Boromir wanted it to be about him, he wanted to be the main character, the great king, the one entrusted with the ring. If you’re not following Boromir was the character Sean Beam played in the Lord of the Rings movies (or at least one of them). He was the future placeholder king of the kingdom of Gondor and like his father he believed he was destined for real greatness. Boromir joined the fellowship of the ring to stop the evil Sauron but he quickly found himself jealous of Frodo who was entrusted with The One Ring. Eventually Boromir tries to take the ring from Frodo and become the central character before repenting of his self glorifying ways and taking his place in someone else’s story. In the movies he dies almost immediately afterwards, but in the books he eventually redeems himself by committing to protect and ultimately sacrificing himself for two characters he had previously seen as beneath himself (literally). Many American Bible readers are modern Boromirs, they make the Bible a book about how they can be their best selves. They take a great story of salvation from a terrifying enemy and they try to make themselves into the central character, the hero of the story. We shouldn’t be shocked to much by this, adult Christians today were raised in children’s ministries that made the feeding of the 5,000 a story of a boy who shared and they went to youth ministries that called God their co-pilot. Even the Christian kids shows they grew up on told them how important they were each week. The problem is we were meant to be Boromir in the Two Towers not Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring.
The past few months I have released a few blog posts related to how we see a surprising doctrinal error in the default American Evangelical approach to Next Gen ministry. This blog is the final in my short series. John Piper famously has outlined six keys to detecting the prosperity gospel:
- The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering, the absence of a doctrine of suffering.
- The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial is a tip off that something is amiss.
- The absence of serious exposition of Scripture.
- The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture.
- Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles.
- A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God.
Previously, we looked at the first six keys outlined by Piper and today we will look at the final one and consider some Biblical solutions.
The final key to identifying the prosperity gospel according to John Piper is somewhat of a capstone point that can encompasses the other five, so in some ways if you want to see how our children and youth ministries have promoted this aspect of the prosperity gospel the first two articles of our series fully demonstrate it. Several years ago David Michael was hired by Bethlehem Baptist Church and asked to instill a children’s curriculum with as much of a focus on the glory of God as John Piper’s preaching. Pastor Michael after great effort found that nearly all of the curriculums available focused far more on moral lessons that centered the Bible on man rather than the great story of salvation in Jesus. David and his wife Sally decided to rent a dumpster to get rid of the man centered stuff they were teaching and start writing a new God centered kids curriculum that stopped promoting self and started showing the greatness of God. In the years since Children Desiring God first came into existence several other God centered curriculums have been released but far more moralistic man centered ones continue to be created every year.
Youth ministry can be equally guilty of this type of error. A hugely popular Christian musician wrote a decent bit about the influence of his youth ministry on his adult life. The great takeaway this man got from his youth group is when you get a dream don’t let anyone ever doubt it or stand in your way. This kind of attitude though pretty normal on MTV or Instagram is frankly selfish. An overemphasis on human potential and a focus more on how we can do great things for God than how God did great things for us can be par for the course in youth ministry. This was certainly exemplified in the failed purity movement of the early 2000’s. Even if that movement I have written about before made promises of doing great things for God instead of self like the self-help books, the writer of Ecclesiastes speaks strongly against such things because they try to make ourselves the main character rather than God.
Should we throw the baby out with the bath water? Is there any hope for next gen ministries or should we give it all up lest we teach a harmful doctrine? Some have indeed responded to all of this by cutting away everything the local church does apart from the worship service but I think next gen ministries can make much of God and outpour from the true Gospel. Many healthy churches throughout the world have shown there is a remedy for this approach to youth and children’s ministry but that remedy must be patient and absolutely needs to define success by faithfulness. We live in a “what have you done for me lately?” world but churches and parents that desire to reject the prosperity gospel dangers must start seeking long term future transformation. If we want the biggest crowds now or the least bored sons and daughters now, the soft prosperity gospel will always take the cake. Next gen ministries and parents with a high view of God seek fruit that they may not see for ten thousand years, fruit that they can only be confident will come if parents and pastors trust God’s word.
A far better approach to next gen ministries is one that neither makes the youth leader or even the teens themselves the hero of the story but rather realizes we have the Boromir task to point to the real hero who we sadly to often regard as less glorious. You never cure a sickness by inducing states opposites of the symptoms but by sending antiviruses and antibiotics into the system that will destroy the pathogens or at least hinder the bad growth. You need to find the underlying issue and send in something better to get rid of it. As every good Sunday School kid would say, the answer is Jesus. Martin Luther dealt with an early form of the prosperity gospel that he called a theology of glory and his solution to this problem was always a theology of the cross; a theology of God doing great things in weakness but more than that a theology of the constant centrality of Christ. Sovereign Grace Music has a great kids song called “All About Jesus” that I encourage kids to belt out; this song and just that term give us our fix. We need youth and children’s ministries that make much of Jesus and never much of ourselves. We need to use each of our opportunities with kids and teens to simultaneously enamor them only with His grace and call them to humbly take our undeserved role in pushing His story forward. This All About Jesus God Centered approach doesn’t just repeat the four spiritual laws each week but glories in God’s revelation of His son in all of scripture. A Christ centered next generation ministry carefully studies both Obadiah and Romans to see truths of God’s great story in each. If a next gen ministry takes this Christ centered approach, we won’t see certain attractions or certain styles of leaders as right or wrong but frankly pretty insignificant like Boromir had to realize of himself. Far more important is that our ministries make much of Jesus and the leaders be people that walk closely with Jesus no matter what they are like.
You might think this seems to simple. You might react, “sure we tell our teens about Jesus and ask them WWJD, but this isn’t going to keep their interest, this isn’t going to attract them; we need some way to reach our young people, we need some hutzpah, some power.” I agree with you in this case, we need power. Fortunately, the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1 the Gospel is the very power of God to save souls. The gospel isn’t powerful with the right attractions and personality and it isn’t a power of God, it is THE unadulterated power of God by itself. Exciting music might pack concert halls, promises of fun might sell tickets to Hershey Park, and cool personalities get you YouTube subscribers. None of these can bring someone from death to life, none of our strategies are capable of this. Only the Gospel can do the spiritual act of changing our kids and teens from the inside out. Let’s apply the antidote of the Gospel to all of our worldly thoughts that a prosperity gospel even in it’s most faint version is needed in next generation ministry.