i could not be more stoked that time magazine has devoted an entire issue to the people i love: young teens. i haven’t had a chance to read through the whole issue yet — there are quite a few articles. but i jumped right to the “smells like teen spirit” piece on 13 year-old spirituality. it’s a bit odd that they focused so much of the article on evangelical mega-churches (my own tradition) — the vast majority of junior high youth workers i meet are volunteers with junior high groups of 8 – 20 kids. but, that aside, there is a sense where some of the change that’s taking place in young teen ministry across the US is due to the rise of the mega-church — since no church would tend to have a full-time, paid young teen specialist on staff unless they have a young teen youth group of 100+. this is also why i have only worked in large churches my whole life — they’re the only ones that had “junior high pastor” jobs!
if the article has to focus on one church and one junior high ministry, primarily, i’m good with it being grace church of lexington, MA. this is a good church, and i’ve had contact with the JH pastor (in the past), and he seems like a really good guy. i always read articles like this with a massive amount of tension in my shoulders, waiting for “the person who represents me” to say something stupid. but he doesn’t.
HOWEVER, the dreaded “oh, you didn’t just say that” came from a likely alternate source: a mega-mega texas church (apologies to my large church friends in texas — but y’all know what i’m talking about!).
If Jesus is competing with 50 Cent for the soul of today’s youth, megachurches like Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, are making sure the Lord is not outgunned. Their junior high worship area features a million-dollar sound system and mammoth movie screens that play to an audience of as many as 1,000 teenagers on Sundays. Prestonwood’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, makes no apologies for the slick production values. It takes a good show to expose kids to the good word, he says, because there is so much competition from what he calls a “perverted” teen culture in the U.S.
there are certainly many things wrong with youth ministry these days. and i’m pointing the finger at myself and ys too, here, not just others — because ys has played a role, over the years, in perpetuating some wrong ideas about youth ministry (i’d like to think we did so out of good motivation, but then, if i’m being gracious, i have to say that the “create a big show” youth ministry people are doing what they’re doing out of a “good” motivation — if not wrong-headed culturally, formationally, and theologically). but the let’s put on the biggest show we can to draw in as many students as we can so we can preach a candy message with laser lights and smoke and have hundreds of students say they made decisions so we can justify our multi-million dollar youth center or at least our *million dollar sound system* approach to youth ministry is just killin’ me, and us. and it’s a distraction — it continues (as flash normally does) to attract the attention of well-meaning youth workers who want to pour their lives into kids.
i’m not always successful at this, but i like to offer a good contrast when i complain. i have nothing against large churches — i would not be where i am were it not for the large church i grew up in, and for the large churches who bothered to hire (and/or fire) me along the way! in the past few years, i’ve gotten to know the junior high pastors at both saddleback and willow creek quite well. both are humble and extremely gifted young teen specialists. neither are impressed with themselves or their churches. and both ministries are built on relationships — NOT ON SHOW.
summary: big does not equal bad. but, put-on-a-show is way-bad, and it’s a cancer in the body of US youth ministry.