When I was a little boy, there was this one paragraph from the novel, Where the Red Fern Grows, that would drive me nuts all day at school. I would sit in my desk and just think about the physics of it. The paragraph detailed how to trap a raccoon: drill a hole in a log, drive nails downward into the hole at an angle, and drop a shiny object, maybe some tin foil, at the bottom of the hole. The raccoon would be attracted by the foil, reach its paw into the hole, and grab the shiny object. To hold onto the shiny object the raccoon would, of course, need to ball its paw and by doing so, the width of the paw was increased making it physically impossible for the raccoon to slide its paw out of the trap.
Raccoons are too stubborn to let go.
These shiny objects seem to promise satisfaction but deliver death, and the sparkle of the foil is so alluring that the raccoons refuse to let go. They may die of starvation, they may bleed to death from the nails, or the hunter may come upon them and shoot. Regardless of how, these animals will literally die from stubbornness.
This analogy has become for me a working definition of idolatry: an idol is any shiny object that my heart grips more tightly than Jesus, whether it’s irreligious or religious foil. When I was a grade school student reading that paragraph, I wanted more than anything to stand up on my desk, open the book, and yell: "Just drop the shiny object!"
Now, as a pastor who is a young adult, I find myself wanting to stand behind my pulpit, open the Bible, and yell the same: "Just drop the shiny object!"
I especially have this heart for young adults, the dominant people group that God has chosen to make up the church plant I pastor. To twenty-somethings more than anyone else, the shiny foil seems to glitter more brightly, and like the raccoon trap, it is killing off an entire generation.
This is what I think it’s like to be a young adult: almost every year, you grow a little more bitter. Although you never process the progress because you mostly learn to pass the days and nights by living for “the next big thing.” And every “next big thing” once obtained becomes a “past thing” and you once again find yourself looking for a “next thing.” The cycle mercilessly continues.
It begins innocently as a child: you find yourself looking forward to your birthday, which always leaves you in tears the day after. It progresses as you grow older: you find yourself looking forward to the boyfriend and, once you make it official, you realize they don’t complete you. It is even in me now, shamefully as I type the words of this article on idolatry word-by-word, I find myself believing that the next facility my church plant worships at will redeem us from the slavery of our current facility. But, by the end of young adulthood, one-thousand things promising satisfaction have passed and left you unsatisfied. Bitter.
The closer I come to exiting young adulthood, the stronger my conviction is that the cult of “the next thing” is the deadliest trap for young adults. A character in a Wendell Berry play so acutely identifies this: “The world’s curse is a man who wants to be somewhere else.”
This explains the weightiness and gravity of James’ rebuke of the early church. They seem to be speaking in the tongues of the cult of “the next thing” by saying: “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” (James 4:13). This explains the gracious and corrective heart of Jesus Christ as he adamantly insists: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” (Matthew 6:34). And this should certainly cause us, as church leaders and pastors, to earnestly evaluate our churches to be sure they aren’t religious holes drilled into a log, nails hammered into them, and holding shiny objects. Lord, have mercy if our churches are borrowing strategies from the cult of “the next thing.”
For clarity’s sake: there are healthy ways of looking forward to next things, like a longing for Christ to return or an anticipation for certain future events. It’s not all bad. But we should be very careful of accidentally designing church practices to function as traps. Here are two examples:
Sometimes leadership promises are shiny objects. In many ways, I am the product of a loving lead pastor who took me under his wing, equipped and trained me for leadership, and he led me through this process without making grand promises. I perpetually heard him say, “Don’t promise anything unless you control everything.” It recaptures the heart of James’ rebuke, “You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
And it pains me to admit this, because doing so brings very specific names and faces of real people to my mind, but I have not always followed these examples in handling my leadership roles. In our church plant, there have been young adults on-the-fence, and in moments of insecurity spurred by their lack of commitment, I have sometimes promised leadership potential to people in a shameful attempt to trap them at my local church. All because I know it works.
But sometimes, the leadership promise never comes to fruition and there you are, standing behind a locked door with the keys of leadership in your hand. They feel like a trapped raccoon foaming at the mouth over a piece of tin foil you baptized with the language of “vision” and dropped into a hole you drilled in the church.
Sometimes vision statements are shiny objects. A church member once said to me, “Is that the reality or is that Cole Deike hyperbole?” I used to teach English and, in some ways, this is an advantage, but in other ways it’s a disadvantage to how I handle language as a pastor. I have the tendency, because I have the capability, of describing our church’s mission with "hype language." Every pastor struggles with this. If I’m not careful sometimes I can talk about our mission like it’s something more heroic than other churches' missions. Sometimes I can talk about our vision like the city needs it more than it needs Jesus. You know, hype language.
But what if God’s sovereign plan for our local church is to make modest, slow gospel progress within a few blocks in a small neighborhood? If God chooses to move in this way while you talk that way, hype language makes faithfulness look like failure. Organizational hype language can make local churches feel like traps when young adults think they are hopping into a ‘67 Mustang and, instead, find themselves in a horse-and-buggy.
But even if we are careful, we will still find ourselves guilty from time to time of trapping young adults by appealing to their idolatry of the “next thing.” Truth is, most young adults need what the Israelites experienced after building the golden calf - to have their invisible calf ground up, mixed in water, and digested - to experientially know the bitter taste of idolatry. And in these moments, when the young adults in your church have been let down and disappointed by the “next thing” not blossoming, I would encourage you to take comfort in the radical nature of the gospel. Jesus loves the raccoon with its paw trapped.
Rabid young adults, foaming at the mouth, hyperventilating, unwilling to let go of the “next thing” tinfoil, Jesus loves them. He doesn’t belittle or humiliate them, he moves towards them with the gospel. For trapped young adults like me, there is good news. Christ says, I am not just taking your paw out of the trap, I’m giving my fur to the hunter who trapped you. I’m not just taking your paw out of the trap, I’m taking the nails from the trap and piercing my hands and feet with them.
We need the gospel, not the next thing. It is the only message with the power to help us drop the shiny object, slide our paws out of the trap, and raise our hands in worship to the Christ.