A month or two ago, I stumbled upon a televised version of the Acquire the Fire conference on some obscure Christian channel on cable. This was the conference that I attended every year as a high school student, the conference that deeply informed the way I understood and lived my faith.
I couldn’t believe it was on TV. I couldn’t believe I was sitting there, watching it.
In the opening segment, Ron Luce sits with a very young (and slightly starstruck) reporter. The President of Teen Mania Ministries has gained weight and his hair has grayed a bit at the top, but he’s still the same person I remember from all those years of Acquire the Fire conferences.
The theme of this year’s ATF is “Epic Truth.” The reporter asks Ron Luce questions about today’s youth, and Ron blames comedians and sitcoms for the rise of “new atheism” and then awkwardly injects Katy Perry into the conversation. “I know her parents well,” he says. Then he gives a little pitch for the Honor’s Academy: “It’s like Red Bull for your walk with God,” he says, and he flashes that white-toothed grin at the camera.
Red Bull. Epic Truth. Acquire. The. Fire. Big words. Charged words Fighting words.
I fast forward through the first speaker until I get to the skit being acted out on stage by Teen Mania interns. The skit, which will run through the entire conference, is about a new Christian kid named Travis who suddenly finds himself being “persecuted” by his former friends at school. “I am Travis, and my whole life has been leading up to this moment,” he narrates. “I have to be more than full of heart. I’ve got to be headstrong.”
The skit takes place in Travis’ brain, which we come to understand because the booth at the center of the stage is labeled Cortex. The character labeled “Conviction” has curly hair and rides around the stage on a Segway saying pompous things like, “I’ve been stirring in Travis for some time, and today is the day he’s going to do something about it.”
Off to stage right, two girls with bows in their hair play the part of “Free Will,” smacking nonexistent gum, speaking in tandem, and acting the parody of a ditzy cheerleader.
On the giant video screens flanking the stage, bits of the story unfold: we see Travis’s ex-friends creating a YouTube video, mocking Travis and his faith with a puppet show about how much Christians suck.
In Travis’ brain-skit, someone says, “I really want to transition into pride right now. I really want to flip some tables!”
The YouTube video sparks a school-hallway argument that escalates quickly until Travis is heard shouting, “SHUT YOUR LIE-HOLE, ALEX!!” (This is an actual quote. You can’t make this stuff up.)
Suddenly, an antagonistic teacher enters the scene, and the hall goes quiet. With pursed lips, she tells Travis and his ex-friends that they will settle their differences over a debate about whether Christianity is true. “You have one class period to polish,” she says haughtily to New-Christian Travis, who she clearly doesn’t like. “You’d better get to the library.”
“Definitely a liberal,” someone in Travis’ brain-skit mumbles.
One of my kids cries from upstairs in bed, and I stop the recording. By the time I get back down, I don’t have the heart to watch anymore. I meant to get far enough to hear what Ron Luce has to say to today’s youth, but I’ve heard enough.
Fifteen years later, it’s all exactly the same.
After my first book came out — that memoir, documenting my own somewhat toxic evangelical youth — people kept asking me, “What should we be doing different;y with our teens?” I always stood there, blinking at that question. I still don’t really know, and I’ve been around the whole thing long enough to know that there’s no formula. No exact equation.
Teen Mania’s approach has always tended toward the extreme end of the spectrum, but it does makes me worry about the messages we’re communicating to our youth still today.
Here are a three undercurrents that stuck out to me as I watched a little bit of Acquire the Fire this year — three things that I think we need to strike from youth group curriculum, conferences, and talks.
1. Your classmates/peers/friends/teachers are going to persecute you for your faith.
One of the recurrent themes in my Christian youth was the pressure to stay strong for God around peers and teachers who, I was told, would be antagonistic toward my beliefs. So many talks and sermons and rally-sessions wrapped tight around this topic, constricting my chest with the urgency of knowing how to accurately and compellingly disseminate the specifics of the Christian faith to others…even if they mocked me for it.
I spent the duration of junior high and high school braced against the entire student body, sure that they secretly mocked/hated/despised me. I wore Christian t-shirts like some kind of bullet-proof vest. I memorized all of the brilliant apologetic arguments in favor of Christianity in case any teacher or student ever cornered me in the hall and forced me to debate my faith.
But here’s the thing. No one ever did.
