This past weekend I went a few hours north and spent some time at Camp Timberwolf Lake for our area's Young Life leader training weekend. Apart from all the exciting things that always characterize YL camp (frisbee golf, volleyball, zip-lines, and a whole lot besides), we spent a lot of time hearing and thinking about what it means to articulate the gospel to a generation of teenagers in an ever-changing culture. For the unacquainted, Young Life is a non-denominational Christian youth ministry that seeks to lead middle through high school-aged youth into a relationship with Jesus; we pursue that mission by building relationships with kids (usually through schools), trying to create meaningful, loving friendships that help them see what real love and honesty and respect are like, and by trying to faithfully act as servants of Jesus who can set an example of what Jesus meant when he said "I came that they may have life, and have it to the fullest," (Jn. 10:10) an example that kids can see.
But doing that, especially in today's environment, is constantly getting harder and harder. The kinds of questions that kids are asking, and the kinds of priorities and expectations they have seem to be constantly evolving and shifting along with the standards of the society in which we live. What does it mean to articulate the gospel to young people who are becoming increasingly apathetic toward things "theological," things that seem to have no relationship to "real life"? This was our topic of conversation this past weekend, and we had this discussion in the context of what our theological views tell us - specifically, our views on the meaning of the atonement. First we posed the question of how we ought to understand the atonement itself; then, based on our answers, we considered the question more immediate to our task as Young Life leaders: how are we going to explain this to kids in a way that both makes sense to them and also accurately conveys the truth about God?
Part of the task lies in thinking about the questions that are being asked by kids: Who am I? Where do I belong? How do you know God is real? And if he is, what do you want me to do about it? Just sit and agree that he is? Not only with today's youth, but also generally, there is less of an interest in being told something that makes intellectual sense - in other words, what matters to kids today is less being asked to "just believe" something, and more about finding where that belief equates to a real, concrete change in a person's actual, ordinary life. Eric Kuyper, one of our speakers this weekend, made the observation (I believe while quoting the book, Colossians Remix) that "rather than being concerned with rational justification, the quintessential epistemological stance of a postmodern culture is 'Show me.'" The gospel is not a logic game of intellectual persuasion, especially to most kids today, but instead needs to be "shown" for them to know that it is real.
This attitude is so clearly present in some of the more specific questions kids are asking, the kinds of questions we get all the time when we ask them to write them down at YL Club and other events: Why do I have so much crap in my life? Does God know me and love me, and if he does, why doesn't he make things better? If he really exists, why is there so much suffering? How does God feel about my relationships with girls/boys, or about my parents' getting divorced? Is anything really going to change just because I believe in Jesus? The list could go on for quite a while, but it would simply continue to display the same general concern as all the others: What does God have to do with my life?
This is where we fall short if we only talk pure theology. Being able to explain the atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross as an act of penal substitution, or of ransom, or of satisfaction, or of recapitulation, or of Christus Victor, or anything else may very well keep our thinking in order, but it doesn't go beyond the realm of intellectual acceptance immediately, until we start thinking about the implications of this great act for ourselves and for our lives. It means thinking about sin, about evil, about death in our own lives; it means thinking very personally about our distance from God and about God's love for us; it means thinking about what we are being redeemed for. If what Paul says in Ephesians is true, that "We are his [God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10); and also that "we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life," (Rom. 6:4), then while our lives will certainly revolve around our intellectual acceptance of what Christ did on the cross, our lifestyles will also be distinctly different after that new birth has taken place. Kids want to know that substantive change will take place in their lives, change that proves what we are saying about God is true. That is by no means an unreasonable demand, provided we do not use it as a tool of escapism (making the un-scriptural claim that life will be devoid of all sadness once Jesus is a part of it).
So how are we preaching the gospel? Are we telling, or are we showing (and telling within the context of our showing)? Our speakers contrasted two commercials for us that can embody the difference between our evangelistic methods: first, the Slap Chop commercial (check it out - it's pretty funny). This commercial shows the basic approach of most commercials - that they must vigorously convince us that our lives will be better (much better) if we buy the product in question. Sadly, this is the approach of many evangelists today, a method rooted more in advertising schemes and methods of persuasion than in the biblical conviction that "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." (1 Cor. 3:6-7) Are we, as Young Life leaders, relying on our charisma and ability to "sell it" rather than relying on the power of God's Spirit to use our message and give growth?
The second commercial is far removed in its advertising tactics from those of the Slap Chop makers. Rather than blasting the viewers with force of rhetoric, shallowly insisting that simply having some piece of plastic will improve their lives dramatically, this BBC showcasing of the "Planet Earth" series makes no such claims. It simply strings together numerous segments of the footage on the show with a soundtrack. It is not a matter of "Buy this! It will fulfill you!" Instead, it is a non-verbal statement of "Taste and see..." (Ps. 34:8) It is far more effective than the Slap Chop commercial could have ever dreamed of being.
