In my last post, I began to discuss some thoughts surrounding the Personhood of Jesus Christ and the implications this has for youth ministry. Obviously, this conversation is one that could reach into eternity, but I don’t know that such a conversation would necessarily bear much fruit; at some point, we need to get our hands dirty and just do ministry. But I hope that these little reflections and considerations do, in some way, bear much fruit for you in your approach to youth ministry. These thoughts have shaped my own ministry, and I trust that the Lord is doing with my work whatever pleases him. So without further ado, let’s return to the discussion of Jesus’ Personhood!
Jesus as Person means that He is active in the world and can be acted upon. I understand that such language as saying that “God can be acted upon” almost makes it sound like He is some force in nature or some pagan deity that is compelled by good actions or well-pleasing sacrifice. This is not what I mean, but rather I mean that His heart is one that is moved by the sufferings of his people. God is not a distant God that is unaffected by the anguish in the lives of humans. His heart is soft, and our pain affects Him in a way that causes Him to do something about it; this is what I mean that God can be acted upon.
In the Old Testament, God is actively involved in the world and the story of his people, even from the very beginning. The book of Genesis begins with God creating the world. He speaks, and things pop up where things were not before. He speaks light into existence; He speaks creepy-crawlies into the world; He speaks all the birds into their being, sending them forth to fly around the world in joy. It is through His Word that almost everything is made. The one exception to this rule is, of course, humanity. It is regarding humanity that God first takes counsel within Godself before acting: “Let Us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). God then acts: “God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7).
From the beginning of God’s relationship with humanity, we see that God is intimatelyinvolved. It is through God’s Mouth-to-nostril act that the first man comes to be. God is active from the beginning of our relationship with Him. Moreover, after the fall, God walks through the Garden, looking for Adam and Eve: “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). Interestingly enough, this is the only time we ever see God walking in the Garden. Many of us have re-written the story in our minds to involve a God who “walks with Adam” in the Garden, but that simply isn’t in the Scriptures. (Seriously. Check.)
It is only after they fall that God comes to walk with them. After the consequences of humanity’s action are pronounced, God does something strangely tender (albeit gruesome). He kills an animal and “made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). Even in the fall, the very thing that supposedly earns us God’s ill favor, He is seen to be providing for His people.
But God can also be acted upon, for His heart is not far from hearts of His people. In Exodus, the Israelites (the ones who “struggle with God,” Gen. 32:28) are in captivity in Egypt and being forced to build for Pharaoh a testament to Pharaoh’s greatness, and as one can imagine, they aren’t too happy about it, so they begin to complain and cry out to God. But God does not remain distant. Instead, He goes to an unlikely fellow, Moses, an elderly shepherd with a stutter who has been exiled from Egypt for murder. When God in the Burning Bush encounters Moses, the Lord says to him, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians…” (Ex. 3:7,8). God’s own interest in his people is such that He hears their cry and sees their affliction, and it is this cry and affliction that moves God to act. God has revealed His own heart in this action; His heart is for His people, and He will respond to their cry.
It is eventually this same heart, the heart moved by the afflictions of His people, that moves Him to become human in the Person of Jesus Christ, in Whom He actively reaches into the lives of people. Jesus’ earthly ministry is marked by copious amounts of healing, raising people from the dead, and (most joyfully) turning water into wine because someone didn’t plan for so many people. This Jesus Christ, Himself the Incarnate Word of God, is the same Word that speaks the world into existence from non-existence, and it is He who looks broken, dying humanity in the face and responds with compassion. The cries of the blind Bartimaeus reach His ears (Mk. 10:46-52), and He acts, and in this way, He reveals that His heart is one that does not remain unaffected by human travail. Moreover, people try to silence Bartimaeus, suggesting that the Master does not have time for him, but it is this that causes Bartimaeus to cry out all the more loudly until the Word of God takes pity on him. Jesus hears the cries of His people and is moved by them.
