My first real exposure to a Christian movement was high school in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Like any middle-class, public high school, there were different people groups. There were jocks, nerds, emo kids, and of course, the Christian kids.
You could always identify the Christian kids by their skateboards with a cross painted in white-out on the grip tape, their profound enthusiasm, outspoken views, and most importantly, the “WWJD?” bands on their wrists. For those who don’t know, WWJD? stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” – a seemingly innocent question, turned major movement, used to inspire holy living and smart life decisions, particularly among Christian youth.
Recently, I began to reflect on that time, and what became of the “WWJD?” kids. I was not a Christian in high school. But now a Christian and pastor, I was curious what happened to my peers who had been so very passionate about their beliefs during their teen years.
Viewing different people’s lives from afar through social media, which makes it easy to stay connected with those you once nominally knew, and in personal conversation, I was struck that not one of the people I knew who once identified as a follower of Jesus back then, is walking faithfully with the Lord today.
This is saddening and perplexing in many ways. Many will chalk this up to a growth in knowledge (Luke 8:11), a loss of youthful enthusiasm (Luke 8:13), or to the busyness of life (Luke 8:14). But for such a vast and far-reaching departure from the faith, could it be there was something foundationally wrong with the loud, energetic movement of that time? What was it that led to the remarkable falling away of my classmates, who are just a few of the thousands of youth group kids that seemed to move into apostasy and a rejection of the Christian faith?
The Jesus of the “WWJD?” movement, and the way he was presented, created short-term enthusiasm but resulted in long-term abandonment.
The Jesus that was presented was your best friend. He was your homeboy, your buddy that exists to hang out and help you in life. This was personified in the creation of the “WWJD?” wristband. It was something you could wear to remind you of what to do and how to live. I mean, how could you make a wrong step when you always ask yourself what would my best friend Jesus do?
Well, something obviously did go wrong, and for all the good intentions of the WWJD? movement, it seems it had no power to keep people in the faith through the challenges and struggles of life. I believe this is a direct result of the simple fact that the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” is not a summation of the gospel but the Law.
As the oft quoted mantra, “What the Law demands it cannot provide,” tells us is that instead of reminding the youth of this movement of what Christ has done for them through his cross and what is available to them through repentance, faith, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit, they were instead made to set their eyes on the perfection of Jesus. All this showed them was how far their own desires were from the demands of a Holy God, on display, through the person and work of his son the God-man Jesus Christ (Col 1:15).
WWJD? bracelets reminded the youth of this movement that all the sinful desires that existed within them were so very far from the ways of Jesus. It left them only with the reminder of their own sinfulness and God’s holiness, but no way to see that gap bridged.
This sort of reminder strapped to your wrist on a daily-basis leads to pride in the short-term. As you keep the law in your own strength, and ultimately despair in the long-term as it becomes clearer and clearer there is no possible way you can ever live up to demands of Jesus’ obedience. Rather than living with true freedom in Christ as your righteousness, you were handcuffed to a millstone of the reminder of failure. Is it any wonder these youth ran from the faith in their late teens and early twenties?
As a result of this movement, many now see Jesus as a demanding taskmaster. No longer a best buddy, Jesus is now an enemy who always scowls and looks down on their shortcomings, parading his own perfection. He reminds them they are a failure and that even their best efforts will fall short of satisfying him. They cannot comprehend the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus who, in his grace and mercy, gave his perfection for their rebellion and offered his righteousness in place of their failure to live up to the demands of the law.
But, it is not over. These now thirty-something adults need to hear this good news. They need to return to the One who loves them. They need to experience grace like drought breaking rain, and might we be the ones to tell them.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.