Over the course of the last few years. . . for way too long in fact. . . the scuttlebutt in the world I inhabit has been increasingly filled with questions that start with the simple word “Why?” Youth workers, parents, pastors, and others are prompted to ask these “why?” questions – with great frustration – by a combination of personal experience, anecdote, and a growing body of research that points indisputably to the fact that in the big picture 1) our kids aren’t growing deep in faith, 2) that an alarming number of those who seem to grow in faith walk away from it when they leave their teenage years, and 3) whatever it is we’re doing with our kids in regards to spiritual formation is getting little or no traction in their everyday lives.
And so we ask “Why?” . . . . specifically, “Why is this happening?”
In many ways, the problem isn’t a new one. A couple of weeks ago I read J. Gresham Machen’s 100-year-old book, Christianity and Liberalism, which is experiencing renewed popularity since it seems like Machen could have written it not a century ago, but yesterday! It’s good and relevant. . . alarmingly good and relevant. Machen was addressing then the very issue that we are facing now. It’s the decline in knowing and teaching sound doctrine, or Truth, a trend that leaves us all spiritually impoverished. We wind up trying to muddle our way through life creating a god and theology based on our own mis-led personal preferences, rather than falling down in reverence and thanksgiving before the one true God who is. . . and who in His grace has revealed himself in His Word.
This all prompted me to revisit an article that appeared in Christianity Today (March 2010) well over a decade ago. It is one worth reading and pondering as it gives, I think, some valuable perspective that speaks to the reality of this mutation of Christian faith among our kids, our young adults, and yes – even ourselves. It is a mutation that is anything but Christian. In the article – “The Mind Under Grace: Why Theology is an Essential Nutrient for Spiritual Growth” – University of Western Ontario professor of theology and Jewish studies, Darren Marks, lays out a compelling case for how we’ve gotten to where we are, along with what needs to happen if we’re going to get ourselves and our kids to the right place.
Marks introduces readers to Jon, a first year student in a Christian Theology class who has “a great heart, but little understanding of his faith.” Already sounds familiar, huh? Marks quickly states his remedy for Jon’s “cul-de-sac faith”: “Hardcore academic and historical theology, in my experience, almost invariably makes a student like Jon a better Christian – not in his heart per se, but in his understanding of God’s call for him and his generation.” Using the terms “theology” and “doctrine” interchangeably, Marks asks if it’s even possible to live as a true disciple of Jesus Christ without a good measure of heady doctrine. “I see doctrine not as a boundary,” writes Marks, “but as a compass. Its purpose is not to make Christians relevant or distinctive but rather to make them faithful in their contexts. Doctrine is a way of articulating what God’s presence in the church and the world looks like. It can orient us by helping us, like Jon, major in the majors.”
Marks goes on to state his case for the great value of grappling intellectually with the faith, thereby nurturing us into a deep and growing faith that can inform all of life by giving us a steady and true foundation built on the never-changing God and His Word, rather than a faith built on our own spiritual experience that’s put together in “10 minutes or less.” He asks, “How can we sustain any spiritual growth if it is grounded in something as transitory as what we feel, individually or corporately?” Simple answer: we can’t. Need proof? Just check the growing body of research. . . or better yet, just look at our churches and our kids. . . and even the fact that those who were once kids aren’t in the church anymore.
The old me (my young youth working self from 45 years ago) would have scoffed a bit at Marks’ assessment and prescription. After all, how relevant can doctrine be? And why would I ever want to waste time on doctrine when I could be out doing ministry with kids? Now, the older me sees Marks’ words like a hammer hitting a nail square on it’s head.
I run into the old me all the time. It saddens me to see myself in a growing number of people in youth ministry, pastoral ministry, and the church who are satisfied to swim on the surface of the pool, not only leading them to miss out on the amazing world of wonder and beauty that lies deep beneath, but to also miss out on the ability to take those under their charge into the life-giving beauty of those same depths. The writer of Hebrews reminds us how unhealthy a steady diet of milk is, while telling us how beneficial a hearty diet of spiritual meat will be.
Way back in 2010 I wrote this words of reflection on relevance: “Last Friday night at our CPYU 20th Anniversary Banquet, I was reminded once again of the importance of meat when my pastor stepped to the podium to end the evening in prayer. Here we were, all gathered to celebrate a ministry that’s all about making sure the Gospel is heard by a youth culture that’s changing and changing fast. My pastor was wearing a traditional dark suit, just like the suit and tie he wears under his black clerical robe each and every week during our worship service. He looks almost identical to the way he looked when I first met him 16 years ago. His hairstyle, his clothing. . . all the same. He hasn’t changed his look with the times. His shirt’s always tucked in and his hair is still parted on the side. He doesn’t have a stylist who makes sure he’s looking good before he steps up to the pulpit and under the lights (which, by the way, aren’t theatre spots!). When I look at him he appears anything but relevant, at least in the way most people understand “relevance” in the church today. But when he opens his mouth to preach after a week of preparing that week’s “meal”, what comes out is theology/doctrine that requires a certain level of intellectual engagement and attention on the part of everyone in the room, including me. And if I prayerfully do my part by the grace of God and with the help of the Holy Spirit, I walk out humbled, challenged, and changed. It’s as if a bricklayer has thrown a few more rows up on what was already there when I walked in. I leave having eaten something of deep substance.”
I am truly grateful.
The older me is increasingly convinced that I’ve got to do everything I can to seek to go deep into the limitless depth of the things of God. . . . and by doing so, my spiritual compass will be calibrated with greater and greater accuracy as the days, months, and years pass.
So, what will we do to get our kids to the same place? What will we do to be sure the research shifts and the frustrating anecdotes fade?
We’ve got to be there ourselves. The beauty of church history is that it’s filled with great stuff from which to draw. What a great thing to be able to read and study good theology. . . . and to learn how to introduce our kids to the same thing.
Because I know the questions will come, here are a couple of books that I’ll recommend as starter texts. . . and by no means is this short list well-thought-out or exhaustive. It’s off the top of my head. John Stott’s The Contemporary Christian and The Cross of Christ are required reading. More recently, I read Herman Bavinck’s Guidebook for Instruction in the Christian Religion, a book which by the way, Bavinck wrote specifically to nurture and educate teenagers in the beautiful truths of Christian doctrine. Finally, one of my own personal nominees for the best book I’ve read all year, I have to mention Christopher Watkin’s Biblical Critical Theory: How the Bible’s Unfolding Story Makes Sense of Modern Life and Culture.
I hope you are filling your own spiritual well through the practice of reading and reading well. In turn, the overflow will satisfy the thirst the your students, in turn filling them with the life-giving truths of God’s Word!
As an added bonus, I want to let you know that we will walk with you through this journey. One way of our doing so is through our The Word in Youth Ministry podcast. Subscribe so that you don’t miss an episode! This is a podcast by youth workers and for youth workers, teaching you how to teach the Bible to your students. You can see the episode archive and listen here.