What Does the Lord Require of Us?

by Irene Cho

IreneCho

Irene Cho

“It’s all too much. I don’t think I can handle it anymore. I can’t keep pretending that I’ve got everything under control and am this perfect all-star person, when really I’m falling apart.”

I remember Rebecca sobbing in my office. School had only just begun, but the responsibilities of everything were already too overwhelming—the pressure to maintain her GPA for a college scholarship, heading up three committees at church, being a small group leader, head of the debate team, and senior editor for the paper, volunteering at the elderly home. All she could think of was how she wanted it all to be over. There was no way she could keep going like this. She was suffocating from the weight of potential failure and the shame of disappointing everyone who was looking to her as an example to…well, everyone!

Many of our students can relate to Rebecca. The pressure to be perfect and achieve greatness is massive. Students are told by parents, teachers, future colleges and jobs and the world how important being the best and most successful is. And sometimes church is equally a space where they feel such burden. As leaders, we may inadvertently be sending a message that they’re required to do what’s right and good and be perfect in order to achieve “superstar Christian” status. We may preach and teach that God loves them unconditionally no matter what, but many times the message of “be perfect or else” is in the subtext of our Bible study lessons, worship songs and even just basic instructions. This ends up with students graduating from our kids, youth and young adult ministries believing that if they aren’t these things, then God will love them less, that they’re failures and losers or that God is extremely disappointed with them.

Growing up, I listened to this album called “Bullfrogs and Butterflies.” In it is a song titled “Practice Makes Perfect.”

It begins with a young girl making a lot of mistakes while practicing piano. The first half of the lyrics are how her teacher instructs on the importance of practicing in order to become a concert pianist. The second half are as follows:

“Mommy says practice will make all things perfect,
And perfect is always the best you can be.
If I practice love like I practice piano,
I’ll make others happy and better I’ll be.

“Practice makes perfect,
Practice makes perfect,
I guess if I practice then better I’ll be.”

It didn’t occur to me until adulthood the unhealthy perspective of God I had from this and other lessons, especially when diving into how difficult it was for me to ingrain into my faith the unconditional, magnanimous grace of God.

Perfection Isn’t Perfect

Anecdotal stories aside, is striving to be the best and perfect human actually harmful to a young person’s development? After all, aren’t we all supposed to be hard workers and give our best to God?

Well, let’s take a good look at some numbers:

The CDC released a report showing that between the ages of 10 to 24, suicide:[1]

–Was the second leading cause of death for this age group.

–Tripled for children between the ages of 10 to 14 from 2007 to 2017.

–Increased among teenagers between the ages of 15 to 19 by 10% per year from 2014 to 2017.

–Increased for young adults between the ages of 20 to 24 by 36% from 2000 to 2017.

Obviously, there are a variety of reasons leading to these numbers. Colleen Carr, the director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, says, “It is important to recognize that suicide is not caused by one single factor but instead a range of factors that include mental health conditions, but also include important situational factors that many of us will experience in a lifetime—including social, physical, emotional or financial issues.”[2]

Although we may not have all the answers and we need more research, we as the Church ought to engage this information in a deep reflective manner and ask what we are doing and how we can provide hope to young people.

Unfortunately, the Church doesn’t have a great track record. According to the Fuller Youth Institute’s research, one in two young people walk away from their faith once they graduate from high school.

One of the reasons they’re leaving is because church wasn’t a safe environment for their doubts, questions and journey. Although young people liked their youth leaders, they ultimately graduated from youth groups not feeling seen, heard or known.[3]

Generation Z is now the least religious of any generation, with almost double the number of atheists in the group. One of their greatest barriers is an insoluble dilemma of a good God existing when there is so much suffering and evil in the world. And although they don’t cite Christian hypocrisy as one of the greatest barriers, they many name personally having a negative experience in church.[4]

So perhaps the question isn’t whether striving to be perfect is the problem. Rather, it seems the issue lies in the fact that young people believe that Church isn’t a safe place, we aren’t addressing their concerns of the world and life and ultimately our message isn’t different from the world that perfection and achievement is the goal, whether overt or subconsciously, all while lacking transparency in our own struggle toward such perfection.

So how do we move forward?

Challenge ≠ Perfection

There’s hope among these dire statistics, and it’s that young people are still interested in the spiritual—just not perhaps in the institution of religion. This means that we as the Church can no longer operate in the mode of Christendom we’re still clinging to.[5]

Whereas the church was once the center for guidance, wisdom and communal support, we are now intricately connected as global community on all levels—economically, environmentally, relationally. And young people are born into this global world, grabbing their smart phones while exiting the womb, only knowing a world where humans are connected 24 hours of the day.

