Poetic Youth Ministry: Learning to Love Young People by Letting Them Go (Excerpt)

May 19, 2015
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“Current research shows what many in the Christian community already know: young people are leaving the church. This raises important questions: Why are young people leaving? How can the church respond? Some have responded to this issue out of a posture of fear and anxiety, trying to find new ways to strengthen doctrinal beliefs or practices of faith formation and discipleship. What if the best response isn’t to strengthen our theology or tighten our hold on the lives of young people? What if the best response is a posture of love that lets young people go? Using the insights of philosopher Charles Taylor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Poetic Youth Ministry argues that the church must take seriously the formative power of social and cultural patterns that shape the social imaginaries of young people. Rather than seeing the problem as young people abandoning faith, the Christian community should see the issue as young people exchanging one form of faith for another. This allows the church to approach the issue from a posture of love, calling young people to embrace their identity in the new humanity revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Below is an excerpt of Jason Lief’s (Twitter: @jsonlief) recently published book, “Poetic Youth Ministry: Learning to Love Young People by Letting Them Go.” Used with Permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers

Chapter 1
Vapor Trails

Young People Leaving the Church

The film WALL-E takes place in a future where human consumption has trashed the earth, forcing people to live in spaceships while garbage collecting robots clean the planet for future rehabitation.1 As one particular robot named WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class) goes about his work he collects cultural artifacts and stores them in his makeshift home. His most prized possession is a video recording of Guys and Dolls that plays in the background as he carefully organizes the day’s haul: a spork, a Rubik’s cube, and a lighter. At one point WALL-E stops to watch the TV, mesmerized as the characters hold hands and sing to each other. His gaze moves from the screen to his robotic hand. His obsession with human culture has awakened a form of consciousness, transforming a garbage-collecting robot into a relational, cultural being.

WALL-E’s experience is in stark contrast to the humans living in space. Talking advertisements in the opening scenes tell a back story of human consumption and waste symbolized by the corporate power of Buy N’ Large. The story eventually moves to a gigantic ship called the Axiom, where the temperature is always a perfect 72 degrees and humans float around on chairs as their needs are met by robots. While WALL-E has developed the humanlike capacities for work, culture, and relationships, the humans living on the Axiom are infantile and mechanistic. Unable to do anything for themselves, every activity—from eating, to playing, to moving from place to place—is done for them by machines. Incapable of social interaction, they communicate through screens. A giant sign reads “Welcome to the Economy” as advertisements displayed on the screens in front of them tell them what to wear and what to eat. They have no memory of earth or the way of life that once formed their identity as human beings.

At the center of this film is a question about human identity: What does it mean to be human? In many ways WALL-E is more human than the humans—he works, engages in cultural activity, and desires relationships. The humans, on the other hand, have become an abstraction. Enslaved to their machines, they live perfect lives in a perfect environment with no need for relationships or intimacy. They have “overcome” the earth, transcending their creaturely human identity for something “better” or more ideal. The story focuses on the tension between an abstracted humanity, content to live millions of miles away in outer space, and a garbage-collecting robot who awakens them to their humanity and brings them back down to earth.

A primary theme of WALL-E is the human ability to transcend or overcome every limitation through powerful techniques and processes. It is a quest for freedom fostered by a desire for an “ideal” world in which all limitations are overcome. This way of seeing the world emphasizes improvement and progress as a form of sanctification through which humans become better, improved, and successful—supported by systems and institutions that educate, nurture, form, and reform. Politics, economics, healthcare, and education become the social and cultural caretakers of what is considered “normal” and “ideal.”

Increasingly, this represents the lived experience of young people in the West. As past stories and practices lose their authority, the way young people make meaning and construct identity is radically changed. No longer is identity something given, it is something that is constantly negotiated. The processes embedded within Western cultural institutions contribute to this by emphasizing discipline and improvement as the way to become ideal, successful human beings who positively contribute to society. This cultivates a desire for transcendence that creates an endless cycle of making and remaking identity in order to attain an ideal way of life. It is endless because it is impossible to attain; it is impossible because it is grounded in a view of humanity that is an abstraction. The result is a constant state of anxiety: the harder we try to attain it, the further we find ourselves from it. This is the world of the Axiom—the unattainable ideal human condition.

