I have been discipling teenagers in one way or another pretty much weekly since 2003 or so. And now, I have children old enough to be in our youth group. I write this as a way of communicating how deeply invested I am in seeing teenagers living their faith in authentic, dynamic ways. And while there are a lot who do, there many who don't. More than ever, I find myself asking why. I've thought about it, and I believe the main reason students don't live as powerfully as they could can be boiled down to one simple concept . . .
I think in the current culture our students are growing up in, image rules in a way it has never before. And I believe this is so ingrained, many teenagers don't even realize it. It's simply second nature. Obsession with how they portray themselves is a current that runs through most of their daily thoughts and actions. And while this has long been true in some degree, the ultra-connective, social media fueled lifestyle of the smartphone generation has multiplied the image obsession to a level that is almost comical. If you spend time looking for this in teenagers, you'll realize that much of the time they engage in image control on the level of a professional PR firm!
Because it feels like the stakes are too high if they don't. Word (and images) travels fast via text messages and Instagram. Many students don't seem to want to offend, or seem like they're holding an opinion outside what would be considered mainstream or "normal." Which is a pretty big barrier to living a bold faith life. After all, people who live impassioned lives for Christ can make others uncomfortable.
Living as a Christ-follower is image shattering. When teenagers identify strongly with Christ, they can be easily painted as small-minded or narrowly-focused. Having convictions and holding to them just isn't that cool. But here's the deal . . .
Like all Christ-followers, our students are called to live their lives in radical submission to God, regardless of how this sets them against their culture.
This isn't new information to us. But it's good to be reminded of it. Think of the people in Scripture who stood up against the tide of culture, sacrificing their image to do so . . . all for the sake of God.
- Isaiah walked around nude for three years.
- Ezekiel made a spectacle of himself in public.
- Daniel risked everything for the sake of holiness.
- Hosea married a prostitute.
- John the Baptist lived in the desert and ate bugs.
- The Disciples went against every norm of their day's leading religious culture.
- Paul subjected himself to beating and ridicule, making himself an enemy of his own people.
- Peter sacrificed religious tradition to be obedient to God's call to include Gentiles in the faith family.
ALL of these people sacrificed image, i.e., what others thought about them, because God had called them to serve Him with their lives. They did so without regard for how they looked to the world around them. And all of them had an amazing impact for the Kingdom.
I want to challenge you to consider having this discussion with your students, as I am doing with mine (and with my daughters):
Do you care more about your image, about what others think of you, than you do about living your life on mission for God?
My hunch is that if they are honest, while some may not, many do care more about their image than they care about making a difference for God. Some of this is probably an inherent part of their life stage. But part of it is a real barrier you can play a role in helping them overcome.
Image should never stand in the way of living a dynamic life for Christ.