23 May 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 2

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

One of the challenges that has been presented by Bergler is that "a significant number of Christians do not regard growing up in Christ to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be a follower of Christ" (27). We might be tempted to go even further, especially those of us who have encountered this sort of attitude in the contemporary American church: Do very many Christians even know what it means to be a "mature" follower of Jesus? (that is to say, would they even recognize such language?

The data would certainly suggest that many do not have an adequate understanding of the premise of being a mature Christian, let alone the desire to make such a journey. What is worse yet, there has been a large portion of the American church culture that has been pleased to cater to this shallow faith, rather than pushing believers towards something greater. The answer for this is simply: numbers. Our culture values success that is defined in certain terms, and churches that have big buildings with a lot of people in attendance and a healthy budget fit the American Consumerist version of success, which has been plopped right inside the attitude of the local church despite the gospel's incompatibility with such thinking. To this end many churches have been willing to play their part in the market, designing a church experience that attracts the crowds.

Crowds are easily attracted; disciples are hard to find.

Let's stay with this idea for just a moment: if crowds are the measure of success, then wouldn't the churches around Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn be considered the better congregations of our culture? Doesn't their "success" set a template for how the local church should operate? Indeed, many throughout the years have sought this precise course of action, and most church conferences sell the same message with more evangelical names, but the pattern still exists. There is much to say about church size and church growth dynamics, but my point here is that playing to the crowds does not make for spiritually mature followers of Christ – Jesus himself experienced this when the multitudes had decided to walk away: the closer he came to the cross, the fewer were his companions.

The worst case I have personally witnessed to this phenomenon was a billboard church advertisement I once drove past. It had some cool artwork and flashy design, the name of the church in bold letters across the top, with the promise: WE WON'T TRY TO CHANGE YOU. Now, I don't know what it was that this particular message was intended to answer (it seems to me some issue was in the mind of whoever sent that one through), but my initial reaction to this was, "Then, what's the point?!?"

By contrast, the life of the believer is, by definition, a life of transformation. "The proper response to the good news of the Kingdom of God was to become a follower of Jesus. When Jesus called disciples (followers, students, apprentices), he called them to spiritual transformation" (29). There is an intrinsic summons to becoming in this call, and again Bergler's study here reminds us of Bonhoeffer's famous, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." As Jesus said, "Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). Becoming a mature follower of Jesus is not an optional add-on for the Christian: "spiritual maturity is central, not incidental, to God's plan" (41).

A fellow from the leadership of a local megachurch once spoke to an acquaintance of mine, claiming that they do not spend much time emphasizing discipleship. When questioned on this, the leader claimed that their church was there to "introduce" people to the gospel, and that that's what they were good at doing, but those who were interested in becoming more seriously committed could choose to pursue such an endeavor on their own desire. In other words, this entire church, considered as a national influence on evangelicalism, is structured to the lowest-common-denominator of the church experience. And they are known for putting on a good show, and having some noted programs. But what is lacking from their community DNA is the transformative experience of the gospel. And, as the data would back up, they have a great number of people in attendance who are not becoming mature Christians.

The need for mature disciples of Jesus within the modern American church is great. "The character qualities that the Holy Spirit produces in the mature follower of Jesus are especially oriented toward building loving human relationships" (43). This is a journey on which every believer may embark, if there is a desire to be a disciple. Those who move in this direction are not without flaw, and they are certainly not perfect (42). (And, for those reading out of a Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, there is room to talk on the use of this word, without contradicting the points made here.)

Bergler suggests that The Shape of Spiritual Maturity is built around three elements: 1) it is desirable; 2) it is attainable; 3) it is visible (48–49). These he fills in with good discussion, but I will not take the time to unpack the details here. Overall, his point is simply, "Far from being the end point of spiritual growth, spiritual maturity is the base camp from which ascent of the mountain of holiness can begin in earnest" (48). I must wholeheartedly agree with this perspective, for the movement towards God is a summons to be like him, which means that we must become less like ourselves – this is sanctification, this is maturity, this is losing one's life in order to find it.

