Review: The Jesus Gap – Jen Bradbury

I was given a copy of The Jesus Gap by Jen Bradbury to review for Youthwork Magazine. It’s a really good book, so I’m reposting a slightly longer review here (free from the benevolent dictatorship of word counts) as well as some extended quotes from the book.

There’s been a lot of research into what teenagers think about god in the last decade. But Christians don’t believe in “god”, they believe in the triune God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. So youth minister and academic Jen Bradbury’s “The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus” is a very exciting (to this reviewer at least) proposition.

Based primarily out of Bradbury’s masters research the question she wants answered is; what do American church-going teenagers think about Jesus? Sadly, the research shows they don’t know much about him, and what they do is often confused. Bradbury shows again and again how teenagers aren’t grasping who Christ is. The book isn’t dry academic research typed up though. Each chapter has thoughts on why a particular false view of Jesus affects our young people, and what we as youth workers and church members can do to help our young people know him better.

This is a really good book. If you have an interest in teaching your young people clearly about the God we know in Jesus Christ (and as you’re reading Youthwork Magazine, you surely do) then you want to pick up a copy.

Here’s a ridiculously long quote to show you how good the book is

As youth workers, our job is not to create a thriving youth ministry that will ensure the continuation of our congregations; it’s to create followers of Jesus. If the majority of our youth don’t believe or don’t know Jesus is God, then we’re failing at our primary calling as youth workers.

The good news is we don’t have to continue failing. Instead, there are practical ways through which we can help young people understand the difficult reality that Jesus is both simultaneously God and human.

To begin, don’t just talk about God. Instead, talk specifically about Jesus. Now, before you say, “I already do!” consider this. During my visits to various congregations, I asked youth workers: How frequently do you talk about Jesus and not just God in your youth ministry?
Inevitably, youth workers would enthusiastically respond, “All the time.” Then I’d attend their youth ministry program. When I did, do you know what I heard? Generic God-talk, not Jesus-talk. Often this phenomenon wasn’t limited to just youth ministry gatherings; it was also prevalent in the larger communities of faith.

At one congregation I visited, I attended the church’s Sunday morning worship service. During the service, the senior pastor preached on John 6:25-59, the passage in which Jesus declares himself to be the Bread of Life. While I lost track of how many times this pastor referred to God in his sermon, I can tell you exactly how many times he said the name of Jesus—aside from reading the word Jesus in the passage itself: none. Instead of talking about Jesus, this pastor took a Gospel story that was unequivocally about Jesus and made it about God.
Regrettably, I can’t tell you exactly why this was. What I can tell you is that after observing this phenomenon in multiple congregations, I finally asked a youth worker about
it. Michelle, one of the youth workers I interviewed, said, “Talking frankly about Jesus can make kids uncomfortable. It’s perceived as preachy. So it becomes really easy to talk vaguely about God and faith.”

As Michelle said, talking vaguely about God is easy. I’d even argue it’s safer than talking about Jesus. God is ambiguous enough that people can interpret him as they please. One person’s God may differ from that of the person sitting next to them. Not so with Jesus. Jesus is specific. He’s an actual person who said and did certain things that not everyone likes or agrees with. When we talk about Jesus, we therefore run the risk of offending and excluding people. Knowing this, we sometimes retreat, willingly settling for God instead of Jesus. If that’s the case for church workers, then how much scarier must it be for adolescents to talk specifically about Jesus?

No wonder their responses mirrored those of their youth workers. When I asked teenagers how frequently they talked about Jesus in their youth ministries, like their youth workers, they enthusiastically said, “All the time.” However, when I observed them in their youth ministries, that’s not what I heard. Often the teenagers would start off talking about Jesus, but before long, their language would shift from Jesus-talk to generic God-talk.

The truth is God-talk simply does not impact the Christian faith formation of young people in the same way that Jesus-talk does. According to Kenda Creasy Dean in Almost Christian, “Conversational Christianity requires Jesus-talk, not just God-talk … Jesus is simply not an optional category for Christians.” (P.42-44)

And here are a couple of shorter quotes that struck me:

Interestingly, the stronger an adolescent’s Christology, the less frequently his responses fell into the self-help category. (P.113)

To this end, hold teens accountable to the commitments they make to Jesus, their faith community, and their community at large. When teens agree to be somewhere, don’t let them off the hook if and when something better comes their way. When teens agree to do something, take away their safety nets and let them know you’re counting on them to actually deliver. (And when, not if, they occasionally fail, practice grace.) Doing so combats narcissism. It takes the spotlight off teens’ wants and desires and puts it back on the person whom their faith actually revolves around: Jesus. (P.139)

Do I have quibbles with the book? Yes, there were a couple of times I thought that her applications to youth ministry weren’t the best approach. But they’re such minor quibbles that I don’t think it’s even worth articulating them. It’s a good book. Buy it.