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Where is God?

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Jay Smith, YTI President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

April 13, 2018

I have the great privilege of speaking to hundreds of young men and women at some of the best colleges and universities across the United States. Many of them are anxious to serve God in some capacity in life after college. On the other hand, many more are wondering “where is God?” Indeed, when given the opportunity to speak to a class at a wonderful Christian college, the majority of the students were “unaffiliated” in terms of denominational loyalty, and several were even agnostic. One young woman had the courage to tell me that she had come from a strong Baptist family in the south, with a history of family in ministry, but was now unsure how, or even what she believed. Disoriented by the failure of her family denomination to help her make sense of God in her world, she was rethinking what she believed, and how she would practice that belief. She is far from being alone. Many of these young adults have become disenchanted with the consumer orientation, the fundamentalist orientation, or the purely social-justice orientation of the church in America today.

For this generation, the church is struggling to find meaning in a changing world and is falling into the trap of what the apostle Paul called “The World.” The first trap is where the church prioritizes the “worship” service and adapts the methodology of the contemporary entertainment industry in order to “draw in” worshippers. The resulting model increasingly relies upon worship attendance to build its “member” base and consequently produces a superficial disciple, and a “revolving door” church member. The second trap is that of “fundamentalism.” A fearful demonization of the world combined with a modernist and reductionist treatment of scripture produces a fearful, angry, and reclusive church. The final trap is that of the theological “liberal” that marginalizes scripture in favor of a modernist reduction of the gospel to an ethos, exclusive of any divine connection. This justice-oriented, inclusivist ethos is “cherry-picked” from isolated scriptures, and justified in the same manner that the fundamentalist justifies his or her ethical exclusivism. Even the categorical reductions I have made to explain this situation are problematic for this generation. These young men and women want to believe, but the church has become its own liability in its failure to teach and live the gospel in an authentic fashion.

So, church, how do we answer the question, “where is God” for this generation? We can’t simply point to “the church”, because the church is suffering decay and dissolution at an alarming rate. The numbers don’t lie; Protestant denominational decline is on record. Although mainline denominations have been in decline for decades, in the last ten years, Baptist, charismatic and non-denominational churches have begun to see decline in baptisms, membership, and number of churches. With the election of Pope Francis, Roman Catholicism has managed to slow its decline, although the data is conflicting. Again, this generation asks the question, “Where is God?” To answer this question, I believe the tools of deconstruction and recovery are necessary.

The church must understand that, since it became a recognized “religion” in the Roman Empire over 1,700 years ago, it has lost its essential orientation and mutated into a peculiar religious expression, with only vestiges of its original constitution still visible to the world. Emperor Constantine’s intentions were honorable, but the results were predictable: a gradual decay over time until only vestiges—traces—of its apostolic commission were visible. Those ‘vestiges’—evidences of the Holy Spirit’s presence, a surging passion for meaningful discipleship in Christ, a willingness to confront the hypocrisy of the “religious establishment,” and a passion for the welfare of others—are the seeds of what is coming. God is not dead…the statement is ridiculous; God is life. Just as Israel began to wither once it succumbed to the religious impulses of its neighbors, God renewed His promise in Jesus—for all who believe. Human institutions are bound to a cycle of life and death to which God is not bound. Thus, as the church born during Constantine’s Roman Empire finds itself coming to an existential crisis point, the Spirit of Christ is reviving and renewing the church in His image.

This generation understands the fleeting nature of all life. They look cynically upon the future the previous generation crafted for them. For the church to be a meaningful experience for them, it has to reflect the absolute essence and priority of God. God has always been with us. God’s love, the very essence of God, surrounds us and calls out to us—all of us. The strictures of dogma and doctrine, as we have articulated and experienced them in the 20th century, are non-starters for this group of men and women. But rather than abandon God, they will find Him anew as the unquenchable Love of the universe (Colossians 1:15-20). In Jesus, they find the absolute expression of this Love. This generation will know this unquenchable love and respond to the call of Christ to embrace it. When that happens, these young men and women will become the church for this world. We have made God’s community, the ekklesia, something it was never meant to be: another expression of man’s religious impulse. This new generation understands its responsibility to be God’s love to the world; and in so doing, answer the question of, “Where is God?”