– by Walt Mueller
©2001, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
The first thing I did on my first night in youth ministry with the first youth group I ever worked with was to teach them to lie. Don’t misunderstand me – my intent was not to encourage them to engage in deceptive behavior. Instead, it was all done as an innocent exercise in getting to know a diverse group of individual kids I had never met before in my life. I instructed each to get ready to verbalize three interesting facts about themselves to me, their new leader. Two of those facts were to be truthful. One was to be a lie. I was going to impress them with my powers of discernment by trying to guess which fact was false. Judging from the response as we went around the room, my silly little game was understood by all as an attempt to effectively break the ice while having some innocent fun.
In the many years that have passed since that first night, I’ve had the opportunity to work with thousands of kids and raise four of my own. While I’ve never taken deliberate steps to teach dishonesty, I sometimes shamefully wonder how many times I’ve carelessly put forth an example that’s actually served as a powerful lesson in how to live a lie.
A recent series of visual encounters with pop music singing star Jessica Simpson really got me thinking about my own life and example. The 20 year-old has had a number one single, appears all over television, and like my children, has a father who was a youth pastor. Her start in music came after a man launching a new Gospel record label heard her sing “Amazing Grace” at a church camp. At the age of 13 she signed a record contract. Today, she’s a star in the mainstream pop music market.
My first visual encounter came while scanning the magazine racks in a seminary library earlier this year. I spotted Simpson’s all-American smile on the cover of the Salvation Army’s January 2001 edition of YS, a magazine on a mission “to help young Salvationists meet the challenges of adolescence while moving toward Christian maturity.” As a supporter of the Salvation Army and their diligent efforts to minister to kids, I opened the magazine and was thrilled to read of Simpson’s commitment to use her high-visibility platform to promote faith, prayer, and pre-marital sexual abstinence. The exciting reports I had heard about Simpson’s faith and witness from other sources during the months since she broke onto the pop-culture landscape were confirmed. Based on what I read in YS, I wouldn’t hesitate to promote Simpson as a positive role model for my own kids.
Then, just a few days later, I encountered Jessica Simpson on a magazine cover again. This time it was the November 2000 edition of FHM: For Him Magazine, a magazine targeting 18-34 year-old with a mission markedly different from YS: “FHM aims to be the number one lifestyle, entertainment and fashion magazine for men, by consistently delivering an irresistible breadth and variety of information. Through quality journalism and photography, FHM‘s goal is to inform, advise, entertain and surprise across the entire panorama of what men like and are like. It also aims to fit with the reader’s needs, schedules and spending habits, constantly search for new ways to interact with the readership, and faithfully reflects the title’s brand values of funny, sexy and useful.” At first glance, I wasn’t sure I was looking at the same Jessica Simpson. This didn’t look at all like the girl that was gracing the cover of YS. Instead, I was looking at a scantily-clad and seductive young vixen posed in a manner designed to catch the attention and libido of any male – young or old – who happened past one of America’s newsstands. Hmmm – I’ve told my own girls they aren’t allowed to dress like that and my boys that they’re not to be staring at girls who do! Inside, I found more of the same, including Simpson’s explanation of why she had no problem with posing in a sexually provocative manner: “It’s not an image. That’s me – it’s just who I am. . . . I will wear sexy clothes. I’m not ashamed of my body, and I am not afraid of showing it. I just do it in a tasteful way. I just turned 20 and I want to show my body, and that’s OK because God gave me my body and I am proud of it and I work hard for it, dang it!” As I turned the page, I saw Simpson’s pride, hard work, and bare posterior displayed in a photo some would call “soft-porn.” I wondered what message her viewers were getting as their eyes darted back and forth between Simpson and the quote prominently superimposed on the photograph: “There are different things that people can offer, and with me, it is my virginity and the innocence of that.”
I was saddened and disappointed. “How could Jessica Simpson do this to a generation of kids who are already struggling to find their way through the confusing moral ambiguity thrown at them by our culture on a daily basis? She’s caved to the culture and is leading kids down the road of glaring hypocrisy and double-speak!” I thought to myself. Then it hit me – Jessica Simpson isn’t alone. She’s a high-profile poster-girl for a 21st century church – of which I am a part – that’s done a terrible job of communicating and living a faith that is integrated into all of life. Maybe those two cover photos offer convincing evidence of the not-so-surprising results of the careless example we’ve put forth that’s served as a powerful lesson in -yes- how to live a lie.
