Monday, March 21, 2011

Gospel of John: The Best Text for Instant Gratification Generation

All of scripture- from Genesis to Haggai and Matthew to Philemon- is holy inspired and valuable for teaching. I will say, in my humble opinion, that the Gospel of John is the most important New Testament book for student ministers to teach to postmodern teens.

In the following paper, The Gospel of John as Priority Text for Postmodern Teens, I write about John's concept of eternal life, compared to that of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In the Synoptic Gospels, content about eternal life almost always pertains to that which believers inherit when they die and go to heaven. John's Gospel, though, portrays eternal life as something one can receive and experience immediately upon entering into relationship with Jesus.

John, much like postmodern youth ministers, primarily wrote to a culture focused on their experience in this life. Greek philosophy and religion emphasized the fullest life on this earth, with little consideration of the age to come. Consequently, John accentuates the benefits one receives in this life through relationship with Jesus. A good example of this mentality is the well-known verse, John 10:10, where Jesus says, "The thief comes to rob, kill, and destroy. I have come that you may life, and have it to the full." Jesus was not talking about heaven; he was talking about here and now. (To be clear, we are not talking about health, wealth, and prosperity but about intimacy with God, the most abundant life on offer.)

John did not neglect the reality that a major question on the mind of all people (in particular, his Jewish audience) was the hope of eternal life upon death. Jesus most frequently talks about eternal life both on this earth and in the age to come in John. For example, Jesus talks about how he is the "resurrection and the life," relating respectively to eternal life upon death and that which one gains in this age.

Given postmodern teens' fixation with instant gratification, I believe the Gospel of John constitutes an absolute priority text for those ministering to students of this generation. The hope of eternal life when you die has little resonance with students who think they will never die (and modern medicine suggests that there's a touch of accuracy to their mentality) and who can access nearly any pleasure through the power of the internet. John's Gospel speaks about the benefits one can experience here and now through relationship with Jesus and provides a message relevant to our young postmodern audience.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Contact Work: Youth Minister As Presence of Judgment

How many times have you done contact work in the community, you see a student, and his or her first, nervous response is, “I’m coming to church this Sunday, I promise.” Now, you had no intention of asking this student about his or her recent lapse in attendance. In fact, you probably have not noticed it. However, you’re greeted with the expectation of shame.

Recently, I visited a school and saw a fantastic young man. This kid is so delightful that I’m thrilled any time I see him. He has a relationship with Jesus, and like all of us, probably has his ups and downs in his walk with God. In spite of my genuine enthusiasm, when I approached him, his first statement was, “I’m coming to Sunday school this week, I promise.”

I think this common reaction to youth ministers reflects the expectation of judgment all people naturally carry as a product of original sin. After eating from the tree in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve run from God when they hear Him coming. They hide and lie when He asks questions.

Does God immediately drop the hammer on these two new sinners when He approaches them? No, the Lord asks Adam and Eve about why they are hiding. He asks them neutral questions, and, in essence, is offering them an undeserved opportunity for mercy.

How does the recognition of the reality that people expect judgment from God and the church inform youth pastors? First, I think it reinforces the need to repeatedly teach the same old story: Christ died for sinners and there is no condemnation for those in Christ. God approaches us from a standpoint of grace. As the Anglican Prayer of Humble Access, states, we serve the God “whose property it is always to have mercy.”

Also, from a practical perspective, student pastors have to maintain an awareness that the students we serve, like all people, come housed with a compulsive expectation and heightened sensitivity of judgment. Therefore, any message or action to a student suggesting that they don’t measure up cuts deep, deep to the core. Very often, consistently inviting kids to events while out in the community doing contact work puts them under judgment. Even though we may be trying to include a student, often they view the invitation as something to live up to. If I come my youth pastor likes me. If I don't I have let him down.