This reality became apparent to me when I was asked to speak at a local youth gathering. I was asked to address the issue of identity so I began with the question: What does it mean to be human? To get the discussion started I used a clip from WALL-E that shows WALL-E first arriving on the Axiom. As the scene played everyone laughed at the ridiculous portrayal of hyperreality that showed humans floating on chairs, talking through screens, and acting like helpless infants. When the scene ended I asked, “What went through your mind as you watched this clip?” Instantly a young woman blurted out “Dude! That’s totally us!” causing the whole group to laugh, nodding their heads in agreement. “Really?” I responded. “So, what are you going to do about it?” I asked. “Oh, nothing,” she replied.

In a matter of moments this group of young people experienced both recognition and resignation. They recognized their social and cultural life as it played on the screen, and many of them realized how ridiculous it looked. Yet, they also recognized the tight grip this way of life has upon how they imagine the world. They admit that it is problematic, but they have resigned themselves to the fact that they are not going to do anything about it.

This response to WALL-E reveals the complex issues at work in the current problem of young people leaving the church. As young people make meaning and construct identity they do so living within powerful social and cultural structures that offer a competing vision of the higher good and what it means to be human. Increasingly, as the research shows, young people find this alternative view of the world to be much more convincing.

The recurring theme found throughout this literature is that the Christian community has either failed to cultivate the right practices that ground the identity of young people in orthodox Christian belief, or the community has failed to seriously engage the new cultural reality young people inhabit every day. This failure has opened the door for a generic, secularized, belief system—Moral Therapeutic Deism—that mirrors the values of the broader culture. For these authors the Christian community has failed to cultivate moral formation, orthodox belief, and a relevant cultural engagement, which has resulted in young people leaving the church for other forms of community and religious experience.

A Powerful Social Imaginary

There is much about these approaches to the problem of young people and the church that is insightful and helpful. It is important for the Christian community to develop a deep biblical and theological understanding of the Christian tradition that speaks to how God is at work in the world. It is also important for the church to continually reinterpret the tradition for new and different cultural contexts as we lovingly and courageously engage the cultural issues young people are facing. What is missing, however, is an exploration of the powerful hold these social and cultural patterns have over the imaginations of young people. Often the social and cultural world young people inhabit is seen as secondary to the beliefs and practices of the traditions, either as the medium through which the Christian tradition is communicated or as the questions the gospel must answer. But the cultural world young people inhabit is not just a set of social, institutional, or linguistic conditions to be addressed; it is a way of life built upon a “social imaginary” that intends the world to be a certain way. These cultural and social patterns establish a meaningful way of being in the world that forms and shapes the way young people experience the world.

This is why it is important to explore the formative religious function of the social and cultural patterns. In WALL-E, for example, there is a religious function to the Axiom that shapes a social imaginary—or pre-rational world view—that signifies the ultimate meaning and highest good. The issue is not just that humans float on chairs, talk to each other through screens, or buy things with the push of a button; the deeper issue is that the social imaginary of the Axiom shapes the way humans make sense of the world. The same is true for the cultural experience of young people in the West. The cultural institutions and patterns are not just the context in which young people exist, or the medium through which they communicate— they also shape the imaginations of young people so they experience the world in a certain way that determines meaning and a sense of the highest good. Including this in the discussion of why young people are leaving the church allows the Christian community to frame the issue properly: young people are not abandoning religious belief; they are exchanging one form of religious belief for another.

