We all have stories that mark profound passages from darkness to light. One of mine happened during a conversation with a junior high girl who’d just served as a leader in a churchwide worship experience during Holy week.
This girl had spent several days leading people from her congregation into a deeper relationship with Jesus through an interactive devotional experience. She was giddy with excitement about the whole thing. Out of the blue, I told her I’d been asking teenagers to describe Jesus to me… just because I was curious. “So,” I asked, “what are some words you’d use to describe Jesus to someone who’d never heard of him?”
She thought, then thought some more. Then she edged her way into a hopeful response: “Well, I’d have to say he’s really, really nice.” I waited for more, but there was no more. So I asked, “Remember that time Jesus made a whip and chased all the moneychangers out of the temple? Does that story change the way you describe Jesus?” She thought and thought and thought. Finally, with the tone of someone raising a white flag over a crumbling wall, she said, “Well, I know Jesus is nice, so what he did must have been nice.”
I nodded my headed and smiled grimly.
After this experience, I decided to ask teenagers all over the country the same question. We hired video crews and asked them to stop kids randomly on the street. When I got all the raw footage back, I discovered my experience with the junior high girl was not an aberration. Without fail, teenagers’ favorite descriptive word for Jesus was always “nice.”
Now, we can debate whether a junior high girl’s developmental stage keeps her from experiencing Jesus as anything other than nice (I think that’s a cop-out, by the way), but that interchange was profoundly sad for me. It’s the same way I’d feel if someone, not knowing that I’m married to my wife Bev, told me that the best thing about her is that she’s incredibly… tidy. Sure, Jesus was nice when he healed people and when he invited children to sit on his lap. But he was definitely not nice when he was blasting the Pharisees or calling his best friend “Satan” or when he told the Rich Young Ruler he’d have to sell all his possessions and follow him if he wanted to “inherit eternal life.” A merely nice Jesus is no Jesus at all.
And this changed everything for me. I’ve been editor of GROUP for more than two decades. During that time youth ministry experts, resource providers, trainers, and other barnacles (including me) have tried to direct our focus toward student-led ministry, family ministry, relational ministry, postmodern ministry, and anti-Chubby-Bunny ministry. It wasn’t until I heard all these kids describe Jesus as merely nice that I realized how much we’ve been overlooking the elephant in the living room—Jesus.
Britain went from a God-fearing, churchgoing nation just after World War II to a country where less than 8 percent of its people now go to church weekly. A relationship with Jesus is off the radar screen for the huge majority of Brits. What happened? Well, the church didn’t do a great job inviting young people into an everyday relationship with Jesus. And when something drives a wedge between Jesus and our everyday experiences, it doesn’t take long before we simply stop going to church.
Now, here in America, we’re following in Britain’s footsteps. Social researchers are telling us only one out of 10 Americans have what they describe as a “devoted” faith—that means a faith that’s at the hub of their everyday life. We have work to do, and it’s good work. Actually, it’s the very best work. My friend Dr. Christian Smith, lead researcher for The National Study of Youth and Religion, wrote this in an article for GROUP Magazine: “Our research…confirmed…the importance of good church youth groups in forming the lives of young people. Of course, youth groups are not the main influence in teenagers’ faith lives. Their relationship with their parents, and their parents’ faith practices, matter most in shaping kids’ faith. But beyond that, our research shows that the presence or absence of a good church youth group—of committed, loving, discipling youth pastors—can make a huge difference in kids’ lives.”
Now, if the only Jesus kids know is a nice Jesus, no wonder so many believe in Him but so few are following him in their everyday life. Would you turn to Mr. Rogers when the teenage girls at your school are texting you all day long with vicious threats and heart-breaking accusations? When the doctor tells you the diagnosis is Leukemia, are you hoping to see Barney walk through your hospital door to cheer you up? No, kids have little use for a pansy Jesus. The real Jesus is pretty much like Aslan, C.S. Lewis’ allegory for Christ in the Narnia books, the one described as “not a safe lion.”
Here at Group/SYM our passion is to offer “committed, loving, discipling youth pastors” new skills and new inspiration that will powerfully bring Jesus back into focus. I’m not just pontificating here—everything we do is “bent” toward drawing teenagers closer to the person and mission of Jesus, including our LIVE small-group curriculum, which follows C.H. Spurgeon’s motto: “In all things, make a beeline to Jesus.” We’re on a mission here…yours, mine, ours, and His.
Rick Lawrence has been editor of group for 24 years (firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @RickSkip). His next book, releasing August 2, is Shrewd: Daring to Obey the Startling Command of Jesus (shrewdbook.com).