back to school sale

Predictably, just over a month ago, the retail cycle switched over from summer–which at that point was scarcely two weeks old–to back-to-school. Here, in mid-America, we just went through what is touted in the state as the second-most important retail weekend to Black Friday: the first weekend in August is a statewide sales tax holiday for school supplies, clothes and school-related products. (Many take advantage to buy new computers, I got myself some new boxers. The economic amateurs in the halls of power should take note that when there is no tax, revenue goes up for everyone. More taxes, less revenue. No one here denies the very real benefits of the holiday on the economy. This is how it works, not in theory, but in praxis. Private enterprise drives public revenues. Period. /rant over.)

So, while retailers from the Missouri to the Mississippi, plains to boothills, enjoyed a late-summer boon to their bottom line, American churches have been gearing up their kids for their great sale. Not so much of a sale, per se, as it is a sell-out.

Thousands of American evangelical and fundamentalist teens will be launching from home into their collegiate careers. Many of them are in welcome weeks and orientations right now. Others will be following suit later this month. For many of them, they’ve known lots of style and very little substance; youth conventions and Bible camps, performance-driven ‘ministries’ and ‘evangelism’ and ‘discipleship’ that focuses on silliness like how long one spends reading her Bible.

When, in my past life, I was involved in collegiate ministry–a position I loved and relished before the AG SS took me out five years ago–there were two things we knew. One was taught to us, the other we learned in the process: 1) Christian youth who are overexposed to the conventions, camps and superficial crap they’re inundated with from ages 12 to 18 don’t want much to do with ministries which focus on them as a person rather than the routine of showing up, going through motions, perhaps getting excited and leaving to go about their business.

And, 2) eight in ten evangelical youth will have walked away from their religious identity within the first semester of attending college. In fairness, that statistic is well over a decade old. The attrition rate has only gone up since. So, those of you reading who are perhaps worried about the evangelicals and fundamentalists overpopulating and using their fertility rates to reorder America in their image–I call this ‘the Driscoll method’–fear not. By the time they get out of the house, they’re so pseudo-spiritually shell shocked they don’t know which end is up, so they’ll go back into the matrix or flame out entirely. In reality, probably both.

Thus, the annual back-to-school sale going on on cushy church campuses around the country. Preparing their kids for failure.

[EDITORIAL ASIDE: this week happens to be the annual Assemblies of God national youth convention and fine arts festival, though considering a ‘human video’ a ‘fine art’ is sketchy at best. Bible camp wasn’t enough, and apparently it’s too much time between camp and the fall youth convention, so let’s keep them ramped up on their religious orgy-porgy by giving them bigger, louder, more explosive arena Jesus! Also, your eyes may start bleeding by viewing that link. Caveat lector.]

The funny-if-it-wasn’t-a-complete-exercise-in-community-sociopathy part of it all is that if when a student backslides, the fault is theirs and theirs alone, but if that same student backslides a year before going to college, if that student is well-connected, it could sink a youth pastor’s career (a career with position longevity already in the crapper at a robust average length of less than a year per church.) So it’s the church’s fault if a student fails while still at home, but the student’s fault if they go to college completely unprepared to face the world without a concrete sense of identity. Got it?

Well, don’t tell that to the late Superintendent of the aforementioned Assemblies, Ralph Riggs: “If [the youth] fail, we are to blame.” No one in that particular part of the world seems to want to remember that quote when it’s so much easier to just pass the buck. Out of sight, out of mind. The problem is that he’s absolutely right.

If the purpose of a church is to build functional religious believers to selflessly serve God in the world–and I don’t think that to be an entirely unreasonable raison d’etre–then it is unquestionably failing at every part of that. I don’t care how many human videos a kid does, how many chapters of scripture he does a night or how much she jumps around during a youth service, if a teen cannot articulate even a rudimentary sense of theological identity as a Christian–and most can’t–the church might as well give them a fake ID and some condoms as a send-off. I’m not even asking that Braden or Brittany Youngperson knows Rahner’s Rule, has read Stanley Grenz or be able to tell me on command what supralapsarianism is, just that they are even basically equipped and versed to talk about God and their sense of relationship to God and the world. That’s not asking too much, is it?

Given that most ministers, particularly in fundamentalist circles–to most of those insipid Calvinists’ credit, one can’t even sniff around a pulpit without a Masters degree–haven’t even heard of Rahner and are too fascinated with trendy-book-du-jour or the latest Angry-Fruit-the-Rope app on their phone to remember a word with more than three syllables in it that they may or may not have heard in a systematic theology class once upon a time, apparently it is.

When we really drill down to the core issue, we just don’t care.

It’s easier, though perhaps not as cost-effective, to put on a show and cram everyone into a mold than it is to get engaged in the messiness of investing in human relationships. After all, that engagement might blow the veneer clear off the Sunday poseur in the pew…or at the lectern. It takes considerable effort and risk to invest into people. (Shocking, I know!) It takes time and effort to give that much, when it’s so much easier to put on the Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights and hope everyone goes through the motions. The American evangelical church is often considered right-of-center, but its methods and practices are often so centrally-planned and, when looked at from a distance, ruthless, that Chairman Mao would be envious.

In reality, the entire structure of American churchianity rips itself from everyday life and attempts to create a parallel life where adherents are forced to live dualistic lives, or cut themselves off entirely from the world. This is an untenable sitz im leben, as it creates a false dilemma for the Christian, particularly dissonant for a young person: either devote yourself entirely to your religious orientation (separate from simple faith) or serve two masters (neither of whom happen to be God.) And you wonder why the church model has turned into a cultural conglomerate, the ‘mall where you talk to God’. Cradle to grave: Christian day care, Christian preschool, Christian school (or, blegh, homeschool), youth group, Christian college, Christian counseling, Christian bookstores, Christian radio, Christian bowling alleys, Christian coffee houses, Christian ministries, retreats, small groups, Sunday school, eventually Christian senior living centers and Christian funeral homes with the soul ending up in heaven, forever separated from all that is evil. Then again, they were sanctified by all their Christian crap in life, so why heaven, anyway?

And we wonder why eight of ten high school graduates won’t give a crap about Christ by the time midterms come around. It’s a complete existential cluster, and they prefer their fait accompli what would ultimately be easier, to simply do life together and be Christ to a world that sorely needs compassion and selflessness. I suggested elsewhere a few weeks ago that the church might be better off closing the sanctuary on Sunday in favor of serving brunch. No songs, no acronyms, no human videos, no offering, no ‘brief devotional thoughts’ that just so happen to turn into a message; just the pastor asking how you’d like your eggs or if you take cream in your [non-church] coffee.

That idea didn’t go over very well. (Funny thing is, it would go over quite well with college kids. Our particular collegiate ministry did something very similar, and it gained us credibility and respect from the college community every semester. We even called it ‘No Strings Attached’. We oughtn’t be afraid to be used, because that’s precisely what is supposed to happen when we serve.)

In a time when the church isn’t going over very well with the world, and we cannibalize our future as we are now, things should be shaken up. In the meanwhile, another class of outgoing freshman are unwittingly standing on the wrong side of a firing line.

And the people who should care the most are preoccupied still with defending a chicken joint.

Congratulations, Class of 2012. You were given a Bible in May, and in August you were sold out for the next crop of 12-year-olds.


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