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Why teens don't understand who Jesus is

Unsplash/Kate Kalvach
Unsplash/Kate Kalvach

Anyone involved in youth and children’s work is desperate for something positive. After all, most of the stats quoted are gloomy. Whether it’s the one saying that a large majority of young people have no connection with a local church, or that 50% of young people raised in a Christian home leave church at 18.

Hence when Barna came out with their findings that “most teens have a positive perception of Jesus,” many were thinking “at last!” The survey is impressive in its scope: it includes responses from nearly 25,000 teens aged 13-17 across 26 countries, and not just with Christian young people who may have a bias towards giving positive answers.

Barna has released some headline findings.

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  • Most teens around the world have a positive perception of Jesus. For example, about half of all teens, across faith groups, describe Jesus as “loving” (49%) and believe he offers hope to (46%) and cares about (43%) people.
  • Nearly half of teens overall (47%) believe Jesus was crucified, while one-third of all teens (33%) says Jesus rose again. Teens’ perceptions of Jesus are more about the past than the present. 
  • There is a gap between the percentage of teens who identify as Christian in a nominal or cultural sense and those who say they have made a personal commitment to follow Jesus. One-third of self-identified Christian teens has not made a personal commitment to follow Jesus.
  • Teens do not see Christians nearly as positively as they see Jesus. Teens believe that Jesus is more “loving,” “wise,” and “peaceful” than the Christians who follow him. And Christians are seen as more “judgmental” or “hypocritical” than Jesus.

As editor of Premier NexGen, you might think I would draw some comfort from these stats. I do, but I have some cautions before we proclaim that a revival is coming any time soon.

1. What do you mean by ‘Jesus’?

Of course Jesus is all the things that teens believe Him to be: loving, wise and peaceful. It’s better that they have a warm feeling about Jesus than none at all. But note the stats about positive perceptions are all under 50%.

But an understanding of a Jesus based on the Bible is so limited that most teens are merely believing in a caricature. Let me explain.

According to research by Bible Society most Christian millennials in the U.K. (51%) engage with the Bible a few times a year, or less. Only 9% read the Bible every day and a mere 13% look at the scriptures “a few times a week.” In the U.S. where church attendance is much higher, 40% of Christian young people never read their Bibles on their own.

Furthermore, and this is a telling stat,one-third of teens who self-identify as Christian, have not made a personal commitment to Jesus.So if this is the case for Christian young people, they are hardly likely to be Bible readers and a third of them don’t grasp the basics about saving faith.

Taking all this together, my suggestion is that many like the idea of Jesus but don’t know enough about his life and teaching to make any intelligent comment.

2. Loving Jesus and hating the church?

This really is a tired and outdated idea. It is common and most of us resonate at some level. Of course, the Church has its bad apples and communities that are barely Christian, but there are some stunning churches doing some amazing work. So what these young people are doing is comparing the worst examples of Christian behavior with their caricature of who they think Jesus is.

The Church at its best connects with the living Jesus and seeks to give itself away for others, including the least, the last and the lost. Jesus loved sinners but was uncompromising in His insistence that sinners should learn from him how to live. In that sense, Christians do have a standard they preach but don’t always live up to. To the outsider, that may seem hypocritical, but any true believer knows they are a recipient of grace and “one beggar telling another beggar” where to find bread.

3. Ignorant about facts

Less than half of teens believe Jesus was crucified suggests that under half don’t know the first thing about historical records. The evidence for the crucifixion is way greater than other ancient truths regarding the Romans that teens take for granted. And you don’t even need to rely just on the Gospels. But when the Gospels are included, the manuscript evidence for these books where the crucifixion is a central part is exponentially many times greater than other contemporary events. All of which confirms that these teens believe in a caricature of Jesus.

Now admittedly the belief in the resurrection is more of a stretch, with just a third believing in it. If the teens don’t accept the attested truth of crucifixion they won’t be impressed by the eyewitness record of the Gospels, the lack of any reasonable alternative explanation for the lack of a body, or the fact that all the early disciples gave the rest of their lives to its proclamation and most were martyred for doing so. 

Where does this leave us?

If the stats do anything, they remind us of the challenge to the Church if it wants to survive into the next generation. It behooves us all to deal with the reality of the challenges as we find them. We have an assignment to first connect with young people who don’t know God, to gain their trust, and to gently and graciously help them know the truth of the Bible and the real Jesus who is their only hope.

Andy Peck is a father to two teenage boys and Editor of Premier NexGen. Premier NexGen is a new online resource hub to provide support and reassurance for anyone invested in the faith of the next generation.

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