One summer, aged 13, I went to a camp. It was made for serious young Christians like me. We were encouraged to "get real with God", to be "sold out for Jesus", to "get on fire". When the preacher asked us to "make a decision for Jesus", I couldn’t have been more eager. I prayed a prayer of commitment on the spot. Even at the time I remember thinking it was a little strange. I mean, I’d prayed hundreds of times before and of course I wanted Jesus to be Lord of my life, I’d told him so often. But the preacher seemed to think that praying those things, in his words, that night was all important. So I did. And nothing happened.
I prayed again. Maybe I didn’t say the words right, maybe I didn’t properly mean it. Again, nothing.
When I returned from camp, I made it my practice to give my life to God at least once a day. My model was the Bible story that haunted my teenage years: the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). There, the night before the crucifixion, Jesus prayed the most epic prayer of commitment. He was on his face before God, offering up his life in anguish and unquestioned obedience: "Not my will, but yours be done."
I made up my mind to do what Jesus did. I would even go to similar locations late at night. I’d volunteer to walk the dog and enter a forest near our house. In a clearing, I’d make my offering, face pressed into the dirt: "God, take me. Use me. Fill me. Guide me. Your will be done."
By the time I had prayed my thousandth prayer of commitment, I was done with God. I’d been knocking on heaven’s door for years, but he wasn’t answering. I concluded that either no one was home or, if God was there, he was hiding behind the couch, hoping I’d go away. So I did.
When I left home, aged 18, I left my faith behind. I remember thinking: "Even if there is a hell for deserters like me, it couldn’t be worse than the slavery of the last decade."
I was the youth group’s keenest kid. But my hatred for God, which surfaced aged 18, had been simmering away throughout my teenage years. Ironically, the most damaging messages for me came from the youth work that was most ‘passionate’, most ‘engaging’ and most ‘inspirational’. Precisely because such passions, engagement and inspiration were ‘medieval’, they could only produce a medieval teenager. My thinking and practice was scarily like that of ‘dark ages’ Christianity. Let me explain.
If you lived in Europe during the 16th century, you were a Christian. Those were the rules! Everyone grew up in a ‘Christian’ home. Your whole world was Christian. You went to church - by law! - and you submitted, by default, to what the Church taught. Mostly, you couldn’t understand what they taught. For starters, you probably couldn’t read and, even if you could, the services were mostly in Latin, which you probably couldn’t understand. The sermon would outline the way of salvation, which was basically: "You are a dreadful sinner under God’s judgement. But don’t despair, God has given us the Church, which has a special system to help you get to heaven. Through good deeds, rituals, prayers, confessions, pilgrimages and so on, you can pay off your sins and earn your way with God."
Similar to my teenage theology, this message turned a whole society in on itself to contemplate "How am I doing? How am I progressing in the system?" But something happened 500 years ago which changed all that. That something was Martin Luther.
A Frustrated Monk
Luther was a man buried deep in the system. He was an Augustinian monk who later admitted: "I wearied myself greatly for almost 15 years with the daily sacrifice, tortured myself with fastings, vigils, prayers and other very rigorous works. I earnestly thought to acquire righteousness by my works."
In 1510, Luther went on a pilgrimage to Rome and joined the crowds to climb a marble staircase called the Scala Sancta, the ‘holy stairs’. Pilgrims flocked to this sacred site to climb each step, repeating the Lord’s Prayer on every one. The most devout would climb on their knees and kiss the stairs as they went. That, of course, was how Luther did it. When he got to the top, he cried: "Who knows whether this is true?"
Who knows? This is the cry of the religious when they have done all they can. I have never climbed the Scala Sancta, but I know how Luther felt. My teenage years were an attempt to ascend towards God, and I was never sure if it had worked.
In a society where few had access to the scriptures, Luther was not simply a student of the Bible, but in 1512 he became a teacher, lecturing at Wittenberg University in Germany. Increasingly, though, his studies made him uneasy with the Church’s teachings.
The flashpoint came in 1517, when Luther’s developing convictions led him to oppose the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. An indulgence was a letter with the Pope’s own seal that promised the forgiveness of sins for a price. Luther was outraged. He hadn’t fully come to his own spiritual breakthrough, but he knew enough to see that this was crass money-making, turning God’s mercy into a cheap commodity.
