My kids love Rhett & Link’s Ear Biscuits podcast, but a recent episode where the hosts deconstruct their faith really rocked their worlds. How should youth leaders respond when these things happen?
When I was growing up in the 1980’s, road trips always came with a soundtrack. Our soundtrack included a little Hank Williams Jr., The Beach Boys, some Beatles here and there, and if we got really, really lucky we might get a little Chicago (to be clear, the 70’s Chicago, none of those Peter Cetera love ballads). But let’s be honest, our DJ was the driver, my stepdad. He controlled the tunes.
Fast-forward to the early 2000’s and somehow my wife, Katie, and I ended up with two kids of our own in the back seat of the car. On road trips we practically killed them with Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, MercyMe, a little Journey and Boston (only because we love them), and a good dose of worship music.
But Steve Jobs saw something we didn’t see. Mobile devices found their way into our lives and our kids began to develop their own playlists. I’m not quite sure how this happened, but the “aux cord” seemed to extend in length—suddenly it could reach all the way to the back seats. Before we knew it, the rugrats from the second row were calling the musical shots.
The beauty of this is that somewhere along the way Warren and Hudson introduced Katie and me to all sorts of fun stuff, including Rhett & Link, the YouTube sensations of Good Mythical Morning and podcasters of the Ear Biscuits show. These two guys (Gen X-ers about my age) have kept us in stitches for years. Complete goofballs. Just like us. The games, candor, cultural commentary, funny songs and sprinkles of church-life here and there—it all added a little joy to our lives. Rhett & Link have been more than a track on our mix-tape, they have felt like friends or even extended members of our Christian faith community. Their presence has been real and welcome in our home and as we’ve traveled on the road. We love these guys.
These are Your Youth Group Kids
Although the status or the vibrancy of their faith has never been abundantly clear to us, we learned over the years that these guys had been on staff with Cru, served as missionaries, been Bible study leaders, involved in campus ministries, read many of the books your students read (Keller, McDowell, Strobel, etc.), featured as the “Bentley Brothers” in Phil Vischer’s What’s in the Bible videos for kids, and grew up in the loop of the Bible belt in North Carolina. To be clear, Rhett & Link were not just ‘casual youth group kids,’ they were the kids you wanted to help lead your youth group or college campus ministry. They were active and highly engaged.
Just this past week we were punched in the gut when our 17-year-old son asked, “can we sit down and have a conversation?” (Gulp, those dreaded words.) Rhett & Link have announced they are no longer Christ followers. In their most recent episodes of Ear Biscuits (episodes 226 & 227), they walk listeners through the deconstruction of their faith. Our son Warren had questions. Lots of questions. Concerns. Doubts. Emotions. Honestly though, I was secretly thinking to myself, “Warren, bro, you’ve been following Jesus for over 12 years now. How is it that a single two hour podcast rocked your world?” Like you as a reader, I’ve heard dozens, even hundreds of stories of people walking away from their faith. So Katie and I checked this out for ourselves. This one was different. After I listened, I was sitting right beside Warren—gut punched.
Social media makes this personal. Very personal.
Here’s the thing about today’s social media engagement. When you listen to a weekly podcast (in video and/or audio only formats), you feel as if you get to know people on an intimate level. This I’ve-got-you-in-my-pocket-you-are-my-digital-best-friend mode of communication has transformed our culture. In the past, we may have only seen people like Rhett and Link for half an hour a week on Channel 13. Now they are with us everywhere: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix docuseries and hundreds of on-demand podcast episodes. We can look on Twitter and see our post right next to theirs. And when they joke and banter in episode 193, we feel as if we are sipping on coffee right alongside them.
Social media has made this feel personal and intimate.
This is a new cultural phenomena. It’s different. We need to pay attention.
In past generations, when celebrities or media personalities chose to deconstruct their faith, although grievous, this may have lacked a certain level of personal resonance or emotional impact. But now, when your child’s favorite social media personality, whom she follows closely via Instagram, shares a major decision, this is having significant impact on how she thinks, processes, and acts. If she’s not sharing this with you, you may never even know what’s happening in her heart and mind. She’s sitting beside you in the SUV each day and, unbeknownst to you, she’s developing an entirely different worldview. You’re together. But she’s alone.
Let’s think together for a moment about the impact of this particular situation with Rhett and Link. They have over 16 million subscribers just on their primary YouTube channel alone, not to mention the many tentacles of their podcast distribution and various other social media channels. Their influence is far reaching. And a big part of their brand has been this “we-grew-up-as-Christians-kids-just-like-you.” Katie and I find ourselves wondering, how many Christian young people (target audience ranging from 12 – 28) will now be grappling with “How in the world did these guys—who are just like me, who I’ve come to love so well – just abandon their faith? Perhaps I should consider this as well?” Out of curiosity, I took about five minutes to read through the comments on the Ear Biscuits podcast and was struck that well over 90 percent of the comments I read were affirming of their decision to leave the Christian faith. Many commented on how they have shared these same struggles and were quite relieved to know they are not alone.
What caused these Christian guys to ditch their faith?
What can child and student influencers learn from this?
To be clear, I have far more questions than answers, but as I have processed, these thoughts have come to my mind.
1). Lead with Love: Why can’t these guys be my neighbors? They are so talented, friendly and funny! If given the opportunity to share coffee with Rhett and Link, the top item I’d want to share with them is how much joy and laughter they bring into our home and how talented we think they are. Goofballs! But, oh so loved, and we are thankful for them. Do the kids in our children and student ministry feel gratitude and love from our church community? Do they feel a sense of belonging where they can trust you with their pain and their doubts.
2). Room for Doubt: After listening to both Rhett and Link’s faith deconstruction episodes (especially Rhett’s), it appears that Rhett was looking for absolute certainty in order for him to remain a Christ follower. Rhett leaned heavily into science and evolution as being what he perceives as insurmountable areas of thought that are incompatible with the Bible. He also referenced his doubts over the resurrection of Christ. It appears when he couldn’t connect every dot, he departed from the faith. This begs the question: In our ministries how do we help the student who is looking for absolute certainty?