A classic youth group game is ‘tug of war.’ I’m sure you know it. There is one large rope, and two teams who line up next to the rope, facing each other like jousting warriors. The aim is for the teams to pull the rope as hard as they can in their own direction and therefore force the other team forward, across the center line. It is a game of muscle and might, meant to show off the strength of one side as they bring the other team closer and closer toward the line and eventually win.
The generation we work with as youth ministers has been termed ‘The Loneliest Generation.’ As one former surgeon general has commented, “We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” The teenagers in our youth groups and churches experience more isolation, separation, and friendlessness than I ever did in my school years. Instead of growing closer and closer with a handful of peers, this generation (as a whole) is growing further and further apart. The tug of war for this generation is pulling one-another in opposing directions.
While this is the reality of the world in which our students live and breathe, thankfully there is a different way. A way that draws us, and our students, closer to God and one-another. For in God’s economy, we are being pulled in. We are being brought near to God because of what Jesus has done on the cross. This is a mighty word of comfort in divisive times.
The Bible speaks of two groups of people, the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were the people of God in the Old Testament who He had a special love for. The Gentiles were everyone else in the world. This is how the New Testament frames people: Jews and Gentiles. As more and more laws and regulations were made, particularly by the religious people, these two groups would not associate with one-another. Yet God’s plan through Christ was not to provide more distance between the two groups, but rather to bring them together.
Through Jesus and the cross, God breaks down the barrier between Jew and Gentile. Like the Berlin Wall coming down and uniting the East and West of Germany, so too God breaks down the wall between the Jews and the Gentiles. Both can have peace with God, and each other, because of Christ and his cross.
In Ephesians 2:11-15 Paul the Apostle writes the following:
So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh—called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” which is done in the flesh by human hands. At that time you were without Christ, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility. In his flesh, he made of no effect the law consisting of commands and expressed in regulations, so that he might create in himself one new man from the two, resulting in peace. He did this so that he might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross by which he put the hostility to death.
Of particular note is v13 where we are told that those of us who were far away, us Gentiles, are now able to come near to God because of the cross. People who seem far away are now able to come close to God. God’s Good News is not news that separates, causes disunity, or breaks people apart. God has provided a way for everyone in the world to know Him and be able to access Him because of the cross. It is this act which tears down all walls of separation and hostility.
In our students, and if we’re honest it’s in us too, there is a tendency to operate in extremes. To make every issue or debate or conversation a black and white exchange. It seems every conversation becomes one of right or wrong, good or bad. Whether it’s gaming consoles, types of music, or what kind of phone we have, our dialogues turn from learning and understanding to competitiveness and debate.
But here’s the rub: Because God is with us, and because we are with God, there is no competition. There is no separation. There is no division. There is no apart-ness. No, we are with God and he is with us. We have been drawn near.
While we and the students we lead live in this lonely, separated world, we know there is something greater. Real relationship with others, being loved for who we are, and being accepted on the basis of grace is a call to community. In our churches we want to be known by people who are similarly known by God. And when we have students who are lonely, yearning for someone to simply listen, then we become an integral part in helping them be known. This is why our work is so important; it’s connecting people to God and to one-another. The greatest gift for our students is Jesus, the greatest community we can provide them with is one that shows love, respect, and acceptance in his name.