Pick up any popular-level article on college-age church attendance or attend any church growth webinar, and you’ll almost assuredly find some hip, church growth expert bemoaning the “church’s” failure to retain its young adults. With latte in hand, we’ll be instructed to go more casual, to be more “authentic,” to dalliance with a favorited fermented brew in order capture the “unchurched.” The “church,” we’re told, is at best inconsequential and at worst, unnoticing, of young adults and their true needs—what is often little more than a reflexive affirmation of college age immaturity and indecisiveness. I’ve read it, you’ve read it; let’s move on.
Like most anything, the problem of church attendance with young people is a battle of competing loyalties and competing narratives. For college-age freshmen, the air of fresh adventure combined with intellectual curiosity often spells doom. The lure to stay up late and attend Bedside Baptist is all too accommodating.
My diagnosis (with far less hipness in the mix): I believe we’ve failed to offer our young people a compelling reason to be “church”—not to go to church and fulfill obligatory duties (though this is both good and necessary), but to actually be the church, to cultivate an awareness and significance of the sole institution Christ left on earth after his ascension. To situate yourself primarily as a member of the church, and not primarily as a benefactor of America’s accoutrements, is quite difficult.
Through college, the writings of Stanley Hauerwas helped me to see how peculiar and how important the church is in shaping identity.
This is why Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon’s book Resident Aliens: Life in Christian Colony is so important and should be required reading for young Christians entering college. It’s the one book, at this point, that I’d slip into the backpack of my daughter as she trots off to college.
To embrace Hauerwas, it is easy to assume that the wholesale rejection of America and the warm embrace of separatism must follow. I think choosing Hauerwas or loving America is a false dichotomy. But that is another topic for another day.
As they write,
“In the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, all human history must be reviewed. The coming of Christ has cosmic implications. He has changed the course of things. So the theological (and I’d add, the ecclesial) task is not merely the interpretive matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian’s job (and I’d add, the pastor’s, too) is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.” (24)
“We are saying that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church.” (38).
Hauerwas and Willimon insist that the church as polis is inscribed with its own set of virtues and can only be learned as one begins to see themselves as church, instead of going “to church.” Making the gospel credible to the world presupposes that one’s worldview is shaped more by the crucifixion and resurrection than by the nation-state. And for the gospel to be understood, it must be found where it is proclaimed and embodied: the church.
I’d conjecture that there would be less disillusionment with the church should youth understand Stanley Hauerwas’ proposals. His proposals aren’t easy. I fail at them. As much as I try, I must remind myself that it’s a church in Louisville, KY that retains more rights over myself than I am entitled to proclaim as my own—a concept at conflict with liberal democracy. But the beauty of the church is that it is the lifelong process of absorption within the church that one finally recognizes that they could be nothing other than the church. It's church as osmosis.
If children were taught from an early age that church is not so much a place to visit, but a thing to be, the idea of not being the church as one reaches a certain age would be impossible. The church, at that point, would be a learned trait, a habit of virtue. And habits are hard things to cast off...even when you reach college.