Is this still a possibility for the American church?

Do there remain any disciples who are willing to grow up in Christ Jesus?

18 May 2016

from here to maturity: a discussion 1

Thomas E. Bergler, From Here to Maturity. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014. 

In 2012, Thomas Bergler published a historical summary and critique of the adolescent factors that have impacted the contemporary church: The Juvenilization of American Christianity. While the study has gained a good amount of attention, the glaring question that remained following the study was, "Where do we go from here?" Thus, he has published a second volume in the discussion, one that I would like to interact with on numerous points. (The reader will notice that this book was published about two years before this discussion, highlighting the well-known fact among pastors and scholars that you can't always get through your 'book stack' a quickly as you would like.) In 2012 a summary-review of JAC was published on this blog.

In the first volume, Bergler established that, "Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity" (JAC, 4, emphasis in original). Simply stated, this means that a culture-shift began to take place in the generations especially after WWII, changing the way American Christianity is envisioned and put into practice. Although these changes were initiated by those with noble goals and desires, there has been another (mostly unintended) set of consequences: an emerging of Adolescent Christianity, with the expectations that faith ought to be "fun and entertaining" (JAC, 14).

We're All Adolescents Now

With this discussion in mind, Bergler begins this second volume with an outline of the current situation – namely, that we are all caught up in an adolescent Christianity. For those who may have missed the full significance of The Juvenilization of American Christianity, the weight of the current situation is reiterated here. The impact of making Christianity "relevant," especially in playing to the components of youth culture in our society, have been enormous. And this is why discussions around this set of cultural circumstances in the church need to become more frequent, and more serious. "Today, there is less shared understanding of what 'growing up' should include" (4). And, since there is a lack of understanding of what 'growing up' should look like, the church simply isn't seeing much maturity among its membership.

Bergler reviews various factors that impact youth culture and, in conversation with other studies and data, shows that our society is not adequately preparing young people for the demands and responsibilities of adulthood. Even without social-scientific numbers, the casual observer ought to be able to get a sense of anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case (my observation). In teaching at the college level for the past ten years I have seen many students come vastly ill-prepared for what will be asked of them, often far beyond the scope of academic work. Our nation is seeing an increasing number of young adults who, especially after college, return home, in many cases lacking desire, motivation, or direction to become a responsible adult. What impact is this having on the church? Or, what impact has church-life had on this growing societal trend?

But ours has become a culture of "I'm never going to grow up" rather than stepping up to the responsibilities of living well. In the generations before WWII it was quite common that young boys and girls would take upon the tasks of adulthood for the sake of family survival. In those days a formal education was more of a rarity (no "right" to a college experience), and teenagers were often found taking on the mantle of cultural leadership as quickly as they could – a reflection of the culture. Perhaps there was a bit of growing-up-too-fast mixed in, but if that was the case then the pendulum has definitely swung too far the other direction.

Within the American church this reality is stark: Bergler, citing Smith, refers to modern belief being less of a mature Christianity, and more of a "Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism" (13). Adolescent faith is about emotion and feeling, more than it is about discipleship and transformation. "To keep things in perspective, it is important to note that it is quite amazing that any emerging adults are seriously religious" (15). Indeed, the demands of discipleship are high, but the lack of seriousness by which most within our churches are engaging the endeavor is startling. Bonhoeffer's famous line, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" seems very much out of place in our context. What is expected of a mature Christian is lost in our culture – left undefined – and therefore an invisible path even to those who appear to be serious about their faith.

And I have seen more than one church that is satisfied with this reality, so long as it means that their numbers and giving are up, claiming that their work is more directed to "introducing people to Jesus" and leaving the work of becoming more serious disciples up to the initiative of the individual (and probably some nod to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so as to sound spiritual). At the end of the day, this is the culture that defines American Christianity, and the clanging gongs of gifts without the presence of God are becoming deafening and chaotic in our world. What is more, this present generation of American Christianity has now come into its own, and many of our current leaders have never known anything except the entertainment-based, individualistic reassurance that has had such an impact.