Luckily for us, this connection doesn’t remove the deep need for in-person human intimacy and discipleship. It also doesn’t mean we don’t challenge our young people to strive to be better humans in relationships with one another.

No one is encouraging us to channel Amy Poehler’s “cool” mom character from “Mean Girls” to be the “cool” church. Nor do students want that either. What’s imperative is for us to walk alongside young people especially because of how complicated and connected the world is now.

We can break the never-ending demand from society that competing with one another to be perfect and the best is what’s most important and instead walk honestly and transparently with our young people through their journey. We can slow down our ministry programs to have more genuine interactions with our young people that engages them in deeper conversations, ask challenging questions showing our respect for them, be quiet so we can actually listen to their answers and pastor them towards a mature spirituality founded on empathy, mercy, grace and love.

Most importantly, perhaps in the midst of everything, we can continually encourage our young people that the goal in life is actually the entire journey.

Practice Is about the Journey

The first time I read “The Alchemist,” I was so frustrated with this idea—that it wasn’t about the ending but rather the entire journey of the main character. It felt almost incomplete because of my very American, Western, Disney, happy-ending idea of closure that victory always comes at the end of all great struggles. Yet the reality of life is that not everything can be tied up with a ribbon. Considering the Bible isn’t written from a western or American perspective, how can we better steward and disciple young people to develop a faith that encompasses a both/and framework rather than a definitive one in which all loose ends are tied up. Young people are already wrestling with difficult questions, as they’re more honest with the pains and struggles happening around the globe. It’s the Church that’s failed in providing them space to wrestle with such matters. As leaders, we shouldn’t fear these challenging conversations but rather welcome them as an evolving mature faith.

Let’s encourage our young people that life is about the discoveries on the journey, not about reaching the actual destination. And asking and struggling with difficult issues is part of the faith journey, not a deterrence.

Relational, not Transactional Faith

We frequently preach Micah 6:8 to challenge young people in what they’re required to do good—to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. But the word “require” in this verse isn’t probably what we intended to preach to our students. We in the West often think of “require” as a demand or obligation. I’m required to do good, then I will get blessed by God. A good majority of our capitalistic culture operates with this transactional understanding of requirements. If you do this, then you’ll pass the test or get the scholarship, the newest technology, a perfect life, etc. It’s no wonder we consciously or subconsciously believe that God operates with us in the same way. Requirements at church to be perfect and do what’s right seem to be the name of the game.

But the Hebrew word for require in this verse— דָּרַש (darash)—isn’t a transactional requirement. The direct translation means “to search carefully.” It’s a word that’s fully relational, not transactional. In the same way I would search carefully for what’s important to someone I loved and cared for, not because I was obligated but because I desired to, such is our relationship with God. Darash is the faith that our relationship with God is already in place and has zero requirements from us—because God provided what was required of us. It’s already complete through the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. “It is finished” are the three most powerful words said to humankind.

So, how can we as leaders shift from preaching a gospel of transactional requirement to preaching overtly on the unconditional grace of Jesus? How can we help our young people develop an intimate relationship with Jesus instead of a faith of obligatory perfection and achievement?

I don’t believe any of us would disagree with anything I’ve shared. But perhaps some of us need to evaluate how our ministries function, programs are planned and sermons are prepared. I challenge us to examine our own faith journey and pursuit for perfection. How are we actually guiding young people in the beautiful intimate relationship we have with God, where we would דָּרַש (darash) to please our loving, merciful and just Lord? I pray we can live in hope that the God who has called us to shepherd our young people is great enough to journey with us and them through all the valleys and up every mountain.

Irene Cho is a national speaker, writer, consultant and advisor, having served over 27 years in youth ministry. Her passion is for the misfits of the world and to bring the gospel message of joy and hope to the least, the lost, and the last. She holds a Master of Divinity from Talbot Theological Seminary and a BA in Christian Education from Biola University. After serving as the Program Manager of Urban Leadership Training for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary for the last 11 years, Irene is embarking on a new venture of youth ministry resourcing applicable to those on the margins. To find out more, go to FindingtheInBetween.com. In her minimal spare time, Irene enjoys a great book, movie, or television show, hanging out with friends and former students, and her husband, and of course getting some sleep.

 

[1] https://bit.ly/323tT6t

[2] Ibid

[3] Powell, Kara E., and Chap Clark. 2011. Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[4] https://www.barna.com/research/atheism-doubles-among-generation-z/

[5] Powell, Kara E., and Chap Clark. 2011. Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s