I’ve been reading Mark Sayers’s interesting book A Non-Anxious Presence, and was particularly struck by this passage:
As a network is swamped by chronic anxiety, it is marked by reactivity. Those within the system no longer act rationally, but rather, high emotion becomes the dominant form of interaction. The system’s focus is directed toward the most emotionally immature and reactive members. Those who are more mature and healthy begin to adapt their behavior to appease the most irrational and unhealthy. This creates a scenario where the most emotionally unhealthy and immature members in the system become de facto leaders, shaping the emotional landscape with the focus on their negative behavior and what they see as the negative behavior of others. The anxiety present envelops the vision of the organization within the system.
You don’t have to know the way Sayers defines words like “network” or “system” in order to recognize what he’s talking about here. The spectacle of businesses, journalistic organizations, and even ministries catering to their “most emotionally immature” members is familiar. Even more important is the dynamic Sayers describes, whereby those hyperactive members become “de facto leaders,” because their actual leaders—and, by extension, their peers—come to see avoiding controversy as job number one. Sometimes the immature members of the network will not realize this is what’s happening. They can’t see beyond their own nose. But sometimes they do recognize it, and they take advantage accordingly. They know what vocabulary to use to get their leaders nervous; they know the specific kinds of accusations and complaints that will put the spotlight on them.
Sayers goes on to observe that this dynamic results in an institution or network that is locked in a reactive, fire-extinguishing mode. It’s difficult and sometimes impossible for the group to cultivate meaningful growth because it takes everything everyone has to just get through the next internal controversy.
There are multiple angles we could take on Sayers’ observation. A Non-Anxious Presence is a book primarily about leadership, and of course the implications for leaders are urgent. But I was most intrigued by what Sayers writes about the emotionally immature or unstable members of a network, and how, in the absence of strong, non-anxious leadership, these members can effectively impose their own personality on the network.
I’ve written in the past about Ross Douthat’s concept of decadence, and how evangelical ministries and institutions can (and often have) become decadent and paralyzed. Putting together Douthat and Sayers, it seems to me that we need to seriously consider the possibility that the spiritual maturity and spiritual effectiveness of movements and organizations are deeply connected, and that it is impossible to expect genuine effectiveness where the structure of the organization fails to push members toward maturity—and fails to put real obstacles in the path of the immature.
“Move Fast and Break Things”
There is a significant gap in much of American culture between the visibility of a given group or movement, and that group’s maturity. “Maturity” feels like a euphemism; “grow up” is, for many people, what you say to someone whose passion and commitment is making you uncomfortable. It is increasingly verboten to talk about a person or a movement’s immaturity, as if you are critiquing their attractiveness or IQ. And this isn’t just a political or theological phenomenon, either.
American culture writ large seems stuck in a defensive adolescence that lacks both the innocence and wonder of childhood, and the realism and long-term thinking of adulthood. Comic book movies are the new American mythology, and the characters in these comic book movies are often just hard-bodied, fast-talking teenagers: the kind of people who, in the words of the most influential man of the 21st century, “move fast and break things.”
For many emerging adults, there is no greater aspiration than to be an activist. Everyone wants it. Secular progressives on college campuses know that activists are the only ones who can bring an administration to their knees. Entertainers and influencers regularly urge their followers to engage in some kind of activism, and can even be criticized for failing to do this enough. What’s more, even much Christian culture can only understand itself in activist terms—whether the particular ideological flavor is Christian nationalism, or #ChurchToo, or something else. Everyone seems to understand that being an activist gives some kind of shape or meaning to your life. But it has an added benefit, too: It completely insulates you from the demands of maturity.
An activist can behave like an obnoxious, strong-willed fifteen-year-old, demanding respect and deference. This is culturally acceptable because activism is seen as morally good, while the status quo is almost always morally bad. Many of the things that both the center-left and center-right worry over are not terrorisms or tyrannies, but simply forms of unchecked immaturity: disregard for others, disregard for customs and norms, and so on. “What good,” some might ask, “are norms when the world is on fire?” The answer is that mature people can put out a fire without flooding the city. Or, minimally, they can make their way to the exit without trampling one another to death.
One of Sayers’ most important insights is that the power that emotionally immature people have over their network does not necessarily destroy the network. Often, such power will simply paralyze it. This paralysis fits the nature of immaturity; immature people can mess things up, even break stuff, but they tend to lack the careful, long-term thinking that truly up-ends the system. This is why, for example, much college student activism bottoms out in apology letters, viral videos, and resignations, while student loan debt and the dilution of the bachelor’s degree continue unabated.
Or, to bring the example closer to home, this is why much #ChurchToo and Christian nationalism activism tends to curve in on itself, functioning as a “scissor” to cause strife between theological neighbors but not much else. Even when you talk to someone who has strong opinions on these matters—someone who may feel very invested in the dialogues and controversies—you will often hear them admit that they know these episodes accomplish almost nothing.
