Thursday, January 05, 2023

Failure to Launch

Stock characters are those fictional roles we recognize instantly: you know, the incompetent police officer, the clueless secretary, the crooked lawyer, the rebellious teen, the uptight schoolmarm … and so on. You see them on TV all the time.

There’s a new one going around lately: the adult child. This is the mid-twenties son or daughter who still lives in his parents’ basement, having his meals cooked and his laundry done for him, blithely confident that the world outside — the world of careers, responsibilities and independence — is overrated. His harried, weary parents pray for him to move out and make his way in the world or for some nice girl to come and snap him up. But he knows very well that for now he has it good. Being too old for his parents to control but too needy for them to abandon, he is free to devote his time and assets to playing video games, going to clubs, flirting with girls and hanging out at the beach. A periodic trip to the employment office is all that is necessary to convince his parents of his helplessness.

This situation was famously parodied in the (quite forgettable) 2006 romantic comedy Failure to Launch. Matthew McConaughey played the lead role of Tripp, a thirty-something layabout who is eventually lured out of his parents basement by the equine charms of Paula (Sarah Jessica Parker), a woman whose questionable virtue his parents have purchased for that purpose.

Lovely thought, that.

A Joke That Isn’t

Anyway, this new stock character, the adult child, is a joke today — but really it’s not. It’s actually a phenomenon of growing concern. Sociologists have called this the “Generation on Hold”. Locked into an extended adolescence by increasingly long durations between childhood and adulthood by a variety of social phenomena — extended schooling and training, residual debt, the increased cost of living, disappearing career tracks, the denigration of home and family life, and a culture dominated by adolescent consumerist narcissism, among other things — young people today face a range of increasing challenges to achieving self-sufficiency. The full effect of this phenomenon on the development of Western society is yet unknown.

The only thing that seems safe to say is that it’s tough being a young adult (or an aging parent) today. To go to school, then to university, college or the work world is not enough to guarantee a chance at independence anymore. And who knows what the future looks like?

All regrettable. Sure.

Growing Up

But I wonder if there isn’t a much bigger disaster. I’m speaking here of the number of long-time Christians I have met who choose to remain mere children in spiritual things. After all, there is a natural growing process for Christians. It goes like this. You start with the “pure milk” of the word of God; then you graduate to the “meat” of the Word, and then, through a cooperative process of learning, working, serving, and growing, in fellowship with other Christians, to maturity and completing of our spiritual character, until we attain the maturity Christ intends us to have. Finally, having grown up, we are not easily pushed around by “winds of doctrine”, “trickery of men” or the deceitful schemes of the Evil One.

Well, that’s the plan anyway. How often it actually comes off is another question.

The author of Hebrews saw it not happening. He saw professing Christians who were still stuck at the “child” level of understanding. They knew about Christ, they knew a few stories and facts from the Old Testament, but they really were not pressing on. Like adult children, they had given up on trying for independence, and were taking free meals and laundry services and playing video games instead of getting a life.

Step 1: Get beyond the basic stuff

Now, notice here what the writer specifically means by this. He identifies the “elementary” stuff as “repentance from works”, “faith toward God”, “instruction” in minor rituals, “the resurrection of the dead” and “eternal judgment”.

What? Aren’t those basic elements of the salvation message? How could we “leave behind” such things?

Not by forgetting them, but by growing up and going beyond them.

Let me say this carefully: the gospel is not a message of how you can get out of hell and then sit on your butt until the Lord returns. It’s the launch-pad of a great mission onward and upward. It’s the first step in a life of discipleship. It’s the first step in a process of ever-increasing growth. So if you get saved and sit, then you are at best a selfish brat, spiritually speaking. And even worse, you may well be completely deceived about your own belief in God in the first place. After all, you don’t seem to believe in his character enough to want to have a real relationship with him at all. Maybe you’re only fooling yourself.

You see, God’s purpose in saving people is not so that they will stay stunted infants. It’s that they will grow up and become companions fit for him. A person who just “gets saved” and then sits on that is immature, selfish and disobedient, having put his own well-being ahead of his sacred duty to walk worthy of his calling and grow up into Christ.

Step 2: Start growing

How do we do that? The Bible tells us: put aside the old way of life and start taking in the “pure milk of the Word”. And let’s get practical. It means getting up a little earlier every morning and spending a few minutes at least in the Word and prayer, fellowshiping with the Lord and putting your daily plans in his hands.

Yes, I know you’re “not a morning person”: stop whining. As my African grandmother used to say, “ ‘Can’t’ is for children!” She was right; adults don’t need excuses.

Step 3: Start obeying

There are plenty of things we know we should have been doing all along. The first is having quiet time with the Lord first thing every morning. But beyond that, we know we should have been cleaning up our lives, getting committed to a local church, serving people, showing hospitality, giving to the Lord from our prosperity, caring for the hurting, forgiving those who have hurt us, educating ourselves in spiritual things, and so on. I don’t know what the Lord has been saying to you personally, but I’ll bet my eye teeth that he’s been after you for a while to do something — and you know very well what it is.

Time to grow up, step up, and be a man (or woman).

Step 4: Start teaching what you know

Whaaaaat? Me? Teach? Are you kidding?

Nope. I’m dead serious.

Relax: I’m not telling you to get into the pulpit and preach a message. I’m not telling you to go to the foreign mission field. I’m not telling you to go out on the street and shout down passers-by. I’m not even telling you to take over leadership in a local group study. It may well be one-on-one only, at least at the start. It might get up eventually to two or three at a time. For relatively few it may get up to congregational speaking. Your conversation partners may be any age. You will likely start with family or friends, or your immediate neighbors. But whatever, whenever, you’ve got to start teaching.

A funny thing about teaching: the teacher always learns far more than the pupils do. (And that’s 25 years in the “trenches” telling you that!) Speaking to people and listening to their questions, and then figuring out how to respond with grace and intelligence produces very rapid spiritual growth.

We need to realize that doing this, becoming a teacher, is a natural and automatic step in the maturation and development of a Christian.

Do you doubt me? Take a look at Hebrews 5:12. It reads:

“… by this time you ought to be teachers …”

Two notes here. First, it says “by this time”. In other words, the ability to teach the word of God is a confirming characteristic of the mature believer. There comes an inevitable time in the natural development of a Christian’s life when he or she becomes fully capable of taking the scriptures and teaching others the truth.

You don’t need all knowledge to start teaching; all you need is true knowledge of a few basics. The rest of your knowledge will build as you go. Start simply; start with what you know.

Secondly, the verse says, “you ought”. Did you know that “ought” is a contracted form of two English words? It means “owe + it”. You “owe-it”. And interestingly enough, that’s exactly what it means in the Greek as well. Elsewhere, the New Testament uses precisely the same word for people being in debt for money (Matthew 18 and Luke 16, for example) and in some cases it even uses it as a metaphor for sacred obligation (see Matthew 23). Thus you “owe it” to become a teacher of the Word.

Now notice that no one is asking if you “like-it” or “fear-it”. You “owe-it”. You owe it to your fellow believers, and more importantly, you owe it to God.

In Short

As a social pathology, the phenomenon of “failure to launch” may prove temporary or permanent. It may continue or abate. It may prove solvable or not. (Who can say?) In any case, it doesn’t really matter, compared to the unparalleled tragedy of the “failure to launch” of many Christians today.

However, the latter is completely solvable. The word of God and the Spirit of God have given to us all the things we need for life and godliness through our increasing knowledge of Christ.

The only thing remaining is our commitment.

Are you in?

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