Twenty years ago, I worked at a Starbucks in Denver part-time while going to school. Free coffee. It was awesome.
I was a seminary student studying to go into youth ministry, and all my co-workers knew it. Brock was a shift manager and openly gay. Brock was a great guy and on occasion he’d ask me what the Bible said about homosexuality. I’d then proceed to tell him that when God created the universe and everything in it, he thought of Brock and he smiled. I told Brock that God loved him so much, he’d rather have his son Jesus die in Brock’s place.
Brock would sometimes push a bit harder and say, “Yeah, I know, but what does the Bible say about the fact that I’m gay?” He had a hard time adjusting to the fact that when he asked these questions, I first and foremost responded with the gospel: with love. I answered with patience and grace. Or I tried to. Honestly, I didn’t always have patience for the game he was trying to play.
But I can’t blame Brock. He was used to people telling him he was a pervert. Disgusting. Going to hell. And a sinner (as if they weren’t sinners). Only then would they say something like, “Oh by the way, Jesus loves you.” But they’d made it pretty clear by then that they didn’t exactly love him. The phrase “hate the sin, not the sinner” doesn’t work nearly as neatly as we’d like to think it does.
While desiring not only to defend my beliefs to Brock, I also just selfishly wanted to keep my workplace calm and pleasant. How I engaged in these conversations would determine the enjoyment of my co-workers’ days as well. I wanted things between me, Brock, and my co-workers to be ‘civil.’
Richard Mouw said in his book, Uncommon Decency, “We must not lose sight of this very public dimension of civility (and our faith). Being civil isn’t just trying to be respectful toward people we know. It is also to care about our common life. It involves not only working hard at close relationships but also cultivating a deep concern for civitas, for the way things go in our public spaces – on sidewalks and highways, at football games and national parks, in malls and legislatures… Christian anti-civility is grounded in a failure to understand God’s own civility.”
The old cliché is true: without civility in these conversations, we risk winning the battle but losing the war. Without civility, I might have defended my faith brilliantly to Brock, and at the same time lost any chance of him drawing nearer to who Jesus really is.
The only way Brock was going to draw nearer to Jesus in a real way was not just by hearing the Gospel, but by feeling it and experiencing it through our kind and authentic relationship.
It’s absolutely critical to give students the ability to explain Christianity to others who question it, but I believe the tone of that explanation must be so rooted in love and grace that when kids explain their faith, all people see is Jesus. This has to do with the content of the explanation, but surely has more to do with the delivery and heart of the one speaking.
Students can show up with theological arguments won and beliefs defended, but if they have not done these things by “loving kindness and walking humbly” (Micah 6:8), then they’ve missed the mark entirely.
In Matthew 25:31-40, Jesus says to his flock: “Because you fed me, clothed me, visited me, and welcomed me, you are welcome into my kingdom.” I’m sure he could also have said: “When I asked about your faith, you gave me love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Richard Mouw says, “I have no doubt that Mother Teresa would gladly endorse Kuyper’s manifesto: ‘There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’” She knew that Jesus has conquered sin. She believed deeply in the ultimate triumph of the cross. But Mother Teresa did not see the square inches Jesus has redeemed as territory that we must now triumphantly claim as our prize. She knew that many of those square inches are presently occupied by people with stinking, rotting flesh, by grieving parents, by frightened children—the abused, the abandoned, the persecuted and the desperately poor. And she was convinced that our “claiming” those places in the name of Christ means that we must go out to join him ‘in the distressing disguise’ as he makes the agony of the suffering ones his very own. The square inches for which Christ died are still often very lonely and desolate places. And we must be willing to take our place in those situations, knowing that ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
As youth pastors, we must adequately prepare adolescents for challenges to and questions about their beliefs. We must prepare them to be more than conquerors of these conversations. We must prepare them to relate to their peers in love. They must be shown, in a culture that is too often defined by winners and losers (and conquerors), that every conversation, every argument, every sharing and defense of their faith belongs entirely to Jesus. And he is saying, “This conversation, these teenagers, they are mine!”