Sure, You’re Born Again, but Are You Growing Up?

by Eugene Peterson

Growing up involves the work of the Holy Spirit forming our born-again spirits into the likeness of Christ. Luke tells us that after John the Baptist was born, “the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly” (Luke 1:80). A page or so later he tells us that Jesus, after his birth, “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52). St. Paul uses a similar vocabulary in describing the agenda he sets out for Christians—that we “come … to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ … grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:13, 15).

John grew up. Jesus grew up. Paul tells us, “Grow up.”

Evangelism is essential. But is it not obvious that growth in Christ is equally essential? Yet the American church has not treated it with an equivalent urgency. Instead it runs on the euphoria and adrenaline of new birth—getting people into the church, into the kingdom, into causes, into crusades, into programs. We turn matters of growing up over to Sunday school teachers, specialists in Christian education, committees to revise curricula, retreat centers, and deeper life conferences, farming it out to parachurch groups for remedial assistance.

Americans, including pastors and professors, have little tolerance for a centering way of life that is submissive to the conditions in which growth takes place: quiet, obscure, patient, not subject to human control and management. The American church is uneasy in these conditions. Typically, in the name of “relevance,” it adapts itself to the prevailing American culture and is soon indistinguishable from that culture: talkative, noisy, busy, controlling, image-conscious.

Meanwhile, what has in previous centuries and other cultures been a major preoccupation of the Christian community, becoming men and women who live to “the praise of God’s glory,” has become a mere footnote within a church that has taken on the agenda of the secular society. By delegating character formation, the life of prayer, the beauty of holiness to specialized ministries or groups, we disconnect growth from birth and, in effect, place it on a bench at the margins of the church’s life. Wendell Berry, one of our most perceptive prophets of contemporary culture and spirituality, wrote, “We think it ordinary to spend 12 or 16 or 20 years of a person’s life and many thousands of public dollars on ‘education’—and not one dime or a thought on character.”

Plato formulated what he named the “universals” as the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. He held that if we are to live a whole and mature life, the three had to work together harmoniously in us. The American church has deleted Beauty from that triad. We are vigorous in contending for the True and energetic in insisting on the Good, but Beauty, the forms by which the True and the Good take shape in human life, we pretty much ignore. Plato, and many of our wisest teachers who have followed him, insisted that all three—Truth, Goodness, Beauty—are organically connected. Without Beauty, there is no container for Truth and Goodness, no form, no way of coming to expression in human life. Truth divorced from Beauty becomes abstract and bloodless. Goodness divorced from Beauty becomes loveless and graceless.

If we need a formal term for this, “theological aesthetics” will do as well as any. I have long protested this marginalization of matters of spiritual formation, of theological aesthetics, of growing up to the full stature of Christ. But pastors tell me that they cannot make it with an agenda like this—theological aesthetics? People won’t put up with it. I suggested to them that the persevering, patient, unhurried work of growing up in Christ has occupied the center of the church’s life for centuries, and that this American marginalization is, well, American.

For far too long now, with full backing from our culture, we have let the vagaries of our emotional needs call the shots, let ecclesiastical market analysts set the church’s agenda, let self-appointed experts on the Christian life replace the “full stature of Christ” with desiccated stick figures. The resurrection of Jesus establishes the conditions in which we live and mature in the Christian life and carry on this conversation: Jesus alive and present.

“Practice resurrection,” a phrase I got from Wendell Berry, strikes just the right note. We live our lives in the practice of what we do not originate and cannot anticipate. When we practice resurrection, we continuously enter into what is more than we are. When we practice resurrection, we keep company with Jesus, alive and present, who knows where we are going better than we do, which is always “from glory unto glory.”

Eugene H. Peterson is the author of dozens of acclaimed books. This essay was adapted from the introduction of his book Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Eerdmans, 2013) and appears here by kind permission of the publisher.

2 responses to “Sure, You’re Born Again, but Are You Growing Up?”

  1. D'thea Webster says:

    “dumbed-down” to you perhaps (it’s not intended as a study Bible), but freshness of a wind blowing new life and meaning for unchurched folk. Thank you for the important reminders of this article, and for The Message, Eugene Peterson!

  2. Mike Nacrelli says:

    I agree with this article wholeheartedly, but I find it ironic that it’s written by the author of the dumbed-down “Message” version of the Bible.

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