief did not seem to hit the ball out of the park.  He was the righteous of the righteous and for all his giving up of the good times, his righteousness was only skin deep.  The encounter with Christ was not only the illumination of grace but the startling awareness that he had only skimmed the surface of the sin that hid under that veneer of righteousness -- knowledge that threw him even more powerfully into the arms of the Holy One who is also the Grace Giver.

It seems that when I read about young folks who have walked away from the Church and the faith, what I hear most of all is just how poorly we have taught and instructed them in the power of grace to resolve the terrible tension between the holiness expected and the holiness delivered by our pious beliefs and earnest lives.  I am not talking about the cheap grace that lets you off the hook, tells you God knows how hard it is to be good and wipes the slate clean so that we can be bad again, but with the caution to more careful in being bad and not to forget where you can get your grace fix the next time it all becomes unbearable.  I am talking about the grace the supplies our missing righteousness, transforms the heart and our desires, and leads us to see the Law not only as curb and mirror but also guide.  It seems to me that our poor catechesis has left these young folks with two equally bad choices -- the erosion of their beliefs to match up to the behavior they can muster or the despair of hearts whose piety cannot erase desire and force goodness in daily life.  If these are the only two choices, I can understand why they would walk away -- we all should!

What I fail to hear in their words (and what is the terrible indictment against our educational endeavors) is that they know anything of the Christ of the cross, of the grace that does what the Law cannot, and of the radical new life flowing from their baptism.  It seems that we have done them a grave disservice in teaching them Bible stories, telling them to be good, reminding them that the Church is there when you need it, and then leaving them without even a basic understanding of the grace of God in daily life.

Now I am not painting all young people with a broad brush, but it would seem that a goodly number of those who find the conflict between belief and behavior unbearable were raised in solid Christian homes, regularly in Church on Sunday morning, and clearly what we would call "churched."  If we have left them with the impression that it is only a choice between belief and behavior, then we have left them to despair or to a moral relativism that will constantly make adjustments until there is nothing left to adjust.  We owed them something more.  We owed them the Gospel of the cross and empty tomb, the transformational power of grace, and the new life that God gave them in their baptism.


Anonymous said...

The late, great CFW Walther said:
According to the Scriptures it is not
at all difficult to be converted,
but to remain in a converted state
that is difficult. Repentance is
something that God Himself must
produce in a person. We must only
apply to our ourselves the keen Word
of God and we have the first part of
repentance. After that an application of the unqualified Gospel
will produce faith in us."
Law & Gospel 35th Lecture page 367, Dau Edition

Dixie said... hit that nail squarely on the head and it describes our oldest son to a "T". He was brought up through Lutheran grade school and part of Lutheran high school. He went to Sunday School and worship every Sunday until he left home for college. Today he is a young man who describes himself as a socialist (he is extremely compassionate) and despises the Christian faith because he doesn't see Christians practicing what they preach.

Personally, I think the practice of private confession helps mitigate the tension. It doesn't take one very long in confessing regularly to figure out that some things we will struggle with the rest of our lives. But...with private confession we learn to continue to struggle and that God is merciful and forgives our sins. Unfortunately, my son was brought up in the modern Lutheran church in the US where the practice of private confession was not taught or encouraged.

As a parent I have failed him. But I continue to pray that the seeds planted in his childhood will someday call him back to the faith as they did for me.

ErnestO said...

We Christian leaders and parents may be good at teaching the Christian faith, but how well are we at teaching the promises of God and implanting an expectation for them in our listeners' hearts? We must teach, experience, and expect the promises of God. These promises have power to change us -- and more.

The promises which Christ makes to us about the present are precious and very great, too:
•That we shall receive the Holy Spirit.
•That we have been adopted and now have the relationship to God as sons and daughters.
•That God hears our prayers and answers them.
•That in his name we will do the miracles that Jesus did and even greater.
•That he will never leave us or forsake us
•That Jesus loves us in spite of our failures and sins.

The promises Christ makes about the future are equally precious and great:
•That God will meet every need we have according to the extent of his riches.
•That we will go to heaven when we die.
•That we will escape the punishment we deserve for our sins.
•That Christ will return and take us to himself.
•That our bodies -- whether living or dead at Christ's return -- will be raised and changed.
•That we will rule and reign with Christ in the new heavens and new earth.

Rev. Timothy E. Sandeno said...

when the conflict between belief and behavior becomes unbearable...
My best response is Amen. It is my own experience as well, that when my behavior was not consistent with my belief, that I abandoned the church so that I could indulge by behavior. I give thanks to God for the younger adults at Good Shepherd that don't shrink from this struggle.

Anonymous said...

"Today he is a young man who describes himself as a socialist (he is extremely compassionate) and despises the Christian faith because he doesn't see Christians practicing what they preach."

This just is not true. Christians do practice what they preach. They established the most just, fair and caring countries in the history of the world. However, they are still sinners and not perfect. Still, no others even come close. Generally it is counter to our faith to brag about the accomplishments of the Christian influence, but look at history, and it is readily apparent how much worse it was before.

Unknown said...

I read this type of essay and I am at a complete loss. I can not relate to it at all. I have 4 adult children not one has left the church - Lutheran Church-Canada. All attend regularly, three with their spouse, and by regular I mean every Sunday and mid week during Advent & Lent. I know that this is God's blessing I have often wondered how this can be as I am the absolute worst example of a Christian parent. If I could figure out what I may have done make this happen I'd write a book or start a blog but I have no idea why it is - other than it is God blessing the thousands of those who love Him.

Pastor Peters said...

Bless you and bless your children! Mine too are faithful but the statistics tell us that such is not the situation of all...

Anonymous said...

Great post Pastor. Very perceptive.

John 3:19, “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”

Our wicked deeds can cause us to embrace the darkness and deny the light; to embrace falsehood and deny the truth; to justify our sin rather than repent. I told my kids that they were raised right and that they should behave in line with the way they were raised; to be careful that their friends did not drag them down to their level rather than they raising their friends to their level.

Mark† of Brighton

Anonymous said...

This is the most interesting article/piece I've ever read about this issue. I agree with the idea that there's a fissure between behavior and belief however, as a non-believer, I think young people can find that balance without church. I'm reading the Bible right now. It's very interesting and, obviously, we could all learn a bit from the New Testament (the old is full of hate so I think that's a loss). But, if young people can find that guidance elsewhere -- friends, family, self-help books, role models, etc. -- I don't know why whether they go to church or not is an issue.