I recently read some interesting commentary about the effectiveness in our various methods of reaching the youth in our churches and helping them to have a faith that doesn’t fade as they head into their college years. One person (named Mike) wrote,
“If we truly were open to honest answers when we ask young adults about their faith we might learn that many of those who have left the Church and institutional Christianity did not leave because of a lack of reverence for God, but because they sought more depth than they were offered by the Church.”
After reading Mike’s thoughts it got me thinking… Yes, I do think many of our churches seem to have a depth issue (with our youth programs and otherwise)… but I don’t think it’s the exact issue we may at first think it is. It’s not that we need to get rid of all the more “shallow” fun and games stuff entirely. It’s not simply that students aren’t challenged and instructed by their church leaders to “go deep” with God either. On the contrary,students are often told over and over that they need to:
read their bible,
So, it’s often not a lack of options or instruction. No, this lack of depth has to do with something more. I’ll attempt to gather and communicate my thoughts about that in this blog post.
As for “going deep with God” – I hear phrases like this and immediately think of relationship … I think of how God desires nothing less than to go deep with us, to have us know Him and want Him. But we mere mortals don’t seem to start life inherently/consciously understanding our need, and the availability of joy and freedom that comes from, a deep relationship with our Creator. We dont tend to naturally find our identity in God. I think the greater question is, “How can we help our youth to get to the place where they conciously desire depth with God for themselves?” Simply instructing them to go to church, read their Bible, Pray, and to serve others doesn’t seem to help them to develop a conscious desire for deep relationship with God. Their desire for God doesn’t, and won’t exist, simply because they are told to have a desire for God. I cannot tell you to desire a baloney sandwich and just expect it to happen. Let me use an even goofier example to show what I mean.
If you know me, you know that I am an avid gamer. I love me some Mario brothers. I even like reading and writing about games from time to time. I’m an “enthusiast”. It’s a fun hobby that has been a big part of my life since I was in my elementary years. And, believe it or not, there are games today that offer depth, story, character, and context in ways that just boggle my mind! They can be SO good, so fun, so rewarding (to me anyway). I truly love to play deep and engaging video games, the same way a literature nut may love Hamlet. Yes, I am a total nerd, and I have come to accept this about myself.
Now, lets say I have a friend who loves to play Bejeweled and Tetris (casual games), but I want them to become a fan of deep/engaging video games like me.. If my method of accomplishing this is to send them straight into a new game of Skyrim – they’re not going to get it or like it, they’re not going to desire to play more of it, or understand it. (Some of you are reading this and thinking “what the heck is he talking about?”.. and that’s okay. It’s my nerdy hobby, I don’t expect everyone to get it, which is kind of my point I guess. Google “Skyrim” if you are interested to know)
My friend’s first experience of sitting down with an XOBX controller and a copy of Skyrim would probably cause them great frustration and some confusion. After just a few minutes they might throw their hands up in the air and say something like, “This isn’t connecting with me.” or “You mean to tell me you like this?!” or “I just don’t get it”. And a this point my enthusiasm and excitement over the game would seem even stranger to my friend! Chances are after just an hour or so with the game – they probably wouldn’t give Skyrim a glowing review and they’d never want to try it again. And if my gamer friends were to hear this person’s disinterest and indifference to Skyrim they may want to exclaim, “But it’s SKYRIM! How can you not appreciate and LOVE it like us?!?”. Simple: they would FIRST need to have grown a desire for games like that in the first place. There is a reason why we read Dr. Seuss to kindergarteners, not Shakespeare. Sometimes I think you need to witness and experience someone else’s desire and love for something over time before you can love it and desire it too. Strangely enough, I think the same can be said of how we learn to love Jesus. If you’re not around people who know and love Jesus, it’s gonna be really hard to ever know and love him yourself.
I desire for youth to have clarity of faith and to experience a deep relationship with God …. but how do we get people there? Again, students (and adults) often don’t instinctually desire depth with God. Their soul specifically desires it and longs for it because we are all created to know and love God AND to be known and loved by God in this way… but often the youth (and many adults in our churches) don’t know or understand this truth about themselves. So they seek to fulfill that deep desire in the wrong (less worthy) places. People want depth because their soul desires to connect with God, someone deeper and greater than themselves…. but quite often they don’t cognitively know that their true desire can only be met by knowing God, by going deep with him. Their desires often get hijacked by the enemy, by the distractions and temptations of our world. We hear countless messages in our lives telling us about what will quench our deep longing and desires in this life. How has that gone for us as a culture so far?
And so it seems: more than people desire depth of character and depth with God… they desire to be “seen” as a deep person. It becomes about image. A smart, well-educated, and well versed person. A person who has a “deepness” and a life experience they are able to reference as proof of their depth. People want to be respected and revered. They want their reputation to ooze with an edgy “different-than-you” kind of cool perspective and insight. When you ask students what they want to “be” these days, one of the top few answers is **“I want to be different”. Students want something real, something deep… and often that desire can turn into a selfish pursuit because their true and holy desire to go deep with God in their soul has been hijacked by the selfish desire “to be seen as” deep in the eyes of others.
This is partly why students often survey the offerings at our churches and youth ministries and laugh. They don’t see how a pizza party, a Christian concert, a game night, a trip to a theme park, or even various organized acts of community service ultimately add any depth and significance to their life. It may make them feel good, they may make friends, they may end up with wonderful shared experiences (and photos to prove it!), and they may even do a lot of good for God’s Kingdom in the process through the way they serve and meet the needs of others through various service projects.
