teenagers, the american dream, and where youth ministry needs to go

i’ve been noodling a bit on this since i read anastasia goodstein’s post on teenagers and the american dream, on her ypulse blog. so, here’s that to begin with:

I always thought of that the American Dream went something like this. Anyone in this country, regardless of who they are (race, class, gender, etc.), could achieve success (usually financial) in the United States if they worked hard enough. The collective knowledge of Wikipedia defines the American Dream as:

Generally refer[ing] to the idea that one’s prosperity depends upon one’s own abilities and hard work, not on a rigid class structure. For some, it is the opportunity to achieve more prosperity than they could in their countries of origin; for others, it is the opportunity for their children to grow up with an education and career opportunities; for still others, it is the opportunity to be an individual without the constraints imposed by class, caste, race, gender or ethnicity. It sometimes includes the idea of owning a home.

According to a recent Harris Poll, here’s how teenagers described the American Dream:

“Simply being happy, no matter what I do” — 47 percent

“Having a house, cars and a good job” — 38 percent

“Being able to provide for my family” — 30 percent

“Having the career of my dreams” — 27 percent

“Being rich and/or famous” — 20 percent

“Owning my own business” — 7 percent

“Being ‘the Boss’ ” — 5 percent

Fifty-eight percent say a college education is a necessity in order to achieve the dream, with 20 percent of those saying a four-year university degree is mandatory. While only 3 percent believed they could achieve the American dream on a salary of $25,000 or less, one-quarter thought a $100,000 annual income was sufficient. In addition, a whopping 71 percent believed they personally can achieve the American dream. Notice how “me”-centric the teenage version of the American Dream is…

a handful of my very random thoughts:

first, i was surprised a bit to see “being happy, no matter what i do” rank so high as a definition of the american dream. while anastasia rightly says teens’ responses are me-centric, i was encouraged that the number one response was NOT about materialism, not about “stuff”. my impression/understanding of the american dream (similar to the wikipedia definition) has to do with typical american measurements of success: owning stuff, having access to a job, owning a home.

of course, we all know that the american dream is, for many, a falicy. or, at the very least, not equally accessible. but that’s not the point of my rumination here. “being happy no matter what i do” is COUNTER to consumerism. “being happy no matter what i do” has in its wording a counter-cultural defiance, implying that i can be happy even if i do not have stuff.

that said, most of my other responses were not as positive.

part of my frustration is that i think youth ministry willingly swallowed the baited hook of the american dream promise. in other words: so much of what’s been done in the name of “youth ministry” in the past 35 years has really been about trying to get teenagers to buy into a combo-platter of the american dream and a moralism wrongly called christianity. we’ve tried to shape kids into “good church goers” and “good citizens”. and, in this context, “good” means “active and compliant”. let’s embrace the values of non-activity and non-compliance!

i also thought: if we polled teenagers in most youth groups, we probably wouldn’t get findings that are quantifiably different.

and: can we just set the concept of “the american dream” in a nice glass-covered display case and consider it an interesting relic of our history? it’s built on such a deeply flawed set of values and assumptions. everyone does not have equal access to “success”. and, then, even for those who do have access, the “success” doesn’t bring happiness or contentment. and this is where i am most concerned: that we continue to perpetuate (even if we never use the term) the notion, in our youth groups, that…
– god will bless you with a comfy, stuff-filled life if you’re a good boy or girl
– the goal of discipleship is to have good answers
– other than a few supermen and superwomen who are “called” to pastoral or missionary work, the life the rest of us normal disciples are called to is one of a daily quiet time, church attendance a couple times a week, some role in serving the church, and giving to the church. all other time and resources (and values and relationships and decisions and, well, everything) fall out of the domain of anything god gives a flying rip about.

how ’bout we swear off ever using “the american dream” (either in word or concept), and, instead, start talking about “the dream of god”. that vision of god’s from before time and creation. that dream of god’s during creation — of what this world could be, of what we could be. let’s build our ministries around walking with our kids into living in the dream of god.

14 thoughts on “teenagers, the american dream, and where youth ministry needs to go”

  1. I would be interested in seeing what the results would be if we polled teenagers and college students about how important they felt it was to pursue or achieve the American Dream. While Marko points out that it is encouraging that not all of the elements of teenagers’ descriptions of the American Dream are consumeristic, all of the descriptions are me-centric.

    At the same time, based on my experience, I think that teenagers today are more interested in doing things that benefit others or that make society and the world a better place than teenagers were 20 or even 10 years ago. It makes me wonder if achieving the American Dream is as important to teenagers today as it was to their parents.

  2. Ministering in an upper-middle class community I can safely say (at least in my community) that the idea of the “American Dream” is deeply entrenched within the Church.

  3. I am still amazed when people assume that ministers go from tiny churches, to middle sized churches, to large churches. Just this last week I had someone ask me when I hoped to move on to a larger church.

    In my mind, and I would hope in others, small churches are just as “successful” as big churches. Unfortunately, the American Dream has driven us to believe that in order to be a successful youth worker or preacher, you have to have a large youth group/congregation. We’re results driven.

