Authority,  Truth,  Youth Ministry

What the World Needs Now

We are almost certainly on the brink of a post-Christian Western culture.

In Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean paints a bleak picture of youth culture and its relationship to the church: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith–but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school” (3).

I want to provide some practical strategies that are not only focused on how we lead our young in the faith, but in how we ourselves carry and practice our faith. Here are six strategies for passing on the faith:

Strategy #1 – Fill in the worldview blanks

Alasdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, provides an interesting thought experiment. Imagine a world that had descended into chaos and rejected science. The government outlaws science and for a few generations science is dead. Then a movement gathers pace to reinstate scientific theory. They do not know science, but have some fragments left over from the past, a few chapters here and a few scraps of paper there. They attempt to reinstate science, but it looks very different to how it does now. They don’t have the whole story, the context and the set of assumptions, so their science is discombobulated.

One of the things that Christian parents and youth ministers want to impart to their children is a moral upbringing, “training in righteousness.” There are hot button issues that get table-time – abortion, wealth and justice, homosexuality etc. But ethical discussion has been divorced from the text to the degree that it sounds like scraps from a former era, the Christian view of sexuality is isolated from the worldview in which it rests.

It is not that ethics aren’t important; it is just that they are so “on their own,” having little to do with the majesty of God, the history of redemption and the spiritual battle believers are part of. Sometimes we need to stop talking about the scraps and begin to fill in the other chapters. Human sexuality makes much better sense when one has a knowledge and love of God, his word and his interpretation of the reality in which we live.

I think we need to talk more about God, do “theology proper” at the dinner table. He, after all, is what the scripture is all about. The Bible, when treated a source book for decent conduct, is rather like giving scraps to children. We need to know and love God. And only when we understand God’s holiness will his law make sense. And only when we love God will we love his law.

Strategy #2 – Translate Text to Life

Have you ever met a Christian who seems to know the content of the Bible, but lives as if it has nothing to do with him? If so, you know one who has never been equipped to translate text to life. I think this is a central problem for our era. We so easily vacillate between teaching the text and teaching the life without connecting the two. The task of translation is now needed more than ever. And, as I wrote a few days ago, there are many competing translators, but they are not using the Bible.

Creasy Dean writes that in order to translate one needs fluency in both languages, the text and the life. To be bi-lingual is to know both languages, be able to translate ideas, things, concepts, promises, commands, expressions of feelings, stories and truths from one language to the other.

Dean says that translation is more than information; it is personal: “What awakens faith is desire… and what awakens desire is a person” (AC 119). Translation is also loving. Indeed, as Creasy Dean suggests, teaching is a display of love: “We fall prey to the myth that teaching is a display of competence rather than an act of love” (120). And as much as it is loving to teach, “we learn best what we love most” (122).

Translation is also imaginative. Sarah Arthur, in The God-Hungry Imagination, writes, “as Christian teachers and preachers [and parents]… we must always remember that we’re not meant to be journalists, merely relaying facts; we’re meant to be bards, speech wavers, spinning a spell that captures the imagination.” The point is over-stressed–content is key–but the content is personal not merely a bundle of abstract beliefs with no relation to life.

The test for whether texts are being translated to life is testimony. And if you are not hearing any testimonies then it’s a good indication that there aren’t any. 

Strategy #3 – Apply Authority

Another idea I gleaned from Alasdair MacIntyre relates to moral reasoning. Imagine that you are debating whether or not action x is right or wrong. Imagine that, when asked why you thought the way you do, that you replied that the reason you hold to that view is that you were told by someone in authority that it is the correct view. Most modern people would be incredulous. They might reply by saying, “but how do you know you have the correct authority?” or they might suggest that an appeal to authority does not even count as a reason.

The strange thing is that appeals to authority were the most common lines of moral reasoning up until only a couple of centuries ago. And, for the Christian, it remains the foremost line of moral reasoning available. Yet somehow we are uncomfortable in using it out loud.

Authority, it seems, is the root of many issues young people have with the Christian faith, as one former member of a Christian youth group illustrates:

“I wonder if I can get tax free status if I form a religion? It’s based on the Harry Potter books. Adherents must attend a reading every Tuesday. At first it will be voluntary, skipping will be discouraged as “you’ll never break free of your mortal muggle life if you do not hear the joyous words of JK Rowling.” As we gain political sway, we will make laws to enforce participation. Anyone who questions our book will be advised to read it, as it is the “truth.” Anyone who brings to light the serious logical flaws present in our dogma will be socially ostracized and debarred from the High Pretend Wizard Court. For the next 2000 years, when we have the legal force, we will kill, torture and steal from those who disagree with us, and justify it by saying J.K. Rowling is a “Jealous Author, who does not tolerate false Idols, like Twilight.” When we are in the minority, we will sob we are “persecuted” and that our Author J.K. Rowling is a “loving creator.” Every Wednesday we will meet in silly attire to celebrate the body and mind of The Trinity -Mostly Emma Watson, as the patron saint of males, Daniel Radcliffe as the patron saint of females, and Rupert Grint as the patron saint of gingers. Whenever evidence comes out to refute one of our claims, at first we will claim it is lies, in 30-40 years we will claim we knew it first. After a few centuries, we will claim our book is right because “NO ONE CAN PROVE DUMBLEDORE DIDN’T EXIST” This is how silly you look with your Bibles and Qurans” 

Authority is unpopular, but it is vital to the Christian faith. All are under the authority of God, believers are under the authority of the word of God and God gives authority to husbands in the home, to elders in the church and to governments of the nations.

