Eastern Religions and Eastern expressions of Christianity have been known to refer to Western Christianity, especially Christian Evangelicals, as an adolescent religion. When I initially read this I had feelings of righteous indignation well up inside me, but upon closer examination of the evidence used to support their claim I came to better understand that perception.
The Case For
The following list is painted with a broad brush, speaks in generalities, and certainly is not representative of all Christian churches. But, it shouldn’t be ignored either. Paul speaks of this reality in 1 Corinthians 3:2, “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it yet. Indeed, you are still not ready for it yet.” And, the largest study to date of Christian depth and maturity, the REVEAL Study conducted by Willow Creek Community Church, indicates that many if not most Christians still aren’t ready for solid spiritual food. The study presents a clear picture that Christian churches are good at childhood and adolescent faith development but not so good at developing ever maturing adulthood expressions of faith. Here are some potential reasons that have been given for why this may be true:
- Our emphasis on the outer spiritual life versus the inner spiritual journey. (An outside in rather than inside out spirituality)
- Our tendency to talk of God as out there/up there rather than in here. (We must continually reach out and up to God rather than acknowledging we are made in his image and thus have Divine DNA and His indwelling Spirit)
- Our emphasis on laws and doctrine (At the expense of minimizing the value of personal spiritual experience)
- Our left brain rather than right brain focus. (Head more than heart)
- Our emphasis on outer behaviors rather than inner Fruits of the Spirit, especially when determining leaders. (Prioritizing the 10 Commandments over the Beatitudes)
- Our moralistic emphasis. (Coming across as hypocritical and usually presented as judgmental and without an ounce of humility)
- Our emphasis on evangelism. (Prioritizing winning souls over maturing believers through discipleship)
- Our focus on reaching children and youth. (Most church budgets allocate more for children and youth ministries than all adult ministries combined)
- Our lack of emphasis on the contemplative and mystical dimensions of Scripture and faith. (We have no room for mystery, paradox, and the unexplainable. Scripture and Story can all be explained, justified and interpreted through a literal, factual and historical lens)
- Our history of being on the wrong side of so many social and moral issues of the day. (Check it out, over the centuries Christians have used the Bible to justify countless wars, slavery, persecution, imprisonment, inequality for minorities, colonization, homophobia, genocide of Native Americans, women’s rights…..the list is exhaustive and sounds very adolescent to me)
- Our politicizing of our faith. (Can you imagine Jesus organizing a Moral Majority or Religious Right Movement?)
- Our lack of transformation. (Studies and evidence suggests that we aren’t that different from the culture. Simply put, we aren’t producing in sufficient numbers people who look, love, think and act like Jesus)
- Our failure to embrace Jesus’ more difficult teachings (Typically matters of the heart……love of enemies, inclusion, care for the least of these, etc.)
- Our elevating the literal, factual and historical interpretation of Holy Scripture (While avoiding and even crushing any evidence to the contrary)
- Our emphasis on God and Jesus. (Leaving the Holy Spirit the forgotten third of the Trinity)
The Case Against
The many committed and highly engaged members of the Evangelical Christianity community would point to the following evidence of the maturity of their expression of the Christian faith:
- Holy Scripture does not cater to the spiritual infant. It is full of mystery, paradox, symbol and metaphor. It recounts story after story of people with mystical experiences. A certain level of spiritual maturity is a generally accepted prerequisite for understanding metaphor and symbolism and for mystical experiences.
- The Bible consistently speaks of “Spirit,” a concept not easily grasped by a childhood or adolescent faith.
- Holy Scripture speaks of our oneness with God, creation, and others. Again, a concept not easily grasped by an adolescent faith.
- Our emphasis on and practice of prayer suggests a depth of faith.
- Our emphasis on evangelism and missions is, arguably, considered an outward expression of a deep inner faith. (That withstanding, considerable evidence suggests that new and young believers are more active in sharing their faith and engaging in missional efforts than long time believers).
- Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes are anything but adolescent (maybe we wouldn’t be considered so adolescent if we petitioned, protested, and lobbied for the Beatitudes rather than the 10 Commandments to appear on school walls and court house steps).
I’m sure that you could point up additional evidence, both pro and con. But, maybe more important than any of these points is the fact that Historical Christianity is not an adolescent religion, it’s what we’ve done to it in recent centuries that creates these perceptions. There is nothing wrong with adolescence, except when we get stuck there, which the results from the REVEAL Study suggest is the crux of the problem. To learn more about the REVEAL Study and some of the suggested methods to address moving people along a spiritual growth continuum consider the book REVEAL, Where Are You?
Posted on October 26, 2021