Volume 16, Number 2
How Youth See Our Church
Junior, Andrews University
Are young people looking for the right things in the church?
It is a certainty that when a person begins to seek a relationship with God, he begins a journey of twists and turns with unforeseen results. With most people, this journey toward God begins by sincerely pushing out some "feelers" toward spiritual things during their high school and college years. I am in college, so I know of what I speak. It is during these years that we young people bump into people who think things very different from what we were taught as younger children; some of these new ideas are downright contrary to what we were taught. But it is not the contrary things I wish to discuss. It is rather the filters that everything religious must pass through in our experience.
As such, this article is more an excursion through my experience than an objective analysis. But since I arrived at conclusions held by a minority, and as my perceptions of religion were turned upside down from my initial impressions, I think it useful to examine my spiritual journey, if it may benefit even one. I hope it is more than informative, but helpful.
The Three Filters of Spiritual Receptiveness
Besides scientists, youth are probably the most extensive testers the world has known. Anyone who has had much experience around us younger folk will understand. (Or perhaps they remember their own growing-up experience!) But now, lets take a more detailed look at how we actually handle our filters, and how it might be possible to change clogged filters for a cleaner set.
Emotional: Me, Me, Me! First and foremost is the emotional filter. This filter is often clogged and leads some youth to do rather interesting things. Unfortunately, it is often this filter that functions as a preliminary filter for all the rest, sometimes leaving the others inactive.
A large number of youth imagine that true religion is a simple, pleasurable emotional state of mind. The problem for them is that God is not a fireworks show on display for the amusement and entertainment of our feelings and senses. This is a serious problem to overcome, but it must be done to properly enjoy the true, controlled emotions of that outward-oriented love that God desires us to have.
God designed our emotions; indeed many of the most important spiritual chapters in my life were marked by very emotional experiences, though for these experiences to actually impact me in the long term, there needed to be some substance for my mind. Spirituality without emotion is dead. I have discovered that there is a way to integrate proper emotional experiences into true religion. And it is very important that we convey to our youthful peers that there is an emotional aspect to spirituality, but that it plays a role opposite to that which it used to play in our lives. It no longer functions as the focal point; rather, it is an additional result of the overall experience. I will relate this to my personal experiences in more detail further on.
The second filter is practicability. It is like a bug that bites youth hard. I still suffer from it myself. Even if I agreed with some doctrine, if it wasnt easy to put into practice it often fell by the wayside. If it wasnt doable in an afternoon (or less), then it just took too long for me. This is extremely applicable to spiritual things.
As one of the key influences in his conversion from Catholicism to Adventism a friend and classmate of mine remarked to me that Adventism doesnt require silly debates and conversations about whether or not he had fulfilled his weekly Mass requirement. (He said this, of course, as an older, wiser adult, not a crazy, emotional youth.) He told me that formerly he and his friends would often debate whether or not what they had done the previous week satisfied the Mass service requirement, wondering whether attendance at weddings or other events on other days might not be enough to get their parents to excuse them from Sunday Mass! When I heard this, I could only remark that it sounded like another truly sad story of legalism, an obstacle of significant weight to many young Adventists also, who see only the law code of "dos and donts" and not much else in Adventism. This is a great deterrent to many of our post-modern thinkers.
Intellectual: Its Easy to Despise Doctrinal Stuff. The third filter is intellectual. There is a strong intellectual element in youth, and doctrinal issues must pass through it. Even if doctrinal issues dont fully emerge from the mind until the later college years, they enter during the early teen years. This was my experience not so very long ago. It is important to youth that they be aware of the truth as it is in doctrines. No adult wants to be completely and absolutely dead wrong, and youth are no different.
Raised with all the right doctrines available from childhood, the biggest problem for most Adventist youth is not with the doctrines per se, but with their presentation. Too often I have heard complaints from friends struggling over the value of our correct doctrines, and telling their stories of their encounters with parents who seemed to convey to them that if they simply would attend church and believe and do the right things, they would be good Adventists. My friends wanted to know Why?