All of this of course, isn’t even to mention His reaction to the death of His friend, Lazarus, which is contained in the shortest, yet most poignant verse of the New Testament: “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35). Jesus faces the anguish of the separation caused by death, and this time it is not only as the Lord who watches His people perish, but as a Friend who has lost his friend to the grave. Jesus, Who reveals Himself to be fairly fond of humanity, in this moment shows us that He is not above being heartbroken by the hopelessness of the human condition. We are destined for death, and it makes Him cry. This is our Jesus, the Almighty King, the Good Shepherd – He looks at death and weeps.
Jesus truly weeps for Lazarus that day, but He also weeps for all of dying, broken humanity. His heart breaks over the suffering child whose father dies suddenly. He weeps for the parents of a drug addict, and He mourns the pain of the drug addict herself. This is our Jesus; He is the one that looks at our broken little hearts and reveals to us His own broken heart.
Okay, Christian, I get it. Jesus moves in the world and His heart breaks over us, but so what? Doesn’t that mean that we should stop doing stuff that breaks His heart? Doesn’t that mean we should try to keep kids from doing drugs or engaging in behaviors that lead them right into the place that makes Jesus cry?
Whoo. Your questions are truly incisive.
Often, we think that our ministries must be about helping young people engage in lives that don’t make the Baby Jesus cry. We attempt to engage our youth in retreats and seminars that teach them the virtues of sexual purity (which, by the way, goes far beyond waiting for marriage and not looking at pornography), but very rarely do we ever, like Jesus, look into the crypts of their broken little hearts that long to be loved with a Love that is stronger than death. Even more rarely do we weep over what we behold in them. Even less rarely do we, like Jesus, bravely enter those crypts of the heart and bring to life the dead that are buried there. But since, again, it is important to remember that all ministry is incarnational – that is, revealing something about the God we profess to follow – we need to think about what God’s Personhood, which is active and acted upon, means for us.
Too often I hear people talk about the need to “keep kids in the Church.” I am so tired of hearing this phrase that I just about want to puke. But what is it about this phrase that is so upsetting? Is it that I don’t want young people to find a life in the beauty of the Church? Is it that I think they’re going to be okay without living the Sacramental and ascetic life of the Church? No. It’s not this. I want these things for our young, but the question at hand is whether their simple attendance at Church means that their broken hearts are actually mended in the process. I fear that these young people are not being rightly ministered to and that these young people’s needs largely go unmet because they largely go unknown.
I spoke recently with a young man who is in the process of wandering from the Church, and he stated that he knew that the people of his church community loved him and would do for him anything they could if they knew something was wrong. Sweet, right? Yes, but he was also fairly certain that these same people (the ones who would do anything for him) didn’t care enough to find out whether there was anything wrong. I wish I could have told him that he was incorrect, but I couldn’t. This sad reality had better cause us to do some serious reflection and ask, “What does this convey about the God we claim to follow?” The obvious answer is this: He isn’t interested in your broken heart, young man, and He isn’t going to come looking for you.
But what we see in Jesus, the one who calls Himself the Good Shepherd, is that He does care. He does go to “the lost sheep of Israel;” He does leave the 99 to go looking for the one; He does ask where Lazarus is buried so that He might bring him back to life. When we throw our hands up in the air as our Church hemorrhages youth, we reflect a God who does the same. But the truth about this God is that His Character is such that He goes looking for those that have willfully disobeyed Him. It isn’t until Adam and Eve “go missing” that God walks through the Garden to find them. In the icon of the Resurrection, we see that God fearlessly enters the places of death in order that He might take humanity by the hand and lead them into life.
When our ministries are geared toward “keeping kids in the Church,” we reflect a God who stays away from the Cross and instead bids the two thieves to pull themselves off, suggesting that it would be best if they had just stopped stealing and kept themselves off the cross! But this isn’t what Jesus does. He goes to the Cross with them; He descends into Hell, and there He continues his Genesis 3 quest of looking for those that have been lost.
