Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Syncretizing Youth Ministry?

    "Syncretizing youth ministry." If that phrase doesn't get your heart racing, I don't know what will. So, what does it mean? The word syncretism implies "the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion." What could it mean to apply this term to youth ministry?

    Let me give you an example. I help lead a discussion group of students at a seminary here in St. Louis. Occasionally we go on outings to local churches to hear about their ministries and to analyze what they do and why. Recently, we attended a large, affluent suburban congregation. When we entered the front doors of the church, my immediate reaction was "I think I've been here before," even though I knew that I hadn't.

    The main room was a wide open space which led into the sanctuary. Off to one side was a "bookstore" and off to the other side was a mini version of a food court and a coffeehouse. On the tour, we were taken through the children's wing. On the walls were murals that carried along the aquatic theme of the Sunday school program. These were clearly not murals painted by children or any ol' church member. They were professionally done. In fact, they were so well done, along with some well-placed plastic palm trees and life preservers that it looked just like the children's areas of Disneyland.

    Next, we were taken down a long hallway, the entire length of which was lined with what appeared to be framed "coming attractions" movie posters, just like you would see in a movie theater. Sure enough, they were movie posters -- or at least, faux movie posters of Bible stories made up to look like real movie posters. Very slick.

    Finally, we were taken into the youth area which opened into a large "garage grunge" themed space with faux spray-painted graffiti on the metallic walls, a stage for a band, theatrical lighting, and a DJ booth up in a balcony. Branching off from this main space was a coffee lounge, a video game lounge and a small movie theater.

    Had you knocked me unconscious, dragged me to this space, and woken me up by throwing cold water on face, I would have had no idea I hadn't been kidnapped and taken to the local mall. In fact, that is why I had the sensation that I'd been there before. In a sense, I had -- because it looked like every big city mall I've ever been in before.

    Which makes me stop and wonder:
    • What are the implications of trying to attract youth into the Church using the exact same methods our culture employs to sell them sex, violence, video games, and junk food?
    • Are youth able to discern a distinct difference between our values/identity as Christians and those of advertisers trying to sell them a product as consumers?
    • Does ministry with youth cease to have a distinct identity if it is too immersed in the symbols and practices of corporate/entertainment/capitalist culture?
    • Which is the more radical move in youth ministry: to make our ministries fit seamlessly into secular culture or to lead ministries which offer alternatives alongside (not necessarily over and against) secular culture?
    While you ponder all that, check out this either amazingly clever and relevant or particularly distressing example of attractional youth ministry, depending on your point of view.  HT to Stuart for finding the above image. 

    Update: Here is an interesting and related post from the Methobaptist Musings blog on the plusses of developing a minimalist youth ministry.



    jenny said...

    It's tempting to get caught up in the facility and stuff. I still catch myself thinking teens care more about that than they do.

    But then I look around at my teens who are inviting friends who keep coming back because they all feel loved by adults and each other. I'm reminded every week that it doesn't matter that our couches are falling apart, our media computer's internet rarely works and there's popcorn embedded in the carpet. Our teens don't see that. All they know is that someone wants to hear about their week. Someone cares enough to give a hug and encouragement. And someone sees something in them they always hoped was there.

    I love my job. And personally, I'm glad it's real, simple and raw. Don't get caught up in the hype. Just love them and point them to God.

    Brian said...

    Amen Jenny. You've reminded me that the very setting in which we gather youth teaches them how we understand the gospel -- is the gospel about a God who loves us when we are cool and slick and shiny, or a God who loves us even as we are tattered and worn out and in need of repair.

    alaina said...

    i was in a meeting today and someone halfheartedly called the idea of a megachurch "a bigbox store". this prompted me to begin thinking about the opposite of the bigbox store: the boutique store. so then what are boutique churches?
    I think there is a whole post in that concept that is yet to be written.
    the comparison itself startled me because it is so driven by consumerism.


    tim keller writes in Counterfeit Gods that he's never had a person confess to him the sin of greed. i ponder this statement often and i think there are systemically condemning implications of our greed-ignorance. when i consider the youth and how they reflect the systemic values in raw untamed ways it shows me how much space for grace there is in ministry to them, their families, and to me.

    jenny said...

    Brian - exactly. Our space communicates how we think about God and faith. If all our energy is put towards cool decor that makes people ooh and aah, then we're really just distracting them from the issues underneath. I love leaders who put a little bit of attention into room atmosphere but then let the rest go and are present with teens where they are.

    KaGe said...

    Wow...I usually don't get too offended by what I read online. But that article about the church saddened me. There are three quotes in that article that really show their focus, even though they state otherwise at the end:

    "It certainly got them excited about bringing their friends to church and about church in general...The idea is to get students here...We are trying to show them that God is cooler."

    "We have to plan to get them in the door, and then trust that God is going to do what God is going to do once they’re here...They experience God here on Wednesday nights... This gives them something to say. ‘Wow, you’ve got to come to church,...’"

