There are three categories present in the proposed area of research. The first category is the cultural and religious exegesis of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI. The second category contains the definition and implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The third category is a sort of homogenized praxis of engagement with the Gospel to the current post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI culture. This third category seeks to discern best practices to the transmission and outworking of the Gospel among the existing culture of Hayward’s high school students.
Cultural and Religious Exegesis of Post-Christian High School Students
It is difficult to discern how our culture affects the pool we swim in. The cultural pool of post-Christian high school student in the location of Hayward, WI is both unique and ubiquitous. It is unique in that Hayward is a small, tourism-driven community with relatively wide ranging income disparity. Hayward’s high school culture is ubiquitous in that it is not sheltered from the tidal wave of generational and cultural change that is present in the larger youth culture in the West. While the distinctives of Hayward’s unique small town culture are valuable to discern, the wider cultural exegesis of the emerging generational and cultural change among high school students in particular is the focus of this study.
Ortberg (1997) took some time to review a couple of books related to the demise of Christianity and the church in the West in Christianity Today. Ortberg (1997) relays a story about a United Methodist Bishop who was stopped by “a group of 20-or-so year-olds” (p. 40) who asked what the building the Bishop was entering was for. Not only did these young adults not know what a church building was, but they even asked what a church was and, when instructed it had to do with people who followed the teachings of Jesus, they asked an even more profound question: “Who is Jesus?” (Ortberg, 1997, p. 40).
The jaw-dropping conversation cannot be overstated enough: Ortberg’s recounting of the Bishop’s interaction happened circa 1997. This was eighteen years ago. Those young adults are nearing their forties now. Which begs the question: How did we seemingly arrive at a point in time where one does not recognize a church nor its function within a society as well as who its founder is?
In Christendom and Post-Christendom, Stuart Murray (2010) takes the reader on a journey through the emergence of Christendom and its supposed demise. Murray breaks up the era of the church (arguably when the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost through the present) into three epochs: pre-Christendom, Christendom, and post-Christendom. Pre-Christendom was the time of the church when it was dismissed and an often misunderstood sect of Judaism, but had at its heart a crucified, resurrected, and reigning Lord: Jesus Christ. Murray (2010) describes the pre-Christendom church as “one of the few remaining stabilising and civilising influences” (p. 1) in the Roman Empire. The epoch of Christendom came when Christianity was recognized and legalized by the Emperor Constantine and the church began to enjoy a privileged association with the state “that would dominate Europe for over a thousand years and that still impacts the way Christians think and act” (Murray, 2010, p. 2). Christendom is coming to a slow end—the one where folks would recognize the significance of a church building and the central figure at the center of it: Jesus. Christendom as a functional part of the relationship between church and state has arguably all but ceased to exist, however the “Christendom mindset,” as Murray (2010, p. 5) calls it, is more deeply embedded into western culture and therefore will hang on much longer than its institutions. Murray (2010) highlights both difficulties as well as great opportunities for the church in the post-Christendom epoch. A well-informed understanding of Christendom and its effects as well as the emerging post-Christendom mindset is necessary for accurate cultural engagement.
Henry Blamires (1999), in The Post-Christian Mind, raises more of an alarm to the marginalization of Christianity in this new reality. Blamires (1999) uses alarmist phrases like “hostility,” “assault,” “campaign,” “brainwashed,” “half-truths,” and “sly insinuations” (p. 9) when he refers to the current cultural climate. Additionally, Blamires (1999) writes about how our secular culture is letting go of the “restraints of Christian culture” (p. 11) therefore displaying “popular contemporary attitudes [and] positions [that are] antagonistic to the Christian faith” (p. 10). At the very least, it seems as though Blamires was asking the right questions related to the direction a culture was headed that seemed to oppose Christianity and discriminate against any cultural moorings it might have. Blamires (1999) argued for a combative approach to the encroaching secularism of the culture. Instead of a quiet and faithful subversion or a subtle corrective cultural engagement, the author encourages Christians to engage in protest and the strategic unveiling of cultures’ systemic marginalization and denouncement of Christianity. In other words, the only way Christianity can combat the emerging post-Christian mind is to actively engage or to become louder than the culture itself. No matter what one thinks about Blamires’ assessment of Christianity or his prescription, at the very least he draws awareness that to not engage in this dramatically changing landscape will be to merely acquiesce and sit idly and ineptly by the wayside.
