On Sunday, my 7th and 8th grade teachers trickled into the Youth Room after Sunday School. On this particular week – the last of our program year – they'd also been joined by one my high school youth ministry's alumni who remarked there was a special place in heaven for the teachers of this class.
Don't get me wrong. This class isn't bad. It's just filled with a lot of high energy, chatty junior high kids who are often hard to get focused. While our 7th and 8th grade teachers are highly gifted at getting this crazy crew to participate in some thought-provoking conversations about their faith, most weeks, their classroom might best be described as controlled chaos.
Yesterday, this class wrapped up it's year long series on the five promises we ask teens to make when they're confirmed. To finish this series out, they were talking specifically about what it means to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth” by looking at Jesus' words about revenge in the Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
As part of this lesson, our teachers guided teens through this passage, point by point, helping them to understand what Jesus' words would have meant during his time and then translating them into more modern day language to help them understand what they mean now.
Hoping to encourage my leaders after an exhausting morning, I asked them what the best parts of the lesson had been. My youth ministry alumni shared how for her, it was when one of the 7th graders talked about how hard it would be to actually apply Jesus' words to her life.
Now, that might sound like a strange “win” but the more I've thought about this, the more I think this young leader is onto something.
In our attempts to make Christianity attractive to people, we have a tendency to reduce things to easy-to-follow formulas or 10 easy steps. As author and activist Shane Claiborne says in his book, The Irresistible Revolution, “The great temptation is to compromise the cost of discipleship in order to draw a larger crowd. With the most sincere hearts, we do not want to see anyone walk away from Jesus because of the discomfort of his cross, so we clip the claws on the Lion a little, we clean up a bit the bloody Passion we are called to follow.”
No wonder then, that according to the research I did for The Jesus Gap, a great many of our teens think one of Jesus' primary goals and concerns is our happiness – despite the fact that Jesus said things like,
“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”
“In this world you will have trouble.”
In light of such misconceptions, maybe good weeks in junior high Sunday school don't always result in real-life applications or instantaneous transformation. Maybe sometimes they're marked instead by an honest admission from a kid that following Jesus is hard. After all, how Jesus asks us to live is radically countercultural, and being countercultural is never easy. It's far more natural for junior highers (and maybe for any of us) to want to hit back when struck; To take back what's taken from us; Or to return gossip for gossip. Knowing this, maybe as leaders, the most helpful thing we can do for teens is stop pretending that following Jesus is easy and instead, count the costs and help them do the same.