Why? Here is where the critical parallel between these commercials and our evangelistic methods must be observed. The makers of the BBC commercial knew that they did not need persistent, unrelenting, in-your-face rhetoric in order to interest people. They knew - that is, they really, truly believed - that what they had to offer was astonishing, and people would be astonished by it without their force of argument. That is precisely what we Christians must know and believe, especially those of us who are engaged in an organized, evangelistic ministry like Young Life. "For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word," as Paul says, "but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ." (2 Cor. 2:17) Our task, as disciples of Jesus making more disciples of Jesus, is not to manipulatively persuade people to accept the gospel, but in all things to show them that gospel in the way we live as well as through what we say. We need to show people a renewed lifestyle, one that gives concreteness to our evangelistic message when we do share it. And we need to work with people's questions in mind, not like salesmen who are afraid our product won't sell, but as people who simply want an opportunity to show men and women the glorious truth about God in Christ.
Now this comes back to the question of 'Just what are we showing them?' This meditation on evangelism began with a series of questions, and with the claim that our articulation of the gospel needs to have something to do with the questions kids (and people in general) are asking. As we discussed specifically this weekend, our understanding of atonement needs to be explained accurately but also applicably. Our speakers gave a definite "Yes" to the models of atonement I named a few paragraphs back, pointing out that these different conceptions (all scripturally sound) will make sense variously to different individuals, and that each is fundamental to understanding Christ's work on the cross.
However, they proposed that in order to bring home the meaning of the cross for Young Life's particular audience of modern American teenagers, it is helpful for us to take the meaning of the atonement a step farther. This is what our speakers described as the "Covenantal/Relational" conception of atonement. The atonement accomplished all these things, they said - the appeasement of God's wrath, the forgiveness of sins, the conquest of the fall's curse, and the defeat of Satan (as the other models say). In addition, it is also fundamentally a demonstration of God's love for us, and his commitment to our salvation. Salvation history, they observed, is an ongoing story of God's covenanting - unconditionally - with human beings. God pursues us in a saving relationship, and the cross is an expression of just how far God was willing to go in order to keep his promise that he would bless human beings and save them. He was willing to die for us.
This particular way of describing the cross seems more immediate to our present situation, and answers many of the questions that have been asked. Yes, there is a God... but specifically there is a God who committed himself both to destroying sin and to saving sinful human beings. That means that he sees us as we are - as people who make mistakes, who betray one another, who gossip, who lie, who become addicted to drugs and to pornography, who cheat, who hurt others to build ourselves up, who make all the wrong choices in friendships and relationships, who get divorced and who steal and murder; he sees all of this, and yet he comes to us as a man who embraced an instrument of torture and said "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23:34) - and in going on that cross he also said implicitly, 'They do not know what they are doing - but I know what I am doing... I am going to suffer and die so that all of the evils that fill their lives will not keep them from you forever.' What does this have to do with us? Everything! It means that God is committed to saving humans, and that he applies the forgiveness of Christ on that cross to us, and causes us to be born again into a lifestyle characterized by knowledge of God on the one hand, and love for God and neighbor on the other. This rebirth doesn't imply an immediate end to the problems of life, but it does promise a new mind in which to receive them: instead of being both perpetrators and victims, we are the forgiven children of God who have a heavenly Father with us in everything, a God who uses all of the things we face in life (and all of our problems that no one else seems to care about) to shape us into the people we are going to be for eternity. In this rebirth we find a perpetual newness, a spiritual spring of living water (Jn. 4:13-14) that gives us a deep satisfaction in God, who does not change among all of the uncertainties of life. This whole process (not simply our being forgiven) is what salvation is really about. It is about everlasting life that begins now; and when it comes to the kids to whom Young Life reaches out, this salvation is not something that depends on status or on a spotless record, on not having crap in your life or on "being good enough". It depends on the love of God, who died to forgive all of it.
And it is experienced in so many ways through the love of others, which is where Young Life leaders come in. We call Young Life an "incarnational" ministry because in so many ways we are simply trying to model Christ himself in our work with kids (the same can be said of anyone who is actively evangelizing). As Jesus came into our world and gave us fellowship with God, so we enter into the world of teenagers, show them unconditional love, and share the truth about God with them. We create a secure bond (as our speakers this weekend called it, a "space of Shalom"), a friendship in which there is trust and peace. And in this context we find ourselves showing the truth about God and the reality of his salvation. It is within that place that we are ideally equipped to share the gospel. "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us." (1 Thes. 2:8) And then we are able to say, "Really, now. All of this good news about Jesus has really happened, and if you aren't convinced, here: just have a look.