Chances are you’ve heard of Westboro Baptist Church, that small, outrageous congregation in Topeka, Kansas, whose members, led by Pastor Fred Phelps, carry signs that say, among other things, “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.”
Phelps’s granddaughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, held those kind of signs when she was a tot, and in recent years she was in charge of Westboro Baptist’s social media strategy — yes, they have one.
In fact, Megan, now 27, was prolific and popular, tweeting up to a hundred messages a day, with a huge following. She was a regular guest on a local morning show, and by all accounts was a somewhat winsome witness for a small congregation with a closed and hate-filled message.
Then suddenly one day last October, Megan’s Twitter account went dark. Well, she turned up the other day, and it turns out she has left Westboro Baptist. It’s been a painful separation from her close-knit community and all she loved and held to be true. Megan says, “I still cry a lot.”
How did one so sheltered and seemingly so confident in her beliefs give them up? Apparently, a very small thing got her mind spinning — a digital social media relationship with a Jewish fellow who quoted Jesus. He said, “If anyone is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”
She was amazed that a Jew was quoting Jesus to show how intolerant Westboro is, and it sent her into a tailspin.
It was an obvious point, but Megan was totally unprepared for it. Her case shows that it doesn’t take much to shake up a weak and tottering worldview.
Steve Garber, in his book The Fabric of Faithfulness, talks about the concept of having a “big-enough” worldview; a worldview that is big enough for the actual world. Here’s what I mean: If the worldview you acquire in a very sheltered environment eventually encounters an idea that doesn’t fit — maybe something in science or philosophy or maybe just a really tough time in your life that your worldview can’t handle — then you’re at risk of a spiritual crash and burn.
And this isn’t just about a 6-year-old girl who holds up a “God Hates America” sign and later walks away from her beliefs. It’s about us. It’s about what’s happening in evangelical churches everywhere.
As David Kinnaman tells us in books such as You Lost Me, our kids are going to Sunday school, to our youth groups, then heading off to college, and often joining a massive exodus.
They’re leaving not just because of our weak ideas and clichés; it’s also because of our seeming irrelevance. As one young person, Mike, told Kinnaman, “I knew from church that I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it. I didn’t believe in God anymore.” Another, Dennis, said, “It just feels like the church’s teaching on sexuality is behind the times.”
Look, it’s not that biblical teaching they hear is wrong; it’s that the worldview we’re giving young people is not big enough to handle the real world. We can’t hide from tough questions, and we must talk about the real world challenges they will face.
That’s why I love Summit Ministries, a ministry that seeks to give high school and college students a big-enough worldview. I’ve taught there for nearly 10 years, along with some of the top Christian thinkers and communicators anywhere. At Summit, students ask tough questions, and we believe our faith can handle the truth; that Christianity is sturdy enough to take on all comers because God is the author of all truth.
It doesn’t mean that every question will be answered and no tough times will come. But a “big-enough worldview” can absorb the challenge and not be toppled over.
Facing these things, even if it’s uncomfortable, is far more helpful than ignoring them. Because, sooner or later, those questions will come. Isn’t it better to face them together, as the body of Christ, than to allow our young people to face them alone in a far more hostile environment?
For more information on Summit Ministries and their outstanding worldview conferences for high school and college students, come to BreakPoint.org and click on this commentary.
John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.
BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.
Publication date: February 18, 2013