Jesus Came to Seek and Save…the Choir?

There are some idiomatic expressions we simply need to strike from the collective Christianese lexicon.

One such expression is preaching to the choir.

Have you ever thought about the message that is communicated with the expression preaching to the choir? The phrase is usually used in a context that means whoever you’re talking to already understands your argument, so there’s no need for you to continue it. Example: One stay-at-home mother says to another stay-at-home mother: “I just hate that people think we are lazy, or don’t do anything all day long.”  Odds are, the second mother already feels the same way, so she might respond that the first mother is preaching to the choir, communicating in essence: We believe the same way; no need to spell it out to each other.

That’s an innocuous enough context, but the expression itself has Christian roots. The implication is that the gospel needs to be preached out there, out in the street, where the sinners are, out in the world, where all those—gasp—secular people are. The members of the choir know the gospel. They even preach it themselves. It’s old news. Nothing to see or learn here. They’ve got it down pat. Stop preaching to the choir. The choir gets it.

But does the choir get it? I can’t remember the last time I was in a church service containing a choir-ful of perfect parish members. I think that’s because the last time was never. Choir members are sinners. Choir members have forgotten the message of the gospel. Choir members live in the secular world. Or, possibly worse, some choir members live immersed in Christian-only bubbles, where certain sins get disguised so well by an appearance of Christian behavior that they aren’t even recognized any longer as sin. Choir members have lied. Choir members have deceived. Choir members have gossiped, have coveted, have envied, have boasted, have adulterated, have—in short—sinned.

Choir members need the gospel just as badly as the secular world needs it. Let’s stop using this phrase to communicate implicit untruths about the church and Christianity.

I Had the Time of My Life

When I was a teenager navigating life and youth group, I had multiple volunteer youth workers tell me one of two things: Either I was currently living the best time of my life (so I needed to enjoy it), or I would very soon be living the best time of my life (once I got to college).

Either way, both messages were clear: Enjoy the present; enjoy your youth; the future is bleak.

I struggled with these messages because life as a teenager was already bleak. In retrospect, of course, it wasn’t. I had a home, loving parents, a roof over my head, and a meal at virtually any time of day I wanted. I lacked nothing, essentially.

But hindsight is 20/20, and I was a teenager. I had teenage crises. Conflicts with friends were disasters. Breakups were apocalyptic. Acne was life-stopping. Fashion, trends, and fitting in were all important. Life was hectic, hormones raged, emotions were fragile. And that’s from a white, middle-class perspective.

I never dealt with poverty; with divorce; with addiction; with teen pregnancy; with bullying (cyber or otherwise); with death or separation from family members; with hunger; with learning disabilities; with psychological disorders; with racial biases; with sexual orientation questions; or with the numerous other actually tragic circumstances that some teenagers unfortunately encounter.

As an adult pushing toward my thirties, I realize now that those volunteer youth workers had no idea what they were talking about. They were still kids themselves, who hadn’t turned thirty yet, who had just emerged from the last vestiges of adolescent co-dependence into adulthood, and who had become disillusioned by the real world of bill-paying and working and providing for themselves. But I didn’t know that as a teenager, so their statements carried supreme wisdom accompanied by ultimate doom and hopelessness.

Many youth workers are young, fresh out of college, and still figuring out the nuances of adult life. Among ourselves, we know that. But our teens do not. They see us as authority figures on life and faith. They have no idea what personal and professional disappointments or failures or setbacks we’ve faced. Let’s not project our own shortcomings and insecurities onto our teenagers. No matter what has been true for us, shouldn’t we always—if for no other reason than because of the faith we profess and teach—communicate a message of hope to the teenagers we lead?

The First Shall Be Last…Shall Be First Again?

Last week we discussed the idea of challenging our students to perspectives of acceptance and love and, most importantly, not drawing distinctions between themselves and others.

However, we must be careful how we articulate that message, lest an equally strong reciprocal message be communicated.

