This is post four in a series of reflections on the book Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies To Help Young People Discover And Love Your Church. For an introduction to the series please read part one and continue reading the reflections in part two and three.
As the title of the chapter states, another reason for seeing ‘young people’ actually stay in church is through churches taking the message of Jesus seriously.
This is pleasing to know.
It means that instead of softening the message of the Gospel and the teachings of the Bible, as many kids and youth ministries are assumed to have done over the years, it is better to increase the temperature of what it means to follow Jesus.
In providing a place for young people to discover and discuss the hard questions of faith, receive a challenging vision of what it is to follow Jesus, and see how this faith becomes counter-cultural in its application is what is keeping those in their teens and twenties at churches.
It’s not surprising that the research highlights how those under 30 are more focussed on Jesus than the Bible or Christianity. In recent years there have been plenty of YouTube vids, posts, and other articles and papers highlighting how Millennials are following Jesus and doing away with institutionalised religion. Reading this reminded me of when I signed up for Facebook and entered my religious views as “A Jesus Guy”. It was something I thought was a bit different, but evidently not. It also speaks of how those my age and below (Millennials/Gen Y) are more prone to say they follow Jesus rather than say they are “a Christian”.
Chapter 4 of Growing Young outlines a variety of reasons why taking Jesus’ message seriously actually keeps young people in the local church. Anecdotally I can see in my own experience, and with a number of my friends, that throughout our emerging adult years we craved serious Bible teaching and looked up to people who took Jesus and the Bible seriously.
One particular section of this chapter outlines a phenomenon known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This is the idea that young people in the West are generally following a philosophy of thinking that is (1) moralistic, where faith is equated to being a good moral person. It is (2) therapeutic, because it is this faith that makes them feel better about themselves. And it is (3) deistic, meaning that God does exist but this god is not involved in human affairs.
MTD a curse upon the youth and young adult conscience and has been helped to solidify itself in those who’ve had a little church background because of the super-mega-hype youth ministries of the last 20-30 years. To be a nice person, believe in a God you think is going to help you and bring favour upon you, but not be too close to you in your daily life is a distortion of the reality of the Christian faith and what it truly means to follow Jesus. Sadly, the rise of individualistic Christianity, a sprinkle of post-modern thinking and the dumbing down of Jesus through youth ministries have no doubt contributed to this.
Yet all is not lost.
As young people seek a faith that is authentic and in line with the reality of who Jesus is churches are beginning to realise that teaching the costly and sacrificial side of faith might actually be important. Growing Young puts it this way:
“Following Jesus is costly, requires sacrifice, and invites us to actively participate in God’s kingdom. In fact, the church by its very nature is participatory, which means everyone shares the work. It’s a body (Rom. 12:5–8; 1 Cor. 12:1–31; Eph. 4:1–16), and every part needs to play its role in order to build up the whole. As indicated by Jesus’ command to both “follow me” and “take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23), pursuing Jesus requires no less than everything, every day (Rom. 12:1). There’s nothing therapeutic about that call…In short, teenagers and emerging adults in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them. They are running toward it.”
In what ways can your church help young people run toward faith, a genuine faith, that takes the message, actions, and words of Jesus seriously?
One of the critical experiences in my time as a Youth & Young Adult Pastor is small groups. That is, groups of around 10 people who gather together to eat, read the Bible together, and then pray for one-another. In one group I’ve been involved in we had a couple who had just joined the church. Both were reasonably new to faith but one of them wasn’t a Christian. Over a period of time, by simply looking at the Bible, passage by passage, she became a Christian. It showed me how instrumental it is to simply read through books of the Bible week by week and then seek to communally apply it to peoples lives. Through doing so we take the Bible seriously, but more so, we take the person, work and message of Jesus seriously too.
How this taking-Jesus-seriously thing applies further in our churches might be to consider the application we teach in children’s and youth ministry. The classic example for people teaching Sunday School, particularly the ‘famous’ stories of the Old Testament, is to make the application moralistic. Through the story of Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, and Jonah we somehow come to suggesting that our hearers should change behaviour and because of that change in behaviour God will be happy with us. In the end we get the reading of the passages incorrect by making them all about ourselves and then say all we need to so is be a nice person and through this we’ll be made right with God.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism perhaps?
Rather than this let’s teach the Old and New Testaments in line with the overarching redemptive storyline. This is where we see the main person of the story is not actually us but it is about God and his work in this world, culminating in Jesus Christ. A good example of this type of teaching is The Bible Project and The Gospel Project.
Growing Young itself gives a good outline in how to teach the storyline of the Bible in this way through a Good-Guilt-Grace-God’s People-Gratitude-God’s Vision framework:
- Good (Gen. 1:26–27): God created us good, in God’s image.
- Guilt (Rom. 3:10–12): We then chose to disobey God, leaving us with the guilt of sin. All of us carry this mark and it impacts us every day.
- Grace (Rom. 3:23–24; Eph. 2:6–10): Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has extended grace to us to make things right and restore us to relationship with God and one another.
- God’s People (Eph. 2:19–22): As we experience grace, we are adopted into the body of Christ, enacting God’s reign in the world. We join the mission of God, participating in the work of God happening in and through God’s people today.
- Gratitude (Col. 2:6–7): Out of this gift of grace, we respond in gratitude toward God. This is the well out of which our obedience—which includes moral behaviours—flows. In other words, the gospel doesn’t begin with behaviours nor is it dependent on behaviours. The behaviours are an act of thanksgiving to God in response to grace. As we grow in trust, we naturally grow in obedience.
- God’s Vision (Rev. 21:1–5): We are living in between Christ’s first coming and his return.
Other areas where churches can increase the temperature of their teaching regarding Jesus is in one-on-one meetings, youth leadership meetings, youth group itself, and in other gatherings where there is a discipleship purpose. But wherever that may be for you, your church or ministry may you be encouraged, as I was, knowing that teaching the hard things of Jesus and the Bible isn’t something to be scared of.
Another good article reflecting on the book, and mainly on this chapter, has been written by Trevin Wax at The Gospel Coalition.