Monday, June 11, 2012

Church Language - Maturity

The Christian life is often described as a process. Some of the more common phrases include, "Your Christian walk," "Growing in the Lord," "Your faith journey", and things of that nature. Because of this sense of progression, evangelicals think of people are being either mature or immature Christians.

Seems harmless enough, right? When we look for doctors and babysitters we want people who are experienced and dependable. When a church is drafting leaders for its unending catalog of programs, the pastor or board of elders is looking for people who have somehow shown that they are mature in their faith. If you put someone who has never read the Bible in a position where they may have to answer questions about the Bible, you might have unexpected results.

The problem is that, in my experience with Evangelicalism, "mature" and "immature" don't actually represent two points on a graph, the starting point and the final destination of a journey so much as two mutually exclusive states of being, i.e. you are mature or immature, but never maturing. But even as I type that beast of a sentence, I don't feel like I'm explaining it properly because people say things like, "I'm still learning," or "None of us has arrived yet," and they even seem to mean it. Perhaps a story could illustrate what I mean.

I was 12 when my family hopped from Catholicism to a "nondenominational" (i.e. white suburbanite) church. Now, as far as Evangelicals are concerned, anyone coming from a liturgical sect is coming in as a brand new Christian on account of their entire faith community having been deceived by Satan into believing a false Gospel.

Like a good Evangelical, I attended youth group every Sunday night, eventually joining the praise band on guitar (and later bass, drums, or vocals as needed). When I was 17, after years of Sunday-Sunday-Wednesday services, an assortment of special events, lots of money spent on shirts screen-printed with banal witticisms, I was struck by a thought:

I don't know anything.

This was not a pleasant thought. I mean, I knew things. I knew evolution was a lie. I knew abortion was murder. I knew it was a sin to be gay. I knew Democrats were all Christ-hating atheists who wanted make it illegal to be a Christian. I knew these things because the Bible said they were so. Why was I suddenly convinced that I didn't know anything?

I don't know anything about the Bible.

Wait, what?

Yeah. Turns out, I didn't actually know what the Bible had to say about much of anything. I started paying attention to how I perceived things in church or when I tried reading the Bible on my own. My mind did this thing where it just kind of... tuned out to what the text of the Bible said and just accepted what the preacher or the footnotes said. There were lots of things that I just didn't understand, but I didn't realize that I didn't understand them because there was always someone there to fill in the blanks for me (years later, I would learn that this is a side effect of the way many English-language Bibles are formatted, which is each verse starting on its own line, verse number in front of it, footnotes linked all over the place, bearing no resemblance to anything a person would actually want to read).

I noticed something else -- every sermon covered the same ground. It was an endless repetition of "Get saved, feel happy, avoid going to hell, Jesus loves you," week after week of remedial Christianity. Finally, I decided it was time to move on -- I told the youth pastor I wanted to seek out a different youth group, one that went beyond the basics and would challenge me to be a better person. His response? "The Bible says that God's word will never return void" -- meaning, he could keep repeating the same verses over and over, and I would learn from it in new and exciting ways. Much like a level 13 mage killing rabbits in the newbie zone, I would be grinding for experience so I could theoretically level up some day.

Maturity through repetition -- that's how Evangelical churches see faith growing. The fact that it doesn't actually grow that way is what necessitates the simpler approach. "Mature" Christians are the ones who have been in attendance longest and who follow the most rules -- they don't "smoke, drink, cuss or chew or go with girls who do", as they are fond of saying. The "immature" Christians are the newcomers or the regulars who listen to secular rock music.

I follow all of these rules and take on leadership roles in the youth group, but I don't know anything.

My pastor wants to keep it that way.

I'm still not sure what "maturity" means in this context, but I'm pretty sure I am lacking in it.


  1. Wow! You and I have nearly identical stories. Although, we never really hopped... I was Baptist the moment I left the birth canal. ;)

    You make a good point about maturity. Also, it seems that people expected you to be mature and have it all together, otherwise you probably weren't trusting God enough, or praying enough. Which, you know, is kind of insulting and leaves no room for people to work through their actual problems.

    Also, re: liturgical Christians starting over... Yes! Those weird Lutherans were practically coming from a different religion. Amirite?

    The youth pastor that I said goodbye to is moving to New York and the gang is getting back together for a farewell party. The youth pastor's wife has been super nice to be since I left, and I feel like it might be nice as a bit of closure, but as I think about it I'm just not sure that I can go (without feeling like I need to drink after) (healthy, I know).

  2. Thanks for sharing a bit of your journey here. I see a lot of maturity in admitting that you know that there is a lot you don't know. If more people were willing to admit that, we'd probably experience a little more grace in the world. Highly recommended book that I hope every Christian and Pastor will read and take seriously: Emotionally Healthy Spiritually by Pete Scazzerro. It really tackles the issues of growth and maturity in a practical and refreshing way. Blessings, brother.