Youth Ministry Minute: It's Not Personal
A few months ago I was minding my own business, looking for the sports section in my local paper, when the headline on an “Ask Amy” column stopped me in my tracks: “Teen Churchgoer Finds Faith Faltering.” Hmm… What would a mainstream advice columnist say to a 16-year-old teenager who was having doubts about her faith? I plunged in…
The girl’s story turned out to be so common that it verges on cliché—she’s been going to church every week her whole life. She doesn’t believe any of it anymore, and constantly reminds her parents of that reality by peppering her Sunday banter with what she thinks is a “subtle” complaint: “It’s boring.” Sound familiar? The girl confides in Amy that she’s afraid to tell her parents she doesn’t want to go to church anymore—afraid they won’t think she’s “old enough to make the decision myself.”
And, then, “Ask Amy’s” advice to “Lost Faith” reads like a roadmap through the conventional wisdom of our culture:
• “I agree that you are old enough to make the decision about whether to go to church.”
• “I disagree that you must discuss your faith (or loss of faith) with your parents…”
• “Faith—in its many forms and feelings—is individual and deeply personal. You should not feel forced to discuss it with anyone if you don't want to.”
Faith, assures Amy, is like the flu—you should never share it with others, and if you do it anyway, and do it on purpose, you’re a threat, not a friend. It’s personal. And long as it’s kept personal, a tolerant society will smile and welcome you with open arms. This is why Oprah has been so successful in elevating the generalized value of “spirituality” over the particular offensiveness of Jesus. “Spiritual but not religious” is a brilliant tactic for siphoning away the “dross” of Jesus while retaining the “gold” of the amorphous cloud we used to call God.
Tracking back to ground zero for this line of reasoning, the “personal, not public” argument is exactly how JFK overcame objections to his Catholic faith and got elected in 1960. In his famous 11-minute address to the Greater Area Houston Ministerial Association, he repeatedly defends himself from the suspicious attacks of his Papist-fearing detractors by offering this template for understanding the compartmentalization of faith: “I believe in a president whose views on religion are his own private affair—neither imposed on him by the nation, nor imposed on the nation by him…I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”
And Kennedy was true to his word—according to family biographer Thomas Maier, the only time he allowed a public viewing of his faith in the whole course of his presidency was when his son John was baptized. And out of deference for America’s very first “royal,” an entire generation adopted a “personal and private” approach to the Christian life. If we did an inventory of Lucifer’s arsenal of weapons, like WMD inspectors in post-invasion Iraq, we’d find “individual and deeply personal” hidden in his secret bunkers.
Faith in Christ is nothing if not infectious and public—and teenagers will have a hard time resisting “the spirit of the age” unless we destroy this common lie and replace it with the uncommon truth.
In Jesus’ parable of The Costly Pearl (Matthew 13:45-46), the “formula” for discipleship is simple: If you understand the value and beauty of the “Pearl,” you’ll give up everything to get it. You don’t have to convince or cajole teenagers to pursue that which is clearly both priceless and attainable. But, simply, most kids have not gone “all-in” with Jesus because they’ve been told by us that this “Pearl” is a treasure, but they haven’t arrived at that assessment themselves.
Our calling is to reveal the “Pearl,” who is Jesus, in such a way that young people “taste and see that He is very good.” Once they see him for who he is, the rest is just human nature. And so we reveal to them the Jesus who’s been hiding in plain site, following C.H. Spurgeon’s “beeline to Jesus” in everything—everything—we do. Spend more time revealing Jesus than you do trying to convince kids to adopt a new set of “Christian” values and principles, and you’ll see them unable to resist the magnetic pull of the Pearl.◊
This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Group Magazine.