In our effort to get converts or raise up students in youth ministry, we many a time present a clean, professional faith package to people with the goal of conversation or obedience to a particular accepted pattern of behavior as the top priority. While, inherently, either of those are not bad goals, but because of intense passion to see conversion and to have the prospective converts sign on the spiritual dotted line or to fall in line with what is and is not accepted, it may cause us to present a slick, perfect, no holes, thin argument ignoring the messiness that the mystery of God communicates. While I completely believe in the God of the Universe, father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the incarnate Jesus and indwelling Spirit, it is a faith message just like faith messages of every other group trying to make sense of reality. We do not have absolute, unequivocal proof. We simply do not have a bullet proof argument. It is not “blatantly obvious.” When we present the gospel in such a way and use similar simplistic language we are setting up a faith crisis for unsuspecting, growing disciples later on in life when they run headlong into a wall of hard-to-reconcile hermeneutic issues. This is particularly dangerous for the young that we mentor and teach. When these students grow and transition from early adolescent spirituality and mature toward a late adolescent way of thinking and living out their faith encountering convincing arguments against the veritas of scripture, they simply will not know what to do with the “slick, thin and plastic” version of their faith. Their perception of Christianity is that there are no variants in the Greek New Testament writings or with the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and Masoretic text (the Hebrew translation of the Old Testament). They will not even know what to do with seeming discrepancies of the number of visitors to the tomb or who did visit the empty grave of Jesus first, or how the NT writers used the OT scriptures to prove their points (sometimes seemingly not saying at all what the OT says when they look at the footnote), or why the Hebrew writer said that the golden altar of incense was behind the second curtain (in the Most Holy Place) in the tabernacle (9:3) when it clearly wasn’t (Ex 30:6-10, 40:26).
When we teach our kids or other new believers to the faith that all the arguments of Christianity are obviously true and we can defend the faith against all attacks, we leave out the real issues of ideas being “lost in translation,” understanding the ancient near eastern culture and mindset, and the hermeneutical issues of how we interpret and apply what we read for our lives today. It simply is not easy. In fact, despite what some anti-formal education proponents might say, it is really hard. And to make matters worse, it is faith-shaking or even faith-destroying to some who grew up with a clean, simplistic (“just read the Bible and you understand it”), packaged, slick plastic presentation of God’s story of humankind and all of reality. Now, understand, I completely and fully believe this message of God… the problem is, it is just not easy. There are major issues that a 21st century disciple must wrestle with. We can present this simplistic version of Christianity and in essence keep our students’ heads firmly embedded in the sand. However, they will stop being the Christian ostrich at some point, most often when they go off to college, and then what will they do? How will they react when they are faced with real issues and questions and those interpretive hurdles of Christianity. Will they simply and repeatedly point to their Bible and boldly and confidently say, “It says so in the Bible.” That won’t last very long.
In High School, I took the vocational training track instead of the academic route. While many of my friends were treading water with trigonometry, I was learning practical skills for a guy who wasn’t going to college. I needed to make a living. I had no idea what I would do. I started out cheating my way through electricity class. I stole a test from the teacher’s desk and aced the class but couldn’t wire anything. I quickly realized that that was pretty stupid if I was going to build my own house. You just can’t cheat—I wanted my light switches to turn on lights, not open the garage door! I also took woods (intro and advanced), metals, small engines, auto mechanics, and welding. I loved welding class. As with the other classes, my artistic side came out. Although I wasn’t painting or drawing, there is something special in being able to put several pieces of metal together in a way that served a useful purpose. We learned different styles of welds. With each weld or project that we worked on, our teacher would come by with a hammer and smack the hot, steamy metal hard. The first time he did that to me, I blurted out, “Hey, you are going to break it.” Continuing on to the next student with a loud pin, he shot back, “Better to break it here than out there.” Welds have to hold up to a lot of pressure and torque and tension. If it is the weld on a car, bumps in the road can’t be allowed to break them. If it is a lawn chair, you want it to keep you from falling and breaking your tailbone on the ground.
As youth leaders, we need to be the kind of mentors who know how to help our students have strong spiritual welds so that their fragile faith can remain strong through the bumps and tension and pings of life. They must wrestle with the deep issues of the faith. And we can’t weld their faith for them; they must do the hard work. We, leaders need to ping their answers and their understanding of the Bible, God, and the Christian life. They have to understand that there is not always going to be a clear cut answer, all neatly packaged and argument-proof. This message we have from God has been passed down. Just the process alone raises major questions. They will read the annual Easter issue of Newsweek or Time and encounter convincing arguments against the validity of Jesus and the Bible. When they go off to college or when a college friend gets leukemia or dies in a car crash, they will have a sledge hammer of reality pounding against the welds of their faith. If they have been given simplistic, one-size-fits-all theological platitudes, all wrapped up in neatly and boldly presented either/or and us vs. them teachings, along with untested reasons for who, why, how, and what of Christianity, they may just crumble under the pressure and tension. We, as youth leaders, must dig deep and study the Bible, but we also must be educated in other disciplines. Our theological training would malnourished if it did not include serious wrestling with the languages, hermeneutics, exegesis, epistemology, philosophy, and science. We can always drop down to the level of the immature, but it is so hard to smart ourselves up to the level of truly preparing our students to successfully make the transition from adolescent spirituality (which is often based more in emotional and social development – visit any teen worship service) to a mature, adult faith that can walk through valleys of death and doubt and the quagmires of questions and conundrums. We would do our students a great and eternal service to provide deep and theological teaching that we get from intentional and thoughtful study in both college and master’s level work that would serve as a faith-development hammer pre-HS graduation. You must know the issues that they will be faced with and how to wrestle through them. Because “better it breaks here than out there.”