Thursday, February 14, 2013

Relevance Isn't So Relevant After All

Subaru owners have a lot of stereotypes.

For example, it's well-known that they don't embrace fads.  They're practical.  Efficient.  And even loyal.

Of course, one of the oldest stereotypes is that they're all lesbians, but from my personal experience with two Subaru owners, that's not true at all.

A widowed cousin of mine in Maine, one of the most practical and frugal people I know, buys only Subarus.  I used to think Subarus were only sold up north, since they're all built with snow-savvy four-wheel-drive, and was surprised when, a number of years ago, Subaru dealerships started opening up down here in sunny Texas.

Yes, Texas, where I became friends with a guy who's not only another practical, frugal Subaru owner, but a conceal-and-carry enthusiast to boot.  He also used to own a big, old, smoke-belching Dodge Ram pickup truck.  Fairly extraordinary possessions in contrast to the conventional Subaru customer, don't you think?  The pickup truck's original owner had brought it down to Texas when he relocated from Buffalo, New York, and that beast was "purt-near" rusted-out from all the Yankee road salt.

At any rate, my friend with both the Subaru and the rusty old pickup himself relocated to a new job in Louisiana, but he never could find a Subaru dealership there that he trusted as well as our local shop here in Texas.  So last summer, when a list of things needed fixing on it, my friend drove his beloved Subaru back here on a car-maintenance vacation, and during his stay, we had lunch.

And I remember that just about the only thing we talked about during that whole long lunch involved the transition a church he was attending in Louisiana was going through regarding its youth ministry.

If you think I'm strict about my doctrine and how I live out my faith, you haven't met my friend!  If you think I see things with black and white lenses, you haven't seen our world through my friend's digitally-enhanced, black and white bionic eyes.  He is laser-focused on what's right and wrong, and makes no apologies for it.

That's one reason he's willing to drive back to Texas for maintenance he can trust on his Subaru.  And why, even though he has no kids either, that doesn't stop him from thinking through what church youth groups should - and shouldn't - look like.

We didn't agree on everything during that luncheon conversation, but we both lamented how invisible the long-term positive results from years of sophisticated church youth programming seemed.

Race for Relevance:  Idolizing Our Culture, Instead of Worshipping Christ

Then today, my friend reminded me of our discussion at lunch last summer with a post on Facebook by Father John Beck, an Orthodox priest who writes a blog called "The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow."  My friend had found a blog entry by Fr. Beck entitled "Youth Ministry - The 50 Year Failed Experiment," and immediately, I knew where this was going.

Basically, Fr. Beck takes a quick retrospective past the last half-century of youth programming in America's churches, and reaches the same conclusion other professional Christians and parents are reaching these days:  relevance really doesn't matter.

Relevance.  You know the term.  It's become church-speak for relating to the lost world around us.  It's become an excuse to "change the methods but not the message."  It's one big marketing ploy that takes evangelism out of the daily life of believers and puts it in the hands of professional Christians who say they know how to consecrate rock music, PowerPoint presentations, and glitzy children's play areas for sacred purposes.

Except even "consecrate" and "sacred" sound too religious.  Those words might offend people who have had a negative experience with church.  So the plan has been to, instead of offending the unchurched, offend the churched.

And it's pretty much worked - especially when it comes to offending churched kids.

Turns out, all the separate classrooms, high-tech gadgetry, Disney-esque play places, high-cost staffing, fun retreats, sports leagues, on-site video games, rock bands, and generation-centric "worship" have pretty much been one big, expensive bust.  Fiasco.  Debacle.  Farce.

Not that some kids haven't emerged from all of this furious programming as genuine, God-honoring disciples of Christ.  Make no mistake:  the Holy Spirit is still active and working in the hearts and minds of God's people, regardless of their age.  But the data - estimates ranging from a 60 to 80 percent failure rate in terms of youth programs grooming high school graduates for continuing participation in evangelical faith fellowships - is stark.  It's ominous.

And it leaves many people, like me, my parents, and my friend, along with many other more conventional believers, fighting back the urge to scream, "I TOLD YOU SO!"

Can't Blame That Old Time Religion Now

Oddly enough, Fr. Beck's blog article is the second one on this topic that I've seen friends post on Facebook this week.  Just a couple of days ago, another single male friend of mine posted an article from the blog Marc5Solas entitled "Top Ten Reasons Our Kids Leave Church."  Whoever authors this blog (it seems to be anonymous) reaches pretty much the same conclusions Fr. Beck does, and to simplify their articles even further, here they are:
  1. Kids crave authenticity, but America's churched culture has mastered the art of duplicity.  We say we love each other, but we don't. 
  2. Music is just background noise when authenticity is not apparent.  Lots of churches blame traditional church trappings for making the Gospel irrelevant and having to reinvent themselves as family-friendly rock concerts.  Yet while the style of worldly music may attract the curious, it can't make up for that uncanny duplicity we evangelicals have deluded ourselves into thinking only we can see.  And sometimes, even we can't see it.
  3. The only reason kids need to be separated from their parents during corporate worship is when those parents themselves don't know how to worship.
  4. Perpetually perpetrating an atmosphere of fun and amusement in children's and youth programming utterly fails to prepare them for the concrete walls of life they'll inevitably run into.  Church shouldn't be an escape from life's trials, but a place where we lovingly support each other through them, and educate ourselves on how the Holy Spirit can use them for His glory and our ultimate good.  Yet here again, our duplicitous contrivances lead us to hide what's wrong in our lives, so authenticity can never nurture genuine love.
  5. Well, that last part of #4 isn't exactly correct.  We do have genuine love, but it's for the world, not for God and His people.  We love our lifestyles, our celebrity preachers, our conservative politics, feeling jazzed after our church rock concerts, and doing those fun community service projects where we get to have pizza and ice cream when we're done slapping some paint on a Habitat for Humanity house.  Or those super-fun and super-expensive short-term missions trips where we get to visit some exotic foreign country and our sponsors get to write-off their donations on their taxes.  Oh - and we really love trying to fit in (as much as we think we can) with the heathen culture to which we're supposed to be modeling God's holiness.
Hmm... This all sounds so negative and depressing, doesn't it?  This isn't the fun, happy-faced Christianity we're supposed to be showing "seekers," is it?  So maybe I'm wrong about all of this.  Maybe my two single male friends on Facebook, neither of whom have kids, are wrong, too.  Maybe, since we're not parents, we're not qualified to render an opinion on why the vast majority of churched kids never come back after they turn 18.

But contemporary church youth ministry programs have had 50 years to prove guys like my friends, these bloggers, and me wrong.  And the data is mounting in our favor, not theirs.  Which is particularly problematic for churches who've spent a gazillion dollars following in knee-jerk lockstep with church growth experts and their professional recommendations for how to woo people into their pews.

Except most churches don't use pews anymore.  Too traditional an aesthetic, they claim.

Somehow, I don't think kids would care what they were sitting on, as long as they saw people in their faith communities actually modeling... um, faith and community.
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