Stop by your local church any given Sunday and you may hear the pastor say that fasting is a neglected discipline for most Christians in the United States today.
“[Fasting] … isn't a widespread corporate practice in the evangelical movement,” according to John Piper, author and pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis Minnesota. A recent sermon of Piper’s described fasting as a “much-neglected Biblical and spiritual discipline.”
Author and theologian John Stott observes, “Most Christians lay stress on daily prayer and sacrificial giving, but few lay stress on fasting.”
In spite of this seeming neglect, a new generation of Christian young people may be growing up with a deep respect for the idea of Biblical fasting. Since 1992, Christian humanitarian organization World Vision has been sponsoring “30 Hour Famine,” a hunger-fighting program that enables teens to raise money and awareness for the world’s poorest children and families.
Young people who participate go without solid food for 30 hours to get a taste of what the many needy children face on a daily basis. World Vision provides materials and collects the money raised, while local churches organize activities and service projects to help teens better understand world hunger.
And this year, many church youth leaders are taking advantage of a major cultural event to raise awareness of world suffering: the release of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. By coincidence, or providence, Gibson’s film released the same week as most churches plan their 30 Hour Famine activities. World Vision spokesperson Karen Kartes spoke with many church youth leaders who planned to integrate Passion with their church’s events.
Like any issue Christians face in this life, teens viewing a movie like The Passion of the Christ can potentially have a down side. “[Teens] will be strongly impressed by the suffering of Christ, and will feel profoundly moved in deep and mysterious ways,” according to T.M. Moore, Pastor of Teaching Ministries and Director of the Center for Christian Studies at Cedar Springs Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. “However, youth leaders should be careful to help young people understand why Christ had to suffer; The Passion is not real clear about that. [Youth leaders] should explain that His sacrifice is the evidence of His love, and they should be careful to tell young people that any sacrifice… made for any reason other than love, for God [or] neighbors, is of no ultimate spiritual value.”
“Many youth pastors I have spoken with are viewing the movie first so they can be prepared to discuss it with the kids,” Kartes told Crosswalk.com.
And while most of these kids have had Christ’s crucifixion explained to them many times, the impact of a visual production of the Passion cannot be underestimated.
“By his wounds we are healed,” says Kevin LaRoche quoting from the book of Isaiah. A youth pastor for junior high school kids at Renton Christian Center outside Seattle, Washington, this is the ninth year he has been involved with the 30 Hour Famine program. “The movie should bring an important visual presentation to the kids; this is what Jesus did for them,” he says.
Paul Millarc, youth pastor of the North Peachtree Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, agrees. “Kids today live in a visual world where everything is seen.” Christians must understand how kids today understand their world if Christians are going to impact them for the gospel, he says. Millarc hopes that when his teens see the Passion, they will be encouraged to talk more about evangelism. “Kids will feel more gratitude to the Lord for his sacrifice; I believe it will fuel their passion of service.”
According to Kartes, it’s natural to assume the fasting and community service activities of 30 Hour Famine fit well with the sacrifice illustrated in The Passion of the Christ. “Christ’s death was the greatest sacrifice, the greatest act of love, in human history,” she says.
Raising awareness about Christ’s sacrifice and those in need is an important part of 30 Hour Famine for Millarc, and why he is planning a viewing of the Passion as part of this year’s activities for the teens in his church. “What better way to understand the sacrifice of the Lord than to sacrifice some food and some of life’s pleasures?” Millarc said. “We hope it will ignite sacrifice and caring for others in the [30 Hour Famine] activities.” After viewing Passion, the teens for Millarc’s church planned on visiting a home for troubled children.
And despite the general controversies surrounding mainstream perception of the movie (some Protestants fear the movie is too “Catholic,” some Jews fear the movie is anti-Semitic, and some parents fear the movie is too gruesome for children), these controversies seem to be comparatively absent from the churches that World Vision works with. “Mel Gibson is a familiar and respected part of the culture that today’s teen has grown up in,” says Kartes. “He is now dealing with a subject matter that they are excited to incorporate in their ministry.”
Kartes also said that most youth leaders had take steps to be responsible about how they incorporated the movie, making sure they protect children by communicating with their parents. At Peachtree Baptist, parents and teens were attending the film together. At Renton Christian Center, the church sent home a letter to parents describe the Passion and their Passion activities, agreeing to provide an alternative option for parents who did not want their children to attend. “Although,” says Kevin LaRoche, “not one parent took us up on that offer.” Still other churches had parents sign permission slips.
The cruelty and violence in such a movie may not be appropriate for some, but LaRoche felt that it served an important purpose in the Passion film. “We have crosses in our churches and they are beautiful. Our kids sometimes where them as jewelry. So I think it’s important that these kids understand the brutality of cross. It was the electric chair of its day, Rome’s method of capitol punishment.”
“Using Passion along with 30 Hour Famine helps us … encourage the kids to go out and share the story of Jesus,” continues LaRoche. “Many of these kids will be taken to a new level in their relationship with Christ.”
Stephen McGarvey is the Editor of Interactive Media for Prison Fellowship’s The Wilberforce Forum, and Chuck Colson’s BreakPoint radio program. Stephen is also a freelance writer and a fellow of the WORLD Journalism Institute. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife Candice.