At our church, we often end our youth group year by inviting the teens to write down questions they’re struggling with. We as leaders compile them, note the overlaps, and spend time processing these questions with them.
This past spring I was shocked by the composite question that topped the list: “I'm embarrassed to be known as a Christian, and I don’t know what to do about it. I love Jesus and I love participating in this church community. But in my life beyond these walls, I’m embarrassed to be known as a Christian. How do I deal with this?”
I’ve been part of asking teens to identify significant faith questions for more than 30 years, and had never seen this particular issue voiced in such a focused and passionate way. We as leaders were so taken aback that we spent quite a bit of time inviting the group to expand on the realities that gave rise to this question.
We heard comments like:
“It feels like the news is always quoting Christian leaders who are proudly angry and judgmental.”
“I don’t understand why so many Christian leaders won’t publicly name any of President Trump’s flaws. Everybody’s a sinner, right? Isn’t it normal for Christians to apply the Bible to our leaders? It seems like these leaders felt free to criticize previous presidents. What’s different now?”
“It seems that all too often the loudest Christian leaders are later caught in significant sins and exposed as hypocrites.”
I drove home that night with several thoughts rummaging through my mind and heart in moderately incoherent ways. They looked something like this:
- Often it’s OK to be embarrassed! There’s a certain kind of embarrassment that just comes with the territory of following Jesus. We are, as Peter says, “foreigners and exiles” (I Peter 2:11), and so we don’t fit within our cultural context. Furthermore, we are not perfect, we are redeemed, and our lack of perfection is subject to public scrutiny. Even so, I recognized that these teens were not feeling holy embarrassment; they were struggling with the inability and/or unwillingness of fellow Christians to represent Jesus with grace and truth in the public square and to consistently call public leaders to account using biblical standards.
- I pondered the ways in which I have been an embarrassment to my Lord and Savior, ways in which I myself have not represented Jesus with grace and truth to these same teens. The call to walk with integrity is humbling.
- The teens who spoke about the issue are, for the most part, thoughtful, mature, committed kids, the kind who are making a difference for the gospel wherever they are. The pain and confusion in their voices was palpable. I felt grieved for them. I pray that wherever teens and young adults in the CRCNA express these sorts of confusions, that we as leaders will listen respectfully as we grieve for them and with them.
- These teens recognize that the tone of our conversations either enhances or diminishes gospel witness. It’s not just what we say that matters; frequently the how we speak communicates more powerfully than what we say. These teens were hearing too much talk from public leaders that was not seasoned with the fruit of the Spirit.
- The teens who said the most during this discussion are themselves strong leaders, and they were reflecting on their experiences of older, public Christian leaders. Affirming and developing the leadership gifts of teens is one of the most crucial aspects of youth ministry. I was struck by the irony of building their capacity for leadership during this discussion as they lamented what they saw as failures of Christian leadership.
- I’ve always been deeply aware of James’ warning: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3: 1). I found myself praying, “Lord, what kind of a leader/teacher am I? What role am I called to play through my actions and my words that would play a part in helping these teens receive the courage and conviction they need to persevere through their embarrassment?”
I’m thankful that our youth group trusted us with their embarrassment, and I pray that as a church community we will be a sturdy, collective witness to the grace and truth of Jesus Christ in the midst of all kinds of wild, noisy, contradictory claims to represent Jesus.