Consuming Youth

The Christian book industry publishes a plethora of books about every topic one could imagine – Christian weight loss programs, instructional guides on how to make more money (while serving others), strategies for improving your husband and, of course, books on how to pray and read the Bible.

This also applies to youth ministry.  Next to the sale of niche Bibles and the ever expanding selection of Amish romance novels, I suspect that the most profitable genre of Christian literature is youth ministry.  Every week I receive publication notices of new youth ministry resources, adding to the growing number of books on a wide array of topics.

However, despite the range of topics addressed, there is a noticeable absence of books on one of the biggest spiritual issues facing the church today.

In a culture where advertising is omnipresent and marketing is a way of life, where companies vie not only for customers but for lifelong brand loyalty, where success is measured in terms of profit and material goods, it is not difficult to see the influence of consumerism in our lives – at home, at school, at work, and, yes, even in church.

Churches compete with other churches for market share.  Ministry programs are advertised as religious goods and services, each targeted to a specific demographic or interest group.  Worship services are about keeping the majority of worshipers (i.e. customers?) happy so that they will return from week to week with their checkbooks.  The success of churches is measured in terms of attendance, modernized building facilities, and an increasing cash flow.

Everywhere we turn, whether on the streets or online, our lives or saturated with advertising, encouraging us to buy more, to upgrade, to lose weight, and to try the next best thing.

In such a culture, our lives are lived under the scrutiny eye of marketers who skilfully exploit our desires through the fabrication of perpetual dissatisfaction.

One cannot deny the influence of consumerism on our lives.  However, this influence is largely ignored by Christian publishers, partly due, I suspect, to the realization that they will be responsible for releasing books that directly challenge elements of the industry and partly because of the captivity of most North American evangelical churches to the norms of consumerism.  It doesn’t make good business sense to publish an un-sellable book for an uninterested market.

This is precisely the problem – we have an overabundance of books on spiritual issues and youth ministry, but we have so few that address the spiritual deformation of children, youth, adults, and churches due to the pervasive influence of consumerism.

Walk into the youth room of any church in North America and you will see the overwhelming evidence of consumer culture on today’s youth.  I mean “on” literally.  Shirts, jackets, pants, hats, and shoes worn by teenagers proudly display brands currently en vogue.  They are literally branded, more so than any previous generation, wearing labels not only as a badge of allegiance but also as a marker of their identity.  It’s been said that “clothes make the man”; in the case of today’s adolescences, this is undoubtedly the case.

The “right” brand immediately confers legitimacy and status to its wearer; it simultaneously (and paradoxically) provides its wearer both a sense of individuality and conformity.  Moreover, the sense of identity conferred by brands also extends to the myriad of accessories used by teenagers.  From MP3 players to cell phones, the status of a brand is immediately transferred to the status of the owner.

The quest for identity, meaning, and purpose is quickly exploited by marketers and advertisers who are less interested in aiding youth on their journey of self-discovery and more interested in growing profits and a healthy bottom line.

Unfortunately, youth workers and parents who are eager to keep kids entertained and in church are often unaware of the insidious spiritual effects of consumerism on youth.  While there is an overabundance of books and resources about how to engage youth and strategies for outreach, there aren’t many books, particularly from evangelical publishers, that deal with consumerism and youth.

Consuming Youth

Enter John Berard, James Penner, and Rick Barlett.  They are determined to focus our attention on this important but overlooked issue in their book “Consuming Youth”.

Because I think that this is a book that every youth worker, parent, teacher, and pastor should read, I’m going to forgo a summary of the book.  Instead, I will offer comments on what I appreciated and conclude with some observations in order to continue the important discussion initiated by this book.

– The authors raise some very important concerns without succumbing to alarmist rhetoric.  Their hopeful tone propels us to action rather than despair.    They are convinced that there is a way to combat consumerism in and through youth ministry and offer some helpful suggestions in order to move forward, particularly in terms of fostering intergenerational mentoring relationships.

– The book is not overly long – it took me less than a day to read.  While I am familiar with many of the secondary resources they cite, this is certainly a book that will bear repeated reading for those less familiar with the issues it raises.  The authors strike a good balance between brevity and depth, which makes the book accessible and engaging.

– This is a well researched book as is evidence by the footnotes.  It’s certainly atypical, but refreshing, to read a youth ministry book that cites philosopher Charles Taylor.  The research provides a strong historical and sociological overview that lends weight to the author’s argument without becoming tedious for those who assume that such forays are impractical.

– Written by youth ministry veterans, “Consuming Youth” demonstrates the importance of learning from past youth ministry mistakes in forging a hold new “ideology of youth” without falling prey to the “one-size-fits-all” mentality of youth ministry models.

Continuing the Discussion

“Consuming Youth” raises some important issues and offers helpful suggestions for moving youth ministry beyond consumerism.  In the interest of taking their argument and proposals seriously, I want to offer some brief reflections I had while reading this book as a springboard for further discussion.

