Must All Christian Generations Work Through Adolescence?

Through the providential collusion of streams of my life, I find myself visiting London a few days prior to taking a week-long course on the spirituality and theology of the Wesleys; meanwhile, at the same time I am joining with others in “141 Days of Wesley” to read through all of Wesley’s sermons. (What I’m reading today: Ch. 3, “The Medium and the Message,” Methodism: Empire of the Spirit and Sermon 8, “The First Fruits of the Spirit”)

As we prepare to begin our first course in half-an-hour – “Wesley’s England,” focusing on the cultural and religious context of Wesley and the Methodist movement – I’m wondering and contemplating the nature of reformation and renewal and their possible relationship to adolescence. And, more specifically, I find myself wondering if the tendency to define ourselves by what we are not is inherent in our identity.

Whether we are talking about the Reformation and schism primarily associated with Martin Luther, or the renewal movement led by Wesley and its eventual separation into a distinct church, or modern renewal and reform movements among the Pentecostals or Assemblies of God, or the postmodern emphasis of “non-denominationalism” (a term that I abhor for its lack of integrity and truthfulness) – it strikes me that so many of the great and transformative eras of the Christian church are themselves characterized by the rejection of the established.

Luther and his theses; Wesley and Scriptural holiness; modern evangelical churches and their rejection of established denominations – they all defined themselves over and against elements of the established institution or doctrine. Indeed, one could argue that the very beginning of our Christian Church is itself rooted in the delineation between being a member of The Way and being a Jew (or being orthodox versus being Gnostic).

Today many churches define themselves by what they are not. Sure, as did Wesley, they go on to emphasize what they are or seek to be; but too often we start out by declaring ourselves antagonistic to some particular viewpoint, ritual, or affiliation. Even my own brother – who has his own challenges when it comes to being tactful – once offensively commented to me that his church does everything “more joyfully” than the Methodist Church (granted, in his parochial and limited experience this might be true). These tendencies to define over and against something else reek to me of an unholy arrogance (e.g. the underlying notion is “we are better,” whether that “better” is because our church is more holy, or more Biblical, or more joyful, or more relational, or more relevant, etc).

It all reminds me of human adolescence, when so many of us “rebel” and seek to define ourselves individually and apart from parental identities. And true to form, just as some individuals return to aspects of what their parents taught them, others find new identity through their personal journey but are able to find peace with parental figures and their influence, while still others linger on in extended adolescence, regularly rebelling and never really finding their own individuation…

This may just be anecdotal – though their may be a study to support the notion – but I have noticed that the most dramatically growing “new” churches within established traditions, and especially the non-denominational churches (which all but trumpet their independence), regularly emphasize (at least in their beginning) how they are different from what has gone before, unique, and “new” places for “new” people. Maybe it is simply the triumph of marketing – even Paul recognized that there are many with itching ears and longing for what is new and novel. But I have to wonder if such radically successful “renewal” movements are the equivalent of institutional adolescence.

Already, we see once vibrant and “new” movements – e.g., because of my week’s study, the Methodists, so characterized by the joyful and enthusiastic nature of their earliest gatherings and meetings that the “good” (e.g. established) citizens of Britain of the day characterized them with the negative euphemism of “enthusiasts” – lingering into old age; like dogged old individuals complaining about “those young whippersnappers”…

Is there an important link between reform (or renewal) movements and the rejection of the established? Not only in the sense of rejecting the excesses and errors of bygone ages (after all, both Luther and Wesley had good reasons [well, extremely bad situations, actually!] that deeply influenced their ministries and movements); but is this embedded in some sense within us? Some form of deep-seated human need to reject the old and embrace the new?

And, if so, I wonder: is this something to be embraced and built upon? Should we seek to identify first what we are not, rejecting the mistakes and mis-evolutions of institutional faith; and then articulate what we are?
Or is this tendency, in essence, a continuation of our sin of pride; an arrogant notion that we are more able to determine truth (or “holiness,” “spirituality,” “religion,” or what have you) then others before us?

 

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