Teenagers: From Self-Absorbed to Self-Sacrificing
Researcher Tim Elmore has found young adults to be a narcissistic or me-centered generation. They have spurts when they want to change the world but have not grown up with strong enough commitments to sustain activity toward change. Youth ministry today shapes future young adults.
The moralistic therapeutic deism that characterizes most church teenagers is almost entirely me-centered. Now we know that teenagers mostly absorb this focus on self from the adult congregation. When prospective church members approach the visitors’ center in the lobby, their first question usually is, “What programs and services do you offer that our family might enjoy?” I once heard Erwin McManus say, “Looking for a church to ‘meet my needs’ sets up a consumer mentality—and the church becomes a pig farm.”
Whether we are discipling teenagers or adults, our focus must be on changing their orientation from self to others. Giving believers genuine hearts for others is one of the antidotes to moralistic therapeutic deism.
Giving believers genuine hearts for others is one of the antidotes to moralistic therapeutic deism.
Scot McKnight says: “Everything about spiritual formation for Jesus is shaped by his version of the Shema. For Jesus, love of God and love of others is the core. Love, a term almost indefinable, is unconditional regard for a person that prompts and shapes behaviors in order to help that person become what God desires. Love, when working properly, is both emotion and will, affection and action.”
Mobilizing teenagers to love and show compassion for others in the name of Christ may be completely comfortable to you. In fact, it might be right at the heart of your youth ministry. But it is also possible you are in a stream of the church that does not give as much attention to this theme.
If discussing sacrifice, compassion, and justice makes you a little nervous, let me make a suggestion. Just decide you are going to follow the instruction of Scripture alone—from Genesis to Revelation. And decide you will give closest attention to God’s most complete revelation—His Son.
God redeems believers to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). But what exactly is that image to which we are to be conformed? The image of the Son is multifaceted. But one of those facets was declared by Jesus Himself when He said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
Believers who imitate Christ are believers who serve.
Believers who imitate Christ are believers who serve. Just to make sure we did not miss this, Jesus said it another way in Mathew 20:25–28: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Compassion for those with great needs clearly is biblical. But is this just a peripheral teaching, or is it something much more than that? David Platt says: “Is materialism a blind spot in American Christianity today? More specifically, is materialism a blind spot in your Christianity today? Surely this is something we must uncover, for if our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to question just how effective we will be in declaring the glory of Christ to the ends of the earth. More pointedly, if our lives do not reflect radical compassion for the poor, there is reason to wonder if Christ is really in us at all.”
Some might say it is too radical to hint that lack of compassion reveals a person does not know Christ. Perhaps they need to carefully read Jesus’ words in Matthew 25: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. . . . Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me’” (Matt. 25:41–43, 45).
In fact, Christ permeates the entire drama. He commands you to go and be compassionate. He is the commander on His white horse, leading you to address needs and right wrongs. When you get there, He is the servant with towel and basin, already caring for others as your example. His Spirit fills you and empowers you to join Him in what He is doing. And then, as you care for others, He accepts that as loving acts toward Him. From start to finish, it is all Jesus.
Compassion is not a gimmick.
Service also brings healing for teenagers whose view of themselves has been damaged. Jim Burns and Mark DeVries report that teenagers with low opinions of themselves are also extremely self-absorbed. When those same teens are challenged to serve and become focused on the needs of others, their view of self improves.
We can move teenagers more quickly toward a lifestyle of care and compassion if they see this in their homes. Scot McKnight says, “… neighborly love begins in the home. In fact, if it is not shown in the home, it is a sham in public.”
As you immerse teenagers in compassionate ministries, you need to help them avoid two extremes. On the one hand, you must explain that we do not offer practical help as a trick to get people to hear the gospel. We show compassion with respect because people are God’s creation, because He loves them, because He commanded us to care about them, and because—when we get there—He already will be there serving them. Compassion is not a gimmick.
It is unloving to meet someone’s practical needs and then fail to respectfully share the gospel.
But on the other extreme, it is unloving to meet someone’s practical needs and then fail to respectfully share the gospel. Well-fed people who spend forever separated from God—because they never once heard the good news—have not been treated justly.
Bottom line: Youth ministry calls and leads teenagers to love others in the name of Jesus by the power of the Spirit for the glory of God.