Note: This is a sample chapter from Hollow Faith: How Andy Griffith, Facebook, and the American Dream neutered the Gospel
“Someone has to tell teenagers that to study hard in order to get into the right school so you can land the right job so you can afford the right spouse so you can have the best 2.3 kids in a house with a white picket fence is not God’s plan/dream for our lives.”
—Dr. Fred Edie, Associate Professor of the Practice of Christian Education; Director, Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation
“We talk about self-improvement, as if the self could be given better drywall or a new coat of paint. We read self-help books, as if the self could receive tax-deductible donations. The Self even has its own magazine.”
—Jean Twenge, Generation Me
“An Army of One” Official slogan adopted by the United States Army in 2001
It was the 2006 European MTV Music Awards. A European band named Justice has just won the video of the year award. They were accepting the award when another musician arrived, uninvited, on the stage and grabbed the microphone. Kanye West began his now famous tirade: “If I don’t win, it loses, the award show loses credibility, it’s nothing against you, I’ve never seen your video, it’s nothing against you, but Hell naw!” This in and of itself is shocking. It is difficult to imagine the audacity one person would have to have to hijack a moment set aside to celebrate another person, one who was voted as the winner, and make it all about himself. That alone is shocking; what is even more shocking are the reactions of the spectators caught on camera. They were laughing, clapping and cheering Kanye on. A few years later, it happened again. This time it was in America and the victim was Taylor Swift. We’ve all seen that one. And yet, Kanye was and is still adored by millions of fans. In another instance, when he was on stage for an award that he actually won, Kanye said, after what seemed like a heartfelt piece about his grandmother, “My greatest achievements still is…I still think I am the greatest.”
This narcissism is abhorable, disgusting and all too common.
Dr. Nathan DeWall says in his paper to the American Psychological Association, Tuning in to Psychological Change, that narcissism is on a dramatic rise in pop music. This is generally the time to cue the onslaught of criticisms of culture and its effects on youth. But Dr. DeWall says that just the opposite is true. In an interview with NPR’s Michelle Norris, DeWall states that music is a “mirror of cultural changes in personality, traits, and motivations and emotions.”1 His paper focuses on the increase in this sort of thought in music in the past 30 years, which reflects this line of thought in culture. We find it from Fergie belting out the ballad of her “lady lumps” to TuPac proclaiming to the world that “All Eyez on Me.” If these songs are really an indicator of our love of self, then there is a fiery romance brewing every time we step in front of a mirror.
“In the twentieth century, ‘character’ gave way to ‘personality.’”2
The over-praised American personality expects regularly to assess the worth of others, regardless of his qualifications for doing so.” 3
—Christine Rosen from The Overpraised American
It is interesting that one person’s celebrity can be based on nothing else than being that person. Take Ms. Paris Hilton, for example. Ms. Hilton is an heiress, she parties and she was on a reality show whose plot line was little more than being an heiress and partying. Really, that’s all Paris Hilton does and she draws a constant media frenzy everywhere she goes. I know that it would be easy to begin to slip down a utilitarian iced slope here but she literally does nothing beyond show up somewhere and has pictures taken of her going through her normal everyday motions. This country pays her millions of dollars just to be Paris Hilton.
We have celebratized the mundane
The truly un-interesting
A few years back an up and coming new cruise line called Celebrity Cruises burst on the scene. It promised to treat everyone like a celebrity. Its slogan was even “Celebrity Cruises, Starring You.” I understand that this is a brilliant marketing campaign, but isn’t it interesting how even that reflects our culture of meism? I want to be the star. I want to be the center of attention. All eyes on me.
We see meism transcend the world of advertising and filter into the brave new world of social media. When Facebook launched in 2004 I remember hearing the question over and over, “What are we going to do with it?” and “Why would people care what my ‘status’ is, and by the way, what is a status anyway?”
People caught on quickly.
When a résumé comes across my desk, I immediately skip over the references, and I go straight to Facebook, where the applicant is the star. I can find out everything about someone, what he likes, her favorite movies, his favorite books and even her political views! I can see what his interactions are with his friends, if we have mutual friends, and find out (in pictorial detail) what she did on spring break of 2008.