In the spirit of Blamires, Mohler (2004) calls Christian to at least count the cost of engaging the current post-Christian culture. Mohler (2004) echoes similar themes regarding the emerging post-Christian world that Blamires (1999) and Murray (2010) have already introduced: “the church is being displaced” and marginalized. Mohler (2004) cautions Christians that to “contend for Christian truth in the face of this culture is to discover what it means to be a member of a cognitive minority.” This caution is not meant to dissuade Christians into disengagement, but rather to count the cost of swimming counter to the culture’s current through actually speaking and living contrary to culture’s expectations.
On the positive, yet realistic side of things, there is Pastor James Zerfing (2009) who went on a quest to wrestle with some deep questions he had about the essence of the church, the Gospel that was preached, the mission of God’s new covenanted people in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, and does church and the Gospel matter to this current generation. In an article entitled, Going to Get Wonder-fully Messed Up: Core Values in a Post-Christian World, Zerfing (2009) shares that Christendom ended up embodying a church that supported culture instead of critiqued it (p. 50). Culture’s shift to a post-Christendom world needs a church who will return to its essence as a prophetic voice amidst a rampantly pluralistic enterprise. No longer can the church assume people know about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the nature and purpose of His church, and what the people of God in Christ are supposed to do in world that is largely antagonistic to Christianity. Zerfing (2009) argues for a more robust Christology, missiology, and ecclesiology (p. 48).
Returning to Ortberg’s (1997) story of a United Methodist Bishop and the young adult audience he encountered outside of his church who did not know what the building was, what a church did, and who they would worship, it seems there is a unique mix of those who are just plain ignorant to the Christian story and other who are refugees from Christianity who walked away because it did not hold any power and those who are largely antagonistic to the Christian faith. It seems Ortberg’s (1997) account connects with those who are ignorant to the Christian metanarrative, Blamires (1999) seems to tackle those who are antagonistic to Christianity, and Zerfing (2009) can sympathize with those who have found the Christian faith lacking in its power to change a life. In an interview with Pastor Tim Keller and author Gabe Lyons on America’s God Baggage? Approaching a Post-Christian World, Eryn Sun (2011) shares Keller’s sentiment regarding our current culture: “A relativistic culture on the one hand gives you freedom since there are no moral absolutes—that’s the upside. The downside is ‘what am I here for? If I’m an accident, then I’m not here for a purpose…and I don’t have anything to live for.’” In other words, there are those who live life without the need for depth of meaning (these folks are often ignorant to matters of faith and meaning) and then there are those who have not got a clear answer from the church that offers a cogent and comprehensive sense of meaning in life (these folks have left the church because it has been found wanting). Furthermore, there are those who clearly find meaning in a belief system of their own choosing (as each individual can), but are often unaware of the religious ground they ironically stand on.
In a fascinating article called Toward Spirituality of Post-Christian Disciples of Jesus, author Jeff B. Pool (2011) makes a case that people no longer want to be labeled “Christian” but rather “a disciple of Jesus” (p. 10). Pool (2011) references the label post-Christian disciples of Jesus not because of the extremes on either end of science and religion, but rather the deep sense of betrayal that both humanistic and theistic worldviews have failed to produce. Thus the shedding of the “Christian” label, but a reticence to lose the efficaciousness of the founder of Christianity: Jesus Christ. Folks are left to wander in the ecclesial and non-ecclesial landscape because the ecclesial traditions, dogmas, and creeds speak of rules, regulations, and boundaries, rather than the pursuit of the teachings and practices of a first century figure who did not succumb to the religious order of the day by speaking against it, but at the same time died in order to save it. In Pool’s (2011) words, “the religious commitments of post-Christian disciples of Jesus do not necessarily affirm any specific Christian orthodoxy that may remain in the contemporary situation of religious pluralism [nor] do they necessarily offer any allegiance to a Christian ecclesiastical organization or denomination nor does the political or cultural situation any longer necessarily retain the power to compel such allegiance from them” (p. 23). In other words, post-Christian disciples of Jesus are not encumbered by religious institutions nor loyal by default, but rather open to dialoguing and engaging in various forms of Christian tradition and practice to inform not a specific Christian tribe’s understanding of Jesus Christ, but a holistic, more biblically and historically-centered understanding.
