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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.
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We can be imitators of God and live by faith and the Spirit of Jesus or imposters of faith and pose by our own self-righteousness
It happens from time to time that you may find yourself looking to join a church. Maybe you recently committed to following Jesus (for the first time or with a renewal of a previous decision); maybe you moved; maybe your church has gone the way of the buffalo; or maybe you are in the unfortunate circumstance of needing to leave a dysfunctional church (see part two of this post). Whatever the case, if you are or have been in one of these scenarios you probably thought to yourself “no one ever told me how to do this”? This blog is for you…read it, comment on it, share it…help others make a healthy, important choice! While there are several blogs out there that address this they usually come down to doctrine (I am assuming you have a basic conviction on which you believe…if not talk to someone you trust. If the church teaches, adheres to and practices the Apostle’s Creed it should have relatively sound doctrine…the real tell-tale signs come forth in the following “temperatures” of the church:
○ Is the church a family?
○ Are they gathering throughout the week, not just on Sundays?
○ Are you invited to join people in their lives?
If the answer to any of those is an “I’m not sure” then keep moving on.
You can have all the bells and whistles but if there is no community it won’t mean much. We are called to be the church, not find a good show and enjoy the church. This is often a matter of substance over style. The two are not mutually exclusive, but my experience has been that when a church places a high value on production (good music, speaking presentation) it is often to the detriment of inclusive participation…only the good looking, well polished people have a place in leadership/participation.
○ How easy is it to talk to the leadership (pastors and elders)?
○ Are they identifiable on the website?
○ Have public profiles (besides the chief at the top of the totem)?
○ What about finances?
○ Can you see their financial books? Not just a general budget pie graph, but their actual numbers?
Once again, if you hesitate to answer or can not reply automatically let the search continue. There shouldn’t be any secrets when it comes to finances or oversight. Typically linked to this is a clerical/parishioner divide equivocal second only to the pope him self. Mega church pastors too often fall prey to the chasm of the Holy See through entitlement and lack of accountability; mainline pastors too often buy in to the chaplaincy gulf of spiritual feudalism.
○ Is the whole Bible preached there?
○ Are you discouraged from asking questions?
○ Is dogma firmly entrenched in the rhetoric?
○ Are large sections glossed over such as Spiritual Gifts? Sin and Atonement? Justice? Hospitality? Poverty? Theology in general?
If so it is probably a sign of the chink in the dragons scales…this is where the church display gross heterodoxy/heteropraxy. If the church speaks about money all the time (as many do) and they seem to be well off (which they rarely are) but never mention justice, the poor and purchasing power there is an obvious imbalance.
○ Is this a homogenous group?
○ Are all ages represented here?
○ Different ethnicities?
○ Various styles?
○ Are women valued equally as men and represented in equal numbers?
While everyone enjoys their own culture and we feel the most comfortable among what we have grown up with the church is to be a sign and foretaste of the Kingdom…a kingdom in which children and teens are valued just as much as adults, women just as much as men, black just as much as white, poor just as much as rich. If everyone in the church is 21 or 50 or 88 it is a sign that something is off…take heed.
○ This is the first and probably most important question I tell people to ask when they are looking for a church – “Can I be equipped and released to serve Jesus here”?
This is much more than volunteering…every church will take you as a volunteer…every church needs warm bodies for the kid’s program or to do bulletins. A mentor of mine wrote a blog asking the question “what would your church do if the Apostles Paul and Peter should up at your church tomorrow to work for two weeks?” Certainly we wouldn’t have them only do these tasks, we would say move in the power God has given you! Here is the catch, the only difference between us and them is the equipping they had…we have access to the same Holy Spirit. Let me elaborate: we put in place a rule, that if you want to lead from the front (worship, speaking, prayer, liturgy, communion) you must be in a discipling relationship (a Huddle).
A few musicians have approached us to play and when we tell them YES! We just need to get you in one of these relationships with accountability and direction and input and growth and prayer! They take off quicker than a Justin Bieber fan at an MMA match. If a church doesn’t want to invest in you this way and is willing to sacrifice your gifts, talents and availability without the covenant to see you succeed in following Christ get the hell out of there! Seriously!
