I recently returned from seven days at one of the most beautiful spots on earth – the Princess Louisa Inlet located in the western part of Canada. My wife, daughter, and youngest son were there as part of a Young Life retreat, at the property known as the Malibu Club.
It was my first encounter with Young Life, a non-denominational Christian ministry that reaches out to adolescents through volunteers, staff, club meetings, and camps. The purpose is to build bridges of authentic and often life-changing friendships based on time, trust, and consistency. The whole stay was marvelous. But quite apart from my personal experience there and the friendships I made, I came away thinking more than ever about the public impression versus the less publicized reality of the Christian faith.
The people who run the Young Life camp – the adults who supervise it, camp counselors, the work crews and rest of the staff – are there for several purposes: to develop meaningful friendships, to help high school students repair brokenness in their lives, and to assist young people on their faith journeys.
From what I could tell, the almost 400 students who attended the Young Life retreat, many of whom were not professing Christians before the camp, had a great time water skiing, swimming, zip-lining, doing a ropes course, hiking, singing and much else. But this was also a chance for many of the young men and women who attended to open up their interior world in ways they never have before – to talk about abandonment and abuse and addictions with people who genuinely care for them and might even have some encouraging words and counsel for them.
This brings me to my main point, which is the how the public face of Christianity is in some respects quite at odds with the less well-known – and I would argue the much more prevalent and authentic — face of Christianity.
What I mean by this is that millions upon millions of people associate the Christian faith with politics and cultural, and often sexual, issues. Now it would be rather odd for me, given my life experiences, to suggest that Christians shouldn’t be involved in matters that are important to our public life. Politics is a way to advance justice, justice matters to God, and morally ordered lives are crucial to human fulfillment.
I believe all that. But doing this well — balancing faith and politics in a way characterized by integrity — isn’t easy. And with this view I carry the concern that the daily acts of compassion, reconciliation and redemption that is a part of so many Christian lives is often overshadowed, and sometimes overwhelmed, by figures who talk about Christianity in overly political and ideological ways; in a manner that is sometimes strident and unforgiving, angry and anxious, without nuance and that ends up pushing people away rather than to their faith. (David Brooks offered some wise reflections on this in a recent column.)
Somewhere along the way a faith that at its core is about grace has become associated with lack of grace, a spirit characterized by severity and serrated edges. There are different reasons this has occurred, some having to do with Christians (including churches that have created a toxically legalistic culture) and some having to do with those who are not and distort the faith in their coverage of it. But I do place some of the blame on how prominent Christian figures over the years have mishandled politics. They have inflicted considerable damage on their faith even as they have attempted to speak out on its behalf.
I can’t speak to every aspect of the Young Life ministry; all I can testify to is the experience I had. And no one I encountered at Young Life thinks of Christianity primarily in cultural or political and ideological terms; they think about it in terms of offering hope and extending grace to individual lives. Life is determined in good measure by our posture toward others, whether we share a little or a lot in common with them, and the individuals I spend a week with in Canada come along side others rather than looking down on them. There was a desire to join people in their journey, to help others come to love what they themselves love,and to help lighten the burden along the way.
This struck me as an example of the best and truest expression of faith. There are so many variations of this that play out every day – unpublicized acts of kindness and mercy, tenderness and discernment, empathy and encouragement. In the history of the Christian church, these are the things that have been most prized. Which I suppose makes sense for a faith whose central figure said that the way everyone will know that you are his disciples is if you love one another.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.