The Church and the Ringmaster

The Hunger Games and Jesus. I’ll bet you didn’t know they have a lot in common.

Fortunately, being a follower of Jesus does not require us to scramble over landmines or massacre one another in order to be the last one standing. (Although an outside observer might fairly think the latter is true sometimes.)

It does require us to examine our world, specifically our Christian world, and take notice when it begins to look more like Panem than like the kingdom of God. It wouldn’t be the first time Jesus’ followers confused the two. But that confusion is one of the things driving the next generation away from the church en masse.

In John 6, Jesus feeds a few thousand people. They like it. And then, he disappears, and they go out in search of the miracle man.

They find him on the other side of the lake and ask, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, you want to be with me because I fed you, not because you understood the miraculous signs. But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval.”

They reply, “We want to perform God’s works, too. What should we do?”

Jesus answers them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.”
They answered, “Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do?”
(John 6.25-30)

Feed us, Jesus. Entertain us, Jesus. Let us do cool stuff too, Jesus. They just don’t get it, do they?

Preach it, sister. (Said while I drop my kids at the laser light pizza youth group party and go to my video Bible study on how to have financial comfort.)

The world of Hunger Games is built on a Roman saying, panem et circenses, which literally translates: “bread and circuses.” The hearers of Jesus knew this phrase. It was how the Romans kept their people content. Give then enough bread to eat and enough entertainment, and they won’t cause trouble. They’ll be complacent citizens who don’t really care what else we do.

It worked.

The people chasing Jesus across the lake wanted bread and circuses. They didn’t want the hard things he would say later about what it meant to follow him and the sacrifices it would require. They wanted entertainment and easy eats. When they didn’t get it, they found another show somewhere else.

Their desires have translated well to a brave new church world.

“Manufacturing experiences and meticulously controlling staged environments (has) become the means for advancing Christ’s mission. And the role of the pastor, once imagined as a shepherd tending a flock, now conjures images of a circus ringmaster shouting, ‘Come one, come all, to the greatest show on earth!’ We’ve come to believe that transformation is attained through external experiences. And many churches have engineered their ministries to manufacture these experiences for crowds of religious consumers. Ascending the mountain every Sunday morning, millions of Christians want to have an experience with God, and this is precisely what churches promise. (Attendees) feel ‘pumped up,’ ‘fed,’ or ‘on fire for the Lord.’ Like caged animals, Consumer Christians lose the ability to do what they were designed by God to do — have a vibrant, self-generating relationship with Christ.” (Skye Jethani)

Unfortunately, younger generations of Christians are tired of bread and circuses. They see the plot holes in the script. They’ve gone behind the curtain and found the old man pulling levers and blowing smoke. They are not impressed.

Nor should they be.

If what we give our young people in church is bread and circuses, it should not surprise us that, when they age out of their highly orchestrated youth group, they turn to other forms of entertainment that are inevitably better and more mature. It’s what we’ve prepared them for.

We have not prepared them for a Jesus who says, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” What are they supposed to do with that? Like the people on Galilee’s beach, they turn away for another show.

Except for the ones who stay, straining for “the One who has the words that give eternal life.” Less and less, they hear those words in the clamor of the circus, so they strike out on their own, seeking an authentic encounter with God that does not rely on Rome for its translation.

Do we want to continue to do faith with the next generation? Then we need to examine how much we have become like Panem. We need to turn the circus animals loose and close the tent flaps. We need to apologize for offering milk when they had the teeth for meat. We need to invite them into the conversation about what church should look like among people who follow Jesus for the story rather than the show.

And we need to dare to make it look that way. Even if people walk away back to the other side of the lake.

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