I recently read a Cultural Translator Report from Axis ministry and came across a story about Katy Perry’s award reception speech at the March 2017 Human Rights Campaign. The event honored the efforts of those fighting for the end of broad-spectrum human oppression, with a strong emphasis on the LGBTQ community. Perry gave a passionate and frank speech about her desire to be a voice in these efforts [watch the full speech here].
While I was disheartened by the misplaced emphasis of the event, elements of the singer’s speech made my heart even heavier. She told the audience how she had been raised in a conservative Christian family and church, where she was taught to fear and reject people like homosexuals. To the cheers of an excited crowd, Perry explained how she has since been unbound from the oppressive nature of her upbringing, and that she now experiences the freedom to be who she wants to be, while accepting others for who they want to be. My heart felt so heavy.
I felt a profound sorrow for the way that we so often do church so very poorly. How did Perry’s experience in church leave her so jaded? The radical community of brothers and sisters found in Acts chapter 2, with the radical message of being made new in Christ, so often gets watered down to a powerless cultural experience. Perry spoke of what she had been taught through flannel board stories as a child, as if there were no life or power there, but instead a list of rules that left her bored, burdened, and dissatisfied.
Let me stop here to clarify something. There are plenty of sweet little grandmothers who have spent decades teaching children Bible stories on flannel boards. I am positive these women will live in a mansion in heaven ten times the size of mine. I don’t want to generalize an old-fashioned method of Bible teaching as powerless or legalistic. I do, however, want to highlight that we as a church have been guilty of teaching our children morality-driven Bible lessons that instill a burden of guilt having nothing to do with the power and freedom of the resurrected Jesus in their lives!
Katie Perry’s story reminds me of the people Jack Klumpenhower describes in his book, Show Them Jesus:
“They look back and realize that they learned much about Christian behavior and churchy experiences, but whatever they learned about Jesus didn’t really change them. They never saw him so strikingly that he became their one, overriding hope and their greatest love. They were never convinced that Jesus is better – a zillion times better – than anything and everything else.”
It grieved me to hear Perry talk about her sterile religious experience, because I know that I too have been guilty of over-emphasizing morality in my own youth ministry. I have been so focused on my “flannel graph Bible lessons” and my rules about sex and social media discipline, that I have failed to share with my students that Jesus is a zillion times better than anything and everything else – that no matter how frequently they fail to follow the rules, Jesus is kind enough and merciful enough and good enough to cover all of it.
I felt even heavier as I listened to Perry’s passionate speech, because it actually sounded really good! I mean, it’s hard to argue with the idea that all people deserve to be accepted, embraced, and loved for who they are. Frankly, it bothered me that this woman who has rejected the God of Christianity was speaking the message of freedom and acceptance that rightly belongs to the Gospel story.
I felt tension knowing that my youth group students who love Perry’s music would hear this and buy into her message. Who wouldn’t listen to this message of a woman (a celebrity, no less) who has experienced both sides, a woman who was once a church-going Christian, and is now convinced that true freedom comes when we cast off the burdensome chains of religion to embrace the freedom of love and acceptance? The church has gone wayward when Christianity, to so many, is not synonymous with freedom, love, and acceptance.
St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”
Why are we so fearful of preaching this blessed truth to teenagers? We are free.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul states that the power of the gospel does not come from eloquent words, from flannel boards, or flashy church programs. He says that it comes from preaching the gospel, lest the “cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” Later in this letter, Paul announces that in spite of his impressive resume, he is determined “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”
What Katy Perry, the people in the room cheering for her, and the teenagers in our care need to know most of all is the power of Christ’s death and resurrection – his sacrifice for them, a gesture of grace having absolutely nothing to do with their efforts or moral discipline. This is the only knowledge and truth that will provide the freedom we all long for.
My efforts in my youth ministry must be built entirely on the cross of Christ. It is there and only there that my students will see a Jesus who is a zillion times better, and One who offers the holy acceptance and freedom that they (and we) all long for. It is only when my students are entirely enamored by Jesus, and the utter magnitude of his love and forgiveness, that they will have a Gospel framework to process with spiritual discernment the confusing words of a favorite artist. Holy Spirit give us eyes to see your truth!