Youth Ministry and the Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self
Perhaps you’ve seen it on TV or heard it on the radio. An ad begins with a host of happy and energetic young voices talking on top of each other. Then, a narrator asks the question: “What do you want to be?” After several responses from teens regarding their confusing quest to establish their identity, we hear the invitation: “Whoever you want to be, it’s yours to make on Instagram!”
Two thoughts jumped into my head. First, Instagram’s marketing team has really tapped into our kids’ urgent yearning to answer that all-important question: “Who am I?” Of course, it’s hard to imagine a more dangerous guide than Instagram. Which leads me to my second thought, one that’s short and sweet: “Ugghh!”
Because we all swim in the so-called cultural soup, it’s easy to miss the significance of this 30-second Instagram ad. But if we take the time to reflect on this cultural artifact, it’s clear that it’s both directive and reflective. As a directive piece, it lays out a map for our vulnerable kids to follow in order to find their way on the identity-formation trail. As a reflectivepiece, it offers us a wide-open look into the basic beliefs we embrace about who we are as humans.
In his book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to the Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman lifts readers out of the cultural soup to help us understand the magnitude of the changes taking place. His explanatory journey through the history of ideas that led us to “expressive individualism” is brilliant. Our kids most likely can’t consciously name or explain expressive individualism, but they’ve unconsciously assimilated it into just about every fabric of their lives, most obviously in their progressive views on sexuality and gender.
In this article, I want to ask a few questions: “Have our youth ministries been complicit in expressive individualism’s cancerous spread within the body of Christ? If so, how has the rise and triumph of the modern self subtly triumphed over and reshaped both the content of our teaching and our ministry forms and practices?
As I read The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, I couldn’t help but think about how our ministry efforts should endeavor to form kids into the identity for which they’ve been created, rather than allowing them to embrace a de-formedidentity of their own emotionally-driven creation. Our youth ministries should foster a lifestyle of faithfully following Jesus while denying oneself (Mark 8:34–37) by emphasizing biblical truth through thoughtful ministry practices.
THE WHAT—BIBLICAL TRUTH
From the day they were born, our kids have grown up in a world that scoffs at submission to any authority outside of oneself. The sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture are outdated remnants. After all, sovereignty and authority reside in the self. So intuition drives beliefs and behaviors as we encourage each other to find and express “my truth.”
When kids are nurtured from birth into thinking “it’s all about you,” “follow your heart,” and “you do you,” it should come as no surprise that we now have a generation of young people who are increasingly de-coupled from and ignorant of authoritative truth-claims about God and the universe in general and orthodox Christianity in particular. As Tara Isabella Burton wrote in her 2020 book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, we have “a religion of emotive intuition, of aestheticized and commodified experience, of self-creation and self-improvement, and yes, selfies.”
But not only do you make yourself, you also make your own god(s). Consider the concluding pages of the recent children’s book, What Is God Like?, by Rachel Held Evans and Matthew Paul Turner. “What is God like? That’s a very big question, one that people from places all around the world, throughout all time, have answered in many different ways. Keep searching. Keep wondering. Keep learning about God. But whenever you aren’t sure what God is like, think about what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel brave, and what makes you feel loved.” As one discerning mom said to me after reading the book, “My security system makes me feel safe, warm chocolate chip cookies make me feel loved, and a couple glasses of wine make me feel brave. Not sure that’s a great description of God, though.”
While we would all agree (I hope!) that we must diligently nurture our kids in all the authoritative truths of God’s Word, let me suggest four topics that come to mind as increasingly necessary in light of the cultural narrative shaping our kids. For youth pastors, I suggest you stake these truths into the ground, mentioning them as often as you can.
First, we must teach a biblical theology of identity.
Carl Trueman describes our world as a place where “human beings are called to transcend themselves, to make their lives into works of art, to take the place of God as self-creators and inventors, not discoverers of meaning” (42). Our kids are answering the question “Who am I?” in a world that idolizes the immanent and looks down on the transcendent, a world in which our identities are created, even curated, for public consumption and affirmation. Of course, even our most well-intentioned attempts at creating our own identity are doomed to fail, which is why identical these days are often considered “fluid.” . Think the gender and sexuality spectrums. We choose and choose and choose again, morphing and changing in search of the satisfaction. Os Guinness states it well, “People are always becoming, but they never become anything for long.”
