Younger Christians are going through an identity crisis. We know pretty well what we don’t want to be, yet we have no idea what we want to be. A friend of mine pointed this out to me when he said he always chuckles at the slogans on Gen X church bulletins that say, “We are definitely not your parents’ church!” We’ve made our claims on different styles of music and different ways of doing church, and we’ve even discarded the practice of systematic theology as an artifact of modernity. Unfortunately, we tend to castigate those who study it as “arrogant,” “pharisaical” and “divisive.” And most tragically, we are painfully ignorant of our own great tradition of Church history. We are only becoming simply another movement within “Evangelicalism” stereotyped by coffee houses and acoustic guitars. Is this really the best we can do? Are we really going to be more than just a label? What does being a member of God’s kingdom really mean?
After reflecting on these questions for some time, I have come to agree with the author of Ecclesiastes who wrote in Solomonic prose, “Nothing is new under the sun.” If our generation is to have any spiritual significance, we must do what every generation that is of the community of God must do. We must listen. We must listen to what God has to tell us, and we must listen to one another.
The modern Church’s project was to establish Scripture as inspired by God, inerrant in word and infallible in faith and practice. Because the increasing secular scrutiny and textual criticism of the Bible in the early 20th century became so fierce, scholars like Carl H. F. Henry wrote voluminous amounts of books and articles defending the authority and veracity of the Bible. This single foundation has been heavily defended for the last 200 years so that theologians like Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield could sift through the text and extract propositional truth in order to build a coherent doctrinal system.
One might be able to scoff at the effort of a complete and final “system” of the Bible’s truth, but we must remember that this was (and still is) the way that modern Christians sought to listen to God. Whether or not this project succeeded or failed is irrelevant, but one thing it did prove is that Christians are, as Stanley J. Grenz would say, “a people of the book.” If we are to listen to God at all, we must listen to the message of Scripture. It’s as if we are like Charlton Heston of the NRA, raising a rifle above his head saying, “From my cold, dead hands!” So we are with the Bible.
My favorite books of the Bible are those of the Old Testament prophets. The most common command throughout their narratives is to “listen,” “hear” and “give ear” to the spoken message of God. Sadly, most of the messages delivered through these men were not taken seriously because the people did not take God seriously. Those who did tested their words and sought after a greater knowledge and understanding of God and His revelation. Listening is the proper response to God, rather than arbitrary mantras of meaningless praise (Luke 11:27-28). Those who listen to God want to “hear” Him so they might obey Him.
So much of the disgust our generation has with systematic theology is that it becomes mere knowledge that puffs up the ego. If we applied one 10th of all that we know about forgiveness, we would truly be a grateful people. Unfortunately, many believers fail to understand the Gospel they profess and live in a perpetual state of guilt, bondage and fear. It’s as if they looked into a mirror and quickly forgot what they looked like when they turned away from it (James 1:22-25). It’s no wonder the task of the prophet is so arduous! The message is not hard to understand, but seldom heard.
Today, listening has become an increasingly difficult task. If God is to use us at all in this transitional age, we must learn how to tune out an obscene amount of “noise.” Our culture is constantly distracted by television, magazines, newspapers, billboards, books, CD players, radio stations, websites, emails, MP3s, shopping malls, schools, family, friends, acquaintances, coworkers and even our own depraved minds! One has to ask how it’s even possible to concentrate on something unseen! Even in our churches we get bogged down in the petty business of determining if our worship is “experiential,” if the bass was loud enough, if the latest greatest Christian band is actually Christian, if the book you’re reading is biblical, or if churches should or shouldn’t be “seeker-sensitive.” I sometimes wonder during these heated “worship wars” if the believers who are trying to be “sensitive” to “seekers” are even seeking God!
If our generation is going to have any spiritual significance, we must listen to what God is saying to us. We must not become anti-historical reformists, always trying to be different, but learn to reflect on the great tradition of the Church. As Thomas C. Oden has said, “Tradition enables reform.”
Finally, we must try to understand what is really going on in the world around us so we can meet its needs. All of this demands an attention span. We must quiet our minds and be still so we may know who is God (Psalm 46:10). As Oden says, “The completeness and fullness of truth in the apostolic testimony always seeks to become freshly appropriated in new hearts, new cultures, and ever retranslated into new languages and symbol systems. For the Spirit is working throughout history in all times and places to bring the incarnate eternal Word into our hearts effectively.”
I remember sitting alongside the Mississippi River in St. Paul a couple of years ago as a broken man. I was so angry with God; I refused to speak to Him. I just sat there, smoking my tobacco pipe, listening to the flowing water for hours at a time. The only distractions were the occasional barge that would chug by and the twig I would sometimes dig in the dirt with. It was in these quiet moments that I was able to hear God speak to me. I would open my Bible to Isaiah 46 and read about the heavy idols I was carrying and how God longed for me to turn from my own self-glorification. Sometimes during my daily twattle, I look back fondly on that time in my life. It was a turning point—a point of change. It was a change that I could not have done without, and neither can we. We must listen, or we will be nothing new under the sun.
[Adam Omelianchuk is a 25-year-old St. Paul resident who grew up in a good Lutheran Church (what else is there in Minnesota?)andnow attends a church called the Rock in Minneapolis, designed to reach out to young twenty- to thirtysomethings who are immersed in the postmodern culture.]