X Faith in a Gravity World

Originally published August 15, 2002.

This is the cliche of the ‘00s--Let's have an extreme faith!  Overused word of the ‘00s- -extreme.  I will try not to use or overuse either of those but I have some reflections of what I learned on my "summer vacation."  I was able to have media passes to the X Games and the Gravity Games.  I was able to have an up close view to a very hot part of the youth culture and did not have to wait in the multitude of lines to see what I saw. 

There were crowds, lots of crowds.  The crowds made the largest impression on me.  It was not just the crowd size but the makeup of the crowds.

The crowds were made up of families.  The X Games and the Gravity Games are truly family events.  Many may assume differently.  In the not so distant past, skateboarders were considered to be a fringe and delinquent crowd.   All of that has changed.  Many of the athletes have their fathers/parents as their own agents.  Furthermore, as Gravity Games event director, Chris Prybyle, stated, "The difference here is that kids bring parents to the Gravity Games as opposed to parents taking kids to see sports."  (The Plain Dealer, August 3, 2002) That is a true statement from what I saw.  How exciting would that be if our youth ministries became something that parents were dragged to?

It is very easy to understand why we as youth workers are drawn to this scene.  It is a natural draw for us because 1) there are lots of youth watching and participating in these action sports.  2) Most youth workers, in general, did something like this when they were younger--or wish they had.  3) Because we are no crazier than those action sport athletes to be doing the work that we do.  We identify with that crazy spirit.

Action sport athletes are crazy tough.  Mike Metzger, gold medal winner for freestyle motocross at the X Games (and Christian), has broken almost every bone in his body (including bones in his back) and most of his bones twice.  At the Gravity Games, I witnessed from five feet away Bob Burnquist, silver medal winner for skateboard vert, wipe out hard landing on his knee.  His face showed more pain than I could ever bear.  Yet he got up and practiced, practiced, fell on the same knee again and again (wincing every time and pushing the paramedics away).  He completed his last run successfully to win the silver.  The crowd noticed.  The crowd went wild.  They just witnessed a guy push himself beyond and come up a winner.  That resonates inside all of us.  The crazy individualism and that push beyond is what I believe is the reason for the growth in these sports.

Faith is really an individual struggle and an individual growth.  It is the individual who will stand before God on that judgment day.  It is the individual who will wrestle and work out their salvation.  On the top of that vert ramp or at the start of the motocross course, it is an individual readying him/herself for the run. 

Also on the top of that vert ramp are the other competitors communicating support to each other, in a "family-language" of their own before, during, and after the individual takes his/her run.

We need to capture that in youth ministry.  We should be capturing that in youth ministry.  Because (as the Wild Frontier quote goes) every other human being has no choice but to bow to their human limitations.  Only believers can draw upon God's supernatural power to live beyond their limits.  That fits right into this extreme sports crowd.  That fits right into why we are youth ministers.  We want our faith to go beyond our human limits and we want to take youth with us (because often they are more willing to have a faith beyond human limitations than adults). 

When we direct faith to our youth, we should no longer be using the soft approach hoping they "fall in" to their faith.  What is needed is a challenge approach.  Salvation is tough and individual.  It is worked out and strengthened through trying and failure over a lifetime.      As  A. W. Tozer wrote in The Pursuit of God, "How tragic that we in this dark day have had our seeking done for us by our teachers.  Everything is made to center upon the initial act of 'accepting' Christ (a term, incidentally, which is not found in the Bible) and we are not expected thereafter to crave any further revelation of God to our souls."  Or as Stephen D. Jones said in Faith Shaping (a must read for anyone in youth ministry), "Becoming a Christian is not a slow, unintentional process of evolution in which a young person eventually 'ends up as a Christian'...It calls for revolutionary not evolutionary change...We 'become' Christians by a radical transformation of our lives, turnaround experiences that must not happen just once but many times."  Reminds me of Bob Burnquist wiping out those many dozen times to get the silver.

Historically we have planned big events to have crowds saved.  Today's youth, I believe, need a more challenging and individual faith.  This makes outreach and even youth meetings more difficult or at least different.  It is difficult in youth group to nurture individual paths because of the group.  This is not a new revelation.  That is why there is relational youth ministry and small groups and many personal one-on-one times.  Hopefully what is happening in all those times is a true challenge to go beyond human limits in a supportive environment so they can wipeout as they try.

Have you noticed a trend in those "extreme" youth who float in and out of church and youth group but connect with someone on a one-on-one or small group level?  But even at that level, they never seem to fully connect with a loving God and find discipline in their lives?  I believe they have found the challenge in that relationship and are trying it out again and again and again until they can make that complete run.  

Perhaps we can learn something from what X Games and Gravity Games have learned.  Individual faith can be worked out in an environment where it is safe to fail while being surrounded by family.