Certain characteristics are so inherent to Christianity that to neglect them is to become a walking oxymoron. A Christian without commitment is such an oxymoron. That's why I was so disturbed when a friend shared a statement from presidential candidates at a Christian college. When asked, "What has changed the most in the past 20 years with young people who are entering college?" all the candidates said that young adults today are far less willing to commit to anything.
Whether we are talking about career, marriage, or faith, studies back up their observation. In 2008, more than half of people ages 20 to 24 had been with their current employer for less than a year. Although the recession has dampened this somewhat, young adults are still floundering when it comes to embracing a calling. Marriage, especially, has suffered; according to U.S. Census data, young adults are marrying later than ever. A 2006 PBS documentary, Generation Next, gave some insight into why: desire for adventure, career advancement, and prolonged adolescence. Lack of commitment is also hitting religion—hard. Studies suggest that the iPod generation is choosing which aspects of the faith to adopt to create their own unique spiritual playlists.
Among today's young adults, the unwillingness to commit is alarming, clearly one result of the philosophies of the 1960s and '70s coming to full flower. In 1979, sociologist Robert Bellah conducted extensive interviews to understand what "habits of the heart" defined average Americans. Many had no sense of community or social obligation. They saw the world as a fragmented place of choice and freedom that yielded little meaning or comfort. They even seemed to have lost the language to express commitment to anything besides themselves. Bellah called this "ontological individualism," the belief that the individual is the only source of meaning. Bellah saw how this attitude would, in time, unravel the church and larger society. Since then, we've seen an almost uninterrupted march toward self-focus, affecting all of our institutions but especially crippling work, marriage, and family.
The basic building blocks of society simply erode without commitment. Any sensible society must address this problem by educating people that commitment is the very essence of human relationships.
At the least, we need to teach this in our churches. How can you begin as a Christian without death to self and total commitment to Jesus Christ?
But beyond the ramifications for society as a whole, beyond even the obvious necessity of Christian commitment, when we refuse to commit, we miss out on one of the great joys of life. When we obsess over ourselves, we lose the meaning of life, which is to know and serve God and love and serve our neighbors.
This was made clear when 33 research scientists investigated the relationship between human development and community in a 2003 report, Hardwired to Connect. Their research revealed that we are biologically primed to find meaning through relationships.
After nearly eight decades of living, I can vouch for this. My single greatest joy is giving myself to others and seeing them grow in return. You cannot discover that without commitment. I first learned it by watching my parents care for my dying grandparents in our home. This is a custom long forgotten today, when such care is subcontracted out. I later saw it in the Marine Corps. You cannot go into combat, commanding 45 men, as I was trained to do, if you aren't committed to one another. You are going to die if the man next to you does not cover your back.
That's a point driven home in the excellent 2010 book Joker One, by Donovan Campbell. It should be required reading for every Christian, because the kind of commitment you see in the platoon—Campbell calls it love for one another—is what needs to be happening in churches. Finally, I see it at this point in my life, when my greatest reward is seeing ex-convicts restored and people I've taught begin to understand the faith in its fullness.
By abandoning commitment, our narcissistic culture has lost the one thing it desperately seeks: happiness. Without commitment, our individual lives will be barren and sterile. Without commitment, our lives will lack meaning and purpose. After all, if nothing is worth dying for (the anthem of the '60s anti-war protesters), then nothing is worth living for. But with commitment comes the flourishing of society—of calling, of marriage, of the church—and of our hearts. It's the paradox Jesus so often shared when he bid us to come and die that we might truly live.
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Previous commitment-related articles in Christianity Today's sister publications include:
Preaching for Total Commitment | What does it take to convince people to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ? (Leadership Journal, December 29, 2008)
Leader's Insight: Adrian Rogers on Commitment | What should we expect from church attenders and leaders? (Leadership Journal, November 21, 2005)
Previous columns by Charles Colson are available on our website, including:
Who Are Americans? | What Christians contribute to the search for a national identity. (June 21, 2010)
Valentine's Dynamic Love | Our love is most godly when it is against the world for the world. (February 12, 2010)
Jeremiah at Harvard | Three decades after Solzhenitsyn's speech, where do we find ourselves? (August 5, 2008)
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