What actually happened is that I distanced myself from everyone who didn’t believe like I did. It wasn’t that they didn’t like me — it was that I had barred my arms in an eternal defensive pose, and no one could even get close. So after a while, they stopped trying.
I understand that there are places in the world where persecution exists. I know that, particularly in light of current events, it’s is not something to take lightly. But the American cultural climate, right now, is not violent toward Christians. We are not being beheaded, here, for our faith. And despite the popularity of Christian movies like God’s Not Dead, I’d argue that 99% of teachers are not in it to shatter students’ faith. And yes — kids can be cruel. But, in the land of first-world problems, it’s usually not about anything quite as noble as religious beliefs.
I’d love to see youth pastors and teachers who refuse to play into that “Us” and “Them” paradigm. Who encourage, instead, their students to understand that we are all so much the same. Complicated and quirky and broken and beloved. Afraid and brave. Tactless at some points, impossibly kind at others.
I’d love to see a more compassionate approach — toward both the Christian student and her friends. Listen, they might not understand your faith, and there’s a chance that confusion might come out sideways. But they are still the same person they always were. Instead of teaching our kids that Jesus is something that we have and they don’t, let’s teach them to look for the bright image of God in each person that crosses their paths.
2. Your friends’ salvation hinges on how well you can defend the Gospel.
In this stage of their faith, kids tend to ignore conflict and inconsistencies in their beliefs…simply because they’re not equipped, yet, to deal with those complexities. (See Fowler and Peck’s Stages of Spiritual Development.)
This is normal, and okay. It’s an essential stage of their faith development. But when we combine it with the urgent, heavy responsibility to witness to their friends and bring revival to their schools, we’re inadvertently creating an atmosphere in which cliches, trite answers, and Christian t-shirts pass for “evangelism.”
Let’s start by telling them this instead: You can’t save anyone.
Jesus is the Savior, and we are not. We might get to play some small role in the redemption narrative of someone else, but if we do, it won’t be because we’ve got the perfect defense or memorized the right Scriptures or read the right books.
Instead of teaching our youth group kids six different ways to explain “the Romans Road” to their friends, let’s take this time we have with them to show them Jesus. Let’s do it not so that they’ll have a perfect defense when someone asks about their faith…but simply because he is unfathomably beautiful, because his love is so deep that we cannot see the bottom.
Later, when they begin to grapple with the inconsistencies and the doubts and the hard things in their faith…it won’t be trite answers that see them through. It will be that single glimpse they’ve gotten of the beauty of God. It will be the muscle memory of having dived deep into something real. And if and when their friends question them about their faith, it won’t be about showing them a diagram. It will be about showing them Jesus.
3. You have to do something to make a difference for God.
Youth group kids are so often pulsing with possibility, wild with hope and optimism, immortal in their chests. They want to do BIG THINGS, and if they’ve grown up privileged and loved and safe, they might even still believe that they can.
It’s natural to want to tap into that desire — to show them that faith itself can be exciting and extraordinary and dangerous and beautiful.
But at the same time, what we don’t need is a bunch of kids hopped up on a kind of Red-Bull-faith — over-caffeinated and overtired and then, finally, crashing into the ground. I belonged to a generation of on fire kids who careened like fireworks through the dark world and then burned out. We don’t need that either.
The Christian walk is a long journey — so often mundane and difficult, putting one foot in front of another — seeing nothing, feeling nothing. And linking faith with extraordinary actions and extraordinary feelings makes it so much harder for us when we slam into the inevitable ordinary.
YES — let’s get excited with our kids about their dreams. Let’s encourage their passion and their hearts. But also, let’s make sure that underneath that, we are offering a steady drumbeat of timeless truth.
You can’t do anything to make God love you more.
You can’t do anything to make God love you less.
You are already enough.
God is already doing amazing things through you — even if it all feels hopelessly average.
I didn’t watch the rest of the Acquire the Fire conference. Who knows? Maybe Travis figured out that his teacher is just a woman with a husband who just said he’s leaving and two grown kids she has to tell somehow.
Maybe he’ll blink a couple of times and realize that Alex is still the same guy he used to hunt frogs with after school as a kid, and he’ll say, “I don’t want to debate faith today. Let’s go play basketball.”
Maybe he’ll learn that he does not, in fact, have to be “headstrong.” That all God ever wanted was his heart.
I doubt it. But maybe. And maybe if not him? Maybe the rest of them — the glowing, immortal kids sitting in youth group rooms all across the country. Loved by God . Loved by us.