Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a guy who does campus ministry at the University of Delaware (Blue Hens for Christ). One thing we briefly talked about was how we do “membership” in our campus ministries. When does someone become a member of the Christian community on campus as opposed to just showing up? What is expected of members, if anything? We agreed that if you ask for little commitment, you get little commitment but if you ask for big commitment, you get big commitment.
In other words, young people (though, probably all people) want to be part of something that matters. They are willing to give a lot of time and energy if they are on board with the mission.
The problem is that, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, American teenagers tend to view religion as a “Very Nice Thing“. Kenda Creasy Dean says that this means they see religion as “beneficial, even pleasant, but it does not ask much of them or even concern them greatly, and as far as they can tell it wields very little influence in their lives” (Almost Christian, 33). We ask little more than assent and compliance, so why should we be surprised when do not get get conviction and passion?
Dean goes on: “If teenagers lack an articulate faith, maybe it is because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation. Maybe teenagers’ inability to talk about religion is not because the church inspires a faith too deep for words, but because the God-story that we tell is too vapid to merit more than a superficial vocabulary” (36).
Being nice is boring. Everybody likes a nice person, but no one will follow a nice person to the ends of the earth.
Part of the problem with settling for niceness is that when religious dialogue happens, being nice reduces all religions to being basically the same. True interfaith dialogue preserves the identity of the other person or group, recognizing the real disagreements that exist. Being nice glosses over it all to superficially pretend we are all the same.
From this, Dean contrasts niceness with Christian teaching on hospitality and compassion, saying, “God sends me to strangers in the name of Jesus Christ, who calls me to recognize God’s image in them and, because we share divine parentage, to acknowledge them – in all their glorious strangeness – as my brothers and sisters” (33).
The questions are of identity (who am I?) and otherness (who are you?). True, self-sacrificial love of the other cannot happen if we do not allow them to be different from us. The exciting, invigorating thing about Christian faith is not that Jesus said, “I’m okay and you’re okay so let’s be nice and play checkers together” but rather that Jesus said, “you’re a mess so I will love you and die for you to make you whole again”. Or as Dean puts it:
Imitating Christ makes people lay down their wallets, their reputations, their lives for the sake of others, which is why parents rightly fear it for their children. The cult of nice is so much safer; God is friendly and predictable, offering little and asking less. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism does not ask people to lay down their lives for anyone, because niceness does not go that far. Love goes that far – and true love is neither nice nor safe (40).
I can’t help but be reminded of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when the children first hear about Aslan in Narnia. Hearing of a great lion frightens them, so they ask if he is safe. The response from the Beavers is that of course he is not safe, but he is good.
People did not follow Jesus because he was a nice guy. Ask your average college student today about Jesus and they may even admit that he seems like a pretty nice guy. But people follow Jesus when they catch the vision: the world is a mess and God is putting it back together; God can put you together through Jesus Christ and you can join God in the mission of putting the world back together!
I end with a quote from Mere Christianity by Lewis that Dean opened the chapter with: “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world and might even be more difficult to save“.