A space for struggle, an answer of hope: The kind of culture churches really need

July 18, 2016

At 16, I led our church’s youth group worship team on guitar and vocals. We played most of the same songs that were performed during the Sunday service, but I gave them new arrangements to better appeal to the 20 or so youth that sat on the floor of the church’s gym each Sunday when they came to play capture the flag, sing worship songs, listen to a short talk and try to satisfy some inarticulate sense of adolescent yearning through half-hearted flirting, athletic prowess and alternating spiritual posturing and guilt.

I put “As The Deer” to the tune of Bush’s “Glycerine” and “Lord I Lift Your Name on High” to “When I Come Around” by Green Day. I don’t recall if any of my peers recognized the inspirations behind these arrangements, but I do remember feeling self-satisfied at my creativity and hoping that others recognized my coolness. I think I also used these “secular” songs because, through them, I could summon up enough emotional commitment to feel like I was actually worshiping God, like I meant something close to what I was singing. The traditional arrangement to “As the Deer” didn’t make me feel anything at all, but “Glycerine” was close to my heart.

I had spent many angst-filled afternoons with Sixteen Stone, finding my own experience of life— the sense of alienation and yearning and failure—truthfully told through this song. So, when I put the lyrics to “As the Deer” on this song, a kind of transference of meaning happened. That earnest, heartfelt desperation I felt when listening to “Glycerine” translated into what felt to me like an earnest, heartfelt desire for God’s presence. But more than anything, I thought that when I sang the song, my friends and the youth group leaders would believe I had an earnest, heartfelt desire for God. In the end, I suspect that’s what mattered to me most—that I reach some observable state of spiritual passion that counted for something. It was a nice way to feel okay for a few minutes, usually.

Space for struggle

I cannot remember a single sermon from the church I grew up in. But I do remember a few warnings about the dangers of popular culture, like the time the assistant pastor warned parents not to let their children listen to the band Live since they chose the name because it was “Evil” spelled backward (The logic of this argument would bother me later in life. If anything, doesn’t that name suggest that they are the opposite of evil?). Or when a concerned father spoke to the youth group about a new show on MTV called Undressed, which chronicled the experiences of young adults right before they had sex.

I already spent most of my time trying not to think about sex, or thinking about how I couldn’t stop thinking about it and what that meant about me and how I could get rid of that terrible guilt and anxiety in my gut. The last thing I needed was someone’s dad to drop by the youth group to tell us that the “world” was obsessed with sex. I was obsessed with sex, love, attractiveness, affection, existential justification or belonging—or any of the million other concepts that get wrapped up into that word when you are 16. And I needed an answer for it all.

During one youth group meeting, the leader brought in a wooden cross he had built out of two 4×4 posts. This cross would hold our sins, he told us. Just as Christ bore our sins on the cross, this cross would be a physical reminder that we are called to put our sins to death, to nail them to Christ’s cross. We were each asked to write down one sin that we wanted to turn over to God. I stared down at my small piece of paper and agonized. “Lust. Lust is your sin. Lust is the thing you can’t shake. You can’t stop lusting. Write lust.”

I wrote “greed.” What if someone peeked, I thought. What if they saw that I lusted and then thought I was a creep. And anyway, I am greedy sometimes. And I bet none of them are honest enough to write “greed” even though they all want nice cars and clothes and everything.

The next Sunday, the youth pastor brought the cross out on the stage and showed the congregation how the entire youth group had turned over their sins to God, physically and spiritually nailing them to the cross, which he intended to keep as a reminder of their commitment. “Great,” I thought, “I guess I don’t have to worry about being greedy anymore.” Meanwhile, I still struggled with a longing to be known and told I was good enough, so that I could believe that I mattered.

Space for grace

I never remember being taught about grace at church, either. Instead, I always felt two things:

  1. The need to be more on fire for the Lord.
  2. The need to stop sinning.

I was a spectacular failure at both, so the best thing I could do was try to cobble together some image of purity and passion any way I knew how. So, I played “As the Deer” to the tune of “Gylcerine” and mostly just felt bad about it all.

