For years youth ministry has been a rapidly growing focus in both Catholic and Protestant Western Christianity. Churches are creating more and more openings for youth leaders, to whom are relegated grade school through college Christian education and training. Schools (including the one at which I proudly teach) are directing more and more resources to preparing candidates for those careers. A small but growing number of evangelical churches (including one at which I proudly served) are even turning their attention exclusively to reaching the young.
As youth ministry increasingly surrenders to youth culture, we need to make something clear to all, especially our young people. Christianity is a religion for old people.
We have absorbed our culture’s obsession with youth so thoroughly that many high-school and college-age churchgoers grow up thinking the Christian faith is basically about them. How many know they are believers because the Ancient of Days fulfilled promises made to a near centenarian?
The divine economy of salvation works like this: Young people get jobs: Adam and Eve were charged with subduing the whole earth. Old people get promises that God will provide young people to do the work. What better evidence could there be of God’s “preferential option for the elderly”?
Of course, old people do shoulder some of the workload. They must teach young people to obey them (Deut. 5:16, 6:7). Then the young people who listen might have a blessing of their own: the prolongation of their days (Eph. 6:2-3). Old age is the promise of the only commandment with a promise.
I can already hear a few shrugging their shoulders at all this quoting of the Old Testament. Note, however, that we do not call its counterpart the Young Testament. Where was Jesus at eighteen? Blissfully silent. Working for Joseph. The only words we have of a Jesus under thirty are from a student asking and answering the questions of elders. Amen to that.
But doesn’t the kingdom of heaven belong to children? Of course it does–because children are still at home obeying their parents. Teenagers, by contrast, are not children. Or if they are, they prefer to disclose this fact selectively, when they have crashed the car rather than when they want to borrow the keys. I have not found biblical evidence that anything at all belongs to teenagers except hugs and an imminent shove out the door.
No twenty-year-old could write Proverbs. Israel’s sages forbade anyone under thirty to read Ezekiel. Orthodox Christians don’t trust the priesthood to people under thirty. If Jesus wasn’t ready, then they probably aren’t either.
Doesn’t Paul warn Timothy not to despise his youth? He does. But we are a long way from a culture that goes out of its way to reassure young people they are worthy to teach the Gospel. Nowadays the more urgent need would be for Timothy to warn Paul not to despise his seniority. Besides, why is Timothy’s youth not to be despised? Because as a child he learned the Scriptures so well from his grandmother and mother (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:15)!
Is youth incompatible with leadership or initiative? Of course not. Yet the most youthful biblical heroes lead deferentially. David defers to the anointed Saul. Josiah the boy king defers to Moses. Mary defers to Gabriel. Indeed, that quality is precisely what makes them such sensitive and refreshing leaders in times of arrogance and cynicism. And whom do they bless? Jesse’s house, the elders of Judah, “Abraham and his posterity.” The geriatrics, as usual.
“Sing to the LORD a new song,” demands the Psalmist. Yet why do we equate new songs with the songs of young people? Here too, newness and youth are too quickly associated. Tommy Walker, my favorite writer and performer of contemporary worship songs, is over forty and the father of four. Whereas most pop bands burn out after one or two albums, Tommy’s material gets better every year. He is drinking ever more deeply from the well of Christian hymns, spirituals, and gospel. He’s exploring gospel, jazz, salsa, and other tried and true genres. His guitar is more scorching than ever; and so are his lyrics. Here’s to you, Tommy. You make the baby boom generation almost worth the trouble.
Meanwhile, my students have been spending the last few years trying to make up their minds whether to revive the seventies or revive the eighties.
Do not misunderstand me: Neither ministry to youth, ministry by youth, nor even youth culture as such is the real problem. When youth ministry critically embraces youth culture, it can enrich Christian worship and life for people of all ages. The problem lies elsewhere. Consider the following story:
One week every year my church’s junior high and high school groups become our liturgists. One September Sunday I entered our sanctuary to see them filling our choir stands. There was a lava lamp on the Hammond organ. The backdrop was a banner with “Vertical Reality” in L.A.-style graffiti so thick it practically needed a graphologist to make it out. Sketches covered the walls of the room, each telling a young witness’ testimony to the Good News. Besides the usual guitar, bass, keys, and drums, there was a DJ scratching through the hymns. (It’s nice to see this generation knows what a turntable looks like.) A video of our kids dancing to hip-hop and grunge and other activities I cannot even name counted down the seconds until the service starts.
It was Beautiful
The service started off with Matt Redman’s Holy Moment, which is as good as it gets as a procession in a Pentecostal church that doesn’t process:
Come, come, come
Let us worship God
With our hands held high
And our hearts bowed down
We will run, run, run
Through Your gates O God
With a shout of love
With a shout of love
The whole congregation, everyone, was signing every line: hands in the air, running in place, cupping our hands around our mouths and really shouting the last phrase. My three-month-old son startled and started to cry. You had to be there to appreciate how thrilling it is, how right, to be among hundreds of people running together into the New Jerusalem with a deafening cry of love.
The next song was called “Undignified.” We shook our fists in the air, first like African-Americans at the 1968 Olympics, then in circles to raise the roof, proclaiming that we were mad for our King of Kings and ready to shed our dignity to show it. King David would have been right there with us (2 Samuel 6). We love our Lord, and in young America this is how people show love. If we can be crazy for the Lakers, we can be crazy for the Author and Perfecter of our faith.
