“It is circumstances, not ideas, that change people.” author and Catholic priest Richard Rohr
Possibly the most significant way we can help youth notice their experiences with God is by helping them engage in real life; in real-life situations (out of the church and class room). We can then ask them the eye-opening question- “How is God present here?
I once heard this statement: ”Facts don’t change people. Experiences change people.”
Now, thinking back to the Gospels and the book of Acts and the beginnings of the early church, you realize that it was individual’s encounters with the person of Jesus that transformed their life, not necessarily what they believed about him. In fact, on more than once occasion Jesus healed someone and/or brought deliverance and restoration prior to any theological assent regarding his identity.
Here is a great story taken from the Gospel of John and serves as only one of many like it.
Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind
1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
3“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
6Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7“Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.
8His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
10“How then were your eyes opened?” they demanded.
11He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”
12“Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.15Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”
16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided.
17Finally they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19“Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”
20“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. 23That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”
25He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
26Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”
27He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
28Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”
30The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
34To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.
What is apparent from this story is that the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus, pin him down, and squeeze him into a particular theological box. The blind man probably figured that Jesus was a prophet of some kind and perhaps gave his specific answer out of fear of the Pharisees. Or perhaps, he really didn’t have many facts or beliefs about this man called Jesus, but he certainly knew what he just experienced. He was literally blind and now he could see, and this man named Jesus healed him!
I think in youth ministry what often happens is that we try to get students to believe certain things about Jesus before we really enable them to encounter him. Maybe the encounter is what must predicate the belief.
In Youth Ministry 3.0, Marko uses a great analogy of a train to illustrate the difference of progression towards faith, and (ultimately) the importance of fact vs. faith.
Marko argues that in the past, facts could drive the engine of personal belief. These “facts” would lead to a faith that was based upon those “facts”. Experience could be helpful, but often not necessary and often declared they would get in way of true and authentic faith. Now I understand what the writer of Hebrews says, ” 1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for.”
It is true that if God were to audibly speak or perform wonders and signs all the time in front of my students, it would not take a deep faith to believe in him. So, the less amount of experiences we have, the potential is there to develop a stronger type of faith. However, a faith built solely upon facts may not be standing on solid ground.
Here is why.
Which “facts” are included as essential and who makes that call? What if some beliefs or ideas that were considered “facts” a few generations ago are no longer held in the same light as they once were?
Imagine building a faith on the “fact” that the earth was flat and at the center of the universe? Oh wait, most Christians did that a few centuries ago and excommunicated those who believed otherwise as heretics.
What if we are building our faith today on facts that may or may not be credible? What happens when one of those ideas comes crashing down? In this book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell uses the analogy of building your faith just based upon facts and likens it to building a wall of bricks.
Two things occur when Christians do this:
1) We spend a whole lot of time defending our wall, protecting it from bricks that do not belong, and trying to keep people outside (that’s what walls do)
2) We open up the possibility of the entire wall crumbling down if one of the bricks happens to be pulled out or damaged. (kind of like that game Jenga)
Now, here is what I am not saying…Facts do not matter. They do. They are important . They are essential,
The apostle Paul writes this in 1 Corinthians 14:12-14
12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
So clearly, a faith built upon myths or false ideas that cannot be historical and factually proven is not going to last. There would be no real power in that kind of faith. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is essential according to the apostles, as is his divinity and humanity.
One of the earlier statements of “facts” and theology believed by the early church was this:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. -Philippians 2
15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. – Colossians 1:15-20
These appear to be some of the earliest doctrines recorded in Scripture and clearly what we can, and should, build our beliefs upon. Beyond these, I am just not sure what exactly is essential and what is not, and therefore constructing and communicating a faith built or driven by a whole host of “facts” can become potentially dangerous.
And you know that’s true when we see our high school students enter college and told that many of these “facts” don’t exist (whether true or not). We watch as their faith begins to crumble under the weight of doubt and uncertainty. Now, we can try to give them new books on apologetics and thus begins a battle for their minds- beliefs about something and someone.
