I had a very earnest and serious young man who I have come to love very much from another faith community come out to our Youth Nite last night.  Our youth are not like most suburban youth groups.  They are mostly highly at-risk kids from the inner city who we have been working with for several years.  Many of them are delinquents with juvie records.  I often have to confiscate weapons from them before I let them on the van.  Some of them are a half a step away from jumping into gangs.  Almost all of them are just a whisper away from pregnant or impregnating someone. They live in homes with parents who deal drugs out of their houses and are hard-core gang members. Many of them drop to the ground when a car backfires just like combat veterans do.  They live in homes with addicted single moms who have random men over and they have to put furniture in front of their bedroom doors to keep those men from assaulting them.  And a few of them don’t regularly have homes to live in it all.  We have runaways and walk-aways.  We have petty thieves and taggers.  Trying to hold back the culture of their environments is like trying to hold back the sea.  They fill their heads with hip-hop music and sing the words in the church van until I yell at them and tell them to knock it off.  The words they sing without even thinking about it are revolting.  And those words become a part of their ethos.  We reach some for the Kingdom.  We lose some to jail.  And some of them will not live to see 18. We own four grave plots because we know that we will bury some of these kids and their parents will not be able to afford a decent burial. And we also have young people from relative affluence and stability that we do not separate from these kids.

The very sincere and earnest young man who visited us last night grew up and lives in the suburbs in a very affluent neighborhood.  He generally attends a youth group at the local mega-church.  The kids in that youth group are, for the most part, serious about their faith. The majority of them are being raised in two-parent faith-based homes with enough money to more than make ends meet. This young man has attended one of our Bible studies and has volunteered at our food pantry.  And when he spoke to me last night, he was very upset.  He was very disillusioned.  He was offended.  The source of that disillusioning and offense was that one of our leaders had used the word “hell” and another had referenced the word for Balaam’s beast of burden that is sometimes also used to refer to a person’s posterior anatomy.  The young man said, “I don’t know if I can be a part of this. You curse.”  Whoa.

He went on to say, “I don’t understand that. I mean, is it a sin to use foul language or isn’t it?”  I was there, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember any foul words being said. When I think of foul language, I envision some really foul language. It took me a minute to realize what words he was actually talking about. Hell and the word for a donkey.  They are in the Bible, after all.  I truly love and respect this young man, and I could palpably feel his anxiety over this apparent breach of sound Christian doctrine and belief.  I didn’t really know what to say.  I am not in the habit of making excuses.  I can’t outright say that using those words inappropriately will get you ahead in life. I don’t think that cursing is a good thing.  Jesus himself said, “It isn’t what goes into your mouth that defiles you.  It’s what comes out of it that does.”  I don’t advocate a Gospel of bad words. And, at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel very sad for this young man and for those that are learning faith in large numbers in his faith community.  The young man was more upset that our leaders used mildly colorful language – very mild considering what comes out of my group’s mouth most of the time – than he was that if “Christian” people do not reach out and risk hearing some bad words and get committed to kids like these, then many of these kids will be lost to crime, drugs, pregnancy, and bullets.  While the young man’s youth group is filled with kids who look like him and talk like him and are in the same socio-economic bracket as him and their greatest concern is which college they will get into, my greatest concern is whether or not the kids I work with will even live to adulthood.

Like I said, I don’t make excuses.  I don’t have time for excuses.  I am just not cut from fine cloth.  I have tattoos.  I learned to speak from sergeants for whom cursing was raised to an art form.  And I became a sergeant for whom cursing was an art form.  I have been to dark places. I almost didn’t go into church ministry because to this day I am deftly afraid that some language from my past that I have worked hard to overcome will crawl up out of my psyche in an impassioned sermon, and I will drop the F-bomb right there from the pulpit in front of God and everyone who signs my paycheck.  I have bad dreams about that.  I am a victim of God’s grace and a work in progress.  I am no choirboy and I am no one to try and bully.  And I am badly flawed. And making excuses about that does no one any good.  It just wastes time that I cannot afford to waste.  Being offended is simply not a privilege that my ministry has ever afforded me.

I don’t make excuses for our leaders either.  Our leaders are not choirboys or girls any more than I am.  They are former gang members who have found a better way and are doing everything in their power to rescue these kids from the choices that they made in their own pasts.  Some are former addicts who, through a God-given miracle, have left their addictions behind and are taking food off their children’s table to make this youth group even possible.  They are not perfect and never will be.  But they have laid down their lives and large parts of their livelihood to speak truth to these kids and be present in their lives. They would take a bullet for another parent’s child. Would you?  They have run straight into hell to reach these kids.  Is their language perfect? Nope. Would I get in their face? Nope. And that is not my greatest concern by any means.  If your child was in trouble and on the street, these would be the people who would come to their aid at any hour at the risk of their own lives.  They have done exactly that more times than I can tell you. Are they Christ-followers? You bet.  In the most real and visceral of ways.

In the moment last night, I felt very sad for us and for this young man who is such a wonderful young man and a treasure to my Master.  I told him that he should not try to model his life on me or on my ministry.  He should try to model his life and his ministry on Jesus and his ministry the same way that I do…and yet come up short doing.  I told him that if it weren’t for the very grace of God, I would have no hope at all.  I didn’t get into an argument with him.  What good would that do?  I told him not to mistake me for a choirboy or a righteous man.  And I told him not to mistake me for my Lord and Savior. I am none of those.  I am a sinner in need for forgiveness. And I am a very poor excuse for a holy man.

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel very sad that all he walked away from last night was a deep sense of offense about a couple of mild “curse” words that are found in the Bible.  I am sad because he missed the fact that those words are not nearly as offensive as greed, and drug dealing, and rape, and murder, and assault, and abuse, and addiction, and spiritual cowardice, and abandonment, and all of the horrors that these kids are daily exposed to in their own homes…if they even have homes. We have two kids who will be in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives because they were shot with bullets bought with drug money made selling dope to rich “Christian” kids in suburban high schools.  THAT is offensive to me.  The offense that these realities represent did not seem to offend him at all.  He missed the fact that none of his youth leaders who taught him that it is an offense against God to use even the most mildly colorful vernacular gives a rip about these kids…not enough of one to reach into their lives and risk being offended. Apparently, his youth leaders live their lives as if kids like these kids don’t even exist. Not one of his youth leaders has ever even had a conversation with a gang member or an IV drug user or a 16-year-old prostitute without the safety of at least a set of bars between them.  To me, THAT is highly offensive.  I am afraid that this bright, inquisitive, and wonderful young man will go back to the shelter of his clean-mouthed youth group and lilly-white life feeling self-justified, and will never again leave that shelter to reach a truly lost soul for the Kingdom. Pardon me, but what the hell are we teaching these kids who have been given so much and have so much to give? What kind of “Christians” are we making, for crying out loud?




  1. Les Said:

    Preach it…I think Jesus would have dropped the F-bomb if it, or an equivalent had been around during his preaching days….

  2. Richard Crane (DrDee) Said:

    i don’t blame this kid for his religious sensibilities, but I blame the religious culture that nurtured him. These sensibilities (and I grew up with them too) are very similar to the people Jesus butted heads with for whom ritual purity/purity codes (washing your hands and avoiding touching or associating with anyone who wasn’t ritually pure) were the true heart of faith in God. But for Jesus, compassion for people who are hurting trumps purity every time.

  3. Sam Said:

    Exposure – again you point out the truth that where we stand influences what we see. The hope for me in this story is that you have at least for a brief moment, turned the youth to see in a different direction. It only takes a moment to plant a seed…my prayer becomes that there will be enough soil around the seed to nurture it to growth.

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