A Peculiar People: Emotions and Spiritual Formation

When Aidan was in the eighth grade our family was a part of a parent/child bible class at our church. During that class I was a part of a discussion with some of the parents about the spiritual formation of our children and how that has changed over the years.

One of the things that we talked about is how our children don't seem to have the same loyalty to the church that we, as parents, do. Why is that?

There are lot of reasons that have been discussed about the drift of young people away from the church. But one of the things I talked about that night are the changes that have occurred in our faith tradition and how those changes have affected spiritual formation.

I'm a member of the Churches of Christ and I grew up in the North where Churches of Christ were scarce. In my hometown there was only one congregation of the Churches of Christ, a fellowship of about one-hundred members.

What this meant was that I was the only kid in my high-school who was from the Churches of Christ. So my whole life I felt weird. Whenever church affiliation came up I was always asked, "Church of Christ? What's that?" It always felt that I was from this strange, obscure church. And where I lived it was strange and obscure.

And we did strange things as well. In a Catholic town where most of my friends went to Mass on Saturday night I went to church twice on Sundays, once in the morning and once at night. I also went to church on Wednesday nights. Over time I couldn't hide the fact from my friends that I went to church three times a week. And what sort of freak goes to church three times a week?

All that to say, I grew up feeling peculiar and different. And that feeling of peculiarity affects you. Your distinctive identity is made salient in relation to others and you start to own that identity. And in owning that identity you develop some emotional antibodies to defend yourself against feeling self-conscious and odd. You get practiced at being peculiar.

All of which marks you deeply and emotionally. Being "Church of Christ" becomes etched into your limbic system. When you've worked through emotions of awkwardness as a child and adolescent you're not simply a member of the Church of Christ intellectually, you're a member emotionally. That identity goes very, very deep.

Why are young people walking away from church? Here's one provocative thesis. Christian kids don't feel weird or peculiar being a Christian. With youth ministries and the insularity of Christian culture--the evangelical bubble--Christian kids can be popular and cool while being Christian in those contexts. And as Søren Kierkegaard said, where everyone is a Christian no one is a Christian.

Yesterday two young men from the Church of Latter Day Saints knocked on the door. You know how Mormon youth spend two years in mission work. And whatever you might think of Mormon practice and theology you can't help but marvel at how formative those mission years are for those involved. Talk about being emotionally etched by feeling peculiar and different.

I don't want to say there aren't risks here. Peculiarity for the sake of peculiarity isn't the goal. Nor should peculiarity be prized when it's connected to toxic practices and communities.

All I'm pointing out is how if spiritual formation doesn't affect us emotionally and affectively--if faith never gets deep into our limbic system--then it's pretty easy to leave behind.

And for me at least, feeling weird is the experience that shaped me.

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