Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot of that special category of pastoral work called “youth ministry.”
In church history, that thing is a recent invention. The idea emerged during that great reshuffling of population directly after World War II, when the interstate system and the GI Bill did so much to empty urban centers of “backbone” type families, and resettling them into new, rootless, and non-communal communities.
“Youth ministry” was the quasi-pseudo-ecclesial answer to a large new class of adolescents who were no longer assimilated into the extended family and ethnic culture that was normally provided and encouraged by the pre-WWII church. This culture (not high culture to be sure, but “culture” in the Schelling sense, and “ethos” in the Orthodox sense) provided language, life passage rituals, induction into adulthood, worldview, traditions, art – or ritual expressions of myth. It was marshaled by the elders and transmitted by the adults – many of whom were knit together by ties of sanguinity, all were bunched together by common experience and friendship (even if they suffered the occasional spat and pout over time).
But there was none of this in the refugee camps called the suburbs of the 1950’s and 1960’s. During that time, national “youth movement” phenomena came to the fore. First, I believe, was “Youth For Christ” (co-founded by Rev. Billy Graham in the forties). Then came “Campus Crusade” (founded by Dr. Bill Bright in the fifties). After these flowered a plethora of denominationally-based or “parachurch” youth organizations (like YWAM, CGYA, and other acronyms which were all the rage in those days of yore – these nice paeans to military culture have been jettisoned, along with bobby-socks, DA cuts and packs of Sen-Sen).
I fondly remember the standard “youth meeting,” which was one of the two main defining social experiences of the “youth ministry” movement. By the time I became involved (in the late 1960’s), it had evolved to an almost predictable schedule. First, there was a prayer, of course. Then there was something called an “icebreaker”: this was a skit or short contrived experience to grab everyone’s attention, possibly introduce the theme, and break down inhibitions that might have precluded energetic participation in the later activities. After this was the “main activity”: the array of possible experiences was certainly wide-ranging, but looking back, I am surprised by how pervasive was the theme of “encounter” or “group psychotherapy.”
It was comical, I guess, but also creepy when, twenty odd years later in my graduate counseling psychology program, I took a number of group therapy courses: in our practica, when we rehearsed various group exercises, I found, to my small dismay, that this was all old hat, that about every single exercise was a “main activity” I had experienced long before in my youth group meetings.
Rogerian psychotherapy dominated, truly, most thinking about ministry – especially youth ministry – in the Christian community in those years. This was true even in the evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal circles – a surprising development to be sure, given the fact that Rogerian therapy was usually preached against, in regrettable fashion, in Revival services; but perhaps not so surprising, given the fact that Rogers himself was reared in a “devout Christian home” (at least, that’s what Wikipedia says; my advisor in the graduate psych program told me that Rogers actually grew up Nazarene).
After the main activity, then there was a Bible Study, or some other nod toward catechesis, then a concluding period of choruses and prayer, then refreshments. Generally, the latter consisted of koolaid and cookies in the early years, then evolved toward pizza and soda in the seventies: I'm sure, by now, the menu has changed.
Even today, you can detect the DNA of Carl Rogers in most “youth ministry” literature. Most college and seminary texts on youth ministry still carry a heavy dose of Rogerian anthropology, which mixes with more traditional dogma like oil and water. Usually, the emulsifier utilized to whip the two together (like mayonnaise) is that weird carnival of experiential/relational theology that was the perfect hybridization of revivalism and psychotherapy in the seventies.
I think the phenomenon that best captured this union of movements was the second of the social experiences that characterized youth ministry. This was the large group annual event that seems to be de rigueur in every youth program. We had it in our denomination every August in a small town university lodged in the desert part of Ohio. It went from Monday to Saturday, and we packed the program with the latest innovations in youth ministry. You could almost set your calendar by what new thing was being tried out in a particular year. For a while, on Tuesday night, there was this thing called, oddly enough, “Prayer Thing.” It was a hushed presentation of folksy guitar-led Scripture choruses (most of which came out of the Charismatic Catholic movement centered in Duquesne and Steubenville, but none of us evangelicals knew that). Then we were dismissed into a “Benedictine silence,” replete with candles and a quasi-liturgical ambience. That was, obviously, stuff of the sixties, when ecumenism (at least the part that we were in touch with) had not yet been overtaken by the liberationists and other assorted elitist moonbats.
