What the Church Needs to Convey to Young Christians

The facts about teenagers and young adults leaving the church are uncomfortable. To know that so many young people would seemingly throw away their faith as they transition into adulthood is tragic. Yet it still continues to happen. Most surveys and polls on the subject suggest that about 70% of high school aged youth stop attending church once they graduate. Only half of them ever return to the church.

There seem to be a number of reasons for this. Some teenagers, belonging to a religious family, want to “free” themselves of the influence of their parents after they move on to college. That influence would include their religious upbringing, so they abandon it. Others feel like they need to “grow up,” as if graduating high school signals the time to graduate from religion and move on to something better. Still others move on to attend liberal universities, where the core of their faith is attacked by professors and peers who may question and deride the authority of Scripture, the authenticity of their faith, and the account of creation given in the Book of Genesis.

However, I believe the issue has roots spreading much deeper. While we can’t deny that the world and its powers relentlessly attack the faith of young Christians, perhaps a big part of the issue is that they aren’t being properly equipped to stand up against these attacks. While American culture may be growing more hostile to the Christian faith and its virtues, the reality is that hostile challengers of the Christian faith have been targeting young Christians since the church began. Perhaps the church environment in which children are being raised doesn’t properly convey the necessity of staying in the church for life. I believe that this issue of the youth leaving the church is linked to the question: What does the church offer that the world doesn’t?

A Firm Foundation

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:3 that “I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

The Christians Paul is writing to in this letter were just a few years removed from the actual resurrection event, had come into contact with God’s appointed apostles, and had seen miracles performed by Paul, yet Paul still felt that they could fall away from the faith. Persecution, doubts, and the sinful influences of the world have always been working contrary to the faith of Christians.

Contrary to the Calvinistic “once saved, always saved” doctrine, Lutherans acknowledge that it is possible for a person to have saving faith in God, but then later fall away from the faith. God’s Word is exceedingly clear on this issue (see this collection of verses and also 1 Timothy 1:19).

When it comes to assurance of our salvation, it is necessary to acknowledge that God is ultimately in control. Trusting in Him to guide and direct our lives is very important for our reassurance. Proverbs 16:9 tells us:

The heart of man plans his way,
    but the Lord establishes his steps.”

Martin Luther summed this up poignantly by saying, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

The Influences of Culture

While the Lutheran church may not be as heavily affected and influenced by pop culture and modern trends as other Christian groups (such as non-denominational churches), all Christian groups need to be on the guard against culture’s negative influences. As soon as churches let the culture dilute our doctrine and our message, it makes it easier for the falsehoods of the world to break down the foundations of our children’s faith. There are far too many instances of our culture influencing the church, and not the other way around. (If you want some entertaining yet depressing examples of this, check out Chris Rosebrough’s Fighting for the Faith.)

This isn’t to say that the church cannot adapt to become more efficient in our modern age. There’s nothing wrong with incorporating things like contemporary instruments into worship, so long as the music itself is still doctrinally sound (which often ends up not being the case). There’s nothing wrong with using modern technology and media to further the message of the church, so long as we don’t turn the church into an experiment in logistics or let church become nothing more than a social club.

Here’s the real crux of the issue: when church just becomes another outfit or iteration of American culture, why would we not expect our kids to leave when they discover they can access the culture in better ways – ones that don’t involve all of that old, stuffy religion stuff? 

You see, the church is actually church when it offers something the culture and the world does not. The world doesn’t offer forgiveness of sins, the sacraments, the pure Word of God, or real fellowship with other believers in Christ. And as soon as those things become diluted or absent from the church, what makes our churches different from any other social institution?

Here’s what parents and the church as a whole need to communicate to our youth: Here, in the church, you will find something that you cannot find anywhere else in the world. Here, you will find the very words of God Himself, spoken and given to you. Here, you will find forgiveness of sins in baptism and the Lord’s Supper and absolution. Here, you will find the Bread of Life that cannot be found anywhere outside of the church.

