Legend has it that mariners once feared that if you sailed too far from home that you would eventually find the end of the world. Many were afraid of what you might find. You may tumble down into oblivion. You may find yourself face to face with a hideous monster that would destroy your ship and your crew. Who knows what horror awaited you at the edge? Better to stay safe and not venture too far.
Those sailors of yore crossed my minds the other day in a bookstore when I saw a prominently displayed title: How to Stay Christian in College. Then my imagination ran away from me.
Our four year voyage has entered into its second week. After porting at the Island of Orientation, we set upon the Semester Sea. It is a world unlike any I have seen: beautiful and horrifying. We have already lost many crew members from our good ship Orthodox. Sirens promising passion and good drink lured many to their undoing. Others still found themselves engaged in battle with a three-headed beast known as the Tenuriathan. It hangs about the rocky shores of the Liberalas Islands. Before you see them, you here their whispers: "God is dead. God is dead." It chills me to the bone. The Tenuriathan breathes fire that sets its enemies aflame with confusion: so-called facts that they had never considered, viewpoints they never imagined. Some are fighting these many beasts with increased anger while others have given up and plunged themselves in the currents of doubt; never to be seen again. Mother, I fear for my safety. There is many day that I wish that I would have stayed in the safety of our native land rather than venture on this fool's errand for unsatisfactory knowledge. Keep me in your prayers.
Your Loving Son,
P.S. Please send money. I've been eating ramen for, like, six straight days.
I don't want to take away from the sincerity with which this person wrote the book and for all I know it is an excellent resource. Lots of students go off to college and eventually drift from the church. But I think the problem is found not in whatever they face in college, but in the title of that book. The church wants them to "stay" Christian rather than "grow" as Christians.
The difference is subtle but telling. If someone stays, then they are less likely to question. Those that stay are not going to rock the boat or challenge the status quo. One of the easiest ways to get someone to stay is to paint the world in shades of "us" and "them." If you put enough fear into a person about the outside world, they will more likely hold that world at arm's length. They will be frightened about what lies at the edge of their world.
The one who grows may very well prove difficult. Most of us like the idea of growth in the abstract, but the fact of the matter is growth is difficult for the individual and for those that relate to that person. When one grows, they will undoubtedly question things they learned when they were younger. The person raised in the world of "Us versus Them," may flip that dichotomy on the church and decide to leave. The person that is raised in an environment that encourages growth, asking questions, and talking about challenges is less likely to let that happen.
It seems like a no-brainer that churches would want their parishioners to embrace growing rather than staying, but American Evangelicalism seems to have a preoccupation with the status quo--albeit a status quo that is younger than many realize--in many areas: politically, theologically, etc. The reasons for this can stem from well-meaning (concern for ditching tradition wholesale for what is current) to understandable (comfort) to unhealthy (control). Growth is difficult. It is unstable and stability seems to be something that a lot of people want out of their religion.
But the possibilities of venturing to the edge of our worlds are incredible. When we engage the world while committing to grow in our faith, there is much we can learn. It can strengthen our faith. It can build relationships with people we would have never otherwise encountered. It can open our eyes to the ways in which God works that we would have never expected.
When Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven, he used images of things that were alive. These images grew and were teeming with life. These were not things that stayed. Even inanimate objects like the treasure in the field, changed the person that encountered it. The Kingdom of Heaven does not hew closely to the familiar countries, but it is something that goes right over the edge of the known world.
It is my hope that we embrace this. If the church does not want to kill itself, it needs to commit itself to be faithful to God through growing. Do not just stay. Venture out and find where God is already at work.