Faith and Fruit in a Post-Christian World: The Next Generation

A few months ago, I held the newborn son of dear friends in my arms, and I reflected on the flood of emotions that accompanies the welcome of a new life into the world. In addition to the joy and relief at the safe arrival of a baby, we also encounter hopes and fears and questions about the future. What sort of person will this child grow up to be? What sort of friends will he have? Will he grow up in the knowledge and admonition of the Lord? What will God do in this child’s life?

And, for those who watch the news and meditate on the state of the world today, there are other questions too: When this child goes to college, will he be allowed to talk about his faith? Will he be able to find a Christian spouse and raise a God-fearing family of his own? Will there be churches for him to go to? Will those churches still teach the Scriptures? It is possible to ask such questions in a posture of cynicism and unbelief. But it is also possible to ask these questions in faith and sincerity, seeking to discern a God-honoring course of action in troubling times. It is this second perspective, I hope, that has motivated this past year’s series on faithfulness and fruitfulness in a post-Christian world. I stand with both feet firmly planted on Christ’s promise that the gates of hell will not prevail against his church (Matt. 16:18). And yet, looking toward our world and the future, I also cannot avoid the gravity of the crisis the next generation of the church will face. Jesus himself asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8, English Standard Version).

Nor can I comfort myself with the thought that at least our Reformed congregations on the margins will be immune to such a crisis. If today we are not clear on the doctrines of the Christian faith, our particular identity as Reformed churches, and our responsibility to teach and mentor the next generation of believers, then we may very well be the last bodies to warm United Reformed pews before our congregations, like so many others before them, pass into oblivion. And if we are to avert that possibility, we must examine the connecting link between this generation and the next—a link best summed up in the word tradition.

That word can conjure up a host of objections. Reformed churches have never upheld tradition, one might protest. That’s why we have the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Didn’t Jesus condemn the Pharisees for their hypocritical adherence to “the tradition of the elders” (Matt. 15:1–9)? Didn’t tradition lead the Roman Catholic Church to forsake the gospel? What rightful place can tradition have in the Reformed faith? Tradition under the Scriptures In fact, the word tradition comes from the Latin traditio, which refers to something being “handed over” or “handed down.” Without question, this is a biblical pattern. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses called the people of Israel again and again to pass on the commandments of God to their children (Deut. 6:7–9). Historical songs such as Psalm 78 recount the deeds of the Lord “that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God” (vv. 6–7). The apostle Paul commended the Corinthian church for maintaining the traditions he had delivered to them (1 Cor. 11:2). Traditions serve as intergenerational conduits for the message of the gospel.

The error of Roman Catholicism is to assign tradition a voice independent of and equal to the authority of the Scriptures. But underneath the Scriptures as the ultimate rule for faith and life, the Reformed church has always affirmed the legitimacy and value of traditions as historic practices handed down through the ages. Where else did the creeds and confessions originate? How else did books like the Genevan Psalter impact our churches so dramatically? In what other way can we justify such familiar aspects of Reformed worship as the votum—“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth”—or the liturgical forms? Our particular practices may be biblically rich, but not all of them are biblically mandated.

This point bears particular emphasis in a cultural context that often denies its connections to tradition. And a community in danger of denying its traditions places itself in other kinds of danger as well. For if we discard tradition as a ground for evaluating our particular practices, the only remaining options are total objectivity or total subjectivity. Either we must prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that our position is the only scripturally legitimate one, or we must resort to decision making based solely on personal likes and dislikes. The stakes are ultimate or nil. Either we must identify a prooftext for the practice of weekly or quarterly communion, or we must abandon the discussion to the realm of personal preference. Either we must prove that a new songbook is the most biblical or the least biblical collection of music available, or it is merely a matter of taste. If we claim that we have no traditions, we lose the capacity to grapple with Paul’s caution that “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor. 10:23). The middle ground where we can debate not lawfulness but helpfulness slips out of view.

Our culture often frames these debates in terms of traditionalism and progressivism. Traditionalism ignores the future, and progressivism ignores the past. If we adopt such an oversimplified perspective, we have not grasped the real nature of tradition. Traditions cease to exist if they are not passed forward. Progress requires the continuity of a tradition in order to progress. Traditions and genuine progress are inseparable. The real threat to our churches comes through tradition that refuses to be examined and progress that refuses to be questioned. And the antidote to such a threat comes through consideration of the communal value, not merely the biblical grounds, of the habits and practices of our communities of faith. A Vision for the URCNA Again I return to the question that has guided Rev. Murphy’s columns in The Outlook this year: What’s happening to our young people? Well, the only thing we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that they are getting older. And there is some seriousness to this tongue-in-cheek comment. The young people are becoming the church. Their first welcome into the community of saints occurred in their baptism, and their professions of faith further confirmed their membership. They are the future of the church. And the more convicting question Rev. Murphy has encouraged us to ask about the next generation is, What are we handing down to them?

