Monday, January 14, 2008

    Hard As Nails?

    Anyone else catch the HBO documentary about the Hard as Nails youth ministry and its founder Justin Fatica? In the doc he is referred to as a "non-ordained catholic minister" (not certain what that means) though his schooling is in the area of education. His ministry takes a decidedly "in your face" approach to attract teens, particularly those from troubled backgrounds. It's sort of a "scared straight" for youth ministry. I have to say that this fellow seems sincere in his desire to help youth. But screaming his sermons, tying 12-year-olds to crosses, blindfolding them, pretending to beat and kick them, and having others scream insults at them like drill instructors (so that they can know what Jesus endured for them) borders on or perhaps teeters right over into abuse. Fatica seems to be taking Catholic guilt related to the crucifixion of Jesus to a new level not seen since the flagellants of the 13th century (who were declared heretics by the Church). And yet he has a growing following of teens who are responding to his version of Christianity that pairs the benefits of Jesus' love with the threat of damnation.

    All this sounds like yet another example of a youth ministry movement that, whether intentional or not, is manipulating the teenage brain. Fatica's techniques take advantage of that fact that the frontal lobes of a teenager's brain (the center of logic and reasoning) are much less developed than the amygdala, a brain structure that governs the fear response and other emotions. The Hard as Nails program is designed to elicit an extreme emotional response from teens. Many of Fatica's public appearances reportedly bring teens to tears. But (and I mean this seriously) NSYNC used to send lots of teens into fits of emotional overload, but they grew up and got over it. Just how long lasting will the Hard as Nails approach be with the young people who get caught in its cathartic wave? I have to wonder if, in the long-run, these teens would benefit much more from counseling with a trained therapist.

    Many reviewers of the documentary comment that it does seem that Fatica is "reaching teens." But to what end?



    Calvin said...

    Yes, but trying to reach teens in other, less manipulative, ways takes a lot of time, patience, and heart ache. I'm not saying that this youth minister/pastor/whatever is doing this for the glory, but it is hard to do youth ministry in a way that is not manipulative, that meets students where they are at and invites them to meet Jesus but without the threats.

    I'm trying to do this in my current youth ministry, and its easy to get discouraged. Of course, I'm also trying to do it without the Battlecry like declarations of teens as divine warriors. I think that those kinds of things, although manipulative, really get teens excited. To offer another, less adrenaline laced, path is difficult. Especially in the current climate of youth ministry in the United States.

    Jacob said...

    I did not watch the documentary. But, based on the trailer, I am very skeptical of this type of youth ministry. To me, it looks like a form of abuse--abuse that should not be tolerated anywhere, particularly the church. The message of the gospel is not violence. Threats, manipulation, and fear are not the teachings of Jesus. The message of the Bible, and the message youth should hear, is an alternative presence and way of life--a life that focuses on peacemaking, loving your neighbor, seeking reconciliation, and trusting in God.

    Matt said...

    We talked about this in a class I am taking right now with Andrew Root at Luther Seminary.

    This seems to be a resurrection-less form of Christianity. There is no theology to this tactic, it is simply motivational (i.e. Jesus went though this for you, so be good and love him). That the tomb is empty seems to be moot.

    jeremy zach said...

    Where is this dude's church at? (geographical location?) This dude is like the Mark Driscoll of YM.

    I wonder if the student see through his intensity?

    Brian said...

    His website says he "currently resides in Syracuse where he is the Director of Mega Youth Ministry (a Catholic youth ministry program that collaborates with 5 parishes." But he takes the Hard as Nails program all over the country and even internationally.

    Having watched the doc on HBO, he does seem to connect with some kids one-on-one and shows genuine concern for them and no doubt reaches them in ways others have not be able to, but my concern is with the more public approach of his ministry and the impression it is giving youth of Christianity on steriods.

    As Calvin points out, in the current climate, our task of getting the attention of youth is difficult. And this is precisely the reason Fatica gives for taking his extreme approach. Those of us not willing to take the "Battlecry" or "Hard as Nails" approach will always struggle with attracting kids through the noise of culture, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

    Matt, I'm interested in what it means that this is a "resurrection-less form of Christianity." How would this fit into his Catholic theology?

    Matt said...


    First of all, I have seen a different clip that was a little more telling of the message he was trying to proclaim through this technique.

    Second, I understand all clips are only a glimpse of a person and do not reveal the whole broad spectrum of a ministry.

