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Does Jesus have an image problem with teens?

Many catholics are concerned that teenagers and young adults are not embracing their faith. They want to encourage their children, as their parents did, to have an intimate relationship with God. But many also question which image of Jesus they should present - not all are as palatable to young people as others.

Like the old saying goes, you attract more bees with honey than vinegar. Adults want to show young people how Jesus cares for them, how a commitment to him fosters a sense of fulfillment, how God has a sense of humor. Life in Christ is joyful - even fun at times.

However, following Christ also involves serious challenges. He insists that people face their shortcomings and improve. His challenge demands tough, lifelong vigilance against inhumanity and selfishness.

Does emphasizing this dimension scare young people off? Adults fear portraying Jesus as dour and deadly serious. Nor do they want to draw a portrait of Jesus sporting rose-colored glasses.

Such questions about balancing the images of Jesus are common among those who minister to youths. For instance in Faith, Culture and the Worshiping Community (Pastoral Press, 1993), Michael Warren critiques youth retreats, but I think his assessment applies to youth ministry overall. He writes:

The youth retreat movement ... has been presenting to youth, pretty much unchallenged, a middle-class Jesus, a Jesus of comfort representing God's personal love for the individual youth, the assuager of adolescent anxieties, the giver of the Jesus hug. What is missing is the Jesus who confronted social, including political, structures, and paid for it with his life.... Jesus who exposed injustice in his day and who was dangerous, like the Guatemalan catechists, is dismissable, while the Jesus of the personal hug is indispensable.

What I find missing in this characterization is the proposition that a loving relationship with God is not merely a warm and fuzzy phenomenon. I acknowledge I have read only the above excerpt from Warren's book, and I imagine he does not mean to suggest that the only available images of Jesus are the personal hugger or the social agitator.

However, this particular either-or schema is typical of those I have read or discussed with others in catechesis and youth and campus ministry.

Many youth workers see problems when one image or the other receives an exclusive focus or overemphasis. But it bothers me that even when these images are balanced, other conceptions of Jesus may remain neglected.

I am thinking particularly of Jesus as one who guides individuals' lives and calls them to hard, personal change: repentance, spiritual growth, and development of character.

This dimension of a relationship with Jesus finds expression in a simple aphorism I heard in a Catholic charismatic setting when I was a teen: "Jesus loves me just the way I am, but he loves me too much to let me stay this way."

Using Saint Paul's image of each Christian as a "temple of God" (1 Cor. 3:16), we can picture Jesus striding into our inner selves as he did when he overturned the ungodly trappings in the Jerusalem temple.

This image of Jesus cleansing the personal temple occurred to a young friend of mine undergoing a significant period of personal evaluation. He had a sobering sense of Jesus entering his "temple" and observing his sinful tendencies. He imagined the Lord hurling objects and ordering, "Get this junk out of here!"

A strong, difficult image? Yes. But my friend knew that Jesus' zealous love cleansed his heart.

Like all of us, teens and young adults need to ponder this dimension of taking their faith seriously. The image of Jesus as merely a comforter may not spur growth or change. But Jesus as the dangerous agitator may also limit growth if the danger is only external - the "structures out there" or the "people in power."

The personal "danger" that Jesus represents seems to have dawned on the writer Tobias Wolff while he was in high school. In his memoir, This Boy's Life (Harper & Row, 1990), he recalls a priest who tried fostering repentance in him for a crime he had perpetrated without remorse,. The priest asked what he wanted from life, and Wolff recalled answering:

I knew the answer to this question . . . money, a certain array of merchandise [and] at any price, the world's esteem.... I had no words for any of this, or for my understanding that to accept Father Karl's hope of redemption I would have to give up my own.

The image of Jesus as someone who calls for such profound change presents dangers to the adults who share this vision as well as to the young people they hope will accept it. The young may want nothing to do with a Jesus who seems to threaten to snatch away the very sense of self and future hopes that they are just beginning to form.

I have seen this play itself out in a youth group, which I helped moderate. The leader gave what I thought was a stirring and inspiring talk to the high school students about the tough but noble ideal of giving all to Jesus - giving him his proper place in the driver's seat of life and embarking on an adventure of acquiring more Christlike characteristics.

Instead of drawing them closer to Jesus, it just about scattered this flock of young people out of our reach. We discovered that the talk seemed so stark and radical that it either elicited nervous inadequacy or defensive resentment. Thanks to grace and the resiliency of youth, most of them came back, and the group stayed active - with a bit less aggressiveness on our part.

As any group of people might do, the youth may welcome, ignore; or repudiate the Jesus who intends to cleanse the personal temple in loving determination. Knowing there are good and bad ways to do. so, adults can present to young people the Jesus who puts forth his gospel as principles for character and action.

At a crucial period in formation - adolescence through early adulthood - young people can discover what Jesus has to do with their unique thoughts, desires, attitudes, choices, relationships, and behavior.

The image of Jesus as a personal friend does not have to lead young people into an individualistic, complacent piety. One way to avoid this pitfall is to uphold Jesus' power, to direct us in weeding out our vices and cultivating our virtues.

These images help fill the spectrum between the Jesus of warm hugs and the Jesus of heated protest. But whatever mix of images we employ, Catholic adults must also pray for themselves to find the grace to give,young people a complete picture of who Jesus is and what his place is in their lives.

Charles Wood, a freelance writer involved in ministry to teens and young adults in South Bend, Indiana.
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Title Annotation:Jesus Christ
Author:Wood, Charles
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 1995
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