Speaking of the Word: Who Jesus is for our Youth

After sharing with my pastor the results of a little two year 'experiment' I did, he asked me to type up a report to share with our Parish Council. I presented the following on Sunday, March 18.  On a Wednesday night in February of 2010, I asked our youth a seemingly simple question: Who is Jesus? They answered with things like, “best guy in the entire universe,” “awesome,” “ultimate psychiatrist,” and “helps me play video games.” The most popular answer was “my best friend,” given explicitly by at least three youth before we all just kind of agreed that Jesus was all of our best friend. These answers all show that our youth had a generally positive impression of who Jesus is, which is good, but they are not particularly biblical, nor are they spiritually or theologically deep answers.

They also gave some standard, ‘textbook’ answers, but were unable to speak about them at any length. They said that Jesus is, “the Son of God,” “our Savior,” “Son of David,” “miracle worker.” These answers are obviously much more biblical and have some theological and spiritual depth to them, but further conversation revealed that our youth were unable to elaborate, explain or articulate what these answers mean or why they were significant for their day-to-day lives. Our youth seemed to be quoting “right answers” as if they were learned by rote rather than personally held convictions that they truly owned. The only possible exception was one girl who said that Jesus “saved my life by dying on the cross and forgiving my sins.” She said that in the middle of everyone claiming Jesus as their best friend, and right afterwards our conversation quickly steered back in that direction. But that evening I wrapped up our discussion by highlighting this answer, and wondering aloud why only one of them had given it.

Two years later, in February of 2012, I asked the same question again: Who is Jesus? Answers included “The Son of God,” “Savior,” “the only pure one,” “makes us whole,” “the one through whom God completes our lives and relationships,” “fills our emptiness,” “makes our lives whole.” But more importantly, our youth were able to elaborate on all of these answers, giving them much more color and demonstrating a deeper kind of knowledge. This time around they weren’t talking about Jesus as their best friend or psychotherapist, and they weren’t just rattling off textbook answers either. But even that wasn’t quite enough for them: the conversation pushed onward to what it looks like to follow him. “Jesus gave it all, so we should be willing to give it all...following Jesus looks like the cross.” “Following Jesus looks like love - Jesus on the cross is ultimate.” We had a real, substantive conversation about who Jesus is in which our youth demonstrated the ability to talk about Jesus at length, and in their own words!

Two years apart, same question, totally different conversation. The National Survey of Youth and Religion, conducted just a few years ago, found that while adolescents in the United States are eager to share their opinions on a wide range of issues, almost all of them are incredibly inarticulate when it comes to their faith. I am really excited to report that our youth are growing in this area. Don’t get me wrong - we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re learning to “talk the talk,” but that doesn’t mean much if we’re not also learning how to better “walk the walk.” But regardless I think our church has something to celebrate - our youth are asking great questions and they’re really seeking God as their Answer. We’re making some observable strides along the road from faith learned by rote to faith they can really own as truly and authentically their own - what some people call “sticky faith.” This can only be described as an act of God’s grace. And by God’s grace we’ll continue learning and growing together toward the kind of Christian faith that lasts.