My daughter writes me today, and asks why Christians, especially those her age, are so immature.
My daughter is a smart, well-above average person in many ways. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that question from her, or from other smart, above average young people. It’s encouraging these days to know that some young adults realize that maturity is desirable…and rare.
On one hand, it would be simple to head for the library of relativistic responses that such a question invites. We’re all at different levels of maturity in different areas. Some of us are intellectually mature, while at the same time being immature in emotions, financial wisdom or personal relationships. We all tend to notice the kinds of maturity where we are mature. We’re irritated by the immaturity of other people, and we overlook our own procrastination, gossip or childish habits.
It’s possible to tell anyone that they are irritated at the immaturity of others as a self-protective, evasive behavior to deflect attention away from their own flaws. Why? Because that’s the way humans are, and we all need to know it.
I could say that when our own need of Christian maturity is measured against Jesus, we all are irritatingly immature. Look at the disciples as Jesus saw them as compared to the way the disciples viewed themselves and one another. Their perception of their maturity was hilariously, tragically wrong. Jesus wanted his disciples to grow to the place where they demonstrated their maturity by way of servanthood and love to others. They wanted the power and prestige of being the posse of the Messiah.
Biblical maturity is the image of Christ. It’s a real thing, and we are all always pressing toward it. We need to pray for humility to pursue it, and see the places in our own lives that we are lacking it.
Good responses, and truth in all of them…but my daughter is absolutely right in her observation about her generation and her peers. (And would be just as right about mine, by the way.) No matter what else I could say about having a Christ-like, wise and Biblical view of maturity, there is a maturity deficit in evangelicalism, evident in several generations. What she is seeing in her peers is not imaginary, and can’t be explained away via relativism, perspective or piety.
When I teach poetry, I do a mini-lecture on the topic of elitism. I ask my students if they are willing to become a person who knows more than other people on the subjects they are pursuing in education? If they are not willing to become an elitist in some area, they will never be a person who will get paid for or make a meaningful contribution to that area of knowledge/experience.
Appreciators of poetry have to become- at some level- elitists in knowledge, work ethic and devotion. You can’t be an appreciator of poetry and say “I never want to act like I know more than anyone else.” If you want to teach poetry, for example, you have to study and become an elitist. You must overcome the peer pressure to never be smart, to never know more than others. You must face the issue of rising above the crowd, and choose to do so.
Now this doesn’t mean a teacher relates to students as an arrogant, superior person. No; it actually means- in the Christian ethic- that you become the servant of your students so they can learn to appreciate poetry. You place yourself under them to encourage their growth. There is real humility in maturity. Good teachers know that you can’t indulge your own level of appreciation; you have to create the appetite for the experience in the mind and heart of the student. Information transmission isn’t the goal. The purpose of the class is to create the desire, the passion, the quest to know, enjoy and experience poetry. In other words, a mature person wants others to mature as well.
It’s true: immaturity is both a real problem, and an opportunity for ministry. That’s where we are in relation to many persons who are our peers, but who are clearly immature in some aspect of the Christian journey. What we are observing- and what irritates us- is a genuine problem, and it would be wrong to deny it. At the same time, we need to develop a Christ-like, Jesus-honoring response and not just be observers or complainers.
So if, like my daughter, you find yourself feeling surrounded by a kind of irritating, puzzling immaturity, it is good to contemplate what is going on- and there are answers. Then, it’s important to consider a ministry response that imitates the servanthood, love and humility of Jesus.
Now to the question at hand: Why are so many Christians of my daughter’s generation (and my own) marked by immaturity?
Our culture has been on a bender with adolescence since the advent of post WWII youth culture. (Blame Elvis, iows) It shows no signs of ending. It pays big money. It defines culture. It shapes the culture shapers.
There is no way to make a romantic movie about people in their 40s and expect to make money, as hundreds of movies did in the pre-war years. Today, true love must be horny teenagers or confused twenty-somethings. Fashion is defined by teenagers. Vocabulary, arts, music, social trends….we are a culture addicted to adolescence. We like it, and it isn’t going away any time soon.
I meet many boomer aged parents who are, for all practical purposes, teenagers in dress, speech and behavior. It’s creepy.
If you are a person who is at all mature in this culture, you are out of step, and you are going to constantly feel out of step. That is not going to change.