I am aware that this is a somewhat impertinent question for me to ask. For I too am a young adult, and I am the grateful recipient of a beautiful spiritual inheritance passed down by the diligent labors of more individuals than I could name (Ps. 16:6). It is gratitude for that inheritance that compels me to continue to seek the welfare of the URCNA as a spiritual mother. So I pose the question in hope and confidence that the Lord will use the zeal and passion of young believers to sustain our congregations for ages to come. But in order for this to occur, our churches must devote themselves to the practices of discipleship, mentoring, and catechesis—oral instruction, the passing down of tradition. We must know more than the contents of our Bibles and the doctrinal contours of Calvinism. We must know the origins and history of our federation, its particular identity and mission, its central tenets as well as its peripheral quirks. We must catch a compelling vision for why the United Reformed Churches in North America should continue, and we must become acquainted with the mantle of leadership that we will one day, by God’s grace, take up. Such traditions cannot be taken for granted. They must be handed down to us.

This past summer, I attended the annual LOGOS conference sponsored by Reformed Youth Services. What emerged during this week of teaching and fellowship in northern Kentucky was, in some ways, a cross-section of the next generation of the church. The conference included workshops from seminarians of the same age as some of the conference participants. But all attendees, whether or not they are preparing for full-time ecclesiastical vocations, received encouragement to practice the kind of intergenerational vitality that should mark the homes and pews and fellowship halls of our congregations week after week. The energy and love for the church manifested at the conference was invigorating—a reminder of the Lord’s promises that extend from generation to generation.

Where are the young people? Here they are! They stand ready to invest their time and talents in the kingdom of God. What are we handing down to them? Do we believe that the traditions of our federation, feeble and flawed though they may be, are worth preserving and strengthening? Here are souls who can carry on the fight.

There’s a joke that the unofficial motto of many Reformed churches is, “But we’ve always done it that way.” On closer inspection, this statement offers a place for a healthy understanding of tradition to begin. The explanation is not illegitimate, merely incomplete. It should be stated in a tone that invites young believers to ask: Why? How does this practice reflect the biblical narrative of redemption? How does it build us up in the faith? How does it respond specifically to the needs of today’s lost and lonely world? And how can we continue to evaluate and adjust this tradition so that it can continue to serve future generations of the church?

Prayer and Work I began this series with reference to the particular traditions and history of my home congregation in West Sayville, Long Island. One of the archives I treasure most is a cassette tape of a farewell service for a young minister in the 1970s. In it, one of the church’s elders, Jake Klaassen, spoke of the “shadow upon the horizon” that he could discern in the church’s current denomination and emphasized the continuing need to reevaluate its traditions in light of the unchanging Word of God. “But,” he added, “we can rest in the promise of God: He will send his Spirit, he has promised us, to lead and guide his church into all truth. And I believe he will do that in the future, as he did in the past, by raising up men—men with keen minds, men with discerning spirits, men that are filled with the spirit of the Almighty.” Klaassen’s eyes were on the next generation. Decades later, his encouragement to that young pastor to “lean hard upon the Lord” has also strengthened my own life and work—a beautiful reminder of the tradition I have inherited. If we are to be faithful and fruitful servants of Christ and his church in the twenty-first century, we must commit to traditions without traditionalism and progress without progressivism. We must look back to the Scriptures and our history and forward to the next generation. We must commit to ardent prayer and diligent labors so that the church of tomorrow might be more faithful and fruitful than the church of today. I know a pastor who often prays at infant baptisms, “May this child grow up to love the Lord more than we do and accomplish greater things for his kingdom than we can.” It is significant that Jesus’ question about finding faith on the earth immediately follows a parable about persistence in prayer. When Christ returns, will he find a generation on their knees, daily and earnestly imploring him on behalf of their children for a greater measure of the strength and encouragement and wisdom that he promises to provide to his church? Is that our prayer? Is it our deepest longing and delight? May it be so.

Mr. Michael R. Kearney is a graduate student and research assistant in the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Covenant Fellowship Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPCNA) in Wilkinsburg, PA.