Noah Stepro

Noah Stepro

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The End of Adulthood in American Christianity

Sunday morning has typically come to mean two things in America: Church or Sports. This bifurcation of leisurely and religious pursuits in our culture is a development of the past 20 years…and it is a major sign of the end of adulthood in the American Church. A. O. Scott recently published a profound and possibly prophetic article in the New York Times entitled “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” in which he suggests that we have witnessed the death of the mature male lead in pop media. This is a long developing trend in American literature, film and tv in which we see fulfillment come through friendships and personal journeys of adventure and rebellion, not the deep challenges of relationship and responsibility. What started as organized rebellion against injustice and stifling of creativity mutates a generation later into “bro comedies” of idle consumerism.

Put another way:

“We are an immigrant nation. The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things. The next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas. The third generation snowboards and takes improv classes.” -JACK DONAGHY

 

The general malaise of adulthood in American culture manifests in Evangelical Christianity in pronounced ways. Scotts’ thesis perhaps clarifies feelings of decay that many in the church have sensed for a long time. Between the declining percentage of self-identified, practicing Protestants in America, the shrinking number of churches in our landscape and the feminization of religion (70% of church participation is female) in the West it is no shocker that things are amiss in the Church at large. For every reason the Church identifies for it’s decline we create solutions with buzzwords: Missional, (Neo) Reformed, Emergent, Social-Justice, Etc. While all of these groups/movements care about this pandemic and address various symptoms of decline, rarely do they penetrate to the cause of decline; perhaps the root cause of decline in American Christianity is a lack of maturity among Christians?

In Scotts article he identifies several signposts of perpetual childhood in American Culture; these signifiers are often alive and well in the American Church:

Fulfillment is found in among peers

Away from the overview of mothers and lovers, the modern “man” finds happiness in the challenge free environment of friends that “play” and “adventure” with their energies.

When we survey men in the church do we see something different? When we listen to men addressed from the pulpit do we hear another narrative offered? Preachers typically offer either a “try-harder spiritual chauvinism” that is found in the complementarianism of the Neo-Reformed, or the complacent validation of the status quo. Men need to be better, try harder and lead their families by making unilateral decisions and having lots of sex with their “smoking hot wives”; or they are offered a patronizing version of Christianity as a cultural rubber stamp that pats them on the back for drinking beer, watching football, voting republican and being “Christian”.

The problem with both of these narratives is that they envision maturity for men through the lens of individualism. Individually men are supposed to “lead their families” and take on responsibility. We are typically offered the unattainable challenge of being perpetually responsible and competent or the impotent invitation to validate the life of comfort we find easy, but unfulfilling. We rarely merge these together with the additives of guidance and wisdom from someone beyond our peer pool. For the church to mature we need formative and involved discipleship. We need peers, but we also desperately need mentors.

Adventure and rebellion prolong maturity

The American male protagonist is most at home on the road or embroiled in rebellion against a cause. Adventure and rebellion can be a great rite of passage but, as Scott outlines, when this becomes our place of abiding rebellion quickly erodes to tantrum and adventure retreats into irresponsibility. The riddled angst of A Street Car gives way to the “bro comedy” of The Hangover. The entropy of American Christianity is driven by the gravity of comfort…we give up on the challenge of the road but embrace its lawlessness.

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Where is this alive in the Church? Do we give up on the struggle of maturity, self-sacrifice and accountability but embrace the “journey” of spirituality…taking our time to “find ourselves”.  Scott argued that “grown people feel no compulsion to put away childish things.” Have we structured out the drive for maturity in our own churches? Paul warned against this to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Has the idea of “spiritual journey” and “self-help” Christianity lead to a crisis of maturity in the Church?

I don’t mean to single men out in the spiritual “journey” of self-absorption…but we need to realize men and women, generally speaking, are at different points in their spiritual devolution (as it relates to and corresponds with American culture). Women are a step behind in their descent into egocentrism…the female of today is facing the same post-coming-of-age transition American men found themselves in during the 80s and 90s. They are encouraged to embrace the “me” mantra of feminism and find the self-actualization offered in contemporary spiritual traditions. As feminism meets our long standing belief that women are naturally more virtuous and faithful, biologically inclined towards religion, women become the heroes of the Church…selflessly pursuing righteousness, family and holiness while we celebrate their spouses just showing up on a Sunday. In the culture of Christian self-realization, family and “holiness” can easily translate into image, success and pride.

