I spent this past weekend snowed-in inside my apartment, significantly whittling down both my Netflix and Amazon Prime queues. Out of all the movies I watched, the one that has stuck with me the most has been Kung Fu Panda 3. Although I can’t say I’m a huge fan of the franchise, I decided to sit through the 2016 animated feature-length film due to it’s overwhelmingly fresh Rotten Tomatoes score and my desire to watch something charming and uplifting to dissipate the sense of doom with which Ex Machina left me.
Much of the reason why Kung Fu Panda 3 struck a chord with me was that the movie’s central themes echo what I’ve been reading as of late, a youth ministry book titled Woo by Morgan Schmidt. While Schmidt writes about “awakening teenagers’ desire to follow in the way of Jesus”, the Kung Fu Panda’s journey is one of awakening a village of pandas’ desire to follow in the way of Kung Fu. And how does one awaken the desire of a panda, you may be wondering? Schmidt might suggest approaching them like teenagers.
The plot of the movie centers on Po, the titular bear, who, with the help of his birth father, visits his ancestors in a secret panda-only village to help him “find” his true self. After spending some time connecting with his fellow panda, Po learns that Kai, a powerful ox from the spirit realm, is headed to the village to take him down. Realizing he won’t be able to take on Kai by himself, Po must train his new, less-than-skilled panda friends in Kung Fu if the village is to stand a chance. On top of that, Po isn’t much of a teacher.
Likewise, many humans get into the important business of youth faith formation with little or no experience. Often, the only templates of “formed faith” available to them is either unattainable Jesus-like perfection, the church down the street that does everything right, or the golden predecessor and their program. The kind of pressure and anxiety this builds in budding youth ministers is probably not unlike how Po felt when he was tasked with turning his bumbling, dumpling-eating, rather lazy panda friends into kung fu masters, a near impossible task.
Thankfully, Po has a highly skilled mentor, Master Shifu, who openly shared his wisdom. When Po would whine to Shifu “There’s no way I’m ever gonna be like you”, Shifu would respond “I’m not trying to turn you into me; I’m trying to turn you into you.” And this, my friends, is what I believe Morgan Schmidt would say is the goal of youth ministry. Instead of trying to make every student into carbon copy mini-Jesus clones, how can we help young people become their whole selves, using their own gifts and desires to bear God’s image to the world in a way only they can? The people who came to Jesus for help, such as the blind man and the hemorrhaging woman, did not follow him to become more religious but to become more whole in their own way. Paying attention to each student’s uniqueness must be intentional and cannot be taught from a youth ministry curriculum. Po models this intentionality well.
When Po arrived at the panda village, he was intentional about first learning the names of the pandas, then sharing a meal with them and learning about what each of their passions were. Many of the pandas were very good at cooking, rolling down hills and stuffing their faces with dumplings. Some of the younger pandas enjoyed fireworks and playing jianzi. One panda, Mei Mei, voiced by Kate Hudson, was a skilled ribbon dancer. It took a while for Po to listen and learn, but doing so helped him understand the community and each of the panda’s talents, which was very helpful when the time came to train them in Kung Fu to prepare for Kai’s inevitable arrival.
Anticipating the imminent showdown, one of the pandas exclaimed to his teacher “We can be just like you!” “You don’t have to be,” Po responded. “I have to turn you into you… Your real strength comes from being the best you you can be. So, who are you? What are you good at? What do you love? What makes you you?
With that exchange follows a great, kind of beautiful montage. By Po, the rolling pandas are coached into attack patterns. The pandas who stuff their faces with dumplings are taught to shoot them out of their mouth with machine-gun rapidity. The children practiced kicking and juggling their firecrackers like hacky sacks and even Mei Mei’s ribbon talents translated to fierce nunchuk skills! I won’t spoil the outcome of final battle with Kai in case you haven’t seen it, but had Po taught the pandas faith formation and Jesus rather than Kung Fu, the village would’ve looked like the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
God’s ultimate desire for humanity is that we be completely ourselves, so we can most fully show our neighbors what God is like, claims Schmidt. In other words, because we are all made in God’s image, we each have something unique about God in us to share with the world. If we are expecting our youth to be someone they’re not, that’s not good news. If we took the time to get to know each of our students and encourage them in their good desires and gifts to follow Jesus in a way that’s unique to them, the Church may have an awakening of its own.