As a parent of teens, I long for my kids to mature into faithful followers of Christ who put others before themselves, live for a greater purpose, and embody Christian virtues. I long for them to be surrounded by a community of Christ-following peers and mentors who spur, encourage and challenge them to be find their identity at the foot of the cross.
Much of the responsibility for their formation in Christ falls to us as parents. We also look to the church to support us in these efforts.
The church today finds itself in a bit of a pickle, however. In order to keep kids interested and engaged in spiritual things, a high value is placed on entertainment. Unfortunately, this high value on entertainment can, and often does, undercut the process of spiritual formation. In his book You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith goes for the jugular:
What passes as youth ministry is often not serious modes of Christian formation but instead pragmatic, last-ditch efforts to keep young people as card-carrying members of our evangelical club.
I’m not sure. I don’t think many youth ministries are merely trying to keep folks in the club, nor do I think the focus on entertainment represents a last-ditch effort. The intent, I think, is to create an environment where our youth feel loved, accepted and built-up in the faith. The wide-spread belief (at least anecdotally) seems to be that the best way to lead kids unto the green pasture of spiritual vitality is through the door of entertainment.
I believe this is a mistake. Smith puts his finger on the problem when he notes that a high value on entertainment reinforces the “secular liturgies” (that is, formative practices structured around a secular vision of the good life), which in turn undercuts Christian spiritual formation:
So while young people might be present in our youth ministry events, in fact what they are participating in is something that is surreptitiously indexed to rival visions of the good life. The very form of the entertainment practices that are central to these events reinforces a deep narcissism and egoism that are the antithesis of learning to deny yourself and pick up your cross (Mark 8:34-36).
Do I think we should stop entertaining our youth? Absolutely not. Make it fun. But there are more ways to have “fun” than throwing another video game or pool party.
Help our youth see the “fun” of sharing the Gospel with others. Help them see the “fun” of praying for each other or meeting the needs of the less fortunate. Help them see the “fun” of going deep into God’s Word. Help them see the “fun” of learning theology and apologetics. Better, challenge them to aspire to greatness and show them that true greatness is not found in being the most popular or athletic or best looking person, but in following Jesus.
The Gospel story is the best story ever told. It is the only story that truly satisfies, and it beckons us—and our kids—to find our meaning and purpose in loving and following Jesus. As we structure our youth ministry around the Gospel story instead of mindless entertainment, our kids will become lovers of all that is good, true and beautiful.
Chubby Bunny fills the mouth (for the uninitiated: with as many marshmallows as you can shove in), but teaching our kids the spiritual disciplines characteristic of authentic Christian community feeds and shapes the soul.
James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016), 145–6.