To dissuade young people from believing these lies, current youth ministries must point and keep pointing to the Creation narratives. This is where we discover that God has already fastened an identity to us: we are image-bearers infused with value, dignity, and worth.
By teaching the Creation narratives, we’ll also find God’s order and design for sexuality and gender. So as we see kids transformed and saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, we must nurture them into understanding all the life-giving implications of living as “a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) as opposed to reinventing themselves according to their feelings. Listen carefully to the words of the kids you know and love. Identity formation is a conscious endeavor, and they’re looking for guidance, particularly as it relates to sexuality and gender. Our students need to learn what it means to embrace the identity of “Christian,” and everything that comes with it.
Second, we must teach the doctrines of God, human depravity and God’s grace.
One of the most personally liberating moments of my life came when someone explained to me, as a teenager, the grand plan of God’s redemptive history—from Genesis to Revelation. Until that moment, I’d looked at the Scriptures as a kind of divinely-authored guidebook. It wasn’t a unified whole, but rather a list of rules, regulations, and moral examples.
But when I saw the flow of redemptive history—Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration—it was like scales fell from my eyes! This was God’s story, and in finding my place in God’s story, I began to understand the majesty of God, my own slavery to sin, and my desperate need for God’s grace.
Years later, my understanding of the nature and extent of the Fall and my corruption by sin has led to an increasingly robust theology of both human depravity and God’s glorious and gracious work of salvation. Our world is broken. We are broken. Our default setting is to sin. And the one who whispered into our first parents’ ears, “Did God really say…?”, continues his efforts to derail us into self-worship and self-rule. So help your students to see and hear the enemy’s voice as sober-minded and watchful (1 Peter 5:8–9) followers of Jesus, so that they might faithfully resist the enemy, listen to the Holy Spirit, and run into the grace-filled arms of God.
Third, never stop helping students understand that the call to discipleship is the call to an integrated life.
In recent years, I’ve heard more and more youth pastors justify their unwillingness to tackle some of the harder issues of the day by focusing on one ministry goal and one ministry goal alone: “I only want to see kids come to Jesus.” Sounds good and noble, right? What this approach gets right is the invitation Jesus extends to broken and helpless sinners to “come as you are.” But it ultimately fails because it de-emphasizes and even forgets the reality that Christ never follows “come as you are” with “stay as you are.”
Sadly, many youth ministry “conversions” aren’t to Jesus, but to something else—perhaps to a momentary, yet fleeting interest in Christianity. If Jesus is truly the Lord of all of life, then we cannot tolerate a dis-integrated faith. True regeneration and conversion always marries justification to sanctification. In other words, we must teach our kids that the correct response to God’s mercy will cause us to worship God through living a counter-cultural life that is conformed to God’s will and way (Romans 12:1–2).
Are we teaching what it means to be a Christian who integrates their faith into their academics, athletics, use of social media, relationships, sexuality, gender, etc.? The Christian faith speaks to all of life, and we fail our kids miserably when we don’t teach, equip, and encourage them on the “hard way” (Matthew 7:13–14) of spiritual growth and maturity.
Fourth, we must teach them to live faithfully in the difficult now in light of their glorious future hope.
Whenever I teach a class on youth culture, I always have my students interview a school teacher who has been engaged with students for at least two decades. Without fail, these tenured teachers lament a decline in resilience among their students. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt identify what they call “The Untruth of Fragility” as one of the most dangerous lies of our times. Here’s the untruth: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”
Students avoid pain by avoiding difficulty because they fear any difficulty will undo them. But nothing could be further from the truth. Read the Bible from cover to cover, read church history, talk to saints who have had to endure difficulties, and we’ll quickly see that God does good work in our lives when we are brought to the end of ourselves and we realize “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:7–11). How else could the Psalmist say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71)?
