Authentic Jesus people
There is a real pressure upon youth workers to be cutting edge, to do something new and compete against the vast array of young people’s entrainment that is out there. I remember when first starting doing youth work in 1999, there was a constant comparison between what we did and what was seen elsewhere in the world – in the media, on TV, in music, games consoles and so on. Each week we felt we had to match the other exciting things that were around.
It was exhausting and I don’t think things have got any easier. The fact is that everything else that draws young people’s attention has a far larger budget, far more time and is far more appealing, although often shallow in content.
So do we try to compete with what is out there? Do we give in? Do we give up?
I would argue no. There might be other things fighting for young people’s attention, but they’re only shallow, superficial and short-lived. Jesus gave a culturally relevant message, but it wasn’t relevant in the way we might do our youth work. Jesus didn’t need the plasma screens and newest clothes to be relevant, because the good news is relevant to any time and any people. Jesus’ relevance came through relationship and life lived.
What young people need more than entertainment is authentic people, authentic friendships and authentic discipleship. Young people are yearning for something real in a digital age. Despite the glitz and performance of celebrity culture, they’re looking for stable authentic life.
The good news is relevant because it’s about Jesus being hope, mercy and grace in all places, cultures and times. Young people don’t need us to be cutting edge in terms of their culture, but authentic in their world – an approach that is cutting edge compared to that culture.
The gospel as Jesus presents it is an antidote to the drive for ‘cool’ and our human desire for hip, or relevance in entertainment terms. I wonder if we need to sacrifices being known for the best youth ministry in order to hang back and be the people God needs us to be, the antidote to cool… authentic.
My youth worker recently spoke of a major breakthrough one day when she bumped into a young person in the corner shop. She was wearing her morning scruffs with slippers. The young person suddenly connected with her because of the real, raw and normal moment. No make up, not done up, bed hair, she’d just gone out for some milk.
Our young people want to be able to relate to us but not in a ‘you have to be cool’ or ‘you have to have a cool venue’ kind of way. Young people are looking for us to be real, normal and honest. They are looking for authentic and relevant. Not relevant in fashion terms but in life terms. They want us to show how the gospel really is good news, even in their world. Jesus doesn’t need to have an image change, wearing converse and shades to connect. Jesus connects because the gospel is just true.
The truth is that authentic is relevant. It is the most relevant we can be. The premise of every culture and subculture you meet in youth work is about identity. Identity is about who you are, who you’re not and how you show that. Every subculture forms identity based on fear vs security. So for us to be authentic is the most prophetic, therefore the most relevant, thing.
It declares and demonstrates that there is an identity over and above those that young people seek to align themselves with. It is our identity in Christ which is what shines through most clearly when we are authentic. If we’re cool, that’s merely coincidental.
The Revd Cris Rogers is Rector of All Hallows Bow and been involved with youth work for over 15 years. Follow him on Twitter: @rabbirogers.