Cancel + Call Out Culture And Its Effect On Youth Ministry

Jeff Harding
April 9th, 2020

When I think about canceled television shows, I usually think of Firefly and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. While Firefly only lasted one season, it has a sizeable following and draws big crowds when it’s featured at Comic Con. My wife and I are big Aaron Sorkin fans, so Studio 60 was on our watchlist. While nothing will ever match the greatness of The West Wing, Studio 60 held its own. But it was canceled after just one season.

Cancelation has a deeper meaning in current culture, and the results are resounding to say the least. The cancel/call-out culture can be defined as the shaming and societal removal of anyone who has committed or been accused of committing something offensive or criminal. The #MeToo movement sparked the largest employment of the term to date, as more than 200 celebrities were accused of sexual misconduct by a crowd of total victims officially numbering in the hundreds, but are likely more than a thousand. There have been other celebrities called out for tweets containing racist or homophobic slurs. Those who have been “canceled” have endured consequences ranging from a drop in status to prison time.

Discussion of cancel/call-out culture could spiral several different ways and fill a semester of content. However, authorities and teachers of students should first weigh the impact of this culture on them.

  • How does it shape their view on morality or accountability?
  • What fears does it stoke regarding past transgressions or current sins they are hiding?
  • What about forgiveness and reconciliation?

If they take their cues from the boisterous crowd of keyboard warriors with their digital pitchforks, the philosophy of one-and-done will become prominent in not only their social lives, but also their spiritual lives.

The best place to start a conversation on social issues is observing how Jesus handled similar circumstances. Two instances that come to mind were the interactions he had involving adulterous women in John’s gospel (chapters 4 and 8). He explicitly names the multiple relationships the woman at the well had in the past and present, and he tells the woman who was to be stoned to “sin no more,” implying that she had indeed sinned. But in both accounts, Jesus never condemns them. He speaks truth about their actions, and clearly tells the second woman to repent.

However, in another one of the many puzzling ways Jesus forms his message, he addresses repentance after affirming his lack of condemnation. Throughout Scripture, God demands repentance to avoid condemnation. Parents demand it of their children. We expect it from our students. However, Jesus flips the formula by first rejecting condemnation and then telling the woman to sin no more. Guess what? She probably sinned again that very day, just like we would. Jesus still didn’t seek her out with a stone of his own.

Here are the main things to note when tackling the cancel/call-out culture, and the effect it has on your students:

Affirm them of God’s Love and Grace through Christ

While I think the shame of legalism is generally in decline due to better teaching, this culture’s way of thinking can reinforce the unhealthy perspective that we can fall beyond the scope of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. Even lifelong churchgoers are susceptible to believing the lie. There are countless stories and passages in Scripture that obliterate such notions. Everyone sins, which is why everyone needs a Savior. We have hope because we recognize that need and praise Christ for fulfilling it, not because we can dodge God’s vengeful wrath by being “good enough.”

Clarify Living and Acting with Truth in Love

Do perpetrators of sexual assault deserve the consequences of justice? Undoubtedly. Should those who insult and diminish others be held accountable? Of course. A basic understanding of God’s character, commands in Scripture, and Christ’s example provides a suitable litmus test for what God desires for our lives. But where do we draw the line? A huge complication with this issue is that just about every student (and every adult, for that matter) has thought or said something that would qualify them to be “canceled” in our society. One argument is that only evidence we can measure should count, but if someone hated and thought incredulously about a certain ethnic group, or thought perversely about doing things to someone else… wouldn’t they be “canceled” if mind-reading devices were consumer products? Sure. So, I ask again – where do we draw the line? This post doesn’t have the capacity to break down the appropriate response for each transgression, but following the two preceding examples of Jesus is a great start. 

Comic and writer Jamie Kilstein said, “We don’t root for redemption anymore. We don’t actually care if people change. We don’t want them to become better. We want to watch them burn so we can sit back and temporarily feel better about our own lives.”

Let’s set a better example for our culture, and for angry Christians who should know better. Love God and love others first, and the other steps will align correctly. Justice is needed, but only God’s is truly righteous.

We shouldn’t be gratified by exposing sin. It should sadden and remind us of our collective need for God’s grace. Much of our world only thinks Christians spread condemnation. Let’s teach students to spread hope instead.

Jeff Harding

Jeff is a 17-year youth ministry veteran. He’s a Phoenix native, ASU Sun Devil, Dallas Theological Seminary graduate, and Chipotle fanatic. He currently serves as the Dallas/Ft. Worth Coordinator for the National Network of Youth Ministries, as well as the youth minister at Trinity Fellowship Church in Richardson, TX. You can also hear him on his weekly podcast, Youth Ministry Maverick, at youthministrymaverick.com or wherever you stream podcasts.

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.