Wednesday, May 25, 2011

    Guest Post: Emotionalism, Youth Ministry & Other Things I Hate About Acquire the Fire

    In our efforts to try to tap into those things teens care most about, how often do we risk stepping over the line into emotional manipulation. Guest blogger and youth pastor Jason McPherson shares his thoughts on this issue and offers a challenge to those of use serving youth in the Church.

    There are some youth ministries (and churches) out there who believe that the level of emotion that one experiences in their worship, prayer times, testimonies, etc, is an accurate gauge of one’s discipleship and growth as a believer.  The equation is pretty simple: the greater/deeper emotional response = the greater/deeper encounter with Christ.  And while emotion should definitely not be suppressed or avoided, we must be careful not to blindly adopt this equation of ‘emotion = discipleship.’ 

    Fast forward several years and I find myself as a youth minister. My first year at the church we attended Acquire the Fire' because, as one student informed me, "that is what our youth group did every year before you became... It’s the best event that we go on."  With the help of smoke machines, loud bands, and youth speakers who can tell gripping stories filled with well-placed tears and effective pauses, ATF has mastered the skill of evoking an emotional response from teenagers... And just like all highs, it is, and was, just a matter of time until the crash.  How can we expect anything else?  How are the teens supposed to get as excited back at their local church when our ‘worship band’ consists of just Bob… a balding middle-aged man who is still learning to play guitar?  All that to say: I no longer attend ATF.  Every once in awhile a parent or student will come up to me and ask why we don't go to ATF anymore.  While my response varies depending on who is the one asking me, my most common response goes something like this, "Because discipleship is a marathon... It is a daily decision and a daily directing of our paths toward Christ. We don’t go to Acquire the Fire because I don’t want to teach our teens that their ‘level of emotion’ determines the truth of the gospel and the necessity to pursue a deeper walk with Christ, even when we don’t feel like it… Something along those lines.


    I speak as one who was quite susceptible to emotionalism as a teenager in the youth ministry I was a part of growing up.  Discipleship and spiritual maturity was all about who generated the greatest emotional response to a sermon, music set, at a retreat, an alter call, and so on.  One particular night I remember my youth pastor challenging us during a time of corporate confession (around a bonfire of course) to "not hold back and be real before Jesus."  As students began to share, I was well aware of my sin and didn't want to leave that night still 'hiding my sins from Jesus.' So, as a 17 year old teenager, I confessed everything in front of the group... Everything I could possibly think of.  The mood had definitely been set by my youth leader and he later commended me for how open and honest I was.  While I believed I was being obedient to God at the time by airing out all of my garbage, I look back at the whole experience and cringe at how honest I was before them... Not because confession is wrong but because of the young ears who heard all of those confessions.  I lacked the discernment that 'confessing everything' might not have been the best thing to do.

    Up until just a year or so ago, I experienced quite a bit of guilt and shame when I would compare the current student ministry I find myself in with that of the one I was a part of growing up in my teenage years.  I remember the emotion filled testimonies... I remember worshiping with my fellow teenage peers... I remember some great retreats that we went on together.  And quite honestly, I don't see that as much with the youth ministry that I am currently leading.  At times I wonder if I am in the wrong.  I wonder if I have become so cautious about not being manipulative that I have actually robbed them of something deeper.  However, what I have begun to see is something that has less highs and lows and something that appears to be more true and lasting.  

    My conclusion is a very predictable one.  Emotions are some of the very fabrics that make us human.  As youth pastors/leaders, we must seek the healthy balance of not suppressing and avoiding a Christian faith that is void of emotions, which would be unhealthy and lacking.  Also,  we must make sure that our chief aim is not to simply seek out an 'emotional response' from our students because that has little to do with the gospel and more to do with adolescent development.  

    May we all seek to honestly and faithfully preach, teach, and present the gospel in a manner that is accessible and understandable to our students.

    Jason McPherson is an Associate/Youth Pastor in Independence, Missouri. Originally from Nashua, NH, he is a diehard Red Sox fan and has since also grown a liking for the Royals as well.  Along with his love for the BoSox, Jason enjoys all things active, including disc golf, ultimate frisbee, biking, and whiffle ball.  Jason received his M.Divinity from Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2009.  He has been married to his wife Rachel, a fellow New England native, for four years.  The two have one child, ‘Dunkin’, who is a 6lb long haired Chihuahua.  You can read more of his thoughts on his personal blog here.   


    Adam Frieberg said...

    Amen and amen! Great post, Jason!

    I've thought the same thing when counseling high school church camps that have worship services / confessional time on the final night that go past midnight (or the worst: 2am).

    Emotions are what make us human; and so is balance. Well said.

    Steven said...

    Great post.

    When I was in High School, I started dating a girl who attended a local youth group so I naturally went with her. They went to an Acquire the Fire event. I "got saved" and had my first emotional experience w/ Jesus. While my faith has changed quite drastically as has my theological outlook on atonement, worship, etc., I nonetheless cannot discount the reality of that experience in my past and it's kickstarting effect to my faith formation. Were it not for our youth minister who found himself in the same situation you were in - new guy to the church, "What's ATF? Always went? Let's go" - who picked us all up after the crash and began to teach us about real discipleship and discipline, that experience could have been a one time experience in the church. Instead, with his guidance and teaching, we were led to fulfilling and faithful discipleship.

    You hit the nail on the head on the potential dangers and shallowness of these manipulative appeals with "smoke machines and loud bands" and etc. With a skilled leader at the helm, though, those experiences can be channeled into something good.

    Sara said...