But…. if their hearts are already won because of their personal experience with the transforming and freeing power of Jesus…well that is a different story.
Back to the illustration of the train. If experience/encounter lead the way, these cannot be easily discredited. One of the so-called ideals of postmodernity is that personal experience is everything. You will hear statements such as this, “Well that may be true for you, but this is what is true for me.” Now this can be both a blessing and curse at the same time. Traditional apologetics don’t work in this scenario very often. Sure, you will have exceptions, but it is very hard to “prove your point” to someone from a purely intellectual and rationalistic approach.
You can say 2+2 =4 and someone can say, “I see how you can come to belief that, but for me that equation does not work”.
Right or wrong, this is our generation of students. We can try to change them back into older worldviews, but we will spend energy fighting a losing battle and over time frustration will set in like trying to swim upstream against the current. They have been taught (not modeled) a faith based mostly upon facts, and often these facts can be and should be questioned. Some “facts” are Biblically based, while many are more products of culture and particular western worldviews than anything else.
What if God is calling us to reach students where they are at? (whether we understand or agree with the way they see life)
What if youth leaders focus on bringing students into a relationship with the person of Jesus. These “God-experiences” can broaden their perspectives on the spiritual, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, can lead to a personal faith. This personal faith can and should lead to a desire to know more about the person of Jesus (which is built upon a core set of beliefs and “facts”). Again, these are important, but maybe not what needs to drive our approach anymore.
Students still have questions that need to be answered. But for this generation, these questions are no longer about the credibility of the Bible and manuscripts, etc.. Sure some historical questions will arise from Dan Brown books and they can and should be addressed, but the issues students question have more to do with heart-felt concerns than purely academic or intellectual curiosity.
They are asking questions such:
Why does God allow suffering in the world?
How could a loving God send people to Hell?
Why isn’t Christianity more inclusive?
How can one religion be “right” and the others “wrong”?
Why have so many wars been fought in the name of God?
I am grateful for new approaches in apologetics such as Tim Keller who uses human reason and questions and uses these legitimate questions and concerns to point people to the reality and truth of God.
Generally, I have steered away from traditional apologetics, believing that Christ needs to be promoted more than defended. One author of the book iLead writes, “thoughtful apologetics are essential for reaching post-Christian, American teens.” For starters, postmodern students are all about personal experience. call it what you want, but it is not going to change. So if you want factual knowledge and evidence that demands a verdict to really appeal, you are going to have to start looking at some other generation.
I suppose arguments such as those advocated by Tim Keller, C.S. Lewis, and Ravi Zacharias are beneficial for students thinking about truth, philosophy, and the like. However, in my experience, most teens are drawn to the experience and encounter of Christ. As the author later states, “until our teens can see that Christ quenches their souls’ spiritual thirst more than the world, they will always pursue idols to their own harm.” Therefore, as youth leaders we must unapologetically promote Jesus and allow His very life and nature to be on display in and through us. To me, that is the living Word of God in action.
What drives and motivates students today?
Not facts. Not anymore.
They are bombarded with facts. It is experiences that they want. That appears to be the way this generation of students understand, process, and relate to life.
Who can blame them for wanting a concrete encounter with the transcendant God and not just a bunch of ancient ideas and texts, that (in reality) speak very little into their cultural context at first glance.
Today’s youth long for and embrace experience. They dream and desire deep encounter; with one another and with the transcendant and spiritual.
Isn’t that what Jesus offered?
His followers knew him. They met him. They encountered him and he changed their life.
Students believe what they see, feel, hear, taste, and touch. They believe what they experience.
I believe that our God is one who wants us to experience him. To taste and see that the Lord is good.
As culture, society, and students evolve and change, let’s shift our approach from facts to experience and encounter; towards introducing our students to this person who can open their eyes, heal their brokenness, restore them to God, and give them a hope and a future.
The train is moving. Will we be watching it pass, shoveling coal in the back, or at the controls excited for the adventure?