“O Foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? . . . I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you! I could wish to be with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.” (Gal 3:1, 4:19)
“I am sure that that He who began good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus”(Phil 1:6)
My years of teaching have taught me that the best way to understand the youth of the time is to listen for the assumptions they make about life—not to attack them but to understand them.
Ultimately, I am not so much interested in debating the black-and-white right-and-wrongs with youth. I am interested in learning exactly which idea, philosophy, religion, or trend is feeding a youth’s assumption. It is by examining assumptions that one uncovers the spiritual counterfeits clouding a youth’s thinking.
In our work today, we encounter hundreds of spiritual counterfeits hidden in the multiple assumptions made by the kids with whom we work. It can become pretty overwhelming at times. Take a look at the passages from Paul listed at the top of this article. Which better characterizes your outlook on today’s generation of youth? Should we be in travail over our young people or should we be confident about the good work God can begin and complete in them?
If you said, “both,” you are not alone. Paul needed to sustain such different postures because he worked with such a spiritual diversity, and our ministry today is perhaps more like Paul’s in this respect than in any other time in church history. From Oprah to Neo, today’s spiritualities are as diverse as those of the Mediterranean basin two thousand years ago. Mithraism, the Eleusian cult, the cult of Isis, Pythagoreanism, the cult of Delphi—all these religions and others competed for the hearts and minds of young people in the Pax Romana. In today’s Pax Americana, the old -isms and –ologies circulate again, but in different garb.
This both/and posture for ministering to our young people can be illustrated by discussing three of today’s influences on adolescent belief systems. This look at spiritual counterfeits will not be an inventory of satanic rituals, current cults, or heterodox heresies, as important a working knowledge of those things may be. Instead, we will look closely at some deep-seated, though barely noticeable, orientations through which we live our daily lives. Each has a helpful element for refining young people’s belief systems, but each falls short of the good work only God can begin and complete in them through Christ.
The most conspicuous of the three influences is relativism. We Christians know well relativism’s popular claim that truth is subjective, merely based on personal experience and opinion, and that there are no moral or religious absolutes. We also know that relativism is self-refuting (the absolute truth is that there are no absolutes) and that no one actually lives this way. But some young people are attracted to relativism because they can use it to dismiss authority or cancel one source of authority with another. For others, relativism appears to deliver from the human condition of struggling for spiritual meaning (what Luther called anfechtung) by discounting all efforts as hopeless. Extreme relativism can look like tolerance or like arrogance, but it is really a sort of despair.
However, a mild form of relativism can aid the formation of a belief system. It can prompt a complacent or cocksure young Christian toward a reflection and searching of his or her faith. It can get youth to examine the nature of authority and consider the claims of different sources. It can serve as a spiritual way station through which many Christians have passed as the Spirit conducted them to saving faith.
A second powerful influence is called pragmatism. “Pragmatic” is often used as a synonym for practical, and pragmatism is the quintessential American philosophy. (Check your Encarta on American thinkers like C. S. Pierce, William James, and John Dewey.) Pragmatism is the belief that truth, knowledge, and reality are determined by reference to practical concerns: “Does it work?” We are the can-do people, and pragmatism permeates our culture. It is the working philosophy of many successful adults and, apart from pop stars (and a few DCEs and teachers), these are the adults many young people come to emulate. For pragmatism, truth is not simplistically relative; it is contingent and contextual depending on whether a belief or conviction is effective for living in one’s community and society. A working democracy and economy depends on a strong strain of pragmatism. But so do Watergate, Enron, and WorldCom.
Our young people grow up in a pragmatic society, yet ninety percent believe in God or some higher power. How can this be? Pragmatism doesn’t dismiss God. It just assigns religion to the personal and private, not the practical and public, thus confirming Paul’s caution about “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (II Tim 3:5).
Yet exploring the “spirituality” of pragmatism can also aid the formation of a belief system. Pragmatism can help young people just coming of age consider the merits of accessing and expanding power. It can help them consider the nature and sources of power. It can help them compare those sources of power with Paul’s conviction that he is not ashamed of the Gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to the entire public, both Jew and Greek. (Rom 1:16)
A third influence on young people’s belief systems is called emotivism. Emotivism selects and measures truth and reality according to our emotional responses. Our feelings are real and immediate. We have ready access to their strength, and we experience our feelings with sincerity. Few experiences seem closer to truth than our feelings. They are “true” in a very direct sense. And young people feel their emotions strongly and in unregulated ways.
The emotional reasoning of emotivism involves personal relationships and works like this: Our relationships are extremely important to us. Our passions and feelings are integral to our relationships. Our emotions provide the common coin for our relationship transactions. Emotivism, then, is the right way to understand what is most important to us about life.
Though these and other -isms intersect and overlap, emotivism may be the single biggest influence on adolescent belief systems. It is rampant in the media, seldom challenged by parents and teachers, tacitly endorsed by a president of the United States (that would be Clinton), and taken for granted by most adults. Our therapeutic society begins every inquiry with, “How does that make you feel?” It is an absolute that most always trumps relativism and pragmatism. And in youth ministry, there is no prevention for it.
Yet emotivism can also be our point of departure for exploring those belief systems. Our emotions change, so is emotivism just a sort of relativism? Despite the power of our passions, do they really work for building relationships, or is emotivism just a failed pragmatism? Here we can consider Paul’s alert that, “Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind (Eph 2:3).” The frustrations inherent to human emotivism can prepare us for the rich mercy and great love of God in Christ.
So should we be in travail over our young people today or should we be confident about the good work that God can begin and complete in them? I’ll suggest that rather than attacking this or that false spiritual fad as non-Christian, we help kids examine the belief systems in our daily lives. Examine these for their core beliefs, how they attempt to locate truth, and what they claim to be the ultimate good. Then compare these things with Jesus as we encounter Him in the Gospels.
The Gospel distinctly declares our well being in Christ despite the relativistic, pragmatic, and emotional twists and turns of life. God’s promise in Jesus is not just a random, relativistic Coke-or-Pepsi choice, not just an expedient practicality that attains some temporal goal, not just some appeal to a real but transitory human feeling. Rather, the Gospel is a promise that endures across life and eternity, and it compels us to think twice about any lesser beliefs to which we might subscribe. The Gospel proposes a belief about the self, the world, and the True God, a belief around which we can build a life or, better said, on which the Holy Spirit can spark a faith and build a new creation. (II Cor 5:1-21)
To further supplement your ministry, read a good one-volume book on church history to see how these beliefs have recycled across the centuries. (Try Church History, An Essential Guide, by Justo Gonzalez.) Consider developing your own Bible studies around relativism, pragmatism, emotivism, and other -isms back in circulation. In these ways, we remain urgent in season and out of season (II Tim 4:2), yet confident in the ministry we have from God (II Cor 3:4).