My father’s generation used the word evangelism. Today, that might seem like an archaic term since it would appear it has been replaced with the word marketing. To be clear, marketing is not all bad and evangelism is not all good. Yes, you do need to have some level of marketing to be seen, but to what degree? We’ve all heard the ever-changing statistics on how many advertisements one is subjected to a day. We’ve also heard how that number significantly increases for teenagers. Today it seems that companies have no limitations to how and where they will place their product in the market.
Unfortunately, churches are not exempt from using this marketing strategy. One church I served chose to stick announcements on the inside door of a bathroom stall. Is nothing sacred anymore? When we begin to market the church as if we have a product to be sold then we are selling out the values of Christianity. You cannot sell a relationship. Correction, you should not try to sell a relationship. A relationship is not an object – it is a subject – and trying to sell one is fundamentally flawed.
By default, youth ministers have not only helped market their church and Christ, but also at times paved the way for our congregations to follow. Youth ministers are hip and have a direct connection with the prime target consumer, teenagers. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that we are challenged with showing teenagers that the Bible is relevant in their life today. I am merely pointing out that there should be an acknowledgement of the fine line that exist between an exemplar of a relationship with Christ and someone who is marketing a product. Simply stated, you don’t need to put skinny jeans on the Bible. It is fine the way it is. When you dress the Bible in skinny jeans, a plaid shirt, and black framed glasses you are suggesting that it needs to be enhanced. Without even knowing it, you are presenting you, and essentially your product (church), as fraud and lacking authenticity. We all know how youth can sense when someone is not being authentic. Teenagers’ attention and desires are constantly being fought for by society. Must we conform to the ways of culture and degrade Christian values by marketing Christ with fog, lights, and church coffee shops? I think we are setting our students up to fail from the start if we catch them with grabby gimmicks verse authentic relationships.
So on to the good stuff.
How can we reach students today without gimmicks and the tools of consumerism?
First, and most importantly, we must reach students through authentic relationships. Everything that you do in or out of your church should reflect a genuine desire to love students where they are now, not where you want them to be after attending your church or youth program. If you keep relationships as your main priority in all aspects of youth ministry, you will reach students in the name of Jesus Christ. With that in mind, let’s look at 3 areas of youth ministry and evaluate how we approach them.
1. Appearance: What’s wrong with skinny jeans?
Nothing. I wear them. A lot. But I wear them because I like them, not because I think it will help me to relate to students. And don’t think they can’t tell the difference. Remember, teenagers can sense when someone is being fake. You do not need to dress like a teenager to relate to one. For example, the senior pastor of our church has a different understanding of the term “casual dress.” Dressing casual to him is wearing a dry-cleaned, button-down, collared shirt coupled with starched khaki pants and penny loafers (the blue blazer is optional depending on the weather.) However, our pastor will attend every Youth activity and genuinely connect with the students regardless his professional attire. He may not know what “emoticons” are, or what the app SnapChat is, but the students respect him and love him for who he is; a 60-year-old man who loves God. We can send mixed messages if we try to represent something or someone that we are not. The youth of today need adults in their lives, not adults disguised as teenagers.
2. Youth Space: What’s wrong with Youth Room SWAG?
Nothing. It is great to have coffee bars, flat screens, video game consoles, and modern furniture. The question is not if you should have the catchy culture decor, but rather what is the intention behind the SWAG? If your space has a coffee lounge area, where do you purchase your coffee? Look into purchasing your coffee from non-profit organizations to help educate your kids on global issues. Is upgrading your flat screen a couple of inches worth the $$$? And furniture can always be updated. Instead of waiting for the sofa to become dilapidated beyond use, try and involve the seamstresses in your congregation by asking for help creating a new couch cover. Be creative in finding purpose in your youth space design beyond aesthetic appeal.
3. Current Curriculum: What’s wrong with relevant resources?
Nothing. It’s great to reference trending topics and popular TV shows to scripture. But what happens when some of your students have issues that the popular trends and shows do not cover? What happens when someone close to them dies and they don’t want to relate to a fictional TV character? It reminds me of Algebra. It always frustrated me when I had the correct answer but the teacher counted it wrong because I “did not show how I got the answer.” Why does that matter if I got the right answer!? And then I was in Algebra II, where the level of problem solving grew and if I didn’t write out all the steps I could not find the right answer. Do your students know how to solve life problems on their own or are we just giving them the answer key? Are we equipping students to discern scripture and God’s calling for them in the world, or are we teaching them the correct answers for Sunday school? Referencing relevant topics can be resourceful, but it should be the appetizer rather than the main course.
If the teenager is the consumer and we as youth ministers are fighting one another for them to buy “our” product that you can only get at “our” church verses “His” ever-lasting life, then we are missing the boat. To be clear, it is totally okay to dress up evangelism to reach a new generation. Just beware of the temptation to reach a number instead of building relationships. Jesus did not follow culture, He transformed it.