Emma invited her friend Maddie to youth group. They had been friends since childhood and their parents were good friends. Now that they were in eighth grade, they finally had their own phones, along with more freedom to chat without parents lurking. Since Emma was a Christian, she knew (and believed) the gospel and wanted her friends to know Christ, too. When Maddie finally agreed to come to youth group, Emma was thrilled.
When they arrived at youth group, Emma excitedly introduced Maddie to her church friends and to Pastor Tom and the other leaders. Maddie really enjoyed herself… until the Bible message. Pastor Tom spoke about people’s sinfulness and how they deserved God’s judgment. He claimed that Jesus is the only way to be saved from sin and that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus will endure eternal punishment. Somehow, he even had the audacity to say this with a smile, as if the offer of salvation counteracted the hateful words he spoke against everyone who didn’t believe what he did.
It was a quiet car ride home. Emma’s mom tried asking how the night went, but Maddie just wasn’t interested in engaging. “Fine, thanks for inviting me,” she said. But Emma could feel the cold tension hovering like a mist in the backseat. Over the next few weeks, their relationship felt strangely distant – which was hard for both girls because they had been so close for years. Something was different.
One night, after a particularly stressful day, Emma simply texted, “Maddie, what’s happening? Why are you mad at me? Did I do something?” She saw the message had been read, and the reply-bubbles appeared. Then they disappeared. And there was no reply. That was the night their friendship died.
Within her own heart, Maddie was also troubled and sad. She couldn’t understand how her friend, who was like another sister to her, could believe that she was going to hell because she wasn’t a Christian. Of course, she had heard that Christians believed this. But she always felt like Emma must’ve been different – her friend couldn’t be so judgmental and hateful. That night at youth group opened her eyes, and now she reinterpreted so many conversations they’d had over the years. Emma believed that she and everyone who believed the same thing as her was right, and everyone else in the world was wrong and condemned to hell.
Maddie loved Emma, but this was too much. She didn’t have anything more to say to her former friend. The line had been drawn, and Maddie didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. If Emma wanted to cancel herself by being so narrow-minded, then so be it.
The Heart of Cancel Culture
The case study above helps us understand the real world complexity of tolerance and what we often refer to as “cancel culture.” The heart of cancel culture is found at the intersection of tolerance (the new Golden rule) and safety (the new American Dream). You see, tolerance has come to mean, “you do you, and I’ll do me, and it’s all good.” When people try to impose their own values on others, they’re outing themselves as intolerant jerks who are trying to coerce others into submission. This power-play threatens others’ safety (physical, emotional, or mental) by making them obey rules that are not of their own making. Cancel culture, then, is a natural way to protect yourself and others from people who are perceived to be intolerant and threatening.
The very core of our Christian identity is perceived as a very real threat to students today. When we preach the gospel, even while highlighting God’s saving grace, the reality of sin may cause some to consider you and your church to be hateful bigots who threaten people’s search for peace and happiness. They may feel conflicted about canceling you or others within the group, but there is too much at stake to allow people who are perceived as judgmental and narrow-minded to have influence.
Hope for the Cancelled
No youth pastor, parent, or student wants to be cancelled. The pain involved is significant – being misunderstood, having your words and intentions twisted, feeling abandoned by those who were friends, and possibly even facing public embarrassment as they distance themselves from you. Experiencing this type of hurt can leave deep wounds.
Jesus was betrayed by an apostle and sold into the hands of those who would later kill him. A few hours after his arrest, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. So Jesus understands your pain and rejection. And yet, he remained faithful to complete his mission, even while praying on the cross, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).
Paul describes his own ministry this way: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). As youth ministers, we have a passion to see the gospel transform lives. Sometimes, however, those who hear the gospel reject it and consider it complete and utter foolishness (Gal. 1:18). Jesus warned his disciples that their message would not always be received with faith, but he comforted them by saying, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me” (Lk. 10:16).
In this way, students like Emma are much more like the apostles than previous generations. Of course we want to equip students to evangelize their peers and see a gospel-transformation in our communities. But even as we pray for revival, we need to remember some students will consider the gospel utter foolishness while others receive it as the wisdom of God. Trust God’s grace, and proclaim it – remembering the cost students like Emma pay for following Jesus.
Understanding the heart behind cancel culture will help you pastor your students to graciously and courageously walk in step with the Spirit. Standing against the onslaught of culture is a challenge, even for spiritually-mature adults. So be patient with students, even as you point them to the surpassing treasure of Christ.
Christ will build his church. He’s been cancelled before… but the Church still stands.
Please see also: Paul Refuses to Cancel Peter: How Galatians Speaks to Teen Today.