Narrowing the discussion to the cultural issues surrounding the emerging generation, Dr. Tim Elmore (2010), in Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future, speaks succinctly to the generational milieu our young people are currently growing up in. Elmore says that “more than any previous group, this younger population has been defined by technology… this population, born in the 1990s and afterward, has literally grown up online” (2010, p. 13). Not only is this emerging generation the most connected, but it is also the most “overwhelmed” (Elmore, 2010, p. 19) and stressed, “overprotected” (p. 22) and unable to function very well on their own, and “overserved” (p. 25) and entitled. It seems that generation iY or millennials, are extending their adolescence because most things in their lives are taken care of for them by their parents or society as a whole. This delayed entrance to adulthood produces a sociological phenomenon among high school students that makes them potentially lazy, waste time, and change preferences (i.e. jobs) quite regularly. According to Elmore (2010), there is not much immediacy or societal motivation for an older adolescent to venture out on their own in their early twenties. This newly-minted cultural reality presents unique challenges for an ecclesial environment to share the good news of Jesus Christ. A high school student might think: “What is the motivation for such a discussion and why is it important now? I’ve got enough time to think through these things in the future. I would rather text, surf social media or play video games.”
Youth Pastor Brock Morgan (2013) chronicles his journey of being confronted with post-Christian high school students when he moved from the West Coast to New England in Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World: A Hopeful Wake-Up Call. Through a seminar at a youth worker convention, Morgan heard about this unique new world that high school students are encountering and being baptized in called post-Christianity. It was not until he moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, did Morgan realize how post-Christian the church, its students, and the surrounding culture were. “The biblical narrative no longer has any coherence,” Morgan (2013, p. 26), in our society or among its youth. “Students are growing up with different worldviews and different religions all around them [and] the world is flat, which means my students and your students are not so far apart” (Morgan, 2013, pp. 26-27). In other words, the worldviews offered to Pastor Morgan’s students in Greenwich, CT are available to students in Hayward, Wisconsin because the Internet and its proliferation of ideas are not bound by state borders nor regional restraints. In prior generations, differing viewpoints on a subject or alternative worldviews were primarily available for collegiate students and beyond, but are now accessible to high school students and younger. Morgan shares that “every public school student takes a class called ‘The Myth of Creation’ [that] is not a science class about evolution; it’s a class that basically breeds agnostic thinking” (2013, p. 26). Wrestling with deep questions of life, meaning, and religion has long been a hallmark of the academy, but not typically engaged at the level of secondary education. Furthermore, one could concede that post-Christianity’s amalgamation of multiple worldviews is simply paganism revisited. Each person can make up their own god (language in past generations) or create their own truth (current language). Current post-Christian culture repeats earlier versions of paganism in a more socially acceptable package.
Finally, Kenda Creasy Dean (2010) in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, clearly lays out her thesis: “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith—but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school” (p. 3). In essence, students do not just graduate from high school, but they also graduate from Christianity. The Christian story and its corresponding ethics are appreciated and embraced in elementary school and often into middle school and sometimes into high school. However, in this current post-Christian society, it seems any vestige of the true nature of the Christian narrative that might be present in a high school student is long gone after graduation. It is imagined that a student appreciates Christianity as an extracurricular activity that was good for when they were young, but now that they are old, they have moved past such childish ideas and grown up. It is difficult to imagine a true and integrated faith failing to remain sticky in a student’s heart just because they are moving on into the adult world. That is, unless, the faith communicated is not really an accurate understanding of the faith of Jesus Christ and is an imposter. Dean (2010) calls out the imposter: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length. It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is persona happiness and helping people treat each other nicely” (p. 29).
It seems a well-intended yet bastardized version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has invaded the Christian faith and has succeeded in turning the hearts of many adults and, by extension, their children away from the true Gospel, which leads the conversation in somewhat of a new direction: What is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and secondly, how does one engage post-Christian high school students who have been immersed in the gamut of worldviews and ideas?
