When I was in elementary and junior high school, my parents insisted I never talk about invitations. Other parents similarly instructed my peers. When you get invited to a birthday party, your mom beat your brow to not talk about it at school, because you did not know who may or may not have been invited. If your buddy asked you and some friends over for a sleepover, you didn’t brag about it at school. You did not want to make anyone feel excluded.
Parents had good sense in that rule. Childhood and adolescence are delicate times when kids have a fragile sense of self. The feeling of rejection that comes from being left outside the circle stings particularly deeply.
I don’t think I felt the sting of being left out until the end of high school when senior trip came around. One group of girls invited five of my friends to go with them. Another group of girls invited the other half of my guy friends to join their trip. I was the odd man out.
It stung. Badly. I felt rejected and alone. I had visions of all the fun everyone was having at the beach, while I headed to the mountains with my parents and our dog. It was not the finale to my senior year that I had envisioned.
Now imagine that experience being the daily rhythm for most teenagers who have been cursed with a smart phone and double cursed with the desire to download Instagram. A barrage of exclusion and rejection hammers kids each day.
While the ethic during my day was never to reveal your plans and invitations, today a competitive feeding frenzy occurs on Instagram throughout the week as kids vie to portray their life as the most fun, included, social euphoria one ever could imagine. It is common teen behavior to show up for a party with your friends, take a picture of the crew at said party, post it on Instagram, and then leave within ten minutes. For those not immersed in teen culture, this trend sounds like an outlier. Trust me, it’s the normal routine of the weekend for many, many kids.
A parent told me a story about how on a holiday her son wanted his mom to take a picture of him lighting fireworks. She found this request strange since the family didn’t do anything with fireworks this year. He lit one fuse, picture snapped, and the fireworks show concluded. Then she did further analysis after seeing the picture on Instagram. The child wanted to say, “Look everyone, we’re having so much fun over here!” when in reality, he was chilling with his parents, watching Netflix on New Year’s Eve.
On a weekend night, many kids sit on the couch watching all of the “fun” their peers are having via their pictures on Instagram. Even the kids in the pictures who appear as if they are “in” admit the scene reflects only a fleeting moment of companionship. They either see pictures of other parties, or they feel both emotionally and existentially lonely from working so hard to “appear” accepted. For me, the exclusion was left to my imagination; for these kids, it’s in their face all the time.
The gospel is both narrow and wide. It is narrow in the sense that all implications of the gospel emerge from the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is broad in the way that the benefits of Christ’s complete work on the Cross encompasses immense vastness.
For those ministering to and caring for teenagers—both parents, volunteers, and pastors alike—the good news of God including sinners in his family rings fresh in the ears of teenagers. In Ephesians 2, Paul talks about the affinity of God to draw those who are on the outside into his presence:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. . . He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
The feeling of exclusion and of being on the “outside” reflects the natural state of sinners in relation to God. The fear of social exclusion projects the dreaded fear of ultimate alienation from the Lord. Helping students understand the heart-level, spiritual reality of their fear and loneliness sets the stage for the hope described in this text.
But Paul describes the work of God as drawing those in isolation—those far on the fringes, those left on the couch with their parents on Friday night—near to God. In fact, he mentions those who are “near” (perhaps those at the party with 15,000 Instagram posts) being brought into this circle, as well. He speaks of an intimate unity whereby, all whom Christ has redeemed, enter into a communion with the triune God and all believers. This intimate connection is the substance of oneness with God, the deepest longing of every heart, especially the teenage heart.
Talking about the gospel in terms of forgiveness of sins, inheriting eternal life, and relationship with Christ always needs mention. And today’s teenagers also need to hear the healing, hopeful word that through the Cross God brings sinners, who are “left out,” into his inner circle, a place of intimate friendship with him.