I got chatting last week with a visitor to Ridley who used to be the pastor of a big church in Sydney’s north. He was extolling the virtues of the youth pastor who’d worked under him and that youth pastor’s approach to growing and contextualising his ministry. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since.
The basic premise of the youth pastor’s approach was to show his kids that life with Jesus was better than anything else, including the heavy binge drinking culture of their posh private schools. But having something ‘better’ would be a big call, because these kids came from wealthy families and were pretty entitled. So it had to be big – and that’s just what this youth pastor delivered.
A few weeks before the school formals, the church held its own youth group formal, with weeks of preparation, including proper dancing lessons. They even hired a cruise ship to take the kids around Sydney Harbour. The kids had a ball and after their school formals commented on how much more fun the youth group formal was despite the absence of alcohol and sex. Similarly, the youth group offered an alternative to Schoolies, taking the kids on a holiday to a tropical island (Hamilton Island? Whitsundays? Can’t remember – somewhere like that). Again, the kids had a much more wholesome time and had stacks more fun than their non-Christian friends who were at Schoolies. (The money for all this mainly came from the kids’ Christian parents who were loaded.)
A story like this sounds like a victory for Christian culture. You take rich kids, you work within their culture and you show them how much better life with Jesus is. But there’s a fine line between contextualising your ministry and selling out the culture you’re in. I have nothing against that church and all I heard about if was from this one conversation. I’m sure there’s more to the story. However, if we take it as a case study for contextualisation, here are some of the questions I have:
- Why is bigger necessarily better? I get that things like cruise ships are carrots, dangled to suck people in so that they can experience Christian community but does such an extravagant carrot overshadow the ‘ordinary goodness’ of Christian community?
- Do events like these reinforce the idols of a culture? Do they encourage a love of money? Do they support an industry of extravagance? Are they blinkered to the NT commands to live simply?
- Do events like these encourage self-centredness? Sure the events showed the kids that life in the church was better than life out drinking, but they were still aimed at ‘what the church can do for you’. They didn’t lift their gaze any higher.
- Do events like this encourage withdrawal from culture rather than engagement with it? You can take kids away on a holiday with lovely other Christian people, but that doesn’t equip them to live in the debauchery of the uni world or after-work drinks.
- Is it an unrealistic portrayal of the Christian life? Sure, life with Jesus is awesome, but it’s not all cruise ships and island holidays. It’s also suffering and humiliation and perseverance. Joy in Christ is something money can’t buy.
My own context shapes my response of course. I didn’t go to a posh private school and I struggle to be gracious to wealthy Christians (which of course, if completely hypocritical, since I’m a Western Christian.)
But I also come from Adelaide, where many Christian Schoolies (and others) spend their week serving down at the Schoolies Festival at Victor Harbor. Far from withdrawing or doing something extravagant with their week, they pay to go down to the festival and make up the ‘Green Team‘, setting up activities, helping drunk kids home, making breakfast for kids with hangovers, chatting to the lonely and the downtrodden, etc.
What do you think? Is this youth pastor a genius or a sell out? Or something else? This is a genuine question. I doubt there’s a straightforward answer. But I think that as Western churches, we must ask how we’re setting our young people up to live differently in our society. What does it mean to ‘be relevant’ in a culture and still also be salt and light?
Categories: Tanzanian culture Written by Tamie
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.
Typical Christian parallel universe. There is some value in that universe but not if it insulates the world from us.
If the big events are drawcards to bring non-Christian kids along we might let it pass. If it’s mainly to keep the church kids coming, it’s a shocker. But it is true that stacks of young ppl drop out of faith and church, and I can see that leader scared of the likelihood of that and determined to do everything he can to keep them. Of course the next church over is then scared of losing their kids to the all-dancing all-cruising youth group…
On the whole, I would say “sell out” in this scenario. High expenditure living is something to be critiqued. But that’s not just for the youth group – the whole church culture needs to change, and the parents may not want to hear that message.
It’s also true that as far as youth groups go, community is more important than entertainment. Half of my youth group do not have a car in their families, so we normally do things that don’t cost anything.
