Review by Jeff Gissing
When I learned that the Presbyterian Mission Agency was launching a new web site dedicated to young adults ministry I was excited. After all, I’ve dedicated the last 10 years to ministry with them. In my current call I continue to work with our congregation’s growing young adult ministry. Like many, I’m always on the lookout for resources that will help young adults learn to follow Christ faithfully in a fallen world.
I’m also aware that fewer young adults are meaningfully connected to the institutional church than ever before. I’ve read broadly in the area of ministry to younger adults – from Ross Douthat to Diane Butler Bass; from Kevin deYoung to Rachel Held Evans; from Tony Jones to Gabe Lyons. Each of these writers gets some things right and some things wrong. What they have in common is that they’re conversation partners who seem to be taking the content of faith seriously. I disagree with Tony Jones’ panentheism, but I respect how his understanding of the nature and character of God influences his views on emerging culture. I’m not Roman Catholic, but I respect Ross Douthat’s insight into our current cultural moment captured in his book Bad Religion.
I turned to What’s Next What’s Now hoping to find some resources to help post-college Christians understand and apply their faith to the stage of life they occupy. After all, the Reformed tradition has been a thought and practice leader in understanding and engaging culture with the Gospel. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.
There are plenty of resources on the site, but none that explicitly relate to things like belief, faith, the Gospel, discipleship or spiritual formation – things that classical Christianity has viewed as central to the purpose of the church.
Further, as I reviewed the site, I found no references to God. In other words, there is precious little that differentiates this site from a resource site hosted by a political organization. I expect more from a Christian church. You should too.
The Reformed tradition is quite clear in articulating that: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 1). For Reformed Christians there is no part of our lives – or the life of the world – that can be categorized as somehow divorced from the rule and reign of God.
Our actions in the world are grounded in and shaped by our encounter with God in Christ through the Gospel. They are informed through catechesis and growth in the means of grace (word, sacrament and prayer). If – according to Saint James – faith without works is dead; works without faith is law (bondage). The beauty of the Reformed faith is the connection heart, mind and hands to the end of showing the glory of God. One of the means by which we bear witness to the Gospel is through our works of justice and of mercy. Both are goods in themselves, but works of justice and of mercy are rooted in something beyond themselves. They are rooted in the law of God. This Reformed sensibility is totally absent in What’s Next What’s Now. There is no faith to be connected with the “issues that matter” to young adults.
According to the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the site is the product of a long period of discernment: “Over the past two years the Presbyterian Mission Agency has engaged in an open-ended season of listening to young adults (age 18-30ish) to connect with them and discover how they are living out their faith or how they would like to.”
Focus groups aren’t necessarily bad. On the other hand, they’re not infallible. Ministry by means of focus group is untenable. I sometimes get the feeling that over the last 30 years our denomination has responded to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” with “Tell us what you want to hear.”
Truth, however, is not the aggregate of experiences. Truth – in its most concentrated form – is the God-man Jesus Christ who is shown to us in the pages of the Holy Scriptures. If the Christian life – including our engagement in works of justice and of mercy – is connected at all to God it follows that it must also be connected to the Bible, which contains “all things necessary to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3). That there is not a single reference to the Scriptures is profoundly troubling.
The site tells us that the result of the open-ended conversation was the identification of three themes. Young adults care about: “Finding authentic intergenerational community,” “opportunities for in faith in action through community service and engagement, and answering questions like ‘What’s next for me?’ and ‘What’s next for the world?’” Those are certainly worthwhile avenues of inquiry.
It’s peculiar – to say the least – that the site should choose to resource those lines of inquiry without reference to faith, Christian or otherwise. Rather than connecting a vibrant Jesus-centered, Scripture-shaped, confession-informed faith to pressing issues of the day, the site simply – and puzzlingly – ignores faith altogether.
For the Christian church the questions listed above aren’t unimportant, quite the contrary. The questions that surround human existence are of critical importance. However, the church has confessed through the millennia that those questions cannot fully or satisfactorily be answered without reference to God in Christ and to revelation. That our denomination should attempt to do so suggests to me that we ought seriously examine whether our witness has itself become untenable.
Jeff Gissing is a Presbyterian minister who blogs at http://jeffgissing.com.