The recent Halo 3 controversy has caused quite a stir among some theologians. Go here for my post that links to other relevant discussions about the ordeal (the comment section over at The Fire and the Rose is especially intense).
My current intention is not to deal with Halo 3 specifically, but it provides a context for an issue that I had planned to blog on in this Neo-Youth Ministry Series: the bait and switch. The bait and switch originated as a marketing strategy. I tend to see it often at car dealerships: they advertise some fancy car at an unbelievably low price in order to get customers to walk in the door. Usually, they will only have one of those deals available, which is sold very quickly, so when subsequent people walk into the showroom, they are shown many of the other “great deals” on the lot that they hadn’t come to see in the first place. What baffles me is that this actually works and people will buy a car they hadn’t actually come in to see.
Well, if it works for marketers trying to swindle people into a car they don’t need, surely the church can use it, right? So, you have churches that advertise and push “fun stuff” (like Halo 3 on plasma TVs or a raffle for a free iPod) in order to get kids to come to church. While they are there, they also get to “hear the gospel”. They came for Halo, but they accepted Jesus while they were here!
Many things are troubling about this. First of all, means are separated from ends. The end result is a good one: introduce people to Jesus. Somehow, American evangelicalism has searched through the Bible in order to find biblical goals, but thinks that the Bible is silent on the means by which we achieve those goals. Thus, we think that we are in charge of finding whatever method “works best” in order to achieve our biblical goals. So, if the best way to get teenagers into a church building is to offer Halo 3 on A/V equipment costing thousands of dollars, so be it. We’ll do anything we can for the sake of the gospel, right? I don’t buy it. I mean, is the gospel really that weak? I believe that the scriptures not only tell us to make disciples, but also prescribes the kind of life that leads to accomplishing this goal: a life of hospitality, prayer, sacrifice, compassion, and love.
Second, such an approach short-changes the gospel. The gospel is more than a message that people come to hear. The gospel is something that the church bears in the way we live our life. Yes, that will include our speech and our telling of the hope of Jesus, but part of our message is how we embody it. To say that we will do anything to get people to hear a lecture on the four spiritual laws is to short-change a holistic, biblical understanding of the gospel. Scot McKnight’s book Embracing Grace is a good introduction into a holistic understanding of the gospel.
Third, such an approach is ecclesiologically weak as well. Drawing from above, the assumption is that the goal in evangelism is to bring young people to us in order to hear our message. So, instead of living creatively and missionally, evangelism becomes nothing more than a function of the size of the youth ministry budget. The more money at our disposal, the cooler things we can use to attract youth to hear the gospel. So are poorer churches not in a position to spread the gospel? Are plasma TVs necessary for the Spirit to move? Instead of relying on our budgets, I think we need to rely on the creativity and discernment of our youth and adults to–through the Spirit of God–see into the lives of those we know who do not know Jesus and share with them the hope that we have in him.
The rebuttal against my argument usually goes something like: that sounds great, but it doesn’t work in real life and ministry. My guess is that when people say, “doesn’t work,” they are saying, “such an approach would get me fired” or, “that would shrink our youth group.” That may be right. But the problem in such case is not with the methods or the results; the problem is in the expectations of parents and congregants (and even ourselves) we are supposed to live up to. I fully acknowledge that such a Neo-Youth Ministry approach might cost many people their jobs or shrink a youth group for a period of time. Youth groups could very well benefit from such pruning. I do believe the eventual result will be sustainable faith practices in our teens that nourish faith and commitment to Jesus and his church. Anything else is just video games and cool toys.