When Cradle Christians Get Rocked

Terms come and go. For the moment, the term “cradle Christian” is very much in vogue. However, before we look at the disconnection of cradle Christians from the church, let’s see if we can get past the language baggage. Admittedly, the term “Cradle Christians” stereotypes the spirituality of lifelong Lutherans by representing it as inauthentic, inferior, only historic, merely traditional, and thus, unfinished or infantile — like the immature faith St. Paul referred to when he advised the church crowd at Corinth: “I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1 ESV).

“Cradle Christians,” as a term, sounds neutral to me — simply designating believers who have been nurtured in the faith since early childhood. Ordinarily, as cradle Christians grow in years, the value of their faith-relationship is experienced more clearly. Saving faith is a gift, both in the sense of unearned salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9), and in the sense of it being handed down from parents and forebears. Regularly seeing the things of God from childhood, cradle Christians often are blind to any experience of being outside of Christ or the church. This, incidentally, is my own experience, one for which I am grateful.
In the case of cradle Lutherans, most are infant recipients of the sacramental initiative of God in Baptism. Growing in years, they sing the Sunday school songs and learn Bible stories. Around about middle school age, they stand at the altar and, through the rite of confirmation, express publicly their confidence in the doctrines of the evangelical Lutheran church. They may even join the throng at a National Lutheran Youth gathering. Regularly, they receive Christ’s body and blood at the Eucharist. This cradle Christian phenomenon is a characteristic of many, but certainly not all, Lutherans.

“When the Wind Blows” – What Happens When the Cradle Gets Rocked?

The question for our current scope, however, is what happens when the faith of cradle Christians gets rocked:

•             Rocked by crisis or loss

•             Rocked by magical opportunities that turn tragically sour

•             Rocked by perverted attractions and distorted lifestyles

•             Rocked by ethical mistakes and moral misjudgments

•             Rocked finally by seemingly insurmountable regret

I suspect the majority of cradle Christians who fall away from the faith do not backslide in a single, catastrophic blowout. Rather, their departure is deadlier—more like a slow-leak indiscernibly eroding their church life. Few leap enthusiastically away from God. Most creep surreptitiously into a spiritually corrupting lifestyle. Reformer John Calvin put it like this: people “never deliberately rush headfirst into ruin, but being tangled up in the deceptions of Satan, they lose the power of judging rightly.”

Are today’s young-adult cradle Christians rooted deeply enough to judge rightly? When life’s vicissitudes come knocking on their door and rocking their world, can they respond in faith? Yes and no, like all of us. But how can youth leaders stem the attrition from the church occurring among cradle Christians precisely when, in their lives, vigorous faith is most critically needed? How can we help our youth handle their newfound freedoms in make-it or break-it transitions from teenage years through college-age years to adult years?
Poet W.H. Auden describes our common quandary of increased opportunity, when we can’t quite figure out what mirage we’re running after:
Lost in his freedom, Man pursues
The shadow of his images.
How to Keep the Cradle from Falling

We sometimes resort naïvely to reciting life-lessons to cradle Christians facing crossroads. These well-intended quips and quotations rarely get deep enough. In fact, spewing forth moral truisms, religious catch phrases, or outdated aphorisms might muddy up matters even more. Oh, what a tangled web do counselors weave when they think their youth are naïve. They can see through our thready attempts to fix them or even “save” them. Outreach begins when we crawl into the cradle with them — good mission always begins with incarnational theology.

The chief challenge for youth leaders is to maintain a vital connection, to mercifully keep open the doors with patience and integrity. We do not run from the cradle of Christian teaching, but (1) we dig deeper into our biblical and confessional tradition, (2) we surface old resources to grow new faith, and (3) we serve as interpreters through the inevitable traps of tradition. To invoke Jaroslav Pelikan’s book title, our goal is The Vindication of Tradition.

True guides care more about the truth (or the Man who is Truth) than they care about their personal agendas, like:

•             Simply being right, or being more right than others

•             Appearing tidy and nice to outsiders

•             Validating, in self-righteousness, their position

•             Punctuating the pain of cradle Christians by needing to punch the last word into broken hearts: “Didn’t I tell you this would happen if you kept on doing that.”

Instead, youth leaders can implement the following (actually characteristics of jazz music) to relate most effectively with cradle Christians snagged “by craftiness and deceitful schemes.” Consider these basic tenets: virtuosity, authenticity, dialogue, spontaneity, and a prophetic dynamic.

1. Virtuosity — Know your stuff.

You yourself must be convinced, convicted and compellingly confirmed in the teachings you confess. Passing on what you haven’t received is difficult (1 Corinthians 11:23). Work and pray to know your subject matter inside and out. Memorize the words backward and forward. Pray them aloud, from the heart, with your eyes closed.  Doctrine practiced frequently is best. Light naturally shines.

2. Authenticity — Know yourself.

At all costs, be the person God redeemed you to be: flawed yet forgiven, lost yet found, real yet transparent, wounded yet healed, vulnerable yet available. This seems easy enough, except that peeling back the old layers of images is risky. Exposed, we risk being judged. But the risk is higher and the judgment harder for those who fake the faith. Without sincerity, not even the smoothest witness can impress people or impact the world. “Is it possible to believe in anything anymore?” is the biggest question for the church. Fraud fatigue has reached an all-time high. Daily, reports of corruption drizzle in on CNN leaving us numb, unmoved by even the most carefully crafted Christianity. If you lack authenticity, they might appear to be listening, but in reality you’ve already been tuned out and filed in the same trash bin as political spinsters, white collar embezzlers and street corner hustlers.

3. Dialogue — Know your neighbor.

Honoring the Spirit of God in others means listening. Whom you would influence you must first hear. When rooted in the rhythm of “call and response,” spirituality can be enlivened, greening with growth. As creatures of dialogue, God allows Christ to get between us. Community is formed when we are knitted together by the Gospel-flow of mutual conversation. Godly discourse is sacramental (see “Smalcald Articles” 4, The Book of Concord, Kolb/Wengert: 319)

4. Spontaneity — Know your tradition.

You yourself must have a working awareness of your tradition, especially if it is a cradle Christian tradition. In no small way has this heritage already sustained millions with 2000 years of orthodoxy. Those who know aptly their tradition, their history, and their story will discover a source of freedom: they will find fresh space to be creatively spontaneous. Richard John Neuhaus who once wisely quipped: “the historically lobotomized have nothing with which to be creative.”

5. A Prophetic Dynamic — Know God’s boundaries (and your own too).

“Speaking the truth in love,” will help cradle Christians “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 3:15). Kurt Senske, himself a loving, truth- telling cradle Christian, often reminds us how the Ten Commandments are not as much meant for us to keep, as much as they are meant to keep us. Leaders living within their own limits and within God’s boundaries will stand sentinel for those who flirt with the edges of destruction. Then, when repentance dawns, they burst forth with full-fledged announcements of forgiveness through Christ. They won’t be afraid to get in the fray. St. Paul was “in anguish” as fearlessly he put admonition in the face of the Galatians until Christ was formed in them (Galatians 4:19).

In Jesus Christ the truth is found — though, in truth, the Spirit always finds us first. The very seeking of God’s rewards is itself Spirit impelled (Hebrews 11:6). When we stray from the village, God’s lavish love draws us home again: the Divine love of the living Christ—who, for cradle Christians hounded and wounded to death by life, himself on a cross did secure the gift of eternal life. Now, Jesus lives healingly in our hearts through faith, building us up to full adulthood “so that we may no longer be children tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 3:14).

Published October 1, 2004

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