I also remember when Twitter became mainstream. Again, I would hear people ask things like, “What’s a tweet?”, “Are you my tweep?”, and “What does it mean to twit?” I also heard statements along the lines of, “Why in the world would I want to tell everyone what I am doing all of the time, and furthermore, why would I want to know what others are doing all of the time?”
Again, we figured it out.
I rarely hear those questions any more. We are obsessed with the 140 character installments of others’ lives. There are some girls in my youth group who bypass the Twitter app or site and just have Justin Beiber’s Twitter updates automatically texted to them on their phones. I’m not joking. We were on a mission site and one of their phones kept going off. I made a joke about a lonely boyfriend back at home, and I was shocked to hear that it was “just Justin Beiber going to Starbucks and then going back home to relax for the day.” Upon asking how they knew this, I was introduced to a whole other world of obsession. Isn’t it interesting how we have systematized, commercialized and subjected ourselves to this strange self-induced voyeurism?
All for the sake of being someone.
Being a celebrity.
I could go on and on about how Facebook made our lives the focal point of the universe, how Twitter brought our most mundane actions and thoughts to the center of the arena, and how YouTube allowed us to “Broadcast Yourself” to the entire world. I could harp for hours how reality television not only brings out and puts on display the worst in our society but also lowers our national I.Q. one scandalous plot twist at a time. They, however, are not the problem. Social networking and Jerry Springer are not the cause of our meism problems; they are the commercialized and capitalistic offspring of our love affair with ourselves. They are the culminations of our need to know and judge others and to be judged ourselves. They give and take away worth. They are the currency of our highly connected globalized social economy. Our worth is determined by hits, followers and friends whose status as such never requires a spoken word.
Our statuses and coffee runs are not the only things that have overblown importance in this bold new world. Every week we have the opportunity all over the nation to publicly judge our peers. With six little words, “the phone lines are now open,” Ryan Seacrest gives all of America permission – without merit, qualification, responsibility or repercussion – to judge the talent of hopeful contestants. Talent competition shows are not new to America. We’ve had them for years! The modern nuance is how the victor is determined. In recent years these competitions, many of which require very little talent at all, are not judged by a qualified, experienced panel of professionals with years of experience and knowledge. No, they are judged by you and me. The average American has the power and privilege of determining the winners of these competitions. We as a country are adamant about these shows and their winners. One of the most hated people in America in the past decade was Simon Cowell, who happened to be a wildly successful professional in the music industry. He was also notorious for contradicting much of the popular opinion of the American vote as well as the opinion of the American Idol hopefuls. Over and over again throughout the auditions, people would come in belt out some horribly mismanaged notes and curse and scream when Simon did not agree with their mothers that they were the next Mariah Carey or Stevie Wonder.
This epidemic is not isolated to delusional Idol wannabes.
It goes much, much deeper.
No matter where you go in our great country you will find a plethora of readily available opinions. There are opinions about clothes, books, food, fashion, politics, movies, religion, EVERYTHING! I am not sure when it happened but somewhere along the way we bought into the lie that: 1. we need to have an opinion about everything, even if we have little or no knowledge of that subject, and 2. that all of our opinions are of equal value! It still amazes me today when I talk to youth about things they do not know about how quick they are to give me their opinion. Countless times our youth group wants to have a “hot topic” night where I throw out a controversial subject and they argue about it. When I ask why they want to do this I get, “Because I want to argue my point with people.” Never is it that they want to learn from others’ perspectives or clarify viewpoints, it almost always has to do with arguing to see who is “right.”
This is not just a youth problem
It is the same reason why we cannot talk about religion, politics or current events in a civil manner.
Our opinions, not dialogue, perspective sharing or debate, are what seem to matter most.
“We’re seeing an epidemic of people who are having a hard time making the transition to work – kids who had too much success early in life and who’ve become accustomed to instant gratification.”
—Dr. Mel Levine, a pediatrics professor at the
University of North Carolina Medical School
When I was 10 years old I played Little League baseball, and I was a pretty good third baseman. I started every game the entire season. When the time came for the coaches to select their team’s All-Stars, I thought I had a pretty good chance of making the All-Star team. I waited on that phone call all night. It never came.
The next day I was disappointed but not angry…until I found out who had made the All-Star team in the third base position: he wasn’t some great player from another team, but the kid who played backup to me! When I told my parents about the decision, they reminded me that my coach was the backup player’s uncle and that might have had something to do with the coach’s decision.