That was the intellectual filter coming into play. They questioned the validity of Adventist practices and doctrines, because they had no clue to the meaning behind them. In their experience with Sabbath school and church, it had been portrayed to them as a cultural thing that was "right" simply because it was "right." They had never truly been taught, by Scripture, by example, and by personal experience, what the foundations of Adventism were actually about. They had been told to put their questions and understanding aside and trust the traditional beliefs of Adventism. They were not taught to investigate through a personal relationship with God the reasons for their faith. Without this personal relationship, doctrines dont make sense, no matter how they are presented.
Getting Through the Filters: Spirituality in Practice
Youth are sensitive to spiritual things. And sometimes a whole lot more so than older people think. Peer pressure, the emotional baggage we carry, and our practicability bug often interfere with the message, but we listen to serious spiritually oriented stuff. It just sometimes shows up later.
More to the point, how can true spirituality be "filtered through the filters" of spiritual experience? To help illustrate my point, I will refer to British author C. S. Lewiss account of giving a theological discourse to some members of the Royal Air Force.
"I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, Ive no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, Im a religious man too. I know theres a God. Ive felt Him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And thats just why I dont believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone whos met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!"
Lewis wrote that he had to essentially agree with the man, adding that the man probably had a real experience with God in the desert, and in turning from that emotional experience to doctrines, he would leave something real and take something less real. Then Lewis added this insightful illustration.
"In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America" (Mere Christianity, pp. 135, 136).
To me, Lewiss story boils down to this. True spirituality involves all three of the filters I mentioned above. In this story, it is made quite clear that actually to get anywhere (like America, or heaven, which is better than America!), you must have a grasp of the whole picture. You cant just sit around letting the water tickle your toes and call that sensation "God" (emotional), neither can you just take off on a boat and hope that youll make it to America (practical). Finally, you cant just daydream about America by looking at the map and expect to actually get there (intellectual).
More of This Three-Fold Thing
Most youth are not fools. When they are given emotionally appealing Sabbath school presentations and religion, they take it and enjoy it, thinking it is spiritual. Sometimes, older, educated Adventist adults may have progressed "beyond" an emotional religion and are satisfied with a knowledge of the truth to fill their needs spiritually. Between these two is the practical element. Simply "doing" the right thing becomes their spiritual experience and understanding.
While none of the above elements will get you a spiritual life by itself, and I am not suggesting any specific order of importance, there is a certain order that brings most people (myself included) to the proper understanding. Generally you must first be struck emotionally by a long, reflective look at the Cross. The conversion of the heart usually precedes the conversion of the mind, since the emotions come into action before responsible thinking.
Next, an intellectual understanding should be sought, that the conversion may not rest only in the heart, which can be moved by the impressions of the moment, but grounded in the mind. Ellen White wrote, "It [truth] is placed in the heart by the Holy Spirit, who molds its beauty to the mind that its transforming power may be seen in the character" (Mind, Character, and Personality, 1:324).
Truth seems to start in the heart, attacking our emotions that seek only self, but seeing the Cross reverses the picture. Such impressions of the Cross come only from the Holy Spirit. When the heart and mind are transformed, then one is capable of knowing the practical path that must be followed. You just cant hear Gods voice fully until both your heart and your mind are in tune. And you cant experience complete spirituality until you listen to the song that both the heart and mind are singing, and listen to the words.
In my understanding of spirituality, I find several examples from Scripture. In the story of Job, God let Satan strip him of everything dear to him, his family, his livestock, eventually even his health. This was, without a doubt, an extremely negative emotional experience; it shattered Jobs understanding of practical principles as well. How could God allow Job to suffer such emotional turmoil? Jobs friends criticized him; even his wife urged him to "curse God and die" (Job 2:9). His life, practically, was torn from him. He could no longer function normally, not in his state of severe physical pain.
