In chapter 6 of his passionate book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith takes his argument (we are what we love) and asks some very relevant questions about how Christians tend to do education – right across schools, youth groups, Sunday School, youth ministries etc
How can we form and educate young people so that they know the gospel in their bones?
What if education weren’t first and foremost about what we know but what we love?
He’s inviting readers to see young people (and all of us) as ‘ritual creatures’ – hungry for rites that give them rhythms of life to live by.
His passion here is education as moral formation – forming not just informing. An engaged, embodied type of learning that catches imaginations, hearts and minds and lodges deep within.
This is the longest chapter in the book and most of it is a fairly devastating critique of a lot of contemporary American youth ministry (and it is very American here).
Smith is scathing of the formulaic alternative youth ministry services, detached from the rest of the church in a cool hangout loft, upbeat band, triumphant praise songs, introspective closed-eye meditation sections, fronted by comedic hip leaders and teachers with a vaguely moralistic or therapeutic message.
All of this, says Smith, is in the (desperate) attempt to make Christianity not seem boring and that following Jesus can be fun. The culture is an enforced
“unrelenting scripted happiness, trying hard to be a place people want to be.”
The wrappings of the latest technology, use of film, Christianised music around a vaguely biblical content are in effect trying to get people to swallow Christianity in a palatable wrapping .. like a medicine.
The whole programme, he argues, is “run on fear” (144). Of fear that children will grow up and leave the church out of boredom.
This turn in modern youth ministry, he argues, was based on two disastrous decisions.
1. To stratify the body of Christ into generational segments. It moved youth ministry into effectively a parachurch setting even within the church. Such a shift denied the catholicity and unity of the body of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:4-6. It has fostered destructive habits as the youth segment meets by itself detached from the richness and diversity of the wider body.
2. Contemporary youth ministry has become almost entirely expressivist. It actually reflects a pragmatic last ditch effort to keep members of the evangelical club. It has ceded formation to secular liturgies (146). It reflects a dichotomy: a formulaic emotive experience followed by a short message that in effect demonstrates a lack of confidence in the gospel and Bible to form people. It is still entrapped in a Cartesian framework of assuming formation happens via depositing of the message in people’s brains. The preliminaries are just to get people there to listen briefly to the message.
This is back to Taylor’s ‘excarnation’
Underneath such ‘liturgies’ is in effect a secular vision of the good life. Desires are not being formed for God and his kingdom, but are framed around consumerist rituals and self-concern. These are liturgies of narcissism and egoism.
This is a form of Christian ministry that has given up on incarnation in liturgy and spiritual disciplines. Discipleship in much American youth ministry equals “being fired up for Jesus” (146). Where the ideal disciple is by definition an extrovert.
“As if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful, hurray-for-jesus disposition” 147
Did I mention he is scathing?
His bugbear here is that such undimensional ministry excludes and misinforms and disenchants – anyone who does not fit in cannot be a proper disciple.
I’d add that this sort of cultural conformity (to upbeat relentless optimism) is particularly American. It reminds me of one of the many great lines by Dumbledore in Harry Potter where talking to Uncle Vernon he says
“I would assume that you were going to offer me refreshment, but the evidence so far suggests that that would be optimistic to the point of foolishness.”
And from here Smith goes to liturgy and Book of Common prayer. I’ll come back to that in another post.
Good point to pause and ask ..
Does this picture of youth ministry sound familiar to you? Do you agree that a lot of youth ministry can be run by fear? That it has, in effect, sold its soul to the world in an attempt to be relevant? And actually does not work in forming disciples?
Comments, as ever, welcome.