My 13-year-old son’s shocking confession forced me to confront my tendency to obscure Jesus behind the “religious” parts of my faith.
As is the case for many Americans, I use the Christmas and New Year holidays as a time to reflect and try to gain perspective on matters near and dear to me. So one recent evening, I sat down with my sons to discuss where we are spiritually as a family, and to get a read on their individual faith journeys. I never could have imagined what I heard or the impact it would have on me.
Our conversation began simply enough. I asked each of them to share how they feel about where they are with God. I intentionally left it open-ended so they wouldn’t feel like I was steering them in a specific direction. I could see the antennae going up in my 13-year-old’s brain, so I reassured them that this was not Mom on some kind of surreptitious fact-finding mission, looking for ammunition to blast them to kingdom come if they didn’t give the “right” responses. The antennae retracted, and the words began to flow.
Me: So, son (the 13-year-old), how’s it going for you spiritually?
Son: OK, I guess … Well, maybe not so OK.
Me: What do you mean?
Son: Well, I’m still praying some, and I kinda remember to read my devotions sometimes, but … I don’t know …
Me: It’s OK, just be honest.
Son: Are you sure?
Me: Yes, I really want to know how you feel.
Son: Well, I love God and everything. I know I need to follow Him and do the right things, but it’s just … the Christianity thing.
Alarms went off in my head, and everything in me went on full alert. What did he mean “the Christianity thing”? He was about to tell me.
Son: I mean, Christians … all they talk about is going to church, which movies you shouldn’t watch, do this, don’t do that … this music is bad, don’t look at porn …
[ Me (in my head): OH, LORD … porn?!?! Maybe I’m not ready for this conversation after all. ]
Me: OK, so what’s the problem? We should be obedient to Christ, right?
Son (now getting more animated): Yeah, I know, but it’s just the way they are … everything is do this, don’t do that … blah blah blah.
Me: Are you saying you don’t want to be a Christian anymore?
Son: No, Mom.
Me: Well, are you saying you don’t want to walk with Christ anymore?
Son: No, no, that’s not it. I want to walk with Christ. It’s Christianity that doesn’t interest me.
Whoa. What was my boy saying? And how was he able to draw this distinction between Christ and Christianity? I assumed he considered them to be one and the same. But then, a flash of revelation hit me, wrapping some concepts together that I have been grappling with and teaching on during the past year.
Just like many of us adults, my child is feeling a disconnect between who he envisions Jesus to be — and what He desires and requires — and the way in which professed Christ followers go about relating to Him, and requiring others to relate to Him. Are we bombarding our young disciples, and those who might become disciples, with rules and regulations without stressing the Person of Jesus Christ?
My son is no theologian or scholar, but at a visceral and instinctual level, he is resisting the system we have created to facilitate a relationship with Jesus. I know that obedience is important, and apparently so does my son. But he confessed to me that he is bored with our packaging of what is supposed to be a dynamic, life-giving, robust sojourn with our Lord.
In the midst of all this revelation, another thought hit me. I am probably one of those “Christians” to whom my son is referring. After all, he has more exposure to me than anyone else. It’s not completely surprising that a teenager would feel this way, since parents often stress behavior and conduct in our attempts to control and manage our offspring. Our discussion highlighted the fact that our goal should be more about influence and guidance rather than control. Also, Jesus needs to be front and center when we demonstrate Christianity; we are following a person, not just rules.
This dichotomy of Christ vs. Christianity has intrigued me. I believe it has potentially powerful implications for everything from youth ministry to family spiritual life. In my next two columns, I’ll explore this topic from different angles. First, I’ll present a roundtable discussion with other young people to find out the biggest questions and concerns they’re facing as they attempt to live out their faith in the real world. Then I’ll finish up by asking a few urban youth leaders for their thoughts and responses to my son’s and the other youths’ comments and questions.
Stay tuned, and in the meantime, consider how you might be presenting, or re-presenting, Christ to the teens and young adults you know. Are we, as the bride of Christ, obstructing their view of Him with a heavy and unattractive veil of “Christianity”? I pray it won’t be so.