Beyond Bible study and Sunday school, student pastors need to embody the message of grace in contact work, in a manner that reflects the same message we teach. Our relationships need to communicate that I love you where you are; my interest is you, not your attendance. You measure up through Jesus, and have nothing to live up to any longer.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A Liberal Scholar Who "Gets It" Better than Most

Rudolf Bultmann, a liberal, twentieth century critical scholar of theology, had this interesting take on Jesus’ relationship to ethics. George E. Ladd provides this summary and translation of Bultmann’s thoughts in Theology of the New Testament:

Bultmann views Jesus’ ethics as setting forth the conditions for entering the coming Kingdom. These conditions are not, however, rules and regulations to be obeyed in order that one may merit entrance into the coming Kingdom. The content of Jesus’s ethics is a simple demand. Because the Kingdom is at hand, because God is near, one thing is demanded: decision in the final eschatological hour. In this way, Bultmann translates Jesus’ ethics into the existential demand for decision. Jesus was not a teacher of ethics, either personal or social. He did not teach absolute principles or lay down rules of conduct. He demanded one thing: decision.

Bultmann basically asserts that Jesus did not teach moralism; he called for surrender and commitment. What is interesting about his analysis is that Bultmann, while personally professing to be a Christian, accepted very few of the tenets of orthodox Christianity. For example, he did not believe in the scriptures as the Word of God and rejected the reality of a bodily resurrection. Bultmann was a critical scholar who dedicated much of his career to “demythologizing” the claims of the Gospels. He rejected the supernatural works and personhood of Jesus, labeling them “mythologies.”

As overly skeptical as many consider Bultmann to be, it is interesting that he “gets” Jesus’s call, in some ways, better than most people in the church today. In his efforts to strip away the superfluities and concisely synopsize the call of Christ, he essentially says that Jesus called for faith over moral performance. (However, it is important to note that his concept of faith in Christ is different in many ways than that which orthodox Christianity has espoused.)

Bultmann’s quote challenges us to take a fresh look at the Gospels and the basic call that Christ issues. A fair reading shows Christ is not the ethical teacher, to which secular culture and academia try to reduce him. Christ is a Savior proclaiming the Gospel and calling for full surrender.

Our student ministries need this reminder. We need to question whether we are “ethical teachers” or proclaimers of the Gospel, hoping and praying for fully surrendered students.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Answering the Question, "What Can I Do?"

When hearing the message of true grace, where one discovers that Jesus’s work on the Christ completely makes him or her perfectly righteous for eternity and where we make no contribution, students often come away with one question: what do I do now? In some camps, the answer sometimes is “nothing.”
What people often mean by this is that Christ calls us to die, surrender, and submit. The love of Jesus compels us to submit our lives to God, who then does a work on us and through us to make us into people that bear the fruit of the Spirit and more closely resemble the image of Christ.
My experience has taught me that simply saying, “nothing, just submit” leaves most young Christians feeling a bit helpless. I certainly am not going to feed their human, law-driven fervor by giving them a list of things to do and not do. Simultaneously, I need to recognize the reality that students enter a real world, with real scenarios, and real decisions. How do I give kids something practical, that is drenched in grace and points them to the Cross?
Here’s what I say we can do, in light of our marred will and grave limitations as sinners:
Remember- First and foremost, we encourage kids to remember the Gospel always. Remember that Christ loves them perfectly and that His work on the Cross means they measure up in every way. The one thing they need is perfect love, and Jesus provides that. "Remember" is the most used verb in Deuteronomy, where God invoked the Israelites to remember how He had brought them out of slavery in Egypt and provided for them in the wilderness. Christianity is, by its nature, a retrospective religion, where we constantly look back and remember God’s goodness and faithfulness. In a more New Testament and Lutheran sense, deepening in the knowledge of our justification promotes our sanctification.
Repent- While the debate remains on just how free our will is before and after salvation, scripture suggests that our will gains greater power to deny sin. Augustine says in the later coined “Four-Fold State of Man” that man is able to not sin (posse non peccare) after salvation. We can encourage students to say “no” to sin in the moment and to repent from sin (living under our own control) in a broader sense as well.
Relate- A wise old man said to me once, “Never talk about sanctification outside the context of relationship with Christ.” From there he quoted Christ’s “I am” statement in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches, apart from me you can bear no fruit.” As creatures made in the image of God, we have the ability to pursue relationship. Once Christ brings us into right relationship with God, we are able to engage in this relationship with Him.
In my eyes, these three concepts help students to have a clear vision for practical Christian life, while directing them to Jesus and His love as the means for transformation.