The Rebelution "Do Hard Things Tour" 2008: A Review and Critique
I attended the first stop of Alex and Brett Harris’ "The Rebelution 2008 Tour"
Youth Conference on April 5, 2008 in Hickory, NC. I went with a group of parents and teens from my church. My 14 year old daughter was also one of the participants. When our youth parents met last year to look for upcoming events or conferences we might attend, a desire was expressed to attend an event that was not of the typical evangelical youth camp variety. We thought we had found a winner in the Rebelution Conference and went to the event looking forward to hearing the challenge to "Do Hard Things."
The following is a review and critique of the event.
First, some general information.
The conference was held on the campus of Lenoir-Rhyne College. There were about 1,500 youth and adults present, completely filling the meeting auditorium. The conference met from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and consisted of four plenary sessions. Session 1 was led by Alex Harris; session 2 by Brett Harris; session 3 by Gregg Harris; and session 4 featured brief presentations by all three plenary speakers. Alex and Brett Harris have gained notoriety through their therebelution.com website
. They are home-schooled 19 years old twins and the younger brothers of Joshua Harris, author of the popular evangelical book, I Kissed Dating Goodbye
. They advocate "a teenage rebellion against low expectations" typified in their motto, "Do Hard Things." The Harris brothers have a new book titled (naturally) Do Hard Things
which is being released this month (April 2008) by Multnomah. Their father, Gregg, is a pastor and leads Noble Ministries. Another older brother, Joel Harris, served as the music worship leader for the meeting. The conference was also noteworthy for making use of interactive technology. Youth were given keypads to use and could respond to various questions and surveys during the conference while the results were displayed in mere moments.
Second, some affirmations. The first two session led by Alex and Brett were informative and challenging. They did a good job of critiquing "the myth of adolescence," pointing out how the concept of teen culture is a relatively new phenomenon (e.g., the word "teenager" was apparently first used in a Reader’s Digest article in the 1940s!). Previous generations expected young people to act in a mature manner and to behave responsibly. The historical examples given were effective. George Washington was a surveyor at age 17 and was the head of Virginia’s militia at 23. David Farragut was a sea captain at age 12. Clara Barton was serving as a nurse at age 11 and went on to found the Red Cross. The twins did a good job of challenging the youth to see their teen years not as a time to coast but as a launching pad for their futures. They reminded the youth that acting responsibly and learning valuable skills (like simply being able to carry on a meaningful and respectful conversation with adults) would require practice and endurance before being securely mastered.
Third, some critiques. I have to say that there also some disappointments in the conference that make me hesitant to give it full endorsement. In reflection on the event, the foundational critique can be summed up in the idea of "mixed messages." What were the mixed messages?
Here are a few:
1. In music.
On one hand, the children (and adults) were being encouraged to live in a way that is separate and distinct from the world. The worship music in the conference, however, was rock based contemporary praise music. Joel Harris led with a strong voice on guitar accompanied by a youth praise band. Before the conference I had anticipated that the worship would not be traditional, but I did not know how loud and driving the music would be. Here is where the problem of a mixed message arises. The rock musical style includes a non-verbal level of communication, even when the lyrics are "Christian." It communicates sensuality and an anti-authoritarianism, precisely the opposite messages that stressed purity and submission (to God). For more reading on this, see Dan Lucarini’s Why I Left Contemporary Christian Music (Evangelical Press, 2002), and the book he co-wrote with Don Blanchard, Can We Rock the Gospel? Rock Music’s Impact on Worship and Evangelism (Evangelical Press, 2006).
2. In promotion of "celebrity."
This is a difficult issue for any Christian whose ministry achieves notoriety. Alex and Brett were presented as teen heartthrobs. At each break, teens (primarily girls) mobbed them seeking autographs. Again, there is a mixed message. How do we tell Christian children to resist the "Teen Beat" style worship of celebrity when we seem to be creating an eerie "Christian" alternative?
3. In marketing.
Again, on one hand the twins presented criticism of the jaded culture’s marketing to teenagers as consumers. On the other hand, there was an overemphasis on promotion of t-shirts and books. Every break between sessions featured extended give-aways of one or two items that were available at book tables in the auditorium lobby. Sometimes these book promotions seemed longer than the plenary sessions themselves. Granted, it was fun to see a room full of children jumping up and down hoping to "win" a copy of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology! Still, the book promotion undercut the sincerity of the event. Though there was an offer of a pay-what-you-can policy on the books for those who could not afford them, it seemed unlikely that many (if any) in the auditorium would take them up on the offer.
One problem with this sort of thing is the line between a business and a ministry. On one hand, this is a ministry. But on the other hand, this is their livelihood. This seems to be an especial problem in the homeschool community where an entrepreneurial spirit and family micro-businesses are promoted. The problem is that the intended objects of ministry can come to feel more like customers than congregation, and the ministers more like salesmen than servants.
4. In evangelism.
This was the most troubling part of the meeting and one I had not anticipated. In the third session, Gregg Harris preached a gospel message. Though it started slow, by the end Harris was giving an engaging presentation of the gospel. He spoke clearly about sin, God’s wrath, Christ’s cross, grace, and faith. The trouble came at the end when Harris offered an altar call that raised ethical and spiritual questions. He asked the students to respond to a series of interactive questions with responses displayed on the screen. It concluded by recording that c. 200 of the students present were either not believers or were uncertain of their beliefs. He first urged those students to believe in Christ. Next he asked those who had done so to stand. When a few scattered individuals stood, he poured on the guilt telling them that if they could not stand in a room full of people who would applause their actions, how could they stand for Christ in the world. With substantially more standing he then invited them all to come to the front of the auditorium. Several hundred youth walked forward. The speakers gave a book from the book table to each (not a Bible as one of the parents in our group pointed out!) and sent them back to their seats.
Why was this a mixed message? The Christian life had been presented as a matter of "doing hard things" for Christ. The altar call made it all a matter of standing up and walking forward. On one hand, Gregg Harris has decried superficiality and nominalism among evangelicals quoting SBC statistic that over 80% of those involved in church youth groups eventually drop out of church. On the other hand, the method of evangelism he employed is precisely the cause of so much nominalism. One parent in our group asked, "How many of those who went forward were truly saved and how many may have been given a false assurance of salvation, because they ‘walked forward.’"
The Harris brothers are great fans of reading. I would suggest two books that might lead them to remove the high-pressure altar call and, thereby, greatly strengthen the Rebelution Conference experience. Those books would be Walter Chantry’s Today’s Gospel: Authentic or Synthetic? (Banner of Truth, 1970) and Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of Modern Evangelicalism 1750-1858 (Banner of Truth, 1994).
In conclusion, the conference had many notable and laudable aspects. It has provided plenty of material and opportunity for fruitful conversation with my daughter, who generally enjoyed the event. If only the messages had not been so mixed.
Note: I am also sending a copy of this review and critique to the Harris family.