Our youth ministries fail because we sit back while young people leave. We scratch our heads and begin wondering what kind of program will respond to this problem or how we can sponsor appealing events that will get these kids back to Church. But does the Good Shepherd stay with the 99 and yell at the one, “Hey, you stupid sheep! Come back! You’re going to die out there. Come back! I’ve got pizza!” No! Of course he doesn’t! He risks (indeed, gives) His own life going after that stupid sheep and thereby bringing it home.
The question that we need to ask ourselves is not, “How do we get kids more involved in Church?” but rather, “How do we, the Church, get involved with these kids?” Instead of standing in the nave with crossed arms, pejoratively asking, “Where the hell have you been?” we, like the God of Genesis, better decide that it’s time to start walking through the Garden looking for these lost souls, generously asking, “Where are you that I might come and meet you there?”
Like Jesus, we need to be not afraid of facing the horror of death. We need to be not afraid to allow our hearts to break as we stare into the pits of human frailty and ask, “Where are you, child?” We need to remember that it is only by searching the depths and respective hells of these young people’s hearts that they can be offered a hand that leads them to life. Too often, we are uncomfortable at the thought of looking broken kids in the face, mostly because this brings us face-to-face with the brokenness in our own lives that we so frequently try to avoid. Such sad truth has caused me to think that the person who says, “You really have a gift for working with teenagers! They’re difficult, disrespectful, and disinterested,” really means the following: “Wow. You sure are brave to go traipsing through the crappiness of the human heart. I would do it, but adolescents annoy me, and I don’t want to face the fact that I’m less patient and kind than I usually like to think or act.” (Lord, have mercy on this person, for I am he!) When we see young people’s crap, they show us our own, and that really sucks, but such is the call in our ministry to the young.
For Jesus, to stare at Lazarus’ grave was not only to see human destiny but also to see His own. He knew that He was headed for the grave, and this is truly a grief-worthy realization. This realization, however, moved Him to tears and caused Him to act. Yet our responses are usually completely different. When we stay in the Church, beckoning youth to return instead of going into the world and looking for those we have lost, we do not convey a Jesus who crosses time and space to find them. Rather, we convey a false who Jesus who demands that boys and girls come to Church in their Sunday best and refrain from having sex during the other 6 days of the week. We want kids to get “cleaned up” before they come to us (or the Church), rather than reflecting a God who descends into the crap to meet them there. Woe to us if this is the message that our young people receive! Woe to us if it is this message that keeps them from the Church! Woe to us, for it would be better for us to have millstones tied around our necks!
Instead, we ought to be brave and know that when we meet young people (who will act like young people), they are bringing us face-to-face with the human condition, and this ought to cause us to weep, both for them and for ourselves. Our hearts must be moved and broken by their own broken hearts, and it is from this broken heart, which ultimately reflects the Lord’s broken heart, that we will have compassion and go looking for them. If our goal is just to “keep kids in the Church” (which, by the way, is a really crappy motivation for ministry), then we are going to be sorely disappointed, and we are short-circuiting and misrepresenting what it is that God does in the world: God goes looking for the lost. God’s heart is moved by the cries of his people. God descends into death in order to take by their feeble hands those who have died. This is our God: not the one who asks, “Where have you been?” but the one who asks, “Where are you?”
What are we so scared about? As ministers whose action reflect God’s own action, we need to reconsider our approach to “keeping kids in the Church.” We must consider an approach that goes after them and doesn’t give up on them. Ever. Yes, it is going to be painful. Yes, it is going to be annoying. But yes, this is exactly what Jesus does, and we are those who have been called to follow Him. And where does He go? Straight into the pit of human existence, moved by and acting within the darkness to allow not even one to escape His loving presence. Let us follow Him there, to the places of human brokenness, otherwise we are going to keep seeing kids leave the Church, and won’t that be really crappy?