Where do we remedy this? In community! Experiencing faith, serving others, pursing reconciliation with committed friends pushes us out of the nest of self comfort and into the maturity of the other-centered-life. Making faith explicitly communal stretches us from our singular, individualized spiritual journey and places us firmly in the narrative of the Kingdom. We find accountability, leadership, challenge and guidance when we try to grow with others involved in our process of spiritual maturity.

Existentialism breeds contempt

I recently wrote a blog on the Maslow Hierarchy and our need to seek intellectual fulfillment , often at the expense of our physical and emotional  needs. In American culture we can see the digression from the existential quest of the 1960s and 70s into the narcissism and self-absorption of the 80s and 90s into the sarcasm and cynicism of the last decade and a half. It appears there as been a similar trend in Church sub-culture over the same period. The general openness and rebellion of the Jesus Movement gave way to the seeker-sensitive mega trend of your-best-life-now spirituality (see below). This inward focused narrative of Christianity then produced a now emerging generation of “missional” practitioners who are disillusioned with power-Christianity and self-actualizing, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship. Questioning these polemics of power and (sometimes) abuse/coercion is a health movement and deconstruction can remove toxic elements to the religion. However, the void of this discontentment often becomes a breeding ground for cynicism.

What this looks like in most churches today is the act of spiritual voyeurism – we watch from the sidelines, without engaging in the maturity process. Our intellectual development allows us to critique everything from worship music and theology, to community and transparency. When we engage in this trend of snarkiness we are grapes left unplucked, criticizing the tannins and fruits of every vintage safely from beyond the boundaries of fermentation. We are not called to have sophisticated language of critique or developed prose of argument, but to keep with repentance that will bear fruit. In an age where we are used to making judgments about  restaurants based on Yelp or classify people from a Tinder account without any encounter, is it any wonder we do this with God and community?

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Our voyeurism keeps us safe from engagement and challenge. Can we move out from our gated communities of ideas and join the neighborhood of practitioners? Embodying practices that aim at formation over information, experience beyond explanations. When churches first seek to live Scripture instead of memorizing it we see spiritual growth; when we seek to be mastered by doctrine, instead of master it we see transformation. When we stop passing judgment on entire groups of people and insist on engaging individuals, we are no longer free to distance ourselves from our neighbors and live in false self-righteousness. When we give guidance by the Holy Spirit priority over strategy and skill we remedy the cancer of cynicism with the treatment of vulnerability and the antidote of openness. Vulnerability…true vulnerability produces humility and openness to change…to repentance…something we need greatly if we are to grow.

There is no silver bullet

The actions and values we proffer as “mature” are often some of the most infantile of masks. We will never bear fruit that matures unless we seriously examine what we currently consider mature and healthy. If churches are going to be places that nurture, grow and reproduce the life of Jesus in their members we should stop offering diets of emotional candy and spiritual junkfood. Stemming the tide of consumerism is the beginning point to address immaturity in the Church, but we need a clear picture of what it looks like to be an adult in the way of Jesus…we need leaders willing to be vulnerable and transparent, willing to walk hand-in-hand with people through the adolescence of life, willing to live a life of shared community as an extended family on mission together.

9-28-14 #WhyChurch: Discipleship

Discipleship is at the very heart of Jesus life and ministry and we are called to follow Jesus as his disciples…developing the character he had and the competency he possessed. This requires community, commitment and choice…that often feels invasive but leads us out of our comfort zone and into radical, revolutionary change.

2-21-14 #WhyChurch: Discontentment

Until we are discontent with the things of this world we will never find contentment with God.

“Restlessness is discontent — and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man — and I will show you a failure.” ― Thomas A. Edison

We Want What We Don’t Need…And We Like It!

