Imagine, if you will, an old French soldier returning to his home after WWII. He stands on a hilltop overlooking his small town. The houses have been burned. The steeple is crushed. The farmlands are razed. Any building left standing bears the scars of gunfire and explosions. The people are weary and worn. Why did all this happen? This soldier fired some of the very rounds that desecrated his home. His actions were part of the destruction of his home, the death of his people. Why? Does he not know war is a terrible thing?
This seems an absurd question, as we know the wider context of history. We know why that old soldier fought. He knows better than anyone the horror of war, but also knows better than anyone he would do it all over again if called upon.
Much criticism of conservative Christians by liberal Christians seems like a critique of that old soldier. It is completely detached of any theological, cultural, or historical context. They say that by adamantly espousing some of the more controversial teachings of Christianity, we are harming the culture around us, turning away young people, and in turn harming the future of the Church and her witness.
I think many liberal Christians, but certainly not all, would agree with me that the Church exists to mix things up a bit. She is not in the business of making anyone feel comfortable. However, it is true of revolutionary movements everywhere, that there is always lurking in the background some ‘committee of public safety’ deciding which establishments we are to mix up and which we are to keep. (The committee almost always places itself on the latter list.) Liberal Christians find themselves falling prey to the same sort of problem. Detached from any semblance of orthodoxy, they maintain we are supposed to shake up the status quo when it comes to environmentalism or notions of social justice, but they never seem to question any of the secular orthodoxies regarding sexuality or the ends and needs of man.
If the culture warrior is akin to that old soldier, then we must ask why so many young Christians hate him so much. It seems the only authority one needs to pontificate on this issue is to be young and call yourself as a Christian. Seeing as how I seem to meet the criteria, here are my own thoughts on the matter.
Orthodoxy and traditional teachings on sex are not turning young people away from the Church. The frequently cited statistics about liberal congregations in decline and conservative denominations on the rise are, I think, over relied upon. Especially in light of statistics that show most traditional denominations are on a decline overall. However, that conservative denominations have weathered the storm better than their liberal counterparts cannot be discounted. Being an Anglo-Catholic in the Washington D.C. area I find myself in a variety of churches. The Roman Catholic young adult ministries are full of devout and conservative millennials, and most of the events are standing room only. In the evangelical Anglican Churches, the congregations are overwhelmingly young, perhaps too young. My own Church is composed mostly of young families. But whenever I sneak into the notoriously liberal Episcopal Churches for Evensong or daily mass, I find I am the youngest attendee by approximately thirty-years.
What do liberal Christians think these churches have to offer millennials? Social Justice? The Democratic Party offers that. Perhaps lessons in responsible treatment of the Environment? We are supplied a constant dose from Chipotle and Starbucks. Maybe it is the wonderful good news of progress and equality? Alas, we have had that rammed down our throats by professors and politicians of all stripes and ideologies.
I’m afraid the Church will only succeed if it continues to offer the same services it has rendered for the past 2,000 years: Redemption to all those who earnestly recognize and repent of their manifold sins and wickedness. The world is not lacking for organizations that can fulfill the rest of man’s needs. Only the Church can help man satisfy his deeper and higher longings.
The many millennial Christians I have had the pleasure to meet know this. In fact, many of them have left liberal or unmoored denominations in search not only of orthodoxy, but also orthopraxy. If there is any attitude among millennials the Church should be concerned about, it is not outright rejection of its doctrine as much as it is irrational apathy. Most young Christians I know will affirm the orthodox position on all teachings of sex and social issues, but they will part ways with other generations by not caring how those beliefs affect the broader culture or law of our societies. Rather than critique the old soldier outright, they merely question his enthusiasm. Must he have been so radical? Surely he could have protested another way.
In this, they and the liberal Christians are acting on a very understandable impulse. That war, including the culture wars, is not something to be celebrated. It is to be lamented. C.S. Lewis said a sick society must think of politics like a sick man must think of his digestion. That we have to think about these things is indicative of something gone horribly wrong. No one is wrong to lament the culture wars. The old soldier will be the first to admit how horrible war is, but that we make enemies is not sufficient reason to raise the flag.
Grant it, there have been culture warriors who have abused their positions. They have treated the other side with hate and disrespect. Conservative Christians must be mindful and repentant of such tendencies in our own ranks. But even if these fringe characters turn away some from the Church, it was their mistakes and misrepresentations rather than the truth of the Church’s teachings that drove these people away.
Finally, even if it is true that young people are leaving the Church over its teaching on sex and sin, it does not follow that the Church should summarily change its teaching in order to court these wayward youths back into the fold. The Church is not a democracy. It does not cater to public opinion. It seeks new ways to administer the same time tested truths to the various situations it finds people in, but the fixed point always remains. This may offend the world at times, but Christ tells us that is to be expected.
Even though the Church and its radical teachings may offend some, it offers great hope to many. The teachings are hard, but for those young Christians willing to submit to the weight of glory can testify that the benefits well exceed the struggles. There are many of us who are drawn to the Church precisely because it is the only thing radical and offensive enough to make a change in our lives. If the Church drops all that is challenging and offensive, we have no reason to expect the young liberals will join its ranks, but we do know the young seekers of truth will have no where to go. The many millennials who have sought shelter in the Church will move on, and the Church will follow in the footsteps of the old-line liberals.
Fortunately, the hysteria is all a lie. There are plenty of good young people in the pews to carry the Church into the next generation, and having felt the reward of sacrifice, they are not anxious to unravel the Church’s teaching in the name of popular opinion.