The Centrality of the Christian Faith: The Gospel of Jesus Christ
Recently, the church has seen a resurgence of study and interpretive effort on the core message of Jesus in his historical setting. As a result of this resurgence, the message of the Gospel seemingly has been brought from black and white into greater color than ever before. It is not a “new” Gospel, but rather a deeply more understood and robust Gospel in light of its Jewish roots and the surrounding pagan culture. It seems our current “post-Christian” culture is very similar to the rampant paganism of the first century and thus an accurate understanding of the historical nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ could really speak to this recent cultural shift (especially its high school students).
In Learning to Read the Gospel Again, author Anthony Baker (2011) suggests that even though things in our culture are shifting, it is vitally important that the core message of the Gospel be clearly articulated. Baker (2011) reminds Christians that the Gospel and the Gospel alone is what saves us. Jesus, not our trendy practices, saves sinners, and it is important in our current post-Christian culture to engage participants wisely.
Perhaps it is important to ask what the word “gospel” means in order to better understand how it is understood across the ecclesial and theological landscape of history, particularly in its Jewish and Roman contexts. Michael Pahl (2006) explores the early Christian patterns of the use of the word “gospel.” In essence, Pahl shares that the connotation surrounding the word “gospel” had two intonations: 1) it is “good news of God’s kingship and his sovereign deliverance of his exiled people” (2006, p. 211), and 2) it borrows from the contemporary language of an imperial decree that Caesar is Lord in the Roman Empire. In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar, and this Messiah (Christ) is the God-designated sovereign ruler who rescues His exiled people. Pahl (2006) reminds the reader that “gospel” brings the theological richness of the Jewish narrative of redemption from exile in the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) as well as the relevant news that a crucified and risen Savior is now Lord over and against the current rulers of the world.
New Testament scholar N. T. Wright gives weight to Pahl’s argument that “the gospel” relates to both its Jewishness and its Roman-ness in Paul’s Gospel and Caesar’s Empire. “This royal announcement fulfils the prophecies of scripture and subverts the imperial gospel of Caesar” (Wright, 2000). Wright spends considerable time demarcating the implications of a Jewish Savior rescuing the world who is now proclaimed as its reigning Lord. Wright (2000) offers one of the clearest explanations of the gospel: “For Paul ‘the gospel’ is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord.” In other words, Jesus Christ is Lord: Jesus, the historical figure who lived, Christ, the long-awaited Jewish messiah sent to redeem and atone for the sins of God’s people and by extension the world, is, meaning alive, resurrected, and Lord, who has ascended to the right hand of the Father and reigns as king. Paul’s “missionary work…must be conceived not simply in terms of a traveling evangelist offering people a new religious experience, but of an ambassador for a king-in-waiting, establishing cells of people loyal to this new king, and ordering their lives according to his story, his symbols, and his praxis, and their minds according to his truth” (Wright, 2000).
Gavin Drew (2010) reviewed N.T. Wright’s book Surprised by Hope in an article entitled So, if Christians don’t understand the gospel, how can the rest of the world? Drew (2010) articulates Wright’s emphasis on living in light of the life of Jesus, his death, resurrection and lordship as a sense of missional activity in the world. Question: What would a world look like if Jesus were king? Answer: Let’s follow this king named Jesus who is the Jewish messiah that saved the world, is resurrected, and is an actual reigning king. Let’s follow the rule of this reigning king and change the world. In essence, this is the implication of the gospel: not simply the transformation of an individual, but the transformation of the whole world. In The Public Meaning of the Gospels: Kingdom Come, N.T. Wright (2008) posits a similar question: “What would it look like if God were running the show?” (p. 29). Answer: the revealed kingdom of God as witnessed and chronicled in the four canonical Gospels. Jesus introduces and reveals the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15).