  4. I don’t know if the term “american dream” is really relevant anymore, unless, of course, if you are an illegal immigrant. I don’t know about the dream of God, though. I prefer using heaven instead of God because a dream is something you wish to attain, like a goal, and I don’t want to be God. Yes, I’d like to be more LIKE Jesus, but it’d be impossible to be like God even though they are pretty much the same… Now I’m confused.. Anyway, did you read that Z book “heaven is a place on earth”? That is what we should be dreaming about. Heaven on earth. Except not just dreaming about it, working to make it happen. Sometimes I think Americans (or maybe people in general) spend to much time dreaming instead of out there doing. It’s time for some serious mobilization! Get off your butts, people!

  5. AMEN MARKO! I too bristle at how so much youth ministry these days seems to have a goal of making “nice citizens, good little consumers”. I seem to remember Mike Yac ranting against such things as well…

  6. We’ll Im defenitely new to ministry and without the direction of Doug Fields first two year in youth ministry nook would have fallen trap to that idea of “promoting to the next level”. I know another youth pastor in my town who is moving up from youth to associate pastor.

  7. The idea that ‘one’s prosperity depends on one’s own abilities and hard work, not on a rigid class structure’ is a mixture of meritocracy with materialism (and a sprinkling of protestant work ethic). To really capture the full flavour don’t we need a side serving of modernist progress and rationalism?

  8. Marko, thank you so much for this. It really made me consider how much of the American Dream is a part of me and my ministry – even though I’ve been living in my adopted home of Wales for seven years. I’m going to set aside some time for some careful evaluation of what I am passing on to my students.

  9. this is fascinating stuff!.. i find myself in complete agreement with your take on things. we do face very similar issues in the uk, admittedly we do not have the spectre of the american dream hovering over us, but i think we may have his evil twin!

  10. Mark that is so crazy. i have been talking with several people here in NI about this idea. culturally it is really interesting to see how the culture here for the most part teachs a kind of (you won’t be famous so just survive) where as the american dream is based aroudn us telling our selves we will one day be something and that something means having A.B.C.D to be that person. i was lucky enough to have a dad that squashed my dreams as a child and have no hopes or exasperation on life ;-) but merely to enjoy life through my creator…but i agree with your last statement of the dream of God. i gave up my dream of one day being one of those famous youth pastors that every one wants to be around to just go where the lord sends me…and flip me if his plan wasn’t bigger to bring me to Northern Ireland to love on families…how do we change the ethos of our society today with out ‘squashing peoples hopes and dreams’ by telling them that God may not want them to be famous and wealthy…when there are so many believing and even preaching this american dream (sorry i said it again)

  11. Awesome blog! Reminds me of the 1991 youth ministry book, “Black and White Styles of Youth Ministry” by William R. Myers. Just had to read it for a class. Even though its old, I haven’t seen anything similarly written in the interim. Have you read it??

    On your comment about besides pastors, the rest “are called to is one of a daily quiet time, church attendance a couple times a week, some role in serving the church, and giving to the church”, I realized that you named most of the Purposes of the Purpose Driven model. Not to knock PDYM, because its great stuff, but we have to remember that there is more to God’s Kingdom than a few principles for transcendence and life transformation.

  12. “let’s embrace non-activity and non-compliance”

    Hmm. Sloth. Disobedience. Two excellent qualities in a Christian.

  13. Hmmm…where to begin…
    In the last 2 years I have seen a flicker of hope from a couple of my graduated youth group kids. Not because they are staying connected to the church (because that is not happening) but because a couple of them aren’t buying into the have-to-go-to-college and get a good paying job lie that our indoctrinated schools and society are telling them. One of them has chosen to live in community, to love and care for the people around him and another has pledged her life to service wherever it takes her, regardless of the pay. I think their absence from the church has a lot to do with the church being as indoctrinated as society.

    We went to a Christian music festival this summer and I was appalled to learn about special (outrageously priced) tickets which gave go-ers better seats and refreshements etc. Christian kids and parents were dropping $500 and up for these tickets. I was also discouraged when my kids came back loaded down with Jesus Junk (bracelets, cds, posters, t-shirts) all praised as ok because of the flippin fish or I Love Jesus branded on them. I stood around as Christian kids went berserko with praise and adoration for these bands. We Christians are the biggest consumers of them all and I think it is time we showed our youth what they are already hoping, that we can SIMPLY be happy no matter what we are doing, where we live, and what kind of car we drive.

  14. At what point do we become counter-cultural? Isn’t that the call of Jesus? The American Dream is not a Christian value. Everything about the AD is to work towards something. And it has seeped into the church. We keep trying to “be like Jesus” or do the right thing so we can get the reward of God. I was reminded again tonight as we did Lectio Divina with the youth, that they simply need time with God so that their life can flow from that(as we all do). It seems we have diluted the Gospel so much with our consumerism or American Dream theories that Christianity has been reduced to wearing Christian t-shirts and learning how to be nice. Maybe I’m sounding cynical but as I work in a community where kids get Hummers for their 16th birthday, it’s hard not to be. We need to replace the American Dream with the dream Jesus has for us in Matthew 5.

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