The Jesus Jacket

I read an interesting yet disturbing article recently on intergeneration connections and the involvement of teens after they graduate from high school. The article was written by Kara Powell and it was called, “Faith that Sticks.”

Studies suggest that approximately 40 to 50 percent of our students who are part of a church or youth group will fail to stick with their faith beyond high school. This should greatly disturb us and cause us to rethink how we do discipleship with students.

To try to understand more about the current state of both youth and the church, Kara Powell who works at the Fuller Youth Institute studied 500 youth group graduates from across the U.S. during their first three years in college. The primary goal was to identify church and family practices that build lasting faith, or what we call “sticky faith.”

What they discovered can be explained with the phrase, “The Jesus Jacket.”

When asked to define what it means to “be a Christian,” thirty-five percent of students didn’t mention Jesus at all.

The most dominant theme in college students’ descriptions of being a Christian was that it means to “love others.” Certainly, that is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching. But even most atheists think it’s a good idea to love other people. But true faith demands a bigger, Jesus-centered view of the gospel.

Their research found that many young people view the gospel like a jacket; they can put it on or take it off, based on what they feel like doing in any particular situation. If they’re going to church or hanging out with Christians, they put on their “Jesus Jacket.” If they’re headed to a party or drifting toward spiritual apathy, they toss the Jesus Jacket into a corner.

One of the central reasons students put their faith aside is because they have a flawed understanding of the Christian life. They’ve picked up the idea somewhere, maybe from parents and church leaders, that following Jesus means merely following a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts.” For example:

Do … go to church and youth group, read your Bible, pray, give money, share your faith, get good grades, respect elders, go on mission trips, and be a good kid.

Do not … watch the wrong movies, drink, do drugs, have sex, talk back, swear, hang out with the “wrong crowd,” go to Cancun for spring break, or go to parties.

For many of our young people, the gospel has been reduced to what Dallas Willard calls the “gospel of sin management.” The gospel becomes a list of rules and virtues, with Bible verses attached. When young people set this gospel aside, it shouldn’t surprise us. Wouldn’t we do the same?

We have to admit that this “Jesus Jacket syndrome” is partly our fault as pastors, leaders and parents. We have done a better job teaching folks what not to do than we have about experiencing a loving, grace filled relationship daily with the living Lord. We have failed to teach the real gospel that is grounded in grace rather than guilt and have focused more on the commands (do’s and don’ts) in the Bible.

Mark Labberton, long-time pastor and now preaching professor at Fuller, has observed “students really need to grow up hearing about and experiencing God’s grace. The presence of one without the other can cause serious damage to students’ lives.”

Is your definition of a Christian more doing or being? I think it is more being. As Rick Warren says we are human beings not human doings.

I believe this “Jesus Jacket” issue is not just affecting our young people. It crosses all generations. We have embraced a cultural, easy to put on or take off Christianity where you can decide when you are a real follower of Christ and when you don’t feel like being a follower, rather than keeping our Jesus jackets on 24/7 and experiencing the authentic New Testament Christianity that is real, vibrant, and relevant to any generation.

One thing churches can do is to develop a mentoring ministry with young adults and students. The impact of “one on one” can make a life time difference.

What is your church doing to disciple teens and young adults?

Keep the Son in Your Eyes,

Mike James




  1. Keep up the good work Chris. You certainly are moving in the right direction in reaching young adults. Blessings!

  2. I definitely don’t think we’re doing everything right, but we’re working towards better ministering to our youth and young adults. Since coming to the church, we have started a young adults Sunday School class. We will be having our first Sunday School party (a Christmas gathering) on Monday evening. While not a focused discipleship meeting, we’re living life together, and that’s a huge step forward for our church who until recently thought that we couldn’t reach out to that age group.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.