Youthworker Journal:  Christmas rolled around last year, right on schedule as I recall, and with it the annual platitudes about consumerized Christianity. One sophomore said to me, "Isn’t it weird that I spent a ton of money at Nordstrom’s to celebrate a God who was born in a barn? Can you imagine a Nordstrom’s in Bethlehem?"

So along with thousands of my youth ministry colleagues around the world, I jumped at the opportunity to address the ills of a consumer culture. At our student ministry program that week, I strode to the front of the crowd in my Gap baseball cap and Dockers, tripping over a new Fender amp, and introduced a PowerPoint presentation on our 50" TV. The first slide read, "The Evils of Materialism." [Sigh.]

Christians have a long history of poo-pooing the "worldly" as if we were immune to it. Tertullian, an early church father, is best remembered for having asked in his Against the Heretics, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" In other words, "What does all this worldly stuff (like the great philosophy of Athens, Greece) have to do with the stuff that God values (like the holy city of Jerusalem)?" Ironically, Tertullian had spent years training in Athenian philosophy and then used it to defend the Church. Not so different are the many youth ministers who happily take advantage of the best resources money can buy but complain about the commercialization of Christmas.

I’m now doing all this differently. I had set myself up for failure by assuming the worldly and the spiritual could be totally divorced. Now I’m teaching my students to claim the material world for God. A few weeks ago I gave the same talk again. This time the first PowerPoint slide read, "Shopping with Jesus."

Making the Secular Sacred

The either/or mentality failed me. I couldn’t find a way to communicate with kids without venturing into the world of fashion, advertising, publicity, and consumerism; that’s the language they speak. I looked like a hypocrite, because, while I am frugal, I’m not a Franciscan. I’m now trying to turn the secular into something sacred. Shopping at the mall can be an act of faithfulness to the Sovereign Lord who cares where we put our treasure and where our eyes wander.

So I go shopping with my students. We hold a hide-and-seek type event at the local mall, during which college students dress in disguise and hide behind racks, disappear into dressing rooms, and pose with the mannequins. The familiar turf brings out the crowds and opens up the chance to talk Christ and culture with the youth. Outside of the occasionally boycotted Abercrombe & Fitch, I asked one senior, "What’s the difference between Christian shopping and culture shopping?" Her response was piercing, "Christians say wear more and spend less. The culture says wear less and spend more."

Jeff Henshaw, director of youth ministry at Pleasanton Presbyterian Church in California, knows what it’s like to minister to affluent kids. Pleasanton is one of the suburban outskirts of the San Francisco Bay area; a town that put up considerable resistance to letting the San Francisco subways extend to their neighborhoods. Henshaw notes, "What could they possibly need? When affluent kids grow up equating their wants with their needs, and any ‘thing’ they want is bought for them, it is very hard to make them realize their need for Christ."

Shopping can be sacramental. I ask my students what I should wear, feigning (ok, sort of feigning) cluelessness. I let them pick out shirts and shoes, but challenge them on price and appropriateness. I ask them what the clothing will say about me. To them it appears a silly game. To me, it’s teaching the deep movements of faith in a material world.