Almost Christian 7 – Going Viral for Jesus

Drew Dyck writes the following in his article “The Red Bull Gospel:

Over the past year I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with 20-somethings who have walked away from their Christian faith. Among the most surprising findings was this: nearly all of these “leavers” reported having positive experiences in youth group. I recall my conversation with one young man who described his journey from evangelical to atheist. He had nothing but vitriol for the Christian beliefs of his childhood, but when I asked him about youth group, his voice lifted. “Oh, youth group was a blast! My youth pastor was a great guy.”

I was confused. I asked Josh Riebock, a former youth pastor and author of mY Generation, to solve the riddle: if these young people had such a good time in youth group, why did they ditch their faith shortly after heading to college?

His response was simple. “Let’s face it,” he said. “There are a lot more fun things to do at college than eat pizza.”

Good point.

Dyck’s article reminded me of chapter seven of Almost Christian titled “Going Viral for Jesus: The Art of Testimony.” In this chapter, Kenda Creasy Dean says that studies like the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) often “exasperate” church leaders as they confirm what many feel: that teenagers have trouble talking about their faith. Or as she puts it these studies lead to “the discovery of a pervasive religious inarticulacy among teenagers” (133).

The question I would ask is, why is this so? After all, they learn the faith from adults in churches, so some fault must lay with a failure of these churches and adults to teach children well. Then we are back where we started – if the church tries to win people by offering better entertainment then the world, we are going to lose.

One thing that this chapter demonstrated to me was how individualism and emotionalism have become the default way to talk about spirituality in America. Dean say that American Christians of all kinds use terminology borrowed from Protestant conservative evangelicalism to describe their faith, terms such as “personal relationship with Jesus.” If sincere, this is not necessarily a problem. But I suspect the “Jesus” here is often no more than a buddy who is there for me to help me when I need (Jesus is my homeboy!). Dean notes that such language is more like a “glass slipper into which all faith experience must fit“. In other words, if you are talking about God, that is how you talk in the American religious landscape. Thus she notes one teen interviewed in the NSYR who is Muslim and spoke enthusiastically about her “personal relationship with God”. That is nowhere near Muslim language, but it fits well in America.

Another exasperating thing about studies finding youth to be inarticulate about their faith is that, contrary to what some may believe, youth are quite articulate about many other subjects. When it came to things they had studied in school or were passionate about, they were eager to share opinions. Dean diagnoses why this is so: “the absence of robust theological conversation in the worlds teenagers inhabit – certainly the worlds of media and public education, but also the worlds of families and congregations. Since youth do not hear a language of faith, they do not speak one” (138).

Dean spends the rest of the chapter sharing ideas on how to remedy this. First she affirms that Christianity requires Jesus-talk, not just God-talk (139). Of course, “personal relationship with Jesus” is Jesus-talk. But the question is the same – which Jesus?

I have had discussions with Christian students at Penn State Berks on various issues where they throw out ideas and suggestions with terms like, “maybe this” or “how about this idea“. As Christians, I have asked, why don’t they wrestle with what the Scripture says on such things? It seems like even Christian students pull maxims out of the air (“torture is wrong“, “all religions can lead to God” etc) without providing any good reason why anyone else should agree. This points to the individualism (well, I believe it) and emotionalism (because it feels right to me) of the whole thing (which just means they are Moral Therapeutic Deists)

So for Jesus-talk to happen that means anything, we need to get back to the real Jesus Christ of the Bible, for He is the true authority for us who claim to be his followers.

The challenge for churches is that this might draw less a crowd of youth than “fun” stuff like pizza and games. I don’t think it is an either/or question, you can have both, as Dyck says:

Of course there’s nothing wrong with pizza and video games. The real problem is when they displace spiritual formation and teaching the Bible. And ultimately that’s the greatest danger of being overly reliant on an entertainment model. It’s not just that we can’t compete with the world’s amusements. It’s not only that we get locked into a cycle of serving up ever-increasing measures of fun. Rather it’s that we’re distracted from doing the real work of youth ministry—fostering robust faith.

But I also think that there is something about the Christian faith that may at times push people away. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had, the man walked away from Jesus. Jesus did not chase after him and sweeten the deal. So perhaps a deeper, more robust focus on the Jesus of scripture will cause some young people to leave youth group (or older people to leave church). Yet I am optimistic that those who remain (dare we use the term, the remnant, as Scripture does) will be formed into more Christ-like people and sent into the world invigorated to do mission.

