Recently, a friend of mine named Katie confessed her deep discouragement over her “failed” quest to turn the world upside down for God. She’d pursued a ministry degree from a Christian college and after graduation, secured what she believed was a world-changer job at a world-changing church. But then her vision collided with longstanding, intractable politics that had turned the congregation inward on itself. Three years later, mired in student loan debt and disillusioned by her experience, she left her position. “The only one who has changed is me,” she told me.
For years, I moved in Christian circles where young people were coached into adulthood with motivational victory-speak that called on them to do great things for God. Even now this sentiment can be found in every corner of the evangelical world: Christian colleges, discipleship programs, and among both conservative and more progressive streams of our movement. How many 20- and 30-somethings among us have attended a youth conference—Passion or Acquire the Fire (sponsored by the now-shuttered Teen Mania Ministries)—and heard at least one speaker tell their audiences they were destined to be world changers? And how many well-meaning youth pastors echo that call with the kids in their youth group?
At one time in my life, I probably used this language with an impressionable young person or two, but I’m done telling young people they’re destined to turn the world upside down for Jesus. Have I gone lukewarm? Am I encouraging half-hearted discipleship? I don’t think so. I’ve had too many heartbreaking conversations with young adult friends like Katie who eagerly responded to the “change the world” call, gave themselves over to ministry, missions, or social entrepreneurship, and then burned out after a few years in the trenches. (As D. L. Mayfield details in her latest book—subtitled “notes from a failed missionary on rediscovering faith”—youthful zeal has its limits.)
On the one hand, these young adults are experiencing midlife-style vocational crises and coming-of-age transitions that are completely normal. But many of these crises stem from a conception of spiritual success that values full-time Christian service and promises in so many ways that “You’ll find God, save the world, and as a bonus, maybe even get some well-deserved recognition.”
Some of this “world-changer” rhetoric emerges from the way in which we speak about vocation in our churches. Although many pastors and speakers claim to celebrate the “priesthood of all believers” by telling young people they can be a dog walker, barista, or brain surgeon to the glory of God, they often communicate a not-so-subtle hierarchy of what’s really valuable in the church. Missionaries rank at the top, followed by pastors, staffers at churches and ministries, and social/spiritual entrepreneurs who seek the community’s good with a specifically Christian orientation. Those lower on the hierarchy who don’t pursue vocational ministry are often called upon to supplement their “secular” employment by doing more valuable work—like sacrificially serving the congregation during their off-work hours and/or giving generously of their finances.
Young, earnest Christians in their late teens and early 20s are especially vulnerable to world-changer talk as they begin to sift through vocational decisions and make choices about how to build their lives. Ambition and idealism fuel these years, but they’re a highly combustible kind of fuel. If we fuse that fuel with a one-size-fits-all, overzealous version of the Great Commission to “go into all the world,” we may be lighting a rocket under young adults that launches them up, up, up with nowhere to go but down. It’s painful to watch a young adult crash-land.
Blogger Matt Moore wrote recently about his own crash:
I so wish I could travel back in time and tell all the people who espoused this “world-changer” verbiage to zip it! I understand and appreciate the fact that most of them were likely trying to encourage me and rev up my excitement about following Jesus. But all they really did was 1) appeal to my carnal, self-exalting tendencies and 2) set me up with unbiblical expectations about what it looks like to be mightily used by God.
As I observe Moore and others like him, it strikes me as telling that these triumphalist, world-changer calls are rarely aimed at those of us in midlife and beyond. For us, ambition tends to recalibrate into a search for meaning and a desire to create legacy. Even when we make dramatic life changes and move from an ambition-driven career path toward a creative or service-oriented vocation, the way we talk about these transitions tends to be quite different.
My own slow recalibration away from “doing big things for God” came as I encountered a series of losses at midlife: the deaths of both of my parents, two difficult church experiences, the devastating unraveling of a relationship in my immediate family, the short sale of our home, and most recently, a life-changing health diagnosis. None of these experiences had much in common with the “Go get ’em for Jesus” narrative in which I’d been immersed for most of my life.
To be fair, our motivational talk of living “sold out for Jesus” can be used for good to aim young adults—and the rest of us—at a life of sacrifice and service. However this call needs to be heavily counterbalanced with a strong, simple model of faithfulness and a robust conception of “suffering with those who suffer,” because at some point most of us will encounter loss that flies in the face of victory and ambition.
Perhaps a chastened, more modest appraisal of our role in God’s wonderful plan for our lives will help us cultivate endurance, courage, and resilience. In the case of my friend Katie, my role has been to help her to collect the shards of her shattered dreams and notice the ways in which God has been at work in the midst of them. And, as she’s able to again hear the words, I am sharing with her what I’ve learned in my post-world-changer life: that faithfulness carries its own radical results.
As Paul writes in Acts 17, “But when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his home. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying there is another king, named Jesus!’” (Acts 17:6-7, Berean Study Bible). As we seek to follow Jesus, turning the world upside down will happen whether we intend it or not, and our metrics for success are not God’s. As priest and writer Tish Harrison Warren notes, “Maybe, at the end of days, a hurried prayer for an enemy, a passing kindness to a neighbor, or budget planning on a boring Thursday will be the revolution stories of God making all things new.”
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