Let No One Despise You
I was meeting with Chris at the diner a block from the campus where I worked and where he attended. Catching up on life, we talked about classes, his job in the residence halls as a community assistant, and other topics as they came and went. At some point I started sharing what I read earlier about the persecution of Christians in Iran. He had no idea. In fact, it seemed to blow his mind that this was even happening.
Over the years I’ve noticed similar trends from young adult Christians. Some are unaware of the persecution brothers and sisters in Christ face around the world. Many are oblivious to the shift in public perception of Christianity and Christian beliefs and practices here in the West. They often don’t know what the prosperity gospel is, let alone other historic heresies. But underlying this was the central issue: Most did not seem to see themselves as full Christians capable of serving Christ and making him known in the world around them. It was almost as if they were “junior Christians” still waiting for someone to confer a degree of completion in Christianity so they could obtain all the rights, responsibilities, privileges, and immunities appertaining thereunto. No one told them there was no such junior status.
What I ultimately determined was that young people were being inadequately prepared to encounter a world beyond their first 18 years of existence. Students arrive at college, enlist in the military, and enter the workforce unaware of their potential impact for the kingdom of God and unaware of a world very different than what they grew up in. So many did not see themselves as integral to spreading the gospel now. No, too many were told they were “future leaders” who did not have to concern themselves this day with the kingdom of God.
THE PROBLEM, THE SOLUTION
Being a young adult has never been easy, but for Christians in their late teens and early twenties today, multiple factors have resulted in a generational struggle with identity and purpose. The age of Christendom has faded, and there are less societal expectations on young adults to call themselves Christians. So many have been fed the milk of Christian entertainment and never nourished with the solid food of biblical study, robust prayer, and Christ-like service. Today’s youth have remarkable access to instant gratification, yet report startlingly high levels of stress and depression. The Gospel is readily available through technological advances, but adolescents keep leaving the church.
The problem is simple to identify: Christian emerging adults have been inadequately prepared to live faithfully in a post-Christian society. We’ve all seen examples of youth ministry focused on entertainment and games that stresses peer-to-peer interaction over discipleship. This problem is the natural next step of that failure.
Identifying the solution is more challenging. However, a good start is a three-part message to these young adults: First, be prepared to serve Christ faithfully now despite your youth; second, recognize the world is in enmity with God; and third, respond to this enmity by loving God and loving others.
NOT JUST THE FUTURE, BUT THE PRESENT
Timothy’s mentor, Paul, writes to him, “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Many of our young adults have been told implicitly not that they are despised, but that they are incapable. They were sold short on themselves and on their role in the church. Too many churches have offered Twizzlers and van rides to for King and Country concerts without the discipleship and challenging biblical study they need (no offense to Twizzlers or for King and Country, both of which I am a fan of).
This dismissive attitude is especially toxic with an age group not naturally inclined to think of their own mortality. Much of my career in student affairs has been in the field of student conduct. Better known as the discipline office. Students come in with all sorts of issues. Some have made small mistakes they think have ruined their future while others are on a dark path thinking everything is fine. Too many students don’t think about how their actions today impact the future. If young adults are ever to be “the future” of the church, they need to start by being “the present” of the church.
Paul’s message to Timothy is just as relevant to today’s emerging adults. They have not only the joy of calling themselves Christians, they have the privilege and responsibility to follow through on God’s commands to be witnesses of Jesus on campus, in their community, and to the ends of the earth. And no church leader should despise them, or more likely—dismiss them, for the conviction of doing so.
“YOU WILL BE HATED”
All Christian college students need to commit to bringing Christ to the campus and to the ends of the world. But we also need to be honest with them about what this means for their life. Not long before his crucifixion, Jesus sat with his disciples, preparing them for what would come next. He told them they would be delivered to tribulation and put to death. Christ’s disciples would, “be hated by all nations for [his] name’s sake” (Matt. 24:9). This echoed his earlier statement from his sermon on the mount, when he preached, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5:11).
Too many of our young Christians arrive on our campuses from the safe protection of little bubbles erected to prevent dissenting opinions and disturbing images of persecution from reaching their minds. Unfortunately, the truth is persecution is real. Jesus told us it would be part of life for his followers. Yet many of our students have not yet developed a proper perspective of persecution.
While we regularly see examples of evangelical Christians being far too quick to claim persecution over the smallest slight, it’s clear the United States is moving culturally in a direction where Christianity is not as socially accepted—at least not it’s orthodox form in the public sphere. Is it persecution? Perhaps, by definition, in some situations it may be. But if nothing else, living a faithful Christian life in the United States now often includes at least some low level of hostility. Comfort that American Christians have enjoyed for centuries is vanishing. But that comfort was the anomaly. As I wrote in Let No One Despise You: Emerging Christians in a Post-Christian Society, facing minimal pushback on our faith is the glitch in history and not what the Bible tells us to expect. We shouldn’t be shocked Christendom is slipping away. We should be shocked it ever existed.
We need to disclose to our young adults the persecution occurring in places like China and Iran to explain what being a Christian has typically meant for most believers over the past 2,000-plus years. Being a Christian in America is very different from being a Christian in Syria, and young adults need to know this to understand the global church.
LOVE GOD, LOVE OTHERS
How should we then live in light of hostility to Christianity? We live in love. While the mantra “love God, love others” does not encapsulate the gospel, it’s a simple pattern for believers of the gospel to conduct their lives. Jesus said, “there is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31), which tells me our approach to engaging the world should start here. But what does it mean to love God? What does it mean to love others?
To love God, young adults need search the many examples available in scripture. We love God by repenting of our sins and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15). We love God by imitating individuals like David, Mary, Paul, and Jesus himself and pursuing God through prayer. We love God by studying His Word. And we love God by keeping Jesus’ commands (John 14:21). It’s not enough to tell young Christians to love God, without explaining what that means.
Nor is it helpful to tell them to love others, when society has spent the last 18 or so years of their lives inculcating them with its own definition of love. Of course we love others by caring for those in need, by forgiving, and being kind. If we truly believe the gospel, though, the single greatest way to love another person is to share the gospel with him or her. Training young adults on how to share their faith effectively is preparing them to love another person in the greatest way possible.
This three-part message is the framework of Let No One Despise You: Emerging Christians in a Post-Christian Society, published by Wipf & Stock. It’s written directly to young adults and ministry leaders alike and seeks to assist in guiding young adults to a deeper faith in Christ and prepare them for their God-given role of knowing Him and making Him known.