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WORLDVIEW: A faith that ‘looks like Jesus’

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–I might as well admit it: Teens get on my nerves.

The way they act. The way they dress. The way they talk. The way they drive. The “music” they listen to.

Did I mention the way they drive?

You name it — if it’s teen-related, I’ve got a rant for you. As a recovering teen (I’m about 30 years into recovery at this point), I get especially irritated at anything a teen says or does that reminds me of what I used to say and do. As a teen my sheer obnoxiousness drove my father, now deceased, to the brink of insanity.

“Just wait until you have kids,” Dad would mutter through clenched teeth, with a hint of a smile. “Your day is coming.”

My day has come. I now have two teens living in my house 24/7. They are far more rational, mature and well-behaved than I was at their age –- at least so far -– but they have their moments. If Dad is watching, he must be enjoying this.

Even I have to acknowledge, however, that teens are the most important “people group” in our society. Yes, fellow baby boomers, even more important than all 80 million of us — what a concept. Teens (and 20-somethings, their older brothers and sisters) represent not only the future but the present. Without their energy, their vitality and their willing participation, American Christianity will hurtle toward irrelevance.

Will they join the family of faith? Will they stay in it, if they grew up there? Those questions are pondered with urgency these days by parents like me, who want to see their kids follow Jesus Christ for life in an age of 10-second attention spans, conditional commitments and moral chaos.

To be honest, I admire many of today’s teens. Growing up now is, if anything, even more confusing than the famously anarchic ’60s and ’70s. But I see plenty of young people bravely searching for truth, authentic relationships and hands-on ways to serve others.

They need our encouragement — in deeds, not just words. They have no use for hypocrisy. There’s nothing worse than looking into your kids’ eyes when they see your actions (or inaction) fall short of your ideals. Being and doing are one to the believers of their generation. They agree with the apostle James, who said, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

Sadly, many young Americans inside and outside the church express negative impressions of Christianity. In research for his new book “unChristian,” David Kinnaman, president of The Barna Group, found that many 16- to 29-year-olds view Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, “old-fashioned” and “too involved in politics.” Up to half of churchgoers in the same age range agreed with those perceptions. One of the most frequent comments among respondents was: “Christianity in today’s society no longer looks like Jesus.”

Yet the same research reveals that even non-Christian teens and young adults have some positive perceptions of Christianity and churches. The typical respondent has five Christian friends. Most respondents have attended a church for at least six months in the past. Five out of 10 have seriously considered becoming Christians.

These formative years “are ripe with spiritual possibilities” for young people, Kinnaman said. “Helping them connect with God, learn about their faith and serve others in a loving and relational environment are their top desires from a church. Keep in mind that young people are not spiritually transformed merely by attending a church, knowing a few Bible stories or being friends with the youth pastor. It takes addressing teens on a much deeper, personal level –- such as developing their intellect and vocational passions as well as cultivating their curiosity for the complexities of life.”

That’s why the church needs to provide constant opportunities for teens and young adults to apply what they learn, to turn their faith into action –- particularly during the years when they are making crucial decisions about life direction. It might be something as close as ministering to needy people within walking distance of their home. Or it might be something as far away as working side by side with international missionaries through the “Fusion” program. Established at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2005, Fusion is now a partnership initiative with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board to inspire students to continue following Christ after high school and to pursue missions.

Fusion offers high school graduates, ages 18-24, missions experience for undergraduate college credit. Phase 1 involves classroom study and training designed to develop personal discipline and leadership skills. Phase 2 puts a Fusion team on an international mission field, where they work with missionaries in projects ranging from prayerwalking and evangelism to human needs and community development.

Fusion was created to help young Christians develop spiritual maturity, life direction and a lifetime passion for reaching the world for Christ, program founder Scott Brawner recently told Baptist Press.

“We lose so many students after high school,” Brawner said. “Some leaders say as many as 80 percent of our Christian kids abandon their faith after high school. Fusion can help change these numbers. Data compiled on Fusion graduates shows these young adults not only take personal responsibility for their faith, but become catalysts for evangelism and ministry while in college and beyond.”

Check out Fusion at gofusion.ws. In a related effort to raise up a new generation of missionaries, the International Mission Board is launching “Hands On” pilot projects in sub-Saharan Africa in January 2008 to give 18- to 29-year-olds experience in overseas missions. The Hands On Initiative (hands-on-africa.com) will expand to other regions of the world in 2009.

Before they become disillusioned with passive faith, distracted by the world or committed to college loans and career pursuit, encourage the young people you know to consider participating in ministries such as these.

It just might give them a life-changing taste of the kind of Christianity that “looks like Jesus.”
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. Listen to an audio version of this column here.

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  • Erich Bridges