I looked forward to youth group all week, but there was always some anxiety about it, too. The stakes of what went on there were high, especially because I was homeschooled. I wanted something meaningful to happen—not spiritually meaningful, but existentially, something that validated me as an individual and set me apart from everyone else. So, I tried to signal who I was and why I mattered to my peers, even if those signals were contradictory or sometimes a lie. For example, one day, standing in front of the sanctuary waiting for youth group to start, a girl asked me why I always seemed to be wearing black. I was in my black corduroy pants and a dark green t-shirt, accessorized with a wallet chain and necklace with large chrome beads. I couldn’t bear to tell her that I was depressed or that I wanted to look edgy, even if that was the truth.

“It’s because of abortion,” I said. “I wear black as a way to mourn all the babies killed because of abortion.”

“Oh, neat,” she replied unconvincingly.

It was about the most ridiculous and self-righteous lie imaginable under the circumstances, but it didn’t really feel like a lie at the time. It was more like a deflection, or a selfish attempt to reconcile my desire to appear spiritual; my cultivation of an edgy, grunge image; and my experience of depression and loneliness.

After everyone had gone home one Sunday night, I confessed to the youth group leader that I was depressed almost all the time. “What kind of music are you listening to?” he asked, knowing full well that I enjoyed listening the secular Alternative Rock station. “You know,” he said, “sometimes demons can attach themselves to physical objects. And I wonder if that nonchristian music has some demons in it that are weighing down your spirit. Our pastor studied demonology and knows all about this kind of thing.”

I remember feeling that he wasn’t really listening to what I was saying, and I felt more than a little defensive about my favorite music. Sure, Nirvana wasn’t “Christian,” but at least Kurt Cobain really knew what this feeling of anxiety and self-loathing was like. The leader asked me to just try listening to Christian music for one week and see if it made me feel any better. He sent me home with a stack of his favorite CDs—Audio Adrenaline, DC Talk, the Newsboys.

Back in my room, I gave the albums a fair try. I lay on the floor and listened to Audio Adrenaline sing about how God’s house had a “Big, big yard, where we can play football.” Rather than lift my spirit, the music made me feel all the more alone, alienated from Christian culture. Was there something wrong with me? Why did I feel more understood and alive listening to secular music than Christian music? What did this say about my eternal salvation?

Our need for the gospel

In retrospect, I was struggling with two main things:

  1. A secular world that understood my depression, guilt and fears.
  2. A church youth group culture that had almost no answer for these things.

I don’t think I was clinically depressed. I was just a normal 16-year-old kid, experiencing new ranges of emotions and feeling the terrible weight of needing to be somebody, whatever that meant. I wanted someone to fall in love with me and prove that my life mattered, that it had weight and a trajectory to it, instead of feeling like this weightless, redundant teenager. I didn’t need to be told that my music wasn’t Christian enough or that demons were oppressing my spirit.

I needed to be told that God loved me and that whatever “authentic self” I was so desperately trying to piece together and display for all my peers to approve of, I would never really find it and I didn’t need to try to. I needed—and still need—a church that has space for sadness, fears and anxiety, depression and mental illness. I also need a church that doesn’t let me continue to believe the lie that my life is meaningless until I achieve something, or am loved by someone, or I craft some impressive identity.

All along, my identity was hidden in Christ’s finished work on the cross, an act of unmerited love that objectively grounded and sustained my being in the world regardless of how I felt or what I thought about myself.

The funny thing about working to make yourself good enough to be Christian is that you inevitably end up more self-absorbed and less assured of God’s love for you. If we are not careful, our youth groups and churches can easily develop a culture of image-making—Christians striving to define themselves, especially according to some Christian cultural norms, instead of resting in Christ’s definitive work. The gospel frees us from these endeavours and gives us the space to be fully human, with doubts and anxieties and loves, but also with the grace and love which flows from a heart unburdened by identity and committed to others.

Alan Noble

Alan Noble is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture. He is an assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24