The concept of authority needs to be re-introduced to our families, to our churches and to the world. We believe in the supreme authority of God in all things. And we believe that the authority of the Bible is reason enough when it comes to right belief and action. Furthermore, we believe that no one is devoid of authority, even if they say so. Everyone is born in bondage to sin and, as they act on the lusts of their heart, are followers of Satan (Eph 2). When we believe in Christ, we do not merely accept his word as being reliable, but submit to his Lordship. We may have been blind to this fact, but fact it remains.

Authority also needs to be defined in contrast to what it is not. For example, Authority is not the same as control. If you know a control freak (or you are one) you know it is not the same as authority. Control is a defiance of God’s authority and a mistrust of other people. It is arrogance and it stems from unbelief. Authority, when understood in light of God’s absolute authority, is loving. Consider the Bible’s reference to God as our Father. In one term we have the head of the family and the love of a father.

Authority is also not the same as tradition, but that is sometimes how it feels. Authority is found in a person, tradition is found in an activity. Authority is not about being stuck in the past, but about sticking with the script. We will sometimes be old fashioned and sometimes highly progressive, but that’s not the point of authority, as John Frame says: “Our rule is Scripture. Our passion as Christians should not be to be as conservative as possible, or as liberal and up-do-date as possible, but to be as biblical as possible. Sola Scriptura! Sometimes that may mean looking old-fashioned to the world. Sometimes it may mean pursuing the latest means of communication. We must be willing to be inconsistent, in terms of the world’s categories, to be consistent in terms of Scripture” (John Frame).

Strategy #4 – Affirm Authenticity but Challenge Truthlessness

It is hard to disagree with people when they tell us that we need a more authentic church, that we need to be more real with one another. There are few of us who think that we should be fake. Fakers, in the Bible, are treated with utmost severity. And the church should not be a place for fakery. For it has no claim to being anything like a perfect place. The church has always been full of sinful, fallen people and that means it cannot be perfect until Christ makes it perfect in the end. Paul Nyquist writes:

“You can race through time, trying to find an era in the history of the church that is free from the stain of sin. It can’t be found… authenticity helps you here… You can be up-front about the truth. The church is populated with people just like you. If you’re honest, you know your life is a string of victories and failures. You want others to accept that reality and not reject you for your stumbles. An authentic portrait of the church is the same thing.”

There is a caveat to be added. Authentic relationships are vital between people, but it doesn’t matter how authentic a relationship is if truth doesn’t matter or is unknowable. Christian fellowship is not all about being authentic and relational, but about the truth of the Word of God, about being the body of Christ, about Christian love and not merely “opening up.” Relationship without sound doctrine is empty and even downright wicked.

Some people think the means for obtaining authenticity and real relationship is devaluing the truth. Some want belief not to matter at all:

“I sometimes wonder if we would be better off if we just did away with these statements of faith and instead substituted something more like a “statement of behavior” that would articulate how we will treat one another… And maybe statements of faith would be a lot better if they included as a last point something like this: “In faith, we will be willing to revise and update all of the above should the Spirit of Truth guide us as a community into new ways of understanding.” 🙂 Wouldn’t that put a beautiful twist on these “statements of faith”?”

Such sentiment amounts to a dilemma: If you have to choose between being kind and being right, choose being kind and you will always be right. Nonsense. Kindness and love have no meaning apart from truth. We need to challenge this by showing that kindness assumes truth and cannot exist in a vacuum.

Strategy #5 – Reverse Religious Pragmatism

We should not tell our children that if they go to church they will be a better person and have a better life. They might, but that is not the point of going to church. Yet so much of our effort is driven by a pragmatism that suggests Christianity is a means to an end, that church is the ultimate social club that will get you the perfect life. As Creasy Dean says, churches have “perfected a dicey correspondence between consumer driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism”

Creasy Dean’s assertion is based, in part, on the findings of a 2002-2005 piece of research into the spiritual life of American teenagers called the National Study of Youth and Religion. Most teenagers, the research found, adhered to a worldview called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Two of the tenets of such a worldview are: a) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, and b) God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

We need to teach that all that happens in history, like it or not, is not bound up in our happiness, but in God’s glory, that all creation, all history, every rain drop, each thought, would bring Glory to him. Our depravity wants to oppose this. All this world just for Him? What do you mean? Surely this world is for me. Isn’t it? But those who love God desire that all history would be for God’s glory. That is what we are praying when we pray: “Our Father who art in Heaven Hallowed be thy name” and say things like, “To God be the glory and honor and praise.” That is the heart of worship, that all things would be for him.

What young believers also need is a theology of suffering. Harry Blamires wrote, in The Christian Mind, that far from being the road to the good life, being a Christian is often a path to a certain degree of misery! What scripture exhorts us to is the sharing of Christ’s sufferings. And there is no shortage of material for teaching this since the New Testament epistles deal largely with how to suffer not about how to get rich!

Strategy #6 – Practice Passion (Creasy Dean)

Creasy Dean writes: “So we must assume that the solution lies not in beefing up congregational youth programs or making worship more “cool” and attractive, but in modeling the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have.” (4)

Relationship is not verses doctrine, but you have to show the most important relationship – with God. Faith is not dry, dutiful observance, but an all-consuming passionate love for Christ.

Our faith is faith in a person not merely in a set of beliefs: “faith depends on who we follow, and that depends on who we love. Believing in a person–having utter confidence in someone–creates a very different set of expectations than believing in ‘beliefs’” (7). It is in Christ that we know truth, in the person and word of the person who saved us through his own passion on the cross.


The above is no way exhaustive. I do not pretend to have all the answers to all the questions. It is ultimately God who brings repentance and faith and not any great idea we might drum up. 

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.