differenceOne of my dreams is to meet the person responsible for introducing the charge to young adults to “go out there and make a difference.” Youth and young adults are pressured and challenged to go “make a difference” but making a difference has never been clearly defined or quantified anywhere. For a few years now I have refused to tell my students to “go change the world” or “go make a difference.” Do those phrases really mean anything?

In light of this, I was naturally confused by Neal Samudre’s article over at Relevant Magazine titled “6 Things Holding You Back From Making a Difference.” The six things include comfort, entitlement, apathy, money, time, and yourself. That is, we are often too comfortable with our current circumstances. We often feel like we deserve to have whatever we desire. We lose interest in the things that matter outside of ourselves. We often reduce life to making money. We waste a lot of time. And, finally, we talk ourselves out of getting personally involved in important issues.

Ok, great. I get that. In fact, these are all part of the human condition that keeps us from doing all the regular things Jesus commands, like loving God and loving neighbor. My suspicion, however, is that the main “thing” holding young people back from “making a difference” is that they are being sent out on a mission that has no real meaning or a mission that is solely defined by one’s individual, and likely narcissistic, interpretation.

Samudre opens by saying, “As a child, I used to dream of changing the world. But now, I no longer treat that dream as a reality.” I believe this happens to many young adults because such dreams cannot be realized. Samudre continues,

We all want to be world changers, but many of us give up on the idea as childish and unrealistic. Maybe we think we can’t make much difference as one person, or our contribution will be too small. We can become complacent, settling into our normal routines and giving up on the idea that we can really make an impact.
But recently I began changing my perspective on things. I realized that it is only a choice not to make a difference in the world, and an idiotic one at that. There are no real circumstances truly hindering us from making a difference, whether it’s in the lives of two people or 2 million, whether through giving of our time, talents, money, influence or whatever else.

Again, what do phrases like “world changer,” “make an impact,” and “make a difference” mean? I have no idea. If you send a young adult on a mission to go “make a difference” it is like sending them out to sea without a map or navigational equipment. A mission without a map does nothing but cause anxiety and stress.

It seems that Jesus, alternatively, teaches something more concrete and real. When Jesus commissioned his people to be certain kinds of people and to do certain things he also provided a guide to navigate how to do that, and a scale to measure what that looks like: the Scriptures themselves. I am left wondering why the commission to love is not enough for us to say to young adults? The greatest commandment is to love God and love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40) and there is nothing more challenging and life-giving than that mission. Why do we need to tell young people to “go make a difference”?

Perhaps young adults are paralyzed by the notion of making a difference because the aphorism provides no direction. Maybe the apathy Samudre sees is actually confusion. Maybe the wasted time is simply not knowing what to do. Besides, “making a difference” and “changing the world” are actually up to God. Christians are commissioned to lose themselves in “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (Phil 4:8). And God, in the mystery of his economy, works it all out to fulfill his agenda, not ours.

I wonder, then, if it might be best to drop these supererogatory phrases altogether and stick to calling people to love. That’s right, it may be time to ban the use of “making a difference.” In the end, my response to Samudre is that there is only one thing, not six, possibly keeping people from “making a difference” and that is telling them something as meaningless as that in the first place.

12 Day: Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action)

12 Day: Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action)

Addressing topics ranging from the family to work, politics, and the church, Jordan J. Ballor shows how the Christian faith calls us to get involved deeply and meaningfully in the messiness of the world. Drawing upon theologians and thinkers from across the great scope of the Christian tradition, including Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Abraham Kuyper, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and engaging a variety of current figures and cultural phenomena, these essays connect the timeless insights of the Christian faith to the pressing challenges of contemporary life.

Visit the official website at www.getyourhandsdirtybook.com


  • anonymouse

    Maybe the Google Ngram Viewer can help you track down the first offender: http://tinyurl.com/klawd57

    ;-)

  • Drewl

    The greatest commandment is to love God and love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40) and there is nothing more challenging and life-giving than that mission. Why do we need to tell young people to “go make a difference”?

    This is a very weak theology you’re promoting: the assumption seems to be that Jesus’ calling is never “supererogatory” nor does it require examining or reordering the systems, structures, and relationships in which we find ourselves. These things can merely be accommodated; the greatest commandment demands nothing beyond a quietistic pietism.

    In contrast, Jesus’ teachings suggest the kingdom of this world is not naturally ordered toward agapic love. Loving others, then, will require bucking the system from time to time, will it not?

    • Aleteia

      You forgot to mention that God also told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is very important because we don’t want either masochism either narcissism.

    • Daniel

      It’s actually a weak theology he’s refuting: if young adults are only told that they can “make a difference” in this world, but never told for what or why, then their humanitarian impact has no eternal significance. They did not make a difference at all, but instead removed their own guilty feelings.

      • Drewl

        I don’t think anyone is arguing for a “make a difference” commission that either a) neglects specific directives or motivations or b) serves to absolves guilt or sin. You’re attacking strawmen arguments.