In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson observes that Christian conservatives are finding themselves under increasing cultural stress. This stress is not only coming from outside, but also from inside, primarily from the millennials in their midst.
“Whatever else traditional religious views may entail,” he writes, “they involve a belief that existence comes pre-defined. Purpose is discovered, not exerted. And scripture and institutions – a community of believers extended back in time – are essential to that discovery.” He notes, correctly I think, that this is NOT the spirit of our age.
I might add that this is especially not the spirit of our age in North America. The prevalent North American conception of the self has more in common with Invictus – I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul – than the Christian notion that I am the purposeful creation of a loving God. The consequences of radical self-construction range from a self-promoting me-first attitude that undercuts any notion of community, to abject despair that one’s life is worth anything at all.
Unlike Gerson, I do not think that this mindset affects only the millennials. I think it affects all but perhaps the oldest members of our churches. In fact, I have a hunch that this attitude was caught by the millennials not so much from society, but from their parents, as Christian Smith suggests.
When I think about what it means to be the church in the 21st century, to be a missional church, I wonder whether part of our mission is to help people, maybe especially young people, realize that this pernicious cultural value of self-construction runs counter to everything the Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches. In other words, your worth does not come from striving for success, changing styles or attitudes to fit the next cultural expectation of “cool,” or any other form of self-constructed meaning. These will eventually leave you empty and exhausted.
The Gospel teaches grace.
Your worth comes from the fact that God chose to make you, die for you, and save you from every impulse to self-construct. In fact, there is nothing you actually do to make yourself more acceptable to God, to construct yourself in a way that would render you worthy of his love. Rather than a promise of temporal goods that only add to your exhaustion, grace promises rest.
The only thing grace requires is open hands to receive this most precious of gifts.