How many churches, and those of us who work in youth ministries, get the itch every now and then to work on “branding” our ministry, or really get our name out there? I know I am guilty of it. What can we call our youth group? Last fall, my colleague and I came up with “YChurch!”. Y for youth and for the question.
There are multiple churches along Fort Hunt Road in Alexandria, VA. Each flavor of protestantism is there: Baptists (x2), Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. And at the beginning of every school year we all advertise on form or another of a back-to-school, end-of-summer, fall-kickoff party. These usually have a few inflatable games, lots of food, and some form of music.
Brian Kirk, professor at Eden Theological Seminary, argues that churches who do this, who attempt to brand their youth ministries with special game nights, junk food at every event, and even catchy names are following the lead that many fast food companies use to target teens. He says, “Church use these same tactics in a way that undermines our own efforts to offer teens an authentic, transparent, and mature experience of the gospel.”
Fast food companies target consumers with flashy advertising, sugar and fat infused foods, and endless promotions, all in an effort to target consumers. Kirk cites an article from Psychology Today that makes the point that fast food chains do more than target our taste buds, but in fact have studied the way teens brains work and know exactly what appeals to teenage consumers.
Fast food and teenagers go hand-in-hand. Last month, on our way back from serving dinner in D.C., three teenagers in my car wanted to stop at McDonald’s. So we did, and in less than 5 minutes the three teenagers inhaled 60 mcnuggets.
Are we doing the same thing in our youth ministries? Are we infusing our programs with promotions, fat and sugar, and catchy logos in an effort to compete with all of the other activities competing for teenagers?
Think about it, sports teams have their logos and slogans, and so do the dance teams and music groups teeangers participate in. These are the same groups we (those in youth ministry) compete with on a day-to-day basis. According to Kirk, the “if we can’t beat them, why not join them” mentality that many of us have is beginning to take hold in many youth ministry settings.
If we water down our youth programs to be another flavor of the week we are doing exactly what Kirk described as undermining “our own efforts to offer teens an authentic, transparent, and mature experience of the gospel”. We are manipulating not only our programs but teens “brains in a way that ultimately distracts from our goal of engaging teens in meaningful faith”. Some of the best experiences I have had in youth ministry has been in the less scripted, more hands-on service opportunities and discussions with teenagers. It was not the moon-bounce or cool logo that opened a dialogue about faith and how Christianity is just as relevant on Sunday morning as it is in the lunch room on Wednesdays at school.
Implications for Youth Ministry
The challenge for those of us in youth ministry is to attract teens while not manipulating them or the Gospel in an effort to get them in the door. Kirk closes his article in Patheos with this:
“But why not use all this knowledge of the brain in a different way? Why not brand our youth ministries in such a way that teens see them clearly as places where we speak against injustice, welcome all, serve the needy, and center ourselves in love? Why not stimulate the brain’s desire for novelty by confronting teens with Jesus’ upside down view of the world where all are cared for and there are no outsiders? Why not challenge the teen brain’s desire to be satiated with fat and sugar by offering a different lifestyle—one centered in seeing what is really important in life and how sometimes doing without the things we crave might open the possibility of others having what they need to live.”
These are the questions that we need to address in our ministry settings. Parents, volunteers, as well as paid-staff need to work together to decide how we want to engage teens and how we go about doing so in an age of advertising that is telling us to constantly reinvent our programs and to be the newest flavor of the week.
Maybe Kirk is right in his idea that this could be a contributing factor to why teens leave the church once they have graduated high school. They come to the realization that the fat and sugar infused, over-processed programs are not spiritually satisfying to them.
You can read the rest of Brian Kirk’s article, Fast Food Youth Ministry, here.