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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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.