Then there came the ascendancy of “small groups,” which brought, in its train, its repertoire of cuddly emasculations (e.g., “you’re just a little, scared boy, hiding behind that mask of masculinity”); “sharing” (an awesomely horrific term: under this rubric, it is conceivable that Freddy Krueger could have sat cross-legged in Romper Room); and, my all-time-favorite, “celebration” (i.e., anything could be celebrated: in one memorable group exercise, we celebrated our ontology – our “enabler” – every group must have one of these – charged us to “just be … just lean back and celebrate your is-ness”).
I didn't know it was possible for my "is" to have a "ness." But I was young.
Then we moved out of that slough into the much funner “extravaganza” period: this is when we started trucking in the big Christian stage bands and celebrity speakers. One summer in 1974 was particularly memorable. Everyone was going barefoot in ragged bellbottom jeans (trust the Christians to be five to ten years behind fashion – we were just then getting into our moonflower wardrobe). And we had this band that really, really rocked. They performed an interesting set of Larry Norman (“I Wish We’d All Been Ready”) and Andrae Crouch (“Jesus is the Answer” – I think), but they did the whizbang thing of singing some quite secular numbers: “Free Ride,” and boy they gave Edgar Winter a run for his money … “Smoke on the Water,” a little modified from some of Ian Gillan’s more, ahem, rarefied lyrics … and Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4” (no one knew what this meant, so bowdlerization was unnecessary).
We discovered then what D. L. Moody already knew, what Billy Graham knew, and what the folks at Youth for Christ knew: spectacle and extravaganza will always bring in the crowd, no matter what the content – even if, and despite the fact, that the content is at least superficially religious.
Nowadays, the youth ministry movement continues the extravaganza tradition. There are multi-day rock festivals modeled, loosely, on the lines of Woodstock – or at least the idealized myth of Woodstock (no mud, no nudity, and no bad brown stuff): Creation, FishNet, and the Youth for Christ annual event (the Flevo Festival) are some of the top draws.
And even the first social component of youth ministry – the local group – has turned extravagant. Local churches are going all out for producing an entertainment slash small group program. At an Assembly of God parish that housed my daughters’ classical school, I saw that the entire “fellowship hall” had been dedicated, for the entire program year, to a sophisticated assembly of rock stage, theater seating, a few dining tables (for refreshments and artwork), and – get this – a giant volcano. This surprising feature, with unfortunate but inescapable negative allusions, was comprised of two-by-fours, chicken wire, fiberglass molding, plywood, lots of acrylic paint, a dry ice fog making machine, and a pre-Rhode Island indoor pyrotechnic device that shot a Roman Candle fountain out of – you guessed it – the mouth of the simulacrum volcano.
I asked the senior pastor how this thing was used catechetically. He shook his head ruefully. The youth pastor was his son, so he considered his words carefully: “I’m from the old school,” he sighed, “We just preached, prayed and sang. Today’s kids …” he pursed his lips, “… need a show.”
The answer to my specific wonderment was a loose metaphorical link between eruptions, lava flows, and the intensity or enthusiasm of the children in attendance. “Youth on Fire!” was the emblazoned sign dangling above the mouth of inferno, which was even now sputtering chunks of fog from the night before. There was a gurgling noise. It was a canned volcano track, pharanxed from a tiny speaker, deep in the bowels of the chicken wire throat.
Talk about a mixed metaphor.