Stepping outside of Wright’s influential impact on New Testament scholarship, Jack Gabig (2011) offers a few implications of the Gospel that Jesus Christ is Lord in Exceeding Human Culture: A Christology that Transcends. First, a passage from the Gospel according to John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16 NIV). At its core, the Gospel works because God the Father so loved the world and specifically the people he had created. The Trinity operates out of an abiding love for each other as well as for creation (as is evident by God continued graciousness and compassionate throughout Israel’s history). Second, is the incarnation itself where the second person of the Trinity stepped into human flesh and dwelt among humanity. Again, from the Gospel according to John: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14a, NIV). Jesus put on human skin and succumbed to human weakness and limitations. In essence, he humbled himself to relate and sympathize with our humanness. It is rather difficult to reason why Jesus Christ is Lord is one does not see the great love of the Father and the humility of the Son.
In Show Them Jesus: Teaching the Gospel to Kids, Jack Klumpenhower (2014) spends time emphasizing that the gospel is not merely about getting into the kingdom, but it is the means by which one engages as a kingdom citizen. Klumpenhower uses the idea of a “framework” (2014, p. 15) to describe the gospel’s effect throughout the life of a Christian. In computer terms, the gospel is not merely the boot up process to the Christian life, but the actual operating system that runs the Christian life. Klumpenhower (2014) adds an important point about the gospel: it is good news about what God has already done, not what you need to do to earn it. “The good news means you relate to God based on what Jesus has done for you, not what you’ve done to prove yourself worthy” (Klumpenhower, 2014, p. 17). The gospel declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord is good news that I am not Lord, nor that I have to be a perfect Jesus-like figure to earn my way to life in the resurrected order. I am wholly unworthy and yet God loved me anyway. Jesus Christ’s lordship calls for a lived response every minute of the day and not just a once-and-done prayer. The gospel is the Christian’s operating system for life in God’s kingdom amidst a fallen and broken world that needs to know that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Tim Keller (2009) in the Centrality of the Gospel warns of what he calls the two thieves of the gospel: moralism and relativism. Put another way, the two errors of the gospel can be called religion and irreligion. “On the one hand, moralism/religion stresses truth without grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, relativism/ irreligion stresses grace without truth, for it says that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us” (Keller, 2009). Moralism and religion seek to perform their way to God’s holiness instead of depend on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Relativism and irreligion seeks downplay the sinfulness of man and depend on themselves instead of God. According to Keller (2009), “they are both ways to avoid Jesus as Savior and keep control of their lives.”
In his book The Hole In Our Gospel, Richard Stearns (2009) reveals an important corrective to what has popularly been perceived as the goal of the gospel: heaven. “In our evangelistic efforts to make the good news accessible and simple to understand, we seem to have boiled it down to a kind of ‘fire insurance’ that one can buy…then, once the policy is in effect, the sinner can go back to whatever life he was living…we’ve got our ‘ticket’ to the next life” (p. 17). The hole in our gospel, as Stearns (2009) puts it, is Christians’ emphasis on getting people saved in order to get to heaven without much thought for what we are currently saved for here on earth. In other words, is the goal of the gospel a secured destination or an alternative and counter-cultural life here on earth as a subversive agent of God’s kingdom that proclaims: Jesus Christ is Lord?
In the 1950s, Joe Bayly used a narrative form called parables to critique popular Christianity of his day. Bayly (1983) is best known for his parable called The Gospel Blimp. It is a story of a collective group of Christians who had a wonderful idea of creating a blimp which would float around their city and display a trailing message on the back. The message was the gospel…or so they thought. The message that trailed behind the blimp as it traversed the city said: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Bayly, 1983, p. 4). An organization was created to manage donations and make decisions for the blimp. Additions such as loudspeaker were made for the blimp so someone could preach the Gospel from the blimp as well as dropping fire bombs with tracks inside of them onto people’s lawns. Bayly’s story humorously and adeptly highlights an important part in the transmission of the gospel proclamation: incarnational relationships. Trailing a sign or preaching from a floating blimp and littering tracks on someone’s lawn is not going to awaken someone’s need live in light of Jesus Christ being Lord. The irony in Bayly’s story of the gospel blimp was the very reason the idea came from for the blimp was because George’s neighbors were not Christians and they needed to be evangelized. Instead of relationally interacting with them like Jesus modeled in the incarnation, it was decided to float a large balloon over the neighbor’s heads until they thought the need to repent. It was not until George resigned from the board of the International Gospel Blimps, Inc. did he begin a relationship with his neighbors like what should have happened in the first place. Bayly’s (1983) last dig in the story is the Christians who ran the blimp’s organization are worried about George because he was spending time with non-Christians.
