The recent death of pastor-theologian Tim Keller sparked nostalgia for my young, restless days as part of the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement he helped lead.
As someone raised in Christian fundamentalism, it offered me a kind of holy rebellion where free grace, contemporary music, and cultural engagement came packaged with God’s glory and power. But two decades on, I find myself less Young, Restless, and Reformed and more Old, Tired, and Reorienting.
I can’t help but wonder how I got from here to there. What path led me from the traditions of my childhood to and through other ones? How much of my spiritual path was chosen, and how much was given? Was my spiritual life “begotten or made”?
The idea that our faith journeys are larger than our choices challenges the very spirituality most of us take for granted. A committed personal relationship with God is a feature of most modern expressions of Christianity. My 17-year-old son, for example, finds it anathema that children could be baptized against their will. He’s not making a theological claim so much as an anthropological one, informed by a larger American culture that assumes self-creation through choice.
In fairness to him, the majority of low church traditions—including the one I was reared in—hold this same individualist assumption. Commitment to personal conversion and voluntary association may also explain why nondenominational churches now represent the largest segment of American Protestants.
These churches are deeply and inexhaustibly modern, not because of their sneakers and fog machines, but because they align with our contemporary understanding of choice. Without a denominational progenitor, they embody self-determination and self-creation at an organizational level.
However, modern Christians don’t necessarily reject older traditions. When a friend of mine recently confessed that he was contemplating Anglicanism, another wondered out loud, “Isn’t that what it means to be evangelical these days?” These traditions fill a void in modern life by offering a sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves.
As Catholic priest Henri Nouwen writes in The Wounded Healer, modern humans are a “generation without fathers,” rootless and unbound. For many, then, returning to more ancient practices is a way to find home. That’s been true for me. My discovery of the Reformed doctrines of the 16th century helped give me some theological roots. But in an irony for the ages, revisiting premodern spaces happens by the very modern means of personal choice.
Even as we Christian leaders decry church shopping as consumeristic, we still teach people to practice it. We teach them that the richness and realness of their spiritual lives correspond with their choices. In doing so, we’ve all but guaranteed that their Christian walks become a never-ending search for the next true thing. Having begun by choice, they are made perfect by choice.
In an even stranger irony, the churches we choose to associate with can become a way to project our identities into the world. Our own religious biographies get reduced to linear sets of decisions that explain our current spiritual state. To riff on Robert Frost, we came to a fork in the road, and whatever path we chose made all the difference.
But as I reflect on my own journey, I doubt the role that personal choice played in it—not because I lacked agency but because Providence delivered my choices to me as a closed set. They were limited by knowledge and what was possible at a given moment in time. (If one doesn’t live near a Lutheran church, for example, the odds of converting to Lutheranism are drastically reduced.)
Instead of reflecting on my past through the lens of what I chose, I’m thinking more about what was given to me. Along with Nouwen, I’m conceiving of my faith as “the acceptance of centuries-old traditions [rather than] an attitude which grows from within.” This framework has freed me to see my spiritual story with a detachment that allows me to evaluate it more honestly. Since my path is no longer a statement about myself, I can weigh and consider it. I can honor the good, true, and beautiful while rejecting the bad and ugly.
This act of differentiation is particularly important for those who come from dysfunctional or spiritually toxic spaces. As documentaries like Shiny Happy People and The Secrets of Hillsong catalog the sins of unhealthy evangelical movements, they’ve set off a public reckoning. Historian Kristin Du Mez, reflecting on the popularity of these series and her own book, Jesus and John Wayne, notes that “for insiders, it’s helped them understand their world and can give some clarity for moving forward.”
I see similar dynamics at play in the recent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) vote to ensure the role of “pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men.” While the stance of the Convention was never in doubt, even staunch complementarians like Denny Burk were surprised by the speed and intensity of the change.
In public responses, commentators outside the Convention wondered why women stay in it. Some went so far as to suggest that complementarian women are functionally in abusive relationships and can’t leave because they’re being controlled. Others called women complicit in their own oppression. In other words, outsiders were asking, “Why do women choose to be there?”
From my perspective, these responses place too much weight on individual choice. Many women—including those who disagree with the Convention’s stance—stay in the SBC because that’s where they have been placed. They may stay forever, or they may not. Some are wrestling right now with whether to leave their SBC-aligned churches, while others will never ponder the question.
However, their choices are not the point. Their spiritual journeys and ours are part of a larger matrix of converging forces, traditions, and beliefs. We have to navigate them faithfully and honestly, but we don’t do so alone or strictly by our own wills. Yes, we have agency over our faith stories, but by decentralizing the role of choice, we’re released of its paralyzing power.
In my own faith life, accepting the givenness of my past spiritual journey has allowed me to make peace with its winding contours and move into the future with confidence. By relinquishing control over my past, I simultaneously relinquish control over my future. And because I didn’t cut the path I’ve taken to this point, I’m free to follow wherever God is leading me now.
All of us can take heart that something larger than our own decisions is at work. Just as God birthed us into certain spaces, he can call us to live in others. In that process, we can surrender ourselves and our choices to him, knowing that he’ll guide our wandering days on the earth.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.