“If you think you can walk in holiness without keeping up perpetual fellowship with Christ, you have made a great mistake. If you would be holy, you must live close to Jesus.”
Charles Haddon Spurgeon
In this excerpt from the book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry, our conventional understand-and-apply approach to spurring spiritual growth in students is skewered, in favor of a revolutionary re-writing of our job description.
I was invited to have lunch with six youth pastors who’d been singled out by a seminary professor as men and women who’d managed to build long-term thriving youth ministries. For two hours we talked about the centrality of Jesus as a ministry focus. It was not a light conversation—the deeper we dove, the more dissonant the atmosphere became.
Finally, one of the youth pastors looked at me with sad-but-determined eyes and said, “I don’t think kids walking into our church get to see what it looks like to live as Christians. Most are just there to be with their friends. Our committed Christian kids don’t like it—they can’t really worship because it’s not a worshipful environment. We have attenders, but no community.”
Another spoke up, obviously feeling the freedom to finally drag into the light what he’d been too afraid to say. “The word ‘Christian’ has taken on alternate meanings in today’s culture—we need to throw it out,” he said. “We need to debunk how [teenagers] have been brought up to see Jesus, and what worship is all about. If we could just shut down for a year…”
The first speaker jumped in and proclaimed, “I’d love to shut down for a year! Sometimes we’re so comforting and so kind and so welcoming we miss the hard edges of Jesus.” Then another spoke up: “I spent some time this year leading a mission trip overseas—something happened inside of me during that time. When I came back, I told my kids, ‘I’m sick of being a Christian—I’m ready to become a Christ follower.’ For the kids in my church, there’s nothing I’ve ever said that resonated more with them, or longer. These are kids who’ve grown up in the church, and they want more.”
Around our little circle heads nodded and eyes flashed. These were all highly educated, trench-tested veteran youth pastors who’d each been at their churches for many years, and had hundreds of kids in their ministries. They were clearly mature in their faith and admired for their leadership skills. There was no embittered sense of burnout in them—quite the contrary, actually. They just didn’t like what their ministries had become. And they knew that a few little tweaks or the latest tips and techniques would not get the job done. Half of them were openly hungering to know Jesus more deeply, wishing they could implode their conventional “understand and apply” ministries without losing their job.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE SHOULDS
It’s tempting to simply convince students to leave behind “Christian” and begin anew as “Christ-followers”—but, of course, we can’t “should” teenagers into an all-in relationship with Jesus, any more than I “shoulded” my wife into marrying me. For true intimacy to grow in any relationship we have to be captured and consumed by our lover’s essence.
Pastor and theologian N.T. Wright says: “The longer you look at Jesus, the more you will want to serve him. That is of course, if it’s the real Jesus you’re looking at.” It’s “the real Jesus” whose gravitational pull is so strong that we can’t escape His orbit once we get close to Him. Philosophy professor and C.S. Lewis scholar Dr. Peter Kreeft once told a class of Boston University students:
“Christ changed every human being He ever met… If anyone claims to have met Him without being changed, he has not met Him at all. When you touch Him, you touch lightening…. The Greek word used to describe everyone’s reaction to Him in the gospels is ‘thauma’—wonder. This was true of His enemies, who killed Him. Of his disciples, who worshiped Him. And even of agnostics, who went away shaking their heads and muttering ‘No man every spoke like this man’ and knowing that if He didn’t stop being what He was and saying what He said that eventually they would have to side with either His killers or his worshippers.”
In our conventional understand-and-apply mentality—the most prevalent ministry strategy in the church—our central role is to answer kids’ questions with something like prophetic wisdom. We’re always on the hot seat, and we’re always feeling ill-equipped to wow kids with the sort of zinger-answers that C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton or Tim Keller or Lee Strobel might reel-off in the moment. The last time I felt as well-equipped as C.S. Lewis to answer the unanswerable theological questions of teenagers was…never. Urban youth ministry expert Leneita Fix gave me this sampler of questions, asked by her small group of senior highers last night:
How do I know if someone is demon-possessed?
Why doesn’t my Jewish friend believe Jesus is the Messiah?
Don’t Jewish people believe Abraham is Satan?
In those paranormal-type movies, are ghosts and demons the same thing?
Why don’t we ever get to stop sinning?
Why does my Jehovah’s Witness friend make me feel like I’m the one who’s wrong?