May we never lose sight of the fact that church is something different, something sacred. Let us always train and equip our children to withstand the attacks of the world and its sinful institutions. Let us always communicate what is essential: the church is most definitely worth staying in for life.

 

Reflections – Galatians 3:21-24

“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:21-24)

Have you ever despaired over a certain sin you committed, convinced it was too horrible for God to forgive? Christians shouldn’t go about life doubting God’s ability to forgive, be we certainly should always be contrite and repentant when we sin against God. The Christian life is a constant struggle between our identity in Christ and our sinful nature. Even on our best days, when we put forth every conscious effort to live as Christ lived, we still don’t reach the perfect standard that God has given us in the law. No matter how much we struggle, our sinful thoughts and desires are a part of us until we are taken home to Christ (Romans 7:18-25).

Paul, in his epistles, writes fervently and emphatically about the importance of justification by grace through faith. This is the central doctrine of Christianity, and it is where Christians place all of their hope. The certainty of our salvation does not depend on us. If it did, we certainly would not be able to justify ourselves before God. Rather, our hope of salvation rests on Christ and his saving work. God did this by placing the burden of sin and death on His son, Jesus Christ. As Paul tells Christians in 2 Corinthians 5:21 –

For our sake God made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

 

Christ died so that we would be released from our captivity to the law and sin. The law is not a means with which we can justify ourselves. The law’s true purpose is to point us to Christ, as said in Galatians 3:24 above. The ESV translation uses the word “guardian” to describe what the law does for us. The KJV translation uses the word “schoolmaster.” Combining the characteristics of both a guardian and a schoolmaster makes an accurate depiction of the original Greek word used, paidagōgos Strong’s Concordance describes a paidagōgos in this way:

“Among the Greeks and the Romans, [the term paidagōgos] was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood.”

 

This word gives a very accurate portrayal of how the law works. All humans, because of their sinful nature, are under the strict supervision and oversight of the law. Before one is brought to faith, he is chained to the standards of the law and is condemned before God. In this way, the law shows us what we can never live up to. It shows us how we are not free from the law (and sin) unless Christ has freed us. The law gives us the picture of what Christ’s life and death fulfilled. When we sin, and in turn see how sinful our hearts truly are, the law drives us to repentance and draws our hearts to Christ’s crucifixion.

Ultimately, the gospel of Jesus gets the final word in our salvation. If we think we can justify ourselves through the law, then why did Christ die for us? Paul states this very plainly – “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21)

When we compare our sinful selves to the perfect standards of the law, we don’t come even close to perfection. But Christ became perfection for us. His perfection has made us heirs to God’s kingdom, for which we wait humbly and faithfully.

Why are There So Many Denominations?

(Check out my previous article with a similar theme, “Why are There So Many Bible Translations?“)

Take a good look at this “family tree” of Christian denominations here. Confusing, isn’t it? And that doesn’t nearly include all of them.

Why can’t there just be one label on there, titled “The Christian Church” founded by Jesus Christ in 33 AD? Why can’t that single Church have a line drawn from it all the way up to 2016 AD, with no other branches? Why can’t it look like this?

Denominations

Actually, in a sense, it is that way, but it doesn’t look that way. More on that in a bit.

The vast number of Christian denominations is something I’ve heard atheists cite as evidence against the Christian faith. As the argument goes, if Christianity is the truth and the only way to salvation, why are there so many divisions within it? Why would Christians be arguing among themselves? Surely, if Christianity were true, Christians would be in agreement concerning their faith.

Now, this argument mostly ignores that fact that historically, Christians across the entire spectrum of denominations have affirmed many of the same central truths – the importance of Scripture, the work and person of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.

More importantly, this argument presents a bit of a strawman picture of Christianity. The claim that “Christianity must be false, because its own followers can’t completely agree on everything” makes a strange assumption about the nature of religion. In essence, it is saying that “if a religion is the truth, all of its adherents will be in complete unity concerning that religion.” This assertion does not have any foundation. It certainly isn’t an assumption that historical and orthodox Christianity has ever held.

