Peace, Not Panic: Part 1

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“Panic I leave with you; My anxiety I give to you. I give to you as the world gives. By all means, let your hearts be troubled.”

This, of course, is not the actual quote from Christ. The promise of Christ was one of peace. Yet how many believers (and particularly pastors) today are easier to spot for our panic over the latest catastrophes – whether moral, political, or spiritual – than for our peace?

Our tendency towards doom and gloom is not unique to Christianity. We live in a culture obsessed with the latest catastrophe. That obsession is the focus of a recent article titled Why Catastrophising is My Idea of a Good Time in which author Lionel Shriver attempts to explain our culture’s odd obsession and why it is ultimately a fruitless endeavor.

In explaining this fixation, Shriver speaks to the idea that our own impending death lends itself to a constant focus on destruction. “For all us pre-dead people, catastrophising is a form of projection.” Given our current cultural climate, there are ample opportunities to feed our desire. Whether it’s in the form of a natural disaster, racial division, political debates over nuclear war, etc.; there is no end. Our daily news, in the words of Shriver, is a sort of catastrophe smorgasbord.

That endless selection of catastrophes is not only found in daily headlines. Those who serve within the world of student ministry are familiar with our own unique smorgasbord of catastrophes that we routinely reference in an attempt to both relate to teens and to communicate a proper sense of urgency in all we teach.

For some in student ministry, the focus might be upon the latest tragedy in the public spotlight. For others, the focus will be on the latest problematic pop-culture message in a Netflix series or in the latest offering from Snapchat. In those cases, the catastrophe cited is the sinful message popularized in culture and the destruction those messages might bring to unsuspecting teens. For many others, the most commonly referenced is the tried and true catastrophe of premarital sex: the activity that is presented by many as the unpardonable sin, assumed to be the root cause of all teen problems.

Many of us in youth ministry can, perhaps, remember scoffing at our own youth pastors when they spoke of the catastrophes they saw in youth culture in a manner that sounded hollow and a bit dramatic. We laughed when they used outdated references or misquoted a song, and we naturally assumed that their disgust over our latest pop-culture craze was a bit of an exaggeration. Yet as we witness similar catastrophes today in the lives of our own students, how many of us feel pulled to address them in the exact same manner? Like the youth pastors that came before us, and like those who will likely come after, all of us can quickly take up the long held tradition of catastrophizing.

But why this obsession?

According to Shriver, the general public’s obsession with catastrophe is ultimately tied to an understanding of our own mortality. We obsess with disaster, it seems, because we are in some way always looking ahead to our own death. A similar argument might explain the catastrophizing we see in student ministry. We obsess over the disasters we witness in teen culture because we know they represent a much greater looming threat. Unlike the threat of mere death, the judgment we see hanging over the heads of our students is one of eternal importance.

We know that this judgment is, in fact, coming. This knowledge undoubtedly plays at least a small part in our catastrophizing. Yet if we listen a bit more closely to ourselves as we lament these tragedies we might also find a different and darker source of motivation – one of fear.

The reason we so often fear the catastrophes around us is because we doubt the certainty of salvation promised by grace alone through faith alone. When we allow even a sliver of that uncertainty regarding the finality of Christ’s work, we will inevitably be overly fearful of the influence of cultural catastrophes in the lives of the students we serve, and in our own lives as well. Because of that blend of biblical knowledge and unbiblical fears, the endless supply of teen catastrophes have the ability to both sadden and terrify us, as we consider the danger they present to the students we love and serve. In our terror, we are compelled to decry the latest trend. We wrongly assume that if we can just convince our students to share in our practice of catastrophizing rather than a practice of beholding Christ, then surely their salvation might remain intact. In the process, though, our simplistic message of panic actually works against the promise we have in the gospel.

Sin is, by all means, destructive and it is right to be concerned for the impact any one of these catastrophes can have on the life of a student. Sin is also deceptive and this means that we must be careful to alert our vulnerable students to the catastrophes we observe all around them, even if our alert may only result in eye rolling. Still, just as Shriver describes in her article, if our concern over catastrophes becomes an obsession that characterizes every lesson, our message will prove to be unhelpful, misguided, and contrary to the promised peace of Christ.

If we are to hope that our ministries and our students are marked by that peace, then we must learn to acknowledge our own tendency towards catastrophising, understanding its misguided assumptions, and work consistently to preach a message of peace rather than panic. To that end, it is perhaps helpful to further explore Shriver’s own critique of catastrophising and see what we might glean as student ministers.

Check the blog tomorrow for Part 2 of “Peace, Not Panic”

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