I discovered Jesus as a thirteen-year-old watching Jesus Christ Superstar.
Most pastors and theologians I know would suggest that was a bad beginning. It seemed to take, though, as I’m still following Him some years later. You just never know which way that Holy Spirit wind is going to blow, do you?
I didn’t know the answer to the question the singers kept asking—Who are you, anyway, Jesus? Watching him die on a cross there on late night TV, I suddenly wanted to. I sincerely, desperately wanted to know who that was who would do such a mind-boggling, soul-searing thing. Because Sunday-school born and bred or not, I knew what he was doing, and I knew it was for me. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do about it.
The culture that created that stage play and movie—my culture—was asking some macro and micro-cosmic questions. Who do you say you are? Who do others say you are? Do you agree with them? Really, they were asking, Are you still relevant? Do you still mean anything? Is who you are still important to anyone here and now?
The answer was yes.
The answer is still yes.
Always, and eternally, yes.
But we have to know which Jesus we mean. Which Jesus is the conversation about? Which Jesus are we allowing to die on that cross and speak truth into our 21st century skeptical existence?
The next generation wants Jesus. I truly believe this.
There is a hunger in the world for a hero. For someone who is better than we are, who is powerful enough to make things better, who offers a transcendence we crave but hardly hope to believe in.
We didn’t make a new Star Wars for nothing. It’s one, limited answer to a hunger pang we can’t satisfy.
Make no mistake—young people who are wary of God-talk don’t want Jesus as we have portrayed him all too often. They don’t want sanitized Jesus. They don’t want white American Jesus. They don’t want Jesus-lite. I am convinced, though, that when people say they don’t want Jesus at all, more often than not they don’t know who Jesus is. More often than not, it’s because we’ve presented the wrong Jesus.
So what if we found out who the real Jesus is? What if we asked the real Jesus to stand up? What if, in response to all the young people leaving the church because they don’t believe in what we’re teaching anymore, we offered a Jesus they could love? A Jesus they could trust? A Jesus that did not look like us? A untamable Jesus who both loves and speaks truth with relentless purpose? Or as N. T. Wright posits, “We might discover if we really looked a more disturbing, more urgent genius than we ever imagined.”
That Jesus they could believe in, perhaps.
“Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with such scum?'” (Matthew 9:1-11).
“Sinners loves Jesus. They literally follow Jesus everywhere. They pursued him from town to town. He spent days with them, meaning their friends, eating meals in their homes, accepting their guests, and embracing the children. They were suspended in disbelief and encountered someone who understood truth and beauty, healing and restoration, righteousness, justice, mercy, and grace—and he genuinely loved them. Jesus didn’t just act differently: he thought differently. He saw people differently.” (Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians)
If we want to tell the next generation about Jesus, we need to get our story straight. The Jesus of Scripture is the hero they seek, but not because he can make America great again (or would ever want to). He is that hero because he upended the way we look at one another and demanded we see as he sees.
To tell the next generation about Jesus, we need to strip away all that we have added to Jesus and assumed about Jesus and attributed to Jesus and just Look. At. Jesus. It may not sound exciting. Not as rewarding as Five Easy Steps to Better Whatever. But I think we know better.
Jill Richardson is the pastor of Real Hope Community Church near Chicago. She is the author of six books and a national speaker, as well as a contributor to books from Dayspring, Lillenas, and Christianity Today. Jill’s doctorate in "Church Leadership in a Changing Context" is helping her with her passion—passing on a healthy, creative church and doing it with the next generation. She is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul), and Washington University. Her focus is on church leadership, creative preaching, immigration and refugees, women’s issues, and intergenerational leadership. She has an unnatural love for Middle-earth, chocolate marzipan, old musicals, fish tacos, oceans, cats, and Earl Grey. She believes in Jesus, grace, restoration, kindness, justice, and the Cubs. You can find her work at jillmrichardson.com.