Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Can I just say I'm hating the word "relevance"?

It happened about five years ago or so. It was Sunday night, time for youth group. The band was warmed up and ready to play. Kids were outside throwing frisbees, or playing volleyball. I called the group together - and noticed, when they gathered, that there was a large chunk of kids missing.

"Hey - where is everybody?" I asked.

"They are all over at [somebody's] house. They were playing video games when I left."

And so I first learned about the addiction that is Halo. For the next few months I couldn't get these kids to anything. They were always at home, always playing Halo. "Well, we were going to come, but then we just got so into the game that we couldn't get away."

For the record - I've only played Halo - the original - twice.

Now Halo 3 is out, and youth groups across the nation are using it as an outreach tool. "Come to Youth Group! Play Halo! Smoke the Youth Pastor!"

And others are taking notice.

There's one article here, from the Christian Post.

This is perhaps the most, ahem, enlightening part of the article:

Youth ministries specialist Lane Palmer of the ministry Dare 2 Share says the game speaks to the very real spiritual war going on today.

"According to the Bible, after Satan was dishonorably discharged from his duties in heaven, he took a mighty army of fallen angels with him and declared war on the objects of God’s grace and love: human beings – and especially those who are in the Lord’s army as Christians," wrote Palmer in column.

"Make no mistake, the dark forces of the spiritual world have marked you for destruction, and no amount of quick moves, strategy, or teamwork will win this fight," he added.

Dare 2 Share encourages youth to use Halo 3 as conversation starters to witness to their friends.

Or maybe this:

"Teens are our fish," Gregg Barbour, youth minister of Colorado Community Church in the Englewood area of Denver, told the Times. "So we’ve become creative in baiting our hooks."

Earlier this week, Ben Witherington blogged about the craze (note that he links to another article on the subject, from the NY Times). At the heart of his post is this thought:

Let's start with the fact that the maker of this game has quite specifically told everyone it is for adults, and has adult content. Imagine if you will using the tactic of show skin flicks to attract young men, or offering beer blasts in the church back yard. Doubtless you would attract a crowd, but would you have just vitiated your whole credibility as conveyors of the Good News of Christ in the process? The answer is yes.

If you read the article closely what you notice is the 'ends justifies the means' kind of arguments by the youth ministers in question. But frankly if the means are unethical, and indeed contradict the ends you are trying to achieve, aren't you guilty of using unethical tactics to attract people to Christ? Aren't you sending an enormously mixed message to youth--- "come to church, and after you've blown the brains out of the enemies, we will tell you about the Prince of Peace and how God so loved the world (even the enemies)!"

I'm sorry but this whole sorry approach to youth ministry smacks of absolute desperation and fear-- fear that if we are not relevant, we cannot attract a crowd. Is this really what Jesus would do? I don't think so.

And, of course, the debate now rages. Should youth ministries use things like violent video games to attract kids? Should they use Halo as an evangelistic tool? Should they use violent video games to create "community?" Those who say "no" are seen as boring, irrelevant fuddy-duddies who no longer get kids. Those who say "yes" are seen as shallow, irreverent, foxes in the henhouse.

Here's how I see the problem, however:
1) The reality is, many teenagers are a little like mindless zombies, programmed by Hollywood to think that life is boring. "There's nothing to do in this town." And the only antidote to that boring-ness is shopping at the mall, smoking weed, watching the O.C., or playing video games. In addition, anything that is wholesome or healthy is also extremely "uncool." And "uncool" is the kiss of death. Offer many teens a "wholesome" activity - say, throwing a frisbee, playing Uno, taking up a musical instrument. . .and they look at you like you're an ancient uncool person from another epoch. Which puts youth ministries in a bind - the very answers that Hollywood has given to the pre-programmed state of zombie-ness are all antithetical to the Gospel. Offer kids the choice of Violent Video games or a Bible study on Romans, and you know which they'll choose. There truly is an insidious scheme at play, driving a wedge between teens and the Truth of the Gospel, and youth ministries are having a hard time finding ways to bridge that gap.

2) On the other hand. . .is Christ enough? Is the Joy of the Lord attractive? Is a place where people will love and accept you not the kind of place most teenagers would want to be? The problem is, nobody seems willing to try it. There's this huge pressure on youth ministries to get the kids in, to grow the group, to keep them interested and excited. And Halo is a quick and easy answer. And all the books, all the conferences, all the seminars tell you to be Hip and Relevant and Exciting. Almost none of them tell you to let all that slide, and instead create a community of kids who love each other, who love the Lord, and who love their neighbor. Everybody assumes the Relevant model, the model that uses Halo, is the best youth group model, just because so many youth groups are doing it. And hardly anybody is saying "hey - this isn't working! Maybe we need to try something else!"

