Giving Teens the Best?

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A NYT article explores why a Christian ministry (Teen Mania) would hire a “secular” ad agency to spread its message. Founder Ron Luce, President and Founder said, “If MTV can give them the best, why can’t us Christians give them the best? If MTV values them more than we do, then MTV is going to get their hearts.”

It is not clear from the context what Mr. Luce believes “the best” is. I believe he is talking about MTV’s use of technology and is defending his organization’s decision to use “unbelievers” to design his organization’s web site to reach teens. MTV is “the best” at using technology to reach and hold an audience, but as Douglas Rushkoff shows in his PBS special “Merchants of Cool,” MTV is a cynical puppet of corporate interests who care only about the pocketbooks of teens and care nothing for their souls. They harness the mindless, addictive potential of technology to create consumers.

Increasingly Christian ministries also see people as consumers in two ways. The secular ad agency was attracted to this account because of the commercial potential of the “Christian” Market. “According to a study by the market research publisher Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, domestic sales of religious products are likely to grow to ($) 9.5 billion by 2010.” As a broadcaster I am saddened to see publicists trying to attract my attention to their author or artists by playing the “big Christian market” card in their press releases.

The economic commercialization of the Christian enterprise is a problem, but it is dwarfed by the spiritual consumerism in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism’s basic premise is that the purpose driven life can be reduced to “evangelism and discipleship.” Evangelism itself is reduced to the presentation of a simple prepackaged message (4 spiritual laws, evangelism explosion), which is accepted or rejected as indicated by the prospect saying “yes or no.” Yes is indicated by “praying a sinners prayer.” This reductionist view is so commonplace that every time I comment on it I receive a flood of responses from readers who are sure I don’t mean what I am saying.

Here is the fact. The way evangelicals approach evangelism bears little or no resemblance to how Jesus approached people. First, he never shared the good news the same way twice; his conversations were always contextual. Second, his aim was always the same, to restore relationship with the living God and begin a radical transformation of the individual’s thoughts and behavior. He was not focusing on going to heaven after death; he was emphasizing living an abundant life now. Third, to follow Jesus meant a radical commitment of self-denial not the simple mouthing of some words.

Nobody could confuse Jesus’ message or method to a salesperson selling a product whereas virtually everything about modern evangelicalism has been reduced to sales and marketing formulas. Jesus is treated as a product we are asking seekers to buy and the appeal is generally to the “consumers” best interests. Technology suits evangelicalism’s purpose well because it is about efficiency, transference of information and a “direct” response to a mass audience. Technology is not neutral, a fact lost on many evangelicals who see it is just another tool. Marshall McLuhan got it right when he said, “all media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.”

Some of the changes media brings are good, but when it comes to teens there is a steep downside. The MTV world is raising kids who consume but do not produce. Every week “MY Super Sweet 16” serves up “Jerry Springer for rich kids” featuring birthday bashes costing up to ($) 200,000. The kids see no problem with this. Sophie, a young woman featured on the show was “quick to defend her mother’s decision to spend ($) 180,000 for her party. ‘Unless they were crazy or hated their child, any parent who was financially able would do it.'”

Kids are becoming cynical about popular culture’s superficiality with new movies like “American Dreamz” and “Thank You for Smoking” holding a magnifying glass to the stupidity of the pop culture, but it is the only culture kids have, and even the skewering is delivered through the electronic media mechanisms to which they are enslaved.

What teens need is not the best technology or reductionist conversion pitches no matter how creatively packaged in events, websites or podcasts–what they need is to fill the God shaped vacuum in their life with God and to become fully human, developing their spiritual, intellectual, creative, moral and relational capacities. Becoming human requires unplugging the electronics and encountering other humans, starting with their own family.

Milwaukee Bucks superstar-in-the-making Michael Redd called his dad before his NBA playoff game to ask his dad how church was that morning. Ironically, we would not know his story were he not a celebrity, but it is nevertheless a familiar one to many of us. Ours is a story of loving, hard working parents, family meals, an extended community through a small, intergenerational, diverse local church–character and identity shaped by timeless truth embodied in people we know and who love us, not by an uncaring, impersonal, faddish morally bereft media.

This is what it means to give the best,

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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    Posted in Staublog in April 26, 2006 by | No Comments »

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