When I graduated high school in 2015, I knew impressively little about politics. And, quite frankly, I didn’t care. Ignorance was bliss. But that all changed when I got to college in the heat of the 2016 election and suddenly everyone wanted to argue with everyone about everything. The more controversial, the better.
While I expected a college campus to be a hotbed for (mostly nonsensical) political discussion, now that I’m in youth ministry, I have been taken aback by the number of the students in our youth group firing off their political opinions over the past few months. Even middle schoolers offered their half-baked takes on the election, the Capitol insurrection, the Inauguration, and so much more.
Not only are students more politically literate today, but their opinions are much stronger. As parents talk, worry, and complain about politics more — reflecting the growing politicization in our society at large – this trickles down to our students. Additionally, with social media, students are privy to an endless supply of political opinions. Unfortunately the loudest and most extreme voices gain the most followers.
In a season like this, our culture shouts at our students, proclaiming, “Party X is what’s wrong with this country! All the problems will be solved by voting for Party Y!” Even worse, many leading Christian voices have jumped into the fray, peddling one party or person or platform as the one and only answer to all of our problems. It’s one thing to hear this from the news desk; it’s quite another to hear it from a 6th grader.
Now, to be clear, political awareness and engagement from young people isn’t a bad thing. In fact, given the painfully obvious absence of political leadership today, it probably bodes well for our country that younger generations are increasingly interested in politics. At the same time, both at home and in the youth group, youth workers and parents must be better prepared to respond when our students bring politics into the conversation.
Don’t Allow God’s Truth to Be Reduced to Slogans
Truthfully, the oft-repeated platitudes of election season – Christians shouldn’t fret about politics because we’re “citizens of heaven,” or that “our King is Christ” – don’t move the needle for curious students who are more politically aware than ever before. These are sound Biblical truths, but we so often reduce them to catchphrases that get lost in the slew of political slogans instead of actually explaining and exploring God’s truth with students.
Rather than simply assuring our students that God’s Kingdom is not dependent upon the political workings in our country and expecting them to nod along and not ask questions, we must introduce them to the even better alternative. Instead of an abstract slogan about hoping in heaven, we can teach them to hold their worldly politics loosely by pointing them to how God so often flips our political expectations entirely around.
When we take our students through Biblical history, we can show them that God not only works in and through our worldly political affairs, but He often works through the people and governments we least expect. In fact, even a quick survey reveals that God’s people, even those walking most faithfully in His ways, consistently made the wrong assumptions about God’s plans for politics.
An Unwilling Missionary and an Unlikely Mission
Consider teaching through Jonah. Though not the first time God intervened in Israel’s political affairs, God called Jonah out of a comfortable life of pro-Israel prophecy (2 Kings 14:25) to go on a suicide mission to “call out against” the Assyrians (Jonah 1:1-2). In many ways, Jonah was God’s first missionary, instructed to minister to Israel’s archenemy. Not only was he afraid of what the Assyrians might do to him, but Jonah feared that God would do what neither he nor Israel wanted: have mercy on Assyria (Jonah 4:1-3).
Ask your students: in our hyper-political society, have we begun to view those who disagree with us like Jonah viewed the Assyrians? Do we wish God would rain fire down on our political opponents rather than showering them with His mercy and grace?
Tell them about Habakkuk, another exasperated prophet. During his lifetime, Israel’s nemesis was Babylon. When Habakkuk cried out to God for relief and justice (Habakkuk 1:2-4), God offered a downright shocking solution: Babylonian invasion (1:5-11).
Of course, God promised to deal justly with the Babylonians for their evil (2:6-20), but His path for Israel followed anything but the straight line Habakkuk expected. God used foreign powers, evil empires, and even exile for His good purposes. As Christians, our “hope of heaven” means we can learn from the mistakes of Jonah and Habakkuk and trust in God’s sovereign goodness even when things appear to be the exact opposite of what we wanted.
Twelve Disappointed Opportunists
Perhaps even more famously, Jesus’ disciples completely misunderstood God’s political plans. Though the disciples knew that Jesus was the Son of God, they also hitched their political aspirations to Jesus’ metaphorical wagon, fully expecting a Messianic king who would overthrow the oppressive Roman rule and re-establish the Davidic kingdom of Israel.
Even in the last moments before His death, Jesus’ disciples were so caught up in their personal political aims that they failed to understand that He was about to die for the sins of the world (Mark 10:37; Matt. 20:20-28). When Jesus was crucified, not only was their friend and leader gone, but their dreams of a political revolution died as well. In fact, they were so crushed and misguided that even after the resurrected Jesus appeared to them, they still got it wrong! The very last words the disciples spoke to Jesus reflect their complete befuddlement: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
Can you imagine Jesus’ frustration? The men he’d travelled with, cried with, and loved so dearly for three years still didn’t understand his mission on earth. They still expected a political revolution. He had lived, died, and resurrected from the dead only to be misunderstood by his best friends, who were blinded by their own political aspirations.
If the disciples who walked with Jesus got their political expectations wrong, what makes me think mine are so right? If the prophets who spoke to and for God confused their political aims with God’s, why do I think that my opinions perfectly align with God’s plans? It’s a humbling thought, one we ought to invite our students to wrestle with.
God’s sovereignty over this world repeatedly shatters and subverts our small-minded political expectations. Rather than simply pointing out that our hope as Christians isn’t in a certain political party or politician—or even country—we ought to point our students to the God who works for the good of His Kingdom through the most unlikely sources.