By Terence Chandra
“It’s a tough world out there and I can help them be ready for it.”
— Johnny Lawrence
The last memory most priests have of their confirmation students is from the day of the rite itself — posing uncomfortably in starchy outfits chosen by their parents. Then, once the wishes of grandparents have been fulfilled and the certificate and the photos are there to prove it, both kids and parents are gone. The old quip that the rite of confirmation is nothing but a graduation ceremony from the Church has become something of a depressing cliché — an all-too-certain outcome that we’ve come to unquestioningly accept. All of this raises an important question: What can we, as leaders in the Church, do to reignite our passion for that which lies at the very heart of the Church’s mission; namely, to raise up and nurture committed, lifelong disciples of Jesus?
Recently, I’ve found some fresh inspiration in a Netflix series. Cobra Kai is a continuation of the Karate Kid movies — a trilogy which debuted in 1984 with the blockbuster starring Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi and Ralph Machio as Daniel LaRusso. Mr. Miyagi — a World War II veteran and seasoned karate master — is overflowing with ancient wisdom but lacking a protégé to mentor. Daniel, on the other hand, is a son without a father — the constant victim of bullying, lacking an older male figure to either protect him from a hostile world or train him to hold his own against it. Eventually, master and student meet. The unfolding relationship between the two characters constitutes the thematic and emotional heart of the movie. Under the wise, gentle, but nonetheless demanding tutelage of his sensei, Daniel is eventually able to best his chief antagonist, Johnny Lawrence, the star pupil of a vicious local karate dojo known as Cobra Kai.
In the Netflix Series, Cobra Kai, we are reunited with the former bully, Johnny, as a middle-aged alcoholic — a broken man whose life peaked in his senior year of high school before beginning a slow descent into a series of dead-end jobs and poisonous relationships. While he does retain some competency and love of karate, he has no one to whom he can pass his skill.
Daniel LaRusso, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength, launching a chain of successful car dealerships and co-running it with his equally successful wife — a woman who also happens to be a fine mother to his two stable, well-adjusted children. But, as good as Daniel’s life may be, there is something missing: none of his children (in the beginning of the series, at least) are interested in karate. In this sense, he too is something of a failure — certainly when it comes to the passing on of ancient knowledge.
The Netflix series centers around the two principal characters of Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso — two men who, at middle age, stumble accidentally into the role of sensei and mentor. Episode after episode, one by one, a disparate band of outcast teens slowly begins to coalesce around the two rivals — kids who are in just as much need of a master as Johnny and Daniel are in need of disciples. The result is a thematically rich, emotionally engaging series that is campy, funny, action-packed and, arguably, the best thing I’ve seen on television in years. From it, a church leader who is passionate about mentoring and eager to see the Church reclaim this fundamental ministry can learn three things:
The World Can Be a Hostile Place
Most of the adults in Cobra Kai do their best to shelter kids from this reality, from creating safe spaces to offering tedious, in-classroom anti-bullying lectures. But, when the school bell finally rings, the students are dismissed into the world outside of classroom walls — a world where social media gives bullying a cruel and sophisticated edge (without necessarily sparing the victims a good old-fashioned, after-school beatdown). One student is publicly shamed for her weight. Another is ruthlessly mocked for his cleft palate. A third would have been beaten unconscious were it not for the intervention of Johnny Lawrence.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the 21st-century, Western world is hostile to the way of Christ. Not violently hostile as it is in other parts of the world. Rather, one could say that the intellectual, moral and cultural currents of the contemporary West are so forceful that, on their own, they are enough to break the uncertain faith of most adolescents, fresh from their altar call conversion at church camp. A couple of punchy jokes from an atheist comedian or a viral meme mocking the religious are enough to stir up doubts. But what happens when they stumble across a Dawkins or Hitchens lecture on YouTube? What happens when they take their first philosophy class in their freshman year of undergraduate studies or, for that matter, attend their first house party? It’s unlikely that they’re going to think back on that lecture their parish priest gave them on the definition of a sacrament and quickly rally to the side of Christ. This brings us to our second lesson.
Discipleship Should Involve Training New Christians to Meet That Hostility
For Daniel — schooled as he was by the incomparable Mr. Miyagi — this involved engaging in hours of repetitive motions — “Wax on, wax off!”, “Paint the fence!”, “Sand the floor!” — all designed to sear the motions of combat into mind, bone, and muscle. For Johnny — who learned martial arts from a hardened Vietnam war vet — this involves training that borders on abuse, from siccing hungry dogs on terrified 12-year-olds to forcing his pupils to keep a cement mixer in motion from the inside lest the liquid harden around their ankles and trap them in place.
While I would highly recommend against sticking your youth group kids into a cement mixer (most church insurance plans don’t cover it), it seems a bit more rigor is most certainly needed in the contemporary Church’s approach to mentoring youth. Confirmation classes should take the intelligence of young people seriously — equipping them with basic rebuttals to the salient arguments of many of the new atheists. With regard to the Scriptures, young disciples should be trained like scribes for the kingdom of God, bringing out of their storehouse treasures both old and new (cf. Matt. 13:52). As to the formation of Christian character, the mentoring they receive ought to be patient but rigorous, gracious yet exacting. It takes a very special kind of mentor to guide young Christians in this way. Which brings us to the third and final lesson on discipleship that we glean from Cobra Kai.
The Church Needs Passionate Mentors Willing to Hang in There for the Long Haul
Among the most moving moments of the third season is when Johnny Lawrence, exasperated by his own failures, turns to his star pupil, Miguel, and laments his decision to ever start a dojo in the first place. Miguel, now equally frustrated, turns to Johnny and says, “You’re a sensei! That’s who you are. If you can’t see it, you’re blind.” It’s then that it finally begins to dawn on Johnny that there is indeed a calling on his life. His calling is to take on the role of sensei and devote his energies to equipping his students with a set of ancient skills. And, in order to fulfill such a calling, Johnny knows that — as hard as things have become — he can’t just give up on himself, on Miguel, or any of his students. He has to hang in there, working away, “whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convincing, rebuking, and encouraging with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2).
The church needs mentors like Johnny — people who have a burning, God-given calling to impart an ancient faith to the next generation of disciples. Their success should never be gauged on the size of the church’s youth group or how many kids they can sign up to participate for any given function. Rather, if their calling is real, mentors like Johnny will want to go deep — working hard to build trusting relationships that last for years.
If Cobra Kai, as a pop-cultural artifact, can teach us anything about the broader culture, it’s this: there is a hunger out there — particularly among the young — for a kind of training and mentorship that is both difficult and demanding. Given that there is nothing more demanding than the way of Christ, it could very well be that the Church is uniquely poised to meet this hunger. We can only do so, however, if we reclaim discipleship as a core component of the church’s mission.
The Rev. Terence Chandra is an Anglican priest who, together with his wife, founded Central Saint John Community Ministries (CSJCM) — a ministry active in the urban core of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Going by the title “Community Priests,” they work outside the walls of the church, serving those on the margins of society. You may follow their ministry at penniesandsparrows.org.