Yet, Jobs spiritual life did not depend on his emotional state or his ability to live comfortably. He had submitted to God more than just his emotions and his everyday life; he had submitted his mind, his intellect. Though deprived of everything else, he desired to "reason" (Job 13:3) with God. It must be noted that Job was rebuked for his boldness, for who can "stand before" God? However, Job was commended for his reasoning before God (Job 42:7). Job recognized that "wisdom" belonged to the Lord (Job 28:20, 23), and this was the object to be sought.
Proverbs 9:10 states, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding." I propose that one meaning of this passage can be found by carefully noting the placement of the emotional word fear before "the Lord." The emotional subjection to God is to "fear God." It seems clear that only when we subject our emotions to God and make the focus of our intellect (knowledge) the holy Word of God, may we receive wisdom and understanding in spiritual matters.
To summarize, to reflect the image of God is to reason like God, to feel emotional responses like God, and to act according to Gods manner.
The "Irresistible Witness" in Jesus
Sometimes, the Lord chooses unusual methods for getting our attention. It is a mistake to assume that God knows that we humans will just naturally seek to "find" Him, and then be naturally attracted to the truth of His gospel message. The truth of His message is utter and complete foolishness in the eyes of the world, and we who dwell in Christ must remember this in our efforts to witness.
Certain things are simply not tangible in the knowledge of mankind, namely love, peace, and most importantly, the mysterious way of salvation. No matter how hard I try, I still cant figure out why it is possible for a lousy person like me ever to enter through the pearly gates. The salvation of souls is not a science that has been or can be discovered by scientists. Yet, though it may be a mystery, it is astoundingly simple to practice, though few actually practice it. The person connected with God who labors with sincerity of purpose will see souls won to the Savior, for in the influence that attends the practical carrying out of the divine commission there is a captivating and compelling, though unseen, Spirit that attends the work, producing results.
In all our efforts we should make our religion attractive, because then it will possess the essence of the true righteousness of Jesus. We should be optimistic, for through our peace and joy a spiritual element may be found, the so-called meat and drink of a true connection with God.
Power. Long ago Ellen White discerned that "Our power is not in our talents of education or means, neither is it in our popularity; it is in self-sacrifice, our willing obedience to Jesus Christ. Those who truly surrender all to Him, will carry a weight of influence, and will carry others along with them, because they walk in the light. Brain power will be inefficient, purse power of little account with God; but heart power, thorough godliness, humble fidelity, will bear a weight of influence that will be irresistible" (The Youths Instructor, Sept. 6, 1894).
I have witnessed first hand the power of the Holy Spirit when the gospel message is given with all three aspects in harmony and unity. The problem with some youthas with people of all agesis that they want only one part of these three inseparable pieces. Young people are rightly accused of desiring the emotional/entertainment aspect, which by itself is not sufficient. Too often youth discern in their preachers or teachers an appeal only to the intellectual/reasoning aspect of spirituality, which they are simply not ready for. Or their teachers lack the emotional element in their presentation, which the youth correctly discern is not true and complete spirituality.
Reaching Others: "The Chosen Agency"
"Our confession of His faithfulness is Heavens chosen agency for revealing Christ to the world. We are to acknowledge His grace as made known through the holy men of old; but that which will be most effectual is the testimony of our own experience. We are witnesses for God as we reveal in ourselves the working of a power that is divine. Every individual has a life distinct from all others, and an experience differing essentially from theirs. God desires that our praise shall ascend to Him, marked with our own individuality" (The Ministry of Healing, p. 100). Indeed, without an outlet for exercising your faith, it is in great danger of withering away.
If you continue to live within your personal comfort zone and never practice through experience your faith in God, it cannot grow and develop. Remember that no one can be forced to accept Jesus and His truth, but everyone is invited to do so. Life and death are the choices placed before us, and it is for each person to choose which he will have.
The Secret of Enjoying Church
A friend of mine wrote me saying that, like so many of us, she sometimes had trouble finding church worship services meaningful. Things such as the location and environment of the church service, the style of music, and the sermon preached didnt always appeal directly to her tastes, yet she recognized that church wasnt about pleasing people, but God. Furthermore, she added that it was still possible to find church enjoyable, by remembering that 1) church is about God, 2) the key to enjoyment is involvement, and 3) having a "personal relationship with God" reigns supreme in our spiritual journey and the joy we experience along the way. Through these practical principles, it is indeed possible to enjoy our experience in church.