Our students need to learn that difficulties in life, when we lean on the Lord to get through them, don’t kill us or make us weaker. They make us stronger. To equip our students to effectively live to the glory of God in the now, we must teach them a rich theology of suffering. If our teens believe the lie that Jesus gives us a life that is void of pain, filled with pleasure, and always joyful, then they will quickly be disappointed and disillusioned. As the sobering statistics and anecdotal stories show, they will most likely walk away shaking their heads at all the unfulfilled promises.
Instead, the promise they need to believe is that God is with us through our earthly pain and suffering, using our circumstances for our good and his glory. His curriculum for our lives includes hard times that conform us to his image. James tells us to “count it all joy” through the trials that test our faith and produce steadfastness (James 1:2–4). Paul tells us our sufferings help us to groan for redemption. He tells us these present sufferings for Christ’s sake (Philippians 1:29) cannot be compared to the glory that is to be revealed (Romans 8, 2 Corinthians 4:17–18).
Our kids need to hear these truths over the culture’s constant untruths. They’re growing up in a world where they’re encouraged to live in the present moment without regard to the past or the future. They need to hear the full gospel and understand all the difficult realities of this temporary world even as they set their hearts and minds on the eternal blessed hope of the world to come.
THE HOW—MINISTRY PRACTICES
In his instructions to the Ephesians elders, the Apostle Paul told them to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). No doubt, to pay careful attention involves faithful instruction in God’s Word with an awareness that there will always be those who speak twisted things (Acts 20:29–30).
But care also must be taken regarding our ministry practices. Do they foster the growth of our individual students? Or do our practices confuse them? Could it be that the path to hell is paved with good youth ministry intentions?
Let me briefly encourage you to evaluate your ministry practices and correct course where necessary. Remember the goal: promote the advance of the gospel and the growth of your students into resilient disciples.
Here are three series of questions to consider.
- In your church, are you creating an inter-generational environment where your students have exposure to the full width and depth of the body of Christ? Or are you separating the generations and removing opportunities for the old and young to see each other first and foremost as mutually-edifying brothers and sisters in Christ? Sure, there are appropriate times for students to be engaged with their peers under the leadership of the youth ministry staff and volunteers. But consistently segregating the generations is counter-productive to effective ministry.
- Does your youth ministry space create an environment for passive celebrity worship and performance? Or is it curated to facilitate active involvement and the building of community? As I’ve traveled and been in hundreds of youth ministry spaces over the years, I’ve seen that many churches have created youth spaces that look like concert venues. I’ve seen rooms with as few as twenty chairs set up facing a stage where a worship band and youth minister do the work of leading music and preaching while everyone else just watches. I’m not sure that place values the kind of interactions that will trump individualism and foster a participatory community.
- Do you recognize the role parents play as those primarily responsible for the spiritual nurture of their children? Or have you consciously or unconsciously taken on that role by assuming philosophically and/or functionally that you can do a much better job than dad and mom? The Scriptures are clear that parents are primary (Deuteronomy 6, Ephesians 6), which means that the youth ministry is there to support and assist. Consider what Christian Smith says: “The empirical evidence is clear. In almost every case, no other institution or program comes close to shaping youth religiously as their parents do—not religious congregations, youth groups, faith-based schools, missions and service trips, summer camps, Sunday school, youth ministers, or anything else. Those influences can reinforce the influence of parents, but almost never do they surpass or override it.” Do everything you can to support, encourage, educate, and equip parents.
I am still haunted by a conversation I had with an influential youth pastor a few years ago. When I asked him about how he comes to conclusions on the big questions of life as a leader and teacher of kids, he responded, “I just follow my heart.” Tears filled my eyes. I responded, “If I had chosen to live my life in this way, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. I’d probably be in prison.” Why would we ever allow emotions to direct our teaching and leading?
The prophet Jeremiah tells a truth that we see validated again and again through the stories we see in Scripture, on the news, in our friends, and, above all, in the mirror. Jeremiah says, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength. … Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. … The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17)
Youth ministries must buck the spirit of the times and equip kids to reject the sovereignty of the deceitful and desperately sick self. We should focus on leading our kids into embracing a life of true freedom and true flourishing in obedience to the one true Sovereign God.