It’s been documented that for some years there’s been an exodus of young adults leaving the Church. And though there are several reasons about why this might be happening, I want to focus one issue. One that I’ve had to struggle with. It could be a personality thing, I don’t know. But, I’ve seen others experience similar problems. And it seems they’re losing. This only confirms the statistics I’ve come across. What’s this I’m talking about? Doubt.
I don’t mean doubt in the sense of questioning the existence of God. The spiritual landscape in America hasn’t changed much. While church attendance has generally decreased, atheism hasn’t grown. Most people still identify themselves as “spiritual”. The doubt I’m referring to is more about suspicion of certainty in Christian theology and, especially, on ecclesiastical matters. About a quarter of Christian young adults are dealing with this. The bigger problem…most feel they are discouraged from expressing it.
Maybe it’s the kind of culture we’re living which have fostered this incredulity. I don’t know. The Church expects its members to adhere to its teachings without question. For people who like to rethink old systems, imagine and explore new concepts, being told that there’s only a certain way to understanding truth makes it extremely challenging to accept as is, even to the point of rejecting it all together. Feeling isolated they become disillusioned.
If someone questions a practice or a belief, the Church feels it has to squash it immediately. And that’s totally understandable. If theological beliefs are settled, and it got its approval from a group of smart leaders who studied the bible and prayed about it and concluded this thing we are to believe and practice, then I get it. It’s easy to get defensive. But, why is it easier to carry skepticism and ask questions in a science class than a church? What if churches took a welcoming approach to questions than a hostile one? I think less people would be leaving.
I think the problem is that we’ve focused too much on orthodoxy. What is orthodoxy? It means right-knowing. There’s an opposite to this. It is orthopraxy. Orthopraxy means right-doing. The common and current notion is if you can get right-knowing, then you’ll eventually do right-doing. Seems simple, right? Unfortunately, not for those who challenge this assumption.
Because the Church was birthed in its predominately Greek culture, lived and moved and thrived in such a worldview throughout the ages, it grew into seeing theological beliefs through an orthodoxy lens. For instance, we want to “know” what people “believe in”. And “believe” for us is mental assent. We could care less if someone is helping the poor, because if they have the wrong orthodoxy, then their good works are useless and cannot save them from the wrath of God. But, if someone has right-knowing, yet living contrary to what is good, we justify it in that by their right-knowing God will save them. In an orthodoxy world, whether one has right-knowledge will determine whether God will be graceful, regardless of their behaviors.
As long as we hold a firmer grasp on orthodoxy than orthopraxy, I believe the emerging generations will continue to leave the Church. The Church needs to shift back to its orthopraxy roots, which came from the ground of Judaism. Jesus was not from the West. He was a Jew from Palestine. And Judaism is, I believe, a true faith-based religion. It is orthopraxy in nature. So instead of intellectualism being the focus, it is a heart of obedience.
God wants more than Christians acknowledging that Jesus was born from a virgin, that he performed miracles, that he died by crucifixion, was resurrected a few days later, and then ascended to heaven afterwards. Jesus didn’t go through all this trouble in serving and saving so people could just believe this story was true. No. Jesus did all this so that we would “go and do likewise.”
The result of this orthodoxy problem is that the Church has created believers than followers of Jesus. I think the solution, or maybe one solution (since I can only speak from personal experience), to helping doubters, that is those who challenge current views, is for the Church to focus on orthopraxy.
After being raised in church my whole life, and even upon my ventures into various views in Christian theology, there is one thing I found to be true. That in the midst of doubt and disagreement, I continued to practice faith, to pray a certain way, to give a certain amount, to hold a certain view, to teach a certain thing, because of this one thing I find to be a universal religious requirement: a heart of obedience.
I believe God honors obedience. Obedience requires faith. Faith isn’t mental assent, it is an intent and desire to act. Faith isn’t orthodoxy, it is orthopraxy. And this is what keeps me grounded and why I continue to be a devoted follower of Jesus. Jesus commands, I do. Though some of his teachings are quite radical, with the best of my knowledge and understanding, I do what I can…by faith. Some things don’t make sense. But it doesn’t have to. It is only when orthodoxy is the center of my belief that my faith is hindered.
And here is where I have to say, Thank God I’m not saved by orthodoxy alone. Instead, I’m saved by grace (His calling) through faith (my heart of obedience). This is the operation of grace and works. There is no contradiction here. One compels the other to respond.
What can the Church do?
Offer a safe place for doubters. A place where they’re not told generic answers to their deep questions, or that they’re heretics if they consider otherwise. They, along with their doubts and questions, must be welcomed.
Offer ministry opportunities as a beginning point, not classes. Focus on practices and behaviors. Jesus had high expectations for those who decided to follow him, and those expectations were grounded in practices not theological agreements.
Offer a canvas. Doubters can be quite imaginative. Questions lead to exploration. Hear them out and don’t dismiss their concepts so quickly. With guidance, let them work it out. It might lead to something new and revolutionary.