Does Christianity become more harsh and somber the older you get?
It’s convenient to scapegoat youth groups — and the younger generation — for being superficial, focusing on entertainment, and trying to be “fun” instead of facilitating true discipleship, but what if the church has the exact opposite problem. What if its lost its joy?
As a child growing up in the church, if there was one message I heard over and over again, it was that God was in control, and most importantly, God loved us — and we actually had fun.
This was a comforting message and environment. Furthermore, the themes of joy and God’s defeat of evil became even more prominent during my teen years.
But then youth group ended, and I entered the realm of adult Christendom: political causes, doctrinal debates, worship wars, traditional vs. modern bickering, congregational infighting, gossip, church splits, corporate boycotts, moral rage, judgment, and fear.
Slowly, the inspirational message of Jesus was replaced with a storyline of doom. In this new version of Christianity, I was being taught that the world was slowly falling apart, society was crumbling under Satan’s rule, and most of humanity was heading toward eternal damnation.
As a young believer I was told the exact opposite — that church was an accepting place where I could invite my friends from school and the kids from the neighborhood — but now I was being told I shouldn’t trust anyone.
Additionally, adult Christians were suddenly on the verge of being alienated and persecuted by everything — and everyone — around us: secular businesses, our coworkers, the media, the entertainment industry, educational institutions, the government, foreign states, and basically the entire world.
Ironically, even though Christianity seemed to be in a state of desperation, I noticed that adults seemed to actually be doing less about it.
Sure, as a teen we had pizza parties, went bowling, and attended all-night movie marathons in the church basement, but we also went on lots of missions trips, volunteered at food shelves, worked at homeless shelters, did prayer walks around our schools, participated in street evangelism, sponsored children in need from around the world, stuffed and mailed hundreds of care boxes, did countless fundraisers that required us to do ridiculous things like bike for hundreds of miles or starve ourselves for more than 30 hours — all for the sake of bettering humanity.
Of course, we were a little naive, and our motives weren’t always to further the gospel message of Christ (I’ll admit it, sometimes we just wanted the pizza), but as we grew older in the church, we not only stopped doing these “fun” things, but we stopped doing anything.
Instead, we replaced our nearly constant action with lots and lots of talking. We debated. We theorized. We critiqued. We studied. We listened. But we did less actual work. We stopped doing church and started our new adult career of going to church. We became inactive.
Understandably, Christian adults seem too busy to go on mission trips, volunteer, or participate in ministries. We have jobs now, we have kids, we have bills to pay, we have more responsibilities — but have our spiritual priorities actually gotten better?
As a youth, I remember being passionate about traveling to big conventions, going to camps, meeting at coffee shops, and attending any poorly-planned-by-a-volunteer-youth-pastor-event just so I could join other Christians to worship, hear different speakers, and learn about God in radical new ways.
Now, as adults, we’re wary of other “Christians” because of their theological, cultural, and philosophical differences that we’ve inevitably inflated into “major spiritual issues.” People we once referred to as friends are now labeled ‘false teachers,’ ‘deceived,’ ‘liberal fools,’ ‘heretics,’ or even ‘NON-believers.’
Adults become cynical, weary, bitter, and hardened by the realities that our previous immaturity often kept us from realizing. It’s hard to remain joyful.
This isn’t just a Christian problem. Everyone struggles growing up. We miss childhood, the bliss of being young, feeling indestructible, and seeing the world more innocently.
So we pretend. We smile even when we don’t feel like it. We act and seem wonderful even when we’re not — thinking we’re somehow helping the Christian cause by putting on a good face.
This is wrong, because following Jesus doesn’t fix everything. It’s often healthy — and necessary — to have conflict, experience pain, feel sad, and go through seasons of trial during our faith journey.
So what exactly am I trying to say? How should we feel and act? Well, above all, we should be honestly truthful.
And I guess I’m tired of hearing Christians complain that youth ministries — and young people — are destroying Christianity simply because they prefer joyfulness over solemnity.
Because in reality, it’s not Christian youth who are turning people off to Christianity — it’s the adults.
The younger generation of Christ-followers are far from perfect, but when I reflect on our current modern-day culture, it’s mainly Christian adults who are the ones being the most judgmental, hateful, bigoted, close-minded, legalistic, selfish, apathetic, shameful, violent, greedy, vengeful, and hypocritical.
So don’t get me wrong, Christianity is profoundly deep, important, and must be reverently respected. The truth of Christ shouldn’t be taken lightly, and everything about our faith should be of the utmost importance and purpose, but let’s stop blaming youth pastors, teenagers, and the idea that Christian churches are too joyful for their own good — they’re not.
But I wish they were.
As we grow old in our faith, let’s still try to follow Christ’s teaching and be more like little children. Let’s be willing to live in the moment and have fun occasionally. Let’s lighten up and not take ourselves too seriously.
And while we’re scared that this ‘foolishness’ might distract us from God, it may actually bring us closer to God, helping reveal truth in our lives that we desperately need: that God passionately loves us more than we can ever imagine.
Stephen Mattson blogs at stephenjmattson.com. He's contributed for Relevant Magazine, Redletterchristians.org , and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
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