I was at a Steubenville Conference this past summer when something interesting happened. Following the Eucharistic Procession after the Saturday night keynote, the host for the weekend challenged the teenagers to make a stand and give their lives to Jesus Christ. He was challenging the teens to conversion – a significant change of heart.
The host led an exercise in “free praise” in which he challenged the teens to stand up and vocalize a prayer out loud to Jesus. In front of 1600 teens, this is not easy for a teenager to do. The results were interesting. Many teens stood up and – very loudly – vocalized their prayers to God. They were courageous, willing to stand out from their peers for the sake of love of Christ. They were decisive in that they wanted – in that moment – to give something more to Christ than they had given before. In a word, for some teens, there was a decision for conversion – a change of heart.
Then the rest of the crowd, following the energy of the first teens to stand up, turned. Many more teens stood up, but what happened was less encouraging.
Following the Crowd
Instead of more teens expressing their prayers to God, there were chants and hollers that followed. Entire youth groups attending the conference began chanting, “JE-SUS” or “woop, woop, Je-sus” or even “Viva Espana” (this group had traveled all the way from Spain). Youth leaders joined in and chants got more excessive.
Finally, the exercise deteriorated into the famous, “We love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how bout you?” This chant is common at youth gatherings and it always makes me cringe a little.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus.
I also believe the teens and youth leaders had genuine enthusiasm and a desire to express that enthusiasm in that moment. But the invitation of the conference host was to give their life to Jesus, which is an extremely intimate and personal invitation. I really doubt that the people who were wooping, hollering and chanting were responding intimately to Christ’s invitation of faith.
What is Love?
I’ve seen entire stadiums of teens chanting back and forth about their love for Jesus. Thousands and thousands of teens screaming, “We love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how bout you?” I never believe any of them. Mother Theresa loved Jesus. The twelve apostles loved Jesus. Mary the Mother of God, loved Jesus.
The love of Jesus changes a person’s life and it changes the lives of everyone around them. How did Jesus change the world? Jesus didn’t need thousands of people professing their love for Him. He just needed twelve. The apostles, empowered with the Holy Spirit, changed the world. The apostles, upon meeting Christ, made a decision to give up everything to follow Him. They were then educated by Him, they found their identity in Him and they were empowered by Him to spread the Gospel. It all started with the encounter and a conversion – a firm decision to say “yes” to Christ.
Making Good Use of Enthusiasm
I think enthusiasm can be a powerful tool to foster conversion. But too often, I see teens and youth leaders staying on the surface of enthusiasm and not following it to conversion. It’s almost like some people would rather be cheerleaders than saints. Every time I attend a major conference, there is a lot of cheering and silly behavior. I will say that my youth group is seldom the most enthusiastic group in any room.
But when there is time for prayer, my teens always know how to enter in and meet Jesus in prayer. Enthusiasm is not the goal. Conversion is the goal. As a youth minister, when I see a teenager become enthusiastic, the temptation can be to encourage the enthusiasm. After a few years of working with teens, I have come to believe that we need to do just the opposite.
Turning Passion into Roots
Enthusiasm is fruit of an encounter with Christ.
It does not need to be encouraged because it develops naturally from the invitation that Christ gives all of us. As youth leaders, the challenge is to look past the emotion and help the teenager make firmly rooted decisions to follow Christ and articulate prayer to Him. We must teach them to respond to His invitation. As youth ministers, it is our job to help a teen navigate the emotions to find their individual decision to follow Christ. Otherwise, they stay in their emotions and never get to their intellect and will. Emotions come and go, but decisions made with the intellect and will are lasting.
In the next blog of the four part series, I will critically evaluate and discuss teaching the prayer of praise – which I believe to be foundational in learning how to respond to God’s invitation and dive deeper in relationship with Him.