    I've been honest the last couple of times that people from Acquire the Fire have called trying to sell tickets for their events. I politely explain that we're not going to return to the event and I tell them the spiritual manipulation is too much. Next time they call can I just read this blog to them? :)

    Paul Turner said...

    Jason, thanks for tbe well balanced article. I no long attend ATF events either for much the same reason. Being a Pentecostal youth pastor, I understand well the dangers of emotional discipleship and great emotions=spiritual growth. Thanks again for the thoughts.

    Paul Turner

    Brian Kirk said...

    A real problem I see with events like ATF, or even some of the smaller denominational youth events I've attended, is that the adults are more than willing to whip up the emotions of teens, even to the point where the youth are publicly crying and confessing all sorts of destructive behaviors in their lives, but there is no one there qualified or trained to deal with these teens after they have been psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally exposed.

    Danny Schulz said...

    Can't you get your point across about emotionalism without open taking shots at ATF? I'm not really a fan of Acquire the Fire either - when they came to town last year I didn't take my youth ministry. But I do know many young people that have been deeply impact through the ministry and have seen lasting fruit.

    I think the points in the blog post are good. But I think you get a 15 yard personal foul for publicly slamming a ministry that God is using for good in the lives of young people. It's just unnecessary.

    My personal take - use mountaintop events like ATF to awaken those that are spiritually asleep. They aren't that good for discipleship by themselves. But they can be used. Leaders are responsible for discipleship, not events.

    Jay said...

    Thank you for all of your thoughts and feedback.

    What I have come to realize is that God can and does use any means necessary to speak truth and love to God's creation. I am sure that there have been hundreds of people who have genuinely embraced Christ as a result of a Benny Hinn crusade just as there are folks who can point to ATF as a life-changing experience. Similarly, I know there are things that I, along with my youth staff, have done and said to our students that have been less that beneficial and 'good' at times... Praise God for God's grace and mercy.

    Another reason why I may seem biased towards ATF is because of several people I know who have gone to work for the 'Honor Academy' and the stories I have heard.

    Jacob Detroy said...

    I struggle with emotionalism my self, Jay. I hear you that there needs to be a balance. My struggle as a youth pastor is that I am a very emotional person and I'm not sure if trying to balance emotionalism in our youth ministry also means curbing my emotional delivery. I honestly don't mean to be manipulative but when I speak - and I am just being honest - it can often be a very emotional experience. Maybe this is something your willing to share your thoughts on - I would be interested.

    Jay said...

    If I may begin with a disclaimer, I simply want to state that I am by no means any sort of youth ministry 'guru.' I am thinking/working through ideas just like all of you, so I apologize for the 'deconstruction' while not offering much in the ways of reconstruction. I always get frustrated with people who walk around pointing out all the things wrong with a system without offering much in terms of a solution... and I am somewhat guilty of doing this.

    One way that I try to remain faithful is through the language that I use with my students. There is nothing wrong with being an emotional person. (In fact, I sometimes wish I WAS a little 'more emotional' when it comes to my faith) I believe it is important to remind our students regularly that our faith, and practice of our faith, must not be one that fluctuates with the waves of emotions that we experience and don't experience. I try to educate and remind the students about the vast range of emotions that the psalmist wrote with and how God is present even in our 'valleys.' While it may not seem very 'romantic,' discipleship is a choice and our students have the ability to make choices everyday.

    Danny, thank you for your thoughts and critique. I agree that my post presents a one-sided view of ATF and that the baby should not be thrown out with the bath water. I simply feel that ATF can help contribute to what is wrong in many youth ministries.

    YouthMin Kim said...

    Very thought provoking post. I personally have struggled with the ATF approach to youth and have never taken the youth under my care to such an event. My problem with the ATF events is that they have nothing to do with the world we live in or with the kingdom of God. Heightened emotions may grab attention and expose vulnerabilities but bringing about the kingdom requires a disciplined and inward journey in order to bring about change around us. Christ's disciples did not weep and wail. They listened and prayed and sang and lived and worked to bring about the greatest movement toward the kingdom that the world has ever known. That is my model for ministry.

    Anne said...


    Anne said...


    Mark M said...

    Your comments on emotionalism are spot on. We needn't fear or avoid emotions, just show care and responsibility with them.

    Your article also brings us another, unintended (perhaps?), issue. Should we in youth ministry call out organizations who we feel are emotionally manipulative or abusive?

    Do we have the need to do this more in the area of youth ministry rather than chalk it up to ... "in the end it was okay because one good outcome may have taken place,"

    How could youth ministry be transformed if we rebuked or critiqued more in love? What does this look like?

    As someone who runs a student event and events for youth workers tI'm kind of putting a target on my chest, but how might we improve our ministry to teens if we didn't didn't tolerate such things?

    Jay said...

    Mark, good questions. I am not sure what good accountability would look like to organizations/events that have more of an ATF approach to youth ministry. One issue that I could see being a problem would be the 'measuring stick' used in such a process. I have a few friends who deeply love Jesus and don't see any real problem with events like ATF. I am not sure how this could be done without causing even more division in a Church that is already all too familiar with division, disagreement, and disunity.

    Any thoughts?

    Christopher Wesley said...


    Thought provoking article. Never been to ATF, heard mix reviews. I have been to emotion driven events so I'll speak from that experience. I think sometimes emotions need to be driven, but it's about living in the tension and finding balance. Conferences, youth ministries, curriculum are all tools, it's about how to use them wisely. Great post, I'll be thinking about this one.

    thoughtful said...

    Great Post!!! I have been de-crying the evils of Acquire the Fire since the 90's. More importantly it has always been a reminder of the importance of integrity when it comes to youth ministry. Spot on!