Did you ever do anything really dumb in high school?

Silly question. Every thinking adult probably looks back on youth with mixed emotions: laughter and fondness followed by some regret and perhaps thankfulness that things didn’t turn out worse! From the goofy junior high drama to the senior year king-of-the-world pinnacle, that stage of life for most people holds a special place in the memory bank. And to maintain the analogy, for most of us, there’s plenty of memories tucked away in a safe-deposit box. This is why our parents coined the phrase, “Do as I say, not as I did“.  When my own son verbalizes his aspiration to grow up to be just like me, my reply of caution is generally “Aim higher son!”  I both muse and cringe to think of another version of me working his way through junior high and high school…

Recall those memories that elicit the most laughter. For me, one of them involved a lunch outing with friends in which a backseat passenger nearly fell out of the moving vehicle attempting to retrieve his wallet from the center of the roadway. There’s much more to that story… And then there was the time we broke into the school gym with a coat hanger to feed our passion for basketball, only to snap a friend’s ankle in a pick-up game. We deserted him like rats when security showed up… Poor guy. Or how about my friend who climbed out the first-floor window during Spanish class, entered the front doors of the school, and then came knocking at our classroom door. All this while the teacher was lecturing at the front of the room. Her clueless response was priceless: “Welcome to class, Jason!”  And the beat goes on.

Recollections like these have something in common that make them fond: Immaturity. In that time of life, it’s expected, and in retrospect, it’s highly entertaining. However, I for one am really thankful now that the adults in my life then worked long hours to convince me that “being me” was not a good long-term plan. This obligation of talking kids out of being themselves is arguably the most valuable contribution of Christian Education and ministry. Let me explain.

What are the most valuable attributes a grown man or woman brings to adult life? Unselfishness? Faithfulness? Dependability? Love? Diligence? Now, how many of these describe those humorous memories from high school? Chances are, not many if any of them. Fond memories serve a purpose, but they also illustrate a massive separation in thinking between stages A and B. Child and adult. Immature and complete. Goofy and serious. Practice and performance. In other words, somewhere along the highway of self, there must be a flashing sign that emphatically demands, “EXIT HERE! DANGER AHEAD!” Ought not there be some law enforcers to ensure the vehicles are exiting as encouraged?

Popular culture and secular education invest a lot of time convincing young people to continue doing something that really appeals to them: Keep making high school memories. They’re way more fun, more lucrative, more attractive than the alternative to getting off Interstate Numero Uno.  How often we hear of a program or idea to encourage kids to be who they are, to follow their own hearts, to champion their own cause, to question others’ expectations. And why not, kids? There’s nothing wrong with…you.  What mature, serious-minded adult who understands their own past and tendency toward foolishness would suggest such a thing? Answer: Only those who missed the exit themselves.

Our greatest work in education and ministry is to get people off the self-wagon and sway them into an others-serving mindset. Why? Because a life centered on itself, infatuated with itself, and in love with itself will only ever impact one person. The memories, like high school, might be fun, but the influence will sure be paltry.

I’m sure glad my parents and other adults of my youth convinced me to not be myself. They did so by insisting that service for Christ, focus on others, and investing self outside of self were the ingredients for a fulfilling life. I lacked the maturity then to desire the lesson, but they understood I would appreciate it one day. And now I do.

Jim Berg in Changed Into His Image puts it this way: “While the goal of most businesses is to please the customer, making him a consumer, the goal of Christian education is to change the customer, making him a contributor.”  We must work tirelessly to save students from themselves, knowing that one day they will likely agree that following that exit sign was exactly what they needed.