It was a simple enough question, but it caught me off guard.
It was a Wednesday night, and I had been teaching on how Christ is Lord of our lives. I was attempting to explain how, as the 100% human but 100% divine Son of God, Jesus was able to pay for our lives with his death on the cross, meaning that we are now his. We’ve been bought, and he is our new master. Admittedly, I wasn’t doing the greatest job of explaining all this. There were some pretty heavy concepts at play, and even though I had Romans sitting open in front of me, I was still struggling to find the right words. It was then that one of the group asked: “Hey, all this theology is great, but what’s the application?”
What’s the application?
I don’t know if I flinched visibly, but internally, I was a little agitated. I found myself thinking, “The eternal Son of God died for you, and you want some neat and tidy moral? Really?”
Collecting myself, I answered the question by explaining that having Christ as Lord of your life means learning to see the world differently and seeking to carry out His will in all things (no matter how unpleasant or counter-cultural), but the question stuck with me. In fact, it gnawed at me for the rest of the night, and it’s still gnawing at me nearly a week later. The question itself was not bad; it was an innocent question asked by a youth trying to make sense of a difficult topic and understand God’s role in her life. It’s the implications of that question. It’s the larger mentality that the question suggests.
What’s the application?
One of the more disturbing trends in the Church today (especially in America and especially in youth ministry) is the feeling that every sermon or lesson or retreat needs to have some sort of pithy life application grafted onto it– as if it were up to us to make God relevant. We act like it’s not enough just to worship Jesus or spend time in God’s Word; we have to get some little nugget of life advice out of it too. Life advice isn’t bad of course, but if we take this approach all the time, Christianity starts to become about improving our own lives rather than adding to God’s Kingdom, and that’s a complete reversal of our call.
We could easily cast blame on our self-help culture for this distortion. Sure, Dr. Phil, Eat, Pray, Love and Rick Warren’s twitter account haven’t really helped us look outside ourselves, but they’re not the root cause of this overwhelming focus on the self. There’s a name for the inability to look beyond your own life and circumstances; some might call it egocentrism, but in the Bible it’s called sin, and it’s all over the place in our culture. Even in the church, we fall victim to it. Rather than looking beyond ourselves to God, we seek to know how all this stuff about God applies to us. That is our default setting as fallen people: to look in instead of up.
I’d like to propose an alternative, and I realize that a little mental reprogramming on our part may be required:
My friend Ed Adams used to say that you need to “take ‘em to the cross” in every sermon. Rather than ending a lesson with a pithy saying or piece of advice (as we’ve conditioned our youth to expect), Ed believed that our time together as Christians should always bring us to the feet of Christ as he hung there on a tree, dying on our behalf. That is the application: allowing the knowledge that Christ died for you to reshape your understanding of the world, viewing all things and all people through the lens of a boundless love that was poured out on a cross 2,000 years ago.
We all lose sight of this from time to time (often in the name of cultural relevance). I’ll admit that my last few series with the youth have definitely involved catchy themes and cherry-picked verses to fit around a popular topic, and that question the other night showed me that this style of teaching won’t cut it anymore. If we’re going to make lifelong disciples with this group, we have to change our thinking from the mainstream. The primary focus must be on Christ, not the application du jour.
Starting in the fall, our youth group is swearing off topical studies. No more units on popular issues. No more obligatory studies on dating and peer pressure; those topics will surely come up on their own. Instead, we’re going to dive headfirst into Scripture with every lesson and trust the Holy Spirit to show us what the application is (if there even needs to be one). My hope is that two years spent directly in the Word will reshape our view of the world and lead our group to more Christ-centered lives.
So, what’s the application? Apply Christ to every situation and place our trust in him alone. That’s what we’re hoping to do together as our youth continue to learn and grow beyond themselves into mature faith.
Grace and Peace,