Thursday, November 02, 2023

Old Guy with the Ponytail

I saw an episode of The Fresh Prince of Belair recently.

Don’t ask.

Man, remember that show? At one time it was all the rage. The jokes seemed so clever, so cutting-edge. It seemed like suddenly every kid on the playground was sliding his pants down, turning his ball cap around, and trying to talk like Will Smith.

“Yo, yo, Homes … whaddup? How you gonna play me?”

** Cringe **

Nowadays it’s just awkward. The show’s jokes aren’t really funny, the plots are obvious, the characters stilted and predictable. The whole thing’s a cliché. It’s practically unwatchable, except as a blast-from-the-past, a campy, kitschy, retro experience, a time machine trip back to the early ’90s.

That’s what happens to new things nowadays. They rise suddenly, generate tremendous enthusiasm, and yet die out just as fast.

The new has no endurance.

The Problem

Stanford literature professor R.P. Harrison writes, “[W]hen the new does not renew — when it does not rejuvenate latent legacies — it gets old in a hurry.”

That’s profound. When some new thing comes along that is not connected meaningfully to the past — to the big revelations and discoveries, to the history of where we’ve come from — then it’s a fad. It rises quickly, often with stunning appeal; but then it dies away the way all fads do, by being completely erased by the next new thing. And all the while, people have the sense that new things aren’t coming from much … not building on anything … are unanchored to any deep or lasting value, and are likewise unlikely to matter for very long in the future.

Everything’s light, fast, and temporary.

Just not durable.

Renewal in the Church

I remember how the churches were abuzz in the ’90s. Renewal was the word back then. All the evangelical churches, and some of the mainline ones as well, were in a desperate race to shed the past and change fast enough to achieve relevance in the postmodern era.

Renewalism was always attended by the same ideology. It began with the conviction (often warranted) that the churches had become unbearably anchored to the traditions of the past. Some big new shift was required in order to keep them from sinking into total irrelevance. This entailed radically new modes of outreach, music, liturgy and teaching. “Seeker sensitive” became the new buzzword as we expanded buildings to accommodate the hordes of new converts we imagined would soon be flooding the churches to take advantage of the new video screens, ‘worship’ bands, programs and initiatives — and for a very little while, that approach really seemed to have some vitality.

But it didn’t last as long as The Fresh Prince of Belair. Within a decade the great renewal had fizzled into a new kind of routine. A more modern-looking one, to be sure; but still a rotation of services and practices that were more or less like the traditional ones, with a few unconventional flares to remind us that we were hip.

Unbearable Lightness

The hordes of new converts failed to materialize. The churches were, in many cases, only marginally more interesting to the public, but in many ways were drained of substance. Sure, the music was more modern; but it was also less familiar, less easy to sing congregationally, and less memorable in the long run. The teaching had also become a lot lighter — of necessity, perhaps, since the many anticipated new believers would require simple, rudimentary teaching. But deep doctrine had also been abandoned, becoming something that professional or semi-professional clergymen might know about, but the average believer really did not.

In all, I think it’s fair to say our churches got younger, but also lighter and more trivial than they had been in the past. If that’s right, then what happened was not the promised renewal, but a kind of rupture with the past in favor of the present.

I’m afraid we have to admit that it was not so much rejuvenating as merely juvenile. We went with the trends, chased the culture, tried to make ourselves young again, and yet, in many cases, ended up looking like the balding, middle-aged guy with the ponytail … still too old, a little sad, and not very cool.

The Historical View

Historian Thomas Bergler traces this impulse all the way back to the 1920s. He says it began in small ways then, but really picked up energy from the sixties up to the present. The general trend has been for the church to continually look to its youth ministries for direction. While the middle-aged and older adults have retained much of the decision-making power, these groups have continually looked to the perceived needs and values of young people for the direction the church as a whole should be taking.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating hidebound traditionalism here. Neither is Bergler. We both think the church needed renewal — as it always does, whenever the conditions of society change. But there is a difference between controlled, purposeful rejuvenation of an institution, on the one hand, and mere juvenilization, on the other. I’m not sure we got the balance right.

