Colonising the Adult Church. Pete Ward on our part in the spread of youth culture, consumerism and commercialisation

Colonising the Adult Church. Pete Ward on our part in the spread of youth culture, consumerism and commercialisation

In the light of the video discussion on the idolatry of youth culture in worship that we published recently, we stumbled across this fascinating 2009 piece by Pete Ward at

Have a read. Do you think this holds truth and if so what has been the impact on our sung worship?

So now we’re into the historic practices of the church: labyrinths, prayer walks, contemplative prayer—you name it, youth ministers are starting to do it. Does this mean we’ve abandoned youth culture and finally grown up? I think not.

But surely this means we’re getting more serious, which must mean that we’re more mature and adult. Really?

But hasn’t postmodern youth ministry morphed into the emerging church? Doesn’t this at least mean that we’ve gotten serious about the grownup business of church? Not really.

Well, what about the fact that youth ministry has spawned several huge million-selling organisations? So from Africa to Asia—from Australia to Austria—you can get the latest (usually U.S.-based) youth orientated products. Does this mean we’re at last out from the shadow of the parents? Well, maybe. But doesn’t this all mean we really have come of age? Afraid not.

Reflecting Culture

So why haven’t we come of age? The reason is fairly simple—we can’t. Youth ministry is basically a mirror of what happens in the wider culture. If we look outside the church, we see that youth culture actually has conquered most aspects of contemporary life—so much so that it’s hard to talk of youth culture at all. Adults, young people, and children all share in a common, media-generated, consumer culture. Obviously there are different tastes and so on, but that hardly constitutes an entirely separate culture. Youth ministry hasn’t grown up. In fact, the church has become more adolescent.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Youth ministry and the wider church have simply followed what’s happened in the general culture. Far from growing up and leaving youth ministry behind, the adult church has increasingly adopted the styles and products of the youth scene. Youth ministry hasn’t come of age—it’s simply colonised the adult church.

From Education to Entertainment

The main influence on youth ministry used to be education. Groups such as IVF, the Sunday School Movement, and Christian Endeavour took their style and culture from a broadly educational context. IVF reshaped Christian belonging as a kind of intellectual journey with study groups, sermon-type lectures, and theological publications. Meanwhile, in the churches, Christian education was developed to aid in passing on the faith to young and old alike. The expectation for youth ministry was that it should educate young people in the Christian faith.
The educational aims affected the methods and the content of work with young people in U.S. and European churches—it also meant taking seriously the design of curriculum, Bible study notes, and training of leaders in educational methods. Groups such as Scripture Union and other denominational entities have been active both in the U.S. and around the world, spreading this education-based style of ministry.

While education has remained a strong theme in many denominations, for parachurch groups such as Young Life, a new pattern based on entertainment emerged.

Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, made things pretty clear when he said, “If you want young people to come to Sunday school don’t hold it on a Sunday and don’t call it school.” Young Life was built on a philosophy of fun and entertainment. If, as Rayburn famously said, “It is a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel,” then logically it’s righteous to keep then interested and amused (with the Gospel).

Youth for Christ grew from similar entertainment-based roots. In the Chicagoland area and around the U.S.— during the war years and on into the 1950s—young Christian leaders such as Jack Wyrtzen and Torrey Johnson were holding spectacular rallies. In 1945 at Soldier Field, Chicagoland Youth for Christ staged what was one of the more elaborate and extravagant evangelistic events of the day. Joel Carpenter records that there were 70,000 people gathered together. The rally boasted a 300-piece band and a 5,000-strong choir—on the field there was a marching display by 400 nurses and a flag display by young cadets. Then came missionaries in national costumes from around the world. On the stage were sporting heroes as well as Billy Graham, who gave a call for national revival, and a talk delivered by Christian Radio celebrity Percy Crawford (Joel Carpenter,Revive Us Again).

Youth for Christ and Young Life both shared the perspective that Christian ministry with young people should be entertaining. Youth for Christ directly competed with the celebrity and musical culture of the day. Rayburn and Young Life took a more home-spun and slapstick style, but the shift from education to entertainment was basically the same. The two movements gave birth to two enduring trends within American youth ministry: the skits and game programs familiar from the early days of Youth Specialties and the gradual move towards contemporary Christian music.

Both trends, however, have a key factor in common—the belief that evangelism among young people must find a way to reach them within their own cultural world—which was a decisive shift. The educational patterns of youth ministry related to young people within a wider philosophical and pedagogical framework. In the educational mode, youth ministers and churches shaped youth ministry around adult understandings and priorities; entertainment changed all that.

The turn to entertainment meant that we were shaping youth ministry around the priorities of young people themselves, or at least around what Christian leaders thought they wanted. The result was that in their efforts to reach young people in their cultural worlds, youth ministry became more adolescent. Instead of youth ministers helping young people become more adult, the opposite was happening; youth ministers were becoming more like young people.

Media-Generated Christian Subculture

The changes brought about by the leaders within Youth for Christ and Young Life were spread far and wide as churches hired their own youth ministers and entertainment styles of ministry came to dominate local church programs. But these developments became supercharged with the advent of the Jesus Movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

As young people who had suffered in the cocktail of free love, drugs, and Eastern mysticism turned on to Jesus, they brought with them a new, hip style. So while they advocated a theologically conservative Christianity, the new young Christians retained the clothes, hairstyles, language, and above all, the music of the counterculture.

