A young man in the circle decided to be vulnerable: “I have never seen an example of a Christian life in church that I want to follow.” What happened next shocked me. One by one, the others in the circle nodded their agreement. I shook my head in astonishment, and they shook their heads in wonder that I found this unanimous sentiment surprising.
We had gathered a group of young people to talk about their experiences of church.
The conversation began with the expected themes: sermons, music, youth group, and conflicts. But the mood changed when the “I have never seen . . .” voice spoke up. I reflexively brought up mental images of the many faithful exemplars who had invested in me. I couldn’t imagine my own life apart from all they taught me by their (very different) examples. So what was I to make of this young man who hadn’t experienced such saints? Was he just blind to what surrounded him?
One of the “me neither” voices elaborated on the theme: “It’s not just church. My parents are Christians, too, but their messy divorce said something very different to me.” Stories and experiences began to flow, with one common element: The Christian lives around them hadn’t reflected the words preached, the Scripture read, or the professions spoken. These young people perceived that something was terribly wrong with the faith spoken or the faith lived—or both.
Christian doubt doesn’t always stem from intellectual puzzles or encounters with evil. Those sorts of difficulties are real and serious, but I focus here on a different, and perhaps more pressing, reason for doubt: disappointment with lived examples of the faith. Something was missing around the circle that evening. There was no compelling vision for Christian living. These representatives of the next generation were looking for a pattern to step into, and what they saw as available to them, both individually and corporately, was unconvincing.
Upon hearing such complaints, it would be easy to accuse them of hypocrisy or laziness. Shouldn’t they attend to their own spiritual lives rather than judging those around them? We might do well, however, to listen carefully and ask ourselves how their doubt could be a gift that challenges us to live a more plausible faith.
In a recent book, Walter Moberly incisively explores the importance of the lived existence of the church as a plausibility structure for faith (though this concept was suggested earlier by Dennis Hollinger in his chapter “The Church as Apologetic” [182–93]). Drawing on Peter Berger’s sociology of knowledge, Moberly argues that the church “is indispensable for giving content to, and making accessible, the enduring and universal significance of the biblical witness” (101). For us to become Christians in the first place, there must be a community that persuasively embodies the faith. We come to faith not merely by evaluating the Christian worldview as philosophically viable but also through significant people in our lives who live it out in rich, compelling, and beautiful ways.
Beyond our entrance into the faith, these models are also required for remaining in the faith. As Berger puts it, “To have a conversion experience is nothing much. The real thing is to be able to keep on taking it seriously; to retain a sense of its plausibility” (Berger and Luckman, 158). For the young people in that circle, the church’s performance of the faith was a crumbling plausibility structure.
One doesn’t need to look far for possible sources of disappointment in the church. We are assailed almost daily by headlines of sexual abuse by Christian leaders from all strands of the church. As horrible as the abuse itself is, the more damning parts of the story are the follow-up efforts at keeping everything quiet, controlling image, and protecting leaders and institutions. As the holy sounding words of confession, repentance, and forgiveness are trotted out, young people are watching carefully, and they have sensitive baloney detectors (to put it mildly). When secular media leads the way in caring for the downtrodden and naming the problems, and when the state decides it must enact mandatory reporting laws to force church leaders to do the right thing, is it any wonder that these other secular structures of life have more plausibility?
Rob Barrett is Director of Forums and Scholarship, The Colossian Forum. Here he develops ideas and practices for transforming divisive issues into opportunities for discipleship.