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?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.