In his discussion of churches and “the therapeutic gospel,” Brad East writes this about a possible generational difference in retelling the Gospel:
Boomers, Gen X, and even some older Millennials do not want to reproduce what they understand themselves to have received: namely, an imbalanced spiritual formation, whereby believers of every age, but especially youth, are perpetually held out over the flames of hell, rotting and smoldering in the stench of their sin, unless and until God snatches them back—in the nick of time—upon their confession of faith and/or baptism. Such ministers and older believers do not want, in other words, young people to feel themselves to be sinners, tip to toe and all the way through. Instead, they want them to feel themselves beloved by God. For they are. They are God’s creatures, made in his image, for whom Christ died.
He goes on to say:
But there’s the catch. Why would Christ die for creatures about whom all we can say is, they are beloved of God, and not also, they have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory? The more sin drops out of the grammar of Christian life, the more the cross of Jesus becomes unintelligible. So much so that children and teenagers can’t articulate, even in basic terms, why Jesus came to earth, died, and rose again.
The story we tell matters. And I don’t mean “story” in a fictional sense. I mean “story” in the narrative that we live by. And a story that should be able to hold together “sin” and “love” may seem impossible, but I have to believe that it is possible and true.
+ + + + + + +
There are other stories that the church tells (and that it tells itself). East mentions some essential elements in the remainder of his post. What I want to do, for a paragraph or two, is redirect attention to something I learned from reading A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, which is itself a story of how the West went from a Christian understanding of the world to one in which disbelief in a transcendent God has become the new default. It’s a story involving two different ages.
The first age Taylor calls the Age of Mobilization. About the time that Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, a shift was occurring that decentralized that Catholic Church and its social imaginary from its dominant position. Things were splintering (perhaps in slow motion, but still splintering). What that does is create an opportunity for new forms of things (or re-freshed forms of old things). Such opportunities were often led by cultural elites and involved recruitment into something new: a new denomination or church, a new social movement, a new scientific field. And so mobilization became the dominant note for some time. All cards on the table: it’s clear to me that some level of mobilization is built into the Christian Story. You see it in Jesus sending out his disciples, in the Great Commission, and throughout the book of Acts. What the Age of Mobilization does (in my estimation) is it acts as a kind of “hot house” that accelerates things on multiple levels. And organisms (and organizations) can’t live long that way. (For more on that, see the writings of Andrew Root, who writes about this a lot and has obviously influenced me.)
Then, thanks to the expressive individualism found in the Romantic movement amongst other areas, the West moves into a second age: the Age of Authenticity. It’s a kind of interior turn, one that rejects the idea that you are defined by what is outside or beyond you; instead, who you really are is determined by what is on the inside. You see it in lots of areas of life, of course. It’s “your best life now” married to “telling your own truth.” And while it has had seriously negative or disastrous consequences (same as some aspects of the Age of Mobilization), Taylor suggests that there are also some positive things to come from the shift. I think some of the talk of a “therapeutic church” has its roots in the Age of Authenticity. And many churches, especially those still driven by the Age of Mobilization, don’t know what to do about it. Ultimately, both Ages fall short of the full Christian story.
As a member of an evangelical Christian church in the Baptist tradition, I feel the tension all of the time (and have for some time, so this isn’t just about one church . . . the same can also be said of para-church ministries, too). The people in charge are always trying to get people to do something. There are many needs in the world around us (of this there is no doubt), and people are needed to help meet those needs (to be the hands and feet of Jesus, some would say). But drumming up participation can ultimately beat everyone down. One almost can’t blame people who leave “mobilizing” churches for churches who seem to take a real “interest” in the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of people. Enter the “therapeutic church.” Enter care for people who are on a quest for “authenticity” who want to be all God wants them to be (and who don’t have to be on three committees to do so).
+ + + + + + +
Both ages are, of course, incomplete. They are parentheticals in a bigger bracketed equation. But I imagine it is difficult to do both well and in balance (just like it can be difficult to hold sin and love together, it seems). (I also imagine that I have grossly miss-summarized Taylor’s argument.) But the Christian story, with Jesus at the heart, calls us reconcile lots of things that might seem irreconcilable. The sunk costs of the Age of Mobilization are huge, though, just like the promises of the Age of Authenticity my prove to be phantasms.
+ + + + + + +
I’ve got more to think through with East’s essay. But before I return to it, I want to say one more thing about Taylor’s work in A Secular Age. But I’ll save that for tomorrow.