Good luck with those, Leneita… When we accept our “answer-person” job description, we back ourselves into the “corner of incapacity,” sooner or later. That’s because “the right answers” have replaced “the right orientation,” and it’s literally impossible for any human being to respond well to the myriad of environmental forces that are leveraging our teenagers. Frustration is a foregone conclusion, because we don’t have all the answers, and we have a pretty miserable record of teaching people to “apply” truths. Real transformation, even in our own experience, most often happens differently… In a GROUP Magazine survey of Christian college students, we asked them to look back over their trajectory and identify the factors that caused them to grow and mature as followers of Christ. They told us their primary catalysts included:
2. A crisis or a great struggle
3. A camp or retreat experience
The common thread among these influences is that they’re all identity-forming forces rather than understand-and-apply forces. You’ll see this reality threaded through their comments:
• “After my best friend’s 7-year-old brother died I realized the reality of death and heaven and wanted to live my life for Christ.”
• “I was at a church camp and was really drawn to God. I had been pretty stagnant and decided to get ‘more serious.'”
• “When I was about 15 I attended a youth conference and it kind of woke me up as to getting more serious about my faith. Letting my parents’ faith that I grew up with my whole life become my own, so to speak.”
• “During a missions trip I realized what an important part God was in my life and how I needed to trust him with my life. I knew I needed to make him the center of my life and the main influence.”
In contrast to relational experiences that shape our identity in Christ, the understand-and-apply heresy promotes two glaring fallacies:
1. It assumes mere understanding leads to growth.
If understanding alone was a true indicator of growth as a disciple, then Satan should step to the head of the class. He knew enough biblical truth to go toe-to-toe with Jesus in the wilderness. Understanding alone, it’s obvious, does not guarantee transformation. But this assertion nevertheless hangs on with the staying power of a cockroach in a nuclear holocaust.
The Enlightenment kicked off a common understanding about rational thought that has become an entrenched given in our culture—the most important ingredient in any recipe for maturation is the progression of thought. On one level, that would mean the smartest people are also the most mature, and it takes very little investigative effort to debunk that premise. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that Jesus’ disciples upended the ancient world because of their advanced understanding of biblical truth. No, they upended the ancient world because they’d been transformed by their intimate relationship with the Spirit of Jesus, now living inside them because of Pentecost. The Spirit makes it possible for us to move from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus. This is knowing in the “biblical sense”—it’s our most intimate act.
2. It assumes our growth in Christ is dependent on our ability, or willingness, to apply truth to our lives.
Try this experiment the next time you’re listening to a pastor’s sermon—count the number of times some version of “apply this to your life” is mentioned. Then ask yourself: “What’s the likelihood that most people sitting in this room will leave here and immediately begin applying these truths to their life?” Or, even more telling: “What’s the likelihood that most people in this room even understand how to apply the truths they just heard, or have the willpower to consider applying them?”
Jesus described the people of God as sheep for good reason—they’re not exactly quick of mind, if you know what I mean… The sheep don’t need a better understanding of how to avoid getting eaten by wolves—they need a deeper trust in and obedience to their Shepherd, who will look out for them and defend them and rescue them.
A RADICAL RE-WRITING OF OUR JOB DESCRIPTION
In his book Ruthless Trust, author Brennan Manning writes: “It must be noted that Jesus alone reveals who God is… We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; however, we must deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus.” The imperative lurking in Manning’s blast of truth is an eccentric, ultra-curious, passionate pursuit of everything Jesus said and did. We learn “everything about God” from paying much closer attention to Him than we ever have before. And when we do, we’ll re-discover the path to a transformed life, laid out by the Trinity: it’s Jesus, in John 6, insisting that we must “Eat My body and drink My blood” if we want to be in deep relationship with Him.
The movement from “mastering knowledge” and growing students’ impetus to act on that knowledge to something that looks and sounds more like a growing romance that “ruins” the lover for the Beloved is at the core of the Jesus-centered ministry shift. And to make this shift, we’ll need to do something that couples who’ve been married a long time, and have grown dull to one another’s beauty, must do: we must remember the Jesus we didn’t know we’d forgotten.
Here’s a fair reading of the macro-narrative of the Bible: 1) The people of God are rescued by God and live gratefully, for awhile; 2) The people of God slowly, inexorably, forget what God has done and who he is, and they slide into independence and self-worship; 3) Because of His great love for His people, God intervenes in their downward slide by releasing the floodgates of consequence for their betrayal; 4) The people of God are jolted awake, and remember their desperate need for God; 5) The people of God draw near to God again, and re-discover His beauty and strength and truth; 6) The cycle then repeats itself.
