A Second Reformation Is at Hand

October 2nd, 2009

The cultural shift from modernity to postmodernity has created a ton of changes—and spiritual crises—for youth workers.

  • You’re ministering to the first post-Christian generation in American history—and there are plenty of paradoxes. On one hand “spirituality” is at a high point; there’s never been a day in the Western world where you find surveys—like one MTV recently conducted—that say 99.4% of young people believe in God. On the other hand, even with the peak of spirituality, Christianity is at the bottom of the list.
  • The teenage world is changing so quickly that we can no longer simply talk about youth culture—we must talk about youth cultures. We can no longer talk about a tribe of young people—we must talk abouttribes of young people.
  • We’re not returning to a modern world with its rational, cognitive, scientific, evidentialist, imperialistic understanding of reality. Rather the world is quickly reinventing itself as a global culture with multicultural and technological contexts, and defined by artistic, mystical, and supernatural orientations. It represents, in effect, a second reformation for the church.

So rather than worrying about “who’s on the cutting edge,” we should start recognizing that there are 1.5 billion edges out there—and every one of us lives on one and needs to seek to be faithful there.

You Must Become Missionaries
The modern, church-as-franchise mentality where “one size fits all” no longer exists, either. Your contexts are all unique—your kids and your situations and your churches and the local communities in which God’s planted you all are special.

That’s why you—the youth workers of the new century—must become missionaries to your local cultures and communities. You must train and equip your students to reach out to their particular contexts. Because it will be your students —on their own cutting edges—who will do the work, not you. You’re not going to live in a youth culture 24 hours a day, seven days a week! And even if you could, no one person can reach all those cutting edges. You can, however, train a whole fleet of missionaries. And they can transform a culture!

Getting Started
Before this training begins, we first must discuss two major roadblocks—and the factors behind them—that are preventing the church from connecting with young people of the new millennium:

  • First, the modern, Western theology and methods we’ve been using for the last 30 years to train students are becoming less and less effective every day.
  • Second, the church isn’t recognizing characteristics of and changes in the ever-increasing number of youth cultures and tribes out there.

That’s why—as we exit modern ways of processing reality—it’s crucial to reexamine long-held beliefs and assumptions regarding how we communicate with youths and teach them to live out the gospel.

1. “Garbage In-Garbage Out.” Many of us learned early on about “garbage in-garbage out.” You know—whatever you think, you become. The garbage in-garbage out philosophy assumes that the brain is a sponge that will buy into whatever it’s given.

Let’s look at the prophet Daniel in this context. He’s a teenager (like a good number of Old Testament prophets) who’s taken from Israel where everyone knows God, and is placed in Babylon—the most pagan context known to man. There Daniel goes to school and is taught sorcery, cultism, and magic. According to the Bible, Daniel becomes far more adept at these practices than even the people who’ve taught him. So, if garbage in-garbage out is true—if we become whatever we’re exposed to—Daniel would have to have become a pagan priest, right? Right. But he doesn’t.

Despite the wicked practices Daniel learns, he is able to discern truth in the midst of his cultural context. He makes hard choices: “They want me to eat food God said not to eat—I’m not going to eat it. They want me to bow down, I won’t. They want me to stop praying, I won’t.” Daniel is placed in a situation no youth workers want their students exposed to, but he learns to walk a fine line—and succeeds.

That’s the same missionary tightrope upon which we all must tread in the postmodern culture—and we must train our students to walk on it, too.

2. “Propositional Truth” Evangelism. In the modern context, the church ignored biblical narrative and complexity, instead reducing the gospel to a set of propositions—e.g., “All you have to do is pray these statements, ask Jesus to come into your heart, and you’re done.”

But if that’s all the gospel is, then really all we need to do is wage a kind of air campaign, “dropping” propositions on kids—and as long as they buy the propositions, they’re converted. We never really have to meet them or know them.

That’s exactly what a lot of evangelism has resembled in the modern era. And it doesn’t work anymore.

3. The Gospel of Consumption. Through youth group activities, we’ve taught kids that life is something you take in and devour—like entertainment. You come to youth group, sit, and consume: Band, skit, drama, food, production. And furthermore, because we’ve taught kids to buy our propositions about the gospel—essentially, “Just believe what I tell you, okay?”—they take that same mentality of consumption and apply it to what they’re exposed to in secular culture: “Okay, I sit. I consume. I believe. I’m buying what I’m sold.” The result is that our students are helpless—because we haven’t given them interpretive lenses with which to critique what they’re seeing and hearing outside (and inside) the church.

In the same way, the church as a whole has become a business that exists to attract consumers by marketing a product. So the gospel is no longer something you participate in—it’s something you consume. And when it’s a business, it has to compete with the church down the street and fight to draw consumers. That’s a major reason why we’re nowhere near thinking of youth ministry in missiological terms—it’s all about goods and services. Profit and loss. Consumption.

