By now we have come to understand our culture’s fascination with internet challenges. Each year numerous challenges ebb and flow through our timelines, onto our walls, and hyperlinked to our profiles. People we know, and some we don’t, urge us to perform certain tasks that many others are doing in order to fit in, have fun, or to promote a certain cause. From the ice bucket challenge a couple years ago to more recent dancing challenges, these challenges have become a staple of our media-driven lives.
To that end, we also must understand that since these challenges are disseminated through social media sites and apps, teens are specifically targeted as recipients. Each of these challenges offers teens an opportunity to succeed or fail at something larger than themselves. Yet, we have seen these challenges take scary turns, maybe the most wide-known at the moment is the “Momo” challenge where teens interact with a scary bird-like women who instructs them to complete increasingly more difficult tasks, photo evidence is needed, which quickly turn into self-harm or even suicidal tasks.
It may seem outrageous to some that teens will go to such great (harmful) lengths to succeed at these challenges. We may ask simple questions like: What makes these challenges so compelling? Why do our kids want to fit in with a group of people they hardly or may not even know? Why do they obey these challenges wholeheartedly? What do they think they’ll gain for doing it? Don’t they see the folly in this? A good look at God’s intimacy with his creationanddesign for the church body, as well as an exposure of the fearless pursuit of sinful hearts,can shed light on the allure of these challenges and the heart of a teen that follows them.
A Desire to Fit In:
Teens have an unyielding desire to fit in. We have all been there, we have all desired it, and we have all pursued it. These internet challenges, with their social broadcast-ability, offer teens an opportunity to fit into a larger-than-life group of people and prove it. Seems like a dream come true, “If I do the X, Y, Z challenge, then I fit in with all the other people who have done it!” But alas, this desire to fit in drives teens to dangerous lengths and never manages to satisfy the good desire of fitting into something larger than oneself. The Gospel of Jesus Christ gives us the true completion of this desire: Christ’s Church. Christ defeated death for and gifted the Spirit to establish his faithful people on earth in the fellowship of the Church. All of what a teen desires in community is ultimately found in the church body – love, service, acceptance, admonition, discipline, partnership in goals bigger than themselves (Eph 4, or maybe just the entire book of Ephesians). To steer a teen’s desires for community away from fad challenges and harmful tasks means steering them toward Christ’s Church and Christ’s design for the Church.
A Desire to Stand Out:
Yet, at the same time, teens have an unyielding desire to be recognized as unique, not a cookie-cutter of someone else. These challenges offer teens a task to be completed as they see fit and the ability to show everyone else their simultaneous capitulation to a grand meta-goal while remaining unique and creative in how they do it. For the ice-bucket challenge many people simply dumped a 10-gallon bucket of ice water on someone else’s head, but some people lept into pools, rivers, little Dixie 2-ounce paper cups, and so on. As much as teens desire to be part of something larger, they also desire recognition of their uniqueness. The power andgoodness ofGodincreation is revealedby his intimate knowledge of who each person is (Ps 139:13-14; Ecc 11:5). As God calls each person to repentance, faith, and fellowship in His Church for his purposes, he also calls them to exercise their uniqueness to reach His gospel goals. Simply put, it is the mission of the Church to glorify God by making and maturing disciples of Jesus Christ.To do this,God expects each Christianto fulfill the command of showing unique love for God and others by utilizingtheir strengths and weaknesses (Rom 12:3-8; 1Cor 12:4-31).To steer a youth away from a disvalued and underutilized uniqueness in society means steering them toward God’s intimate knowledge,love, and calling on their lives, because he hasuniquelygifted themto spreadhis gospel.
A Desire to be Loved:
This leads to another unyielding desire of teens; to be loved. They desire to fit in, to be valued as unique, and to be loved. It is one thing to be part of something larger, it is another thing to be recognized as an individual, but it is completely different to be loved, sacrificed for. These internet challenges give the false promise of earning love. If I complete this task I not only fit in, I not only exercise my unique traits, but I have earned the love of others (a combination and completion of the two prior desires). Regrettably, this isn’t true. The gospel is clear that original sin keeps us from beingworthy of loveandearninglove. Yet, the gospel is also clear that God loved us while we were his weak and ungodly enemies.Christ’s humility in coming to earth and facing deathproves this (Romans 5:6-11). He grants us the blessings of his love through faith and repentance, not through our work (Ephesians 2:8) so that we may know thathis work has saved us! It is prideful to believe that our work can earn love. Our teens endeavor to earn their love. We must point them to a difficult yet beautiful truth: that despite our sin,Christ loves us and proves his love to us by sacrificing himself on the cross for them. So how do we steer our teensaway from the belief that a fulfilling love comes from surpassing man-made challenges?We mustdirect their gaze to the sacrifice Christ completed on the cross for them,and how his death and resurrection have temporal and eternal consequences for them.
A Desire for Anonymity:
In a twist of sorts, teens not only desire to be loved, to fit in and be recognized, but they also have an unyielding desire to go unnoticed and uncorrected. These internet challenges give an opportunity for a teen too easily and quickly post proof of their involvement and completion of a shared task, gain the acceptance and recognition they crave, while forgoing any risk of further inspection and correction. No one tracked down each person who posted a picture of them planking on a bridge, or subway roundabout, or stranger sitting on a bench to confirm and critique their accomplishment or to make sure they are diligently continuing in their planking mission. No, instead these larger-than-life goals offer the promise of love and partnership without the guidance of inspection and correction. This is a dangerous combination. God tells us that he disciplines the one he loves (Hebrews 12:4-6). If a teen expects God’s intimate lovethroughthebenefits of his fellowshipping Church, and then fliesunder the radar without correction, they are missing the point and blessing. Correction is a bad word in our day and age, but the beauty of the gospel shines through it – not only does God correct those he loves but he also empowers those who are weakened by sinto live a life of faith (Revelation 3:7-13). God knows our weakness, loves us despite of it, empowers us to live faithfully, and corrects us when we fail so that we may succeed all the more. To steer a teen away from the belief that living without correction is the best-case scenario is to steer them headlong in the loving admonition and empowerment of Jesus Christ.
These internet challenges that coax our teens into pursuingworry free acceptance, recognition, and love reveal the profound andeternalhumanneedsin every heart. The gospel answers these questions with love, intimacy, and grace. But the gospel also fulfills these desires now and gives hope that one day, when sin is wiped away, those whom God has saved will be completely accepted, recognized, and loved. Guide your teen’s desires with the gospel, show them the beauty of the Church and their mission in and through it, and help them believe that God knows them and loves them. A teen who knows these things, wrestles through these things, and believes them will not go to foolish lengths to earn what God has given them freely through his Son.