On 31st October 1517, Luther compiled a list of things that were wrong with indulgences and the pope’s authority to forgive sins. The list ran to 95 points, often called The 95 Theses. He posted it in a public space: the Wittenberg church door (think medieval Pinterest). It got picked up by a printer and distributed far and wide. Almost overnight, Luther became a household name. It was only intended for a few hundred people, but suddenly it went viral (think Buzzfeed linking to your Facebook post).
Luther was instantly set on a collision course with the Roman Catholic authorities. By 1521, Luther was excommunicated - kicked out - of the Church. At this point, with his life in danger, he went into hiding and began translating the Bible into German, the language of the people. In one of his earliest books,
The freedom of a Christian, Luther explained the essence of the Reformation. Here, according to the Bible, is how Christianity really works. We are like a "poor, wicked harlot". Jesus, on the other hand, is a "rich and divine bridegroom", and he marries us so that "all his is mine and all mine is his". Out of sheer mercy, our bridegroom takes our debts - our sins - and pays them all off on the cross. With almighty love he rises again to give us his riches - his righteousness - and it’s all a free gift.
"Will we tell our children to ascend higher through their devotion and obedience? If so, our message will be slavery, creating either robots or rebels"
We cannot climb the holy stairs to work our way towards God. But the gospel is that Christ has come down and embraced us. He’s done it all. With this message, Luther was released from his religious slavery.
My personal reformation
I was 21 when God saved me from my religious slavery and medieval mindset. A friend took me to a Bible study. It had been a long time since I’d opened the scriptures, but as soon as the leader announced the text, I knew the story. "That’s Gethsemane," I said. "I’m not sure I can handle this." The leader asked why. Eventually I told him I didn’t think I could meet the challenge of praying like Jesus.
The leader asked a question that Luther would have been proud of: "Glen, do you think you’re Jesus?" I dared not respond! The leader continued: "You are not Jesus. In this story, you are Peter. And what’s Peter doing?" I knew the answer instantly and, as I processed the implications, I had a reformation of my own: Peter was sleeping, he was useless, he had talked a big game and then failed utterly. And Jesus prayed for him. The whole story was screaming out: It’s not about your life given for Jesus. It’s about his life given for you. That’s the heart of the gospel - the heart of the Reformation.
"I was the youth group’s keenest kid. But my hatred for God had been simmering away throughout my teenage years"
Some have distilled the reformation’s teaching to five truths:
Christ alone: Salvation is not a joint effort. Jesus has done everything to save us. It’s all him.
Grace alone: Jesus doesn’t save us because of what we are like, but because of what he is like: utterly merciful.
Faith alone: We do not and cannot pay for the gift of Jesus with any goodness of our own. We simply receive him.
Scripture alone: Our supreme authority is not the pope or Church authorities. To learn these great truths we just need the Bible.
God’s glory alone: All credit goes to the one who does it. And through Christ, God does it all.
These five ‘alone’ statements of the Reformation birthed a revolution. Five hundred years on, the revolution continues, not simply in history but in our hearts and in the hearts of our children and young people. Yet, this leaves us with a question. If we want to see transformation in our day, what kind of message will we proclaim?
Will we preach the ‘holy stairs’, constantly telling our children and young people to ascend higher through their devotion and obedience? If so, we are medieval children and youth workers, and our message will be slavery, creating either robots or rebels. But if we’re gripped by the gospel that brings true liberation, we will return to the scriptures alone, to see Christ alone, given by God’s grace alone, received by mere faith alone - and to God be all the glory.
To watch Glen perform a spoken word piece about his personal reformation, visit speaklife.org.uk/igavemylife.
YCW’s 9.5 Theses
Martin Luther composed 95 debating points and posted them in a public space. We have compiled 9.5 core elements of youth and children’s ministry, and are posting them in this semi-public niche publication:
- A youth social is incomplete unless there is pizza
- No day trip is quite as fun as filling in a detailed risk assessment
- Starting a youth or children’s session without a large cup of coffee is ill-advised
- Godly Play is your friend
- Young people will only ask questions about parts of the Bible you are completely clueless on
- No children’s worker is complete without playdough, tissue paper and PVA glue
- You will need at least three spare changes of clothes if you want to partake in youth group games and have a rational conversation with a parent afterwards
- Little people can teach us a lot about worship
- A bowling ball hurts if someone throws it at you
- Never expect to finish a sente…