Near the heart of this are four aspects of our culture:
1. Dysfunctional family life that has surrendered entirely to the adolescent centered culture around it as the shaper of children. Look at how many fatherless boys become men who are still boys in dress and manner right into their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s.
2. Television as the great educator and socializer. (Imagine how different the idea of maturity was before television made youth culture instantly transferable.)
3. The increasing emphasis on the goodness, wisdom and necessity of expanding the influence of youth culture in every area of life: economics, education, politics and so on.
4. A particularly vicious cultural critique of maturity and adulthood, making both into states that are the heart of everything terrible and awful in life. Who wants to be an adult? No one.
In other words, if a person has been in the mainstream of American culture, they have been in a flood that celebrates, even requires, immaturity in all kinds of ways. Even those who are “successful” are supposed to demonstrate their lack of adulthood as often as possible.
Adult clothes, language, manners, relationships, activities, preferences, etc. are simply viewed negatively, and a person will choose them only if they are fortunate enough to have arrived at a different view of adulthood and maturity than the majority.
Now the question is, Why should Christian young adults be different from the larger culture?
The answer is obvious to most people who can comprehend the question. The majority of Christians in America are in traditions that have been either deeply influenced by contemporary culture or are completely awash in a flood of embracing the culture as the norm.
American Christians rarely see their Christian faith as a reason to differ from the culture. Evangelicals, particularly, are quite enthusiastic about becoming indistinguishable from the culture. If the culture wants adults to be forever 17, then let’s go for it.
I want to be clear at this point. I listen to a lot of young preachers who, when compared to preachers of previous generations, sound like immature young people. This doesn’t mean they are bad people, bad preachers or bad Christians. It means they are culturally appropriate. I am not in favor of the Amish option for dealing with culture, and I am not in favor of many of the fundamentalist options of creating Christian ghettos where we can form ourselves differently from the culture, but pay the cost in losing the ability to relate to the culture.
Our heroes are musicians and celebrities, an immature bunch at best. We want to transform as many activities as possible into entertainment. We see God’s work in the world as fully compatible with the ideas of happiness accepted by our culture. We dread adult roles, adult rituals and adult responsibilities. We are almost unable to see adulthood in terms that aren’t perverted by our addiction to adolescence.
As my daughter knows well, Christians who have been blessed with some experience of valuing maturity can become obnoxious in their contempt for others. I think it is important to see that saying “She’s so immature!” is, itself, a manifestation of a kind of immaturity: namely, to excuse ourselves from interaction with those who are different from us. There is a kind of faux maturity that I see in many super-religious, pharisaical young people. It is not maturity in Christ as much as it is the phenomenon of young people learning how to please adults who reward differentiation from the crowd.
Adults are able to relate to children. That is an aspect of maturity. It will be stressful, and it will be demanding. An adult will have to be thoughtful and aware of how an interaction with the less mature requires a willingness to be a leader and a teacher. This can be an unhappy truth, but it reminds us that ministry is incarnation, translation, service and “bowing down” to wash feet as Jesus did.
Mentoring is a critical need in today’s church, and a particularly Biblically commanded one. More mature persons are called to minister to less mature persons. We are to have Fathers and Mothers in the faith. Paul tells the Corinthians to do as he does, and to see him as a model.
A mature Christian can have that mindset, even when a formal mentoring relationship isn’t possible or invited. Maturity in Christ has a kind of beauty that will come into relationships between peers. The more mature person, if they truly show the patience and love of Christ, will have a maturing influence on others.
Let me close with some specific suggestions:
1. Speak up. Don’t just complain about immaturity. Bring your perspective. You are probably waiting for “an adult” to show up. No need to wait. It’s YOU!
2. If it comes time to make decisions about how to spend time, suggest activities, topics and alternatives of a more mature nature. Get into the adult world whenever possible and bring your peers along.
3. Share stories of maturity. Remember family members, friends and mentors who have set a good example of Christian maturity.
4. Take the risk of raising the issue of your own immaturity to open the door to the discussion of maturity in general.
5. Remember that what irritates you in others is likely to be a characteristic of all human beings that you will have to deal with in all places and with all kinds of people. You need a lifetime approach to dealing with feelings of irritation at immaturity.