Maybe I can let Harrison say this again:

Rejuvenation gives the past a future to grow into, and gives the new a foundational staying power. Juvenilization, by contrast, militates against historicity and deprives the present of temporal and phenomenological depth.”

That’s a bit wordy. What he is really saying is that when the new thing is not connected to the things of the past, it seems to appear out of nothing, be based on nothing, and then have no reason to endure either. It’s new, yeah, but it’s also unanchored to anything — it’s not long on the scene, not deep enough to pass through time, not able to call on the great, universal struggles and experiences that transcend the generations. It’s new, it’s hip, it’s trivial, it’s light. It’s moving in and out with equal rapidity.

And, having made nothing of the past, it has no power to endure when it becomes a piece of the past.

Losing Our Legacy

When juvenilization takes hold, people start to think that the new is always the necessary, and the old is mostly trash. They become uncritical and immature in their adoption of elements of the surrounding culture, because they urgently want to become relevant and new. But little regarding the past, they don’t stop to consider that 2,000 years of Christian thought (and longer, of Jewish thought) cannot be dismissed without a massive cost.

We have actually learned some things in the past. Some of them were bought with blood. The church has sung before, and their songs have united believers across generations and circulated the deep truths of the faith. Bible reading and personal knowledge of God have never been dispensable. And worship, real worship, has never simply been an option of the new age. It carries on the legacy of centuries. It draws on knowledge purchased by ancient scholars laboring by candlelight. And other believers, our brothers and sisters, have offered their bodies to the flames to purchase for us the right to assemble and read this book of books, the Bible.

From their sacrifices and faith, we have inherited a massive legacy of knowledge and wisdom. We squander it all at our peril … no matter how urgent and desperate our desire to “renew” becomes.

So whenever we change, when we renew, we need always to connect the present meaningfully with the past. That much is clear.

Moving Forward

Bergler’s book The Juvenilization of American Christianity (2012) actually contains some helpful advice for going forward. He observes that the renewalist impulse is not bad, and must not be eliminated, but “can be tamed in local congregations that build an intergenerational way of life that fosters spiritual maturity”. We need, he says, “a special emphasis on those elements that are neglected by juvenilized Christians … every Christian should reach spiritual maturity after a reasonable period of growth”.

In order to do this, Bergler continues, “They need to ask hard questions about the music they sing, the curriculum materials they use, and the ways they structure the activities of the church.” And “they need to learn that cultural forms are not neutral”, so what you bring into the church, even as a mere method, is going to affect everything from evangelism to discipleship to doctrine, and so must be intelligently weighed.

Bergler does not blame young people for our failures in this regard. He puts the responsibility squarely were it should be: on adults. He says, “Adolescents can behave in spiritually mature ways, and many adults are still in spiritual diapers.”

Meanwhile he writes:

“Adults have rigidly clung to the worship practices of the past and accused young people of corrupting the faith. They have used their power to block changes without listening to young people. They have often complained about the tastes of young people but have not recognized their own subjective preferences. They have not provided convincing theological reasons for their resistance to change.”

His solution?

“Adults should not try to be teenagers, but instead need to set adult examples … churches full of people who are committed to helping each other toward spiritual maturity are not only the best antidote to juvenilization in the church, but also a powerful, countercultural witness in a juvenilized world.”

Young at Heart, Old at Head

In other words, we need to grow up.

Like young people so easily do, we need to look for fresh ways to articulate our beliefs in the present age. We need to remain nimble, agile and open in respect to opportunities to make things better. But we need to be careful in our enthusiasms, circumspect in regard to our culture, and solid, disciplined and diligent in regard to testing new things by the foundational principles of the word of God.

We need to stay young at heart, but old at head.

And it’s past time we cut off that ponytail.

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