I think the premise is flawed.
Christians have better fun without alcohol and pre-marital sex?
Welcome to disciples of legalism.
New template! Nice!
This is a great test case. Thanks for sharing it, and your thougths that follow are very helpful.
Chris, care to elaborate a little more? :)
Ha, I like Chris’ comment as it stands ;)
What saddens me, like you alluded to, is the reinforcement of idols. To pretend that Christianity is somehow just about a mirrored alternative to the world rather than an actually different way of approaching life – a different source for joy and a complete reversal of values (money, status, etc.). Chris’ comment, if I’m reading him correctly, is that the underlying philosophy of ministry like this creates an atmosphere in which being a Christ-one is simply about mirroring culture but throwing western morality into the mix. ‘Let’s do the same things as everybody else but be more moral about it’ – rather than pulling the rug out from under culture and reshuffling absolutely everything. It isn’t about being like everybody else, only more moral, it is about living as if Jesus was actually resurrected which reshapes, rather than mirrors, every aspect of how we live.
Hi guys. I am the Youth Minister of the church which is the subject of this post, although I think it was referring to a previous Youth Minister called Ken Moser. He has literally written the book(s) on Youth Ministry and is now lecturing in Canada. You should get your hands on his books from here (http://www.youthsurge.com.au/publications/c/Leadership). But as we continue to do many of the things mentioned, it might be worth me clearing a few things up for you if that helps you think through contextualisation. So for the record:
The basic premise of the youth ministry here is to live as radical and whole-hearted disciples of Jesus. Naturally, as this is the life God wants for us, life with Jesus is better than anything else, although that’s probably not what you meant in the second paragraph
Re the harbour cruise, you got to think more like the boat from Gilligan’s Island than P&O. The cruise is a fundraiser for some missionaries that have gone out from our church. It only cost $30, not the hundreds a regular harbour cruise would cost, and the kids bring food and drink to share. No recollection of dancing lessons for this cruise. It’s pretty low-key, and is our end-of-year celebration party. And yes, we do have more fun than alcohol fuelled sexed up formals. I think it’s OK for our kids to have more fun every now and again, especially as they get pummelled for being CHristian often enough.
We have taken our kids away to Queensland for schoolies trips. But it’s been on the low-key side of things, hasn’t cost any more than what regular NSW schoolies kids pay for their trips (once alcohol is included), it’s been open to non-Christians. And it’s not all paid for by rich parents. Getting over the whole rich kid stereotype might help you process this. Often the kids pay for it themselves. Last year we actually took them to Vanuatu, but the first half of the trip we built classrooms in a college in the jungle with local brothers and sisters before having some time off at the beach. Was it expensive, yes. But the kids learnt things that money can’t buy.
Most Sydney kids will go away for schoolies, so we are actually offering an alternative that honours Jesus. There are other ways of equipping people for the debauchery of drinking than dropping them in the middle of the schoolies frenzy, where they are isolated. In your situation it sounds like it’s workable to go to the local schoolies and serve (that wouldn’t work in our context where the schoolies hang is a day’s drive away), but without knowing the culture and drawing conclusions about it, I would have to say that there are some places Christians kids just shouldn’t be participants in, and the Gold Coast schoolies is one of those places. With still vulnerable kids you need to discern the difference between hanging out with the lowly & downtrodden (I’m suspicious of this caricature of the schoolies crowd) and standing i the ways of sinners and sitting in the seat of mockers, as the Psalms and Proverbs encourage us to be very careful about. Sure Jesus hung out with prostitutes, but not while they were working. We need to think carefully about contexts, and with some thought you can find a place between all or nothing (unthinking immersion in godless culture by inexperienced Christians vs complete withdrawal from culture).
Hope this helps; to me it seems that with this added information, your 5 probing questions are cleared up for the most part. It’s been a lesson to me about drawing conclusions without adequate information, and also how to inject grace into online comments.
Grace and peace to the brothers and sisters in Adelaide,
Thanks for your reply! Certainly does help clarify things. And hey, with a harbour like Sydney’s why not get out there and go for a cruise!