The last time I checked, the focus of proper worship in the Bible is not the people worshiping, but the God who is worshiped. Anyone who says that worship doesnt involve the sacrifice of personal preferences needs to check his Bible. When in our stubbornness and selfishness we want to reshape church as a social event that entertains us and brings us personal satisfaction, we essentially throw out what the Bible describes as true worship, and we lose our focus on what God is all about. In the accepted worship services of the patriarchs and apostles, there was only one Person who was worshiped, God. Only when we also set our priorities correctly will we be able to understand and enjoy church worship services.
As my friend noted, if you live life sitting back and expecting everyone else to make you happy, you are in for disappointment. Show me a church where all the members do nothing but sit back to enjoy the service, and I can point you to a church that is spiritually dead. Without participation, no group can survive. And for true enjoyment, mutual participation must occur. Only when all members, from young to old, have a function to perform in some capacity, will a church truly thrive. Entertainment is no longer needed when everyone is participating. Happiness cant be found when you spend all your time and energy seeking it for yourself, but when you strive to put it into others lives, it mysteriously finds you.
Know the God Whos Personal! Without a doubt, the most beautiful words I can hear anyone say are that they value having a "personal relationship with God." This is the rock upon which all true religion and spirituality are founded; it is the only foundation that will hold the weight of grasping the higher truths of God.
I cannot emphasize enough the spiritual reality that is discovered when a person values a personal relationship with God over all else. Truly, the surest method in forming a firm connection between youth and the church as I see it is to form that personal relationship first.
Youth should be taught the power of prayer and a personal relationship with God. As Ellen White noted, "Prayer is heavens ordained means of success in the conflict with sin and the development of Christian character. The divine influences that come in answer to the prayer of faith will accomplish in the soul of the suppliant all for which he pleads" (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 564). As I continue to seek God I see the powerful truth of these statements.
Only when youth realize the strength and guidance that God alone has to give their individual lives through their prayers can they truly appreciate all the sound doctrine they have been taught. When they have that vital, life-sustaining, personal connection with Heaven, their eyes will be opened to see the formerly thin, vague and disconnected strings of harmony that exist throughout the entire Bible intertwining themselves, uniting into an ever-thriving and ever-living vine. From this ever-growing vine of spiritual understanding, the wisdom from God can then take root in their lives, producing a deeply planted faith that works, not grounded in the knowledge of a form of true doctrine, or on the traditions of belief, but in the union of a personal walk with God and His revealed Word. It is through beginning this journey that I myself have found a much greater appreciation for spiritual things that simply did not exist before my prayer life began.
Correct doctrine will appeal as a result of an individuals personal labor to unite his life with God. Only by following personal conviction can established doctrine truly bear fruit in the mind of a young Christian. For, in my experience, the energetic efforts by some to present our long-standing doctrines convinced my mind, but my heart was still unconverted. Their efforts failed to connect the personal walk with God to a correct understanding of doctrine. But once I understood the whole picture and my heart was converted, then my mind truly understood more of that which constitutes a right relationship with God, which continues on in this life.
I close with a word of encouragement from Ellen White:
"He who would build up a strong, symmetrical character must give all and do all for Christ. The Redeemer will not accept divided service. Daily he must learn the meaning of self-surrender. He must study the Word of God, getting its meaning and obeying its precepts. Thus he may reach the highest standard of Christian excellence. There is no limit to the spiritual advancement that he may make if he is a partaker of the divine nature. Day by day God works in him, perfecting the character that is to stand in the day of final test. Each day of his life he ministers to others. The light that is in him shines forth and stills the strife of tongues. Day by day he is working out before men and angels a vast, sublime experiment, showing what the gospel can do for fallen human beings" (In Heavenly Places, p. 148).