“We need to push away the notion that church is something to which some people sign up in one go and one way.”
- Rowan Williams
There are many doomsday nay-sayers who either bemoan or rejoice whenever they hear of a “study” that indicates a massive decline among Christians of the younger generation. Often some think tank like The Barna Group or The Pew Forum will announce that the percentage of Christian ages X-Y has declined “this much” over a period of so many years. Christians in their forties and older fret that their children will not share their religious values forgetting that they had to go through the same rejection-to-rediscovery process when they were younger. It is common for young Christians to reject their religion as they reach the college age only to rediscover it has resurrected when they become parents themselves, at least this is what a recent study out of Baylor University suggests (see the WSJ article, “Religion and the Bad News Bearers”).
Now I am not a parent so I cannot imagine the sense of panic that is felt by parents who hear their children tell them, “I don’t believe in God.” My mother went through such an experience with me when as a thirteen or fourteen year old I discovered the word “Deist” and owned it. If atheist know there is no deity, and agnostics aren’t sure, deist presume that a deity or two likely exist, but that they are busy doing their own thing as the world spins. I did not find the God of Christianity plausible since he refused to answer most every prayer I prayed. I assumed that our existence demanded something other than mere chance (to this day I cannot fathom such a suggestion), but I was quite sure that whoever may exist he didn’t know or care that I did.
By the time I graduated high school I had become a Christian. In part this had to do with the emotions related to what C.S. Lewis called “Heaven’s Hound” in that it felt like the Spirit chased me biting at my heels until I admitted that Jesus is Lord. While my mother was a Christian who pressed me to reconsider my faith my father was an atheist, so either path was available to me. I don’t deny my mother’s influence in my “conversion”, but I don’t think it is as simple as some sort of cultural conditioning. All that said, I feel like I am still becoming a Christian. Some become Christians, accept the teachings of their local church, and move on with it. I reconvert every other week it seems.
Above I mentioned a quote from Rowan Williams. It is taken from a talk I embedded as a video below. He speaks of the long road to becoming a Christian and how it isn’t the same journey for everyone. This is true. In the Gospel of John we have disciples like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. If it weren’t for the insight provided by 19.38-39 we’d have no idea that Nicodemus converted. When we left him in the third chapter he was baffled by Jesus’ statements about being “born again”. In the next chapter his failure to understand Jesus is directly juxtaposed with a Samaritan woman who understands Jesus. He seems like a lost soul, yet he emerges as a disciple. Joseph’s story isn’t as detailed, but apparently his friends didn’t know he was a disciple.
Sometimes I wonder if disciples know they are disciples?
I have friends who forsook the Christian religion either in their late teens or early twenties. Some have returned, some are considering returning, some don’t seem interested. One thing that I’ve come to understand is that I don’t have to know where they are in relation to Christ. I pray for them. I ask the questions when appropriate. I try to answer theirs. Yet it isn’t my task to force reconversion, nor do I have the right to judge whether or not in some mysterious way they are walking with Christ as I am, though they are less public about it, or even self-aware.
The disciples in the Gospel of John who are “secret disciples” are another reason why I refuse to predetermine how God works and how God saves. While we examine people in the moment God can see the whole life, beginning to end. God is not limited by whether someone accepts his Son as Lord right now at 7:30 AM PST on the 29th of February in the year 2012 (when this line was written). God knows the beginning from the end and he is patient. God wants all to come to him, but he doesn’t often intervene like he did in the life of Saul of Tarsus.
To my friends who want to be Christians, but who struggle with the church (something I struggle with several times a week), or who have been hurt my other Christians, or who have found the Christianity they received to be incompetent in addressing the world around them, I ask that you keep walking. You may find one day that you’ve been a disciple of Christ for quite some time and you didn’t even realize it.