4. “Worldliness.” When you enter the average church and ask folks there for their definitions of worldliness, you’ll probably get responses like:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking
  • Dancing
  • R-rated movies
  • Loud music

The above activities wouldn’t be surprising to hear. But what if you were to suggest things like:

  • Debt
  • Greed
  • Divorce
  • Adultery
  • Overworking
  • Gluttony

You might get chased out the sanctuary! Why do so many Christians overeat, overwork, worship athletic teams, run their credit cards into massive debt, throw their kids into day care, and chase the American dream? Because modern society has declared those pursuits admirable values. In turn, we—the Body of Christ—have recreated these idols as Christian values.

When we engage teenagers, we need to give them a better definition of worldliness than simply “not consuming the right products.” Worldlinessought to mean “embodying values contrary to the gospel, contrary to redemption, contrary to community life, grace, and the missionary call of God.” Because you can be a Christian and still be worldly—and thus, ineffective as a missionary to your culture.

5. “Christian Culture.” At some point we began proclaiming the notion that there’s a “safe Christian culture” out there—one in which our kids can engage and avoid being tainted by the world. And because we’ve constructed this alternate reality, we’ve told ourselves that Genesis 3 won’t affect them. But when folks like Sandi Patti and Michael English commit adultery and Amy Grant gets a divorce, the illusion of what is “Christian” begins to crumble. The Christian cultural bubble, in effect, bursts.

Why do we insist that we’re the “pure people” offering a “pure culture”? Why do we insist on protecting, insulating, and inoculating our kids against a pagan world? Why do we think we can do so in the first place? Friends, the pagan world has taken over.

But now isn’t the time to circle our wagons and hide. Instead we must say to our students, “You’re going to engage this real world. You’re going to be exposed to things on the Internet, in film, in music, in school, in life. And if you don’t now, you’re going to leave your family someday, and you’ll make up for lost time then.”

Again we need to offer kids interpretive lenses through which they can understand Scripture and the redemptive narrative of the gospel. Because if we don’t, they’re going to end up being bad missionaries, preaching the wrong gospel, and out to convert others to “Christian culture.”

6. Western Christianity. Inhabitants of the Western world are very individualistic, very consumeristic, very rugged, and very entrepreneurial. Much of what we believe is founded on Western thinking and informed by Greek ideals and the history that’s been given to us since Descartes. Therefore those who’ve come to Christ in a Western context will have a difficult time relating to Christ outside of that context.

For example, when we do missions, we don’t only import the gospel—we also bring Western values, music, clothing, and culture. And we slam it into the second and third worlds because we believe that our Western way of life is Christianity. A phenomenal arrogance has crept in, to the point where some modern Christians are declaring that, “You can’t critique anything we say or do because we are the people of the truth.”

Here’s one scenario:

Youth workers rarely touch the Song of Solomon—because we’re Western and we don’t know what to do with passion. It just freaks us out. So we intentionally avoid certain difficult Scriptures and instead turn to topical and therapeutic preaching—things like “Five Points to a Better Self-Esteem,” “How to Empower the Individual,” “How to Make More Money,” on down the line.

But the postmodern kid comes along and says, “No, no, no. Let’s do narrative. Let’s do whole life. Let’s do honesty. Let’s open the Bible.”

It’s here that a postmodern world view violates some Western cultural values that have crept into the rule book of modern Christianity. What happens next is that modern-oriented Christians often will fight against this critique—thinking they’re defending the faith—when, in fact, they’re just defending cultural values.

7. Jesus as “Personal Savior.” We need to reconsider the idea of individual salvation. The reasoning goes: “I think, therefore I am…and it’sall about me.” We think in terms of ourselves before anyone else—not in terms of communities and tribes. But as we read the New Testament, men like Cornelius (Acts 10) are baptized along with their whole household. They make a decision together, as a community, to come to Christ. And that’s what we’re looking at today—a youth-oriented, tribal understanding, interpreted and lived in the context of community. That’s because the autonomous, isolated individual doesn’t know everything and isn’t certain of everything.

So if you’re going to work with the teenagers of the new century, you must think in terms of tribes. Because kids don’t come to your meetings by themselves—not unless they know Christians who’re in the group (and that’s their tribe). Everybody else brings members of their tribes with themto youth group. And they’re coming as “scouts to check out the land.” If they like it, the next week you see a few more members of the tribe. And in the end, kids tend to make decisions for Christ—from what we’ve seen in our contexts—together. You don’t get individuals walking down front. You get communities forming and dialoging, and they come to a sort of group consensus.

8. “Sacred and Secular.” We no longer can safely divide the world into things that are sacred or things that are secular. We can’t say, “This is sacred, so it’s safe and it’s okay; this is secular, so it’s not.” That kind of assumption is based, again, on our modern, Western version of Christianity. We must look at things in terms of what can be redeemed and what cannot be redeemed.

