After my 13-year-old’s jarring confession, I talked to other youth about their impressions of God, the church, and “Christ vs. Christianity.” I quickly discovered that my son was not alone in his doubts about the integrity of adult Christians.
In my last column, I related part of a conversation I had with my 13-year-old son during the Christmas holiday break, wherein he admitted some resistance to how Christians package Christianity by emphasizing the rules and not so much the Ruler. “I want to walk with Christ,” he said. “It’s Christianity that doesn’t interest me.” His comments jarred me, to say the least.
As a result, I wanted to know what other teenagers think about his remarks, so I had a conversation with a youth group from a local church. These questions were running through my mind: Do they feel the same way? Are they drawing the same distinction he is between following Jesus and adhering to the system of Christianity? What has their Christian experience been like? You never know ahead of time how a discussion with young people might turn out, but I hoped for the best. They didn’t disappoint.
The group consisted of seven kids, ranging in age from 10 to 17, two males and five females. I could tell they weren’t sure what to expect either, so I did my best to put them at ease by telling them what I would use the information for, that no one’s name would be mentioned, and that I was not there to gather intel for the church administration or their parents. With those preliminaries covered, we plunged right in.
Our discussion started with their feedback on my son’s statement about being OK with Christ, but not so much OK with Christianity. Several in the group expressed right away that they totally understand where my son’s coming from. They see what they call hypocrisy among adult Christians who say one thing but do another. They admitted that the level of hypocrisy depends on the individual and even the church to which one belongs. They are turned off by this apparent double-speak, and their body language and tone suggested that they are indeed a little insulted that adults don’t seem to realize how transparent they really are. The “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” cliché clearly doesn’t work, and these teens seem to find this especially notable given how much adults emphasize the “what” of Christianity, while downplaying the “Who” or “why.”
Moreover, their comments demonstrate the very point they’re making. Although I asked them directly about any distinction they saw between Christ the person and Christianity the faith, they said very little about Jesus Himself; the overwhelming majority of their discussion focused on Christians, Christianity, and other faith concepts. I see this as a reflection of our own tendency to relegate Jesus to background status as we attempt to translate the faith for unbelievers and youth into a modern, hip (and sometimes hip-hop) version we feel will be more palatable to them.
The group participants see this emphasis on “what” manifested in how much they hear “the Bible says …” As someone who is very committed to the authority of the Scriptures, this idea immediately caught my attention. I wanted to know how they feel about the Bible. Do they believe it is authoritative or just a book full of suggestions for how to behave? One young lady was very clear that she doesn’t have a problem with the Bible, per se, but she gets tired of hearing the answers to all her questions begin with that phrase; not so much because she doesn’t want to know what the Bible says, but because she knows there’s not going to be any explanation of what the Bible means by what it says. The group agreed. According to them, it detracts from the power of the Bible when Christians stress the commands and instructions therein without showing them how to practically live according to those commands and instructions. They want to hear and see what the Bible says. There is a genuine interest in knowing how to apply the Word to their everyday lives — what Solomon referred to as wisdom — but we are coming up short by not encouraging them to get understanding as well as knowledge.
This particular segment of our discussion really brought home to me an observation I’ve made about churches and Christians. In many cases, we’ve not effectively made the transition from Old Testament Christians (which is itself a bit of an oxymoron) to disciples under a new covenant brokered by the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we ourselves really believe that it is no longer our works that save us, but His redemptive work on the cross? Are we grasping the explanation James gives to us about the relationship between faith and works, without also remembering what Paul says about grace and works? Our young people’s resentment of the Bible might be rooted in our own inability to demonstrate what it means to obey the Lord’s commands as an act of love and commitment rather than as a performance-based ritual.
Our discussion of Christianity led to a fascinating talk about the church. The roundtable participants showed a fair amount of confusion about the role and purpose of the church. Their overall sense is that people are going to do what they want to do, no matter what anyone says.
I couldn’t help but think how saturated even churched and Christian youth are with the concept of individual choice and everyone’s “right” to make their own decisions. I pressed them pretty hard on these points by asking them, if the power of individual choice is so strong, what purpose does the church really serve? Can we ever hope to impact people’s lives if they’re going to go their own way regardless of what’s proclaimed by the church? Their view was further tested when I asked how they think the church should try to address social problems like unbiblical sexuality, teenage pregnancy, and other issues. And what does our apparent cultural impotence mean for our command to bring people to Christ? You could’ve heard a rat walk on cotton at this point.
Even though it was obvious they didn’t know how to answer these questions, I was gratified to see them really struggling with it. Our spiritual ancestors knew that we have a faith able to withstand even the most robust questioning and debate. I’m not sure we have that same appreciation anymore for the value of a strong apologetic. And more than anything, I sensed that these young people are dying for us to boldly show them that our faith can stand up to peer pressure, sexual temptation, premature childbearing, broken families, broken hearts, corrupt politics, prejudice, poverty, and anything else they might encounter.
So how did our stalemate of silence end? As it often does when we find ourselves in a faith quandary, one voice offers a tentative suggestion. In this case, the 17-year-old male said this in answer to my challenges: “Hope. It all comes down to hope.”
I could almost visibly see the dam breaking. “Yeah, hope and faith,” someone else said. Everyone nodded their agreement. They concluded that even though people might not listen and it may not seem as if any change is taking place, we as the church can offer hope to those who would listen. And we take it on faith that somehow, with God’s help, a change can be made.
In the end, they realized they didn’t have a lot of answers, and I don’t think they necessarily changed their minds about how they see adult Christians and our issues. But I’m certain they left that room reminded that when it’s all said and done, Christianity and Christ are tied together by two indomitable forces of our belief system: faith and hope. I can’t argue with that.