Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
Jordan Peterson’s recent video “Message to the Christian Churches” has gone viral in some circles. Anything Peterson says to Christians is of interest because he’s a compelling speaker who has woven Christian imagery and ideas into his talks. As a trained and practicing psychologist, he naturally focuses his insights around that discipline. This narrow focus elicits fascinating insights into many biblical stories. That the Bible is not primarily a psychological text doesn’t take away from the fact that it is packed with psychological insights, and Peterson does an amazing job of teasing those out.
The message in this video, as the summary puts it, is that “Young people, particularly young men are facing an unparalleled demoralization inculcated by an extremely damaging ideology.” And he gently admonishes the church to make young men a high priority in its outreach. I resonate with his analysis of the problem—too many young men in our culture are in crisis. The comments below the video attest to Peterson’s ability to transform the lives of young men. If only our churches would have such an impact on young men.
Unfortunately, like activists left and right, he wants the church to buy into his personal agenda and take up his cause. Don’t doubt yourself if this feels like deja vu. Activists do that sort of thing. If only the church would protest this war or that, fight racism and climate change, support LGBTQ+, care for the homeless, battle abortion or fight for pro-choice, and so forth—then it would be relevant and useful to society.
Most churches that have done this sort of thing are heading rapidly toward the graveyard. That’s because fundamentally people don’t go to church to participate in yet another cause. They don’t need the church to do that. They go to church to meet God.
Foolish people think this means that the church is the place where people withdraw from the world and hide from “reality.” Not quite. It’s the place where we encounter the deepest Reality that pervades our lives and our world. Even a small grasp of that Reality enables one to engage with wisdom in the worthy causes that demand our attention. How can the church, which teaches us to love God and neighbor, be a place that withdraws from the neighbor?
In my experience, Protestant churches have the hardest time resisting the call to be relevant in the world’s terms. This is especially true of evangelical churches. Two approaches are the most popular.
On the one hand, some are stuck in Young Life mode, thinking that the way to stay relevant is to recreate the ambiance of that popular youth ministry, making church alive and well for young adults—hip music, casual dress, TED talk style sermons, light-hearted banter throughout, and making sure people walk out on a musical high. The service is a mini-rock concert with some stand-up comedy thrown in for good measure. It’s designed ultimately to make you feel good in order to get you to come back.
On the other hand, mainstream and progressive evangelical churches try to be more serious, taking up the latest cause, from Black Lives Matter to MeToo to LGBTQ+ to taking “a more complex view on abortion,” and so forth. Everything is complex, of course, but it is often the case that when a church says it wants to take a more complex view on this or that, it is gently trying to abandon former ideals.
In sum: in such settings, worship is only secondarily about God and primarily about our feelings and our work in the world.
This is one reason I became a Catholic. There is never any mistaking what the Mass is about: it’s about meeting Jesus in the Eucharist. That’s it. The entire service is driven to that end and that end alone. No silly banter. No music that distracts from that end. No co-opting the service in the name of this cause or that. As a result of meeting afresh the One who is Love (and the one who tells us to love the neighbor), it’s no surprise that Catholics, through various and sundry agencies and monastic orders, are doing some of the most interesting, relevant work on causes left, right, and center.
Since the sixties, many have aired their frustrations with the church, and for good reason. No question that churches Catholic and Protestant have in many ways domesticated Jesus and the Christian life. To be a good Christian today looks like being a perpetually nice and friendly suburbanite—someone with good social skills and appropriate dress, who keeps his lawn mowed, drives a fuel efficient car, saves for retirement, donates to the local food pantry or clothes closet, visits the aquarium and art museum with the kids, and goes to church most Sundays--a good, middle-class citizen who is moderate and reasonable in his convictions and lifestyle.
Let me be clear—that describes me, and it’s not a bad way to live. Better than sleeping on the street in ragged clothes, doing drugs late into the night. But it’s not a picture of following Jesus as such. Young men can see right through our shallow discipleship and they want nothing to do with it.
We’ve gotten in the bad habit of softening Jesus’ teachings so they sound like only so much good advice with some metaphors thrown in for dramatic effect. The other morning, the Gospel text in the daily readings concerned the incident in which Jesus insulted his mother and brothers by refusing to meet with them at their request, explaining that anyone who follows him is his brother and sister. Add to that his call to leave brother, sister, mother, and father to follow him. If Jesus were to stand in the middle of most American congregations today and say that sort of thing, we’d all suspect him of being a cult leader and have him put on an FBI watch list.
If we want to reach young men in the church—and I for one would certainly like us to do that—we would be wise to go back and study the ministry of our Lord. Let us recall that all the men who followed him were young, some mere teenagers probably, and what he did and said was an attractional force like no other before or since. Today the church is seen as a place for old people like me, who seek solace and comfort at the end of their busy lives. The disciples and early church were full of young men and women who wanted to give themselves to a great cause that required great sacrifice.
The way for the church to do that is not to try to become relevant to young men, but to start taking Jesus at his word and do what he says. I for one am very uncomfortable about committing myself to that in any serious way. I like my suburban lifestyle. I have a Master of Divinity degree to boot, so I’m also pretty good at domesticating the hard sayings of Jesus.
Now that I come to think of it, maybe the reason the church is not reaching young men is because it’s not really reaching me.