By Rev. James Ellis III, Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College
In Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian, CEO and founder of International Justice Mission, Gary Haugen raises a timely moral inquiry for our society: “Are we raising our children to be safe or to be brave? Are we raising our children to be smart or to be loving? Are we raising our children to be successful or to be significant?”
Given years of work with young people in churches, my interest in Haugen’s concerns the responsibilities of Christian parents and adults. I have encountered many in Christian communities who, perhaps through a wacky combination of innocence, avoidance, and theological misguidance, live as though playing dodge-ball with hardship is the way of Christ.
In this mindset it’s anathema to not pursue or enjoy an existence that avoids risk at all cost.
This summer I have transitioned from my role as a solo pastor in the District of Columbia to serving as chaplain at a Midwestern Christian college. As I prepare for the onslaught of students that will arrive soon, I am reminded how much they don’t need to be babied, or hoodwinked into believing that the best life for them is one that is sanitized and safe.
Surely, I don’t want to scare them with a bunch of doom and gloom. Everyday doesn’t find us soaked in disenchantment. Nevertheless, these impressionable adults-in-training need to know that while, yes, the Lord is strong and mighty in battle, dangers, toils, and snares are real.
By definition, a life truly devoted to Jesus exposes one to a wild can of worms—worms that don’t fight fair. The struggle is real.
In my experience, part of what we grown-ups fail to grasp is how a firm reliance on the Holy Spirit and the grit to persevere are nonnegotiable factors for discipleship. Competence matters, but it doesn’t hold a candle to character, and character is best fashioned by trudging through the barbwire of life’s erratic impediments.
If young people are encouraged to shield themselves from every experience not straight-laced and of ultimate ease, then they’ll likely never develop the resiliency required to traverse the volatile human condition.
Without being privy to any closed-door celestial deals that may (or may not) be made without our input, a lot of us can expertly testify to the Job-like fragility and pain of life. Sometimes drama has a way of singling out the most devout among us, targeting us for the Evil One’s demise. Being sent by God “the roundabout way” (Exodus 13:18) is nothing to be ashamed of. God knows best.
In opposition to American lore, as J.R.R. Tolkien reminds us in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Not all those who wander are lost…” I’d go so far to say that it is sacrilegious to teach young people, directly or indirectly, that privilege and safety are the calling cards of Christianity.
Unfortunately, though, many well-meaning Christian parents and adults do just that. But think about the world that our young people live in. Violence comes at them in innumerable forms alongside a barrage of digital information. In the backdrop of corrupt politicians and other leaders, there’s more pressure than ever for them to overcome the myriad generational sins that they’ve inherited.
Despite yesteryear’s watershed progress, racial and theological prejudice continue to divide our nation and world. And young people are smack-dab in the middle of all of this, desperately trying to make sense out of senselessness. They can handle frank conversations about life, straight, no chaser.
Now, but of course, let’s be careful to not get carried away. Nothing good comes from tempting divine providence. We’re all called to take good care of ourselves and our families however we can, which includes physical and financial security. But worshiping upward mobility and living as if Christians are in error if they experience adversity is when we have a huge problem. The bottom line is that we actually damage future generations when we act as though our lives with God are supposed to be happy-go-lucky sit-coms where no real hurt, harm, or danger comes to anyone. Young people need to know about our missteps and misfortunes. They desperately need to know about job loss, infertility, discrimination, surgery, and the exasperation of paying taxes and managing debt.
They also need to know of God’s grace, goodness, and otherworldly faithfulness through it all.
Young people need pastors, counselors, professors, parents, and mentors who love them enough to pass along priceless wisdom and insight from a life lived humbly putting the word of God into action. Whether they are adolescents, college students, or young adults, ministering to young people necessitates a degree of candor and vulnerability.
I want those I serve to know that life is a beautiful struggle. Because of Christ we’ll understand it better by-and-by. After all, he told us, “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)
The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College, a Christian liberal arts institution in Holland, Michigan, affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. Ordained in the Baptist tradition, he is the author of Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil: Stories about the Challenges of Young Pastors, and a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, and the University of Maryland. He was a 2013 Guthrie Scholar at Columbia Theological Seminary and 2012-13 Lewis Fellow at Wesley Theological Seminary, a post-graduate, post-ordination leadership development program for clergy under 35.