Monday, November 23, 2009

Anything to make a sale

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .

Evangelistic-minded youth ministries hit upon a genius idea. Create events that are cool, hip, attractive, amazing, get kids in the door, and then hit them with the gospel. Young Life is the master of this strategy, but it has impacted the entire world of youth ministry. In small ways, it looks like 'throw a pizza party, invite your friends, then we'll tell 'em about Jesus." In larger ways, it looks like "Hire a band, have some fireworks, break some bricks with your head, then tell 'em about Jesus." Either way, entertain 'em, entice 'em with coolness, then tell 'em about Jesus.

One problem: no matter what the Church does, the World does a better job of offering Cool options. While the Church was offering pizza and goofy games, the World invented Wiis and Hip-Hop. So the Church is always playing catch-up, trying to find ever hipper and cooler ways of enticing 'worldly youth' into our doors, so we can tell 'em about Jesus. Or, maybe just to keep our kids in the doors, trying to make it just cool enough that they won't run out there where the World offers all that other stuff.

So, to recap, the strategy is: do something fun/cool/outrageous to get people in the door, then tell 'em about Jesus.

Let's be clear about one thing: the motivation is great. Telling people about Jesus is our highest calling. Creating opportunities to tell people about Jesus is a wonderful task.

But there was a dark side that very few people really wanted to talk about: this 'wow 'em and tell 'em about Jesus' strategy doesn't do much in the way of creating disciples. Instead, it creates instant flash with no long-term impact. The fact that even 70-80% of Christian kids leave the church after high school ought to tell us we're doing something wrong. That we're not growing Followers, that we're not raising Disciples. Instead, we're creating Consumers who will always chase after the next big fix, wherever that comes from. We're not raising young people who understand such basic tenets of Christianity as sacrifice, service, humility, forgiveness, love, grace and mercy. We are, in fact, temporarily distracting young people with smoke and mirrors, sneaking the gospel in there, assuming that, since they 'said the prayer' following the pizza and root-beer gorge, they're 'in.'

And here's today's problem: those raised in this world are leaving their youth ministry days behind and moving into senior leadership in churches across America. . .and they're using the exact same strategies in the larger church.

Like the Church over in the Seattle area that decided to perform live tattooing during their worship service.

Again, the motivation is probably good: create some buzz (no pun intended. . .maybe), get some people in the door, tell 'em about Jesus. Young people are into tattoos. So, bring tattoos into the Church, get people interested, tell 'em about Jesus.

But is this anything more than the same strategy that has failed so miserably in our youth ministries over the last 60 years?

One might also spend a few minutes talking about the nature of worship itself - a holy people gathered to lift up the name of God in adoration and praise, to listen to (and apply) his Word in their lives.

It has always struck me as odd that we have to do all this in the first place. After all, the Church has the most amazing package ever to be offered - eternal life, hope, love, peace, joy, a relationship with the God who created the Universe, redemption, acceptance, friendship. . .For some reason, so many have decided that's not enough, so instead they re-package all that into pizza parties, goofy games, church coffee shops, the never-ending pursuit of 'relevance,' tattoo services.

My hope, as I've stated before, is that people will be drawn to Lakebay Community Church not because we're cool or hip or relevant or edgy, but because they've heard it's a place of hope, a place of joy, a place of acceptance, a place where Christ's light shines into the darkness of our lives. It makes you wonder what would happen if the Church across America would decide to give up this striving for relevance, and get back to the real work of the Church, which, as I pointed out in my sermon yesterday, comes down to two things:
1) being a community of grace and mercy and love
2) going out into all the world making disciples.

Something tells me we just might actually be healthier. We'd certainly be stronger. Promotional gimmicks might fill the pews, but they don't teach people to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Only the hard work of disciple-making does that.


Beth B said...

Amen, Dan. Thanks for this post!

Jason Coker said...

This is a very good post. But the poetic irony is in the Google Ads just to the right. While you're rightfully questioning the fruit of consumer-facing ministry, I'm being peddled products by ("Relevant Jr, High Topics Keeps Kids Engaged!"), Oceanside Reformed Church ("Currently preaching through Exodus!"), and Dave Ramsey ("See how other Churches are sharing Christ. FREE Video!").

No matter how you spin it peddling a product is still peddling a product. Whether it's identity, self-assurance, or the gospel, when we commodify something we destroy its transformational nature by replacing the grace that comes with every true gift.

Ann said...

Dan, did you also do a post on why youth's testimonies are held up as "better" if someone was really bad before "getting saved"? I recall something like that from some source, and the pattern in this post definitely fits with that gotta-be-cool hype.

Loving, steady, presence with healthy discipling isn't celebrated here.

Thanks for posting!

Rory and Jen said...

I'm right there with you again, Dan. The Church can't compete with the world but the world can't compete with the Gospel.

jstainer said...

Great post!

I work for Young Life, but in Canada, so I cannot speak for what it looks like in the US. The struggle against the "event centred" style of youth ministry is a huge one. It's so much easier to spend time and energy on getting kids in the door, but it's a huge mistake.

I've had kids want to be given prizes for bringing the most friends to a weekly club, or want to get some sort of camp discount if they brought X people with them. The easy thing is to go that route and to fill a bus just for the sake of it.

This leads to a bus full of kids that have no relationship with the people bringing them and ultimately they are excited by an excellent time at camp, but next to no actual discipleship has happened.

Then when everyone goes home there is a huge let down when kids find out that it can't be a super exciting event every time. Those kids have been won to the idea of superawesomefun camp, and not to Christ in real life relationships.

Keep yelling this out, for more people need to here it. Some of us are trying to do it the long, hard, slog through the mud, keep sending unflashy stats into head office, kind of way.

jstainer said...

Hear it. Not here it.

Cheeze Whiz Church said...

My husband calls this whole tactic when transfered to adult church services: Revenge of the Youth Group