Humans generally love “how to” courses, materials that promise a certain result if we behave a certain way. The Christian publishing world picked up on this desire in the 90’s, giving the church hundreds of resources that broke faith down into manageable steps that offered certain types of marriages, certain types of children, certain types of financial profit, certain types of lives.
When I was a young adult, I loved some of those tidy faith-based how-to programs. I didn’t believe everything I read, of course. I’ve always been a bit of a cynic. But I used discernment and chose a few programs from reputable sources, and it felt good to jump through hoops of moral behavior and know that certain results were inevitable.
Christian Gen-Xers like me grew up inside of this well-oiled machine, a machine that didn’t exist when Baby Boomers were teens and young adults. We grew up knowing that if we would simply behave appropriately, God would perform wonders--and we did try to behave appropriately. We tried so hard.
My generation wore promise rings, and we attended Women of Faith conferences, and we went to Promise Keepers, and we raised kids “God’s Way.” Dave Ramsey told us we could have financial peace. Authors told us how to find God’s will for our lives—or if we couldn’t do that, how to make Christian decisions. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood told us how to find our gender roles. Focus on the Family told us how to create an ideal home, Family Life seminars told us how to create the perfect marriage.
No matter what the felt need was, a Christian resource existed telling us how to get there. This was the “equipping church.” The church of doing.
I still love a lot of what I learned from some of these resources. There’s good wisdom in most of those materials. Yet, I’ve also found that the life of faith isn’t always as tidy as what I was told.
Sometimes my Baby Boomer friends can’t understand why Gen Xers and Millennials are leaving the church, but people in my age group and younger are not only disillusioned with the real life results of some of those glorious old equipping programs, we’ve also had to process disappointment in many leaders who offered us those resources before abandoning their principles. Leaders who encouraged us to stand against the crowd and make difficult moral sacrifices went with the flow when push came to shove, loving political power more than holiness. I can understand why Boomers don't realize how devastating this was--when they were growing up, the "machine" and all of its promises didn't exist. But for children of my era, it's been hard to process the duality. And meanwhile, in our personal lives, following those programs didn’t always produce the lives we anticipated.
For a couple of months, my husband and I have been packing our house to sell. As I’ve been cleaning bookshelves, it’s been strange to find some of my old training materials again. My handwriting fills the blanks of workbooks from the early 90’s, and it’s been hard to read some of the answers I once wrote down. Because I’m firstborn and driven, I have jumped through hoops--but some of those hoops led nowhere. There’s been no finish line tape to break and no applause. I have quite a few bruises and some serious fatigue.
I’m only 46, so it’s probably too soon to assess the whole of my life. But as I’ve been flipping through pages scribbled full of the expectations and performance of my past, I wish I could go back and encourage my young self to step away from the machine at least a little bit so that I could prioritize simply knowing and loving Jesus.
I’m thankful for the moral choices I made, but I wish I had made them with a different motivation. Instead of believing that God would bless me if I performed well (a chorus reiterated in so, so many of the resources I once trusted), I wish I had focused on knowing and trusting the living person of Jesus because he is worth knowing and trusting--letting restraint and purity flow from the inherent good of that relationship.
I wish I had refused to equivocate physical blessing with obedience, holding communion with my Maker as the ultimate reward.
And I wish I had seen the difference between flesh-driven religious behavior and spirit-driven religious behavior more clearly from the beginning.
Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” This emphasis on the indwelling life is the main message of the New Testament, and it is reiterated over and again in almost every book.
“Know Jesus. Abide in Jesus. Let His power work in and through you. If you try to achieve the same results by mere human force, you might find something that mimics success for a while, but human force--even religious-looking human force--can accomplish nothing eternal."
Can I squeeze a best-selling book title and twelve marketable chapters out of that? Probably not. But even if this message isn't going to make the New York Times Best Seller List, God isn’t a means to an end--He is the end.
The Christian life isn’t just a set of techniques; it’s learning to trust a living Father and King who doesn’t lead the exact same way in every life. He's not a program. He's a Person.
Over the next few years, I think evangelicalism will find itself in a bit of a predicament. Desperation to recover cultural power has revealed too much about the true center of evangelical trust, and quite a few of the Boomer-era religious systems are going to look shallow and silly in the wake of that revelation.
My generation, and the generation after mine, is probably going to flinch around anything that rings of the 90's equipping train. I doubt we will buy the workbooks or attend the seminars.
But in the messy aftermath of what we have realized on both a personal and national level, even as the dust settles, we will still long for the living God.
My hope is that like Aslan, Jesus will appear larger than the last time America knew him—too large to fit inside of a tidy, corporate machine. I hope that our new publications will lay aside the efforts of the flesh and focus on what it means to abide in the Vine.
In the 1500’s, John Donne wrote some of my favorite lines in the introduction to the translation of Sir Philip Sydney’s translation of the psalms:
ETERNAL God—for whom who ever dare
Seek new expressions, do the circle square,
And thrust into straight corners of poor wit
Thee, who art cornerless and infinite—
I would but bless Thy name, not name Thee now
—And Thy gifts are as infinite as Thou—
The living God is complex, infinite, cornerless. He is truth. He is goodness. He is beauty. He is the bread of life and the living water.
As weary as I am, and as much as I’ve lost, there’s something wonderful about coming to a breaking point in which the straw and the chaff burn away. I'm so glad to be hurting like this before this earthly life is over, when I still have time to learn what it means to abide.
God has been good to rip me out of a sense of earned security and push me back into what never fades and never crumbles. After all is gone, Jesus remains.