Perusing celebrity gossip magazines is one of my guilty pleasures. While I'm working to triumph over these seductive temptresses, an unusual story caught my attention. Not for backbiting or sleazy behavior. No, this story was about church and a tangled young man with a lot of friends and even more followers.
News of pop singer Justin Bieber and his girlfriend, Selena Gomez, attending Bible study hasn't garnered as much attention from the Evangelical community as it should. Not because we care about celebrity status or bad-boy behavior, but because we are deeply concerned about souls and spheres of influence.
You might roll your eyes at this topic choice, dismissing Bieber altogether. Or you might be questioning Bieber's faithful sincerity because of his horrifying decision making that includes prostitutes, DUIs, drag-racing, and racial slurs. Despite all his past blunders, don't react to Bieber's church-going too harshly. For if Evangelicals disregard Bieber wholly, then we miss an incredible opportunity for youth ministry.
"Biebs" is one of the most influential 20-year-olds on the planet. On Facebook he has over 70 million likes and 52 million Twitter followers. In addition, Bieber held the No. 1 most-viewed video on YouTube until June 2013, and is Googled by a teenage girl about, oh, every second. I'm not just talking about in the United States, either. Surprisingly, Google Trends reports that "Justin Bieber" is searched most in countries including Haiti, Solomon Islands, Guinea and Paraguay.
Teaching Sunday school classes for middle schoolers, I've seen the gigantic hold pop stars like Bieber have on pre-teens and teens. They are watching every move Bieber makes and want to know everything about where he visits and what topics he talks about. For example, in April 2013, Bieber visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. In the guestbook, Bieber wrote a silly comment about Anne Frank being "a great girl." Well, soon after the museum posted the comment on the web, "Anne Frank" became the No. 1 Google search term worldwide. The good news is thanks to Bieber, millions of teens learned about a young Jewish girl who documented in her diary a world ransacked by discrimination and religious persecution during World War II.
Likely, the same level of curiosity will arise with news of Bieber attending Bible study. Perhaps, Google searches among teenagers will include "What is the Bible?" and "Who is Jesus?" Even better, Biebers may wander into a local youth group or Sunday school. Evangelicals need to be ready and welcoming.
Although infatuation and a fantasy world might attract teens to explore Bible studies, youth ministers and volunteers will be facing these teens' reality. Eating disorders, abuse, sexual immorality, drugs, alcohol, and loneliness easily top the list of issues. But beyond that, Evangelicals must also be willing to have a strong public witness to address a youth culture duped by fibs about the Church. Labels like "bigoted," "hateful," and "intolerant" come to mind.
Judah Smith, pastor of Seattle's City Church where Bieber occasionally attends seems to be using pop culture to reach souls. City Church is the fourth fastest-growing Christian church in the nation, with youth and young adults the prominent demographic. During an interview with Charisma magazine, Smith shared about how he is reaching young souls through his "Jesus Is ____." project. He said, "I think what's inspiring is the compelling, provocative nature of the Gospel. Just seeing what the Gospel odes and what it does best, which is that it captures people. It totally captivates people." Smith continued, "The person of Jesus still and always will be the most compelling person who has ever lived."
Well said, Pastor Smith! Let us all in youth ministry take this opportunity to use pop culture to introduce Jesus Christ and his teachings. Because the truth is, it might be pop stars like Bieber who attracts youth to Bible studies and youth groups. But it is ultimately Jesus Christ who captivates their souls.