Then I shared with them my concern about the number of young people today who are leaving the church, and asked them what they think church leaders need to do to show young people that the church is relevant to their lives.
The dominant answer seemed to be that young people want to be given the opportunity to make a real difference in people's lives. But they also want us to listen to them and acknowledge that they might have some fresh ideas and thoughts that could make a positive difference in the ministries of the church.
And it's not only that. They also want the freedom to search the scriptures and wrestle with their meaning. One young man in particular said something that intrigued me:
"We want to be able to say things that might sound like heresy."Okay, that in itself sounded pretty heretical, didn't it? But let's not overreact. Let's listen to what he was really saying. He wants the freedom to make his faith his own rather than his parents' or his preacher's.
Over 40 years ago, I entered college with a lot of dogma in my head. It wasn't until that dogma was knocked loose that I was free to find my way to a faith that was my own. Yet, when I declared my independence of that dogma, a "friend" (or so I had thought, before then) in the dorm replied, "well, the devil sure got hold of you," and turned around and walked away. To the best of my memory, we never spoke to each other again.
What I did next was very Baptist - I went searching, for several years, for truth; truth, that is, that I could confidently accept as such. I finally wound up with a faith that was stronger than dogma, because it was a living faith and a real relationship with the living Christ. But I got there only because there were people in my life who - rather than shame me, as my onetime "friend" tried to do - gave me the freedom to find my own way. They encouraged me and they listened to me. So the journey continues today and, for those 40+ years since, there have continued to be such people in my life. It's the only way I've been able to learn and to grow and to serve.
We need to listen better and to encourage better. We need to give each other the freedom to "say things that might sound like heresy." When that young student said that to me a few weeks ago, my first thought was, "that's very Baptist!"
After all, Baptist pioneer Thomas Helwys died in prison because King James considered him a heretic. Colonial Baptist preacher John Leland spent time in jail because the authorities accused him of preaching heresy. Southern Baptist pastors in the 1940s and 1950s branded T. B. Maston a heretic for teaching that segregation was neither biblical nor Christian.
Whether young or old, we need to listen to each other. We might learn a few things. By listening to others with an open mind, we might discover that God is trying to teach us something, open our minds up to a new truth . . . or, at least, a truth that is new to us. By listening to each other, we help each other think through the meanings and implications of scripture. By listening and encouraging, we help each other to learn, to grow, and to serve more effectively. By sharing our own perspectives with humility rather than certitude and arrogance, we affirm that we all stand before God as flawed priests, helpless without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
So maybe we need to quit throwing labels like "heresy" around so loosely, "for now we see through a glass, darkly." (1 Cor. 13:12a, KJV)