i write an every-other-issue back page column for youthwork magazine in the UK, trading months with the insightful leader of soul survivor, mike pilavachi. this is the third iteration of me writing a regular column for youthwork magazine. for a few years, i wrote a tiny column called “marko’s misconceptions.” after it must have appeared that i was the stupidest youth worker in the entire world, given the quantity of my misconceptions, the editor switched me to “postcards from marko,” which included youth ministry reflections from various places i was traveling to. but, in early 2011, we changed it again, to the current back page format. my column is called “Mark: My Words.” get it? ha! oh, those double meanings.
i love youthwork magazine, because — while it’s still a resource of thinking and ideas for me and my tribe — it has just enough “otherness” to provide me a perspective i likely wouldn’t always get from american youth ministry bloggers and writers.
anyhow, for my last column, which posted on the youthwork magazine site a couple weeks ago, i reflected on some recent learning from a sermon i preached for my church. it seems to have stuck a chord. a couple peeps from the youthwork mag staff have reached out to tell me it’s the favorite of the columns i’ve written for them over the last seven or eight years. and, in a first, i’ve gotten a couple emails and messages from readers across the pond, reflecting on the application for their own lives.
so… i share it with you here!
I preached in my church a couple of weeks ago, and was assigned a passage: 1 Corinthians 3. There were two strange aspects of this experience, both of which were good for me.
First, in the thousands of times I have spoken to groups of teenagers and youth workers – and occasionally preached to adults – I could count on one hand those that were based on an assigned Bible passage. Normally, I get to pick; and I pick stuff I’m passionate about, stuff I understand, and (if I’m really honest) stuff that I can make sound really good, so I’ll feel good about myself. Being asked to speak on an assigned passage took me out of my comfort zone – big time.
The second aspect that was strange to me was that I discovered that the primary teaching of Paul’s message in this passage isn’t really the message that I’d taught from it dozens of times before. That put me a bit off balance. Fortunately, I’ve found this the posture in which God does his best work on me.
1 Corinthians 3 starts with Paul’s classic words about needing to give the Corinthians milk, because they weren’t ready for meat, because they were infants in Christ. That face-value message has served me well for decades of speaking to teenagers: ‘You’ve got to grow up and own your faith!’ True. Good. Yes, that’s what Paul’s saying.
The handy thing about that message is that it’s not for me. That good and true message is for other people. Same could be said for the following paragraph, where Paul again blasts the Corinthian church for creating a ‘Paul camp’ and an ‘Apollos camp.’ Good. People, other people, those people, need to hear that. But as I sat with the passage in my off-balanced state, as I spent ten times as much time meditating, researching, reading and praying than I normally would, I started to see a deeper message in 1 Corinthians 3. And, ouch, it was a message for me!
The Corinthians were guilty of adding their own cultural values to the gospel, thinking they were improving it. As one of my friends put it, they thought they could keep their sandwich, wipe off a bit of the Zeus mayo, add a little Jesus sauce, and have a greatly improved sandwich.
Now I was in trouble. If the deeper truth of the passage is a confrontation about treating the gospel as Jesus sauce on top of the otherwise unchanged values of my life, I’m fooling myself if I think I’m improving anything. I’m not fortifying the gospel, I’m tainting it. I’m diluting it.
As an American, I’ve been steeped like a teabag in a value system of individualism, self-reliance, and the ‘human right’ of happiness. I spread a whole heap of Jesus sauce over that mess and convince myself I’m a Super-Christian. But that’s not the gospel, right?
When I look at my values through the lens of scripture, rather than looking at scripture through the lens of my values, I’m exposed. (Your cultural values might be slightly different, but they’re no less purveyors of subterfuge when it comes to the gospel.) And, as a youth worker, the next thought has to be ‘Uh-oh. How often must I be slinging travel packs of Jesus sauce to the teenagers in my midst, propping up cultural values and making them look “Christian-y”’? Ick.
I want my life to be formed by the otherness of Jesus more than the values of those who are, as Paul calls them, merely human. Wait – scratch that: I’m already formed by merely human values. So I need to be re-formed.
Only when I’m honest about and aware of the cultural values that seduce me, the ones that are so much a part of who I am, can I hope to resist them. Only when I’ve stopped, or at least started to stop, grabbing for the Jesus sauce to make my values seem good and nice, anointed even, only then can I hope to see clearly enough to stop handing out free samples of Jesus sauce to the youth in my church and community.