Redeeming the Culture
I was invited by some Christian high school students to preach at their chapel service a few years ago. I arrived, we sang some worship songs, and then, before I preached, I showed the Smashing Pumpkins video “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” onscreen and kicked on the sound system:

Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage/then someone will say what is lost can never be saved…tell me I’m the chosen one/tell me there’s no other one…Jesus was an only son for you… and I still believe that I cannot be saved.

Know what the whole student body did? Sang it. These Christian high school kids sang those words better than they sang the worship songs. Much to the dismay of the administration, the students were riveted. But that wasn’t a gimmick—I wasn’t done.

My chapel sermon was walking the students through that song—interpreting that video as critically and carefully as we do Scripture. It was an incredible discussion. We talked camera angles, thematic elements, the lyrics, world view. And all of a sudden, kids are making quite astute observations: “Yeah, they’re singing in a pit, and everybody’s covered in mud. It seems to be a metaphor for sin—and there’s no way out”; “It’s hopeless, there’s no redemption”; “The song’s reference to Job seems to say we suffer unjustly, mysteriously—we don’t know why.”

Now I’m looking at these kids who previously were auditioning for extras in “Beavis & Butt-Head,” and now they’re making very logical arguments and statements.

But even though it was clear this exercise helped the students think through the mysteries of the faith, the administration wasn’t happy with my video choice. They said it exposed the students to wrong things—except for the fact that they already knew all the words.

Here’s the point: Let’s bring reality to bear and realize that the culture isupon us. Our kids are already in it. It’s not a matter of needing to rescue the kids from the culture—it’s a matter of rescuing the lens through which they interpret culture. It’s a matter of them living in a community, discerning the truth, and redeeming what aspects of the culture can be redeemed.

You may have to start by doing a lot of activities offsite—at coffeehouses, at record stores, wherever. You many need to move your ministry outside of the church walls. But by all means, move!

We Have to Look Deeper
There’s a Goth girl in my church—you know, white face, black clothing, red lipstick, lots of jewelry. She went to hear an evangelist speak at a friend’s youth group, and this guy—in the middle of his talk—looked at her and said, “I can see a spirit of depression in you. I can see a spirit of suicide and despair, and God can deliver you.”

She went up to him afterward and asked, “Why did you say that?” He replied, “Well, just look at you.” She’s like, “Really? That’s all it takes? To interpret my whole existence? Just 30 seconds, in light of Almighty God, because I’m wearing black.”

This young woman is a Christian, she lives in the women’s ministry house at my church, she leads a small group, she’s going through foundational theology, and she wants to go to Bible college so she can study to be a youth pastor. She’s a wonderful woman of God, very mature in her faith. Regarding her appearance, she’s explained to me that it’s simply an artistic expression. But still, a lot of us would look at her and think, “Wow. I know where that kid’s at.”

But the kids are saying back to you, “Maybe you don’t.”

As culture continues to fragment and become increasingly pluralistic, entertaining the notion that “we’re the authority figures, we’ve been educated, we can interpret and decode you, and we can give you what you need” is great arrogance. Kids see it really as a lack of affection because we’re not living in their world—we’re not understanding the soil that they’re growing from. That’s why we misinterpret so much of what they’re expressing.

The Wrong Gospel? 
There are Christians—youth workers, too—who insist that the world sees the gospel as irrelevant. That it doesn’t relate to real life. That’s certainly not an unfamiliar argument.

But here’s something that perhaps you haven’t heard: Maybe the gospel’s irrelevant to most people today—especially to teens—because we aren’t giving them the gospel at all.

Maybe before we ask, “How do we engage the culture so we can put the gospel in the culture?” we should ask, “What is the gospel?”

<p style=”padding-top: 10px; padding-right: 0px; padding-bottom: 10px; padding-left: 0px; margin: 0px;”>What is truly the gospel—the historical gospel? Not the “me and Jesus,” personal, individualistic gospel. But what is the totality of it? The whole story of what God is doing, has done, and will do?

Because if it’s true that the gospel spans from perfection in Genesis 1 and 2 to perfection in Revelation 21 and 22, and that it involves sin and chaos and families and nations and people and life and death and sex and passion and food and the whole of human existence—and our lives are part of the great story that God is telling—then to say “the gospel isn’t relevant” is absolute foolishness.

That’s exactly why, when we try to sell Jesus as a “personal savior” to a teen world that’s rapidly becoming holistic and community-based, we hear responses like, “I don’t need a personal savior.” That’s when the gospel becomes irrelevant—because God is no longer big enough. God isn’t Lord over all anymore. He’s not involved in all that we are any longer.

We don’t talk about the whole of life because—you’ve heard it before—”the supermarket does food, the politicians do politics, Hollywood does entertainment, and the church does the soul.” We’re left with a disembodied little chunk.

Historic Christianity—the entirety of God’s story—must take the lead in our minds and hearts in this new century. If it does, we’ll see some incredible things happen. But if we stick with a modern, Western Christianity, we’re going nowhere.

It’s time to say, “No more.” It’s time to say, “The gospel is everything—the whole story of God for whole people.”

It’s time to tell the truth.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.