teenagers and materialism, part 4

here’s part 4 (the final bit) of an article i wrote a few years ago, that i thought was worthy of a revisit. part 1 set up the topic. part 2 addressed the futility of addressing materialism head-on with teenagers. part 3 suggested that consumerism is the real issue, not materialism (and that many of our churches and ministries compound that identity). and, part 4:

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 Northern Ireland 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 ministry 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 media on screens.
    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.

What’s a good youth worker to do?

Go ahead: teach about materialism. Like I wrote in part 2, talk with your teenagers about how the accumulation of stuff is a dead-end approach to fulfillment, 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 (done well).

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 ministry, 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!).

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