All of this can be fun and edifying, but when it comes to overall lifestyle – these things don’t often help students to go deep with God all that much – if at all. Many of our models for discipleship and student ministry fall WAY short of what students need. Because we all, whether we know it or not, desire depth with God. Knowing God is the point, it’s the greatest thing, it’s everything (see Philippians 3:7-10). I desire nothing less than to hear the students I get to teach come to me or another leader and proclaim, “I want to know Christ. I’m not satisfied by just knowing about Him.” Shallow relationship with God isn’t something that works. We know this to be true because of our experiences with our shallow human relationships. They do not fulfill us – they don’t rock our core and cause us to feel, to move, to act, to love. So how could a shallow relationship with God EVER be a transformative thing? So then, HOW do we help students to get to a place where they desire a deep relationship with Christ? … to desire depth with God, to know God, and to believe it’s possible to know Him? To know that God wants nothing more than for us to know and love Him… how can this take place?
As I was thinking about this I was reminded of a scene from the movie “To Save a Life.” A teen, named Jake, who is seeking to better understand himself, God, and the loss of his friend – steps into church for the first time seeking answers and comfort. As he arrives at this youth group, desperately looking for depth of character from his peers (supposedly committed Christians) and clarity about life – but he is disappointed to find so many of the students in the room disengaged and aloof. Their apparent lack of genuine faith and concern with the “God” part of youth group really bothered Jake. And to make matters worse, his first glimpse of youth group that night was to witness the students engaging in a goofy “coke can chugging contest” where the students are challenged to down an entire can of soda – strained through the sock of one of their peers (totally gross). Soon after, his girlfriend (whom he brought with to this new church – bold move) leaves the youth group time early due to feeling uncomfortable and unwelcome. This, of course, bothers Jake… The video picks up soon after that while the youth leader is speaking to all the students:
Sure, it’s a movie clip… but I don’t think it’s too far off. Chugging soda can be fun, and youth group can be a blast. And it’s certainly fun to do many of the activities and games that youth groups engage in. And, many friendships can be forged. But like Jake asks the youth group in this clip, “What’s the point of all this if you’re not going to let this change you?”
Our weekly gatherings and our fun events (the ones that typically lack depth) will, and to a certain degree should, always be around. They need time to unwind and have some fun! Should students enjoy and desire to play games together? Yes! I LOVE a good game night, bowling night, or movie night, it’s a blast! … but if those more “shallow” things are MOST of what students tend to “get” or seek from their church – then they’ll seek their own (less worthy) version of “depth” somewhere else. One that exists to bolster the deep self-image they’re often trying emote. Maybe they seek their “depth” from a JayZ, Beatles, or Death Cab album; or a movie by Darren Aronofsky, or by some philosopher they learned about in school. Some people just dwell on the sin and pain in their life, allow it to identify them, and they believe it causes them to become a deeper more experienced person. But one thing is for certain, this current exodus of teens from our youth ministries is an indicator that students are looking elsewhere for depth and connection. Too often, they don’t find it at church. And if they’re not finding it at home either – the hope of that student ever desiring to know God and go deep with Him is slim.
So I ask: “What kind of depth can the church offer that shines a light on this issue? What can effectively draw in students in a Christ centered way?” I think it comes down to having a depth of character in the adult leaders, parents, and peers that the students get to know in the church. I recently re-listened to a message by John Ortberg called “The Main Thing”. In this sermon he says:
“This world is not likely to receive a gospel of transformation from untransformed people.”
When students come up close with people whose DAILY life and character have been transformed by Christ, then they see something unlike anything else our world has to offer. That is a depth of character and a living truth that cannot be easily ignored or cast aside. When someone is following Christ in such a way that it has transformed them.. then, perhaps… students will be able to see this love and engagement and begin to desire depth with God too… instead of some less worthy form of trendy “depth” that doesn’t satisfy the soul. Not to say that Aranofsky movies aren’t deep and interesting, and not to say that students should only be moved by things directly related to God and the Bible… but, if they begin to see EVERYTHING through the lens of truth that they receive from believing the gospel message, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and by the cloud of witnesses that they join with as followers of Christ – I believe we’ll see students come into contact with the deepest desire of their heart – which is to go deep with God. But, it takes seeing it in others, experiencing it in scripture (often in a group setting), it takes rubbing up against transformed people, it takes parents who model Christ and are themselves in a transformation process. And all of this… it is not easy to do. But I believe this is what it takes to lead this generation of teens to the cross and to have them experience a relationship with their Creator.
Shallow is easy, shallow can be fun, shallow is less risky… but it does not make disciples on its own. I love students, I love to see them grow and to live out their convictions passionately. Seeing God at work in someone’s life takes my breath away – and that’s even more true for me when I witness it in a youth. I think many of our efforts as church leaders (including my efforts) to help connect students to God have not been what students truly need. Rich Mullins once said, “We’ve taken the blood of the cross and turned it into kool-aid…” and I think he’s right. I know I’ve been guilty of this at times for sure.
Luckily this doesn’t change that God STILL wants to know us, love us, and go deep with us. And we can’t simply lug students into the deep end of the relational pool with God either. It takes time, it takes personal mentors, it takes students having a front row seat to the transforming power of God in the life of another human (maybe even MORE than one). It takes hearing testimonies of what God has done in the lives of others. It often takes observing people who desire and love God first – which also means, it requires that we love these students with Christ’s love so they can experience it first hand. And at some point as Christ followers we ALL learn – ALL of us desire God! Whether we knew it consciously or not, the desire has always been there. It’s the deepest desire of our soul. My hope and prayer is that this soul desire becomes a very conscious desire and pursuit for the youth and families of our churches – and for our students: that their head and heart align with their soul in its desire for Christ and knowing Him more closely.
So, to “Mike” on that random comment thread – thanks for making me think today.
** I apologize for my lack of a reference on this statistic… I remember reading about a study that claimed this result.. If I find the reference, I’ll add a link here. I’m sorry