I knew a middle school youth pastor who after years of working with 5th grade boys and 8th grade girls had formed a sort of nervous tic. She would constantly blurt out, “Be Nice.” This is one of the many dangers of working in youth ministry, and quite frankly in general ministry.
What’s the danger-we mistakenly proclaim “morality” instead of the Gospel.
We want to mold “nice” people. In youth ministry that means parents and leaders want to keep their kids away from sex, pornography, drugs, and alcohol. In adult ministry that means we want someone to leave their baggage at the door, and come in for an hour on Sunday having taken their valium or xanax and not cause any problems.
So I created a helpful symptom checklist for ministry leaders to consider if you are teaching morality: are you…
- Building programs on how to be a better…parent, spouse, employee, boss, environmentalist, citizen, student athlete?
- Generating blogs that have checklists in them?
- making condescending jokes about Harry Potter?
- Referring to the youth of the church as “good kids?”
- Encouraging Millennials that they can change the world before they are 30?
- Claiming to be “decidedly Christian in practice?” (What does that even mean?)
- Taking people on short-term mission projects where the take home mantra is, “they were so poor, but so happy?”
- Having used Francis of Assisi’s quote so much it is tattooed somewhere: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary?” (BTW-interesting FactChecker)
- Reducing the Gospel to “Love?”
I will be honest. The most moral people I know are not Christian.
This is what is flummoxing so many fundamentalists and progressives in the church. As global pluralism occurs, we are discovering that some of the most moral people come from a different faith backgrounds. Muslims and Mormons and Orthodox Jews are far better rule followers than Christians. Fasting, teetotaling, staying kosher, tithing, giving, avoiding gossip, slander, anger, sex (though Utah does have the highest rate of porn subscriptions-but see they even pay for porn), etc…their faiths require it.
So there are two ways Christians get over this: 1) We fall into Christian Universalism and teach “Be Nice” where we want to all just get along, 2) We claim these moralists as unaware Christian converts–like pointing to Ghandi’s quote, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.”
And this makes sense: without an appreciation for the Gospel, being rule abiding becomes the marker of faith. Which is why one of the number one complaints from Young Adults is that the church is full of hypocrites–they are hearing us teach morals. Its no wonder when our youth who have only been told to “be nice” go off to college and realize being “nice” isn’t sustainable leave. It is no wonder that pop-therapy has replaced Gospel proclamation or that Rob Bell has joined forces with Oprah. Our messaging has failed because being nice is not good news.
So what is the Gospel?
It’s the good news that I am just not that nice, but God’s love will transform me.
In Hebrews 7:18 we see that the Gospel of Jesus is in direct contradiction to moralism
The former regulation [moralism] is set aside because it was weak and useless for the law made nothing perfect, and a better hope is introduced [Jesus], by which we draw near to God.
It is the growing awareness of our sinfulness (inability to be moral people), and the holiness of God that required the redeeming work of Jesus Christ to die for our sins. And if Jesus, who on the cross took the weight of all our sins onto his back, and He got to come back to life…what amazing good news that is for me.
If your teaching/preaching/hearing anything else, its moralism and not good news.
As the church, why don’t we stick to that message; and let others teach good citizenship?