The Unimportance of Being “Cool”
In a recent meeting for our upcoming Summer mission trip, I found myself hesitant to announce that girls were required to wear a one-piece bathing suit, a rule which in the eyes of a teenage girl is essentially a sentence to lifelong chastity. I feel strongly about the “modest is hottest” policy on co-ed trips, so I was surprised by my initial reluctance to enforce this rule. It didn’t take long to realize that I was hesitant simply because I knew it was an “uncool” move to make as a Youth Minister. I hated hearing the groans and protests that followed my announcement so much so that I almost went back on my own rule. My mind raced, desperately hoping to maintain my students’ approval. I thought to myself: If I allow two-piece bathing suits, then they’ll like me more, right?
My first year of Youth Ministry has been all about building relationships with my students. As I’ve grown in both the quantity of students I know and the quality of our relationships, I’ve realized how I, a sinner wired to chase after my own glory rather than Jesus’, have longed for them to think of me as “cool” or “likeable.” Turns out my Middle School days were not the last time I’ve cared so much about what a thirteen-year-old thought of me!
There is a lot to be said about the razor-thin line youth ministers toe between friend and role model. It is one I see myself navigating throughout my entire ministry career. Yet, one aspect of this strange dichotomy has been made abundantly clear to me in this first year: we must abandon our need to be “cool” for the sake of promoting the beauty and truth of Jesus Christ. In this abandonment, we recognize that the only approval we need is freely given to us through the work of Christ.
While it might not hurt to listen to the new Taylor Swift album or attempt to understand the intricacies of SnapChat so that we might relate with our students, striving after the “cool factor” will ultimately dim their vision of Jesus. If what we long for our students to know is the lifelong joy and peace that is found in following Christ, then we must allow His truths to far outweigh their opinions of us. Regardless of how “cool” they find their Youth Minister, a relationship with the everlasting God is the greatest gift our students can know.
But how do we abandon our sinful desires for our student’s approval? How do we tune out the lies that the success of our ministries is based on their opinions of us? The answer, of course, is found in Christ’s ultimate and eternal approval of his beloved children. When we allow our desperate need to be “cool” to dominate our ministries, we not only do a disservice to the gospel, but we ourselves forget that the only opinion we need is that of Jesus Christ, who lovingly looks upon us with favor despite our constant shortcomings. I may not win my female students’ approval when I crush their dreams of sporting their new two-piece on our mission trip, but I always have The Lord’s – won for me through Christ.
When we experience the true and everlasting favor of Jesus, we are then freed to love and serve our students solely for the sake of the gospel. As Paul reminds us in 2nd Corinthians 4:7, we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. Our “cool points” are being stored in jars of clay – ready to be shattered at any moment, reminding us to hand all glory over to God. This relinquishing of our quest for approval is what Tim Keller refers to as the “freedom of self-forgetfulness,” a freedom that emerges when we are fixated on neither criticism nor flattery, but on our identity as beloved children of God.
Keller recognizes that as humans, “we are all looking for an ultimate verdict that we are important and valuable,” a truth that I myself am obviously guilty of with my students. The good news is that because of Christ, “the verdict comes before the performance.” On the cross, Christ took on the verdict of judgment and guilt so that we may forever share in His status as beloved sons and daughters with whom He is well pleased (Matthew 3:17). When this changes our hearts, we are then moved to share such good news with our students as faithful witnesses to the gospel. To quote Keller again, the verdict now leads to the performance. When our worries about approval are behind us, Christ moves to His rightful place as the centerpiece of our ministries.
God’s constant and eternal approval of us based on the work of Christ is a beautiful reminder to those of us who wish they cared less about how high schoolers perceive them. The verdict that “the only person whose opinion counts looks at [us] and finds [us] more valuable than all the jewels in the earth,” allows us to love and serve our students for the sake of Christ’s kingdom rather than our own.
In Christ, we are freed from staking our identities in the pride that comes when students deem us as “cool,” as well as the condemnation when we inevitably fail to please them. God gets the glory, we get the peace of knowing His favor with us is unable to be shaken or removed, even by the most unpopular of bathing suit requirements.