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The Weird Way We Approach Young Adult Ministry
Conferences, Content, and more!
It was the first time I ever got in trouble at work…
Some people were organizing a young adult conference and my then-supervisor wanted me to advertise it.
Normally, I would have been happy to!
But, when I reviewed the schedule, I saw lots of social events and expensive activities.
Which isn’t a bad thing…
But I wouldn’t describe it as “ministry.”
(The stuff we talked about last time, remember?)
So I expressed my doubts about promoting an event that seemed fun but not particularly in line with my job, which was to help lead youth and young adults to Christ.
I said that I’d be happy to promote the conference if I was confident that it would help advance that mission…
Which seems reasonable, right?
Well, my supervisor didn't care.
“Advertise it…or else.”
This experience—and many others like it—have opened my eyes to the weird way the Church (both institutional Orthodoxy and internet Orthodoxy) tends to approach young adult ministry.
(Of course, weird is a relative term. I often feel like I’m in the extreme minority regarding views on ministry. To most people I’ve worked with or reported to over the years, I’m the one with a weird approach.)
That said, when I look at the way institutional and internet Orthodox tends to approach young adults, I find three basic things that give me pause:
Young adults are often reduced to a demographic rather than engaged as persons with unique needs and talents.
Young adult ministry is unintentionally framed as a para-church movement rather than an ecclesial movement that fosters connection with a sacramental, in-reall-life Christian community.
Young adult ministry, like much contemporary ministry, is often deeply shaped by a non-Christian ethos rather than the Mind of Christ.
But first, I should make something very clear…
Young Adult Ministry Matters…A Lot
Back in January 2017, my team and I organized a ministry conference.
One of the talks explored why young adult ministry is of primary importance.
Because no amount of resources will ever “fix” the Church’s ministry efforts. Rather, what we need are faithful, well-formed clergy and lay ministry leaders.
And, from summer camps to retreat to parishes, these potential ministry leaders tend to be young adults.
Helping to form one faithful young adult can have an incredible impact: from the children he raises at home, to the youth he mentors in a parish, to the friends he influences throughout his life.
So yes, young adult ministry is incredibly important.
I should also note that there is a lot of great young adult work happening across the Church!
So when I critique ministry approaches I’ve encountered, it’s not to say that everything everywhere is going poorly.
Far from it!
I’ve seen a lot of ineffective ministry efforts. I’ve sometimes butted heads about them.
And I’d like the Church to improve its work because I know how important ministry is.
That starts with understanding the problem.
And these ineffective ministry efforts tend to start with the first weird way we approach young adult ministry…
We Engage with People as Demographics, Not Persons
Remember last week’s post about a misguided, organizational vision for ministry? Well, that vision makes sense if you focus on demographics rather than persons.
Think about it…
Because, if we’re focusing on young adults as a demographic, then our goal isn’t to lead particular people to Christ.
It’s to engage a market segment.
Youth “ministry” is about targeting kids up through high school. Young adult “ministry” is about targeting people ages 18-35.
And the precise nature of that targeting doesn’t really matter…
Remember that conference I was reluctant to promote? Well, from my supervisor’s perspective, my mission-based objection was stubborn foolishness.
Because if the Church’s goal is simply to target a demographic, does it really matter how we do it?
Even if a conference has no ministry content, why does that matter if people show up?
What’s the problem if our target demographic is engaged?
Sure, that conference might be forming members of an ethnic tribe rather than disciples who truly belong to Christ. It might be forming bourgeois consumers who crave wealth and status rather than the humble self-emptying of true Christian community.
But does any of that matter if they’re showing up for an event hosted by the Church?
Now, this demographic-centered approach shapes a lot of institutional Church efforts. But it’s also common online, where internet Orthodoxy flattens people into a faceless demographic.
The internet is designed around constant engagement with content. And we measure that engagement in downloads, views, comments, etc.
The more views a particular video gets, for example, the better.
But, whether we’re boasting about podcast downloads or the activity in some online forum, we’re not really engaging people as people. We’re not even evaluating the quality of the content that’s being consumed.
We’re simply targeting a particular group with our content—regardless of what effect that content might be having on real people.
(I saw it all the time when people used to speak about Be the Bee. Lots of people thought it was good, not because of the quality of the content or the way it could positively impact a viewer, but because it was well-known and popular.)
But is judging media because of the engagement it produces really the right approach?
I mean, those online spaces might be forming passive consumers of Orthodox content who enjoy vaguely religious infotainment (there’s a reason I stepped away from media work, after all). Or those online spaces might be forming conspiracy theorists, misogynists, racists, anti-semites, and neo-nazis.
Does any of that matter to us?
Or are we simply impressed by the volume of engagement we see in online spaces labelled as “Orthodox”?
And speaking of these troubling events and online spaces…
We Turn Young Adult Ministry into a Para-Church Thing
Whether it’s old-school, in-person conferences or new-school, virtual spaces, conversations about young adult ministry tend to shift the center of gravity away from what’s important.
Because the Church is more than an organization to which we belong. It’s more than an affiliation we publicly proclaim. It’s more than a system of theological proposition with which we agree.
It’s the mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.
And we are swept into this cosmic reality in real places as we gather with real people for sustained, ongoing worship and fellowship.
But that’s not what we’re after when we consider one young adult conference a year a “success” (despite participants being disconnected from their parishes and the sacramental life of the Church throughout the year).
And it’s not what we’re after when we consider digital engagement a “success” (despite that online engagement often not translating to real-life connections with real-life people in real-life spaces).
Again, I have nothing against conferences as such. Earlier in this very post, I posted a video from a conference that I helped plan and organize. And I have nothing but praise for events like OCF’s annual College Conference, which does help cultivate faithful Christians who are deeply embedded in their local communities.
But I do object to young adult conferences that focus primarily on ethnic identity and conspicuous consumption. I do object to a disproportionate investment that pours vast sums of money into flashy annual events and makes no effort to cultivate real, parish-based community.
And I have nothing against the internet as such.
(Actually, wait, I’m not sure that’s true.)
Either way, I do object to the creation of online spaces that have no higher aim than continued engagement. I do object to the endless churn of digital outrage and content and judgment that dulls minds and darkens hearts.
(Yup, I definitely have something against the internet.)
But events and digital content often don’t do that, because…
We Shape Young Adult Ministry According to a Non-Christian Ethos
I recently listened to some Orthodox Christians having a conversation about young adult ministry. They made a few good points, but I noticed something that troubled me.
The source they cited more than any other was…Jordan Peterson.
Am I wrong in thinking that was odd?
After all, if you’re going to hear a conversation about ministry in the Church, wouldn’t you expect the dominant authority to be an Orthodox Christian (a Church Father, a modern scholar or theologian, etc)?
Isn’t it weird to shape an Orthodox Christian vision for ministry on the counsel of someone who isn’t even a Christian?
Now, I have nothing against non-Orthodox, or even non-Christian, thinkers. We can “be the bee” and take what’s good while leaving the bad.
But are we being shaped by the wider far more than we may realize?
When we organize a ministry event, are we doing so based on a vision for the Kingdom? Or are we acting like just another group organizing an event, shaping hearts attached to everything but the Kingdom?
When we produce digital content and curate online spaces, is it based on a vision for the Kingdom? Or are we acting like any ideologically driven website would, churning engagement for its own sake?
This is what I was trying to get at least week. And it’s a thought that will to continue to haunt this blog.
Because I’m afraid that, if you scratch the surface of many “Orthodox” efforts, you’ll find assumptions and principles that aren’t grounded in the Church.
But who knows? Maybe I’m the weird one.