Today’s post from Hugo Schwyzer perfectly describes both the ethical strengths and the one great spiritual weakness of liberal mainline churches. I’d only add that the needs he describes are in no way limited to teens. The church in question is All Saints Pasadena in California.
This flagship church of American Anglican liberalism is very, very good at encouraging individual exploration. We are very good at raising awareness of suffering in the broader world. We are very, very good at teaching young people how to ask the right theological questions. We are very, very good at instilling suspicion of any person or institution who cllaims to have The One True Answer. We are, most of the time, pretty good at loving kids “where they’re at” instead of where we think they should be.
But we liberal Episcopalians are often not so good at helping kids to come to certainties. Too often, when a young person in pain asks “where is God when I need Him?”, the institutional response is to say “Ah, my child, that’s an excellent question, one asked by many people over the centuries. We invite you to pray and reflect on God in His Mystery and His Apparent Absence, and know that we support you as you wrestle with the Great Dilemma of Faith.” We’re really good, we Episcopalians, at encouraging a process of discernment. (Heck, is there any word we love more than “process”?) We revel in “acknowledging dichotomies” and “appreciating uncertainty” and “holding apparent contradictions in simultaneous tension”. This is great, heady stuff, but it isn’t really helpful to a teen wrestling with the suicide of a friend, an eating disorder, the decision to terminate a pregnancy, their parents’ divorce.
What I try to do in my youth ministry — and what I see at least a few folks trying to do as well — is fuse an evangelical passion for Jesus as Savior and Best of Friends with an appreciation for theological pluralism. In other words, Jesus may not the be the Only Way, but to live in relationship with Him is certainly One Way, and I am unashamed to proclaim that for me, He has turned out to be the Best Way. It’s healthy and right and good to ackonwledge a multiplicity of equally wonderful choices, but at some point (particularly in a time of great existential crisis) it’s helpful to make one choice.
We all know Frost’s poem about the road less traveled. Too often among my fellow liberal Anglicans, I sense a real delight in remaining permanently stuck at the crossroads. One of the penchants I really dislike among some of my friends is the tendency to see the refusal to make any theological commitments as evidence of great wisdom. Some elevate “analysis paralysis” to the level of a high virtue. That’s fine for adults, but it’s not helpful for most teenagers, who, despite their natural suspicion towards authority, really need at least some certainties, even if the primary certainty that a good youth leader can provide is that they are loved.
When you’re a child, you take the path your parents tell you to take. When you’re a teen, it is right and good to become aware of options, of choices — and the church ought to point out that other choices exist. But after we acknowledge that there are other paths, perhaps just as worthy and good as ours (the ocean refuses no river, after all), we need to say definitively: this is our path. This is our way. And we will walk this path with you.