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.

If I scold my students for wasting money, they sneak into back alley Banana Republics and dimly lit Old Navys and spend it without my supervision. But when we spend it together, we think together. I can assure them that their net worth isn’t the same as their self worth, that their value isn’t determined by their valuables. Thus the secular world of spending becomes sacred.

John Wesley left us an aphorism in his sermon, "The Use of Money," which should be embroidered on the inside of every wallet and purse. It destroys the line between secular and sacred in the realm of money. He proclaimed, "Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can."

Awakening World Views

The youth worker’s primary role is photographer. It’s not that we are to collect 4 x 6 glossies so the students can "ooh and ah" over our last retreat. The cameras that we use are the hearts of our kids. We carry these cameras to the ends of the earth to see things that they wouldn’t otherwise see. And the pictures that we take will stay on their hearts for the rest of their lives. By showing them the world, we awaken their awareness of their worldviews.

Pastoring in one of the wealthiest cities in the country, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, I learned the art of wrestling mammon. In a city where the average per capita income was nearly $100,000 (LAInsider.com), there were clear barriers through which to work. I lived in a neighboring (and more affordable) city, and while I had a nice apartment in a decent community, there were problems. One family wouldn’t let their teen come to my house because of recent gang activity in my town. There was no way to declare a frontal assault on wealth when my students were protected by it like a shell on a snail. Showing a video of Tony Campolo declaring, "Repent of your BMWs!" only sent a couple of girls home crying because their parents actually did own BMWs. It didn’t change their hearts, and no one sold their car. So I used pastoral jujitsu to address such extraordinary wealth in a sneakier way.

Rather than attack the hard shell of money under which the youth safely hid, I let their compassion grow from inside the shell until it broke through. I just awakened their world views. The May/June 2001 issue of Youthworker captured the essence of Short-Term Missions, their advantages and pitfalls. For our group, the primary advantage of building houses in Mexico each year was that it created an itch in the hearts of our kids. They couldn’t drive around in sports cars or pick their private schools without thinking of Juan Hernandez, age 7, happily eating tortillas and beans for dinner in a new home which had no running water or electricity. After that I didn’t need to declare war on materialism from the outside. My students’ hearts did it from the inside.

Alon Banks, Development Manager for Amor Ministries, sees this happen year round. Amor Ministries works on the Mexican border to provide housing for families in need. In the year 2000, Amor constructed over 900 homes with the help of youth groups from around the world. "For some students, this is something you only see on TV," says Banks. "It opens up your eyes to the disparity." The experience can be shocking. "One girl literally broke down in tears on the drive to the camp site and refused to get out of the vehicle for a couple of hours."

He says that some kids have gone on to become career missionaries after taking part in Amor projects. "Another girl became a nurse and went to work with Mother Theresa. She apparently apologized for not coming back to work with Amor," he laughed. Banks is clear about the effect such trips can have on kids. "They will go home and realize they can make a difference. They won’t complain about taking out the trash anymore because they realize they have a place to take it to."

This year I took a group of Hawaiians to Mexico for the first time. Aside from the sheer humor of watching islanders react to a very different mainland ("Hey, is that a billboard?" "That one highway goes over the other one!" "That water doesn’t connect to an ocean—it’s a lake!"), the real power of the trip came from the shift in the students’ paradigms. As the wooden frame of the tiny home snapped into place, I straddled a precarious wall with another student. He said to me, "This is the best view in the world." I looked at him quizzically, because, in fact, the dirt roads and roaming dogs weren’t much to look at. "Not because of what we’re looking at," he said. "Because of what we’re sitting on." Find the pastor in this picture.

It’s said that the best way to prevent weeds is to grow a healthy lawn. When students return from a mission trip with thoughts of changing their lifestyles, or even becoming missionaries, we’ve prevented a host of materialistic weeds by planting a lawn of compassion. Without a single lecture to my students on money, I realize we have changed the world economy.

Take that, mammon.

Creating Revolutionaries

The materialism of American Christianity rests entirely in the fact that we’ve turned one single verse on its head. Paul surrenders himself with the words, "To the Jews I become like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those not having the law" (1 Cor. 9:20 NIV). When in Rome, we might say.

But American Christians are largely doing this in reverse order. Paul chose to be like the Gentiles to minister to the Gentiles. We choose to minister to the suburban middle class, because we have chosen to be like them. The average American Christian seeks to go to college, secure a career, move to the suburbs, have 2.5 kids, and then declare, "Here I am, Lord! Send me!" We, the crew, have cast out the anchor and settled down before asking the captain, "To where are we sailing?" And I imagine that Jesus feels like his call to us is like a captain trying to steer an anchored ship. In the Navy, this is called mutiny.

Youth ministers have a job description that no one else in the world has: creating revolutionaries. Catch those students before they’ve cast anchor, point out the captain, teach them to listen, and watch them sail. We have the unique opportunity of stopping the natural flow of socialization before it sinks its claws into the lives of people and weighs them down with mortgages and tuitions and normalcy. We’re ordained to be there at the campfire or curbside to ask the reorienting question, "Are you planning your life the way God wants or the way everyone else wants?"

By turning shopping into a sacred event, awakening the worldviews of our students, and turning them into revolutionaries, we create a biblical counterculture to materialism. And the consequences are that we turn materialists into missionaries.


Jim Miller is the associate pastor of student ministries at First Presbyterian Church, Honolulu. He and his wife, Yolanda, have been serving in youth ministry for seven years.