THEY DON’T KNOW WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
One of the great privileges I’ve had in the past ten years is guest teaching in classrooms, youth groups, and camps both near and far from home. During one of these camps, a friend from home called me and asked how my week was going. After sharing a few stories about the incredible students and volunteers I’d encountered, I blurted out, “these people are obsessed with ‘the blood.'”
My friend laughed, and asked, “What do you mean?”
“The band keeps singing about ‘the precious blood’ and ‘nothing but the blood’, and camp staff is praying about ‘the gift of the blood of Jesus,’ and I don’t think these kids have any idea what we’re talking about.”
After this conversation I couldn’t help but wonder if youth ministry and our churches need to reconsider how we talk about the death of Jesus with our young people.
NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD
The Bible was born in the Ancient Near East, a culture where blood and death were part of everyday life. Children were raised in families that owned livestock, food was prepared from the recent harvest or slaughter, and the life expectancy of all people was significantly lower than in our modern world. Nearly all religious systems and cults utilized the death of animals and blood sacrifice as an act of devotion to the divine and connected it with some sort of ritual cleansing.
It would have been nearly impossible for an individual to grow up without witnessing the accidental or intentional death of an animal, an encounter with a dead human body, and a tangible experience with the blood of animals as part of his or her religious consciousness.
Death was a part of life, and because death was an experienced reality, both life and death were respected and seen as connected.
The life that the majority of young people experience in the United States couldn’t be more removed from this reality. Our food comes from stores, our chicken breasts have been washed and the bones and skin have been removed, and “dead bodies” are shipped out of the basements of hospitals and sanitized by the funeral industry. Death and blood are images from games, TV shows, and movies, but not part of a tangible and concrete experience.
When we talk about the death of Jesus, blood sacrifice, and atonement, we have to recognize that our young people are almost entirely removed from the cultural context in which these images and metaphors were originally found helpful. Our modern and “urban” progress has removed us from the agrarian culture out of which the Bible was born – and therefore separated us from the once relevant metaphors used by the Biblical writers.
MISUNDERSTANDING WHAT THEY MISUNDERSTAND
In youth ministry many of us spend an enormous amount of energy explaining to young people that
“Jesus died for our sins,”
and then many of us find ourselves frustrated that our students
“don’t get it.”
So we keep talking about “Jesus” and we keep talking about “sins,” but it’s possible that the word in this sentence that is the most confusing to our students is the word
METAPHORS ABOUT METAPHORS
Have you ever tried to explain something to someone, and as you grasped for the right words or explanation, you asked, “Have you ever seen [insert movie title]?
And when the person says, “No,” you then attempt to explain the scene from the movie to them expecting that your explanation of the movie scene will somehow help them understand the thing you’re trying to explain to them in the first place?
You’ve never done that? Me either.
Except we all do this all the time.
When we talk about “the blood,” it’s like we’re using a movie that our students have never seen to try and explain to them something else about God and the universe. When we have to use metaphors to explain metaphors about something that is true, it might be time to find a new metaphor.
NOTHING BUT THE LIFE
I’m not (necessarily) advocating that we drop blood, death, and atonement language and metaphors from our vocabularies. However, I am advocating that we re-imagine how we might use these words, what we mean when we say them, and what we hope they might mean in the lives of our young people.
I love singing contemporary worship songs and old hymns, but if I’m honest, it’s often more for nostalgic and emotional value rather than lyrical content. And while singing the lyrics, “nothing but the blood” emphasizes a way of understanding the death of Jesus, by saying “nothing but,” we’re excluding much of what was emphasized throughout the history of credal Christianity.
But the lyrics,
“everything including the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus”
don’t sing quite as well.
These lyrics do, however, provide us with a broader theological pallet to draw from as we thinking about engaging our students.
And while death, in the broadest sense, may not be a part of the experienced consciousness of the modern teenager, I would argue that “life” is. Dropping the use of “the blood” as an outdated cultural metaphor meant to signify the cleansing souls from sin, and claiming it for the life of Jesus, the incarnation, is one way forward as we wrestle with this problem.
Our young people know about suffering, betrayal, and disappointment.
They know about loss and loneliness.
They’re experiencing life on a historically difficult level.
The idea that the God who made heaven and earth took on flesh and blood, and experienced all of the pain and suffering that life has to offer is exceptionally good news for all of us.
God knows how we feel.
God knows our pain.
We are not alone.
Real life is the place where the human and divine intersect in one shared experience. It is where redemption is experienced and accomplished. There are no metaphors necessary to explain this beautiful truth.
THIS SOUNDS (UN)BIBLICAL
To be clear, I’m a follower of Jesus and I’ve devoted most of my adult life to studying the Bible and helping explain it to young people. I believe in the historic, orthodox, and Christian faith, and I recognize the centrality of the death of Jesus to God’s plan to restore all things. However, I’m convinced that our churches need to reimagine how we talk about the gospel with young people – and as youth workers we can lead the way on this conversation.
So let’s stop using metaphors to explain metaphors, and let’s start imagining ways to talk about the good news that is rooted in cultural context that is experienced by our young people. Let’s talk about real life, and set ourselves free to consider every creative possibility we can conjure in order to point our young people to the mystery of God. In doing so we’ll find ourselves doing just what the apostles did when they contributed to the scriptures, which might be the most “biblical” thing we can do.
For the past 8 years, Matt Laidlaw has worked on staff at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI with Kids, Students, and Emerging Adults. He is a graduate of Kuyper College and Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and has lived and studied in the Middle East. Matt is a sports enthusiast, joke-teller, and food snob.