Delayed adolescence is a reality in American families. There is no disputing the massive increase in number of young people that choose to live with their parents late into their 20’s and in some cases into their 30’s. Insurance companies have taken notice of this and have extended coverage of “children” well into the mid to late 20’s. There is no surprise then that while adolescence is prolonged the expreriences that correspond with being an adult are decreasing. Marriages are decreasing while video games sales are increasing. The delayed adolescence of the American youth is a fascinating and increasingly troubling trend.
But I am not a sociologist. I am a pastor. My concern is with the attitude and culture of delayed adolescence in the church. More specifically, I am not here thinking primarily about the evangelical culture that tends to awkwardly squirm away from and therefore curiously mute the conversation of male leadership in the church. I am thinking far more broadly than even this, to the philosophy and theological vision of churches that cultivate and promote a delayed doctrinal adolescence in the church.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read these somewhat shocking words:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
This is straightforward and blunt. The writer is reminding his readers that they are not doing what needs to be done. They are not developing doctrinally like they should. They should know the foundations and be digging deeper to grow in their understanding and application of truth (wisdom and discernment). Instead they are playing in the theological sandbox.
As a pastor I recognize that this falls on the shoulders of the teaching pastor and elders in a congregation. Instead of serving up doctrinal meals each week, establishing a culture where Christians (men in particular) are expected to put in the work to grow, and facilitating ministry to utilize gospel growth—pastors are burping spiritual babies and continuing to feed them blended pears and soft crackers.
Why do we do this? So often the answer I have been given and have read from pastors is a pragmatic answer. We hear some combination of the following:
Doctrine is difficult for people to understand.
Unbelievers don’t have the ability to understand deep theology. And we want to win them to Jesus.
I have to work within my context.
These pragmatic answers tend to make us emotional and sympathetic toward the mission. However, the mission of God is not opposed to the Bible. God would not call you to do something that he did not support and prepare you for. Doctrine and indeed theology are essential to the development of the church and reaching of the lost. Let me give you some examples.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.(2 Tim. 4:1-5)
This is the pastor’s job. In the presence of the judge (Christ Jesus) before God, preach or herald the word of God. This is not optional. It is not up to the pastor’s creative bent or personal desire. His job (if he is faithful 2 Tim. 4.8) then he will preach this word. Not about the word, around the word, from the word…no, he will preach the word.
Now I want you to watch the progression here.
- v. 2 Preach the Word
- v. 2 “teaching”
- v.3 “sound teaching”
- v.4 “truth” is contrasted to “myths”
The teacher is to teach. This word teaching is also translated “doctrine” in v.3. In other words, preaching, teaching, is to be doctrinal. There is no other way around this.
Well, I suppose there is. If men do not do this then people with itching ears will accumulate teachers who will bring their own doctrine. See everyone has doctrine or teaching. Some of it is just bad and others is good. Those who do not want sound (clean, good, pure) doctrine will clamor for their own stuff. They will get teachers to give it to them.
This is where a lot of our churches are. The pastor is giving the people what he thinks they need. However, his understanding of what they need is what he thinks they can handle or what they seem to want. What is not considered here is what God wants or what the Holy Spirit can handle.
We have a situation today where many evangelical churches are woefully anemic. They are malnourished and the people are eating spiritual Gerbers. Why? Because the pastor is not giving them what they need. Why does he do this? The reasons fly in and are often pragmatic. However, let me add a reason: he doesn’t believe in it. He himself doesn’t love it. It’s not just their problem pastor, it may be yours.
Just as many parents are, in the name of love, aiding and abetting their kid’s delayed adolescence so too many pastors are doing the same for their parishioners.
When we come back to the Bible we see little opportunity to get creative with the game plan. Our job as pastors is to execute the plan derived from the all-wise God. He says give attention to yourself and to your doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16). Why? Because it brings salvation to your hearers! Far from being an optional ingredient to sprinkle upon the tops of the plates of the mature doctrine is the essential ingredient in every meal prepared by the pastor. To neglect theology and doctrine is an abrogation of a pastor’s responsibility.
If pastors want to see their members grow and break the cycle of prolonged spiritual adolescence in churches then we have got to belly up to the table and do what God says. Otherwise it is selfish, unloving and insubordinate to God.
If you are in a church where your pastor is not teaching the Bible but skimming the surface week after week, lovingly point out Heb 5 and 2 Tim 3-4. Show him how you need to be taught and built up (Eph. 4) in order to grow in unity. Demand to be fed like a newborn baby demands milk (1 Pet. 2). If they refuse then go somewhere that will feed you.
I don’t write this lightly. It is with a heavy heart in my country and city where being a-theological is often celebrated rather than confronted. If God is going to bring revival in churches then he is going to do it the way he always has: via preaching of the Word of God.