“What you want is not what your need”

I testify to this maxim with some many parts of my life:

  • Diet: I need to be healthy and fit…I want Animal Style Fires
  • Purchases: I need retirement and a savings account…I want a trip to Paris
  • Knowledge: I need to learn more about the Greenback party (for the class I teach)…I want to read more about the latest political scandal
  • Time: I need to finish painting my house…I want to finish watching the last season of Homeland

We could go on; you can plug your own needs and desires in here. The point is that what we want is often different from what we need. Abraham Maslow famously penned his hierarchy of needs in descending order:

The Maslow Hierarchy

  • Self-Actualization
  • Self-Esteem
  • Affection
  • Safety
  • Necessities

diagram-1

 

The Maslow Hierarchy shows our level of need – with things like self-actualization (creativity, originality, morality) and esteem (confidence, relationship with others) taking much more space in our lives than the pursuit of our basic needs for survival (this is only true in developed countries of course). In our poorest moments we spend vast amounts of capital and time on existential pursuits at the cost of our basic needs…purchasing expensive rims for luxury cars when we don’t have health insurance or buying scratchers and top shelf liquor while our children wear tattered clothes. These are exchanges of safety and necessity for esteem and self-realization.

The Welfare Inversion

The twist comes in our modern welfare state. Our federal benefactor provides our basic needs in part through cheep imitations that leave us in a heightened state of insecurity and scarcity. For example, we receive the illusion of safety through the stimulation of foreign war and the abdication of our personal freedom; we receive the illusion of provision through subsides of GMO foods and agro-industrial manufacturing; we receive the illusion of affection through endorphin releasing simulations of sanctioned pornography or tariff free, globally produced goods. Whether it is a $100 iPhone that should cost $2000 dollars or a $1 burger that should cost $11 we mollify our basic needs through the cheap substitution of subsidized products and experiences. The production of cheep foods in the US liberates more of the average income to pursue the higher “needs”; however, these same productions cost us in the quality of our lives by causing obesity, heart disease and cancer. Without these subsidizations we would be forced to center a greater amount of our capitals on basic needs…which may produce a greater degree of happiness and satisfaction.

Spiritual Feudalism

The spiritual realm is not so different. The world of churches has often turned into a realm of spiritual benefactors…providing goods and services for a populace that eagerly consumes them. Mike Breen calls this spiritual feudalism…alluding to the dynamic of client/patron relationships that take place in Western Christendom today. Churches often provide the illusion of spiritual depth, genuine faith and Christian living that indebt the client to the church while pacifying the actual needs of the soul. The false provision the Church proffers often corrodes the living soul. Purchasing the product of premature spiritual authority and realization means we will never actualize our spiritual  potential through the longue durée of following Jesus; acquiring the goods of a self-help or prosperity Gospel directs that we will never ascertain the depth of character found in the spiritual sojourners life. In an age of online sermons, digital worship, NYT bestselling books, and multiple satellite services we can curate our spiritual oeuvre to own liking and to our own detriment.

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 The Solution

How do we overcome the malaise of our multifaceted, postmodern, spiritual mural?

  1. The Church: We must cease functioning as a platform of competition for the religious affection of clients. If we are concerned about numbers we can play games and fish in one another’s ponds. We can continue the illusions of growth and depth to the detriment of the “client”…attempting to ever lure Christians into a better system of goods and services.
  1. The Consumer: I was once told “we don’t know our needs until they are met?” If this is true, it means we are responsible for seeking greater spiritual depth…to test the merit of our spiritual intentions against the profundity of Scripture and Spirit. Are we content to satisfy our hunger on GMO $1 burgers or are we longing for the depth of Spiritual food? The Apostle Paul called the church in Corinth on this in his first letter: “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready” (1 Corinthians 3:2).

As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer creating, disease inducing food that is filling at a cheap price we will never be free of disease and premature deaths; As long as we are comfortable with the provision of cancer producing, spiritual pandering that creates spiritual dependents, we will never be free of the spiritual impotency and weakness that leads to consumerism and hypocrisy. If you look at the hierarchy that Maslow laid out…only after focusing on and realizing our basic (spiritual) needs will we realize our greater needs for realization and identity. We need a faith that is ready for the long haul of life in Jesus, awaiting the trials of trust and discernment and producing the determination of the committed, not the consumer.