Our sermon came as skits and interviews. One featured an episode of “American Idol: The Church Circuit,” in which “Britney Spagulera” (get it?) performed grotesquely. When Tommy, one of the judges, humiliated her for adoring herself rather than God, she avenged herself by zinging him back and pointing out the beam in his eye. How many traditional church organists are that honest about the temptations and risks of liturgical leadership?
This is defiant worship, apocalyptic worship. It is the kind of attitude that gets Christians martyred. It bathes in the light of Christ after–and before–a week’s immersion in the darkness of American youth culture. It does not pretend that the culture is friendly to the faith, or even neutral. But neither is it the exercise in defensiveness and withdrawal that many mainliners construct of evangelicalism. It is not one-half of a double-life. It is not an occasion for people who stay below the cultural radar to act differently now that they are safe. These k
ids are ambassadors, not just survivors. They act like this all the time, or at least they strive to. They are confident. They love with the fire of the Holy Spirit. They love their lives, their friends, their families, their music, their schools, their futures. They love them like Jesus loves them.
The morning is a rejuvenating education in the distinction between fantasy and hope. It is a distinction we older Christians sometimes forget.
An interviewer asked one of the high schoolers, “How can our church help you guys?” He showed us that morning’s bulletin. Look at how every one of our ministries defines itself by an age group, he said: junior high, high school, college, twenties. “This church is like my family. But families cross age boundaries. Our church needs to get rid of those boundaries.”
Out of the Mouths of Babes!
The boy’s gentle criticism was a protest lodged against perhaps the most destructive quality of youth culture: Its generational apartheid. This, not worship choruses or casual dress or rap, is youth ministry’s most profound surrender to youth culture. The problem is not youth ministry, but youth cloistering. It dismembers the body of Christ. It orphans young people to be adopted by soft-drink corporations and shoe manufacturers rather than raised by their own parents. It leaves generations of young unblessed by the old. More importantly, it leaves parents childless, and generations of old unblessed by the young.
Sure, young people can benefit by spending time together. Yet if the Bible is right that young people are means of blessing old people, then it sins against nature and grace alike to segregate and pander to them. It turns worship into an assembly line. It teaches youth a faith they soon outgrow. It withholds a heritage they are only beginning to be able to appreciate. It disrespects their future. It teaches them that subcultures are more powerful than the fellowship of saints. It makes the Christian faith and Church less than universal.
More gravely, it dethrones the old. It shuns wisdom. It sends elders into forced retirement before they are even elders. It turns sanctuaries into nursing homes. It proclaims that races begun are more important than races won. Its cult of youth mocks the veneration of saints. It scorns sanctification. It subverts eternity.
Now there is nothing wrong with treating the young and the old differently (1 John 2:12-14). It is entirely proper to respect our different locations, especially in a society changing so rapidly. We need special forms of discipleship: milk for the young, solid food for the rest. But what neither young nor old need or even want is a life of demographic solitude.
Young people like to tell themselves they are countercultural. Well, it is time for our churches to get really countercultural and reintegrate the generations. Since young people are supposedly better at this, maybe they will prove it by taking the initiative.
At Christian Assembly, they will have a lot of catching up to do. Twenty years ago the church was a small, traditional Italian Pentecostal congregation. One day it dawned on them that visitors didn’t feel welcome with the tongues and interpretations and coats and ties. So the congregation committed itself to revolutionizing every aspect of their life together in order to become inclusive of their young and hospitable to strangers. Tongues were relegated to other events in the church week. The pastor went out and found Tommy at a coffeehouse and made him our new worship leader. Soon the songs were newly rhythmic, the coats and ties were harder to find, and the church was growing.
What the church did not do is start a “contemporary” service and keep its “traditional” service. Tommy played alongside Art Botta, the seventy-year-old violinist who had always played in church, and continued to do so until his death. Every week among the throngs of people of every ethnicity and age, you can still spot the small core of white-haired Italians who made it all happen. They come dressed to the nines and sit in their usual places. They are our patriarchs.
One day after the service I went over to one elderly gentleman and introduced myself. “You don’t know me, but I just want to thank you for the way you sacrificed to make someone like me feel welcome here,” I said. “I hope that when my time comes, I will do it too.” He looked at me as if I were from another planet. “Son, my parents were at Azusa Street,” he said. “New things are what the Holy Spirit is always doing. We didn’t change anything.” Confuted once again by an elder’s wisdom!
Foursquare churches traditionally feature the words “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” in their sanctuaries. That exchange taught me why.
When we’ve been in the kingdom ten thousand years, we’ve no less days to sing his praise. But we will be getting older, and wiser, every day. Our glorified, spiritual bodies will no longer be breaking down under the present infirmities of old age. But they won’t be young either. The nations are healed by the leaves of the tree of life, not the tree of youth. There is no tree of youth–and the fountain of youth is a fantasy, an eschatological mistake. Eternity is the opposite of youth.
By the way, I am thirty-eight. That is old enough to be President of the United States– or even an Orthodox bishop. But it is still young enough to be dangerous. If you disagree with my argument, it is probably just as well. Ask me again in thirty years. Maybe then I will know what I am talking about.