Jeff McSwain, Helping Youth Experience Christ
Jeff McSwain is the founder of Reality Ministries of Durham, North Carolina. Jeff earned his doctorate in 2015 at the University of St. Andrews.
In this interview, Jeff McSwain discusses how to help young people experience the loving embrace of Jesus Christ.
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JMF: What’s behind the name, Reality Ministries?
JM: In Colossians 2 it talks about the reality being Jesus Christ. I found it interesting when I googled the name “Reality” all the different adjectives that come up for the word. The most prominent words to describe reality are negative ones – words that describe “reality” in much less than glowing terms, words like “brutal” and “harsh.” When I compared “brutal reality,” which had over 100,000 hits on Google, to “pleasant reality” – it was 900,000 to 50,000.
The whole world
talks about reality backwards. I fall for the same thing myself. Reality,
however, as we find it revealed in Jesus Christ, and as Jesus talks about this
in John 14, 15, 16, 17 – is simply God, as a relationship of love and all of us
as his beloved, by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is how we
know what God is like, and that’s how we define what God is like through his
Incarnation, and his articulation of what the life of God is like.
JMF: The way you usually hear about it, though, you turn on the TV, you watch a Christian religious program, and what you usually hear is the “reality” that you are separated from God, you’re on your way to hell, until you do something – the sinner’s prayer, or whatever – and change God’s mind toward you so that he now loves you – and you’re saying that’s backwards.
JM: By buying into that model, what we are saying is that when we make a decision of faith, we’re actually changing the reality. We’re changing the truth – which to me smacks more of postmodern relativism than it does of the gospel. The gospel give us a way into understanding that what we are living into by the Holy Spirit when we come to faith, is something that was already true before we believed it. Or else, it’s not true. I don’t want to fall victim to, or set people up to believe that we create the truth by our decision.
People talk about reality in the light of the fact of the brokenness of the world, the injustice, the oppression, the pain, and the suffering. That’s the enemy’s ploy to help us to twist the whole thing backwards, and to live by sight – because the world does look like it’s going to hell in a hand basket, as they say. It does look like it’s going down the drain. So are we going to define the world by what we see and by our experience of it existentially, or are we going to define it by something deeper and more beautiful in relation to the life of God and the Holy Trinity? It’s tempting to walk by sight and not by faith. It’s tempting, and yet Paul keeps encouraging us in the letters, in the epistles, … what is seen is temporary, and what’s unseen is eternal.
With the eyes of faith, we can know that we are anchored in a reality much greater than the pain and suffering that we feel in this life and that we experience. That reality can transform us, and as we begin to import the truth of the gospel into our broken experiences, we can have hope.
JMF: You’ve been working with young people for more than two decades in this, in helping them come to see who Christ is, and who they are in Christ as being the reality of their lives, now with Reality Ministries, what is the reality you want a teenager to see about themselves?
JM: I want them to know that the way we are treating them, they way we are accepting them, the way we are loving them unconditionally, the way we are embracing them at their worst and being faithful to them even when they’re faithless to us – and you know how fluctuating the life of a teen-ager can be – one minute they’re warm and leaning in and accepting of you and the love you’re giving to them. The next minute, they’re calloused, and the quills come out. They’re like, “get away from me.”
But to continue to be faithful to them regardless of their response – that’s what we do with teenagers. What we want them to know in Reality Ministries is the reason we do that is because that’s what God is like – all these things I just described. Sometimes I say to kids, or when I’m speaking and talking about my ministry to high schoolers, I say, “More than ever today, I think kids have an attitude problem.” And everybody goes… they take pause at that.
And I say, “Before you jump to conclusions, let me explain what I mean by that. What I mean is that kids today, more than ever, don’t understand what God’s attitude is towards them.” Because they don’t see him as he truly is and have distorted pictures of him, they feel that God must be against them. Or even that the youth minister, or the youth leader that’s reaching out to them and is treating them with all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, must be doing that in a way to somehow use it as a means to an end to get them to hear about a God who is really not like that.