9-7-14 #WhyChurch: A Foretaste

The Church is called to be a place where anyone can come and experience a taste of what life is like under the coming reign of Jesus

Church is supposed to be a taste of the coming feast at the table of God, not a diet from what you’re missing out on eating now! We are invited to first experience the goodness of the King before reorienting our life around the rule of the Kingdom. The Church is impotent, boring and petty when we don’t understand the Kingdom of Heaven and have a weak view of the King. If we are to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, a place where anyone can experience the goodness of God, we must be consumed by Jesus.

8-31-14 #WhyChurch: A Sign of the Kingdom of God

When the church is a sign of the Kingdom of God, we warn of danger, are clear to read, guide to true destinations and are easily seen in and around the community

When the church fails to point towards the Kingdom of God in all it does, we mislead people, distract seekers from Jesus and obscure the truth #WhyChurch

8-24-14 #WhyChurch: The Problem

If we want to be dynamic, New Testament followers of Jesus, we need a dynamic community of faith that will equip, challenge and encourage us into the life of Christ.

If our understanding of Kingdom doesn’t have Church at the center, we will inevitably lose the King at the center too

Michael Brown, Reconstruction and The Great War

Police make me nervous. Seriously. I realized most of the people I know don’t share this sentiment. When I’m at the park playing basketball or barbecuing and I see a patrol car come through I just assume they are going to harass me. Now I am a law abiding, middle-class, Anglo, family man…I don’t get harassed by the police nor do I give them cause to harass me. I didn’t give them cause as a child or teenager either. The only difference is that I lived in not so nice areas of the Antelope Valley. So I don’t get the sense of security and goodwill that my friends and coworkers who grew up in affluent communities do. In my history police equaled problems. I have quite a few good friends in law enforcement and realize that this is a jaded perspective. However, it is a perspective that persists.

Ferguson

This is what is at stake in Ferguson. You have outrage at another shooting of an unarmed citizen by the police…something that happens alarmingly often in the Black community. Race as a social construct is most definitely a primary issue at play here, and many Black thinkers and leaders are highlighting this. We all need to listen. From my own experience, I also see the issues of power and privilege that are often underneath and interwoven with matters of race, and they seem to be rearing their ugly head in Ferguson. For this article, I want to focus on this element of power and privilege. There is a problem behind Ferguson, behind fueling race riots, arrest murders, and labor disputes, and it is power and privilege. Affluent folks view law enforcement as an extension of their will (maybe with the exception of speeding tickets). Disadvantaged people view the police as antagonists to their well-being. One of the biggest problems with the Michael Brown shooting is this divide. In many ways the outcome of this incident has little to do with Brown and the officer and much more to do with a historical rift between the poor severed from the resources they need and the rich controlling these resources (and law enforcement) to protect their privilege and security. ferguson-missouri

Reconstruction

In the aftermath of the Civil War the executive office and Congress were faced with the impossible problem of not only reincorporating peoples and institutions that had waged war on the Union, but also embracing and empowering a nation of freed slaves who had little-to-no property, education or self-governing life skills. Radical Republicans called for property redistribution and enfranchisement while the elite, defrocked Planter class attempted to impose a new order of slavery through intimidation and coercion (black codes, sharecropping, etc). This latter group formed militias to promote white supremacy (the Ku Klux Klan being the most infamous of these groups). These paramilitaries would harass the newly freed people and use violence to keep them from utilizing their recently amended civic and Constitutional rights. The Radical Republicans in Congress were able to employ the US Army to break up these militias and ensure the protection of these people. Through a whole convolution of events, the radicals fell out of power, federal troops were withdrawn from the South and the swift disenfranchisement of Black Americans ensued. In the shadow of this unraveling, Congress passed a law called Posse Comitatus - stating the federal government cannot use federal troops to enforce the law. Track with me on this…most Americans would see this as limiting the power of the federal government for the protection of the common people. WRONG! The point of Congress’s action was to keep disadvantaged people in the mercy of the powerful. This was not meant to protect people from the US military or a growing police state…that still takes place. Under Posse Comitatus the National Guard is still allowed to be called in to establish law and order under the Governors direction. On more than one occasion the president has used federal troops to break up strikes and protests. We have established federal armories (we have one of these in Palmdale) to provide weapons for troops during a state of emergency (which is most likely a riot or grassroots movement, not a Red Dawn type Russian paratrooper invasion of the West Coast). This federal legislature was composed to prevent the federal government from ensuring black Americans would live without fear of violence or persecution and forfeit the right to vote.

