Onward Christian Mercenaries: The Faith Involvement of Emerging Generations

20 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

“So are you coming to church tonight?”

It was a Friday afternoon. Naturally, I assumed he meant the Good Friday service that the young adult ministry and I had been planning to attend.

“Yeah, of course; you guys gonna be there?”

“Yeah, but probably a little late; I don’t get off work til 6.”

I held the wheel with one hand, the cell phone in the other. Did he say 6?

“Did you say 6? Church doesn’t start until 7:30.”

“Oh; right…we forgot to tell you. We’re going to this other church across town.”

This was news to me.


“Well, supposedly their Good Friday service is supposed to be really good. Some great worship bands and everything. So a couple of us are going out to that one instead. It starts at 6:30 if you’re interested.”

I tried not to reprimand. Honest. But I reminded him as I wove my car through traffic, that we’d already planned on attending our home church’s service that night, and even made plans for a group activity afterward. He reluctantly agreed, though I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d rather have gone to the “really good” service instead.

This cell phone conversation was hardly the last time I’d encounter this attitude. While living in Dallas I encountered many young people who would dedicate part of their time at one church and part of their time at another based on the activities they preferred, effectively nibbling from the spiritual smorgasbord of southern Christianity.

But I didn’t get it. His church calendar was literally overflowing with activity. It couldn’t be a commitment issue, could it?

It could.


“Busy” is not the same as “committed,” and a flurry of activity should not be mistaken for discipleship.

The problem is a fairly simple one. For many Christians, the church is seen as a vendor of religious goods. Need a quick pick-me-up? Come to a worship service. Looking for friends, or even a date? Come to our singles ministry. Want to help your community? Come to our outreach ministry. Want to reach the world? Join our short-term missions team.

Henri Nouwen writes:

“It is not surprising that spiritual experiences are mushrooming all over the place and have become highly sought after commercial items…Many people flock to places and persons who promise intensive experiences of togetherness, cathartic emotions of exhilaration and sweetness, and liberating sensations of rapture and ecstasy. In our desperate need for fulfillment and our restless search for the experience of divine intimacy, we are all too prone to construct our own spiritual events.”

Living in Dallas I was often bombarded by the sheer number of churches and ministries that dominated the heart of the Bible belt. And often I couldn’t help but feel a strange sense of competitiveness lurking just beneath the surface, like a low-grade fever.

If church is a vendor, then American evangelicalism has become something of a spiritual marketplace. You can freely dabble in a wide variety of church experiences without ever truly committing to any. When I look at this type of culture, I find many who are overinvolved, yet undercommitted.

Hymns often describe the Christian experience as being a “soldier:” “Onward Christian soliders,” we sing in one hymn, or speak of being “a soldier of the cross in another.

As much as I hate the militaristic metaphor, I affirm the sense of steadfast commitment this language represents. But today I find fewer soldiers, and more mercenaries – men and women willing to serve if the price is right.


Exacerbating this is what I can only characterize as the erosion of expectation. Within marketplace, vendor-driven spirituality, the church feels compelled to ask very little of their people for fear of driving them away. Church membership is stripped of the fullness of its meaning, if even mentioned at all. The result is the simultaneous broadening and cheapening of our faith.

And there is also a very real sense of fear associated with the idea of “commitment.” Growing up I used to be scared of heights. I could go no further in my swim classes because I was terrified of the diving board. But when I became a teenager I found myself facing the high dive yet again, this time urged on by peer pressure and fear of humiliation. And it was hard. Standing there, looking down at the water which seemed impossibly far away. Walking to the edge thinking this is it!…only to psych myself out and step back yet again

Most people are like this in their spiritual lives. Unwilling to commit, and cheat themselves out of the rich experience promised us when we follow Jesus. We find ourselves merely bobbing contentedly in the shallow end rather than make the kind of commitment necessary.


There are two key ways that I see around this.

1.) Meaningful membership. In Thom S. Rainer’s book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, he found that one of the key factors in getting the unchurched to remain was setting high expectations for things such as spiritual disciplines and responsibility within the body. Rainer comments that this should not be surprising: “People have no desire to be a part of something that makes no difference, that expects little.”

If you are a church leader, this may be time to consider the way you communicate membership to your people. If you are a church attender, this may be time to find out more about what how your church views membership.

2.) Web of relationships. Community is of vital importance. Each of us needs to be supported by men and women who are able to both challenge and embrace us. For young people, this is crucial. In the book Souls in Transition, researchers Christian Smith and Patricia Snell have found that the faith commitments made as teenagers endure and even intensify as young people enter early adulthood. One of the key ways this process can be sharpened and solidified is through a “web” of relationships: being connected across generational lines.

This means forming bonds not only with those around you, but also those above you and those below you. Older generations have wisdom to share from having been farther down the road, and younger generations need your wisdom along their own journey.

I haven’t meant to be unfairly critical. If anything, I feel that commitment to one church can be liberating compared to the busyness of a “mercenary” lifestyle whose inevitable end is spiritual exhaustion.

Remember that diving board? I got over my fear of heights. I held my breath. Shut my eyes. And – I was told – I flailed my limbs. But when I sprang to the surface of the water, when I felt the sun shining on my face, I couldn’t wait to get out only to do it all over again.

Let’s do that. Let’s jump in. Let’s commit ourselves to the faith community with which we are surrounded.

Are you ready?

20 January 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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