One of the points of discussion arising from the articles about aging church demographics was whether conservative evangelical theology acted as a barrier, putting off young people especially where it clashed with their social values.
One claim is that people might be drawn into evangelical churches because of the passionate focus on the Gospel or because of their programmes, lively music etc but when they find out what the church believes on issues such as gender, sexuality, beginning/end of life ethics, complementarianism etc then they are either put off and leave or they live with an uneasy tension.
I think there may be some truth in that. I think we are hearing increasingly of churches where there is a disconnect between what the church leaders believe and what the congregation members would prefer the church to believe/practice. I’ve observed this anecdotally when we’ve had people come and look at the church were I was pastor from other churches where the position was similar to ours or even more conservative. These were not people who left because of a fall out, they came to us because they’d moved close to us but on several occasions they indicated that whilst they had been a member of such and such a church, they did not agree with a number of its positions on things and the church had been okay with that, providing the people didn’t seek to change the church position on those matters.
What can/should we do about this? Well, first of all, I think that we should counter the dismissiveness of some liberal critics. I think it actually says something positive that people find something compelling in the central message and the life of a church that even though there are aspects of what Christians believe and teach which they struggle with, they are still willing to commit. Indeed, perhaps it will challenge us if we are comfortable and don’t wrestle with anything. Is there anything that I’m willing to be uncomfortable with because that’s how much I treasure the Gospel.
So, I have no problem with people joining a church with those kinds of tensions in place, providing we don’t leave things there. Rather, I think that a healthy church should be tolerant of those tensions when people join but proactively engaging with them so that the controversial issues are addressed as part of teaching and discipleship.
I think there can be a risk with certain approaches to evangelicalism that we are so focused on unity in the basic essentials, for the sake of the Gospel (and if we are honest sometimes to keep the peace and keep our numbers up). The risk is that a church never addresses those secondary but still important matters and so the beliefs and practices of the church become assumed. Members don’t know why these things matter. Indeed, they may well only be hearing the position of their church through those seeking to attack it and therefore are likely to hear a caricature of their position. If for example, your church members have a caricatured, negative view of complementarianism then it is possible that this is because it’s all they’ve been able to find out about he issue because you haven’t been positively teaching it.
Therefore, I believe we have to tackle the big and controversial issues but we have to do it in a way that is winsome and attractive. We need to show from Scripture why we believe what we believe and practice what we believe.
We also need to make sure that we are following Scripture. Sometimes churches can fall into versions of belief and practice that are a human distortion of the Biblical teaching. It is possible that if your young people think that your church is sexist, racist, phobic etc that in fact it is. So, use the challenges as an opportunity to reform your teaching and keep getting back to Scripture. Use them to check your own heart.
This should demonstrate humility and brings me to a final point. A lot of these issues are best engaged with through conversation and discussion. Include application in your preaching but don’t limit it to pronouncements from the front. Take time to discuss things one to one, provide space for question and answer. Address hot topics in small groups.
What I think should happen in a healthy church is that rather than these controversial topics being a barrier to the Gospel and instead of us avoiding them completely, instead, the Gospel should be the gateway into and the scaffolding for healthy conversations about the controversial stuff.