The Great War

It is often the case that the events of history offer us two messages – a superficial answer and a deeper underlying meaning. This is the case in Reconstruction; this is also the case of World War I. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the Great War’s outbreak and historians and commentators have been debating the root causes and effects of the war for the past century. In a truly Marxist interpretation (don’t worry, I’m neither a Communist nor a Marxist)…WWI was neither about class nor nationality nor race (ethnicity, linguistics, religion)…it was about power for the powerful. Marx assumed that the next great international war erupted it would be countered by a revolution of the workers…those who produce v. those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie v the proletariat). Marx underestimated the power of patriotism…he wrongly presumed that poor factory workers and struggling farmers in England would identify with poor factory workers and struggling farmers in Germany (or Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire) over and above the rich industrialists of their own country. The problem: they didn’t! The ideologies of togetherness, solidarity and patriotism trumped those of like-mindedness and self-interest.  he events in Ferguson are not so unrelated to the events of Austria a century ago. Is the Brown shooting only about race? The result of believing this may end up turning poor people against poor people; the imperial leaders told European peasants it was all about nationality – turning factory worker against factory worker. Planter elites told Southern people it was all about race – turning poor white farmers against poor Black farmers. The problems of Reconstruction, WWI, and Ferguson have common ground that extends beyond race, nationality, or ideology. They are all about power and privilege.

 class-war

These are a few divides I choose to look at, but certainly many (if not all) historical conflicts fall into this category (The Cold War is a great example). I want to propose to thoughts that challenge the polemics offered on cable television today:

  1. Race Is An Issue – But Class Is Underneath.

The pain of slavery and reconstruction is alive and well today…in the South more so than anywhere else. Men of color have far greater reason to suspect the police of undue harassment and profiling than I do. However, race can be misleading if we don’t follow its trail toward other issues. Many civil rights leaders started at race and moved towards the issues of class: Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Caesar Chavez. The Great War wasn’t really about nationality…this was used to incite the passions and fears of nations. Ferguson isn’t only about race…race as the end all can become the faux amis employed to rouse suspicion of our neighbors. Can I go so far as to claim that race can be utilized as a misnomer during reconstruction…aimed to divide White and Black in a pitch to win White support for the dominant power class? There is a powerful TIME article that elaborates on this much more eloquently than I ever will.

  1. Violence Isn’t Powerful Enough. 

I have a friend and teacher who once told me that Jesus was a pacifist because “violence wasn’t powerful enough.” In a recent post on Ferguson David Fitch penned: “This is the dilemma of violence. It never gets us anywhere in the long term. It’s the devil’s way to keep the sin ongoing.” It has taken me several years to understand what he meant; it has taken Ferguson. The National Guard is called in to establish law and order – and maybe they will…however…Law and Order is much different than PEACE! The National Guard will never establish peace!

  1. Peace isn’t a tranquil state, but a new order.

I don’t mean a new political order…that is what Woodrow Wilson called for in his New World Order mandate for a great League of Nations. A new political order will always turn into another establishment wielded by the power of the privileged. We need a new social, relational order. We are doomed to repeat Reconstruction, WWI and Ferguson until we stop viewing each other in binaries that alienate. Jesus, the greatest pacifist ever, called the world to live under his new order (the Kingdom of God) were mercy triumphs over judgment, where we treat each other with dignity and respect, where love is the organizing principle and not privilege or power. The League failed and Reconstruction faltered not because they are bad, but because they aren’t enough!

We need an interior revolution that starts within communities and homes…not an imposed mandate from an institution.

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Hi, my name is Noah…I like to party

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My name is Noah and I like to party

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