A faith of isolation has nothing prophetic or revolutionary to offer to a world of isolation. Loneliness is everywhere today, amplified by a social media dynamic that blurs the lines between consumerism and human connection. Relationships (whether marriages, friendships or members within a local church community) are weakly bound and subject to the fickle disposability of what Pope Francis calls a “culture of the ephemeral,” in which people move rapidly from one affective relationship to another:
They believe, along the lines of social networks, that love can be connected or disconnected at the whim of the consumer, and the relationship quickly “blocked.” I think too of the fears associated with permanent commitment, the obsession with free time, and those relationships that weigh costs and benefits for the sake of remedying loneliness, providing protection, or offering some service. We treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye.
Against this backdrop, the Church can be relevant and countercultural not by reinforcing unencumbered individualism, but rather by challenging people to connect and commit to the body of Christ.
Millennials are commitment averse. They (we) don’t like to be pinned down or locked into anything, whether a career or dwelling place or church. We are the FOMO (“fear of missing out”) generation, preferring to keep our options open rather than committing to something or someone and foreclosing other possibilities. We are the generation that has rendered RSVP-based party planning a futile endeavor.
The vast majority of us (91 percent) expect to stay in a job less than three years. We are less likely to be affiliated with a religion or a political party than previous generations were.
A youth pastor recently told me a story that illustrates how the FOMO mentality manifests itself in church. The youth group was going on a weekend camping retreat and students had signed up a couple weeks in advance. A few nights before they left, the youth pastor got a call from a parent. The parent simply said, “My daughter found out about another event happening this weekend at a church her friends go to. She wants to go to that one instead.”
The youth pastor challenged the parent. “But she is a member of our youth group and she committed to coming with us on our trip.” The parent continued to justify her daughter’s last-minute switch, citing her wishes to hang out with a group that was a better relational fit.
Comfort over covenant. But for followers of Jesus, it should be the other way around.
If the Church is going to thrive in the 21st century, she needs to be willing to demand more of her members. She needs to assert the importance of covenants over comfort, even if that is a message that will turn off some. She needs to speak prophetically against the perversions of cultural and consumer Christianity, seeker unfriendly as that will be. She needs to call Christians away from an individualistic, “just me and Jesus” faith, challenging them to embrace the costliness of the cross and the challenge of life in a covenantal community.
Covenants are never easy and rarely comfortable. Every marriage testifies to this, as does the roller coaster history of “prone to wander” Israel. Yet covenants do something that is far more constructive than anything comfort can do. Covenants challenge us to bear with and sacrifice for the sake of others, for the glory of God.
Covenants provide necessary checks on the freedoms we might think are liberating but are ultimately constrictive: to follow my heart wherever it leads; to engage or disengage from others whenever it’s convenient; to have no moral limits beyond what I establish for myself. Covenants free us from the prison of unlimited freedom.
I attended a Christian college (Wheaton) and have worked at one (Biola) for the last nine years. These schools have “community covenants” that students and staff agree to, conduct policies that preserve the distinctly Christian character of the campus community. Though often derided and unappreciated by students in the midst of them, these policies are undeniably crucial and countercultural.
In an age where applying uniform behavioral norms to a diverse group of people is anathema and “do no harm to others” is the only consensus moral imperative, asking 21-year- olds on a college campus not to drink alcohol or have sex is straight-up absurd. But it is an absurdity that provides an all-too-rare check on the idol of autonomy.
Speaking to a room full of Christian college presidents, The New York Times columnist David Brooks praised the character-shaping value of covenants:
For most of us, our inner nature is formed by that kind of covenant in which the good of the relationship takes place and precedence over the good of the individual. For all of us, religious or secular, life doesn’t come from how well you keep your options open but how well you close them off and realize a higher freedom. Hannah Arendt wrote, “Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities. We would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.”
Covenants free us from the arbitrary confusion of our fickle hearts. Covenants bind us, in beautiful ways, to the hearts of others and the heart of Christ. And in that binding we discover more clearly the sort of being we were created to be.
Covenants teach us that keeping promises to others is more important than being true to yourself.
Covenants are not comfortable, but they are comforting.
In our age of isolation and ephemerality, to commit to a Christian community is to remove from ourselves the heavy burden of aimless purpose and amorphous identity.
This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, September 2017). Used with permission.