here’s part 3 (or 4 parts) of an article i wrote for youthwork magazine in the UK (it was published in a recent issue). see previous days for parts 1 and 2.
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!”).
I realize that youth work in the States has some extremes that aren’t as readily present in the UK. But I’ve also noticed that any idea or practice that gains a foothold of acceptance in the American church tends to get imported to the UK by someone. Here’s the bad idea that’s currently gaining steam on my side of the ocean: attractional youth groups.
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 – in the U.S. and in the U.K.
But here’s how this plays out in extreme (not so extreme that it’s not the reality in hundreds of examples all of the U.S.): First, a church with lots of resources hires a youth worker. Already operating with the attractional philosophy, the youth worker 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 work 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).
Materialism isn’t really the problem
Why look at a wrong-headed philosophy of youth work in the midst of an article 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 an article 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 some of the changes churches have experimented with or implemented have been good and needed changes. 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!
next: part 4, wrapping it up