Teaching A "To" Faith

You are probably all too familiar with this scenario.  You are catching up with one of your teens who’s been missing youth group lately and who you’ve also heard things about.  You decided to order a “just-checking-in” pizza with this student.  In the discussion over that pizza he/she simply tells you that, “I’m going to have fun now and come back to God when I’m older.”  Decision made.  You say some desperate encouraging words back but then you watch this teen leave and you are filled with dread for him/her.  You know all you can do is pray, particularly for protection for the upcoming years.

These stories hurt.  These stories are why youth ministry can be so hard.

The band Slick Shoes are of the social punk genre who had large exposure from the Vans Warped Tour.  They signed with Tooth & Nail in 1997 but when that contract ended they chose a new label, Side One Dummy Label.

“Half the band isn’t Christian now, including myself.  After shows, kids will want to pray for me and I say, ‘That’s not really my thing,’ and they get all disappointed.  I don’t dig that s— honestly.  Everyone in the Christian scene expects godliness and holiness from us, but we’re just regular guys.  I don’t like people watching over me…I don’t try to fool anyone either.  I’ve probably broken a lot of kids’ hearts when they ask for spiritual advice and I don’t have any.”  — David Stoltenberg, guitarist of Slick Shoes

This is from an article in Relevant (March/April 2004).  A lot of assumptions can be made from these few comments.  One is that Tooth & Nail doesn’t do a good job checking into who they sign.  Do they sign anyone who comes their way whether they are Christian or called to music or whatever?  Another assumption is as they signed as 17-year olds, were they even ready to be on stage in the Christian music industry to be ministering to others.

What struck me more about this interview is that at age 21 these guys just decided to not be Christian anymore.  One can assume that at 15, 16, and 17 when they were signed by Tooth & Nail that they were excited youth group kids and excited musicians who felt a direction to the music industry which is why they contacted Tooth & Nail.  But now as young adults, they no longer wished to be Christian.  Stoltenberg implies that this was a decision which they made.  Similar to a decision which was made earlier to become a Christian.

Faith is a decision.  Everybody sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.”  This is good theology.  But for someone to leave one’s faith, especially to make a decision about it, something may have been transferred wrongly about that faith.  Their faith was one that saved them from AIDS, death, hell, emotional heartbreak, etc.  Their faith was one that if you adhere to this and this and this all the way through to number 999, then you are set.  This kind of faith is easily accounted for and it impresses senior pastors, church boards and parents.

This is a fromming kind of faith because you are being saved from (insert list here).  Often with a fromming kind of faith a Christian counterpart has been substituted in its place so the teen can continue fromming but still have fun.  Fun is a word that has been used and misused in youth ministry for a long time.

When Mark Earley wrote a commentary for Breakpoint (March 30, 2004) on the increasing problem of teen sex and how 88 percent of those who make True Love Waits pledges don’t keep those pledges, he concluded, “But just getting them into youth groups that focus on personal piety is not going to be enough. We must reach out to our children with a clear and well-reasoned worldview so they’ll understand what life is really about. Otherwise the problem of teen sex will only get worse.”

Or as Mandy Moore (who is publicly struggling with her faith) said about her character in Saved: “I love what this film has to say and that it doesn’t dumb down to people my age.  Hillary Faye’s (her character) just so lost, and who isn’t 90 percent of the time?  I have a lot of sympathy for her because her only identity was through the relationship she thought she had with Jesus.  She’s the typical popular girl in high school, except her obsession isn’t with clothes or boys or money.  It’s her faith.”  (USA Today, June 14, 2004)

What happens with fromming faith is that Christians become identified not for what they do but more from what they don’t do.  “She’s a Christian because she doesn’t drink.”  “He’s a Christian because he doesn’t cuss.”  What do such things have to do with being a Christian?  It has all to do about being moral.  Maybe that is why so many moral people are mistaken as Christians.  But many moral people do not know of the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  These moral messages are easy to teach.  They also easily impress senior pastors, church boards and parents.

Dr. Christian Smith has been the lead researcher on a largest study of teenagers’ faith beliefs and practices.  From the three years of extensive research he has come up with this description of “religion” that is practiced by most American adults and teenagers.  He calls it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  That defined is “there’s a God who created the world, but that God is not particularly involved in my way of life.  I live my own life apart from God except when I have problems.  Then I can call upon God to come solve those problems for me.  (Moral Therapeutic Deism asserts that) people should be good–and that basically means not being a jerk.  God is something like a divine butler or cosmic therapist who is there to meet your needs but doesn’t get too personally involved with you and certainly is not demanding.  Religion’s main benefit is that is applies therapeutic satisfaction, that it meets therapeutic needs.”  (Group, January/February 2005) This is a faith that saves from.  It saves them from their problems.  This is a faith which can be left behind by a decision.

A “to” faith can help those same teens meet all their future goals when they are most worried about them.  There is more to faith than fromming because one who is saved by faith to a lot of things: to heaven, to life to the full, to peace, to second chances, to love, to a God who is active in their lives, etc.  Instead of being saved from the travails of sin, faith is really being saved to integrity, peace, loyalty, promise of a future, etc.  This is what a healthy faith is.  You don’t leave that kind of faith in your late adolescence because that is when you need it most.  A true faith will help those find that “happily ever after” marriage or it will help them get that better job because of the Godly characteristics their lives display because of faith.  And this kind of faith does not take away your fun.  The fun comes in the success you live.

Teach this “to” faith.  Be wary of the easy trap of fromming faith.  Do praise fromming moral behavior but actively teach what you are being saved to.  Perhaps we might be spared some of the pain of youth who backslide.  Perhaps these youth will be spared the scars of their choice to not follow God.