We’re All Over-Protected Now

In the March 2014 issue of The Atlantic, celebrity journalist Hanna Rosin turned her attention to America’s coddled children. “The Overprotected Kid” traces Rosin’s experience with her son at a Welsh playground called The Land, which is a cross between Blade Runner, a garbage heap, and a sandbox. In short, it sounds awesome.

Rosin argues in her perceptive piece that American parents are beset with “safety paranoia.” Where once children roamed the land, built forts, and did daring things like cross city streets, now they risk a 911 call if they venture out of eyesight of their parents. Rosin’s thesis is worth considering, even if many fathers and mothers will recognize the limitations of what one could call the “state of nature” movement.

I found the piece compelling because it speaks to me of problems not merely gymnastic, but spiritual. I think many of us evangelicals have our own “safety complex.” We’ve been trained to live life fearfully, to damp down any sense of risk at all costs, and to believe that failure is the worst possible fate on this earth. I think we’ve got it wrong.

We’ve Been Trained to Adore Safety

It’s hard to pinpoint how many of us have been indoctrinated into safety-hunger and inoculated against adventure. We surely have, though. Here are some factors:

1. We are, in relative terms, beneficiaries of an era of unprecedented wealth. Capitalism comes in for hard critiques, but studies show that its advent coincides with soaring life-longevity and material prosperity. When you reach this state, you don’t want to leave it.

2. We have grown up in a church-friendly culture (now under major renovation). I don’t decry this history as some do. But we all have to acknowledge that being a majority culture will cause us to be less prophetic, less daring, than we might otherwise be.

3. We live in the age of the mega-watt spiritual celebrity, people who promise us wealth and ease and unending upward mobility. Whether we know it or not, easy-believism affects us all.

4. We’ve bought into a theology of grace that softens every edge and cushions every fall. More than we know, we’re therapeutic and psychologized. There’s a “gospel-driven” form of this problem. I call it “gospel self-help.” Just like the secular kind, it makes us the focal point of our faith. Narcissism easily suffocates a courageous spirit.

5. We want to fit in more than ever, in part because our identities—even as evangelicals—are so this-worldly. We care tremendously what other people think of us. The worst thing for an undergrad today isn’t an injury—it’s to be “awkward” (in sing-song). We all fear man now. God and his inter-galactic holiness seems far off; your self-aware neighbor with her judgey gaze seems all too near.

We could go on. Suffice it to say that these cultural factors end up getting baked into the church’s main course. Our preaching trains us, week after week, to manage the status quo, keep the boat un-rocked, and experience greater self-fulfillment. At the same time, somehow, we’re told to dream big dreams, undertake grand schemes, and discover who we truly are. But here’s the strange thing: even in this me-centered air, few of us actually seem to end up launching anything grand. The fulfillment of our “dreams” seems to end up looking a lot like secular versions of the good life.

We’re over-protected Christians.

We Need Something Bigger

Lest you think I deride “normal life,” I do not. I think it’s good and honorable. In my book Risky Gospel, I esteem the ordinary things: church membership, family-building, cultivating a vocation. But I do think all our lives could stand an infusion of risk. What do I mean? I want to re-enchant our daily Christian lives. I want Jesus to cease being the first-century prosperity-lite preacher we think he is and to once more disturb the peace.

I want Christians to read the wild stories of God calling his people to himself in the Old Testament. When God showed up, people hit the ground. Moses was afraid. Ezekiel didn’t even dare to lift his eyes before Yahweh’s likeness (Exodus 3; Ezekiel 1). I want believers to see Jesus calling and saving us less as an invitation to lifelong spiritualized therapy and more as a summons to a lifelong spiritual quest. I want us to see the gospel as our means of acceptance, yes, but also as the precious cargo that must be taken and preached and translated to every people group on the earth. I want us to see our lives not as a project to be curated but as a drink offering to be poured out to the glory of God.

Toward this end, I want to see fathers who lay their lives down for their families, women who boldly reject the pattern of Eve for the beauty of godly femininity, college students who study to know the mind of God, workers of all kinds who labor as if God were beside them in the design room or the classroom or the sawroom, and church members who treat the body of Christ as if it is the only infinity-spanning institution on this earth (because it is).

