Saturday, October 24, 2020

Preaching, Youth Ministry, and Culture

Update below.

A reader and occasional commenter sent along the short blog post The Woozle Effect, which includes Pooh, CS Lewis, and Chaucer all in a few paragraphs, so was much appreciated.  His point is that the church follows the culture after a short time lag, but ends up not being entirely distinguishable from it. Bsking mentioned a few years ago that she has liberal friends (acquaintances?) who don't see the point of going to church at all.  If one just wants to work for liberal causes, why not just go work for liberal causes? One can even find community there.

It is a repeated CS Lewis theme, and not only from Uncle Screwtape, with his admonitions to keep the patient immersed in the fashions of his own era (though disguising this by restricting it to the fashions of a particular set that he wants to be part of) but throughout God In The Dock, the longest of his books of essays. I now know how fortunate I was to have immersed myself in Lewis early in my Christian walk. I was especially vulnerable to this temptation to confuse the questions of the day with questions of eternity and he built a hedge around me. 

Preaching and popular Christian writing these days is peppered with references to popular culture, both current and the culture of the preacher's teen years. It does give the listeners a feeling of familiarity, of having come to a place where they are welcome and can understand what is going on. These are real people.  These are my people. That is not a small thing in helping those who are strangers to a church, or even The Church, get past the purely social anxieties of coming to a new place. Yet it is not accidental that The Babylon Bee does frequent send-ups of preachers, especially youth leaders making too many movie or popular music references. It can get away from you.

It is not only the slight ridiculousness of getting carried away with being what "Doonesbury" called "the hip young priest who can talk to the young," however. There is a subtler danger that one has to remain immersed in popular culture to keep making the references, and the culture will eventually own you. While considering this it occurred to me that there is an additional common practice which feeds this tendency: we put people fresh out of seminary into youth ministry.  While there are many advantages to that, it also teaches them that this is how ministry is done.  You have to stay in tune with what is happening right now, and show off your chops that you know it. That strikes me as terrible training for a young pastor. 

As Elrond noted at the Council in Rivendell, bemoaning the treachery of Saruman the White: "It is perilous to study too deeply in the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill."

The parallels between popular culture and the One Ring strikes me as good. It giveth and taketh away. It can grant invisibility. Those of better character may long resist its strength. Yet in the end it wants only to rule all others.

Update: The practice of putting seminarians and recent graduates in charge of youth ministry has another effect which looks good at the time, but I think is ultimately damaging.  It causes the kids in youth group and at church camp - and then, very obviously at denominational colleges - to think that this connection with popular culture is what the faith is. Reading the trends of environmentalism and pacifism and fighting oppression largely by yelling at other people and calling them names is synonymous with the faith for many who grew up in the church. 

This is a double-reverse for me.  I was irritated as a young adult by what I saw as a milk-and-water gospel that I observed at church camp and youth group when my first child started coming of age in these groups (and remembered from my own teen years). I thought directing resources to camps and youth groups as they were as an enormous waste of energy, largely because all the people I had shared those experiences with had mostly left the faith.  It was explained to me in the 90s that church camp was the one connection which kept young people involved in the church, and there were studies to show that. Without that, they had nothing. I accepted that at the time.  Until this morning, actually. I now wonder if that is an illusion.  Church camp, youth group, and denominational colleges may keep children connected to some imitation of the faith that their parents find acceptable, but ultimately inoculates them against the faith by transferring all the energy to cultural causes, countercultural* coolness, and a few songs held in common. It is a subtle deception-within-a-deception, as those who retain their faith into adulthood often remember those youth experiences fondly and have the impression they were necessary to keeping them in the faith.  But the growth of two of the three - youth groups and camps - actually coincides with young people leaving the faith.  They may not be the last hope.  They may be part of the problem.

If we didn't have those weak substitutes for instructing the young, after all, we would find something else.  The something else would have a low bar to be better than what has happened in the American church since 1960. Well, another thing I've spent a lot of money and time on that might have been useless, or even pernicious. 

*But not really.  These are actually very mainstream cultural experiences that advertise themselves as distinct from The World.


bs king said...

For the teen camp thing, it's very uneven by denomination. I recently stumbled across the stat that the teenage children of mainline Protestants are rather uniquely less likely to self-affiliate with their parent's denomination:

For the teenage children of Evangelicals, Catholics and unaffiliated Christians it's all 80% or slightly above. For the teenage children of mainline Protestants it's 55%.

The Mad Soprano said...

We need more grandfathers in the role of youth pastor.

james said...

It doesn't help when the youth leaders describe an exciting time as "Spirit-filled." Loud singing and exhortation isn't a foolproof recipe for having God be present (1 Kings 18 ?)
Maybe it's a good thing I'm not a youth ministry director, but it would seem to me that the age is a good time to start emphasizing the demands of the faith and of adulthood.

Texan99 said...

I never went to Episcopal retreats as a kid, but everything I heard about them at the time suggested they were mostly about having sex and dropping acid.

james said...

I spent most of my "youth-ministry-eligible" time out of the country, but that would have surprised me. Maybe I was just out of touch.

Texan99 said...

Or I was hanging out with too many stoners. This would be have been around 1971-74.