With a tacit awareness of the post-Christian culture high school students are growing up in as well as an articulated understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how does one engage in a praxis of sorts with students in an ecclesial setting?
Praxis: Engagement Strategies (of the Gospel of Jesus to Post-Christian High School Students) within an Ecclesial Setting
In light of the cultural pool of post-Christian high school students in Hayward, WI and an accurate, “in color” understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, how do we engage and pass on the faith as expressed in the Gospel? What are some effective engagement strategies worth considering? Are there any new practices that have not yet been considered amidst a post-Christian culture?
Alvin Reid (2013) offers a missional option as a best practice that engages both our current culture and the core message of the Gospel in As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students. According to Reid, missional means: “to see the world with the eyes of a missionary, to think like a missionary, and to relate to others as a missionary with a message of the Gospel… in short, life is ministry… make disciples as you go” (2013, p. 27). Reid seems to think that along the way of living life and with the eyes of a missionary God will bring people across our paths to minister to them “as you go” (2013, p. 27). This could be a great way of teaching the Gospel with high school students in Hayward, WI. In essence, engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ looks like honestly wrestling with the degradation of our current culture and seeking to participate in God’s redeeming work through the resurrected life of Jesus as sovereign king and Lord by engaging in pragmatic redeeming acts of renewal in the sphere of influence we are placed in.
Another best practice to engage post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ is mentoring relationships. In Life-Long Guides: The Role and Relationships of Natural Mentors in the Lives of Christian Adolescents, Lanker (2012) emphasizes the incredible impact that an adult has when interacting with a student in a non-programmatic setting. Natural mentoring provides two things for the adolescent: “guidance and sanctions of a parent [and] the listening ear and acceptance of a peer” (Lanker, 2012, p. 32). Natural mentoring often starts through the intentional attention of an adult with a student, an environment where students are serving and they meet other adults who are serving as well, or an adult asking a student out for one-to-one conversations. Mentoring seems like a rather practical strategy to engage students with the Gospel, no matter the particularities of their post-Christian, digital, adolescent world. Natural mentoring is simply something that is “always one-to-one, involved lots of listening…keep them accountable and to celebrate their successes” (Lanker, 2012, p. 36). Mentoring relationships have the potential to help students wrestle with their faith (the Gospel) in ways a lecture, a formal small group, or an Internet article could not. “In these unstructured environments students feel heard and receive the guidance they seek, often in the form of probing questions that help them to come to appropriate solutions” (Lanker, 2012, p. 41).
Closely related to natural mentoring is the need for students to engage the Gospel of Jesus Christ in an intergenerational community. Darwin Glassford and Lynn Barger-Elliot (2011) in Toward Intergenerational Ministry in a Post-Christian Era share that young people need “community, mentoring and fellowship across both the real and the fabricated generational lines” (p. 371). Adult relationships that can guide young people through questions and engagement with the Gospel are encountered where the generations are allowed to interact with one another. Glassford & Barger-Elliot (2011) bemoan the church’s current generationally fragmented environment. The authors argue for a faith-based (church) community to embrace the generations and allow them interact with each other because although it might seem like the current generation (post-Christian and iY) is much different than generations prior, many aspects of the human experience remain the same: “going to a new school, having a best friend move, unrequited love, getting bad grades, not being able to open a locker, feeling lonely in a cafeteria full of kids, not making the cut for a team or play, learning to drive, getting into your first car accident…” (Glassford & Barger-Elliot, 2011, p. 368). Therefore, a return to mixing the generations in a formative allows for natural mentoring to occur and shared experiences to be related.
