Do you remember Fonzie? From Happy Days? He was my hero as a child. He had awesome hair and a strong personality that showed he was calm yet always in charge. I’ll always remember the way he carried himself, from his shiny leather jacket, to the way he turned on the juke box by pounding it just right with his fist. Fonzie was the poster child for what seemed to be a perfect life. Any fears or insecurities he had were safely masked beneath the hard surface of his gelled hair and his Harley.
It’s quite easy for us youth ministers to get caught up in the lie that we need to be perfect–a “spiritual Fonzie,” perhaps. This is something I struggle with everyday. It’s the idea that holiness is defined by a spiritual togetherness that can separate you from others (in a negative way). Through this lens, being holy meant “having it all together”—or at least always projecting it. Frank Mercadante, author of Engaging a New Generation, writes of his personal experience:
“When gathering as a community, we connected on what we should be, not on what we were. One had to possess evangelistic credibility in order to bring people into this life-changing experience. That meant protecting an image of ‘having it all together’ in order to attract those who didn’t. Evangelization was about pretending you were complete in order to attract others to a ‘community’ that pretended the same” (Italics mine).
What’s interesting is that we are seeing an undeniable culture shift in our day. The Millenial generation (more or less born between 1982-2002) is leaning away from overconfidence and certainty and turning more towards humility and mystery, writes Mercadante. Moreover, religious superiority creates more negative reactions than ever and church practices that conceal the slightest trace of religious arrogance—even when done with kindness and good intentions—are “dismissed as toxic.”
So how must we carry ourselves when ministering to our millennial teens? We need to be honest.
I can’t help but think of Pope Francis’ famous interview with America Magazine. It was a lengthy one. However, the beginning might have been the the most powerful statement to come out of a pope’s mouth. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, began by asking “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Pope Francis stared and reflected in silence and responded gently with
“I do not know what might be the most fitting description…. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
“Yes, perhaps I can say that I am a bit astute, that I can adapt to circumstances, but it is also true that I am a bit naïve. Yes, but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most true is this: I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
That’s powerful. No matter what generation you fall into. The Pope responded with a divine honesty that was rooted in honesty, humility and mystery and with that simple answer he brought us back to the foundation of holiness. It’s not about having it all together; rather, its about being honest with ourselves, that we are all broken and in need of God’s saving love and grace.
So—we endeavor to make a cultural shift of holiness: from striving to be the spiritual Fonzie whose “got it all together,” masking our fears and insecurities, to being honest with ourselves, honest to God, honest with each other, and walking side-by-side together in our brokenness.