In fact, the New Testament writers anticipated divisions within the Church. The Apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). There were even apparent divisions in the Church within a few years of Jesus’ ministry. The entire book of Galatians was written in order to refute the teachings of those known as the “Judaizers,” a sect of Jewish Christians who taught that all Christians must observe Old Testament Jewish customs in order to be saved. IMG_2976

Whenever talking about “the Christian Church,” it is helpful to make a distinction concerning what we regard the church to mean. Christian theologians have typically described the church in a twofold manner: the invisible church and the visible church.  The invisible church consists of all those who have been called by the gospel and justified by Christ. It is termed “invisible” because we as humans cannot see into people’s hearts to discern who has faith and who doesn’t. In this sense, the invisible church is the “true” church due to the fact that all of its members have true faith. The visible church, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the invisible church. We cannot see into men’s hearts to discern their faith, but we can get an idea of who our fellow believers are due to their confession of faith and their works before us. Charles Porterfield Krauth, a great Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, summarized this by saying: “Faith makes men Christians; but Confession alone marks them as Christians… By our faith, we are known to the Lord as his; by our Confession, we are known to each other as His children.”[1]

Even though Christians belonging to different denominations can vary in their beliefs about the Christian faith, true believers in Christ can be found throughout the visible church, even with all of its divisions and debates. The invisible church, that is, those who have saving faith in Christ, can be found all throughout the visible church, in all manner of denominations. This does not mean, however, that every individual denomination is correct in its teachings. Edward Koehler describes this well in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

The visible church is divided into many denominations or confessions, also called churches. There are three large branches of the visible church: the Roman Catholic Church, both Greek and Roman; the Reformed Church, comprising a large number of denominations; and the Lutheran Church, which is also divided into a number of bodies.

These denominations or confessions differ from one another in points of doctrine, and each asserts that its teachings are true. It is absurd to assume that all these churches have the true and right teachings. There is but one truth. A doctrine is either true or false. It cannot be both. . . There is only one true doctrine concerning the creation of the world, the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, the redemption of the world, the conversion of man, etc. Whatever does not agree with this doctrine is false (323).[2]

So while we recognize that there are true believers (members of the invisible church) throughout various denominations, we also acknowledge that not every denomination can be correct in its public confession of doctrine, due to the exclusive nature of true doctrine. Additionally, there may be those who appear to confess true faith in Christ, yet still do not actually believe it in their hearts. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These individuals would belong to the visible church due to their confession, but not the invisible church, due to their actual lack of belief. Again, Koehler states:

Unbelievers and hypocrites may be active and affiliated with a congregation. However, they do not belong to the [true] church because the terms used in the Scriptures to describe the church indicate that there exists an inner relation and spiritual communion between her members and God. . . All true believers, no matter to which denominational body they belong, are members of this church. However, if one does not have faith, then one is not a member of the church, though he is a priest, minister, or the pope himself (314).[3]

There is only one true and invisible church established by Christ. Anyone who has true faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is a member of this true church, regardless of denominational affiliation. Regardless, denominations are important because they allow Christians of similar conviction and confession to engage in fellowship. We are not to ignore these doctrinal differences, especially those that are blatantly false and harmful. We are told countless times throughout Scripture to avoid false teachers and those teach destructive doctrines.

Why are there so many denominations? It is simply due to the sinfulness of humans. We have a tendency replace God’s words with our own and, in some cases, ignore Him completely. Splits occur because division and disagreement arises along with false teaching. Regardless, God is faithful to His children. The large number of divisions within Christianity are not divisions within the true invisible church, but rather are divisions within the visible church, the imperfect manifestation of the true church.

If you feel troubled by the apparent divisions within Christianity, take heart in the fact that there are true believers throughout many different confessions. Take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

 


 

[1] Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publishing House, 1913: 166.

[2][3] Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.