We want kids to know that Jesus Christ (and hopefully, much of the time we are representations of Jesus Christ as his ambassadors) is truly an accurate picture of who God is. A lot of people don’t trust the picture that they get in Jesus Christ and believe that God is different from Jesus, and a lot of people, even all of us, whether young or old, are tempted to question, “What does God really think about me?” and “Is God really like Jesus Christ?” Those are questions that can haunt us if we don’t…
JMF: That’s what haunts us every time… We’re all sinners, even though we are believers, and every time we fall short, every time we have a temper tantrum or we get angry with somebody or we do something we ought not – we go back to that, “Has God rejected me?” “Has God left me?” Why do we think like that?
JM: We have the tendency to go around the circle of analogy in the wrong direction. When I do somebody wrong in this world, and when I do something to someone or let them down, they do often reject me. They often distance themselves from me. We have the tendency to think, “We’ve done God wrong, and I have let him down, I’ve disappointed him, and so by virtue of my own human experience with other people – he’s disappointed in me. He is not committed to me anymore because I’ve let down in my commitment to him.”
The best way to get a young person or anybody to understand the gospel more is to not say, “You’ve ratcheted up your commitment, you’re falling short, you’re letting God down, you’ve got to do better.” But instead say, “God is more committed to you than you could ever be to him.” And to the extent that you understand that, you will be free to live in reciprocation of that love and faithfulness that God has given you in a real, abundant life-giving way even in the midst of your brokenness.
JMF: But isn’t it often approached just the opposite – the retreats and so on I’ve been to, give the impression to the person sitting there that you’ve got to contemplate your sinfulness and how separated from God you are – they’ll use Isaiah 59:1: “Your sins have separated you from God” and then say that unless you do better – you repent and believe and then behave, naturally every time you fall short, you default to that idea of God who is against me …
JM: Everything depends on the starting point, doesn’t it, Mike? For instance, if you start with hell, or if you start with “you are separated from God,” you’re essentially saying, that is the reality. Your starting point is the reality. The way we articulate the gospel, we communicate that hell is a greater reality. Heaven or life with Christ is the exception to the rule – it kind of sneaks in there, and God will tolerate you (because of what Christ has done) and he will allow you to come into heaven. Maybe at that point, you’re told that everything changes and his attitude about you changes once you become a Christian – and yet again, if his attitude was the exception to the rule for you as a Christian now full of grace, that means that really his attitude changed from being against you to being for you – and at the end of the day, can we trust that that is indeed the case? Or are we gonna fall back on the default of, “you’re not really sure if God loves you.”
JMF: Since you don’t measure up, he’ll be against you again.
JM: I’ve been troubled by that a lot in our preaching of the gospel. I’ve felt at times that we gave hell and sin more clout and a deeper rooting than we did the Triune life of Father, Son, and Spirit, and the love of God.
JMF: But that’s what you hear talked about – you’re not good enough, you need to be fixed, and then once you supposedly are fixed because you professed faith, what do you do then when you’re confronted with your sinfulness still, which is still going to be there…
JM: Exactly. The situation that I see often times is that a young person will go to a camp or something like that and be presented with the gospel in a way that talks about grace as the exception to the rule and talks about Jesus Christ entering to fix something that started out as being broken, instead of started out as being intact and whole, created in the image of God and in Christ. Then that person –a certain amount of psychological pressure is sometimes brought to bear – nobody wants to be separated from God, nobody wants to go to hell – and there are a lot of good and real and lasting experiences that happened by the Holy Spirit in spite of the fact that we butchered the gospel all the time. (I mean, who could ever say they’ve perfectly articulated the gospel?)
The Spirit moves in ways that compensate, and more than that, for what we do anytime we preach, and yet what happens is, oftentimes a kid will have an experience with Christ at camp in any way, shape or form, and he’ll be told, now you’re a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come – it’s as simple as that. A lot of times on the mountain top, kids believe that, they feel that, it feels like they’re new and whole and different, and that the old is gone. Then they get back into the world, and they fall off the deep end again, and sometimes even worse, they get into behaviors worse than they ever got into before they went to camp – and they begin to realize, “I guess that was the exception to the rule.” “I guess my sin and brokenness and the futility of what I’m enslaved to is the reality.”
JMF: And it’s stronger than anything God can do about it, because I can’t measure up.
