There’s no price that captures the value of a vulnerable, open, and honest friendship. That fact became real to me one more time when I ran into a ministry peer last fall who I hadn’t seen for quite some time. While we often talk by phone and email, he waited until he saw me in person to emphatically confess, “The T.H. thing scared the heck out of me!” My confusion over his cryptic confession quickly vanished when he answered my perplexed “What are you talking about?” expression with “You know. T. H. . . .Ted Haggard.”
Yes, I do know. And I told him it scared the heck out of me too. You see, I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I’ve become increasingly prone to recognize the foolishness and hypocrisy of responding to high-profile moral failures with a look of self-righteous disgust and a wagging finger. I recognize the foolishness because I recognize me. Name a sin and name a temptation. . . and whether I choose to admit it to you or not, deep down inside I know that at the very least, I’m vulnerable.
The “T.H. thing” should serve as a wake-up call to us all about the fact that even though we may be loving and serving God, temptation and sin are a fact of life that are very, very real. Shortly after the news broke about Ted Haggard’s fall, Gordon MacDonald was asked to reflect on what we should learn from this episode. MacDonald recognized the struggle with sin that we all share with the Apostle Paul (“What a wretched man I am!” Romans 7:24) when he wrote, “I am no stranger to failure and public humiliation. From those terrible moments of twenty years ago in my own life I have come to believe that there is a deeper person in many of us who is not unlike an assassin. This deeper person can be the source of attitudes and behaviors we normally stand against in our conscious being. But it seeks to destroy us and masses energies that – unrestrained – tempt us to do the very things we ‘believe against.’ If you have been burned as deeply as I have, you never live a day without remembering that there is something within that, left unguarded, will go on the rampage.”
As my friend and I walked and talked about the “T.H. Thing,” we recognized that the host of temptations that toy with our sin natures each and every day (lust, pride, materialism, covetousness, etc.) are best kept in check when we not only recognize their presence, but when we confess them to a group of trusted friends who are willing to listen and hold us accountable. We also discussed how easy it is to lie to ourselves by slowly slipping away from accountability while convincing ourselves that “I am accountable,” “I can handle it,” or “I’ll never ___________ (fill in the blank with the sin du jour).” Every Christian I’ve ever known who’s fallen flat on their face didn’t start out with bad intentions. Rather, they slowly fell into believing the lies while avoiding accountability. And it wasn’t until they realized they were flat on their face and facing the long and painful process of standing up and dusting off that they realized how wrong or unguarded they’d been.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth.” How true. But in today’s culture, our individualism (fed by a diet of competitive “me first” materialism and solitary “Jesus and me” evangelicalism) does little to encourage us to seek out accountability in deep and meaningful ways. In addition, we erroneously believe that because we have and use advanced communication technologies that have shrunk the globe and enabled us to interact with more people, in more ways, and more often than ever before, we’re somehow connected and therefore accountable. But how ironic it is that we find ourselves feeling more disconnected and alone than ever before. The reality is, as theologian and social critic Jacques Ellul wrote, that “in a society in which everything is done to establish relationships, man is living in solitude.” That solitude can kill us.
And so I’ve been thinking a lot more about fostering accountability, not only in my own life, but in the lives of our students so that they graduate from their adolescent years and our youth ministries expecting, seeking out, and embracing accountability as a necessary component to a healthy and vital relationship with Christ. . . for the rest of their lives. The fact is that we haven’t been doing a very good job. It’s sadly ironic that the emerging generation of middle and high school-aged students we minister to is marked by a value and longing for Christian community. But when they leave our youth groups to head off to college, many turn their backs on or take a dangerous hiatus from the Christian community they’ve been a part of and for which they’ve been made, only to embrace a peer community that encourages and celebrates the temptations and sins that serve to invade and disrupt a relationship with Christ. And because this is happening during the crucial young adult years where life-long values, attitudes, and behaviors are formed, the results can be devastating to one’s spiritual health. . . both now and for the rest of life.
Derek Melleby, the director of our College Transition Initiative at the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, tells me that 65 percent of high school students stop attending church after they graduate even though 76 percent of all college students are searching for meaning and purpose in life. In addition, 25 percent of all college students will experience a depressive episode by age 24 and nearly 50 percent of all college students report feeling so depressed at some point in time that they have trouble functioning. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. Forty-four percent of all college students are binge drinkers. An alarming number of college students are sexually active. Ninety-one percent of college females diet, 35 percent progress to pathological dieting, and 22.5 percent progress to partial or full syndrome eating disorders. Could it be that we could help facilitate Christian growth and a spiritually healthy college transition for our students by deliberately and consistently working to build and practice accountability into their lives long before they graduate from high school? It certainly wouldn’t hurt!
What’s necessary to build in effective accountability with today’s middle and high school students so that they would be ready and willing to embrace continued accountability during their crucial college years?
Give adults and students time to spend together. I fear that far too many of our churches discourage accountability by separating the young from the old. For example, when we remove kids from corporate worship and put them into a parallel “youth worship” setting, we are not only removing the opportunity to connect intergenerationally, but we are promoting the attitude that adults are old-fashioned, out-of-touch, and not worth listening to. Instead, we should be giving students the opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and diverse spectrum of people within the Body of Christ, including those whose age and experience makes them a valuable resource because they are older and wiser.
Connect all students to a caring adult. While this might seem like a pie-in-the-sky dream, it’s a dream worth pursuing. Imagine what could happen if every young person in the middle and high school ministry had some adult other than mom and dad who cared enough to stay in touch, spend time together, share experiences, and talk about life in God’s world?
Teach students the benefits of accountability. As we open up, interact, listen to, and submit to one another we can encourage and point each other to paths that lead to spiritual growth, and away from paths that lead to spiritual shipwreck.
Teach adults to model vulnerability. Accountability is a two-way street. When those who are older, wiser, and more experienced in following Christ are willing to share their own temptations, sins, and struggles – both past and present – those who are young in age and faith are freed up to not only struggle, but to experience the wonderful freedom that comes with sharing those struggles in the context of an accountability relationship. Honesty breeds honesty, and honesty is crucial to effective accountability.
Teach adults to be grace-full. All human beings are in process, especially when it comes to spiritual growth. In addition, all human beings are sinful. All of our lives have been a combination of spiritual steps forward and spiritual steps backward. Still, God has promised and shown grace. The same grace should be shown to one another as we rejoice in victory, and grieve over sin.
Encourage relationships for the long haul. Mutual accountability doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to develop trust, vulnerability, and openness. There will be ups and downs along the way. To reach a high level of accountability takes a tremendous investment of time and energy. These are not short-term relationships that are to be entered into and pursued for only a season. Instead, they take years to develop. And, making the investment through a student’s middle and high school years will pay great dividends when that relationship continues through the college years.
While the “T.H. thing” should scare the heck out of us, it should also serve to scare accountability into us. I need it. You need it. Your students need it. The scriptures tell us to submit to one another, to confess our sins to one another, and to pray for another. That’s what happens in a culture of accountability. If there was ever a time for us to instill in our Christian students the desire to chant a “mantra” over and over for the rest of their lives, then now is the time to teach them – through our words and example – to repeatedly plea, “Hold me accountable, please.”