Remembering, therefore, is central to God’s movement in our lives. That means forgetting is our greatest enemy, and there’s never a time riper for seducing us into forgetting that when we’re pretty comfortable in our understanding of Jesus. And that time is this time—we’re way, way too comfortable and satisfied in our knowledge and understanding and experience of Jesus. I was listening to a well-known church consultant talk about cultural trends that are having an impact on the church today. I heard lots of facts and illustrations about “top-down” versus “bottom up,” “dictatorial” versus “participatory,” “isolating” versus “connecting,” “big box” versus “intimate space,” and so on.
And then my “ruined for Jesus” obsession kicked in.
I realized the church consultant was only exploring horizontal strategies—I mean, plans and ideas and techniques that promise to influence the way we help young people experience church and Christian fellowship. To me, it was a very, very interesting discussion about the cup-holders in a Ferrari—who cares about the accessories when you have an engine that can propel the car at speeds above 200 mph sitting under the hood? But almost all the very, very interesting discussions and movements in youth ministry are about cup holders—techniques and philosophies and approaches that excite because they are new or edgy or hip. And they are incredibly boring when they’re placed side-by-side with the person of Jesus.
I raised my hand to ask the church consultant: “I’d like to throw out my own ‘axe to grind’ and get your response—everything you’re talking about is very interesting but very horizontal to me, so where does the pursuit of Jesus fit into all of this?” The consultant looked at me for an uncomfortably long moment—my question was a dangerous rabbit-trail that threatened to hijack her narrative, and she needed to regain control. “Well, of course, we can’t forget the story in all of this,” the consultant said, finally. “In the midst of changing and adapting our ministries to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing culture, we have to hang on to what we’ve always known.” The consultant continued down this path for a few more minutes and then was clearly ready to move on.
So I raised my hand again and said: “Actually, I don’t think it’s a good idea at all to ‘hang on to what we know’—I think we’re now at a place where we’re so comfortable with Jesus, so confident of who he is and what he’s like, that a lot of ‘what we know’ is actually wrong. We’ve kind of lost interest in Him, like a married couple in midlife. We think we pretty much have Him pegged—all the things we like and all the things that have been bugging us about Him for years. We’ve been married a long time to Jesus and gone through a lot together. But one of the marriage partners—the church—is sort of looking around for something to spark our passions because we’re past the ‘passionate curiosity’ stage with Jesus. So we turn to the ‘form and function’ of doing church as our mid-marriage splurge—like letting ourselves get involved in an emotional affair to rouse us from our relational boredom. If we’re not awake to this dynamic, our ‘marriage’ could descend into deadness and a sense of growing isolation—we’ll literally live under the same roof with Jesus but live separate lives, functionally apart from Him.”
When I was finished fire-hosing the consultant with this onslaught, I couldn’t tell whether she was arrested by it or merely exercising super-human patience until I ran out of gas. She nodded, acknowledged my input, and suggested we take a short break. I got up to stretch, and several people quickly surrounded me. Their eyes were flashing with a kind of rebel glee. One of them said, “What all people—young and old—are really hungry for today is Jesus.” Our faces lit up and we felt an immediate and kindred closeness with each other. The excitement of that shared connection was, simply, a non-musical expression of worship.
SOAPBOX OR FERRARI?
The simple reason a few uneducated and often clueless 1st-century men and women could plant something that not only changed the world, but continues to occupy its orbital center, is because their “movement” was attached to the force of the person of Jesus. They were not the greatest tips-and-techniques people to ever walk the earth. They were not skilled at strategy or structure. But they were ruined for Jesus, and the momentum of that attachment changed everything they touched.
In his book Who Is This Man? author and pastor John Ortberg sums it up well: “Normally when someone dies, their impact on the world immediately begins to recede. But…Jesus’ impact was greater a hundred years after His death than during his life; it was greater still after five hundred years; after a thousand years His legacy laid the foundation for much of Europe; after two thousand years He has more followers in more places than ever…Jesus’ vision of life continues to haunt and challenge humanity.”
In our conventional approaches to ministry we are like children building a Soapbox Derby car for a Formula One race when there’s a Ferrari sitting there. God is not expecting us to build our own car out of scrap-wood and ingenuity, then give it a good push—He’s inviting us to sink into the bucket seats of His Ferrari, whose name is Jesus, and open up the throttle…