The 4th essay in a series
Sierra Madre is a small town lying between Pasadena and Arcadia, in the foothills of mountains that bear the same name. One Sunday morning while driving east on Sierra Madre Blvd and north on Baldwin Avenue, I passed several churches where grownups and children mingled on the lawns. I pulled over and watched for a while.
I thought how in sync these children seemed to be with their environment.
Today was their day of rest, fellowship, play, and good cheer. On Saturday I imagined they played sports, hung out with friends, and did whatever pleased. During the week they attended one of the many nearby schools including the catholic La Salle High. Every part of their lives was in sync; their friends, studies, pastimes, goals, church … lives and future. How easy their lives seemed, how seamless events and people came together.
Then I thought of the Jews in the Fairfax/Pico district of Los Angeles; with their Hebrew schools, synagogues, kosher delicatessens and culture. I thought of the community of Seventh Day Adventists in Glendale. These two Sabbath keeping groups, unlike what I was seeing in Sierra Madre, were not in sync with the world. So they tried to create an alternate world with an alternate rhythm.
They knew that if they wanted their unique culture to continue, they needed an environment in which the next generation can absorb it, come to love it, resist pressure from a hostile world, develop relationships with those of like mind, and continue the culture.
Years ago, the Church of God was large enough to provide somewhat an alternative world for its young people. Large congregations met throughout the land, church areas hosted grand get-togethers and sporting events, thousands of students attended the colleges in Pasadena and Texas, camp sites united young people for many weeks in the summer … and the autumn holy days brought together over 120,000 people in large sites in America and around the world.
Then came the split of 1995 and the utter fragmentation of “the old world” Church of God. In its place for the next 20 years arose a multitude of separate COG groups, teaching the same fundamental beliefs and believing themselves unified spiritually though paradoxically, not compelled to be unified physically. A visionary few have sought unify but to no avail. In fact, rather than a trend to unity, there has been further division. (See the 2nd essay entitled “After 20 Years … there remains but a poor case for a divided Church of God”)
Does the fragmentation of the Church of God hinder its mission?
The mission of the church is to preach the gospel and help prepare a people for the Kingdom of God. Division makes us do this less effectively on account of duplication of effort alone. When it comes to the younger generation, the mission of the church must first be to help prepare a younger generation for the Church of God.
Smaller, divided churches are less able to provide “an environment in which the next generation can absorb the culture, grow to love it, resist pressure from a hostile world, develop relationships with those of like mind, and continue the culture.” When a young person cannot develop a relationship in church they attend, they will seek it elsewhere … or it will find them.
Ashley is a young lady in a Church of God. Recently she expressed the danger and sorrow division has caused her generation, in her blog post entitled:
“Struggles of a 3rd/4th Generation Christian … and why they keep leaving”
“Growing up in the church it was hard enough only having a small group of friends that believed the same “wacky” things that I did. Depending on the church area you grew up in, you might not have had any other kids your age in your congregation. Camps, the Feast, and the WFW were the best times of the year, because we finally got to see our much missed friends! Now that we have splintered off into a million pieces, it makes keeping those relationships so much harder. Without those activities being combined, our social circles got a whole lot smaller. As if finding a spouse in the church wasn’t already hard enough! It’s frustrating to us that there are so many different Church of God groups that believe the same core things, and yet we can’t seem to get along and come together.
When we lose the friends that kept us anchored, we are left feeling alone and overwhelmed, and it becomes easier to leave”
Besides the content and humility in which it is written, what is astonishing is that within 48 hours, 9000 had viewed her blog and 2000 had shared it. People do not view or share posts that they do not agree with or feel passionate about. She is not alone … hers has become the voice of thousands.
In a follow up blog she wrote:
“The point I was trying to get across was that while the COG fellowships have differences of administration and customs, we still have a desire to spend time together with our spiritual brothers and sisters. Many of us would love for all the different Churches of God to be places where having visitors from other fellowships is welcomed. I realize that some fellowships have already done this, which is fabulous! In the end we are all brothers and sisters, and while it may not be possible at this time for us to merge the churches into one larger group, it would be wonderful to have open avenues to more easily love, appreciate, and embrace one another as part of a larger spiritual family”
Who are hurt most … who are hurt least by division?
From her account, it seems obvious that young people are hurt the most: “Now that we have splintered off into a million pieces, it makes keeping those relationships so much harder. Without those activities being combined, our social circles got a whole lot smaller. As if finding a spouse in the church wasn’t already hard enough.”
Older Christians with families and relationships already established are hurt least. Anyone with the power to enforce division in the Church of God today is old enough to have enjoyed the blessings of a unified Church of God decades ago. They married in the church when it was large enough to provide friends and relationships for everyone. Today they have grown children and grandchildren. Having benefited from unity in the past, they now deny its blessings to others. They do not intend to do this of course. But one still is reminded of those who impose burdens yet “do not touch the burdens” themselves.
She mentioned how “COG fellowships have differences of administration and customs” implying such reasons are used to justify their isolation. We discussed such flawed reasoning in the 2nd essay. God chooses to call people who think differently, not that we go separate ways but rather as Paul said: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you have a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And of all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Col. 3:13-14)
Instead of “perfect unity” helping young people “resist pressure from a hostile world” … division in the church makes them more vulnerable to it.
Cause and effect is at work. Christ’s metaphor says “a tree is known by its fruit”. Fruit from the tree of a divided church is isolation among the greater population of young people; leading to sorrow, loneliness, and lost opportunity of relationships. They see division in the church and division in the world. But wait … they recall hearing the church is supposed to “come out of the world and not participate in its evil ways”. Is there really a difference, some may ask? Confirmation bias kicks in and it becomes easier to leave.
Ashley describes what she has seen and lived. And note this; we are lucky to hear her voice. She is not hostile to the church and remains a committed Christian, appealing for change in the church she loves. Unlike her, many have left, quietly, saying nothing. Each has a story. Her post is many ways is written for them. She has become their voice that now says: “When we lose the friends that kept us anchored, we are left feeling alone and overwhelmed, and it becomes easier to leave.”
Isolated churches may provide “good ground” within their own walls, but division in the greater community of the Church of God can create poison fields for the next generation.
It is sad when young people leave; for the parents who raised and loved them, for the Church whose presence on earth is lessened, and for the young person who needed more time to understand the value of the pearl. It is sad because “In the end we are all brothers and sisters.”