JM: Right. So then what happens is, “well, I need to go get another dose of that, because this one wore off.”
JMF: Or not.
JM: Or one of two things. Either I need to commit my life to Christ again, and keep going through that umpteen times, because we’re not secure in our standing with God. Or live a double life: I said I was going to believe this way and walk this way and yet now I know I can’t, so I’m just going to play the game for a while or tank it, like you said. It all goes back to, “What is God’s original attitude toward me, and did it change when I changed my attitude towards him?”
JMF: Now we’re not talking about something that we’re making up in order to make the message more palatable. We’re talking about the actual scriptural teaching on what the gospel is, who God is, who Christ is for us, who we are to him. We’re talking about what is actually in the Bible, it’s always been there, nothing new here.
JM: It depends, again and again, on, “Is Jesus Christ giving us an accurate picture of God?” “Can we really believe that it’s true that when he says, ‘quit asking to see the Father,’ he who’s seen me has seen the Father”? Or that Jesus Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God, as it says in Colossians 1 – or that he is the fullness of deity in bodily form. Or, as it says in Hebrews – the exact representation of the being of God.
JMF: How does that translate to the kids’ personal experience?
JM: Because if they can trust that, that’s an accurate picture of who God is, then they’ll begin to see that what happens in the Gospels is that Jesus Christ is embracing us at our worst and giving us a safe place in which to deal with our sinfulness. He never says, “If you deal with your sinfulness, deal with that, you’re stewing in your juices of sin, I’m going to get you to really feel that conviction and then if you repent, then you can be inside of the embrace.” Which introduces all kinds of conditions.
JMF: And repent means – be perfect.
JM: In that case, repent means, do something in order to earn the embrace.
JMF: That’s really not what repentance is about.
JM: Repentance is not about that. In fact, repentance is the word metanoia, and that is a radical re-schematizing of our minds, a radical change of mind, where all of a sudden we say, by the Holy Spirit, I’m not believing that Jesus Christ loves me conditionally. I’m believing that he loves me unconditionally and wholly, and that he says to me, “You are forgiven, therefore repent.” John Calvin coined the term, “evangelical repentance.” The idea is that you are forgiven; therefore repent. As opposed to the idea, “If you repent, you will be forgiven.
A person that says “I forgive you if…” simply doesn’t forgive you. Kids read through that. They know, they see the duplicity in that, and they see the phoniness of that kind of love. We want to show them that Jesus Christ has embraced you at your worst. Not because he’s just saying I forgive you; go on and do whatever you want to do. I think this is the real distinction. A lot of people get scared with that kind of language, even though we see it with Zaccheus and the woman at the well, and the woman caught in adultery and on and on, and the gospel says all these interaction…
JMF: Those are some of the worst kind of sinners, as people viewed it, the adulterous woman and especially Zaccheus, takes advantage of people and is a traitor to his own people and those very people at their worst are embraced and accepted, held close by Christ before they make any changes.
JM: Notice particularly in Zaccheus’ case, Jesus says, I’m coming to your house, salvation has come to this house today, he’s going to go there, he’s there, and Zaccheus then acknowledges his sinfulness in a way that he knows that he is accepted and forgiven by the Savior. He doesn’t probably know exactly all the ins and outs of who this man Jesus is that he’s dealing with, but something supernatural has happened in his life.
JMF: And we can bet that he was not a perfect man the rest of his days, either.
JM: No doubt about it. That’s the key to ongoing repentance. Ongoing repentance would not mean groveling before God and saying, “Lord, I bought it. I hope I can get back into your embrace again, please let me back in.” But more of an awareness of the fact that we’re forgiven even before we asked, and therefore we are much more thorough in our confession, and we can talk to God seriously about the blackness and darkness in our lives because we know he’s not going to say, “You’ve crossed the line, or you told me you’re not going to do that again, you’re out of here, I’m sorry, you’re out of the embrace.”
JMF: He’s not an idiot, he knows darn well we’ll do it again.
JM: There is a huge misunderstanding about what grace is, but in liberal notions of grace, what you have is God is kind of the grandfather figure, he says, “Oh I forgive you, I love you, no matter what you do, just know that I’m always going to accept you and love you no matter what…” – that’s kind of a unilateral type, to me a Unitarian kind of forgiveness. It’s not a Trinitarian forgiveness. God is basically saying he doesn’t care. I’m going to give you carte blanche on your sinfulness and I’m going to turn a blind eye, or grace lets us off the hook.