    "Ultimately, our goal is to get people into church and into a relationship with Jesus."

    And the final quote from the article that's telling is, "Whatever we’re doing, it’s working. We saved 35 young people that night. That’s 35 teenagers
    saved from drugs, saved from abortion, saved from premarital sex. There are life transformations happening here, and it’s incredible. Thirty-five people’s lives were changed forever. They were saved from an eternity of burning in hell."

    I do wonder if they truly believe that salvation comes through church instead of Jesus. Sure they throw a couple Jesus-y statements in there, but their focus is on their church, getting youth through their doors.

    So my question is, what happens when this program ultimately teaches these youth that the only salvation comes through their church? What happens when they go from here when the program ends, and have to actually live out there? Because even though there's no salvation out there, out there is where they live. And once they graduate, will there ever be a here again?

    ps-I HATE it when youth pastors think their main job is making God/Jesus/Holy Spirit cool/cutting edge/relevant. Because if you truly believe this, then you don't truly believe that God/Jesus/Holy Spirit are relevant, and therefore have fallen into consumerist Christianity...which leaves no room for relationship.

    Joshua M Walters said...

    My dad always said about youth ministry: "What you win them WITH you win them TO." The Church has to just be the Church and focus our efforts on the Good News of the Kingdom. And we MUST believe that there isn't anything better to offer!

    I often wonder if in addition to the temptation to make God "cool," there is also a tragic identity crisis for those churches. I think there are a lot of ministries out there that lost the Gospel and are floating ambiguously in between the Kingdom and the dominant culture.

    Barry K said...

    As a guy in the marketing field, I read that article and think:

    - classic marketing mistake: come up with a shocking gimmick to attract attention to the product, only to find later that all the consumer remembers is the shocking part and not your actual message. In some warped way, I think they might even be arguing that the medium is the message -- is it possible all they care to convey is "we are shocking!" "church is shocking!" But, what do I do with that?

    - There is a definite air of desperation about if they don't really believe in the product -- if they did, they wouldn't feel like they have to wrap it up in all kinds of craziness that has nothing to do with the intrinsic message of the gospel.

    - I read the entire article and I'm convinced that that particular approach to youth ministry is really more about what those particular adults need, not about what the youth need.

    - love the mystery - said...

    I think it is such a significant question to ask what we are representing in the setting we create and if that setting really embodies Christ? I have had the same feeling in those "big box" churches. But at the same time, I don't think we can just do the church the way we've always done it. We do have to create spaces that are compelling and culturally relevant and while that shouldn't mean mimicking culture, sometimes culture has things to teach us and we need to be in dialogue with it. For example, Post Secret and open mic nights, and indie artsy coffee shops have all inspired my ministry because those outlets allows kids to be creative and honest and I think God desires that... but at the same time I am in a sense modeling my ministry on what's "cool" in the secular world. But I feel we can only do that if we really think theologically about it and ask if the cultural emphasis we take is true to who Christ calls us to be.

    Another example I recently came across of culture influencing youth ministry is this "fight team" idea: It really bothers me for many reasons (from its assumptions about gender to its embodiment of a violent fighter God), but it also made me consider deeply how I plan to "attract" or invite students to encounter God.

    Joshua M Walters said...

    1) Wow. That NY Times article is just sickening. I don't think that Christianity needs any more machismo - just ask the millions of women in Latin America. This is truly sad. I don't get these pastors/leaders of such ministries. Do we need better theological education and training to prevent this kind of stuff?

    2) I totally agree with you "Love the Mystery" when it comes to culture. In my humble opinion, what the Church needs to be is a body of culture-makers. I think the church in America has settled back into a reactionary role instead of an instigating one. Instead of always responding to culture, why not be on the front lines creating and leading it? Obviously we can't be everywhere all the time, but aren't we supposed to be the light that leads the way? Too often it seems to me like the Church is content to stand around waiting for the next "evil" to develop so we can critique it and label it "secular."

    Where I think you're right on point is that the Church ought to be looking for the REDEEMING value in culture. So we critique it but we also find the Truth and Goodness in it. And at the same time, we also create and instigate new culture.

    Andy Beck said...

    "KaGe" got it right. At the end of the article, it's said that they saved 35 kids from drugs, sex etc. Really? This ministry saved 35 youth from ever experimenting with drugs, ever having sex before marriage or ever having an abortion? How shallow a view. They must be following these hundreds of teens everywhere all the time making sure they are safe and "saved".

    Brian said...

    Thanks all for sharing some great reflections. I think this deserves a second post! I agree that there is a balance to found here, but in my opinion the folks in the linked article have clearly lost their way. And they are presuming a great deal if they claim they know whether or not someone is "saved." How many youth get "saved" at church camp every summer and then never step foot in a church or think twice about their faith the rest of the year?