Picture these two scenerios:
a) Billy comes home and says "mom - that youth group's the bomb! It's swell! We played Halo all night. I kicked the youth pastors A^%!
b) Billy comes home and says "It was kind of boring. They sang these songs, and then prayed, and then talked about Jesus." But he goes up to his room and realizes that nobody laughed at him, nobody picked on him; in fact, he got the idea that they genuinely liked him.

I don't know, maybe #1 will attract a bigger crowd. But when Billy gets kicked in the face by his parent's divorce, by the rejection of his crush, by not getting into the college of his choice, by not making the varsity baseball team. . .which will he need more?

And, as Billy heads off to college and life, which will cause him to decide to stick with Church - to go find a new one in his community? Memories of video games? Or remembering what it's like to be loved, to be a part of a group that is truly living out the Kingdom of God?


lambservant said...

My son plays halo. He lives with his dad so I haven't much say in the matter. But I've seen it and it is not healthy. I can't imagine anyone using it to "reach kids for Christ."
My son attends two youth groups. In both of them they worship in song, play games, and hear and discuss the word of God. My son comes home to reread what he heard in his bible. He is often excited by what he heard and takes it seriously. The world is still pulling at him, but there are people...Christian people...in his life to hold him accountable, to love him in Christ, and to lead a godly example in front of him. At this point I'd say he's doing pretty well, all things considered. But I realize that he is only step away from forsaking God. That's all it takes. I think we've all been there. As a mother I pray for him daily not to succum to satan's deceit, cunning and lies. I can see how the world can creep in to our youth groups. We must be alert and prayerful. Our kids our the next generation of leaders in the church. It's kind of scary. Pray, everyone, pray!

presin16 said...

The emperor is naked. Not wearing clothes. And we're all commenting on how great his new clothes look. There is nothing wrong with having multi-player Halo 3 tournaments. No one knows why it's rated M. If there are actual reasons for it's M rating, it must be in the campaign. And even there, Focus on the Family had only this to say about the bad points of the game: "On the other—if I can read the words between all the bullet holes—there are hints of foul language and sexual imagery." Hints. That's all Plugged-In can say, the site (which I find very helpful) that counts the uses of different words, and tells you which movies have cleavage or nudity.

Most people suppose that Halo 3 is rated M for it's gratuitous violence. But there's nothing gratuitious about it. Little blood. No guts. Can we as a church not tell the difference between clean, sanitized violence (in the defense of the human race) and what can only be described as the murder-porn Hollywood sends our youth? There is gratuitous violence we need to protect our youth from, but it is not in Halo. Instead of concerning ourselves with what the world thinks, or what parents think, we need to help parents to actually think through this and realize that it is a non-issue. Halo didn't receive it's "M" from a Christian group - the world rated it M. Should we just accept what the world tells us is okay or is not okay, or should we use Christian discernment? Compare Halo to the graphic depictions of violence and gore in CSI, which many of our kids watch on network TV, and there is no comparison. Halo is FAR less gory. We should be helping parents set reasonable standards, not encouraging them to have blanket rules against violence or what the world *guesses* should be rated M.

The Times has a big article because the world is SHOCKED when we don't criticize and outlaw something they find fun and innocent. A good analogy for what we're doing is pointing at Sprite and calling it a "gateway drug" to alcohol because it has bubbles. If we're afraid of any violence, not just the dehumanizing excessive stuff, then we need to be sure not to teach kids history or let them read the Old Testament, which I don't think anyone wants to suggest.

We haven't had a Halo 3 event in my youth group yet, because my church doesn't own Xbox 360's, but sometime soon we're going to let the youth bring their own, on a regular basis - on an off night or Saturday's, bring their non-Christian friends, and just frag each other for hours. Maybe the non-Christians will come back for the friendship and hear the gospel, or maybe just later in life, when they help, they'll just have learned that the church is not a cruel, boring and judgmental place, but they won't be wondering why a bunch of people are complimenting a naked man for his clothes, or saying a game with virtually no blood is too violent for our fragile kids to be exposed to. Sorry for the long response, I'm just amazed by what I've been reading on everyone's blogs.

Dan said...

"Can we as a church not tell the difference between clean, sanitized violence (in the defense of the human race) and what can only be described as the murder-porn Hollywood sends our youth?" First, I'm not sure there is such a thing as "clean, sanitized violence." Second, I'm not following the logic of "Well, the stuff on TV is worse, so that makes this ok." The real question is how followers of the Prince of Peace, who called his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, can use violence as entertainment. Or an outreach tool.