Dr. Andrew Zirschky
Andrew has more than 20 years of congregational youth ministry experience and holds an M.Div. and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Beyond the Screen: Youth Ministry for the Connected but Alone Generation and Teaching Outside the Box: Five Approaches to Opening the Bible with Youth.
Recently, the concept of gratitude has seized the cultural spotlight, permeating our daily conversations and self-help strategies. But delving into the ways that “gratitude culture” compares and contrasts with the theological foundations of the Christian concept of thanksgiving can shape our work and engagement with young people.
Thanksgiving: A Theological Foundation
Christian thanksgiving is deeply rooted in the belief that all blessings originate from God. It is a profound acknowledgment of God’s grace and providence, emphasizing that every facet of existence is a Divine gift. One distinctive aspect of Christian thanksgiving is that it requires an acknowledgment of our human finitude, limitations, and humility.
True thanksgiving requires us to acknowledge God’s goodness, and at the same time reflect upon and embrace our own frailty and dependence.
Further, thanksgiving is not merely a fleeting emotion but a spiritual discipline, an act of worship. Christian thanksgiving is not captured by superficial expressions of gratitude; Christian thanksgiving goes beyond a simple “thank you” to God and must entail a deep awareness of the source and rationale for gratitude — primarily God’s sovereignty and benevolence. Scripture is clear that thanksgiving is meant to be a life orientation, an alignment of our daily life in response to divine love and blessing.1
Thanksgiving Beyond Contemporary Gratitude
In contemporary culture, gratitude has gained significant attention, predominantly through the lens of pop psychology and individual well-being. The prevailing emphasis is on personal benefits and emotional wellness, with gratitude practices and journals serving as tools for self-improvement. While these endeavors hold merit, they often omit three transcendent dimensions integral to the Christian perspective:
- The Source of Gratitude: Christian thanksgiving is deeply anchored in faith, attributing all good things to God, whereas contemporary gratitude often lacks a clear source or object of thanksgiving beyond personal circumstances.
- The Reason for Gratitude: Christian thanksgiving is a response to God’s grace and love, while contemporary gratitude often both arises from and is directed toward personal benefits and emotional well-being.
- The Scope of Gratitude: While contemporary resources on gratitude often adopt an individualistic and self-improvement-oriented approach, Christian thanksgiving encompasses a holistic worldview that integrates a sense of divine purpose and destiny for all of creation. This becomes important for leading us beyond thanksgiving as a passive response to the circumstances of our individual lives, and toward thanksgiving as a foundation for our active participation in God’s grace for the world.
Unlocking the Potential of Thanksgiving in Youth
Research is continuing to reveal the positive health benefits of embracing gratitude in our lives. Certainly, Christian thanksgiving serves as an antidote for anxiety in contemporary young people by shifting their focus away from the self and its worries toward God’s sustaining goodness, fostering a sense of inner peace, resilience, and trust in God’s control over their lives.
Nevertheless, in a Christian framework, gratitude and thanksgiving are not primarily about the individual benefits that arise from the practice. Carrying over what I said above, gratitude in a Christian framework should inspire worship, foster our humility, and should lead to generosity and a desire to share God’s blessings with others, promoting a life orientation of compassionate giving for the life of the world.
Consequently, as we think about infusing practices of gratitude and thanksgiving into children’s ministry and youth ministry, it’s not enough to check the box and say we discussed the concept. Rather, we should seek for the young people in our care to connect thanksgiving, worship, and their ongoing response of compassionate giving as they go forth as agents of God’s goodness in the world.
- Numerous scriptures can anchor a Christian theological understanding of thanksgiving including: Ephesians 5:20; Psalm 107:1; Colossians 4:2; Colossians 3:17; 2 Corinthians 9:11; Philippians 4:6; and 1 Thessalonians 5:18. ↩︎