I’ve been enjoying the plethora of time that vacation affords me by barreling my way through as many books as possible. I’m on my third as I write this.
I picked up Righteous by Lauren Sandler on a whim at my local Goodwill. (Sidenote: I’ve found that Goodwill can be a gold mine of awesome books for really cheap. But its my secret so don’t go raiding my Goodwill for all the books I will buy.) I think there’s always some wisdom in paying attention to what your harshest critics will say, because sometimes they see the blatant absurdities of what we do and have the guts to say what others will not. And considering that I’m planning on going into youth ministry, I picked it up.
The book covers Sandler’s travels through all the youth movements you’d expect – Christian hardcore festivals and their pro-life tents, Seattle and Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, Christian skate ministries, Focus on the Family, conservative colleges training future politicians, financial and prosperity seminars in Jesus’ name… everything you’d expect a reporter to check out and everything that has a tendency to be misunderstood.
Sandler’s chief criticisms of evangelical youth involves, not surprisingly, the conservative politics and a tendency to manipulate the difficult situations of youth. Her thoughts on the political nature of much of evangelicalism are nothing new, but her outsider’s opinion on the hostile nature of much of the pro-life movements within evangelicalism were telling. She writes of walking into a Rock for Life tent and seeing a t-shirt for sale which depicted the American flag where the stars had been replaced with a swastika and the words “What Happens When We Don’t Vote.” She says this: “My eyes wander back to the swastika on the T-shirt, and I realize suddenly: I’m what happens when they don’t vote. To these dissidents professing Christ’s love, I’m a Nazi in the abortion holocaust” (29).
In the midst of our passionate politics it can be easy to miss the humanity of the issue. Later she talks about sitting in a training session on how to reach girls going into abortion clinics. Included in the list of things to do is to pray for the unborn children you are about to save. “Make sure you’re ‘spiritually covered’ – ask someone to wake up that morning and just pray for you and the children you’re trying to save” (36). Thinking about that, I wondered where the mother’s came in, where the compassion was for them and the situations they found themselves in that brought them to the point of choosing abortion, and whether those protesting at clinics were also praying that these girls would understand the love of Christ.
Sandler describes how youth evangelism works as “sneaky deep”: “Once bonds are forged over a beloved band or football team, then the Evangelical ‘message’ can work its way into a relationship” (15). Whether its bringing kids in to see skateboarders wearing Jesus shirts, or opening up your building to hardcore acts that scream the name of Christ, the whole idea is to bring youth in by offering something cool, allowing them to get comfortable in their surroundings, and then show them how much their life sucks without Jesus. At one skate event, Sandler writes:
“No mention of God will be made for quite some time, and none in earnest for hours until after the ramps are packed up. The bands with the least overtly Christian vibe perform first. . . the bands that write music explicitly about Christ hit the stage long after everyone is comfortable. . . By the time the music becomes more Christ-centered, hearts are open, bodies are relaxed, the postmodern be-in is in full swing” (97).
She describes many other instances where something similar occurs. Whether its skating or political organizing or music, the way to do it is to package the gospel message in cool. Sandler sees all of this as really just manipulation, playing on the insecurities of troubled teens and showing them they can be part of something bigger, a place where they are accepted as they are and have others who understand their pain. It’s about acceptance and finding respite from troubled family lives. “Such is the tribal mentality of Christian youth,” she writes, “made perhaps most literal by the tattoos that are ubiquitous throughout the Disciple Generation nationwide” (54).
I come away from this questioning how authentic we are with how we package our message, whether we should be more upfront with our intentions, or whether we should keep it subtle and warm up to people, not only in our programs and events but in our relationships with people in every day life. If we as believers are inauthentic with our relationships, becoming friends with people only for the sake of proselytizing them, perhaps we need to reanalyze our view of people in God’s plan. Take, for example, Sandler’s sarcastic understanding of “relational evangelism,” which she sees as just manipulation made ok by seemingly good intentions.
“Throughout my travels, I have had this experience many dozens of times: what feels like an enlightened and entertaining conversation with a wonderful new friend takes a sudden and shocking dip into the realm of fanatic delusion, and then immediately jumps back to charming reality, leaving me internally bitch-slapped” (65).
We must understand that at the center of our messages and programs must be a genuine concern, love, and appreciation for the person as someone whom God loves and desires to be in a redeemed relationship with. Manipulation, marketing, and inauthenticity cannot be a part of our relationships with those who need Christ. It was in the moments of most sincerity and genuine concern for her that Sandler felt herself drawn to the Christian message most. Numbers, lifestyles, tattoos… all these are sin if they get in the way of our authentic concern and desire for others to come to know Christ, not as a means to a political or social end, but as the greatest good for each person.
There’s a thousand-plus more words I could write here about the book, but just go check it out for yourself. We need to learn from our critics just as we learn from those who are behind us.