Suddenly ministry among young people had a hip feel. Church ministers began to adopt the style and develop specific ministries within the subculture aimed at young people. Not least among these was Chuck Smith from Calvary Chapel. Smith’s influence on the mega-church movement is well known, but the roots of his distinctive style lay in work with young people in the late ’60s. A similar story of youth ministry developing into church work can be told of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek.

The story of the mega-church, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. For every Chuck Smith and Bill Hybels, there must be thousands of ministers in the U.S. and around the world who saw the possibilities of a Christian youth subculture. In fact, the speed with which Christian publishers, record companies, and bookstores began to promote youth-orientated music and merchandise was astonishing.

The Jesus Movement, like any other youth culture, was generated by the way young people used these products as part of their identity and social world. The products went together with the style and sense of identity of the young people. You needed the right music and stickers on your Bible if you were to belong. A media-generated Christian subculture was starting to take shape.

The Impact of the Church

What started as a youth-orientated subculture quickly spread to the wider Church. Youth leaders grew churches. Some became pastors and clergy themselves. As they moved into leadership in the adult church, they took their musical preferences and youth-orientated worship and preaching with them. The youth scene gradually colonised the adult church. In fact it’s hard to imagine the renewed and lively churches we see all around the world without the Christian youth-orientated subculture. Right at the heart of these changes has been the way youth music has infiltrated worship.

I visited Johannesburg not long ago. Getting off the plane, my South African host handed me what he regarded as the latest thing in worship. It was a CD from the Vineyard Church entitled Hungry. The front cover boasted the title “Live from London.” This kind of globalisation is now so common that we probably fail to see it as remarkable anymore. But it serves as an example of the way that a church with its origins in California can plant itself in the United Kingdom and sell its products in Africa.

Vineyard is one of the few churches in history that lists the founding of a record company and music publishing company as part of its official history. Worship has, of course, always been central to church life. From the time of Gregorian chant, we’ve published music and sent it around the world. The important factor here is the way Vineyard and so many other churches have utilised the methods of production associated with popular music.

This development is now so pervasive that we appear to be locked into the round of the latest festival, the newest and hippest songs, and the coolest worship celebrities. And we aren’t just talking about the youth scene. The significance of the contemporary worship scene is that it has spread a consumer culture throughout the church. We started by trying to reach kids with the gospel, and the result has been the cultural conversion of the church.

Obviously we still have youth-orientated bands and worship styles, we still have youth ministries, and we still have events that cater to young people. Most adult Christians may not choose to worship in these styles or listen to these kinds of music. This doesn’t mean that the generation gap still exists in any significant cultural sense, though. We just choose to buy different stuff. How things work is basically the same.

The adult church, like the youth ministry, is locked into a consumer-based culture. We’ve become just like our kids.

Following the Drift

When we see retired guys buying Harley Davidsons and dressing up in leathers, forty-somethings packing the concert halls to witness the reunion of the Sex Pistols, and mums swapping clothes and even boyfriends with their daughters, we shouldn’t be surprised at the developments in the church. There was a time when young people wanted to grow up. Now adults don’t just want to be young again; they actually see themselves and present themselves as young.

So has youth ministry come of age? I don’t think so. What has happened has been the reverse. Just like in the wider culture, Christian adults have refused to abandon their youth-orientated Christian subculture, and they’ve taken it with them into the adult church.

So what of the shift towards the historic practices of the church? Is this a prophetic and significant move by youth ministers and young people to abandon the games’ shallowness of the youth ministry inheritance? Sorry, this is wishful thinking. I’m as excited as the next person by the way things are going for youth ministry. Like many, I’m an enthusiastic supporter of the emerging church. What is interesting is that these new moves are still packaged and sold. We’re consuming and identifying with this newauthentic culture in much the same way as people might visit a small independent bookstore rather than a chain, or they cooperate to buy organic vegetables rather than support the local superstore.

My point is that there’s no real escape from the cultural changes which youth ministry has set in train for the church. We may tell ourselves that we’ve come of age, but the truth is much more complex. What it means to be adult has shifted in the wider culture. This is a very confusing time, not just for Christians, but for everyone. I’m sure that the shift towards emerging church, practices, and authenticity is a vital ingredient for the future. Yet we need to be self-aware, knowing, and up front about these new developments.

Getting Reflexive

One of the most striking changes in consumer culture over the last few years has been the shift towards what is termed “reflexivity.” What this means is that when we look at adverts or commercial products, we’re conscious of the fact that we’re being manipulated and sold something. In fact, part of the pleasure of being a consumer is the very fact that we’re conscious and self-aware as we consume. We’re knowing.

This reflexivity is part of the consumer package, and it’s used by advertisers and by the media in general. They know that we know, and they pander to our knowingness. But reflexivity is also the starting point for ethical and theological judgements about the commercialised environment. This is precisely what we should be advocating in youth ministry. Instead of selling the fiction of coming of age, youth ministry needs to come clean about our own complicity in selling. We need to accept that young people and the wider church must develop a knowing critique of our own processes and products. We can only do this if we’re honest and accept that the youth scene has colonised the church.

Pete Ward teaches at Kings College London and is the author of Liquid Church and God at the Mall. Prior to working for Archbishop George Carey as his advisor for youth ministry, Pete helped to set up the youth ministry training program, Oxford Youth Works. He’s also a founding member of the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry.
The above author bio was current as of the date this article was published.