Just as an aside: I could do a whole lot more, catechetically speaking, with a volcano than devoting all that luscious potential to the same old miserable quest for enthusiasm. I am patently unenthusiastic about enthusiasm and ecstasy: if that’s what you want, or what you want for your church kids, then you’re in the wrong religion. Right off the bat, Bacchus comes to mind as a recommended alternative. I don’t know what else is available outside the Western Canon (pardon my myopia).
If you find yourself blessed with a volcano in your church hall some day, then let your volcano express itself as an authentic volcano. You know – as a metaphor rife with nastiness, scariness, maybe even the unsettling possibility of finding oneself on the wrong side of the eschatological tracks.
All the volcanoes I know get quite upset when used for therapeutic purposes, like being in the same room with Barney. That’s just abusing them.
Well, what do we have in youth ministry across the board? There are some positive things. There is a lot of local and worldwide social ministry. Kids are likely to be much more willing to hand out lunches at the Salvation Army and go on short-term mission trips to Mexico in August. They assume, rightly, and haven’t forgotten, that Christianity must necessarily imply what we often dismiss as mere “social work.”
But they are still bopping out of the church when they hit the young adult years. If not that, then they are moving on that never-ending lurching pilgrimage of wandering from one exciting megachurch or “emergent”/ "pomo” happening to another. One guy tells you to spend 2 hours praying the Lord’s Prayer every day, starting at 5 am. Another guy tells to get the LOL blessing on all fours.
Today's guy tells you to take and feed freely from the smorgasbord of the historic church: Here’s a little Heidelberg Catechism – we can print that on a handout – no, wait, PowerPoint!; O, that Reformed hymn would sound just peachy next to that reggae chorus; and let’s not forget the Anaphora Prayer – what shall it be this Sunday, Chrysostom, Basil (nope, too long), James, Gallic Rite? Wouldn’t it sound great while Moon Unit (our post-Goth keyboardist) riffs a fusion set from his Korg?
Even Rev. Pat Robertson (who, by the way, can leg press 2000 lbs according to CBN) noted, as much as 10 years ago on the ubiquitous 700 Club broadcast, that “Evangelical youth ministry has produced a generation of kids who know next to nothing about the doctrine of the faith.”
Divorce rates, sexual activity, domestic violence incidence are some markers that indicate that all this youth ministry going on since the fifties has not succeeded in encouraging young people to be Christian adults in society.
How did this happen? This miscarriage goes back to the blueprint and the fundamental beliefs about youth ministry. The slogan of Youth for Christ says it all: “Geared to the times, anchored to the rock.” That “anchored to the rock part is admirable,” to be sure, and we all agree with a round of applause. And that “geared to the times” sounds innocent, and sounds really punchy for success. After all, it became the great, powerful principle that guided protestant youth ministry through the tumultuous (and highly artificial) reshuffling of America into a plasticene civilization. If kids like rock, give them rock, but change the content to talk about Jesus. If kids like dance, give them dance, but clean it up a little bit, and talk about Jesus on stage. If kids like movies, then roll out the Bell and Howell, lower the silver-sand screen and thread through the 3 reels of “For Pete’s Sake” and have an altar call at the end. If kids like skits, then have skits, but give them a Christian hook. If kids like Dungeons and Dragons, then cook up a Christian fantasy RPG, but without the nasty necromancy. If kids like video, give them Captain Bible. If they like Growing Pains, then give them one in the Left Behind.
Whatever they like, give them a Christian version. In the attempt to construct a parallel universe or an "alternative culture," it turns out that the importation of forms that were thought to be value neutral really weren't so neutral at all.
And that is mainly why youth ministry, by and large, didn’t work.
I’m sure there was grace, but that was God, Who is known to work around and even through the impediments of our digressive programs.
There is no grace brought about by Christian kitsch (which is what that longish paragraph above was all about). There may be grace, despite the kitsch and the mercenary use of pop culture. But not because of it.
Stay tuned. Next post: youth ministry, youth culture, where it is (which will surprise you), and no more Mr. Nice Guy.
And definitely no more volcanoes.