With many others, I want to see all of these people pushing as many workers as humanly possible to the leading edge of global mission (per Matthew 28:16-20). This goal will mean that tons of Christians stay where they are and earn all they can, valuing their day-to-day lives even as they savor the chance to support worldwide evangelism. This work will also mean that many other Christians break away, see their family members once every two years, and embrace the bewildering and even frightful realities of ministry in a pagan village, a pluralized meta-city, or a socialist state.

The two parts of this great work are not disconnected or at odds. The staying church is the sending church. The sent church does the work that the staying church knows must go forth. The two churches are one. They pray for one another; they support one another; they depend upon one another.

There is no guilt complex here. One must send, the other must go. All must be fully committed to the awesomeness of God, and to a life of self-sacrifice in order that the word of Christ might spread over all the earth, and the kingdom of Christ with it.

So What’s the Secret?

The way to get to this point is to break with a spiritual culture that fetishizes personal safety and comfort, and to embrace once more the concept of risk. Risk is for every Christian. We hear its tones over and over again in Scripture. Jesus called the apostles to follow him on the spot (Matthew 4:19). When he evangelized certain people, he told them to “count the cost,” because it would be heavy (Luke 14:28). When he named Peter as the rock of his early church, he indicated that Peter’s fate would be bloody (John 21:18). When beatific Stephen was slain, all who witnessed or heard of it discovered that Christianity would not fit the glossy promises of ancient prosperity preachers (Acts 7:54-60).

Being up front in the church did not mean you would be coronated early, but that you might well die young.

I recently heard a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary administrator tell me of a child he knew who was adopted by a godly family. The child had been told for years that he couldn’t walk. So he didn’t. He was carried everywhere. When he came into this Christian home, the father thought to himself, This little guy can walk. He may not dunk a basketball in the future, but he can walk. He began encouraging the boy to do so. Within days, the child walked up the family’s stairs. A lifetime of low expectations, of zero risk, undone in a few days’ time.

I wonder if our churches are under a similar spell. We feel the heat rising in the culture. Either we issue our jeremiads, our cultural diagnoses, on the one hand, or we quiet our voices. We go to church, but we don’t want prophecy, with its challenging and all-too-personal implications. We want comfort, spoonful after spoonful of it. Spiritual therapy.

You Have to Wonder

You have to wonder what Jesus thinks of this response. You have to wonder if, like a child trapped indoors for an unending school-day, we might look out the window and see him outside, kicking some tires, walking around, pacing. Deep in thought. Preoccupied and bothered. Maybe he’s restless, itchy, frustrated.

Maybe he wants for us to pause the Serenity Prayer, lift our gaze to the nations, and get active in the role he’s given us, whether the sending church or the sent one. You have to wonder if Jesus is eager for his people to rise up, risk everything we have, and watch as his Spirit re-enchants our lives. This life of risk might mean you work harder at home; it might mean you mentor a child; it might mean you move to a foreign country to do evangelism. Whatever your work for the Lord, you can do it knowing that God will preserve your soul and reward you beyond your wildest envisioning in the life to come.

That protection doesn’t pamper you and me. It propels us.

  • a.

    ” you have to wonder what Jesus thinks of this response.”

    do we need ever wonder too much for He has always loved us with clear exhortation eg. Matt 10:39; Rev 2:4,14-15,20; 3:1,2,15-16, so Jude 1:20-21;Rev 22:17

  • john8

    Good article, I agree with it’s premise and want to look at myself first in this regard.

    I was a bit put off point by the photo and opening of the article with talk of ‘safety paranoia’ for kids if they venture out of eyesight of their parents. I thought it was about overprotective parents. But then you switched to speak of failure as the worst fate, and application in other areas of life. As you began with safety and children I was thinking of the two local news reports last night of near child abductions in my community.

    I see now that’s not the real focus of the article, however since you bring it up as your intro perhaps a full article on that topic would be beneficial? Because when I was a kid we did roam the neighborhoods and take risks, but back then there weren’t daily reports of kids kidnapped into sex slavery, websites where you can see the dozens of registered sex offenders in your locality, school shootings and the like. So in light of reality and my responsibility, if I keep a close eye on my children and don’t let them roam the neighborhoods, am I wise or lacking faith?

    • DLouise

      You’re wise to reasonably protect your children. It seems that in our day we have gone to an extreme in this regard. However, I agree that roaming the neighborhood is not such a good thing for kids to do these days.

