October 19, 2017

Converting the Consumers: Directions for the Lenten Journey

lenten_cross.jpgAt the ministry where I work, we have a little guy I’ll call “Charles.” A middle-schooler growing into a young man.

Charles is a church kid, and he’s a Christian. He’s also very, very serious about impressing the adult Christians around him.

He wears a tie every day. Almost no one on our staff does that, and the students certainly don’t.

He wears dress clothes all the time. Our ministry has lots of donated suits, and he loves wearing them. Especially the oversized ones. He especially loves ties and suspenders. He wears the tie at night, around the dorm, often during free time, work time and on Saturdays. Here in Eastern Ky, at a ministry where no one dresses formally, not even the local pastor (who wears overalls), he’s quite a dapper dresser.

Many days he carries a very large, leather, KJV Bible with him. Collins/World. Expensive leather. In the original box. I’d estimate it’s $125 of Bible.

He attends the worship times for youth, but also the adult services at a nearby local church, which is very unusual, but he likes church a lot. He got baptized at the start of the year, though I’m sure he’d been baptized before he came here.

Charles gets along with the other students at our school, but most of the time he either sits by himself- by choice- or hangs around with adults, who give him a lot of attention and strokes for his devotion to Jesus.

Now the spiritual formation of young people like Charles is a major concern of mine, and I want to say three things:

1) I’m not sure that Charles is being helped to follow Jesus very closely. I don’t know his heart- and I do believe he is a Christian- but it seems that most of what Charles is doing is a kind of adolescent quest for conformity. In his case, that conformity is to the Christian culture that surrounds him.

Charles very accurately reads what is expected, what is good, what is rewarded, and he does it. Now I believe that all of us make our first steps in anything in life by pretending more than we actually know, so I’m not carping at Charles. And I believe he hears the Gospel at our ministry and from adults.

What concerns me is that we are dealing mostly with externals with Charles. His focus is on behavior, and he’s an Olympian in training for doing what is expected of him from Christians. What kind of spiritual formation is that?

Those of us who should be helping in focus on Jesus are, instead, applauding that focus on externals. It’s an easy thing to do, but as we seek to make disciple, it’s a mistake.

2) Which brings me to the adults who will no doubt say that Charles is the finest Christian young man they know, because he wears a tie, carries a big KJV and goes to adult church. Are they mentoring him in a way that is actually discipling Charles? Or are they socializing him into the club that is denominational, “team sport” Christianity?

When Charles is held up as the best Christian we have, the fact that he has very few non-Christian friends and spends much of his time pursuing the approval of Christians won’t strike many people as ironic.

3) I’ve used Charles as an example, but we could be talking about lots of other people in situations with many of the same components. Change the names, ages and labels, and we’ve got “Charles” all over again.

Conformity is a human behavior. We all do it. We can’t be blind to it, and we can’t fail to see what it’s possibilities for making us something other than disciples.

In a consuming culture, there are t-shirts to wear, conferences to attend, MP3s to listen to, buzzwords to use, names to drop, churches to faint over, etc. Did I say money to be spent?

And half-truths to be told to one another. Like “I’m following Jesus” when I’m not doing much more than wearing a uniform and carrying some recognizable symbols to get me in the doors.

Jesus is provocative. He specializes in “getting real.” When we find ourselves on a path that’s well worn, with lots of chatty, happy people all wearing the same caps and eating at the same restaurants….do we know where we are? We might just be on vacation…on the wide road Jesus warned us to avoid.

Walking with Jesus through this world isn’t a vacation. It’s a vocation. It’s a conversion. A turning. A repentance. It’s the Lenten journey all the way home.

If you are on the way, or helping others along the way, put your focus precisely on Jesus Christ. Talk about him. Listen to him. Allow his words and way to permeate the superficiality of western Christianity and turn you down the narrow path.