○ How many churches have they planted?
○ What is the plan for church planting?
○ What about missional work?
○ Is the church growth through multiplication or simple addition?
Don’t let size fool you…while it is a sign that things can be efficient , creative, enjoyable, etc., it does not mean health. It is relatively easy to get a big crowd…take football…tens of thousands show up in an arena to watch guys in spandex hit each other…not super impressive. Don’t get me wrong…I think healthy things should grow and there is nothing wrong with a large church…but is that all there is?
○ Is there peace within the church?
○ Do the practice the Matthew 18 principle of resolving conflict?
○ What is the history of church splits? Staff leaving?
○ Has the church shrunk significantly?
This is a Hebrew word meaning peace, but not in the tranquility sense…in the fulfillment sense. Everything the way God intends it. Now the maxim is still true…if you find the perfect church don’t go there…you’ll screw it up. There is no church that is perfect, but there are plenty of churches that are a float (or sinking) amidst a sea of turmoil that they themselves have created (which is quite different from death or persecution…that is acceptable turmoil by church history standards). One great question to ask a church is how many “exit interviews” they have conducted? If the answer is none be ware. All churches loose people; good ones ask why? And not from a hypothetical stand point, but by sitting down and hearing from them…this is called shepherding. To my knowledge not a lot of churches practice this last idea, so I don’t think it is a deal breaker, just a good Litmus.
Caveat: It should be noted that the majority of folks don’t need new excuses to not join a church…it seems pandemic to our culture. If all seven of these are not present I don’t think it’s reason enough to not join a community. If you have exhausted your search and are still coming up short go with the closest fit and where the Holy Spirit leads. This is more 7 goals for a local church to embody than anything. Don’t fall into the trap of criticism and perfectionism…If you find a place where the people love Jesus more than anything else and there is transparent community with room to grow…stick it out!
Of course the critical facts in addition to this mix are prayer, conviction and trusted counsel, but hopefully you will have read some points that you may not have voiced before but have intuitively sensed. Take your time and lots of prayer…this is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life.
Siting in the Gibson Amphitheater during the last day of the Jesus Culture conference, if you have been curious (as was I) about JC hopefully this is helpful. For my missional church friends who are having a gag reflex or moving to my Facebook profile to unfriend me…please read on.
The past few days gave me reason to reconsidered my posture towards big conference, American-Worship Leader-Idol events. It is amazing to see 5,000 people from all over LA (and the world), from all types of backgrounds, from all sorts of denominations and demographics not only gather together to worship, but to pay so to do it. Let me bonafie that statement. We live in a consumer culture (which is actually different than consumerism). It isn’t inherently bad, it is just what we do…we buy things. We have the freedom to buy what we want, eat what we want, choose certain brands. It wasn’t always like this; thousands of years ago people had one set of clothes that were all the same color; they went to the one entertainment event (if there was even ONE); they ate the same foods every day; they did not have disposable income.
We are all quite use to this today though…so in a place like LA where there are literally thousands of things to spend money and time on to see thousands of people show up to spend money and time on Jesus and encountering him with thousands of other people is a totally awesome thing. In a consumer culture shouldn’t it be this way? Now I’m not suggesting we play into the consumerism that is rampant in the church these days (I will give you my money <tithe> and energy<attendance, volunteerism> and you will give me spiritual goods <salvation> and services <worship experience>). However, I think there is something to be said about leading a group of teenagers to a gathering of other teens and adults and showing them that spending their capital on Jesus and community is a great thing…it is an very tangible object lesson.
The experience was certainly replete with pet-peeves and irritants, but let me start with some wonderful takeaways from the few days I spent there with our youth group.
Some of the most wonderful, theologically accurate things preached in the past three days:
Of course, there was quite a bit of over-realized eschatology typical of charismatic conferences.
The bathwater wasn’t remotely close to stale enough to warrant throwing the baby out with it. I particularly appreciated Banning Leibscher bringing it home on the last night. It was a clear call to dig deep into the Bible and establish a relationship with God that is built on truth. Over all, this was a great conference and a really engaging experience for our teenagers. Will most likely return again…