What happens all too often in these situations is that a person whose eyes are newly opened to seeing and caring about socially labeled Inferiors in turn, eventually—though unintentionally—elevates himself or herself to a new level of superiority.

The enlightened person begins to look down on, disrespect, and rudely call out Superiors. So, what we end up with is an inversion of Jesus’s New Testament insistence of “the last will be first” (see Matthew 19:30, Matthew 20:16, Mark 10:31, Luke 13:30).

Our attempt to attain humility can backfire in a significant and damaging way. One possible model:

1)   We recognize the flaw in society’s superiority complex toward certain disadvantaged persons.
2)   We identify with the disadvantaged persons, seeing them as human beings, putting ourselves on their level in order to understand their struggles.
3)   Humbling ourselves in such a way can make us resentful toward those who continue to act superior.
4)   We may start to view ourselves as more enlightened, and therefore better Christians than, those who have not yet learned to humble themselves.

If we follow this dangerous progression, we enter a cycle of being first, becoming last, and making ourselves first again, oftentimes without even realizing it.

In demonstrating a theology of love and attempting to eradicate any structures of inferiority with your students, how would you combat the tendency to become—in a sense—born-again superior? What scriptures, prayers, moral truths do you draw on to keep yourself and your students grounded?

Mistaken Identification and Faith Formation

A lot of (okay, probably all) teenagers struggle with identity at some point in their adolescent journeys. That is not the direct focus of this post.

So instead, let’s talk about mistaken associations and identifications and how our responses to them might impact our students. As youth pastors, does our model hinder or help teenagers if we bristle at a mistaken association?

For instance, if you’re a Boston Red Sox fan, you might get irate if someone mistakes you for a New York Yankees fan, or vice versa. So, okay. That’s normal. Natural. Understandable. Sports fandom, by nature, can be contentious and inflammatory and is, of course, mostly meaningless in the grand scheme of life, Christendom, and the kingdom of God.

So what about something that packs a little more punch, like, say, one’s political party? It can hopefully be agreed that political partisanship is generally not an issue of mortal sin. However, a lot of people—Christians especially—do tend to back up their party choices with rationales that directly relate to their philosophies of faith.

So, if we can tentatively agree that good people and good Christians can be Republicans as well as Democrats, what kind of implicit message, if any, do we send if we display extreme offense to being misidentified? If it’s okay to be a Democrat, and it’s okay to be a Republican, and we can come together in the unity of the body of Christ regardless, should we show offense if someone mistakenly associates us with the other side? Does it damage our teens’ identity-formation process? On the other hand, does it help them understand the importance of and need for identity formation?

There are many topics this discussion could cover, from as significant as denominational choice, to as somber as the corporate-versus-local debate, to as absurd as Star Trek vs. Star Wars. For maximum discussion and reflection effect, use your imaginative, creative, and critical thinking skills to apply the questions posed here to whatever other issues strike you as contextually relevant and pertinent.

Should “Bad” Kids Be Allowed in Church?

To the passionate and missionally oriented youth worker, the answer is, “No! Never! Don’t even think about banning a teen from church.” To the youth worker who is driven by God’s unrelenting love for the outcast, broken and hurting there is no possibility that our love for teens would allow us to exclude them.

But then we read an insightful comment on Mark 10:17-31 by James Smith. He explains:

Specifically, after the young ruler has announced–quite sincerely, I think–that he has kept all the commandments from his youth, Mark tells us in his typically direct language:
Jesus, looking at him, loved him…
And because he loved him, Jesus then tells the young man something that shocks and dismays him, homing in on the “one thing” that is lacking.
In an age where love is often reduced to uncritical affirmation and unprincipled embrace, we might be stopped short by a love like this–a love that is strangely willing to grieve and sadden and dismay the beloved, but is not for that reason any less loving. Indeed, it is more so, and shows up “affirmation” as a parody of agape.1

So it seems prudent that there is a tension that exists. Love doesn’t exclude while at the same time love creates boundaries for the sake of the beloved. How then do we practice this tension in youth ministry? How do we love in such a way that we are strangely willing to grieve and sadden and dismay the teens we serve? And are we ever supposed to direct this type of action at the “bad” kid?