The conformist’s consuming journey is always to the next “thing.” Our journey is a walk with Christ to the cross. Along the way, we see him, hear him clearer and closer.

As we come to Ash Wednesday and Lent, I pray that all of us find, walk in and mark out the narrow way of Jesus’ incarnation and example.

Comments

  1. So praying the so-called “sinner’s prayer” and accepting the “4 Spiritual Laws” isn’t all there is to it? Maybe we do need Lent after all–yes, indeed we do, but we need Jesus above all.

  2. bob pinto says:

    I get the awful feeling this kind and decent soul “Charles” is headed for a fall and will be terribly perplexed when it happens. Will Charles become weary of kissing up to gain acceptance and wonder why his face value isn’t enough? And if Charles falls on hard times will the group he’s trying to impress support him in any way?

    Or worse, will he see anyone who doesn’t try to conform to the group (or clique) or is aloof, among the brethren and then ignore that other person?

    Charles needs new friends, some who’ve hit rock bottom more than once.

  3. I do not know “Charles” so I do not intend to judge. But I have known others in similar situation. Of those I have known it seemed that the longing for a father’s unconditional love somehow got twisted into this “approval” thing. It is behaviour oriented and seems to do fine until the person gets into the work place. What gained approval at church gains ridicule in other situations. There is often a falling away and a difficult journey to learn the Father’s true unconditional love.

    I assume Charles is a challenge for you. May God give you wisdom and favor to disciple this young fellow.

  4. He’s a middle-schooler doing what a lot of Christian young people do, and he’s a reminder to distinguish between the authentic way of Jesus and the Jesus fan clubs we create. With the right guidance, he’ll be fine.

  5. I was a “Charles” once…I pray that my children have seen my God pick me up when I have fallen, and watched His light illumine me when I sank down into darkness (Micah 7:8) and I pray everyday that the Lord will use me to minister to those who are lost, either in religion or in the world…

  6. Hello, I’m Charles. Actually, I’m “Charles in 30 years or so.” The person you described, with a few variations here and there, was me as a kid.

    I think you described things very well. As a kid, my relationship with God was legitimate, but it was clouded with an over-achiever performance mentality that made me go after the approval of the adults as well as God’s approval (which I already had, but I did not know it).

    My journey of faith since then has been largely a de-construction–a slow and often painful stripping off of religious performance in order to become more free just to be a child of God.

  7. Good post Michael. I too work with youth, and have seen kids like Charles. I think the thing that bothers me most is not Charles of the world, he’s just a kid trying to figure it all out. The thing that bothers me are the adults that prop him up. They should know better. One family I’m thinking of continually received praised for the appearance and behavior of the children. The family was so locked into conformity and legalism that I’m certain that the children are going to grow up either “drinking the cool-aid” or hating Jesus, or both.

  8. The family was so locked into conformity and legalism that I’m certain that the children are going to grow up either “drinking the cool-aid” or hating Jesus, or both. — Eric

    i.e. “He Loved Big Brother” or “Take your God and Shove It”. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

  9. I was the anti-Charles when I was younger. I deliberately fought against being a “good Christian”. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive any good teaching so I fell into a general rebellion and got involved in things that hurt my relationship with Jesus.

    Thankfully, God shaped me into someone who is more concerned with following Jesus than pleasing people, although I still struggle with the old conformity thing.

  10. So gee, you are saying the only way poor Charles has a chance to be “real” is to go goth, hate life for awhile and then maybe come back to center?

    Sometimes I wonder if the “questioners” just question because that is where they find true enjoyment.

  11. Stickshark says:

    I getting over being a variation of “Charles”. The need to impress the “serious” players with my “spirituality”, that is playing the game to get approval. All I have now is burn out and depression – and the start of an authentic walk in community with others.

    Eric quote sums it up for me:
    “The thing that bothers me are the adults that prop him up. They should know better.”

    “elders” that is the ones older and wiser than us, should have the wisdom to encourage and the discernment to help get over the need for approval that results in destruction.

