The church is like a classic, muscle car that a father labors over for years in his garage. The father loves this car and has cherished memories of the countless miles driven on its tires and valued relationships nurtured under its roof.
The father also has a daughter who remembers the many weekends she would find him working to restore and care for this car. It was clear to his daughter that he loved it. Whenever something went wrong with the car, her father would have to search far and wide to find the right parts to fix it. As he did so, they would spend hours talking about cars. So much so that she developed her own love of them.
As the daughter approached her 16th birthday, her parents began to drop hints about an upcoming present that would be too big to fit in her room. With her license a mere test away, she began to dream about the car she might get in the very near future.
On the day of the daughter’s birthday, her mother baked a cake with sixteen candles on top. She blew out the candles and made her wish. Shortly thereafter, the daughter received a small box from her father.
Momentarily confused by the small size of the package, she eagerly unwrapped and opened the box. Inside she found a shiny set of keys but she was immediately confused. The keys were for her father’s car; the surprise on her face was quickly mixed with visible disappointment.
You see, in addition to being a lover of cars, this man’s daughter was also a burgeoning environmentalist. And while she had always found a way to accept her father’s love for his classic muscle car; how could she be found driving such a vehicle, even one as beautiful as this?
I’ve worked, in one way or another, with young people for most of my professional life. While I have encountered a few who love the church exactly the way it is, I’ve met many more who longed for something different. Of this latter group, a number remain within the church tradition they grew up in, while a growing plurality have moved on to another church that spoke to them, or have simply given up on church altogether.
I offer this parable as a way to highlight a stumbling block for some. The daughter was excited, as most any 16-year-old would be, at the prospect of receiving a car for her birthday. What was in conflict wasn’t a love of cars, or even a questioning of the value of them. Instead, the dissonance is a result of an assumption that the daughter’s love would be the same as the father’s, and that her other passions could be ignored, or overwhelmed by, the generosity of the gift.
As a member of Generation X, noted by some as a bridging generation, I can relate to both the father and the daughter in this parable of the church. Like the daughter, I’ve often felt that the car (church) didn’t fully honor my values and I have serious concerns about its fuel efficiency in the task of transforming the world for the better. On more than one occasion, I’ve driven past the metaphorical dealership of other churches and benevolent organizations, looking lustfully at the Tesla Model S that promises to fulfill the aspirations of my heart.
But I can also resonate with the pain of the father. For those of us who love the church, this rejection of our gift can be very personal. It can feel like the daughter lacks the appropriate gratitude for the gift we offer. After all, we didn’t get the chance to reject the imperfect church we received from our parents; taking it on was as much an obligation as it was a birthright. And while we inherited so much of what we now want to pass down, we’ve also put a lot of ourselves into it. Unfortunately, it is too easy to perceive their yearning for something else as an outright rejection of who we are.
Matters are further complicated by the reality that we are rarely handing over the keys of a classic, well-maintained muscle car. More often it is the case that we are looking for someone to help us with the maintenance on a car of the different order. Sometimes it is a desirable car but as often as not it’s a dilapidated minivan—which we still owe on.
And did we actually say we were giving the car to them? What would we drive if we did that?
The daughter shared her father’s love for cars. She was even willing to honor her father’s continued affection for his gas-guzzling muscle car despite her own environmentalist values. But the road she envisioned for herself was a different one spent in a better car, at least when understood through the lens of her values.
If we are careless about our assumptions around why young people leave the church, we risk asserting things about the church we probably don’t intend. Our despair can lead us to cling to our traditions and pray for the day when the young will understand these things we (not God) have defined as church. Or our disappointment, motivated by a greater love, can move us toward a new future which finds common root on a deeper level.
A couple questions to leave with
- What are the assumptions that we bring with us as we consider the church of tomorrow?
- What are the important values we share intergenerationally that undergird the different visions of church that we may have?
- How open are we to the necessary innovations that will take us forward? What are the ones you’ve discerned?
- Are there graceful ways to gift those who follow us with the keys that lead to abundant life? Are we ready to let go and let come?
- Are we willing to allow the next generation to take our prized possession(s) down to the dealership so they might purchase something that makes sense for them?
Image Credit: “Classic Red Mustang in Santa Barbara” by The Hamster Factor via Flickr.