The beauty of Trinitarian forgiveness, the beauty of Trinitarian grace is that it always couches forgiveness inside of re-creation. It never says, I’m just gonna slap a little forgiveness on your sinfulness. Instead it says, “Yes, God is saying to you, I love you and I love you unconditionally, and I’m never gonna change.” I like it to describe it this way: “We are never too sinful for God to stop loving us, unconditionally and purely, but we are too sinful to love God, we are in and of ourselves too sinful to love God.”
The beauty of Trinitarian life that’s revealed in Jesus Christ is that Jesus Christ went… when all we can say to God is ‘NO’ in our sinfulness, stuck in our sinfulness, when all we could say to him is “no,” Jesus Christ comes and he says, “I’m going to extricate you from your slavery to the ‘no’ and I’m going to come and for the first time in human affairs I’m going to reciprocate the love and faithfulness of the Father toward you that’s unconditional from the human side and I’m going to say, “I’m gonna first crucify the ‘no’ that you’re inextricably bound in. I’m going to crucify it and I’m going to recreate you.” God is not just saying “yes” to you or “yes” in spite of your sin, or yes, go ahead sinning and I’ll forgive you as much as you want. He is saying “yes” from that direction to you in Christ, because Christ has taken the “no,” he’s crucified it, and he said “yes” to the Father in your behalf.
So when we begin to understand that grace is a “yes” to a “yes” – a yes from the God man-ward direction, and then a yes from the man God-ward direction, all of a sudden we begin to realize that forgiveness is pretty thorough, it’s not just a matter of slapping forgiveness on our sinfulness, or just pardoning the criminal – it’s actually a matter of crucifying us and re-creating us in Christ.
Every time we talk about forgiveness, I want us to move away from that liberal notion of just throwing a little forgiveness on top of the sinfulness, but instead, of understanding that God’s forgiveness is so much more thorough and his holiness is so much of a consuming fire, he can’t stand sin. He doesn’t want to tolerate sin and what it does to us, and the way it destroys us, because he loves us so much that his wrath serves as love in this regard, and he comes and embraces us at our worst. The doctor becomes the patient and then he says “yes” back to God for us, and being wrapped up in that Triune life is something we’re not aware of most of the time. But to the extent that we can be aware, and awareness is a keyword – because there is something going on, there is a Trinitarian dynamic that’s going on already and the question is –
JMF: And we’re part of it already.
JM: We’re part of it. God has said “yes” to us and he said “yes” for us, not just a sloppy kind of liberalism…
JMF: And this is the reality. The reality is we already are a new creation, even though we don’t see it yet because of our sinfulness. We already are a new creation, and it is the old self that we do see, that we are so frustrated with, that won’t survive this. The new self is already seated in heavenly places with Christ.
JM: I hate it when I define myself by what I think about myself. Because I think about myself usually in a sinful way. I think about myself as the old self. If I could just think about myself in truth, and Paul talks about this coming to the truth, and this idea that the spirit of truth will help us, to repose what is truly true and more deeply rooted than my sinfulness and brokenness. But I have a hard time doing that.
Let’s get back for a minute to that camp experience. We talked about how misleading it is to kids to say, “You’re a new creation, the old has gone.” Then they go back home and realize, the old has not gone. What we need to do is give them, we need to equip them for when they go back home so they know, “Yes, you are a new creation in Christ, not because of your decision, or not because of what you’ve done, but because of what he’s done and what he’s accomplished in his finished work and his reconciliation of the world…
JMF: He will hold on to you and won’t let go of you in spite of your ups and downs in the days ahead.
JM: Yes. You are that new creation and nothing can change that. That is the indicative truth of who you are. On the other hand, your sinful nature is still there. It’s been crucified, and yet it’s still ghosting around, and it hurts, and it’s been relegated, if there ever was a question, by the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ – it’s been relegated to unreality status. But it hurts, it’s painful, and it crushes our relationships with God, and with other people. Yet there’s that sub-reality that we’re tempted to call the reality: our sinful, painful, broken, oppressed – lots of it – of injustice, and yet there’s a deeper Reality (with a capital “R” I guess you could say), and that one is eternal. This other one doesn’t have a future, like you said. It’s like the chicken that gets its head cut off and still runs around the barnyard.
