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Discipleship
Rick Lawrence

Rick (rlawrence@group.com and @RickSkip on Twitter) has been editor of GROUP Magazine for 26 years. He’s author of the just-released book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry (simplyyouthministry.com). He wrote the books Sifted (www.siftedbook.com) and Shrewd (www.shrewdbook.com) and the upcoming Skin In the Game (2015) as an excuse to immerse himself in the presence of Jesus.

So, celebrity interviews aren’t a regular staple on my Outlook calendar, but a few weeks ago I interviewed Roma Downey and Mark Burnett in the backseat of their limo when they were on their way to… somewhere in Los Angeles. I wasn’t exactly in the back of the limo with them—we talked in machine-gun bursts dictated by terrible cell-phone reception. If you cross-reference “Christian” with “Hollywood power couples,” two names overshadow all the rest—Burnett and Downey. She’s the former star of the infamous Touched By An Angel, and he’s the mega-successful producer behind Survivor, Shark Tank, The Voice, The Bible miniseries, and now the upcoming Son of God film.

DownyOn the cusp of Son of God’s debut in theaters all over the U.S. and the world, Burnett and Downey were in the midst of a media blitz to get the word out. You can read our entire 20-minute interview in the upcoming May/June issue of GROUP Magazine, but here I’ll extract a little interchange with Roma Downey about the Jesus-hunger that’s quickly growing in our culture…

Rick: “Students and ministry leaders are more hungry for Jesus than they’ve ever been. And I’m just wondering, from your perspective, why is that? You just mentioned we’ve had 10 years of high-profile Jesus films, beginning with The Passion of the Christ. What’s going on in the culture that’s creating this hunger for Jesus?”

Downey: “Well, I think that we’re all experiencing a great disconnect with all the things that we think would satisfy us in our culture. You know, we’re right now driving through Hollywood, where so many things are presented to us that promise to make us happy. Or we’re told over and over that there are products that we have to have or we won’t be happy—all the things that are presented to us that will complete our lives. I think it’s just becoming clearer with everyone that none of these things that are offered to us are true, or will feed our spirit, in the way that a walk with Jesus will.”

Downey lives in “Excess Central”—the land of “you can have anything and be anything you want”—so her perspective on the source of true joy is spot-on. My own church is located in one of the most entitled suburbs in Denver, and I’ve always said our congregation is called to the most difficult mission field in the world—affluent America. People who have it all, or think they do, are not desperate enough to turn to a Jesus whose best friends are always the most desperate people in the room. But the more affluent we become, and the more convinced we are that we can buy our way to happiness, the more at risk we are for losing our “foundational hope.” Here’s what I mean…

Researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK and Hamilton College in New York have found that countries ranking high on the “happily affluent” scale also have the highest suicide rates. Denmark is often used as a primary example, but this ironic dynamic is also true of Canada, the U.S., Iceland, Ireland, and Switzerland. In the U.S., researchers found that states that have people who are generally more financially satisfied with their lives tend to have higher suicide rates than those with lower average levels of life satisfaction. For example, Utah is ranked first in life satisfaction, but has the ninth highest suicide rate, while New York is ranked 45th in life satisfaction but has the lowest suicide rate in the country. Hawaii ranks second in average life satisfaction, but has the fifth-highest suicide rate in the country.

The University of Warwick’s professor Andrew Oswald, co-author of a report on the tie between suicide and apparent “life satisfaction” published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, says: “Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life. Those dark contrasts may in turn increase the risk of suicide.” It’s a kind of cultural whiplash—when the stuff that promises to make us happy doesn’t do the job once we have it, “how deep is our darkness” (Matthew 6:23). The words of Jesus that immediately follow this snippet from verse 23 get right at the core of our joy: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And the reason we cannot serve these two masters simultaneously is that we can trust only one God—one of these makes promises it can never keep, the other makes promises that are ensured by His outstretched arms on a cross. Our journey to joy, like the “treasure buried in the field,” follows a path that leads directly to Jesus, where His scarred hands are waiting to wrap us in a long embrace, just as the father in his Parable of the Prodigal Son foreshadows…

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