To Young Evangelicals: Don’t Swim from Willow Creek to the Tiber; Swim to Lake Geneva
UPDATE: Gracy Olmstead recently posted this article in the American Conservative blog, “Why Millennials Long for Liturgy: Is the High Church the Christianity of the future?” She says that America’s youth are leaving evangelical churches in droves. But here’s her sobering observation:
Yet amidst this exodus, some church leaders have identified another movement as cause for hope: rather than abandoning Christianity, some young people are joining more traditional, liturgical denominations—notably the Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox branches of the faith. This trend is deeper than denominational waffling: it’s a search for meaning that goes to the heart of our postmodern age.
I see in this trend a big concern rather than something to be happy about. Yes, it’s good that millennials are looking for more substance rather than the trivial, popular, and mindless evangelical entertainment. But we must be able to offer them an alternative to just Catholic and Orthodox high-churchiness.
And what is that alternative? It is going back to Geneva, where there is not merely “high church” worship and liturgy, but Scriptural and historic doctrine, worship and practice. This is why Pasig Covenant Reformed Church and Trinity Covenant Reformed Church have become oases of millennials in the midst of the empty and trite evangelical wasteland.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard of The Christian Pundit has a sobering post, “Young Evangelicals are Getting High.” No, not the “high” that instantly comes to mind these days. In “droves,” young evangelicals are leaving the “hip” churches of their parents to get “high” in Roman, Lutheran and Anglican churches. This has been happening for a while, and is probably close to an epidemic. She observes,
A friend of mine attended a Christian college where almost all of the students, including her, grew up in non-denominational, evangelical Protestant churches. A few years after graduation, she is the only person in her graduating class who is not Roman Catholic, high Anglican or Lutheran. The town I live in has several “evangelical” Protestant colleges: on Ash Wednesday you can tell who studies at them by the ash crosses on their foreheads.
Young Christians are going over to Catholicism and high Anglicanism/Lutheranism in droves, despite growing up in low Protestant churches that told them about Jesus. It’s a trend that is growing, and it looks like it might go that way for a while: people who grew up in stereotypical, casual evangelicalism are running back past their parents’ church to something that looks like it was dug out of Europe a couple hundred years ago at least. It’s encouraged by certain emergent leaders and by other “Christian” authors whose writings promote “high” theology under a Protestant publisher’s cover.
Why is this happening? As other theologians and sociologists have been pointing out for a while now,
The kids who leave evangelical Protestantism are looking for something the world can’t give them. The world can give them hotter jeans, better coffee, bands, speakers, and book clubs than a congregation can. What it can’t give them is theology; membership in a group that transcends time, place and race; a historic rootedness; something greater than themselves; ordained men who will be spiritual leaders and not merely listeners and buddies and story-tellers. What the kids leaving generic evangelicalism seem to want is something the world can never give them–a holy Father who demands reverence, a Saviour who requires careful worship, and a Spirit who must be obeyed. They are looking for true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality in their parents’ churches and not finding it.
What must evangelical churches do to stem this ever-increasing tide?
But not all kids who grew up in American evangelicalism are jumping off into high church rite and sacrament: congregations that carefully teach robust, historic Protestant theology to their children are notably not losing them to the Vatican, or even Lambeth. Protestant churches that recognize their own ecclesiastical and theological heritage, training their children to value and continue it in a 21st century setting, usually retain their youth. These kids have the tools they need to think biblically through the deep and difficult issues of the day and articulate their position without having a crisis of faith. They know the headlines, church history, theology and their Bibles, and so are equipped to engage culture in a winsome, accessible way. They have a relationship with God that is not based on their feelings or commitments but on the enduring promises of the Word and so they can ride out the trends of the American church, knowing that they will pass regardless of mass defections to Rome. That’s not to say that the Book of Common Prayer is unbiblical–far from it! It is to say that children raised in spiritually substantive and faithful homes usually find things like holy water, pilgrimages, popes and ash on their faces an affront to the means for spiritual growth that God has appointed in His Word.
We have this phenomenon happening in Pasig Covenant Reformed Church (Pasig, Metro Manila) and Trinity Covenant Reformed Church (Imus, Cavite). At PCRC, we have about 30 souls in regular attendance, but there are only four of us who are over 40. The rest are in their late teens to early 30s, the bulk of them in their mid-20s, and almost all of them swam straight from the riotous din of Willow Creek to the reverential joy of Lake Geneva!
Yet, we don’t have “the bands, the coolest youth pastor, professional babysitting for every women’s Bible study, and a church library full of Christian novels.” Instead of a hip-cool pastor in jeans and a t-shirt, we have an old geezer in a pulpit gown for a “worship leader.” Our services are often distracted by little toddlers running around (we must do a better job of controlling them). And we have a library full of boring books written by dead theologians.
Instead of “uplifting” Hillsong music being churned out by the dozen every 15 minutes, we sing from God’s 3,000-year-old songbook, the Psalter. Instead of a series on “Seven Principles for a Successful Quiet Time,” we have a series on the Book of Ecclesiastes, centered on Christ and his Gospel as our wisdom.
So if you’re one of those “young evangelicals” whose minds have been emptied out by the mindless cacophony of your “Willow Creek” church, don’t swim back to the Tiber. You have another option, a great one: swim to “Lake Geneva” where your minds will be fed with the “true, deep, intellectually robust spirituality” of the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
At PCRC and TCRC, you will find a historically- and doctrinally-rooted Christian faith that will equip you “to engage culture in a winsome, accessible way.”
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