A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism (and teenagers), part 2

(part 1 of this series was the intro, on why this matters…)

Prepping for a different perspective

Sometimes an extreme example can help (although sometimes it’s easy to distance ourselves and say, “well I’m not that bad!”).

Dissing on “attractional” churches and youth ministries has almost become a cliche. But it’s still the sexy second wife (who’s had work done) of the youth ministry world.

Attractional isn’t a commonly used word – and it wouldn’t be used by most youth workers embracing it. Did you see the movie “Field of Dreams”? This is the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy of youth work. To be honest, there are thousands of churches attempting to take this approach.

Here’s how this plays out in extreme (not so extreme that it’s not the reality in hundreds of examples): First, a church assumes that great youth ministry is about lots of activity and lots of teenagers. so, assuming this is how it’s done, they hire a hot shot youth pastor with a seemingly great bag of tricks, and throw resources at him or her (because, after all, his vision for doubling the size of the youth group and reaching hundreds of heathen teens was very compelling). the youth pastor, now with lots of resources, and already operating with an attractional philosophy, makes a logical leap: “if they will come because we built it, then they will come in much larger numbers if we build it really big and flashy!” So they build youth ministry facilities better than any rec center you’ve ever seen and offer the most kick-butt high-activity and high-volume youth ministry ever conceived. And, confirming their suspicions, lots of teenagers are “attracted” (it’s a good show, so why wouldn’t they come, and with the right quantity of resources, you can actually create that veneer that this approach is working).

Materialism isn’t really the problem

Why look at a wrong-headed philosophy of youth ministry in the midst of a blog series on materialism? Well, because I don’t believe that materialism is our root problem. I think materialism is a symptom. Consumerism is the real problem. And our churches have so completely bought into consumerism (at least most churches that aren’t conversely stuck in traditionalism), it’s almost absurd to try to teach our teenagers about the problems of materialism.

This isn’t a post about church history and models of ministry, so I won’t go into too much detail here – but somewhere in the 2nd half of the last century, propelled by our modernistic propensity to view everything as quantifiable, objectifiable and mechanical, our churches fully embraced “growth” as the ultimate goal (sounds nice and organic, doesn’t it?). Again, I’m simplifying here, but stick with me: in order to get more people (or more teenagers), we started making changes, many of them long overdue, in our programming and worship and architecture and everything else about church ministry. Many of these changes “worked” in terms of making church (or youth group) more attractive. While the church is struggling in many quarters, churches who adopted these innovative approaches often experienced significant numerical growth.

Now, please don’t misread me. I believe many of the changes many churches have experimented with or implemented have been good and needed changes (and, for the record, i know many larger church youth pastors–even some of those with amazing tricked-out youth centers–who are good and godly people with pure motives). The problem is, the church accidentally swallowed something else along with the good changes: noncritical assumptions that treating parishioners (or teenagers) as consumers is just how things have to be done these days.

That’s my point here: it’s rather useless to challenge teenagers on their materialism if our entire ministries are built on treating them as consumers!

Top 10 signs your youth ministry might be built on consumeristic assumptions:

(Warning: some of these are intentionally overstated, and reveal why a friend in Ireland once called me “a sarky git”.)
10. You talk about “my group” (that’s ownership language – the language of consumers).
9. Your mission statement: More teenagers, more often.
8. You constantly pressure your teenagers to bring friends. Those teenagers whose natural outgoing personality makes this easy are considered the most spiritual.
7. Guilt and manipulation are seen as necessary evils, and reframed as “speaking the truth” or as “the gospel”.
6. The biggest buzz you ever had in ministry was the time you were able to report ten “decisions for Christ” – whether those teenagers were ever seen again or not.
5. You’ve pondered how to make Christianity as simple as possible for teenagers.
4. The result of your youth work is nice teenagers who are willing to attend church.
3. The ministry “tools” you’re sure will really get things moving: a great sound system, a hip youth room, and truly awe-inspiring PowerPoint slides.
2. You daydream about the things you’ll never have: laser lights and a fog machine.
And the #1 sign your youth ministry might be built on consumeristic assumptions… When you talk about “growth”, you’re only referring to numbers.

(coming in part 3: what’s a good youth worker to do?)

7 thoughts on “A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism (and teenagers), part 2”

  1. Good stuff.

    I noticed an ad over on the side for “my tribe” and it reminded me of your comment above about “my group”. But I suspect you are more concerned with “my group” being ownership than membership… :)

    Looking forward to part 3.

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