And yet the feeling among many Christian pastors, ministry leaders, and laypeople is that episodes like the controversy of Joshua Butler’s book are in some way inevitable, that there’s no way out of them. This is exactly the kind of inertia that, according to Douthat, characterizes wide swaths of American society. It is not, Douthat writes, that Americans are becoming polarized enough to contemplate a violent revolution or civil war, but that the rhythms of polarization are mysteriously compatible with a repetitive, predictable political culture.
This stagnation is eerily similar to what Sayers is describing in A Non-Anxious Presence. Networks, institutions, and organizations are spending their resources trying to keep their activists satisfied. This cycle benefits the most unhinged, unaccountable activists because it gives them the sensation of true power without true obligation: they can either claim victory when the network bends the knee, or they can claim prophetic presence when the network tries to reassure the other members that they won’t. Wheels are turning, clout is growing, but the network is going nowhere, because the people who are most visible on its radar are taking it for a joyride.
How Clout Destroys Character
The secret sauce in all this is, obviously, social media.
One of the most pressing issues for leaders, Christian and non-Christian alike, is whether you can construct a confident, forward-looking movement with members who have been deeply shaped by the liturgies and values of the online attention economy. Of course, networks can struggle with emotionally immature members who are not active on Twitter or Facebook.
But one thing I’ve noticed lately is that there is an increased willingness among many to admit that growing their follower list or being mentioned by prominent people is really their entire goal. It never stops being weird to see grown adults mentioning how a particular dust-up grew their readership, or, even worse, how they “ratio-ed” someone. These are glaring examples, but there are more subtle ones, such as when someone expresses outrage over someone’s not responding to them. This is immaturity, but it is distinctly digital immaturity: a perception of self and truth that is filtered through metrics of clout and visibility.
What’s more, there seems to be a skittishness about calling this immaturity. People are afraid of saying what behavior like this looks like. Why? Partially, because of what Sayers points out above about networks having to appease their most strident members. But also partially because there is likewise a digitally-shaped fear of being ratio-ed yourself. To the extent that the Internet plays host to volatile conversations, it also shapes how participants think of them. Someone who may desperately need someone to say to them, “You are acting like a child” may never hear this because their audience is afraid—not of them, really, but of the platform. They are afraid of being dragged, afraid of their employer or their pastor having to wade into the discussion, since there is a widespread expectation that employers and pastors must also defer to these immature members.
The Internet is a unique vehicle for the kind of endless self-consciousness that’s a hallmark of adolescence. It is extraordinarily difficult to engage in digital idea-exchange without looking at oneself through a clout mirror, constantly wondering how this phrase will be received, or how that post will strike others. Like a Zoom call where, despite the presence of other faces, your eyes are inevitably drawn to fixate on your own square—looking at the group while never looking away from yourself—social media reenforces an anxiety that translates as immaturity.
This isn’t an abstract reflection. The dominance of emotional immaturity in many evangelical corners right now is a costly reality. Not only does it handcuff institutions, trivialize conversations, and compromise an evangelical witness to the world, but it greatly harms the immature members whose spiritual lives are stagnating in public. The clout these folks are accumulating for themselves can make their emotional illnesses seem less real or less sympathetic; those who agree with their message will ignore the clear signs of problems, and those who disagree will tend to see them as a troll to be ignored or defeated, not as a brother or sister in need of biblical intervention.
Maturity and Mission
How do churches, ministry organizations, and other institutions press their leaders and their members toward spiritual maturity? And how do they prevent the spiritually immature from controlling the vision and spirit of the network? There’s much that could be said here. We cannot underestimate the value of the ordinary means of grace. But movements and organizations only have so much power to push their members toward these means. I actually think the second question is part of the answer to the first: Leaders and members are encouraged toward maturity in part by watching immature members be marginalized and discipled, rather than feared and deferred to.
When people see an immature member be granted an extraordinary level of influence and attention-control, they will understandably infer that immaturity is effective. Eventually, whatever principled scruples they may have against such behavior will come up against the reality that their leaders appear to respond most urgently to it. This is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, we need to recover the language of mature/immature in talking about mission. There are mature and immature Christians, and “mature” is not a synonym for “popular,” “well-followed,” or even “effective.” Maturity is measured in terms of the fruits of the Spirit. Against this standard, we may very well discover that some of our favorite sources of “content” within the church are in fact very immature Christians.
We fail when we fixate on someone’s passion and earnestness to the exclusion of thinking about their maturity. It is too easy, even for pastors and theologians who eschew “pragmatism,” to become awe-struck by what a loud personality can seem to accomplish. That’s why we need to think of Christian mission in holistic terms. The question is not only what can we achieve out there, but what we are creating in here. If churches coddle immature members on the logic that at least those members are passionate, they are kicking a grenade down the road that can explode at any time. The most effective mission is the one that flows out of Christian character. Anything less is a volatile compromise, and the bill will come due eventually.