    Sadly I see it rife in my family and my much young brothers are running down a similar path.

  12. Tina,

    I, too, remember being a Charles. Fortunately, my rebellion came when I got involved in the charismatic movement, speaking in tongues, etc. We all need to find out who we are, and how do we best fit in the Kingdom of God. I’m still working on myself, and expect not to be finished on this side of life.

    We need to give the young both freedom and guidance, in proper balance.

  13. Tina, there are such things as non-extremes. A person can be wrapped up in a performance-based relationship with God and need to break that sort of surface pseudo-relationship. People can break that relationship and join into a deeper and more genuine relationship without needing to “go goth, hate life for awhile and then maybe come back to center”.

    Jeff said it well: “My journey of faith since then has been largely a de-construction….”

    It doesn’t need an outward rebellion to the opposite extreme to break bad habits.

  14. Wow, great post!

  15. anon evang says:

    Great post.

    Having known a few young people like Charles, and having been (to a lesser extent) like Charles himself, here are a few thoughts.

    1) The good news is that Charles is not likely to be tempted by the things that are occupying many people his age. I remember hearing a young girl testifying in my old church, and she was very strong and over-spiritual. I mentioned this to a leading brother, and he said, “Yes, she’s too much, but all her friends are doing drugs and sleeping around, and right now the enemy can’t find any ground in her.” That made me realize sometimes it’s not so bad to be “too spiritual.”

    2) On the other hand it’s not good to become spiritually peculiar. So Charles really does need help to learn how to relate to people his age, and to people who are not as “spiritual” (even if his definition of “spiritual” isn’t accurate). Another story: The son of an elder in my church was on a sports team. The worst person on the team, morally speaking, opened up to this son, basically saying that his life was empty and he wasn’t sure what to do. The elder’s son said nothing, but told his dad how much he pitied people like that, and expressed disgust. His father very strongly helped him understand that this is the type of person the gospel is for, a repentant sinner. (The son has since become much less “spiritual” and much more approachable, and has led many to Christ.)

    3) I was like Charles growing up in the sense that I felt more accepted by adults than by my peers. Quite frankly, I just couldn’t find people my age with my intellectual or spiritual interests. I was also intensely insecure. (Eventually I began finding some true friends, but it was after adolescence.) There’s no easy answer for this except to pray that the Lord can give Charles a spiritual companion, aka David and Jonathan, to prevent him from being lonely or isolated.

    4) When I first turned to the Lord as a college student, I went through a stage of acting very strange, dressing weird and ascetic, throwing out any “worldly” enjoyments, talking spiritual, etc. Eventually I got over that stage. Sometimes you just need to go through things, and if the pendulum swings too far, the Lord will bring you back to balance.

    Sorry for the long post. Just my random thoughts.

  16. I grew up in a Christian home with a strong father. He always encouraged me to be my own man. My father is not perfect, but character, honesty, and integrity were values in our home. When I was 15 or 16, there was a girl that I had a crush on. The problem was that she seemed to like the “bad boys”. To this day, I’m as vanilla as they come. So, I decided that I needed to spice things up a bit. This was the late 80’s or early 90’s in WV; earrings were still very rebellious. I thought that if I got an earring, this girl might like me. I decided to announce this to my Dad one afternoon while doing work in the yard. I knew he wouldn’t like it, and I think that I wanted him to save me from my own ridiculousness. He asked me why I wanted an earring. I told him. Instead of yelling, he started laughing. He looked at me and said with a big grin, “You’re such an idiot.” That was all the truth I needed to hear.
    We all need truth spoken into our lives: truth about conformity, truth about rebellion, truth about forgiveness and acceptance. There is no greater Truth than Jesus. Sometimes the truth seems harsh. Often, it is embarrassing, Yet, we come out better for it on the other side of experiencing it. So, I’m praying for Truth during Lent.