Spiritual Decisions That Last a Lifetime Part 2

In part one, we explored our role as youth workers in why some of our students make spiritual decisions they later deny or dismiss.

What are we to do about this? Let me offer three suggestions.

We need to change our thinking.

As leaders, we must refuse to bow to the pressure to produce measurable results and recommit to seeing teenagers experience a life-changing encounter with a living God. We must be re-energized by the idea that God really can and will change the lives of our students when we allow Him to do it His way in His timing. We need to view each student as a person in need of God’s grace, not as a project that needs to be conquered for Christ.

We need to get a fresh perspective.

When you are working from a motivation of love, you grow a greater desire to see your students run headlong into the arms of Christ. You realize that the same old “every head bowed and every eye closed” may get you numbers to report to your pastor, but it may not bring the life-change you are praying for with your students. When you love someone, you want the best for them…and, in this case, the best thing is a love relationship with God through His Son Jesus.

We need to be patient.

My first step was to have faith that God would do what He has promised. In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that His word will never return void. In John 12:32, Jesus says, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” I realized that it may not happen the way I expect it to, or when I expect it to, but if I am faithful to communicate the gospel in all of its power, He will be faithful to draw my students to Himself.

I wanted to respect my students enough to give them the time they needed to make such a significant spiritual decisions as these. I began to see that when I allowed a student to fully examine the claims of the gospel, they took my request more seriously. It now seems to me that when we allow the Holy Spirit to have time to work in a student’s life, God will work miracles we can’t reproduce.

So when will students make spiritual decisions that last for a lifetime?

  • When our students sense that we love them and sincerely desire to see them fully become the person God created them to be.
  • When we accurately communicate the truth of the gospel in all of its power.
  • When we allow students time to investigate the value of the decisions we are encouraging them to make.
  • When the Holy Spirit works in their lives and convicts them of their need for following King Jesus.

Spiritual Decisions That Last a Lifetime Part 1

Why don’t the spiritual decisions that our students make last for a lifetime?

This is a very difficult question with a complicated answer. A part of the answer is the thinking and ministry practices of youth pastors and youth workers. Let me share with you three driving thoughts of youth workers that affects the decisions teenagers make.

Desire Job Security

We as youth pastors and youth workers must shoulder much of the blame. Let’s face it, many of us don’t have the job security that we need to work in complete freedom. Depending on our context, we use well-worn approaches to draw a desired response from our students. Then we spend little time for follow-up, and we end up praying and hoping our new Christian students “get it”. If your ministry is caught in this cycle, step back and develop a long-term comprehensive plan to both see a student come to Christ and to disciple that student to maturity in Christ.

Desire to Be a Success

Secondly, the pressure that we feel to produce “plugged-in kids” (and thus be “successful” in our ministry) leads to questionable methods of recruitment and evangelism. We think that we can present the truth of the gospel to students in ten minutes at a big rally, a lock-in, or in one of our services, convince them to pray a pre-written prayer, and congratulate them on their decision. We follow up (if we follow up at all) by giving them a new believer’s booklet and having them announce their decision to the church. We introduce them to our leadership as “having prayed the prayer” and everyone slaps our back for the fine job we’re doing.

Desire for Meaning

I can testify from experience how discouraging it can be to feel like your ministry doesn’t make an impact at all. In order to speed up the process, we can be tempted to cut a few corners. Often, the gospel we present has been cheapened of its power because we eliminate the necessity of turning from our way of life in order to follow a Kingdom way of life. Most often our presentation of the gospel requires nothing more from the students than a short prayer or a name signed on a dotted line. If we do not lead our students to see their desperate need for Christ, how can we say that they have had a conversion experience?

Regardless of our ministry setting, we should all have a burning desire to see our teenagers “get it”. We long to see them embrace Christ, commit their lives to Him, grow in faith, and serve Him for a lifetime.


Photo credit:{Salt of the Earth}