More than two centuries ago, John Newton wrote the classic hymn “Amazing Grace” to honor God for rescuing him from a monstrous life in the slave trade. He’d spent much of his adult life herding panicked and desperate Africans onto the slave ship he captained, then selling them to wealthy landowners in America. So when he penned “saved a wretch like me,” he wasn’t kidding. Newton knew God had snatched him from evil and darkness and despair—his “Amazing Grace” lyrics are unabashedly desperate.
Contrast Newton’s take on grace with the average North American adult or teenager who’s singing the lyrics to this hymn in church. How many of us really identify ourselves as “wretches” when we sing the iconic chorus? Do I honestly think of myself as “a miserable person: one who is profoundly unhappy or in great misfortune” or a “base, despicable, or vile person”? Well, yes, sometimes… But here’s what is indisputable: the direct tie between our appreciation of grace’s magnitude and a gut-honest assessment of our wretchedness.
Do we need God’s grace as much as Newton’s bare-faced confession shows he did? More likely, if we were to translate Newton’s lyrics to accurately reflect what we really think, we’d sing: “Expected grace, how innocuous the sound, that gave a friendly nudge to a pretty good person like me.”
This is no great surprise—we live in the most affluent, excessive culture in the history of the world. Most of us aren’t in danger or want on a daily basis. And most of us have a pretty high opinion of ourselves, even when it’s subtly cloaked in knee-jerk humility or dismissiveness. So why go to God for grace when we don’t experience a real need for it?
I love something Steve Fitzhugh once said—he’s a former NFL player who now directs an after-school youth center in Washington, D.C. Fitzhugh had returned from a speaking trip to Africa, where a local pastor in Zimbabwe had left him with this: “Steve, in America you believe in God. In Africa, we depend on God.”
What a dart to the heart!
Dependence is the key to pretty much everything in our relationship with Jesus. We were made, at our core, to be dependent on God. But our Great Temptation is dependence on self. Of course, we can’t manufacture dependence—that’s exactly the problem we face in our life and in our ministry. How do we move more deeply into a dependent relationship with God, or invite students into one, when we live in a cultural environment that makes desperation a last resort?
•Study the price tag. What made The Passion of the Christ such a sledgehammer of a film? Mel Gibson had the courage to show (not tell) us the price tag for our redemption. Most of us think of sin as something we shouldn’t do, so we will ourselves to overcome it and try to teach students to do the same. But our addiction to willpower exposes our undercover commitment to live outside of the necessity of grace. Instead, what if we framed sin as our willful disregard of God? What if we stopped talking about trying harder and focused, instead, on the sound of the lash on Jesus’ back?
• Teach about the “hard” Jesus. Kids relate to Jesus as a nice, sheep-lugging, baby-kissing, hair-tousling kind of guy because we often gloss over his ferocity, which is on display everywhere in the Gospels. What about the Jesus who made the price of discipleship unbelievably steep for the rich young ruler in Luke 18, or the Jesus who called the religious leaders of his day “whitewashed tombs” and “snakes” in Matthew 23 (likely as offensive to them as any four-letter word is to us today)? Jesus was a difficult person—a lot of people were uncomfortable in his presence and scandalized by things he said and did. C.S. Lewis used fantasy (the character of Aslan in the Narnia stories) as a strategy to reintroduce Jesus to people who thought he was merely nice. Our goal must be the same—to reintroduce the real Jesus to our kids. My friend Ned once told me there’s a progression to the Christian life: The more you know Jesus, the more you love him. The more you love him, the more you want to follow him. The more you follow him, the more you become like him. The more you become like him, the more you become yourself.
• Find ways to place ourselves, and students, in God-dependent situations. We’re nudged toward dependence on God when we’re placed in dependent circumstances. Way back when my hair was still brown (ish), I was in an international training school to learn how to be a cross-cultural street evangelist. One night in Sicily during an outreach event, a woman came screaming into our midst, apparently possessed by a demon. There was no time to flip through the manual at that point—I and my other wide-eyed missionary friends had to trust that God would show us what to do as we were doing it.
In practical terms, “as we’re doing it ministry” means scaring ourselves and our kids—in a good way. It means we plunge into risks that are put before us by God’s Spirit. In terms of student ministry, it might mean that we ask kids to lead something that we would normally lead, or serve in a setting that’s far outside their comfort zone, or reach out to people whose problems are beyond their ability to solve, or introduce others to the real Jesus.
In short, our path to dependence follows the trail Peter blazed—we (and teenagers) listen when Jesus calls and get out of our “boat” to walk on water to him. If we do this often enough, we’ll have no doubt of our “wretchedness,” and we’ll have no misconceptions about God’s grace.