It’s important to examine how Christian hedonism presses into the real world, especially for youth ministers and parents of teenagers.
Christian hedonism changes the way we understand the gospel. For the Christian hedonist, the gospel is not merely a get-out-of-hell-free card. That is, being rescued from eternal torment is certainly a massive benefit of the gospel that makes us glad. Yet rescue from hell is not the highest good of the gospel. Instead, in the mind of the Christian hedonist, the gospel is the news that sinners are reconciled to the one who gives rest to restless hearts (Augustine). Or, Christian hedonism helps me see that heaven is more than the absence of bad things and wicked people. Though, again, the absence of pain and suffering and wickedness is a good that we love. However, for the Christian hedonist, the greatest blessing of heaven is that we experience the presence of the greatest person, namely Christ, face to face (1 Cor. 13:12; Ps. 16:11).
Think of how the Christian hedonist view of the gospel changes how we talk to our kids about Jesus. We are not merely concerned with calling them away from sin (though we certainly call them to repentance). Instead, we joyfully call them to know Jesus, our satisfying King. Or, when it comes to heaven, Christian hedonism helps us paint a better picture. We are not simply calling students to be saved from flames in hell but to be saved and someday ushered into a curse-free kingdom with Jesus, at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore. In short, the Christian hedonist paints a bright and happy picture of the gospel and the future kingdom that positively appeals to our longings to be happy.
Christian hedonism is not just a doctrine that touches some things. Rather, it impacts everything, including parenting our children and leading our students in a youth ministry setting. Let me provide two windows that you can look through to see Christian hedonism on display.
Window One: Loved and Happy in God
Every teenager is different. They all have different personalities, and as they mature, their emotions run wild. Youth ministers and parents are tasked with helping shape those children into mature adults who are ready for the world. No easy job!
I believe Christian hedonism offers some help. Christian hedonism teaches us that God is the source of our greatest satisfaction and the one who loves us supremely. Teenagers need the Spirit to help them see and feel this reality.
Consider the teenager who obsessively worries about what other people think about him. His problem is the fear of man. He is desperate to prove himself and is devastated when he feels he hasn’t measured up in sports or school. You find him sitting on the back row and you pull up a chair. You sit and remind him that regardless of what he accomplishes or what the people around him think of him, he is created by God. His longing to be loved is not wrong, in fact, it is how God created us all. And in Jesus, the Son of God, we see how God has loved us supremely.
Or imagine that your daughter is upset because she feels dumb or disliked. She is crying in her room, and you go in to see her. You close the door, sit down, and talk to her face to face. You remind her that she is created by the God of the universe—that the God of creation has loved her just as she is. He has cared for her so deeply that he sent his Son, Jesus, to live and die and rise again so that she, a sinful child, might be restored to a relationship with her heavenly Father.
Both of these kids want to be loved. The Christian gospel tells them they have been loved all the way to the cross. And then, Christian hedonism comes along and says that the cross has provided a way for them not only to be saved from hell but to know and enjoy the one who satisfies their souls.
Christian hedonism tells the child who is desperate for love that they are loved by God. And this God is the one who will make him supremely and eternally happy. And being happy in God is the surest and clearest pathway to fulfill their God-glorifying reason for living (cf., Is 43:7).
Window 2: A Banquet is Better Than Mud Pies
Youth ministry is about more than telling kids to stay away from drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Instead, youth ministry (and any ministry) is about helping teenagers see and enjoy God. C. S. Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory,
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We aren’t calling students to some old-time boring religion. We aren’t merely giving them a bunch of “do’s and don’ts” (though, plenty of that should make it into our sermons and discipleship moments). Instead, we are calling kids to stiff-arm lesser pleasures and find superior pleasure in Christ.
Student pastor, you have the amazing opportunity to call students to know the most happifying person in the universe. Your aim is to guard them from being “too easily pleased” by the things of this world and instead, come to Jesus. In Jesus they meet their “exceeding joy” (Ps 43:5) and the one “at whose right hand are pleasures forever more” (Ps 16:11). Student pastors, call your students to come to Jesus and find everlasting joy.
And, parents, encourage your church’s youth minister to focus on Jesus, to call students to turn from sin to him, the most glorious person to ever walk on the planet. Link arms with these pastors and help them point your kids (and your neighbors’ kids) to Christ for their everlasting joy and his forever glory.
The Source of True Joy
In our parenting and pastoring, we are laboring to show teenagers that God is their source of greatest delight, and that it is God who loves them more profoundly than any other person in the world. In him, they find the one who has created them and redeemed them and gives them rest.
The payoff to this theological idea is practical. The boots of Christian hedonism hit the ground and go running. Christian hedonism changes the way we view the gospel. It changes the way we view heaven. It gives us fresh eyes and thoughts when it comes to parenting and pastoring, helping us disciple teenagers for their joy and God’s glory.