Thursday, August 26, 2004

On preaching Jesus as cool...

"In the beginning," writes Jenee Osterheld of the The Kansas City Star "Jesus was an outcast, misunderstood and punished for it. Those days are over."

"Walk through any mall, flip on the television or turn on your radio, and you'll see that Jesus is cool.....Jesus is becoming a pop-culture icon and inspiring mainstream movies, music and, most noticeably, fashion. He is on T-shirts, messenger bags, wristbands, license plates, notebooks, stickers, bobbleheads and even ashtrays."

Problematic? I think you can go too far with Neil Postman's perspective, but there is enough truth here to think about. His book was about television.

"The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: 'You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.'

"You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader - from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther - who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is 'user friendly.' It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.

"I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether." (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Viking, pg. 121)

And so? Well, frankly, I have found that when speaking to youth, for instance, they are able to see through this "Jesus is cool" thing sooner, certainly later. When I have preached the cross, the challenge, the denial, the willingness to go anywhere, do anything, give everything - they respond. And their response sticks. My "Jesus is cool" messages rarely helped them to "stick."

My youth pastor came up to me the other day and quoted Mike Yaconelli. He said that the creator of Youth Specialities (the premier youth organization in the country) was preaching at YS events late in his life concerning the utter failure of the typical youth approach. Making Jesus user-friendly with professional workers, better games, sleeker technology and more kids involved than ever before wasn't working. Repeat - wasn't working! Their values were no different than the values of pagan kids, and most of them didn't stick with the commitments their youth directors thought they possessed.

We needed a new model, Yaconelli confessed.

So Jon, our youth guy, says this is the program from now on: Youth will no longer meet together on Sunday evenings like we have been. From now on they meet with adult groups on Sunday evening. Twice a month they will get together in groups of 2-3 with an adult to eat, go over a Bible study and go serve the poor or aged in our community. Once a month, for a big fun event, one of our adult groups will sponsor that good time and show up to have it with them.

But the emphasis for our youth is no longer on "cool" or spending an inordinate amount of church time with each other. The emphasis now is on Bible study, service, accountability, and very limited "cool good times." All of this, with mature Christians.

Now I don't know if this will solve a single "cool" problem or not. But it is a step in the right direction, we feel.

Because cool is not a biblical word. Holy, is.


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