There’s a universal longing at the heart of every young girl’s soul, and it is, of course, to join the mythic society of pony-owners. Even The Simpsons’ Lisa pines for a pony—so much so that a disgraced and desperate Homer buys her Princess, a pony-gift of appeasement after he ruins her talent-show performance. That episode (#8, in season three) was the highest-rated Fox show broadcast that week, by the way…
In our culture, the pony lives on as the patron saint of completely impractical obsessions. That’s ironic because, in reality, ponies make terrible pets. They’re large, dangerous, messy, unpredictable, and expensive to maintain. Plus, they often live for three or four decades—far past the shelf-life of a typical pony obsession. A pony can’t curl up in your lap and keep you company when you’re cold or afraid. And ponies don’t know how to play. They just stand there looking cute, eating when they’re fed and pooping whenever they want.
So, why have these boondoggle pets so captured the imaginations of girls all over the world, and what does any of this have to do with youth ministry?
- The pony has been mythologized as the best friend a girl could ever have. Cartoons, movies, toys, and board games portray the pony as the most amazing companion possible. A pony, then, taps into the deepest longing we have as human beings—to be seen and known and loved by something/someone who will never let us down.
- Pony-love (and the other mythical dream-obsessions of children) is really a symptom of what Blaise Pascal called the “God-shaped” hole in our soul. That’s right, I just connected Blaise Pascal to Lisa Simpson. (I’m guessing that’s a first.) We’re all born heart-hungry, and our completely impractical dreams are just placeholders for the one pursuit that can actually quench our thirst and fill our belly. When Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well outside Sychar, he elevates the scope of her hunger. She’s interested in the “living water” Jesus is offering, but she thinks he’ll need conventional means to deliver that dream to her. Jesus tells her: “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” The woman’s hungry/thirsty response is: “Please, sir, give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again…” (John 4:13-15). Eventually, the conversation meanders toward the promised Messiah—the fulfillment of all our placeholder pursuits—and Jesus shatters the woman’s expectations, using the holiest name reserved for God: “I AM the Messiah.”
My wife and I lead a small group of a dozen-or-so teenagers in our home every Tuesday night. Our singular focus and pursuit is the heart of Jesus. We use a flat-screen TV hooked to my laptop to display conversation questions, video clips, and artwork. Our passion is to create an experiential, conversational environment that always loops back to the why of Jesus’ heart, not just the what. The slide that’s on the screen every week when kids settle in for the evening is simple. It’s an artistic rendering of Jesus with this slogan at the top: “Pursuing the Heart of Jesus… Not His Recipes.” The kids have now ingested what that slogan means; they’re living it out in their everyday life. We want heart knowledge of Jesus’ essence, not mere head knowledge of his truths.
According to the team that conducted groundbreaking research for the National Study of Youth and Religion, today’s emerging adults have a latent hunger for going deeper. They want serious, creative conversation and experiential pursuit. We’ve seen this, over and over, every week in our living room.
Teenagers want to have a voice in this pursuit, and they want a vigorous conversational environment where they can discover new insights themselves, not have them handed to them as if they were incapable of understanding who Jesus really is. The kids in our living room every Tuesday night are drinking living water. They were born with a hunger for the person of Jesus, and the world has offered them a metaphoric pony instead. I’m thankful for pony-love, because it taps into and surfaces a much greater love that can be fulfilled only by a much greater dream. And that dream’s name is Jesus.