Set Aside Judgment


 judgmentJen Bradbury

Whenever we come into contact with other people, there’s a temptation to play the comparison game. This is true of theology as much as anything else.

Theological differences are often especially apparent during events like the 30 Hour Famine, when serving others brings us into contact with people from different religions, denominations, races, or cultures. As we interact with people, we often notice differences in the way we pray; in how we worship; in how charismatic we are or aren’t; or in whether we emphasize serving others or evangelizing them. In conversations or during sermons, we might also notice differences in how literally we view Scripture or in what we believe or how we talk about Jesus.

Whenever we encounter such theological differences, the temptation is to judge others: to declare (even in our own minds) whatever we believe to be right and whatever someone else believes to be wrong.

The problem with this is that as soon as we decide someone’s theology is wrong or even a little bit off, we speak and interact from a position of arrogance and fear. Such a position prohibits us from listening to and learning from others. What’s more, it might inadvertently wreak havoc on the experience of our teens.

Imagine, for example, that you’re serving at a homeless shelter as part of your group’s Famine experience. Before dinner begins, shelter staff leads a worship service for all in attendance. As part of worship, an altar call occurs, something that is not a part of your congregation’s tradition. Even so, when given the opportunity to do so, several of your teens go forward during the altar call.

Later, you and another adult leader express frustration over a theology that emphasizes a one-time conversion rather than a lifetime of following Jesus. Unfortunately, one of the teens that went forward for the altar call hears you and fears she’s done something wrong. Her experience is now at odds with the faith tradition she’s a part of. As a result, she feels forced to either disregard the genuine encounter with Christ she’s just had – an encounter which, for her, might very well be the most significant experience she’s ever had with Jesus – or to begin questioning her place in your tradition, a tradition which to her, suddenly feels stale and irrelevant.

Certainly, neither of these options is good.

So what if, instead of judging the theology of others, we began viewing the theological differences we encounter in various places as opportunities to learn?

Take, for example, the altar call illustration. What if, instead of commenting on it with another leader, you processed the experience with your entire group? To do so, you could wrestle with the pros and cons of asking homeless people to attend worship before receiving the meal, comparing and contrasting this practice with how Jesus met the needs of people he met.

Beyond that, you could invite people to reflect upon what they saw and experienced before specifically asking those who stayed in their seats to talk about why they did and about how, if at all, the experience made them uncomfortable. You could then invite those who went forward as part of the altar call to share why they did so and how they encountered Jesus through that experience. After hearing directly from them, you could affirm and validate their experience. You could also invite teens to reflect on your congregation’s traditions and how they compare and contrast with the altar call they experienced. As part of this, you could talk about why your congregation does or does not utilize that experience and what other opportunities people have to commit to following Jesus. You could also dig into what Scripture says about following Jesus.

When we take time to process the different theologies we encounter while serving others, we show teens that rather than fearing or judging differences, we can learn from them; that we can grow spiritually even when (or perhaps especially when) something makes us uncomfortable; that the God we worship is much bigger than we might first imagine; and that even those who disagree with one another can still work together to bring God’s Kingdom here to earth.