"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, April 18, 2011

What To Do About Those Bad Influences?

Passage 1: “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Passage 2: “Now all the tax-gatherers and the sinners were coming near Him to listen to Him. And both the Pharisees and the scribes began to grumble, saying, "‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’" (Luke 15:1-2)

Maybe not an obvious juxtaposition of Scriptures, though I do sense a tension here.

I recently had a conversation with a high school student I’ve met a couple times before but never conversationally gone past casual, light topics. What I expected to be a brief exchange of pleasantries turned out to be a one-to-one, heart-to-heart outpouring of feelings about identity, spirituality, and friendship.

The student does not consider himself a Christian. That detail is important because of what happened. Apparently one of his closest friends, who is a Christian, recently participated in some kind of mega-youth-rally-type-gathering that had some kind of profound effect on him.

I don’t know the details of his experiences or process, but apparently the conclusion he reached was that he needed to tell his friend (with whom I spoke) that he could no longer be friends with him, because he wasn’t a good influence on him or was harmful to his “walk” or something along those lines.

This kid was hurt by his friend (obviously) and obviously felt like there was a disconnect between being a professing Christian and, in his opinion, unlovingly disowning one’s friends. We talked through it a bit, trying to figure it out together. I jokingly asked, in pondering the ways this student might be a bad influence on his Christian friend, if maybe it was his pot-smoking. He laughed and clarified that it wasn’t that. In trying to encourage him to feel good about himself, I also tried to help him see what his Christian friend might be thinking, regardless of the validity of his actions.

I’m guessing he heard a preacher/speaker that told him that to be a better Christian or love God more that he needed to cut out bad influences like non-Christians that “bring him down” or something like that. While I don’t recall that any of my Christian mentors growing up encouraged me in this way, I remember this sentiment.

Maybe it comes from good intentions—a philosophy that, considering how impressionable teenagers are, to become a greater disciple of Christ one needs to be surrounded by like-minded people. This will increase the likelihood that conversation is more Jesus-y and less, um, potty-mouth-y.

I certainly have some concerns about this philosophy, as I’m sure many might.

I worry that the wrong message is sent to Christian youth about the role of the Church in the world, one that fosters a sense of exclusivism and separatism that I’m not sure is really our call. I worry that we are suggesting that swearing less or making fewer “suggestive” comments is the goal of the Christian life, rather than growing in one’s ability to love well.

I question the assumption that youth group kids are necessarily holier than non youth group kids. I question that the perhaps well-intentioned, parental desire to protect our youth might have the effect of making them intolerant, judgmental people as they grow older.

I’m nervous about what seems like a lack of love shown for those disowned and judged by a one’s desire to avoid the “evil” in others. I worry about the potential of becoming very inward, seeing your spirituality as something isolated from the world around you, something you can do in a box, disconnected from the real world.

Maybe I’m overreacting, assuming this is a more widespread problem than it is. Though I suspect that this isn’t an isolated incident. And, I don’t really know the Christian kid in question, though I’m not really critiquing him as much as a philosophy that I sense many more youth than just him (and in some form, adults?) are exposed to.

But to be fair, maybe the kid knows himself well. Perhaps he feels like he’s at a point in his development where certain influences are detrimental to his overall health as a person and a follower of Christ. Perhaps he knows that for this season in his life, certain ties to need to be cut so that he can more fully become who God wants him to be, eventually making him better able to re-enter those relationships with more grounding, able to retain his identity when in community with those very different than him.

Maybe he knows his faith is weak and needs the support of an environment that affirms the behaviors and values he wants to have. He might have seen unhealthy behaviors in himself and, having traced these behaviors to the influence of a particular individual, had to painfully make the choice he did.

Or maybe an adult Christian with powerful, emotionally-charged rhetoric manipulated him into a bad choice. I don’t know the situation fully, other than what I can assume based on what the non-Christian student I talked to expressed. This student seemed open-minded, willing to consider his life, even suggesting he is currently reading about different religions.

He didn’t seem overconfident in his current non-religiosity, and he even liked a lot of what some expressions of faith seem to value. I talked about the Quaker denomination at one point while talking about my own Christian faith, and he got really excited about that, knowing a little bit about Quakerism himself. Sounds like a kid who is searching for Truth and Meaning and very aware of that search in himself.

Anyway, I was glad to have played the part of comforter, and tried to be supportive while being as non-partial as I could, even trying my best to defend his ex-friend’s actions as reasonable. But it honestly bothered me a bit, probably because I’m extra sensitive about the message we Christians are sending with our actions—be we teens or adults—about who God is and what the abundant life of being a Christian is all about.

I know these things are to an extent situational; not every kid will act in the same way in every situation, just as some Christian adults feel comfortable drinking alcohol while others, because of its connection to their own “dark past,” do not.

I guess I just hope that youth leaders today are training up youth to be disciples that are on the path toward being people like Jesus, in the sense that they are able to immerse themselves in the world of people who are the most “wretched” of them all, who challenge their words and actions, who tempt them, and yet able to retain their identity, their sense of confidence in who they are and in what they believe, and their sense of calling to love and communicate grace to people who need it most.

WWJD? He would probably not need to separate himself from others out of fear of being corrupted by them. Then again, Jesus was an extraordinary person, certainly possessing greater discipline and self-awareness than myself or anyone I know. So, I don’t really know. I do know that I talked to a kid that felt burned and devastated by a Christian. That I find disappointing.

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