Outside the walls of the church, companies constantly placard plastic surgery and age-defying creams before our eyes, in magazines and on commercials, to convince us that they will make us look at least as attractive as we did when we were in our early 20s. Bank commercials tell us that if we just make the right retirement decisions we will be climbing mountains and surfing in our 70’s. Pharmaceutical commercials convince us that we can perpetually make ourselves feel younger by simply popping a pill. And, gym commercials sell us the idea that we can have a better body in our 40s than we had in our 20s and that, if we do hot yoga, we can feel as stress free as we did when we were children. Our youth-obsessed culture labors, at an unprecedented rate, for any semblance of adolescence. So, why are we so obsessed with youthfulness in the world?
In his brilliant lecture, recently delivered at King’s College, Carl Trueman offered the following profound explanation of the insatiable quest for adolescence:
The desire to remain forever young is not a recent phenomenon. There are many myths and legends from many different cultures which play on precisely that theme. Yet, the modern west does seem to exhibit some odd tendencies in this regard. On the one hand, we have sexualized childhood while lauding men who behave like children. We spend vast amounts of money on never having to grow up. Some of this cosmetic surgery motivated on the desire to capture youth is a lucrative business…it’s a growth industry because people want to look young. There is the penetration of so-called youth culture and styles across the range of ages, leading to the gruesome sight of middle aged men squeezing into skinny jeans. And everywhere the sexualized nature of our culture presents us with a vision of life wrapped up in the notion of individual, personal gratification. Sex, which ought to be the most adult of activities, has become the tool of an infantile hedonism. It is arguable that this infantilism is a good example of a kind of distraction from the boundary of death. It might also have a more serious significance. Could it be part of a much wider and deeper attempt simply to deny outright the claims and demands of human nature? Whether trivia, like cosmetic surgery and skinny jeans, have such deep significance might be debated. But other aspects of contemporary society are far less equivocal in their relevance to this point. In this present age, we are increasingly confronted with what can only be explicitly described as a war against human nature.
However, the age of adolescence has also taken its toll within the walls of the church. “It was wonderful. I felt like I was in college all over again.” Such was the response of a 48 year old mother of two teenagers when my sister asked her how she liked the church that she recently visited. Her statement is what can only be understood as a typical expression of someone who is part of “the age of adolescence.” We have 60 year old pastors dressing like 10th graders, praise bands scrambling to keep up with the shifting tastes of 20 somethings and a holistic children’s ministry that seems to exist to allow 30 and 40 somethings to convince themselves that they are newly weds and are on a date during worship. A new church arrives in town and the image on the billboard is that of full length sleeve-tattooed arms (which, on the one hand says, “Come as you are,” while, on the other, sends the message that this church is really made up of hip, young adults). In many cases, what passes for relevant church is what might actually be described as “children playing church.” While some would quickly insist that all of these things are part of an attempt to be relevant to the culture (though it’s often the case that it’s really only relevant to the better part of white, middle class, pop-culture America), there may actually be something deeper and more significant going on.
The quest for adolescence explains why so much of the American church culture expects to be entertained. A number of years ago, John Piper spoke at a Christian counseling conference. As he began to confess his own weaknesses, fears and sin, awkward laughter erupted in the crowd. Confused by the laughter, Piper paused and then continued to speak with seriousness about his own sin and failings. The crowd continued to laugh. Finally, Piper said, “You’re a very strange audience, because I totally did not expect laughter. I’m continually perplexed. I guess I better just get used to it. This is a serious talk, in case you’re wondering. But this is strange. Maybe you just need to get it out of your system. I’m just not used to being laughed at.” It makes little difference whether all of this was because of a program error–on account of which which the people were expecting a humorous talk–or that those attending the conference expected to be entertained with humor since that is what they are used to being exposed to in their own churches. The point is simple, people want–yes, even expect–youthful entertainment in church.
The love of youth even effects what sort of pastor many congregations are looking to call. I recently had a wise and seasoned minister, in the denomination in which I serve, meet me to see if I knew of any churches looking for a pastor. As we talked, he asked how old I was. When I told him I was 37, he said, “See. You have just entered the age zone in which to easily get a call to a new pastorate. Most of the churches in the PCA,” he went on to say, “are looking to call a man between the ages of 35 and 45. Since I’m in my 50s, Its getting harder and harder for me to be considered.” This should strike us as strange, since, in bygone ages, the more age and experience a man had the more he was sought after and respected. While reformation and revival have often come from the diligent labors of younger men, the Proverbs tell us that “Gray hair is a crown of glory when it is gained in a righteous life” (Prov. 16:23) and the Lord charged Israel with the following exhortation: “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:32).
In short, the idea of facing the reality of death is supremely frowned upon in our culture, and, sadly, even in the church. There is a sense in which that is quite understandable. Who, in their right mind, would want to fixate on something so morbid? Yet, the church exists in the world to speak specifically about this most important of issues. The message with which the church has been entrusted is the message of the bad news of death because of sin and the good news of the One who conquered death by His substitutionary death for the sin of His people. The church has been uniquely designed by God to speak this message into a culture. In fact, the church is to speak this message into every culture. Reminding those around us there is a way of escaping the impending judgment that lays immediately behind death–a judgment which is suspended merely by our breath–only in Christ is the most important thing that the church is called to do in the world. In an “age of adolescence” such as our own, what we need more than anything is “grown-up churches”–churches that takes every word of God about the reality of this world and the next with the utmost seriousness. We need churches that are strong in sound doctrine, reverent in worship and fervent in prayer. We need loving and mature (not stodgy, starchy or coldly austere) pastors and people who have the spiritual maturity to dare to be mature and serious before a world that so desperately needs it. We need our churches to help believers set aside childish things and to become mature men and women for Jesus.