Tag Archives: materialism

A Different Spin on the Problem of Materialism (and teenagers), part 3

(part 1 of this series introduced the subject at length, and part 2 suggested that the real issue isn’t materialism, but consumerism, and that we treat teenagers like consumers in many youth ministries, so challenging them on materialism is a non-sequitur.)

What’s a good youth worker to do?

Go ahead: teach about materialism. Like I wrote previously, talk with your teenagers about how the accumulation of stuff as real life is a dead-end, an endless roundabout of temporary satisfaction. Talk about the amazing counter-cultural idea straight out of the Kingdom of God that stuff will never truly satisfy, and that true and full living will never be found in money, toys, gadgets, cars or clothes. Offer up for consideration the life-giving practices of living-with-less, serving, and giving.

And don’t just talk about these radical ideas: offer them up as the practices and programming of your ministry. I’ve never seen anything confront materialism in a teenager’s life like the hard, in-your-face realities of an effective cross-cultural missions trip or work project.

But always keep in mind that our most effective teaching and programming will never have full impact unless we begin to undo the consumer-driven underpinnings of our ministry thinking and assumptions. Start with assumptions: ask yourself (and your entire ministry team – even students), “What are the assumptions driving our ministry to teenagers? What assumptions do we have that could be a reflection of an unintentional courtship with consumerism?”

Also look at your “measuring sticks”. What do you measure to determine if you’re effective? You might find that some or all of your success metrics are reflective of an underlying approach to treating teenagers as consumers. Of course, that would mean that you need some new measuring sticks! What non-consumer measurements could reframe the assumptions of your ministry? What non-consumer measurements could you begin to use (in the wake of rejecting or diminishing those that are consumer-driven) that would be truly reflective of Kingdom values? How can we measure whether our groups are embracing Grace and Mercy, Justice, and the journey of Discipleship?

At the end of the day, it’s only when we truthfully and courageously confront our own consumerism and our consumer-driven thinking about youth work, combined with effective teaching and programming in the area of materialism, that we can hope to see change. If we do these things, and model these values in our own lives, then we can hope to have teenagers see through the materialistic veil placed on them by our cultures (and our churches!).

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?)

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?)

we’re moving

tonite, we agreed to terms on an offer for a house. my family is moving.

we’ve had a few driving values in considering a move for a year or two:
– we’re tired of suburbia, and want to be in a somewhat more urban context that has more diversity.
– we want to be in walking distance of coffee shops, pubs, and other “village” community gathering spots.
– we haven’t been comfortable with our kids growing up assuming our suburban expansive home is the norm. we have felt convicted about the message that our home is teaching our children.

we’ve flirted with moving for more than a year, casually looking. but our looking mostly involved homes that were similar in price, due to the fact that moving to the cooler city neighborhoods in san diego means cutting our home size in half while keeping the same price.

but recently, with the cost of our kids’ private school tuition, we’ve realized that we’re living at the edge of our means. we rely all too much on my non-salary income (from speaking and writing). and that really doesn’t feel responsible, or even ethical.

so the new push to move has been driven by lowering our mortgage significantly (san diego housing prices are crazy, but i’m talking about lowering our house value by almost $300,000).

we listed our home, and were surprised that it sold in two weeks. that meant we had about 5 weeks to find a place to live. it was tortuous. we spent last week looking at almost 100 houses in the communities we were hoping for. but we couldn’t find the combo of house, neighborhood and price that met our values and desires. we expanded a little bit out of what we were initially hoping, in terms of geography, and found a house close to the village of la mesa. it’s still a suburb, but it’s 10 minutes west of us — halfway to san diego from where we were. this will cut the distance jeannie and the kids drive to school every day, and put us in a location where we can walk to coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, and a trolly stop.

the home is more than 1000 square feet smaller than our current home, but is lovely. it has everything we’d hoped for, and is in beautiful condition, including a great granny flat out back that we’ll use as a guest room and spiritual direction “office” for jeannie. the backyard isn’t grass, but all bamboo, plants and pathways — very peaceful and contemplative. we entered into a few days of offer and counter-offers, and landed on an agreement last night.

this is a theological issue for us, and a concrete result of our values.

i’m very excited. we’ll move at the end of august, so have a ton of work to do!

living above my means

jeannie has been stressed about our finances for a couple years, it seems. and i’ve been, to be honest, kind of ignoring it. this weekend, we sat down and went through our credit card statements for the past 5 months, as well as our check use, automatic payments, and other stuff. we put things into a spreadsheet with a fixed cost column and a soft cost column it seems my salary, which is good (and i have no room for complaint), is about $1000 per month short of covering our fixed costs (and things like clothes and eating out were put into the soft cost column). this was a bit of a shock to me (and less of a shock to jeannie, who handles our finances). we’ve known for some time that we rely on my outside income (book royalties, speaking honorariums) to cover bills and stuff, when we would love to have that income be truly extra, and for vacations and stuff like that. but i hadn’t realized the severity of the issue.

so… we decided we need to move (locally, that is). we’ve been flirting with the idea of moving for well over a year. we’d put it on the back burner 6 months ago, but have looked casually in the past month again. now, we’re going to kick it into gear; and what we’re looking for has changed in this new reality. we need to significantly lower our mortgage, as that’s the single biggest item on our fixed costs. i mean, our kids private school tuition is a big fixed cost also; but we’re really committed to that, and will need to give up house size to keep things balanced.

i like change, and the idea of moving actually has some “fun” elements for me. but finding a home i’ll be excited about, in the price range we’ll be looking, will not be all fun. there are lots of variables and desires for us: we really want to move closer to the city, but we still want a family neighborhood; we’d love to be in a community where we can walk to a coffee shop, but those kind of communities in san diego tend to be more expensive; i’m not a fixer-upper kind of guy, but new stuff is, of course, substantially more expensive. any anything west (toward san diego, toward the water) is more expensive than where we are.

so, tough reality; but could be a really good thing for our family in the long run. and, i have to face reality, right?