Disclaimer: Read this First! November 11, 2007, I wrote the original version of the post below as part of a larger series on a new way to do youth ministry. I have copied and pasted it with a few slight edits to make it applicable to this year’s ELCA Youth Gathering. So, please understand that my impetus for writing this originally was not to launch an offensive against the Gathering. But since there has been a lot of buzz about the Gathering as it approached, I thought reworking that original post would be a timely contribution to the conversation. I have more thoughts, and may share them if necessary.
I am quite skeptical of the big-event circuit in American youth ministry. Here’s the typical recipe:
- Large stadium (anywhere from 3,000-60,000 people)
- “National speakers” (whatever that means)
- The “hottest” Christian bands (if DCB isn’t on the docket, don’t even bother). If you’re Lutheran, Lost & Found is a must.
- Maybe some dramas or comedians (or both)
- Extremely expensive A/V systems, lights, lasers, smoke machines, etc.
Events like this bother me for a few reasons:
- The first problem is that for whatever reason these events tend to become normative for the Christian life. Students who go to events like this think that the Christian life is the most real, most alive, most vibrant at events like these. Faithfulness to God is associated with emotional highs and feel-goodyness. We are left thinking that God is not present in homework, chores, friendship squabbles, and other stuff of “real life.” (By the way, Eugene Peterson has been instrumental in helping me develop a theology of the everyday. You must read him. Everything he has written. No joke. I’m working my way through his stuff.)
- Because of the above, I am worried that these events are put on by organizations that must turn a profit in order to stay alive. When normalcy is determined by a group of people who must make X amount of dollars to sustain themselves, I get nervous. (I’ll take this point to say that churches are a little different in that they (should) rely on gifts, not selling things, to sustain themselves. However, I do believe that most churches operate at much too narrow of margins.)
- These events are divorced from local contexts. Identical events happen in Louisiana, California, Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
- In my experience, these events appeal to the emotions, but not the passions, of teenagers. Teenagers are extremely passionate people, and we should be tapping into that passion. But passion is different than emotion. Emotions tend to be the end. People think the emotion is real. Passion tends to spur action and impact. (This isn’t very well thought out, but I’m leaving it in.)
- You shouldn’t have to pay $1,000 per person to get “recharged” once every three years. I remember going on a certain trip every summer that was quite expensive, but my friends and I looked forward to it because it was where we got recharged every year. But recently I have been thinking about practicing sustainable faith. If our faith is based off of one yearly event, we aren’t sustaining ourselves throughout the year. There is something missing in much of our ministries when we and our students aren’t practicing the kind of faith that can sustain them in their everyday lives.
- Many of these events are quite repetitive in nature. They don’t change much from year to year and have almost identical messages. I know of one specific “national” youth event has been saying the same thing for the past 10 years.
- They all claim to change your youth group’s lives. If they really did, they would work themselves out of a job.
- These events create Christian celebrities. There is no need for Christian celebrities. Period. Yes, there are certain people whose wisdom and discernment can change the landscape of Christianity, but that is because they have been gifted by God, not because they are just “really cool.”
Instead of “outsourcing” our big events to organizations that don’t know us, our kids, our churches, and all the rest, we should strive to make our ministries local and contextual. My favorite way of going about this for “big events” is retreats. I think retreats planned by people in our churches are great ways to connect at a deeper level with our kids. You also get to spend a lot more time with your kids at a retreat than at a large event where your behind is stuck in a chair all day. In fact (and I didn’t plan it this way on purpose, I just realized it as I was writing this post), as thousands of youth are in New Orleans for the ELCA Youth Gathering, I will be with my youth and adults on a Peer Ministry training retreat. Cost per person: $10 plus a little money in the youth ministry budget.
This might be a good time to make a disclaimer that I’ve made before: in no way am I questioning the purity of motivation of people who organize, lead, or attend events like this. I believe most people love Jesus deeply and are trying to do what they can to follow him. I simply think that pure motivation isn’t enough. We aren’t given the scriptures for motivation, but for obedience (among other things). If youth ministry is going to change, that means that we will have to quit doing some things that we used to do. For me, that means steering clear of big events.
Local. Contextual. Yeah, your kids might not get butterflies in their stomachs from being so close to the stage that David Crowder was spitting on them, but I think that’s a good thing.