One surprising privilege we enjoy as baptized followers of Jesus is our unique ability to commit heresy. I mean, only a believer can say or do something heretical, by definition. You have to believe in something before you turn it into a twisted belief. And the Apostle Paul assured his protégé Timothy that a whole lot of heresy was coming down the pike, so to speak:
“For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NLT).
So, since we’re so good and so dependable at propagating heresies, which ones have wheedled their way into youth ministry?
1. Botching our definition and practice of “grace.” The other day I told my 16-year-old daughter Lucy that I’d had to deliver some very painful discipline to a person in my life who’d really screwed up. After I told her some of the bare details, she said: “Dad, I thought grace meant that we give people second chances—couldn’t you have given grace in that situation?”
And I told her that was a great question, but: “What if you had cancer and you went to your oncologist, and he told you the cancer was aggressive and could threaten your life. And then he told you that the most aggressive treatment combined chemotherapy and radiation, but that would be like taking poison into your body, and would make you really sick—even bring you to the point of death. So, instead, he recommended simply changing your diet and then waiting to see what would happen. What would you say?”
And she said, “Well, of course, I’d want the chemo.” And I said, “Grace is always kind, but it’s not always nice. It’s intended to rescue us, not placate us.” In youth ministry, we’ve limited the definition of grace to “super-nice”—a heresy, because grace is much more than that. Sometimes it looks like chemotherapy.
2. Framing discipleship as a “should.” Last year, toward the end of a devotion I was leading for our Group Mission Trip summer staffers, I looked out on a sea of eager college-age faces and suddenly got choked up. “I want to apologize to all of you on behalf of the church,” I said. The room suddenly got very quiet. “I know most of you have grown up in the church, and your whole life you’ve been told you should love Jesus because… you should love Jesus. Well, I’d like to apologize for that—Jesus isn’t trying to should you into loving him. That’s our misguided strategy, not his. He wants to invite you to know him much more deeply, then let’s see how that impacts your love for him.” Heretical shoulds try to push students into religious imperatives, and that’s why we’re so exhausted in ministry. Instead, a “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) approach is invitational, and takes a fraction of the energy.
3. Diminishing Jesus. If you simply slowed down and listed everything Jesus said and did in the gospels, breaking it all down into categories, you’d discover a Jesus who shatters our common misconceptions. So try this very exercise—limit it to a five-chapter section of a gospel, for starters. Then look at your list and ask yourself a hard question: “Is this the Jesus I’m helping my students to know and love, or would this be a foreign Jesus to them?” It’s a heresy to propagate the myth of a “merely nice” Jesus, but that’s the Jesus most kids today have heard about.
4. Using “work” language to describe our relationship with God. My pastor and friend, Tom Melton, has thrown so many “Tom-isms” at me over the years that have changed the way I think about my relationship with Jesus. One of them is a real scalpel of a sentence: “We don’t really believe Jesus is beautiful; otherwise, we wouldn’t describe our relationship with him as so much work.” Let that one cut through one of our favorite heresies—we subtly treat our day-to-day relationship with God as essentially a hard, thankless slog through a landscape of bite-your-lip obedience.
5. Co-mingling the message of the “American Dream” with the message of the gospel. It’s hard for us to think outside of the prevailing “success narrative” of Western culture. The American Dream tells us that our birthright is a middle-class life—a house, two cars, two kids, a vacation or two every year, and a comfortable retirement. This is such a deep-seated collective promise that we have a hard time seeing our relationship with God as anything other than transactional. What will following Jesus do for me? But Job and Peter and Paul all learned something the hard way: God longs for romance, not a business transaction.