JMF: That’s where the repentance problem comes in, with people misunderstanding what repentance is. They think that repentance is a life of perfection. Whereas repentance is a change of mind, to know what this reality is of who you really are in Christ in spite of this old self that still raises its head.
JM: Colossians 2 talks about Christ being the reality, and even Sabbath day observances can distort our mind and thinking and cause us to think that, that’s the reality and even the good becomes the enemy of the best. Or religion gets in the way, and our proud badges that we wear. But it goes on in chapter 3 to say, you have been raised with Christ, set your minds on things above. Practice living and thinking by the rules of reality, not by unreality. You’ve been raised with Christ. He says in the first part of Colossians 3, you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
Paul is not saying, put to death these things that belong to your sinful nature as if they haven’t been put to death already, or put them to death for the first time. He’s saying, be who you are. Live in correlation to the ultimate reality that’s been established by Jesus Christ. Not in correlation with the counterfeit, the pseudo-reality that the enemy would want us to live in – the father of lies would want us to live in.
JMF: We are to live like who you already are, not like we used to be.
JM: Right. That’s why the imperatives [the commands] are always couched within the indicative [the statement of fact]. Instead of giving someone more imperatives in isolated fashion – like pull yourself up by your own bootstrap for reform – change, that kind of thing. Paul is saying, you are hidden with Christ in God. It’s always hid before rid.
Put on Christ means “put on the mentality of thinking in correlation with truth, remind yourself and remind each other of that” (it’s a very corporate thing, as the end of chapter 3 demonstrates). This cannot be done and it’s not meant to be done by individuals. We need each other. We need to speak truth into one another’s lives.
I was with a friend who was struggling with pornography and he was a Christian brother. He felt like it had the best of him. He felt he was enslaved to it and there was not a thing he could do to change, and he was so ashamed and he was so broken by this. I remember having an opportunity to speak truth into his life and I said to him, “Brother, you died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. You died. You are a new person.”
Instead of some kind of sin modification or behavioral modification or sin management and trying to help him with all kinds of techniques to stop his habit, I tried to go deeper and to stare that pseudo-reality down and to say to him, there’s something deeper. Because otherwise it’s like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You’re just trying to deal with those symptoms of the sinful nature that are still there. When I said that to him, it pierced his heart and he begin to weep, because he needed to be reminded that this forgiveness was not something slapped on something that was the ultimate reality of his sinfulness.
JMF: His struggle with pornography is not the definition of who he is.
JM: No, it’s not. The best way to convince him of that is by speaking the truth of Christ and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal himself in such a way that it would get underneath, underneath what he thinks about himself, and allow him to be free.
JMF: And in time that will result in fresh behavior. It will result in fresh behavior from inside out, and struggling with sin, we’re always doing that on our own instead of with the repentant heart that says, this is not who I am. Here’s who I really am. Then you’ve got some kind of a starting place, and it changes the entire perspective in the whole experience.
JM: It does, if you know you have a safe place with Christ and other people around you know they have a safe place with Christ, and they all together have a safe place with Christ, you can talk about your sin in a way that the true and ultimate reality can come to bear and bring transformation.
It says, because of these things the wrath of God is coming. The cross will be revealed in all that is, and that is God’s “No” to our “No,” and he loves us so much. It’s like I love my kids so much, I’m not gonna let him go out there and play in the street, and I’m going to discipline him because I love him. But God’s “No” is always a “no” not for retributive purposes but for redemptive purposes.
JMF: We have no need to be afraid of God’s wrath because God’s wrath is for us redemptively to help us, to save us, to hold on to us, to embrace us in love. It isn’t to beat us over the head because we failed again – regardless of what…
JM: Exactly, Mike. There’s no use talking about the wrath of God apart from the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s where he takes our sinful, corrupt selves, and he crucifies them – in himself.
JMF: That’s reality.
JM: And his resurrection is reality.