    That being said, the message appears to be motivational in nature. Jesus Christ went through all this pain and agony, for you, therefore you need to live for him. The resurrection is not a necessity, only the crucifixion.

    For that matter, the incarnation might not even be a necessity. There was a person who went through all sorts of terrible crap for you. That he happened to be the Son of God is merely coincidental.

    Now, I am not saying he does not believe in the resurrection or the incarnation, but that his mode (and perhaps even the explicit message) does not proclaim resurrection and incarnation.

    As far as Catholic theology goes, Catholics often do focus on the suffering of Christ quite a bit. It is almost exclusively Catholic churches that have crucifixes in the sanctuary, not an empty cross. Their Eucharistic theology as being the literal body and blood of Jesus might also play into the continued suffering of Jesus Christ on our behalf (I'm only speculating; I am quite unfamiliar with the nuances of Catholic eucharist theology).

    Anyways, that's my thoughts.

    Brian said...

    Thanks, Matt. That does make sense, particularly as regards more orthodox Catholic theology. Reminds me somewhat of Mel Gibson's "The Passion" which puts all the emphasis on the suffering of Jesus and treats the resurrection almost as an afterthought. It also makes sense that teenagers might respond to the emotional and viseral aspects of Jesus' suffering and not so much to the more theologically challenging subject of the resurrection.

    jeremy zach said...
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    jeremy zach said...

    Sorry I had to watch this video again. It reminds of watching "Jackass". The Kingdom of God is about pain, and if there is no pain there is no gain. Step into a slim jim...............

    Who wants to follow Jesus?

    LL Cool J said it best: Momma is going to knock you out. Instead this guy is saying: Jesus is going to knock you out. Jesus is going to knock you out.

    okay..I am done and I had my fun.

    Danny said...

    Rather than the rambling, "on the one hand/on the other hand" comment I was about to write, let me just say that I know a few youth who need pumped-up, in-your-face kinds of ministry. However, they won't get it from me--that's just not who I am.

    It does appear that the ministry shown in this trailer has gone too far, perhaps even being violent and abusive; but 60-seconds (or however long it is) is not enough for me to make a judgment.

    Thurberdog said...

    As (I'm assuming) the one marketing guy who reads this blog, my reaction to this approach is decidedly a marketing-centric one: in modern mass media, the means by which you communicate your message/brand is very tightly linked in the mind of the consumer to the message itself ("the medium is the message"). Good marketers warn their clients about brand integrity and perception and how it can be deeply affected (and corrupted) by what you connect your message to and how you communicate it. (For instance, Tiffany's is a premium brand, so they shouldn't tarnish that by selling their product through Wal-Mart) So, when you decide to communicate the message of Gospel by means of screaming and demonstrations of physical assault, you are not just communicating that assault and aggression are core to your message, you are essentially saying they ARE your message. And don't think for a minute that teen consumers are always savvy enough to separate the medium from the message -- in fact, marketers can generally count on them not being able to do so.

    Scott said...

    Ladies and Gentlemen,
    Let me just say that I have SEEN the documentary, and it is quite a different approach. While being different, it must not be chastised as abuse. While his methods are unorthodoxed, they are effective. We must be accountable for our sins and learn from them. Too often now children are elevated to an inappropriate status without realizing the effects.

    I can tell you that a part several of you didn't reference was when he was out of the country (can't remember where) and he had his child with him. He asked a kid if he would die for his son. He then told him he couldn't kill his son for the kid. Pretty powerful stuff. It wasn't "in your face" was a conversation. I am an adult, and it got my attention! Myself and my fiance work with the youth in our church, and I can tell is tough to reach them. In fact, our pastor stated a few months ago that a study was done and faced with the current trends....only 10% of our youth will be involved with the church as adults!! That is a very interesting and somewhat scary trend to say the least. Understand, this is something that can't be for certain...but chilling.

    Brian said...

    I think Thurberdog has a valid point that the approach we take in ministry contexualizes our message. This is the reason I can't preach peace to my youth and then turn around and let them have fun playing lazer tag or paintballing. (BTW: Anyone else notice that Thurberdog looks a lot like me?!)

    Scott: Thanks for sharing a different point of view. Certainly it helps to watch the whole documentary to get a better sense of this ministry. I will say that when I watched it, I couldn't get past the feeling that this guy was using his baby as as just another prop to push his point.

    Wannabe Prophet Hater said...
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