–  While the focus of the book is on youth, I wondered about the role of parents in implicitly encouraging the consumerist habits of their children.  The authors are essentially addressing the middle class mores of Western culture.  Consumerism begins at home – children reflect the buying and spending habits of their parents.  This means the ability to combat the effects of consumerism in youth must begin with parents.  Parents must not only support the initiatives of churches, they must also put them into practice themselves.

Therefore, churches must find ways to challenge the normalcy of consumerism in the homes of its members.  This goes beyond constructing a different sociological imagination as suggested by the authors; it requires rooting ourselves in a radically prophetic imagination.  I was disappointed that in spite of all the suggestions for confronting consumerism made by the authors, they did not reflect on the biblical narrative as the foundation for the church’s counter-cultural resistance to consumerism as a subversive community in the shadow of empire.  This is a necessary discussion for our resistance to consumerism is to bear fruit in our churches and homes.

Moreover, if churches want to address consumerism, they must do so on all levels – not simply within existing programming, but also at a macro level by considering the nature of church programming itself.  Typically, churches approach their ministry programming in terms of a product to be sold to its members and to the community at large.  This requires advertising, competing with other churches who offer similar programming for market share, and approaching staffing and resources with a management mentality.  Too often the programming of churches reflects consumer culture.

In documenting the rise of consumer culture, the authors neglected to map the simultaneous rise of evangelicalism.  We cannot discuss how churches can confront consumerism without acknowledging how our churches grew alongside and within the contours of this culture.

–  A biblical theology of youth is assumed in the book without being explored.  I wholeheartedly agree with the authors’ insistence on the importance of intergenerational mentoring relationships and the necessity of including youth in leadership roles.  However, these claims require a biblical foundation if they are going to hold water in the context of discussions among the adult leaders of the church.

–  There is a subtext to the book about moving youth ministry away from “attractional” models toward “missional” structures that release youth to serve in our communities.  While beyond the scope of the book, it is an important conversation to have in tandem with the one started by the authors.  As others have noted, affluent suburbs have become the spiritual wasteland of North America.

–  The focus on vocation is also a needed corrective to the typical youth ministry focus of pizza, pop, games, and a little bit of Jesus on the side.  However, this emphasis is dangerously close to the purpose-driven mantra of consumerism and echoed by many evangelical churches.  How can we focus on the importance of purpose and vocation without succumbing to the demands of a culture that requires us to be continually distracted with our purpose-driven busyness?

It is precisely in our busyness that we are easily ensnared by the promises of advertising – this gadget will help me become more efficient; this product will help our church increase its visibility; this item will help us become more relevant; this book will solve our problems.  In combating consumerism, we have to boldly reclaim and embody the wisdom of Sabbath-keeping which requires ensuring that our purposes are God’s purposes.  In so doing, we will be able to rest, refraining from the delusion that everything is up to us and trusting that God is always at work even when we are not.

–  Purpose is important.  The book rightly notes that in leaving youth to their own devices, adults are neglecting their role in showing teens how to become adults.  However, in stressing purpose and vocation, the authors have overlooked the foundational role of desire in the formation of identity.  Desire gives our lives structure and shapes its direction.  Desire moulds what is important and valuable in our lives.  Desire influences our values and our vision.  Desire affects our sense of purpose and meaning in life.  In “Desiring the Kingdom”, James K.A. Smith underlines the foundational impact of desire in our lives.  If we are going to prepare youth vocationally for lives of service, we need to be “attentive to all the formative work that is happening…in the homes and at the mall; in football stadiums and at Fourth of July parades; in worship and at work” (19).  Humans, as Smith argues, are at root desiring creatures.  What we want shapes who we are.  Or, in the words of the Psalmist, we become what we worship.

This means that combating consumerism is not simply about giving youth a purpose; it is fundamentally about shaping their desire.  If youth workers focus solely on giving youth purpose while neglecting our role in shaping the desires of youth, vocation will become merely busy-work – something that keeps youth distracted and preoccupied.  However, once they become bored, their youthful desires will start to percolate, influencing their decisions and direction, while the powers of consumerism patiently wait, ready to manipulate.  I’ve seen it countless times – youth who are passionate about serving others all the while under the influence of consumerism.  They are trying to find a way to balance their Christian desire to serve others and their materialist desire for the latest fad without any inkling that these desires are fundamentally in conflict.

Before we can talk with youth about purpose and vocation, we must shape their desire.  Throughout the book, there is an implied argument for the importance of catechesis as a means of forming youth.  However, without explicitly discussing how this formation is required in order to shape an alternative prophetic imagination in youth which will align their desires with the desires of God, the discussion on vocation lacks the foundation that starts with shaping Christian desire.  The desire to serve others is an important element of Christian desire, something that vocation will certainly address.  However, it is necessary to shape this desire before acting upon it.  Furthermore, the desire to serve others is not the only element of Christian desire.  Serving others must be based on a desire to serve God.

Conclusion

Overall “Consuming Youth” is a book that deserves wide readership by youth workers, parents, pastors, and teachers.  It is bold in its insistence on moving away from accepted paradigms of youth ministry that acquiesce to the deformative effects of consumer culture and hopeful in charting a new way forward where teens are celebrated and included as partners in cultivating God’s kingdom.

Thanks to the authors for the review copy.

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