Jesus started with twelve disciples and a few others. A more entertaining message may have given him more success, by our standards. Maybe our standards are wrong and getting smaller will make us stronger.

Finally, Dean encourages churches to allow youth to participate in Christian community. She laments that the activities often assigned to young people do not prepare them for full participation in the life of the church; youth ministry fails to contribute to the church’s purpose (145):

We invite teenagers to set up chairs for the ice cream social and call it ‘mission’. We assign teenagers on Youth Sunday a year and call it ‘worship’. We play games in youth group and call it ‘Christian fellowship.” None of those activities are inherently misguided, of course. But they do not necessarily offer teenagers real participation in the Body of Christ…the fact that outreach, worship, and Christian fellowship in most churches can carry on very well without youth at all is a tell-tale sign that their participation in the community is not legitimate peripheral participation. It is indeed just peripheral, and it does nothing to usher teenagers into full membership in the Body of Christ. Legitimate peripheral participation means that adolescents make real contributions to our shared life in God, even while they are still figuring out how to be a part of the community of faith (145-6)

Recent Reads

My Kindle is getting a workout as Junia sleeps a lot, like many newborns.  I enjoy holding her in one arm, and reading the Kindle in my other.  There are loads of free books available on the Kindle, old books that are now public domain.  The Kindle is perfect to hold in one hand, while a real book may be more difficult.  Perhaps this is an advertisement for a Kindle!

Comparing Generations – a helpful chart for campus ministry.

Speaking of campus ministry, is higher education the next bubble to burst?  College is still necessary for most high earning, professional jobs, so the author of the article is skeptical that it is a bubble that will burst.  Possibly related, a recent study shows that 85% of recent college grads move back in with their parents.  Many of these students cannot find jobs in the current job market.  This post is related, though I want to look up the study he cited.

I am not sure if this is related either, but here is a good article on the high cost of low teacher salaries.  We pay teachers less, put less value on education, and students learn less.  Students graduate high school with fewer skills then graduates had a generation ago.  Thus, college becomes necessary.  I wonder, if students learned more in high school, would college be as necessary.  Further, to get the best jobs, education beyond college is now needed (as the first article, on the bubble, says).  I still wonder, is this also necessary or does it just show that students are learning less and less in college?

Related to college education, here is a great article on the reaction of millennials to Bin Laden’s death.

A new study shows religious belief comes naturally to humans.  If God is real and wants to be known, this makes sense (thanks Alvin Plantinga).

Books about heaven and hell fill the best seller list.  Randy Alcorn analyzes this with grace:

While I am not the judge of who has really been to Heaven or Hell, I emphatically believe every near-death (or supposed “after-death”) experience must be evaluated in light of God’s Word. Where the experience contradicts the revealed Word of God, the Word must be accepted over the experience. For the Christian, there simply is no other option. We dare not start basing our beliefs on people’s memories of their personal experiences.

I suspect the phenomenal success of Heaven is for Real will tempt people to use their imaginations in telling stories about visiting Heaven. Some will be deceptive, others will exaggerate, still others may take images from a drug-induced state on a hospital bed and by power of suggestion may convince themselves that various images in their heads were actual experiences of Heaven. The financial success of 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven is for Real will inevitably invite others to come forward who are willing to either deliberately mislead others or convince themselves of something that was not a true experience of  Heaven…

Acts 17:11 tells us that the Bereans searched the Scriptures daily “to see if what Paul said was true.” Now, if ever in human history you were going to assume that another person’s words were true, not finding it necessary to double-check against the Scriptures, surely it would be with the Apostle Paul. Yet the Bereans were commended for carefully scrutinizing Paul’s words in light of Scripture. If Paul’s words needed to fall under the judgment of God’s Word, obviously mine do, and Don Piper’s do, and Todd and Colton Burpo’s do.

I do believe that something is seriously wrong if people take more time to contemplate and discuss Colton Burpo’s account of petting Jesus’ rainbow-colored horse, or of Jesus wearing a crown with a pink diamond, than they do studying what the Bible actually says about Heaven. The back cover of the book says “Heaven Is for Real will forever change the way you think of eternity.” I would say, “Seek to let the Bible alone change the way you think of eternity.”

