Has youth ministry gone the wrong way? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Recently, Addie Zierman wrote an article that appeared in Relevant Magazine about three things she had to unlearn in youth ministry. Unfortunately, looking at the list, it looks like three things that we still need to learn about youth ministry.
So let’s look at the first. The first item to learn is that youth are not going to be persecuted for what they believe. So what is Zierman’s evidence for this?
I spent the duration of junior high and high school braced against the entire student body, sure that they secretly mocked/hated/despised me. I wore Christian T-shirts like some kind of bullet-proof vest. I memorized all of the brilliant apologetic arguments in favor of Christianity in case any teacher or student ever cornered me in the hall and forced me to debate my faith.
But no one ever did.
What actually happened is that I distanced myself from everyone who didn’t believe like I did. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me—it was that I had barred my arms in an eternal defensive pose, and no one could even get close. So after a while, they stopped trying.
So all we have is her anecdotal evidence. Okay. If that’s what counts, then I will give anecdotal evidence of people coming to me talking about youth or youth themselves talking about how they receive this exact same treatment. I could point to how young atheists like David McAfee are developing followers among their own young people. I could talk about how you can find many teenagers and other young people on YouTube more than happy to tear apart anyone who does anything Christian. I could talk about how many young people on Facebook and even some in ministry that I saw had the equals sign on their Facebook page showing they were interested in redefining marriage and how my own wife had people going after her because she dared to do something horrible like go to Chick-Fil-A on Chick-Fil-A day. I could also point to the numerous people who go off to college and lose their faith because they were not intellectually equipped when a challenge to it came. Yes. All of this is going on.
I could also point to the research done by sociologists like George Yancey on the problem of changing attitudes towards Christianity and Christians, and they’re only getting worse. While I think it’s an insult to call this persecution in light of real persecution going on around the world, it is foolish I think to look at our world and think it’s not coming and each year, people are getting more and more hostile to the Christian message and that is going to affect our youth.
So the first lesson to learn for youth? You are a soldier of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world is radically opposed to the Kingdom of God. If you are not ready, then you will be ineffective or you will be a casualty.
The second lesson is that your friends’ salvation does not depend on how well you can defend Christianity.
It’s a wonder Zierman knows the friends of people she’s never even met before.
Zierman in this part refers to our giving of trite answers which yes, I must admit happens too often, but I would say I’m more impressed that anyone is actually giving answers because when I was growing up in youth group, no one was discussing this kind of stuff, and I know of many who have undergone the exact same situation. Zierman wants us to understand that we are not the savior and we are not going to save anyone. (This despite Paul said he lives in such a way in 1 Cor. 9 that through all possible means he might save some. Apparently, Paul didn’t have the hesitancy of language that many of us have today.) Of course, if this is meant to say no one can give an argument to force someone to convert, then this is absolutely true.
In the same way, no one can do a loving action to force someone to convert either.
So by that standard, we should cease to be doing loving actions for other people as a means of evangelism.
If trite answers are a problem, and I agree that they are, how about giving real and effective answers that will help those outside the faith to be refuted and to provide assurance for those that are within. Zierman goes on to say
Later, when they begin to grapple with the inconsistencies and the doubts and the hard things in their faith, it won’t be trite answers that see them through. It will be that glimpse they’ve had of the beauty of God. It will be the muscle memory of having dived deep into something real. And if and when their friends question them about their faith, it won’t be about showing them a diagram. It will be about showing them Jesus.
It’s really sad that I can picture Mormon leaders saying this to Mormons. It would work just as well. “You might come across challenges to your faith and inconsistencies between archaeology and the BOM or the BOM and the Bible or other such things. When those times come, do remember that you have a burning in the bosom and let it be that people will see that passion you have for Jesus and know that your faith is real. Show them Jesus.”
Of course, I have no opposition to showing people Jesus and I have no opposition to people having powerful religious experiences. What I have opposition to is the foundation being someone’s own personal experience. This feeds into our rabid individualism that is destroying the church. I can already tell you is that if all you have is the love of Jesus, new atheist types out there will chew you up and spit you out. They will not be persuaded. You might get a “Well I’m happy you found something that works for you” or they could just think you’re still a deluded person and your delusion will be harmful if it spreads.
There are people like Peter Boghossian out there who want to get 10,000 street epistemologists out there and each one is to have the goal of deconverting 100 people. These people will not respond if you simply point to feeling the love of Jesus. Well, they will respond, but it will not be in the way you’d like. Also, when someone comes home from college having been hit with Zeitgeist or evil Bible or Jesus mythicism or the problem of evil or any number of problems, it won’t be feeling love that will get them through. It will be having an intellectually robust faith where they know that there are answers and those answers inform how they live.
The third belief we need to get rid of is you have to do something to make a difference for God.
Yes. She actually says that.
Now I do think she is right when she says
The Christian walk is a long journey—so often mundane and difficult, putting one foot in front of another—seeing nothing, feeling nothing. And linking faith with extraordinary actions and extraordinary feelings makes it so much harder for us when we slam into the inevitable ordinary.
Of course, there won’t be constant mountaintop experiences and exciting adventures every day. Not everyone is going to be a famous evangelist or apologist or what have you.
But if you want to make a difference for God, yes, you have to do something and yes, you should be striving to do more than you are. Zierman goes on to say that
You can’t do anything to make God love you more.
You can’t do anything to make God love you less.
You are already enough.
God is already doing amazing things through you—even if it all feels hopelessly average.
How does Zierman know God is already doing amazing things through the reader? Maybe the reader really isn’t growing and striving in their faith at all. Maybe the reader never says a word in evangelism. Maybe the reader has no prayer life and does not study the Bible and simply comes to church because their parents make them. An article like Zierman’s can lead to great complacency and notice where the focus is at the end of this.
God can’t love you more.
God can’t love you less.
You are enough.
You are already being used by God for amazing things.
You. You. You.
And this is part of the problem. Most of us in our culture think way too much of ourselves already. You can’t do anything to make God love you more or less. Okay. I agree. So what? What does that have to do with your evangelism and how you are to live? Do you really do what you do because you’re wanting God to love you more or less? You have a pretty bad theology already if you do. Would such an attitude work in a marriage if you had it? “I don’t really need to strive to do something amazing for my spouse because they already love me as I am and they think I’m amazing enough already.”
God have mercy on me if I ever approach my Allie with that attitude.
Should I give God any less?
All the things Zierman says she thinks we need to unlearn, I would prefer if we relearn them and actually teach them.
We have too many casualties already and it’s only getting worse in America. The individualistic ideologies being thrust onto our youth will only compound the problem.