"In short, American Christianity looks a lot like we would expect it to look if many Americans were stuck in a Christianized version of adolescent narcissism" (25).

This is a strong challenge, but one that, in many ways, characterizes the current state of the American church. Sadly, the current cycle of political discourse has not only proven this adolescent presence in the church, but has pushed it further along the path – more Christians today seem to be willing to be shaped by culture than by Word and Spirit. This is not the case throughout the world, which is why spiritual revival is happening outside of this country, and a maturing faith is being fostered elsewhere. The Spirit, it seems, will not wait around for us to get on board when there are others who are willing to be participants in the gospel. But adolescents rarely, if ever, see this far beyond themselves.

It is time to move towards maturity.

26 April 2016

competing for allegiance

the stuff of earth 
competes for the allegiance
I owe only to the
Giver of all good things

rich mullins

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is discussing the church and spiritual gifts. He more or less interrupts himself in this discussion to talk about that which is greater than everything else – love. He does not disparage spiritual gifts, or say that they no longer have relevance in the church. But he recognizes that he is speaking to a community of believers that have perhaps put too much emphasis on spiritual gifts, especially those gifts that have an outward appeal.

What happens in the church when the community becomes overly focused on the gifts of the Spirit is the emergence of a self-serving and individualistic Christianity. When we are more interested with the gift than we are with the Giver, then our faith has certainly taken a wrong turn. This, I believe, is why the apostle Paul takes the opportunity to emphasize love as the most excellent way. He will say, in 1 Corinthians 13, that spiritual gifts and service without genuine love is nothing more than the reverberations of a hallow vessel.

So much for spiritual gifts, and it might be easy for me to think that I do not overemphasize them in my own life. Is this because I have truly achieved a certain amount of spiritual success, or because I am too willing to allow this discussion to be left at the doorstep of somebody else's problem rather than opening my own heart to the Spirit's conviction? Am I satisfied with my compliance with scripture because I see more of the speck in my brother's eye, ignoring the plank in my own?

If I were to widen out this discussion, I might wonder how many times in my own life I have focused on the gift more than the Giver. Maybe I think I am safe because I do not think about speaking in tongues, nor do I boast in my placement as a teacher and preacher. But what about the other areas in my life where I do not adequately recognize God's provision? I seem to be prone to live in such a way as to see only the gifts around me, and critique them as though I am in a position of authority over the goodness in my life. And so I see that I become focused on the goodness he has placed around me, discovering that this is the reason why I can be so devoid of love.

This is the reality to which the poet was pointing: the stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things. I have been summoned to a wholehearted commitment on this path of faith, what Eugene Peterson has called a long obedience in the same direction. But if the most excellent way for my journey is to love, then I must be connected to the source of love, because my life is not able to love in the manner to which I have been called. I cannot embody what passages like 1 Corinthians 13 describe, unless I make room in my heart for the Spirit to convict, inspire, and lead me forward.

If I am to do this, then I must recognize that the stuff of earth must be cleared out of my life, and I often feel as though my Creator is more-than-eager to help me with the purging. The Giver knows that his stuff, no matter how good and blessed, is no comparison to himself – and that is what I truly need. And he also knows that for me to embrace this sort of love is too hard a thing to ask of me, for I am too broken and preoccupied and weak. So, he asks me to do the only thing that I can do – he bids me come and die. It is only then that a new life can begin within me, and I can embark on this way of love.

This is a struggle in my own heart, and it leads to further heartbreak when I look around and see a world that is so consumed with the stuff of earth. I live in a politicized world, where stuff is thrust into the middle of the conversation, as though it were the most important thing. It is why I see so many in the church lowering their eyes to the powers that be today, instead of lifting their eyes to the hills. And the drive for stuff, especially among the people of God (who should know better), has succeeded in pushing out the divine presence from our midst, for we have given our allegiance to the gift over the Giver of all good things.

22 April 2016

The Sickness unto Death – a brief reflection

"Sin is – after being taught by a revelation from God what sin is – before God in despair not to will to be oneself or in despair to will to be oneself" (Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death).

