By now you have heard it said that the “church” refers to the community or members, not the building. This is not news to most people, and it seems silly to reiterate it. But I want to extend it a little before we move on. The “church” also does not refer to the institution, good or bad, or the structures and hierarchies of the institution that we create around the community. The church is holy. The other stuff is just there to support it, strengthen it, equip it, and keep it generation to generation.
The problem as I see it is that mostly our issues with the things we call church are surface. The deeper issue that belies most of our complaints about church, which are making their weekly appearance in more or less relevant lists online, is that we are immature. The church at large is really, really immature. Making another immature list doesn’t seem helpful, does it? I would argue that we are getting better.
Not every member of the church is immature. Not every local community within the church is immature. But the American branch of the church universal, in almost all of its iterations, is adolescent at best. I think we are moving past early adolescence, though, in my lifetime. Thankfully.
Adolescence is that magical age between childhood and adulthood when we are in transition. In childhood the world is defined for us by our parents. As we grow, if the parents do their jobs, we are forced to look beyond our selves and our wants to think of others, all the while having our needs considered and cared for by the mostly unseen benevolence of our parents. We don’t usually know as grade schoolers that electricity is costly and paid for monthly or that it is truly deadly and comes to our house through a whole network of devices and wires that must be tended and cared for. We don’t know. We couldn’t handle it. So our parents do and rarely tell us. As we transition to adulthood, we come to understand the thing, its cost, and our responsibilities about it.
As we go through adolescence, we are let in on the mysteries of tending to life, which we called “doing chores” at my house. We don’t understand much, but usually when we are healthy, we become aware of others in increasingly subtle and immediate ways. We become aware of how large the world is, how many people are around us, and sometimes we get overwhelmed by that. And if we are normal we begin to realize that those people have expectations of us. This all takes a lot of time.
The American church has had its billed paid for a long time. We have been given tax breaks and deference by the government, culture, and media. We have been protected, provided for, and generally regressed to that state in life before full adulthood. For a host of different reasons, those protections and provisions are being taken away, and it is time for us to progress back towards maturity.
The world has expectations of us based on what we proclaim, and like adolescents we are becoming aware of the social pressures on us as people stop giving us those protections and deferences in the culture. That pressure can come across as meanness or frustration or disdain as we fail at our own jobs.
I got fired from mowing grass when I was about fourteen by a guy who thought I should be able to check his rental units, and when the grass needed mowing or looked rough, show up on my own and mow it. I was used to having an adult tell me when the job should be done, so I did not check or mow, and he was livid. It was not a great moment for either of us, as I remember it. I failed to understand and respond as an adult.
The church has failed to love well and maintain her integrity. The world notices, and our culture is frustrated with the church. They don’t notice all the things we do right, but they notice the things we have ruined. [That pretty well sums up how I felt for a couple of years between twelve and fourteen. You?]
This adolescence is not merely cultural. The church is getting on through adolescence as we notice our issues and work on them, reaching out in love and responsibility in ways we really did not after the forties and fifties. The church is back on the front lines of issues and involved in activism on several fronts.
I am convinced that this is not maturity, though. It is merely late adolescence. We are in an age of shouting and flag waving. I hope it is almost over, but Facebook activism (slactivism) and issues-based outreach programs are about as sustainable and meaningful as teenage tilting from issue to issue. In my teens, I worked on homeless gifts for Christmas and hurricane relief for clubs and had a burning fervor for issues that lasted for nearly a month at a time. They were motivated by passion, but they did not involve my integrity or identity, just the tug of the heart ready to burst with hormones. I am not sure I had either the integrity or the identity to sustain real work at seventeen.
I fell into passions like a teenager falls into love and right back out again. It wasn’t thoughtful or deep, but it felt good. I did reach a few families with gifts for Christmas and helped gather tons of something for, was it Florida or Texas? I was gone again soon, even though those families were still poor and the coast of wherever was still desiccated.
The church lurches from issue to issue the same way. We get played by politicians and special-interests like musical instruments. We raise money, post some things online, maybe even change our profile picture to an equal sign or a something vaguely Arabic. But little more.
Here is the rub. Real issues are complex, difficult, and take years to really address, sometimes decades. They take personal involvement that requires and even risks our integrity and identity. I didn’t have the self to get involved in dealing with the economic issues that robbed working-class Tennesseans of just enough to keep them in the cycles of financial hardship. I didn’t have the identity that would push me when the banners were put away and the shouts had died down.
Adulthood is boring. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told by Christians in the church that they were not mature enough to take their place in the world and would not grow up. “I don’t want to be mature.” “I don’t want to be old.” “I don’t ever want to grow up.” But the truth is the church is overflowing with immature Christians. We don’t have enough self left after the petitions to fill in the pews.
If we are to grow up, we can turn to the three vows of the Rule of Benedict: obedience, stability, and transformation. The humility of self that is demanded for obedience ironically sets us free to discover our true selves and to really learn about the world and our place in it, our responsibilities and expectations. Stability gives us the time to mature into full human beings under God. By staying put we can learn how God works over time and how to invest deeply into God’s work over that time that real change demands. Transformation comes when we submit to God in Creation, Jesus in the his teachings and salvation, and the Spirit’s instruction. We become more, not less, as we engage deeply in one place and one faith community.
Read the Bible. Pray daily. Go to church. Join a small group. Develop a close circle of accountable Christians who will walk with you. Pick one place in the world to do the work of the Rule of God. Don’t fall for the “they” trap; love your enemies. Heal the sick. Forgive everything. Yes, everything. You are a Christian after all, and that means something. Work for the long goal.
I don’t think that most of the issues of today are meaningless. I believe we need the young to be the young, and to be in our faces as adults always risk becoming complacent about the issues of right now as we learn to look to the past and future for what really matters. We need the fringes. We need the young.
But the church needs to grow up. We need to put in the time under the authority of God in Jesus, under Scripture, and under a community. We need to grow up and begin to see the complexity of the issues of our day and get past jingoism and short-term Huffington Post morality. We need to know who we are and who we are called to be, so that we can take stands that matter and that will last past the shouting.
In the news of the day are real issues that demand deep responses that go past the stay of the cameras and the attention of the mob. It will be the church that lasts. We have been mature before and can be again. Look past the simplistic narrative of modernity to the history of humanity and humanitarianism in the West. We will return to our full status as adult heirs of God’s hopes and dreams for the world, the kingdom or Rule of God, but not until we give up the refusal and rebellion that turns aside from the complexities and responsibilities of maturity.
Now, I have to go and buy a lawn mower.