About 10 years ago, there was a youth pastor holed up in his office, trying to think of a creative way to get kids in the door so he could tell them about Jesus. This was a significant part of his job. Yes, actually telling kids about Jesus was important, but getting them in the door occupied most of his energy. Kids were busy with school and family and Halo, kids weren't interested in church, and the kids who were interested were mostly heading to the bigger church down the street, the church with the bigger budget and the cooler toys. So our youth pastor friend here was desperate to come up with a new way to get kids into the door of his church.
On good days, most youth pastors would say their primary goal in life was to introduce kids to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and then to train them as followers of Christ. On more honest days, however. . .the unspoken truth was that their unspoken goal was just to get kids in the door. Yes, before you can tell kids about Jesus you need to meet them, so getting them in the door was a good goal. But in reality, one of the only measures of success that could be gauged was "how many kids are sitting in the seats?" Church members would look at the budget every year, and compare it to "how many kids are sitting in the seats?" Youth pastors would read books and go to conferences and the not-so-subtle message they heard was "effective youth ministries have lots of kids sitting in the seats." All the youth pastors in town would gather for lunch, and everybody knew who the superstars were, who the really important youth pastors were - the ones who had the most kids sitting in the seats. In fact, the really really important youth pastors didn't even come to the meetings, because they were so busy taking care of all those kids that were sitting in those seats.
And of course, they all knew that the way to get kids into those seats was to offer something really cool. Really radical. Really awesome. Really gross. Really relevant. Like a series called "Jesus and Sex and Dating." Or, more often, an event that was just awesome and super and gross. Like when the church across town held the Nickelodeon-style Slime Night, at which the youth pastor and his staff and some of the cool kids all got slimed, and it was gross and awesome and amazing, and all the kids in town were talking about how cool it was when the youth intern (the new hip one) had gotten slimed.
So our youth pastor, the one in our story, had to come up with something even more cool and gross and awesome than slime night. He didn't want to admit it, but he was in competition with all those other churches, so he had to out-cool, out-awesome, out-gross those others. He needed something more super-awesome than Slime Night.
So he sat there, with a couple of his volunteers, and the racked their brains, until an idea popped into his head.
"I know. . .let's have a toilet bowl night! That will be super-gross and funny. We can have toilet-themed games! Like, we could fill a (clean) toilet with Mountain Dew, and throw in some Tootsie Rolls, and make the kids get them out with their mouths - like bobbing for apples, only in a toilet!"
(note: this is an actual youth group event that has been tried in many youth ministries across America. I'm not making it up.)
And then his intern said "Yeah! We could even throw in some mustard, so it looks like diarrhea!" And they all laughed at that one for a good 5 minutes.
They spent the next hour coming up with slogans and toilet bowl relay races and toilet-paper games. The creative arts girl went to work putting together the graphic arts for the flyers. And they all went home that day, stoked at their creativity that was sure to bring in a big crowd to sit in those seats.
Now, the thing is, sometimes in youth ministry, this isn't all bad. Kids like gross and different and fun; they might invite their friends to toilet night, and they'd certainly talk about it for years to come. A steady diet of gross-out super radical youth ministry can be dangerous, but the occasional goofy game night can be a welcome moment of frivolity for stressed-out kids.
What I always wondered, though, was what would happen when all these youth pastors, whose primary giftings seemed to lie in creative ways to fill the seats, grew up and became senior pastors or church planters. There has often been, unfortunately, a correlation between a youth pastor's immaturity and their success, at least insofar as getting kids to sit in those seats. So what happens when that mentality of "immaturity + gross-out factor = more people in the seats" moves upward into the senior leadership in the church?
That question is now being answered. A few years ago a church in a Seattle suburb held a large promotional event, offering free tattoos during their morning worship service. This year's example was a church in South Carolina that mailed out thousands of mass-mail invitations to Easter worship; on the cover was a photograph of a dead rabbit on the road, obvious road-kill, surrounded by plastic Easter eggs.
Setting aside the fact that mass-mail invitations have been proven to be absolutely worthless in attracting people to church, these were sent out with the direct purpose of offending people. According to their pastor, "Are we willing to offend some to get the attention of other folks who
have no regard for Jesus, the church, the gospel or Easter? That's a
risk a we're always willing to take."
Listen, the gospel is offensive enough without us adding layers and layers of trumped-up offense. As the Rev. Don Robinson once said, "If we're going to offend people, let's make sure they're offended for the right reasons." Proclaiming the lordship of Jesus? Okay. Mailing out postcards with dead bunnies to unsuspecting families? Not so much.
By the way, that whole 'competing with the church across town' idea was certainly at play here. Because another church in the same town set this sign up to attract people:
If there was one thing lacking in many of the youth pastors I used to know, it was the filter that said "Just because it gets people's attention, it's not necessarily a good idea." And the subsidiary filter that said "Just because it's my idea, it's not necessarily a good idea."
Unfortunately, it seems that, just because these youth pastors grew up and became senior pastors and church planters, they didn't leave behind the "be super-shocking and amazing to get people in the seats" mentality.
Not to rant about this too long. . .but just imagine for a moment you're a frazzled single mom, barely making it through a long day of getting kids up and out the door to school, heading off to work, picking up the kids from day care, running them to soccer practice, heading home for dinner, and then little Susie picks up the mail and finds this picture of a dead rabbit. Exactly what part of that makes you say "Oh yes, I want to go to that church! That looks like a place where I'll find the love, mercy, grace, hope, and friendship I so desperately need! That looks like a place of hope and grace!" Really. . .what non-church attender is going to come to your church because of this? The only people you're really going to attract is people who are already attending other churches, but getting a little bored with the same-old same-old. So you're not spreading the gospel, you're really just stealing sheep with the help of cheap marketing tactics.
And that's not how you build a healthy church.
Addendum 1: Over the last few years I've hung out with many youth pastors who seem to be doing much better at the disciple-making thing, avoiding much of the gimmick-based ministry of earlier days. So don't read this as any kind of judgment against today's youth ministers. The ones I know are pretty cool people.
Addendum 2: I just noticed that Eugene Cho posted a blog about this same subject a few days ago. As usual, he says it a lot better than I did.