I felt as though this post should begin with this statement, not because I think that Kierkegaard is right without challenge or nuance in what he said, but that it is a definition of sin that speaks to the gaps in our modern understanding. It is good for us to place a definition of sin in front of us, since it appears that ours is a culture that is quickly losing its ability to tell its right hand from its left.

In his book, Kierkegaard works through an understanding of despair, but I am not interested in reviewing that here. The piece I wish to point to is his emphasis that sin happens before God. Interestingly, his words contrast the "older dogmatics" with the newer trends of a spiritual life. The same contrast remains true for us today, though with slightly different nuance. But sin is what happens as a result of our actions before God. Our inability to recognize sinful thoughts or behavior is thus connected to our recognition of life before our Creator.

It is easy to escape the dark clouds – the guilt – of sin by ignoring the presence of the Almighty. If we do not wish to make the demands of the gospel too much for our neighbors, then we simply do not speak about those things that are bothersome. And this is how humanity can be free from despair, and uninhibited by the weight of an external conscience. After all, we can all make decisions for ourselves, and there is no point in us living an unhappy and frustrated life.

This problem is not confined to the world, we now see the fruits of a generation of believers who have been told that sin is outdated and outmoded. Even among those who can give lip service to the theoretical presence of sin, there is a diminishing number in the church who would dare advocate for a universal standard of truth. In short, we no longer speak about sin – to ourselves or anybody else – because we no longer understand sin. This is where Kierkegaard's definition needs to be inserted: a reminder that our lives, every piece, are lived before the Almighty.

As a result of the Fall heaven and earth have been pulled apart. This isn't a geographic statement, as many people think of today, but rather a spiritual reality as consequence of sin. Of course, we need simply to remind ourselves that the sin in the garden was a willing rejection of God that took place before God. The fusion of heaven and earth that was intended by the Creator was now severed, and humanity is now cut-off from the divine presence. We no longer see God on our own, and we thus fail in our memory that we are still before God in our lives.

There are various concepts and definitions of sin that float around our world. Some of these are helpful, and some of them are stupid; some help us catch God's revelation of himself, while others are simply ways of escaping the burden of despair. Those who do not have God in their lives are not bothered by the notion of sin. Perhaps the church, somewhere along the way, became jealous of this perceived freedom, and decided that we too would be unbothered (with the additional benefit of putting away the unpopular suggestions that the church was too overbearing).

Thus, we have become a people who, by and large, have given up one freedom for another – forsaking liberty from our sin in exchange for a happy relief that we simply don't have to think about sin anymore. In this way sin may be likened to a cancer: ignoring the sickness does not make it disappear from the body, one must embark on the long and difficult road of treatment to eradicate the problem. The church in our culture is trying to ignore the presence of sin because we want to avoid the trouble (and embarrassment) of dealing with it. And as we do so we move further away from the presence of God, before whom we live and move and have our being.

Our way back is found in our coming before God once again, acknowledging the truth that he is the Creator of all things, and that we exist for his pleasure. Our despair at life is the means by which we can know that he has called us, and that we were made for a purpose that transcends the shallowness of an unspiritual life. Our despair leads us to his presence, and we must make a choice of whether we will seek self-gratifying pleasures that will cover up the longing, or if we will embrace the hurting, confess the sin that we carry out before God, and receive his new life.

The final piece to this that must be acknowledged is best taken in Kierkegaard's own words: "Very often, however, it is overlooked that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue. In part, this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: 'whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.' And this is one of the most decisive definitions for all Christianity – that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith."

Our warring culture is the result of trying to advance our own vices and virtues. The stark truth of life is that nothing we bring is good enough, for we are a broken humanity living in a broken world. Our world needs the external character of holiness to break in and give to us a way forward. Indeed, that holiness has come, but we are failing to surrender ourselves to the truth of the gospel, which bids us come and die. Even the best of our virtue falls short of the glory of God, causing us to lose sight of our Creator, and leading us down the path of self-destruction. Indeed, ours looks like a world that can no longer see God at the center, and is thereby blind to the wreckage of individualism.