  • http://www.jonstallings.com/ Jon Stallings

    Great article Owen. We have worked hard to make our lives very safe. Yet if we are not willing to take risks and step out why do we need faith? It has been a slow process but I am learning to take more risks.

  • http://chanroberts2.wordpress.com/ Chancellor Carlyle Roberts, II

    Great article! We’ve gotten just a bit too fat and happy in Western Christianity. Frankly, I have no desire to go back to it. I live in a country where this post could get me arrested for “unauthorized religious activity” if the government bothered reading it.

  • Pingback: karl li()

  • Andrew

    Loved this article. Is this the same Hanna Rosin that declared to the world in a recent TEDTalk that the End of Men was an ‘idea worth spreading’?

  • Caleb

    The notion that we’re all overprotected seems to ignore completely the economic realities of 2014 for most people in the United States and elsewhere.

  • Andrew

    Great article! Can you please clarify the biblical basis of the idea in this statement:

    “I want to see fathers who lay their lives down for their families…”

    As far as I can see, biblical self-sacrifice is the crucifixion of the self in imitation of Jesus on the cross, which I understand as being the removal of the ego as the centre of power in one’s life. This characterises the Christian person, not just the Christian father.

    However, it is presented here in a way that suggests it’s a property of biblical fatherhood or biblical manhood rather than a property of Christian personhood. Did you mean to exclude single men, women and children from this encouragement towards self-sacrifice, or was the article written for fathers only?

  • Pingback: IN CASE YOU MISSED IT (3/30/14 – 4/5/14) | The Hardin Crowder Blog()

  • Pingback: Good Reads: April 7 | the hub()

  • bondservant

    maybe there’s a spiritual connection to the fact that we’ve been giving up our physical freedom and liberty for the sake of government safety (i.e. slavery)

  • Pingback: Links I like()

  • Pingback: Monday Update #59 – April 7, 2014()

  • David

    Safety creates atheists. Atheists who claim atheism, sure, but also atheists in our pews. I’ve met several atheists who claim they turned away from Christ after a time of crisis that brought them to think “how could there be a God who could let this happen? There must be no God” There are plenty of us in the pews who are weak enough in the faith to say the exact same thing, they just haven’t had the crisis yet that would bring them to that point. You could call us potential atheists, rather than kinetic atheists. Why? Jesus makes it clear in several places throughout the Gospels that there is no such thing as a soft, comfortable disciple. Luke 14:25-35 is a great example of this. How many of us will God turn away at the judgement seat, not because we denied Him with our lips, but because we denied Him our whole being, as is required of His disciples? We’d rather live behind the safety of our tracts, pews, and church services (chosen according to how much we like the music, seating, and program availability) than living a life that’s willing to suffer loss and persecution if only we could win one to Jesus and glorify His name among the nations. We can even hide behind our charity and generosity. We can give thousands of dollars, but never be willing to give our widow’s mite. We put limits on what we allow for God. And it’s only a matter of time before God asks us to go beyond those limits. And it’s only a matter of time before we give up those limits, or such a request would push our carnal hearts to turn from Him altogether. either because we didn’t count the cost, or because we didn’t care to enter into a Christianity that had THOSE costs. We formulated our own Christianity that was more suited to our wants.

  • Rachel Monger

    We have often thought about the over-protected kid issue, but this was an interesting and good connection made with an over-protected church issue! I appreciated what you said that “Whatever your work for the Lord, you can do it knowing that God will preserve your soul … that protection doesn’t pamper you and me. It propels us.” It is so true that the life of a Christian means the life of Christ and it means entering a battle zone. Do we really want to settle for a low risk life with low expectations? Or do we want to be part of the transformational work of God, seeing His victory over darkness, seeing the power of His redemption? This should propel us! Propel us into action and propel us into prayer. And here I really want to highlight and support what you said about the sent and the staying church working together. We recently went through a tragic experience where we live in Tanzania, but God’s power was released to us in an incredible way through the prayers and support of the Church. Yes, our peace may be disturbed, even threatened, but the glory of our God prevails!

  • Pingback: We | thewaythetruthandthelife()

  • Pingback: Wednesday Web Wanderings: April 9, 2014 | Old Powhatan Baptist Church()

  • Pingback: FRC Blog » The Social Conservative Review: April 10, 2014()

  • Pingback: Little Place Called HomeFriday Finds // vol. 1 | Little Place Called Home()

  • Pingback: wednesday cowardice | things i think i think()