Almost Christian 6 – Parents Matter Most

Two weeks ago my daughter, Junia Elizabeth, was born. Other parents know what the last two weeks have been like for Emily and I. In a word, CRAZY! By the way, I am typing this while holding Junia. I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than holding your baby daughter in your arms!

What it means to be a parent has not hit me yet. I spend a lot of time looking forward to teaching her to read, helping her with homework, going on bike rides and all kinds of other things like that. I wonder what kind of person she will grow up to be, what kind of foods she will like, what career she will pursue (as for what college, there is no question – Penn State!). I have also spent time praying for her, as I hold her asleep in my arms. I pray she will come to know Jesus one day and seek to live as a child of God.

For that, I am challenged because books like Almost Christian based on studies like the National Study for Youth and Religion constantly say that when it comes to faith commitment of young people, parents matter most. That is the title of chapter six in Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian. She writes:

Research is nearly unanimous on this point: parents matter most in shaping the religious lives of their children This is not to say that parents determine their children’s spiritual destinies. Even the Bible has apostate parents with spiritual children, and vice versa, which only underscores the importance of supplementing teenagers’ religious formation within congregational education – consistently the second most important variable on adolescent religiosity. Yet there is no doubt that teenagers’ appreciation of a life-orienting God-story, and their ability to discern God’s ongoing movement in their lives and their communities are heavily influenced by adults’ appreciation of such a story, and adults’ way of discerning and responding to the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives. Proximity matters. Teenagers’ ability to imitate Christ depends on a daunting degree, on whether we do (112).

When she moves on to speak of Christian formation she uses the story of the Assyrian besiegers talking to the Israelites on the wall in Jerusalem (2 Kings 18-19). Her point is that the church needs to have “behind-the-wall” conversations with young people which provides them with resources to interact with the dominant culture, talking with those on the wall.

We can safely assume that the modern-day Assyrians (media, marketers, and other culture-makers of global postmodernity) are immersing American teenagers in the official language of the commercial empire. The empire’s language dismisses Yahweh, offers tantalizing but ultimately empty promises of salvation, and hands out scripts that the empire expects teenagers to follow. Unless the church cultivates a behind-the-wall conversation that reminds young people who they are, who they belong to, why they are here, and where their future hope lies – unless we hand on a tradition that gives them cultural tools to help them lay claim to this alternate vision of reality – then the empire’s conversation is the only view they have (114-115).

The question then is, how do we do this? She argues that the solution is not just to create a curriculum in an attempt to pass on the necessary information. Rather, mature Christians must walk alongside younger Christians in discipleship, passing on the tradition as they go.

I see this in campus ministry. Every year I make an effort to meet with students one-on-one throughout my week. Some students I meet with formally, week after week at the same time (except when they forget or have too much work!). Other students I set up meetings with on an occasional basis, while still others informally sit with me in my “office” in the library and chat. I believe that these times do more for my relationship with students and for their spiritual growth than the teachings at our large group meetings each week.

It is not just sitting and talking though, there is a large emphasis on action here. Dean compares it to music: “Young people do not research a band, and then decide on the basis of their research to enjoy the band’s music. First, they are swept away by a song, and then because they love the music, they start to learn about the band” (122). I think of Jesus and the disciples – he called on them to follow him and they spent time with him as he did ministry. They did not first attend a seminar by Jesus on why he was the Messiah! Further, he sent them out to do ministry (Matthew 10) before they even fully understood who he was.

Each year CSF takes a spring break mission trip. I always encourage the Christian students to invite their friends, emphasizing the trip is open to the whole campus. Usually a few students who are not part of CSF and have no Christian faith commitment end up joining us for the trip. On such trips, these students experience Christian community and the mission of Jesus in the world. My hope is, as Dean says, they would be “swept away” by the Spirit and be moved to further motivated to investigate Jesus.

The truth is, the same thing goes for Christian students. More faith formation and spiritual growth occurs on that one week trip then in in the rest of the year. It is one thing to sing songs and study scripture, it is another to sing songs and study scripture after a long day of serving those in need. All of a sudden, the scripture takes on a whole new meaning.