Something I’m still thinking through is how do we run programs that show being a Christian is about engaging the world with the good news of Jesus. Not about escaping the world or not about avoiding certain immoral behaviours. I’m sure you don’t do this, but my view is it would be terrible to say, or even imply, something like, “hey kids, we’ve had a great time on this cruise tonight and did you notice no one had sex! Well that’s why it was fun, because we all behaved morally!” Of course the reason you had a fun, edifying, God glorifying night was because you had just been hanging out at a party centred on Jesus, a gospel driven community.
I’m pretty convinced that by and large a program driven church is a bad one (of course all churches will have programs), but I have no idea how you move your youth ministry away from a focus on programs to a focus on pastoring and discipling young people, to a focus on being a gospel driven, gospel centred community…
Feel free to give me any tips!
Thanks for dropping by and taking the time to reply. I’m sure you appreciate that my intention was not to have a go at your church but rather to use it as a case study to raise some questions. Hence I didn’t name the church. :)
I’m familiar with Ken Moser’s stuff. Obviously you guys have thought about what works in your context and continue to be committed to that. My question is less to do with the opulence of the said events (you’ve clarified that anyway) but more about the rationale. As you say, the issue is finding that place between all or nothing – I suspect we all draw the line in different places! :)
Regarding Schoolies, I gather you have two main concerns:
1. How do we protect our Christian kids?
2. How do we not endorse (and participate in) the sinful behaviour of non-Christians?
I reckon Adelaide Schoolies does a good job of these. Adelaide’s pretty different to other Schoolies stuff – everyone converges on one town so it’s reasonably containable. So it may not be transferable elsewhere. But for what it’s worth, here’s how they deal with them.
1. The way teams are set up with experienced and older leaders out of churches; the concrete activities that teams are given to do; and the preparation, training and debriefing, before, during and after the event (they all stay down there together in the Christian campsites) makes an excellent start on protecting the Christians kids and giving them a solid and safe foundation from which to work. That’s not to say it’s a perfect system or no kid falls through the cracks though!
2. Same deal with not endorsing the behaviour. The police encourage the Schoolies team to come back every year because there is less crime and more celebration when the festival runs. That’s not to say everyone’s having ‘good, clean fun’ but it is to say that there’s a noticeable difference and one which is a witness to the SA community.
I have been thinking about this post ever since I read it Tamie, because I, like Scott, went to that church, was involved in the youthgroup & and went on the trip to the Whitsundays at the end of Year 12. I kept wondering how to reply, and as I have left it for a while Scott very ably did the job for me (hi Scott!).
Here’s my two cents worth which don’t really answer your questions Tamie – but give some other input:
That ministry that went on over those years has had an amazing lasting impact on an entire generation of Sydney’s youth. When I think of the people that went through that youth group over the 6 or so years I was there, I could name close to 50 men and women (who as direct recipients of that ministry) are now involved in full-time Christian ministry around the world – men & women, husbands, wives, all committed to serving the Lord Jesus in the affluent and poorer parts of the world. Ministers, youthworkers, university workers, women’s workers, children’s workers – in Sydney (the rich and poor parts), Adelaide (us! and others), other parts of Australia, the UK, South Africa & Thailand (to name a few). Not to mention the hundreds of committed, well-trained, biblically sound & pastorally caring lay people who are now serving in their local churches. If that’s not at least one measure of a sound, biblically based ministry which was established over many years, I’m not sure what is.
I count myself incredibly blessed to have been invited by a school friend to that church, and most of my closest friends today (as well as my husband) were also blessed by that ministry that taught us who Jesus is, the words of God and the myriad of ways to serve him with our lives. [And yes, we certainly enjoyed our high-school years much more than our non-Christian friends did!]
Great to have your perspective! Thanks for sharing. Praise Jesus for working in your life and so many others and equipping them for the service of his people!
I think these questions are difficult ones to resolve but it’s encouraging that we don’t have to have them resolved for God to bring amazing fruit from our ministries!