Every Christian church practices liturgy. Some churches have an explicit liturgy, others have an implicit one. A youth ministry program also has liturgy—a specific way of doing things on a weekly basis that communicate the essence of what it wants to teach. Perhaps the explicit practice of Christian liturgy can help post-Christian high school students engage with the Gospel in an ecclesial setting. Nikolajsen (2014) shares that liturgical theologians “operate with four pillars in Christian liturgy, namely gathering, sermon, sacrament and sending” (p. 162). Gathering implies a pulling together of the renewed people of God who proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ no matter what age or financial status. “The Church is a social reality in which all social and cultural barriers are transcended” (Nikolajsen, 2014, p. 163). The gathering does not have to be on a specific day, but most churches convenes on a Sunday. The sermon in the liturgy helps orientate the gathered people of God in Christ toward a proper understanding of and engagement with the world. In essence, the sermon offers the Christian community God’s interpretation of current culture and the appropriate, narrative engagement with the culture. The third component of liturgy is the sacrament which offers two rather distinct aspects of the Christian life: 1) communion in the church is not merely an offering of the body and blood of Christ (although this is not meant to be dismissive), but more holistically understood to be “an expression of community, of caring and responsibility for others” (Nikolajsen, 2014, p. 164), and 2) the weekly reminder of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ which acknowledges “the reality of sin and [the] need for forgiveness” (p. 164). The final pillar of Christian liturgy is the sending, which communicates the activity of going out “into the world to serve others and to proclaim the good news to all of creation and to invite others to become part of the Christian church” (Nikolajsen, 2014, p. 164). Sending the church out reminds Christians that the Gospel is meant to be socially and economically engaged. Could an explicit liturgy help post-Christian high school students engage with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Taking a closer look at the sermon part of the Christian liturgy, Kenny Woodhull (2012), in the Art of Missional Parabling, wonders if there is a connection between relevant cultural engagement and the narrative stories of Jesus, particularly his parables. Woodhull notes that while high school students live in an era that proclaims the death of any metanarratives (most especially the Christian narrative), “it has done nothing to quell interest in stories and storying” (2012, p. 56). Woodhull’s research on using parable-like stories is compelling when it comes to engaging high school students with the Gospel: “the reawakened ear of the postmodern adolescent resonates with an artfully drawn narrative that respects teenage sensibilities and invites their participation” (2012, p. 158). According to Woodhull, when the Gospel narrative is presented in narrative form, even post-Christian, digital natives will bend their ear to a story and give it a hearing. Parabling, as offered by Woodhull, shows promise in acculturating high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Eric Venable (2009), in A Tale of Two Youth Workers: A Youth Ministry Fable, takes the idea of parabling and uses it to teach youth leaders about an alternative method to engage high school students with the Gospel. Venable weaves the story of a youth pastor named Wes who runs a large youth ministry and has a crisis of vocation when one of the popular students leaves his youth group for another. This is when Wes meets Brit, a veteran of youth ministry who seems more interested in discipling students than running a well-tuned youth ministry. Brit schools Wes on a method of engaging high school students with the Gospel through three sequential and linear steps: instigating questions that lead to doubt that leads to a crisis of faith. Brit shares that God (and especially Jesus in the Gospels) is always instigating questions in the narrative of Scripture, which forces his people to wonder (or doubt) what is going on and that leads to whether they want to believe or not (a crisis of faith). Venable (2009) uses Brit’s words to explain this engagement strategy: “When students doubt they actually own their faith. When they start to question and rethink what’s been told to them—I believe it’s a sign of ownership and individualization” (p. 88). Engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel just might require students questioning the narrative of the human condition so they can own the narrative of the Gospel.
Out in left field, Morgan Schmidt (2014), in Woo, offers an alternative theory of engagement. Schmidt (2014) highlights a fundamental need found in all human beings regardless of age or generational category: desire. What if “desire” was built into humanity and its only fulfillment was Jesus? If we believe the Gospel is true, that it is good news for all of humanity, then regardless of cultural limitations, like post-Christian, all high school students, somewhere deep down, have an unmet desire for the Lord. What would teaching centered around an awareness and a fulfillment of that desire look like? Can one truly be happy and fulfilled when playing out the narrative the world offers versus the narrative the Gospel offers?
The relevant literature surrounding engaging post-Christian high school students with the Gospel of Jesus Christ indicates that current American culture among high school is moving toward post-Christianity and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is in need of accurate definition. Additionally, practical means of engaging high school students with the centrality of the Christian faith (the Gospel) have abounded for years. The question remains: how do current post-Christian high school students best engage with the Gospel of Jesus Christ?