Charles Colson has said that “the church’s singular failure in recent decades has been the failure to see Christianity as a life system, or worldview, which governs every area of existence.” He’s right. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that the world looks at the church’s consistent inconsistency and responds to this glaring hypocrisy with repulsion, mocking laughter, or simple indifference.
For those members of the emerging generation who need to hear the message of the Gospel – those we’re called to reach – we’ve offered a disjointed “faith” that is anything but attractive, convincing and compelling. Our dis-integrated faith has led to our misrepresenting what it means to be a follower of Christ. The result? We’ve facilitated the disintegration of the power and appeal of the Gospel.
For young people who profess faith in Christ – those we’re called to lead – we’ve given them an example of how to live a faith marked by a dichotomy between what we profess and what we practice. They’ve learned well. George Barna’s latest research on the spiritual values, attitudes and behaviors of today’s teens indicates that most (86%) “think of themselves as Christian.” But when push comes to shove, “only three out of ten self-described Christian teenagers claim to be absolutely committed.” The rest fall into the lukewarm category.
Jesus used strong words to describe the people of his day who lived out something other than what they said: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Mark 7:6). On many occasions I’ve read those words, looked in the mirror, and been full of shame. Perhaps those words spoken two thousand years ago are more timely than ever.
I’m concerned by what I see in the mirror and what I see in the world. It’s probably happened to us all at some level. Rather than taking our place as influencers of a culture desperately in need of redemption and transformation into the image of Christ, we’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced and seduced into conformity to the image of the world. As someone once said, there is more of the world in the church, than there is of the church in the world.
I’ve always appreciated Tom Sine for his ability to serve as a conscience for the church. His observations, while truthful and accurate, usually hurt. He believes that today’s Christians have inadvertently and unknowingly succumbed to a dualistic model of discipleship. He says, “In spite of all the talk about Christ’s lordship, everyone knows that the expectations of modern culture come first.” We increasingly allow the culture to “arrange the furniture of our lives.” In his book Mustard Seed Versus McWorld: Reinventing Life and Faith for the Future, he writes, “Following Christ is too often trivialized to little more than a devotional lubricant to keep us from stripping our gears as we charge up the mountain, trying to get ahead in our careers, the suburbs, and our kids’ activities. . . . following Christ is for too many of us reduced to a little more than fifteen minutes in the morning and two hours on Sunday . . . . we wind up with a highly privatized and spiritualized piety that is often largely disconnected from the rest of our lives.” The world has issued the marching orders, and the church is in the parade. We see the results in the compartmentalized life of Jessica Simpson – the poster girl for our marching unit in the world’s parade.
The remedy is to live out true Biblical faith – a faith marked by “integrity.” “Integrity” describes a life that is united in a complete or perfect whole. An “integrated” life is one where words, thoughts, and actions are consistently reflecting the character and will of God in our lives. We must diligently study God’s unchanging Word to increasingly know His character and will. Then, with God’s help, we’ve got to live it. If we don’t, we’ll have caved to the postmodern spirit of our times – believing and living only what we like, what feels good, and what works for me. We’ll be nothing more than moral nomads who are – as Father Richard John Neuhaus has said – “herds of independent minds marching towards moral oblivion with the Frank Sinatra’s witless boast on our lips, ‘I Did It My Way.'”
During my years of studying youth culture, I’ve been a faithful viewer of every major music awards show. Not only do those shows give a sense of what’s hot in pop culture, but an extra added “bonus” is the peek those shows give into what the music world’s movers and shakers are thinking about matters of spirituality. Over the years, there have been numerous occasions when I’ve let out a loud groan after hearing a band whose music and lifestyle reflects little or nothing of a Biblical world view give their “first and foremost thanks” to God for their musical ability and opportunities to serve Him. At this year’s Grammy’s I was struck by the simple wisdom of U2’s Bono as he stepped to the mic to accept the award for “Best Rock Group or Duo with Vocal.” After thanking God and his mother, he said, “I just have this feeling or picture in my head of God sort of looking down on people like us at occasions like this and going, ‘Oh, oh, don’t thank me for that song.'”
As I look at our culture, look at our church, and look in my mirror, I see plenty of evidence of consistent inconsistency. Then I wonder, “How am I teaching my kids to live a lie?” The lessons are there and they are powerful. What kind of faith legacy will we leave? Will it be an integrated or dis-integrated legacy? If the current legacy continues, then shame on Jessica Simpson, shame on us, and shame on me.
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