Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God…
-Romans 12:2 (NRSV)
I would very much like to lose a little weight and get a little healthier.
Well, I say “very much.” What I mean is, I’d like to lose a little weight and get a little healthier without really changing the way I eat or my current level of exercise. Anyone have any suggestions?
Before you come at me with any diet pills, supplements, pink drinks, or essential oils “guaranteed” to burn calories, reduce belly fat, and make me healthier while I pound cheeseburgers and chicken biscuits, let me just stop you. There’s one path to losing weight and getting healthier: Eat better and exercise. Anything else is going to get you right back to where you are.
In a Wednesday night class for a few months, we’ve been talking about a reality in the church that’s been documented in countless surveys, books, and blog posts and experienced in just about every church and denomination in America. That reality is that, sometime in the 5 years after Christian young adults graduate high school, something like two-thirds of them walk away from church.
We’ve spent some time talking about some of the reasons for this. According to research, some young adults are bothered by what they perceive as the exclusive nature of Christianity. Some struggle with the judgmental attitudes they see as prevalent in the church, either against their own choices, beliefs, and mistakes, or against the choices, beliefs, and mistakes of their friends. Some leave because they think the church is antagonistic to science or adversarial toward the world. Some feel that their doubts and questions aren’t taken seriously. Some walk away because of deep disappointment or even trauma suffered at the hands of the church. Some can’t go along with their churches’ political stances, or their attitudes toward race, or their limitations of women. Some, no doubt, walk away because they lose their faith in the existence of God, or lose their conviction that what they or anyone else think about God has anything to do with their lives.
Know what we discovered? It’s one thing to talk about the results of surveys and studies that give us data about the reasons people walk away from church. It’s quite another thing to agree on what to do about it.
Sometimes we’re quick to get defensive: “That’s not us. That’s not our church.” It might not be, but something is causing people to walk away in their late teens and early twenties.
Sometimes we blame those who leave. “Narrow is the path,” and all that, because it lets us off the hook while at the same time conveniently positioning us as those on that narrow path. That reasoning equates the church itself with “the path” and paints everyone who’s not on it with the same broad brush. We doubt the reasons people actually give for walking away, suggesting that they’re just cover for folks who just don’t really love the Lord like we do. (An odd thing to believe about people who grew up in our church, attended our Sunday school classes, and live in our homes. These are people we know.)
Look, I know that faith on one level is personal, something between God and each person. I know that the Holy Spirit is involved in people coming to faith and following Jesus in ways that we can’t plan for or make happen. Still, we don’t leave it to the Holy Spirit to reveal the gospel to people in the first place. We’re supposed to do that. We don’t leave it to the Holy Spirit to move people to worship. We gather together each week to do that. We don’t leave instruction in the way of Jesus to the Holy Spirit. We teach.
Don’t you imagine God might have something for us to do in helping people who are in danger of walking away, or who have already walked away, to recover their faith and walk with Jesus in the community of faith?
Here’s what it comes down to, here’s why when we talk about this problem we get defensive or finger-pointy, why we shake our heads and wish people would just love the Lord like we do…
It’s because to really grapple with this and change it will require that we change. And we don’t. Like. Change. Seriously: If it’s up to us we’d rather keep things as they are — even if keeping things as they are means people who would have been dogged followers of Jesus will instead walk away from their faith entirely.
It’s like me with losing weight and being healthier: Sure, as long as I don’t have to change anything.
But what if we said we weren’t going to stand by and watch anymore?
What if we said that we were going to take this problem seriously?
What it we recognized that one of the most consistent doctrinal statements in the Bible is that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves? And that our nearest neighbors are our brothers and sisters in Christ?
What if we resolved to give up the settled destination of what makes us comfortable and what we’ve come to think church ought to be for a journey, an odyssey, in which we discover with our less firmly located sisters and brothers in the faith what church could be if we all stop settling for being comfortable?
What if we gave up our delusions that doing the same things in the same ways is going to get us a different outcome?
What if we — together with those who maybe we’ve unintentionally alienated — imagined what church might look like when we let go of some of the things we’ve grown accustomed to, but that have been standing in the way of really being a community of Jesus-followers?
It’s worth pointing out that in Romans 12:2, Paul tells the church at Rome not to “be conformed to this world.” The passive verb suggests that conformity can be something that happens to us, that’s done to us — and that it can happen when we aren’t paying attention. And I wonder if maybe it doesn’t happen to church people, right in the middle of our church-y lives, and maybe as much as anything that explains why we’re sometimes not what the church should be. We’re not paying attention, and we get conformed to the attitudes of the world around us: defensiveness, impatience, contempt for younger generations, a mindset to dig trenches and put up battlements to hold our positions. Sometimes we do it while quoting that very verse, convinced that by holding our positions we’re resisting conformity to the world.
Conformity will happen. It’s inevitable. Unless, Paul says, we are transformed. That’s the choice. If we’re not having our minds renewed by the Holy Spirit so that we’re transformed, we’re being conformed. It’s that way for individuals, and it’s that way for communities. Given that choice, we should invite God’s transformation. And that won’t happen if we can’t lay church as we’ve come to know it and like it on the table.
I was going to say that takes courage, but that’s wrong. We don’t have to be courageous. We just have to have faith. If you have ideas for changes that need to happen, I hope this will help you to speak up.
If you’re struggling with the notion of changing anything, I hope this will help you to reconsider the choice of conformity or transformation.
And if you’re away from the church and you happen to read this, I hope you’ll see in it that we want you to come back, and that there’s room for your disappointments, struggles, questions, and voice.
Transform us, Lord.