I remember the last time I looked at my parents before leaving to go on my honeymoon in 2003. It was a bitter-sweet moment and both of us knew that things were never going to be the same again. I was passionately vaulting myself into adulthood establishing roots with someone else while they were forced to face a reality that their rearing was over.
Mom and dad had to let go for me to really grow as a man. For me, I had to let go of mom and dad so that I could also grow as a man and an individual.
After close to eleven years of ministry I firmly believe that in order for a person to really grow in their faith they have to leave the familiar to embrace the unfamiliar. In other words, they must leave their church home.
Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward describes exactly what I am trying to say:
Many people are kept from mature religion because of the pious, immature, or rigid expectations of their first-half-of-life family…One of the major blocks against the second journey is what we would now call the “collective,” the crowd, our society, or our extended family. Some call it the crab bucket syndrome—you try to get out, but the other crabs just keep pulling you back in. What passes for morality or spirituality in the vast majority of people’s lives is the way everybody they grew up with thinks. Some would call it conditioning or even imprinting. Without very real inner work, most folks never move beyond it. You might get beyond it in a negative sense, by reacting or rebelling against it, but it is much less common to get out of the crab bucket in a positive way (pp. 82-83).
I like that word picture of a “crab bucket” when it comes to the faith formation of students. Sometimes the crabs are implicit but other times they are explicit. Some people want to indoctrinate you to make you think this way or that way to in turn produce more people who think that very same way. Unfortunately many people have the audacity to call that “discipleship.” I cannot fathom my parents saying that in order for our marriage to be complete we would have to do it exactly like theirs and to make sure we did it like theirs they would locate themselves in proximity to where we lived to keep an eye on us.
Not the case. Mom and dad wanted us to have our own marriage filled with lessons they could teach us but also things we had to learn on our own.
I think this is where faith formation needs to go when it comes to our teenagers. I wonder if the push back from Millennials in our churches comes from a history of rigidity and a lack of letting them go.
Rohr again is poignant:
The nuclear family has far too often been the enemy of the global family and mature spiritual seeking. Perhaps it has never struck you how consistently the great religious teachers and founders leave home, go on pilgrimage to far-off places, do a major turnabout, choose downward mobility; and how often it is their parents, the established religion at that time, spiritual authorities, and often even civil authorities who fight against them. (p. 84)
Let that sink in a bit. This is a stern warning to all youth ministers and parents alike who wish to, in the name of “pure doctrine,” smash out the dreams and wanderings of our kids. When former youth group kids would come back to our church I often wished they hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong I love their presence but a part of me wanted them to push the envelope and own their own faith. Perhaps that is why God told Abraham that to receive the promise he had to leave his family (Gen. 12:1). Maybe that is why Joseph was sold into slavery and spent most of his life away from his family. Maybe that is why James, John, Andrew and Peter left their parents to follow after the divine tugging at their robes.
Please know that I advocate them leaving the church home…not the Church. I also propose that the leaving does not imply a never-returning. In Lord of the Rings, Frodo leaves the familiar to embark on a journey of unfamiliar. That unfamiliar contained all kinds of unspeakable turmoil and evil while simultaneously containing pieces of good and purpose. He returns home different but full of purpose. Tolkien famously said, “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” I like that.
So whoever you are reading this I bid you farewell on your journey to leave your church home. I am uncomfortable typing those words knowing not where your journey might take you. But you have to leave friend. I promise you though, God will be there to reveal wonder and beauty on this journey and I assure you that if asked you would say that the journey was worth it.