21 April 2016

the splendor of holiness

Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth.
Psalm 96:9

I was moved by these words not long ago, for I believe it to be both a sentiment that lifts our eyes to heaven, and also a challenge that will shake even the most sincere and faithful worshiper. The psalmist knew this also, which is why the elegant opening line is quickly followed by the admonition for the earth to tremble before the presence of the Almighty. In Hebrew poetry couplets interpret one another, and that is what is intended with this verse. To worship is to come into the presence, and to come into the presence is to be found quivering before a great intensity.

Together these two lines form an imperative verse: it is a command to come and worship, but not to make the mistake of Cain and offer whatever is most convenient and self-satisfying. In worship we come before the divine presence, and we enter into holiness – something we might wish for, but that we can never truly achieve for ourselves. Images of holiness are quite unsettling, for they make us aware of the chasm that lies between humanity and its Creator. From our vantage point holiness, among other things, is otherness.

Whenever humanity catches a glimpse of divinity, in dramatic outpourings or whispered prayers, we are left trembling, for this is the natural state of the world. Angels must always quiet the composure of those they greet, offering assurances that all is well. Those who worship are summoned to this reality on their own, to join all of creation in finding their proper posture before the throne. This is a challenge that, if we truly understood what was being asked of us, will leave us, at first, trembling.

It has become commonplace for the church to gather in worship, though centered around style and genre and performance and convenience. And these are equally applied across the whole of our gatherings, with unsophisticated and uncouth critique of all things, masked with the thin veil of self-centered spiritual speak. We think little of our coming together as an assembly of the saints, for that sounds overly pious, and we'd rather not have to change our lifestyles to accommodate a few moments with others.

And so, I am afraid, we have lost the sense of beauty in our worship, in spite of how masterful the music, how elegant the space, or how mystifying the message. We have lost the sense of beauty when we decided that our lives would be acceptable as they are, because we think that's all that God ever wanted from us in the first place. Yet, sanctification is not a burden but a delight, for although we might rejoice in knowing that our Creator meets us where we are, there is no hint given to us that he would not take us on a transformative journey.

When we find ourselves attending an elegant affair, we make every effort to dress for it. We collectively frown on those who show up at a wedding in poor attire, for we believe that it takes away from the beauty of the moment, and that everyone ought to respect the sacredness of this event. At the same time, for us to worship is to enter into a splendrous moment, and we should all approach with the best of ourselves – and who we are working to become in him – not a casual and callous whatever-I've-thrown-together offering. (And do not mistake this to be a discussion about dress codes.)

The psalmist has called us to offer our worship in a beautiful place – namely, from the holiness that exists in the presence of the Almighty. We are to come in his holiness, and not our own. We have no holiness – the word itself connotes an otherness that we do not have, nor can we muster for ourselves. This is why he does not delight in sacrifice, but in a contrite heart that will approach him humbly and dependent, shaking like a leaf floating on the winds of eternity.

Those that enter from this place will find the grace, peace, strength, and love that they need to walk forward. It is when we brazenly walk into the sanctuary of his presence that our lives declare that we are good enough on our own. And we offer a half-hearted worship that reflects our self-righteous ugliness, instead of a worship that has been transformed by his holiness. There is no beauty when we turn aside from his truth; there is no splendor in playing games with his Spirit.

All the earth is challenged to tremble before the holiness of the Creator, and this invokes a terrifying image to those who consider the weight of this image. And yet, all the earth is summoned to come and worship – to approach the Almighty, humbly and awestruck, but expectant and trusting that those who come with pure hearts will be welcome into this place of splendor. This is what he wants from us, after we have put away our own righteousness, piety, and achievement. To be people who come with clean hands and innocent hearts, whose worship cannot be defined or contained by a few moments on a Sunday morning, and yet who are very glad when they hear: let us go to the house of the Lord and let us worship in the splendor of his holiness.