It is important to recognize how the Christian community and social imaginary of Western culture offer competing visions of faith and faith formation. The social imaginary of Western culture is increasingly shaped by a new vision of economic life—global technocapitalism—that emphasizes progress, surplus value, and the transcendence of humanity through technological processes.2 This new cultural situation cultivates a cycle of desire for an ideal (abstract) human identity through the formation of institutions and social patterns as it generates its own vision of salvation, sanctification, and eschatology, which is communicated through new rituals and practices. Salvation, in this context, is articulated in the language of economic abstraction—wealth, improvement, growth, and progress—that is undergirded by the rhetoric and practices of social and cultural institutions. Together, these practices and institutions establish a vision of human identity that is grounded in the norms and values of global technocapitalism that works to shape the imagination and identity of young people.

Just as important is the ability of the global technocapitalist world view to co-opt the practices of the Christian community for its own purposes.As the church responds to the issue of young people leaving the church by developing new processes of faith formation and cultural engagement they risk being co-opted by the global-technocapitalist world view. Much of the Christian language is easily translated into a secular paradigm in which “salvation” becomes focused upon human flourishing through wealth, well-being, and happiness. Similarly, processes of spiritual and moral improvement become interchangeable with processes of social or economic improvement and well-being. Taken further, it is easy to see how young people make the jump from a Christian understanding of salvation and sanctification to a secularized faith of progress and well-being. Thus, the spiritual and moral improvement offered in Christianity is easily exchanged for the improvement and progress young people encounter in athletics, school, and other cultural activities.

To address this it is important for the church to clarify what it means when it talks about faith. While much time is spent talking about faith, and developing new processes of faith formation, less time is spent clarifying exactly what we mean when we talk about faith. An important part of the response to the issue of young people leaving the church must include a biblical and theological description of the object of Christian faith—the crucified and risen Jesus Christ who is the revelation of divine action in the world, and the word spoken about what it means to be a human creature living in relationship with God.

At the same time, it is important to recognize the object of faith undergirding the religious function of global technocapitalism in Western society in order to help the community become aware of the processes, techniques, and practices at work in the lives of young people. This helps the Christian community better understand how the global capitalist paradigm is able to co-opt the processes and practices of the church, which contributes to young people exchanging Christianity belief for the secularized religion of global technocapitalism. Recognizing this religious function helps the community to frame the problem correctly, not as the abandonment of faith, but the exchange of one form of faith (Christian faith) for another (global technocapitalism). Once the problem is framed in this way, then the Christian community is in a better position to provide a response.

Letting Go

Which leads to the question explored in this book: What if the proper response to the problem of young people leaving the church is to let them go? By “let them go” I do not mean to abandoning young people, or letting them do whatever they want. What I mean is that the Christian community should engage this issue by practicing a weak theology grounded in the revelation of God and humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dig Deeper

Read more of Jason Lief’s book, Poetic Youth Ministry: Learning to Love Young People by Letting Them Go by purchasing it here or finding it your local library.

About the Author
  • Jason Lief is a Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

  1. Stanton, “WALL-E.” 

  2. Global technocapitalism is a term that signifies the drastic shift in the socioeconomic situation of the West during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This shift is a move away from an industrial, hierarchical form of capitalism into a corporate,network-based capitalism in which the primary resources are knowledge and creativity. The catalyst for this form of capitalism is the development of new technologies that allow for the growth of a global economy. Suarez-Villa defines technocapitalism this way: “Technocapitalism is defined in this book as a new form of capitalism that is heavily grounded on corporate power and its exploitation of technological creativity. Creativity, an intangible human quality, is the most precious resource of this new incarnation of capitalism. Corporate power and profit inevitably depend on the commodification of creativity through research regimes that must generate new inventions and innovation.” Invention and the Rise of Technocapitalism, 10. 

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  1. What is “weak theology?” You recommend “practicing a weak theology grounded in the revelation of God and humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” at the end here. I assume it’s explained elsewhere in the book, but put this way it sounds contradictory. Do you mean “practicing what you preach” in subtle but formative ways that are not focused on preaching doctrines as propositions, arguments, and proof-texts? What would this look like in practice, especially in churches that define themselves by doctrines that they revise on a regular basis?