When this happens, watch out:

Translating the gospel for young people amounts to entrusting them with matches, for it gives them access to holy fire, which puts the church at risk: what if young people ignite the church? Then where would we be? Indeed. Translating the gospel with teenagers in mind throws open the doors of the church to young people whose perspective on Jesus, if less informed, is also less jaded than our own. Newcomers to Christian faith are prone to believing that Jesus is who he says he is, and they are apt to negotiate risks on the wall that the more seasoned among us would like to avoid (130).

One thing I have learned in working with college students is that when they catch the vision of Jesus sometimes the best thing to do is just get out of the way!

Recent Reads

I have now been a father for 11 days!  Yet, I have found some time to read!  Actually, holding baby Junia in one arm and a book in the other is quickly becoming my favorite thing.

Some of these articles are quite old, I bookmarked them before Junia arrived.

Do Christianity and Capitalism Clash? – In America, like most places, Christians blend our faith with our national story.  Thus, we have a hard time seeing what values come from Scripture and which are from culture.  Christians on both the liberal and conservative side of the political spectrum do this.  Many evangelicals are quick to point out the problems with giving government too much power, but there are also problems when we put our trust in corporations as this great quote states: “White evangelicals, for example, were more likely than other Christians or the general population to think positively about free-markets. 44 percent of them said that businesses unregulated by the government would still behave ethically. (So much for the doctrine of total depravity.) White evangelicals also believe religious leaders should speak out about social issues but not necessarily economic matters.”

Make sure you secure your wireless because someone could be using it to download child porn.  Sticking with the issue of pornography, here is a great article: Pride and Prejudice and Porn.

I mentioned my own disappointment learning Greg Mortenson, of Three Cups of Tea fame, has embellished his story and questionably allocated his funds.  Here is another article on this.

I am pro-life and stories like this one point out the hypocrisy of our laws in regards to the unborn.  A man tries to get his girlfriend to get an abortion and he is charged with murder.  Yet if the woman had chosen to get the abortion then it would be okay?  I think stories like this shed light on this whole issue: most agree abortion is murder, the ending of an innocent life.  It is just that one side sees that murder as justifiable and the other does not.

One of my favorite moments in The Simpsons is when Apu goes to the citizenship exam.  The examiner asks him to explain the causes for the Civil War.  Apu launches into a speech on all kinds of things, before the examiner interrupts him and says, “just say slavery.”  With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War this year, I have seen many articles (including the cover story of Time magazine) on how the Civil War has been interpreted through the years.  Really, it was about slavery.  I found this article on Ulysses Grant an interesting contribution.

We brought Junia home from the hospital on Saturday and the next day we all learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  That made me realize something.  I was born in 1980 so events that my parents remember, such as Kennedy’s assassination or the moon landing, I know only through history books.  Junia will view events like September 11, 2001, the election of the first black US president, and the death of Bin Laden in the same way, only through history books.

Something rubbed me the wrong way, seeing so many Americans taking to the streets to celebrate his death.  Actually, it was more the Christians celebrating, or posting on facebook, that caused this discomfort.  Of course, Bin Laden was a very bad person, responsible for thousands of deaths, and we can be glad he is gone.  As Christians, I believe we celebrate God’s justice.  On the other hand, God does not bring justice only to America’s enemies.  God brings justice for our (individually and corporately) own sins, and we have many of them.  Does it make sense for college students who commit nearly every sin against God in the book to dance and celebrate that another sinner is dead?  Also, the center of our faith is Jesus who called us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  At any rate, I have bookmarked many articles on the death of Bin Laden: Jim Wallis, Albert Mohler, a couple links from Benson Hines (focusing on college students’ reaction), and Salon.com.

Related to that, the torture debate is back in the news with the death of Bin Laden.  Glenn Greenwald writes on this here.  Anyone using the death of Bin Laden to justify torture is using the ultimate ends justify means tact.  Take any situation, think of a less emotional one than terrorism.  If you say it doesn’t matter what you say, if you lie, who you hurt or anything as long as you get the result you want then you are morally bankrupt.  In the same way, even if torturing prisoners helped kill Bin Laden, that does not automatically make torture justifiable.

Anyway, if you read this and have any opinions, think I’m an idiot or want to say hi…leave a comment.