A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism (and teenagers), part 1

I have a friend who’s on welfare. He’s brilliant and creative and funny. He’s a fantastic writer, and has dreams of getting published. As employment, he’s waiting for that dream to come true. His wife had a minor injury at work a few years ago and went on disability. Now, if she gets a job, the disability will be cut off. So they have absolutely no money. And they have three teenage kids (all of whom, by the way, are fully capable of getting a job and helping the family, but don’t).

My friend’s teenage kids, who have a nice gaming system, feel completely ripped off that they can’t get a newer gaming system. They lounge around the house complaining about how much it sucks that their parents can’t get them the new system, while dozens of games for the fully functional gaming system at their feet retire to the land of forgotten toys.

Why does this bug me so much? Well, a few reasons. But the reality is, the whole thing bugs me because it exposes everyone’s materialism – certainly my friend’s teenage kids, but also my friend and his wife, and yes, even mine. See, while I really enjoy this friend, and like hanging out with him, I’ve not yet had him over to my own home. I’m concerned that he will only see me as a source for money or other stuff. I don’t have the gaming system his kids want, but I have a lot of stuff. And the potential that my friend could view me as a potential lava-flow of cash only exposes me! If I weren’t materialistic, and a champion-level collector of new gadgetry, my friend’s potential perspective wouldn’t be an issue.

Let’s face it: we’re all materialistic (at least most of us). Trying to say that this generation of teenagers is so different, so much worse – I’m not sure I buy it (ha, get it? “Buy” it!). Anyone young enough to have completely missed World War II (that would be most of us) has no real sense of limitations on spending. So what is different about today’s teenagers and materialism?

Well, first of all, they are materialistic. They want stuff. They have massive spending power, and Madison Avenue spends millions to open the pocketbooks of teenagers (and their parents). This is overly simplistic, but there are a couple key factors in play here:

    – There have always been materialistic stuff-hoarding people. But materialism was never embraced as a cultural norm – as something to be proud of — until the 1980s.
    – Connected to that reality, teenagers of the 1990s and 2000s embraced the materialism they saw exhibited in their homes and the world around them. They have lived with a heightened materialism their entire lives.

This is one of the reasons we tend to notice the materialism of teenagers. Especially for those of us who were teenagers prior to the 90s (for me, WAY-prior to the 90s!), there is a new embracing of stuff that wasn’t present to the same degree when we were teenagers.

But let’s not pretend this is the real issue.

I’m not denying that materialism is a major issue, a distraction from living fully in the kingdom of God, and that we’d be irresponsible as youth workers not to talk about this with our teenagers. It is, and it does, and we would be if we didn’t (did you follow that?).

Jesus spoke clearly about the love of stuff and how it erodes real life. That gadfly teaching of his about the guy with the perfect pearl is the annoying pea that distracts all of us under our princess-like pile of mattresses.

If we believe that Jesus knew what he was talking about, we have to embrace the fact that the accumulation of “stuff” impedes teenagers’ ability to live the fullness of life Jesus promises in John 10:10. Of course, the problem is, our teenagers are soaking in a culture that constantly tells them the accumulation of stuff is fullness of life. So merely talking about the evils of materialism is like talking about the evils of water to fish – it just doesn’t compute. Our once-in-a-while diatribes about the love of money just come off sounding like antiquated sentimentalism for the good old days; or worse yet, like complete and utter hypocrisy.

Think of it this way: simply telling teenagers “sex before marriage is bad” doesn’t do much to reframe their thinking about a message that is so counter to everything else they hear and experience. To effectively talk about sexuality, we have to offer a counter-story – a better story about goodness and ultimate fulfillment, not just condemnation and consequences.

The same is true with materialism. Our teaching can’t focus on the negative. We have to propose an alternate reality – a better reality, a “more real reality” – of how living fully in the Kingdom of God, without a focus on getting more stuff, is a better way to live. And not just better in its moral value, but better in its fruit. We have to show examples of passionate, highly-fulfilled people who haven’t found their meaning in possessing more. We have to teach about the revolutionary way of Jesus, the upside-down realities of the Kingdom, that promise the greatest meaning and passion and purpose in life through serving others, through selling what we have and giving to the poor.

Don’t forget, all this is highly abstract. And most teenagers are fairly limited in their ability to fully grasp abstract ideas. So we have to work hard to concretize these truths – talking about what it really looks like to live in an affluent culture and still embrace life-giving Kingdom values.

Of course, the best way to teach this is to live it out in front of your teenagers. Ah… that’s part of the rub, isn’t it?

(coming up in part 2: “why materialism isn’t really the problem” and “the top 10 signs your youth ministry might be built on consumeristic assumptions”)
(coming up in part 3: what’s a good youth worker to do?)

4 thoughts on “A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism (and teenagers), part 1”

  1. THANKS for this post! I have very recently said the same thing, that kids who are as far removed from WWII as today’s kids are, really don’t understand sacrifice. Would it take another World War for them to see it? I have to say, I read The Hunger Games series, and cleaned out a few cabinets and closets after that. The plight of having to kill other “tributes” to stay alive and the entire games, (before, during and after) becoming the sport and attraction for the country, made me rethink how many dishes I own. To live it out, as you say, is part of the rub! True dat Mark! (Can you tell I have Hunger Games fever!)

  2. THANK YOU for this post!! As a former 90s/00s teenager, I had never thought of it this way and this helps me frame conversation for the teens we work with today

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