Putting down roots: a call to young people

How about this as a vision for your life? 

Put down your roots deep and early. Commit to a local church for life. Then pass that vision on to the next generation. 

But, before unpacking it, let me start with a number of caveats: 

i) heavenly, not earthly. Our true homeland is not any patch of territory here below, but the heavenly country (Heb 11:14,16). So, our roots need to sink deep into the soil of heaven. However attached we may get to our locality, we need to embrace our fundamental identity as pilgrims: “here we have no lasting city” (Heb 13:14).

ii) mission. In the Book of Acts, the gospel spreads through people’s dislocation – the scattering after Paul’s death (Acts 8:2;11:19), Aquila and Priscilla forced to leave Rome (Acts 18:2), Paul’s missionary journeys (Acts 13-19) The “go!” of the great commission is always there to uproot and disturb us (Matt 28:19). Jesus talks about leaving lands for his sake (Matt 19:29). “Arise, go!” is a frequent divine call (Gen 31:13; Deut 10:11; Jonah 1:2). 

iii) growth. A potential downside to sticking in one place is that a church becomes insular, and small-minded. When it’s the same people, all the time, a church can feel suffocating, and stuffy; so, the young people want to break out, and experience some adventure. Cross-fertilisation is valuable. Travel broadens the mind. I’ve been a member of three different congregations in my life – one in south London, one in York, and one in Ilford; I’ve also attended two other congregations during periods of study; I’m thankful for each congregation, and consider myself richer for my time in those five churches. 

iv) providence. We simply can’t reverse the big, broad trends of the job and housing market, which make it hard, sometimes impossible, for young people to stay put. When rent costs £1600 per month, and you’re only earning £1700 per month, that area isn’t viable, and you’ll need to look elsewhere. Sometimes the Lord’s providence disrupts our intentions. We’re all in his good hands.

So, I’m not trying to bind people’s conscience; the commitment we make in our church membership vows is not the same as the life-long commitment to our husbands and wives. Local churches aren’t meant to be like the Hotel California where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”! 

But, with those caveats said, I still want to cheer for young people to put down roots early and deep. I’d love Christians, in the spirit of James 4:15, to say: “If the Lord wills, we will live in this area and be part of this local church for the rest of our lives!”. 

Here’s why: 

it’s an antidote to spiritual consumerism. 

There’s a conveyor belt at work in Britain. Young people move from small struggling churches in small towns to lively churches in the city for a few years. They get established in a job, marry, and then move somewhere more comfortable in the suburbs/nice part of the country, where they go to a third church. Their children are then raised to follow the same basic cycle; retirement is often another opportunity to re-locate to somewhere even more idyllic. As far as I can see, this conveyor belt is not driven by the gospel. A lot of our movement to and from particular places is driven more by discontentment, covetousness, and worldliness than by asking “what will advance the cause of Christ?”. We’re thinking more about the bigger garden, the greener spaces, and the nicer area, than cultivating faithfulness and gospel zeal.

In her book, “Uprooted”, author Grace Olmstead tells the story of how she moved away from her rural home to the bright lights of the big city, and the damaging effect that movement of young people has had on her hometown. She talks about “boomers” and “stickers”. Boomers are people who extract value from a place then leave. Stickers settle down and invest. I know which group Jesus calls us to belong to. Christian love requires presence. Full presence involves our bodies, and bodies are located in a particular place. The fruit of the Spirit like “patience” and “faithfulness” don’t grow up overnight, nor over months, or even a few years; they take decades to grow. The kinds of strong, loving, sanctifying relationships we need in church are built up over multiple generations (Ps 78:5-7); it’s hard to quantify the value of having a granny in your church who’s prayed for you from childhood. What if we aspired to be that granny or grandad?

I know that few people reading this will be living in the place they were born. Our world is globalised, digital, and highly mobile. Have you noticed we use the expression, “he’ll go far” to predict someone’s success? It assumes that dislocation is good! Our education system measures success by students leaving the community they grow up in; we talk about social mobility as a good thing! But why does moving up have to mean moving away? Modern life encourages rootless-ness.

In that environment, it’s tempting for young Christians to live with their bags packed. Very often roots scare us. We can’t tell the difference between the “ties that bind” and ball & chain.  It’s really easy to spend your time thinking about an unknown life over the horizon, rather than where God’s actually got you. Some people keep an exit button within easy reach of any difficult situation; if it gets too hard, simply press the button and move on. But that leads to even shallower roots. A wife who kept moving with her husband’s job said: “We’ve discovered that to prevent the pain of saying good-bye we no long say hello”. But Jesus roots us in God’s love (Eph 3:17), embeds us in a local church (Eph 1:1), and gives us stability (Eph 4:14). 

In another age (and maybe in others parts of the world), it might be necessary to call God’s people to leave their homeland (Gen 12:1). After all, there is “a time to pluck up what is planted” (Eccl 3:2). Sometimes young people need to be told to “go!”. But my reading of the times is that this is “a time to plant” (Eccl 3:2). This is a time for young people to get off the conveyor belt, and sink down roots for the long-haul, not to a local church somewhere over the horizon, where everything is more convenient, but to the flesh and blood people you already know in your local church. Struggling churches in small towns need it. Churches with revolving doors in cities need it. And flabby churches in comfortable places need it. This is a time to raise your children (both your own and others’ in church) to see that belonging to Jesus’ church, and taking a place of responsibility within it, is a far more valuable aspiration than “going far”.