Growing Up in Church: An Interview with Trevin Wax
Daniel Darling is the Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and is the author of Teen People of the Bible, Crash Course, iFaith, and most recently, Real: Owning Your Christian Faith. In Real, Daniel interviews several “second-generation Christians” about the challenges presented by “growing up in church.” Here is Daniel’s full, unabridged interview of Trevin Wax on this subject.
Trevin Wax: I would say that the first temptation is the desire to live up to the standards set by the church community. For those in stricter churches that place a high value on obedience and morality and separation from the world, the Christian life often gets reduced down to a few things, such as how we look, whom we associate with, etc.
Christianity should effect life change, but we can wind up creating a sort of subculture where everyone pats everyone else on the back for living up to standards derived more from the community than from Scripture itself.
Daniel Darling: Doesn’t this feed the tendency toward self-righteousness?
Trevin Wax: Yes, and it can eliminate the need for repentance because you are “doing everything right.” I battled this as a missionary in Romania. Christians have this right impulse to make a difference in someone’s life. They want to see people’s lives look radically different because of Jesus. But how this would play out was that the new convert no longer smokes or drinks or wears makeup or jewelry, however, they may keep their affinity toward gossip or mean-spiritedness.
Legalism makes repentance easy because people are willing to sacrifice, to look different, to behave differently. But list-keeping is actually an easier version of Christianity than what is found in the Bible. Law is easier than the gospel.
Daniel Darling: What advice would you give to the person who has grown up in the church to help them move away from the legalistic, self-righteous, checklist mind-set?
Trevin Wax: Before you can be motivated or driven by grace, you have to get to a place of brokenness. You have to see your sin for what it is, the heinousness and horror of your sin. And in that reality, seeing your total inability to change yourself. Before you get grace, you have to get broken. There is no checklist or stepping stone to get to brokenness. It’s something God gives. We should pray, “Break my heart, Lord. Break my heart afresh so I can see your grace.”
Then exult in the grace so it can become transformative. There is no 12-step process to go from legalism to grace. It has to happen in the heart.
It’s amazing to me that for those of us who have grown up in contexts where tradition is important, it is difficult for us to see ourselves in the role of Pharisees rather than Jesus. We tend to look at ourselves as though we’re like Jesus or like the prodigal instead of seeing ourselves as the Pharisees. A glimpse of Jesus helps us see our own brokenness.
Daniel Darling: How would you counsel someone who has grown up in a context where methodology or preference has been placed on the same level as orthodox truth?
Trevin Wax: I’ve had numerous conversations with folks who grew up in those environments. You’re basically told that the Bible is true, Jesus is God, and women shouldn’t wear pants or something. The emphasis is on those three equally as if they were of the same nature.
Two things typically happen when someone leaves this environment. They see a vibrant spiritual walk with God by someone from another, less restrictive background and adjust their thinking and begin to separate what is true from what is merely preference.
Or they react in the opposite way. They think to themselves, I was lied to. Then they question everything: Is Jesus really God? Is the Bible really true? They basically feel as if they’ve been sold a bill of goods and have no capability to discern major Christian truth from a particular community’s standards.
The people able to separate the two usually come to appreciate the wider breadth of Christian expression within orthodoxy and they end up in a different church context. They are able to passionately serve the Lord and can move right along.
Those who have been offended by their background usually end up chucking their faith all together because they don’t trust anyone in religion at all, because their background doesn’t, to them, merit this trust.
Daniel Darling: What would you say to those in that second group, progressive evangelicals who emerge from a legalistic framework and now question everyone, including the orthodox doctrines of the Christian faith? What would you say to them to help bring them back to orthodoxy?
Trevin Wax: First, I would say that questioning everything so you own it can be a good thing. Wrestling is a good thing. But sometimes it can lead to endless questioning, even against the idea of taking a firm stance, of knowing something with certainty.
Sometimes the reaction among second-generation Christians is just to avoid standing for anything because we’ve seen people stand up for silly things. I think the better model is not that we stand on the Word of God but that we kneel under the Word of God. We always bow to God’s authority as exercised in His Word. It is supreme and sufficient.