Monday, November 23, 2009

Dan Whitmarsh: Anything to make a sale

Dan Whitmarsh has some wise words about the dark side of youth ministry, such as that practiced by Young Life.

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.

1 comment:

Janice Skivington said...

Beth, I was listening to a recent broadcast of "This American Life" titled Bait and Switch. Part of the show dealt with exactly what you are mentioning here. They interviewed a pastor who felt badly about the bait and switch tactics used in youth ministries. You can listen to it by looking up the archives online.