Does Presbyterianism Work?
It is difficult for Presbyterians to avoid asking whether our faith works with our children and young people. The usual pattern we observe is that children are baptized as infants, then sometime in childhood or adolescence express a desire to make profession of faith, changing their status from non-communicant to communicant members of the church. They are then examined by the Session which accepts their profession as credible and admits them to the Lord’s Table.
After this we observe some puzzling things. In some cases, in late teenage or early adult years some, who have been baptized and professed faith, seem to turn away from the faith and from church almost entirely. Often do not renounce their faith, but, rather, become indifferent and non-participating in the life of the church.
In others we see another pattern. As teenagers they drift or turn away from the faith and practice of the church in which they have been reared and find themselves equally or more at home in other churches and other youth groups. Others begin to date and marry and move to move easily from one denomination to another or no denomination at all.
How do we account for these things? In the case of young people who become indifferent or turn away from the faith, I do not consider that this phenomenon is in any way peculiar to Presbyterianism. All churches, whether they baptize, dedicate, or do nothing for children in infancy, experience the loss of young people in teenage and adult years.
Moreover, whether profession of faith is viewed as a confirmation of the faith into which one was baptized or a distinct conversion event, all churches have the problem that some, who profess faith, at whatever age, leave the faith. For Presbyterians, this confronts us again with the mystery of the covenant, for some, who are within the covenant community, seem not to possess the realities of covenant life. We are reminded that, while we believe that baptism, profession, and covenant inclusion make a vital difference, none of them is an infallible guarantee of election, regeneration, and faith.
But what about Presbyterian young people, who do not turn away their professions, but drift into or seek other churches? I mean the young woman who marries, knowing that her children will not be baptized, though our doctrine is that baptism is a means of grace; the young man who goes to a non-covenantal youth group or church and apparently feels no problem in his covenantal status in the church being not only ignored but denied; the young person who feels that charismatic worship is really “alive” and that the worship with which he or she grew up with is out-of-date, stiff, and dead; the college student who has heard the doctrines of grace in sermons, Sunday school, and Bible studies, but who goes to a para-church ministry that teaches an Arminian Gospel and “the higher” Christian life.
What we must say is that these young people have either rejected the distinctives of Presbyterian faith and practice, or that they do not believe these distinctives important enough to make a difference in their choices of spouses, churches, or involvement in para-church groups.
How does this happen? Here are some thoughts.
First, our young people and we have been affected by a concerted effort to reduce evangelicalism to a few “essentials” in order to promote unity. What this means for Presbyterians is that large doctrines and whole chapters of our Confession must be relegated to “not really important” status. It has been observed for some time now that denominational loyalty has greatly diminished. People now choose a church not on the basis of its confession of faith and its adherence to the practices that this faith requires. They choose a church based on their needs.
A single person looks for a singles ministry. Young mothers look for other young mothers and programs directed to them. A teenager is attracted to where his friends are or to the current “in” place. Boomers go where they can hear “their music.” People drift from Presbyterian, to Baptist, to Charismatic, to para-church with no apparent sense of significant faith-dissonance.
We must also take into account the reality that we live at a time in which relativism, personal choice, and experience trump unchanging truth, group (read covenantal) loyalty, and doctrine. We would be foolish to think that our children and we are not strongly influenced by the values of both the evangelical and the 21st century American cultures. About the only place we find these resisted is in the minority of self-consciously confessional churches, and even there the going is hard.
Then, we have to admit that we as parents may not see the distinctives of our faith as of vital importance. We think in our heart of hearts that it does not really make any great difference what the faith and practice of another church may be so long as it seems to draw its teaching from the Bible and teaches that Jesus is in some way the Savior whom we trust. We think that whether children are baptized or not baptized is not really a big deal. We suspect that whether a church speaks in tongues in worship, or burns incense, or dance in the aisles to the beat of a rock band, or sings 16 verses of Just As I Am during an invitation, or worships in the historic Presbyterian way, is of no great consequence (“different strokes for different folks”). We may wonder if this whole Calvinist-Arminian thing is not“much ado about nothing.” We may find that we ourselves have not the slightest idea of how covenant theology operates in a church or family, beyond the baptism of babies.
So we act as though the distinctives of our faith are decorations on the cake but not the cake and probably not even the icing. If our son is the lead singer for the rock band at the charismatic youth group, we aren’t going to get too worked up about it. If our daughter’s children are not baptized, it’s OK, because it has nothing at all to do with their spiritual welfare. If they go to college and get involved in a para-church campus ministry and seldom attend church, we think, “Well, the church is just any group of Christians in whatever form.” If they choose a church that has not ever so much as thought about the Biblical method of worship, we may say, “Well, people like to worship in different ways.” If a child baptized in infancy wants to be baptized again, we respond with, “What can it hurt?”
What to do?
First, the church must take itself more seriously. We DO NOT for a moment think that we Presbyterians are the only Christians or that we are the only true church. We are Biblical “minimalists” on the matter of who are to be regarded as Christians. Those who enter the church by baptism (at whatever age), who can articulate a simple faith in Christ as Savior and Lord (even if there are serious doctrinal deficiencies), who sincerely want to live a Christian life (whatever their struggles), and who can live under the spiritual oversight of our elders, we regard as Christians eligible for membership in our churches. We apply to churches the tests of whether they preach the true Gospel (even mixed with error), administer the sacraments in their fundamental integrity (even if defectively), and practice discipline (at least making some distinction between the church and the world). But we should not apologize for our distinctives because we believe they are Biblical, and that they do make a difference. We must communicate to adults, parents, children, and teenagers that we consider the things we believe and practice to be vital to healthy, Biblical Christianity.
Second, we as parents must communicate and transfer to our children our convictions. We will not teach them to be rigid, proud, self-righteous, or uncharitable toward other Christians and churches. But we will teach them the whole of our faith and practice. We will tell them that it does make a difference what we believe, how we worship and live, and of what church we are members. We can inculcate expectations of what we hope they will do as college students and adults (though we will not cease to love and accept them if they make different choices). We will not, when they are teenagers give them permission to go to different churches or youth groups, but will teach them “the why” of our decision. We can expose them to the beliefs and practices of other churches and groups (just as we teach them about competing worldviews in Christian schools) and tell them why we believe what we believe and do what we do, and why it is important. Most important, we will pray with and for them, set before them a godly example, teach them the doctrines of our holy religion, and strive by all the means of God’s appointment to bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
What’s at stake here? At stake is whether we as churches and as parents think that the faith we hold is true and important. And, if we believe in our faith and practice, what’s at stake is the welfare of the souls of our children.
By sheer grace and covenant mercy, our sons did not wander from our faith in college, leave the church, or seek other denominations. We are blessed that one is a ruling elder, one a minister, and all and their families are active members of confessional Presbyterian churches today. We give thanks our grandchildren are baptized. I cannot speak for others, but I can say, by God’s grace, that, as for me and my house, Presbyterianism seemed to work. With no credit to me for certain, I am grateful to God for his mercies.