That’s where we left it. My parents did not write a letter, cause a big stink, or threaten to sue the parks and recreation department. They told me that sometimes life would not be or seem fair but it was OK because there were lots of other things I could do with those hours during the summer. I was heartbroken but I learned some valuable lessons. Maybe the coach’s decision was unfair. Maybe the coach knew that the team needed some talents this guy had more than the talent that I brought to the position. The thing I learned the most was that just because things did not go the way I wanted them to did not mean that my parents were going to swoop in and fix everything. Whether it was neglect or parenting foresight, it allowed me to take on a lot of physical and emotional responsibility for myself at a very early age, and I am grateful for it.
Unfortunately, this story plays out much differently now in towns all across the country. Every year I hear countless stories from all around the country about parents suing recreation departments, schools and athletic associations because their child did not make the team, did not start a game or did not make an All-Star roster. We, as a country, have come to believe that in order for our children to be successful, they must feel successful, whether they are successful or not!
I started noticing this trend when my sister (younger by nine years) began to play recreation department sports. After her last game of the season, they had a team pizza party as a time to gather together and for the families to tell the kids how proud they were of their season. After the team party she came home and said, “I won a trophy.” I was confused. I had never heard of a team winning a trophy for only winning two games! When I asked her what the trophy was for, she answered, “It was for playing the whole season.” I learned that the recreation department, like many others all over the country, had given in to the pressure from parents that “everyone should be a winner.” This logic said that if everyone wins, the kids will not have to feel the hurt or discouragement of losing.
When everyone wins we all lose.
Winning builds confidence. Losing builds character, perseverance and causes us to strive even harder.
Some people would fault me here, saying that it is important for kids to win in order to know winning feels like and to give them the confidence platform upon which to build a successful life. This chapter is not about winning or losing. It is about the importance of the journey regardless of the outcome, and the detriment that can be caused by rewarding everyone the same. In life, we succeed and we fail. This is a fact, and it is not as bad as we think. There are countless stories of very successful people who continually lost, and in that losing they learned the lessons that shaped them into the people they became. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, lost nine bids for political office before he finally became the President of the United States. It is not only OK, but it is good for kids, and adults for that matter, to feel the pain of defeat and the sting of loss as they go through their life.
Dr. Mel Levine tells us that kids who constantly succeed become increasingly anxious as they grow older because they do not know how to deal with conflict, obstacles or defeat. When children do not have the “playground defeat” as a learning lab it becomes almost impossible for them to deal with not getting into their first choice college, not landing a great job or not getting a promotion. When we do not allow our kids to lose, we are setting them up for failure for the rest of their lives.
“Kids need to feel badly sometimes; we learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”
—David Elkind, Child Psychologist and Professor at Tufts University
“I wish my parents had some hobby other than me.”
If this epidemic were to stop at sports that would be bad enough; unfortunately, it goes far beyond the field. There has been an alarming rise in the pursuit of disability diagnoses from parents so that children can take standardized testing without time limitations. David Anderegg, a child psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts, and professor of psychology at Bennington College tells us,
“The kids know when you’re cheating on their behalf, and it makes them feel terribly guilty. Sometimes they arrange to fail to right the scales. And when you cheat on their behalf, you completely undermine their sense of self-esteem. They feel they didn’t earn it on their own.”5
Good, well-meaning, loving parents often try to help their kids get ahead but are unintentionally crippling their children with fear and anxiety. Every time a parent cheats for their child it not only sets them up on false pretenses but also tells the child that they are not good enough to do it on their own and the only way to succeed is by riding their parents’ coattails. This in turn is producing a generation of children who, even at 20 years old, have a difficult time operating independently of their parents.
Some6 are even likening the cell phone to an extended umbilical cord.
I have seen this play out many times on youth group retreats. I had this kid at a previous church who was attached to his cell phone throughout every retreat. He constantly called his mother to tell her about any part of the trip that he did not like. I received many phone calls from her to “discuss” the details of the trip that her son did not feel comfortable with, like lights out times, sleeping arrangements and even food. At one point during my tenure at that church, I tried to eliminate cell phones from trips. My hopes were squashed quickly by a few parents because they needed to be able to talk through the pieces of the trips with their children to make sure their kids were having the best time possible.
It was crippling, to both the youth and the trip.
The other effect from this sort of treatment is that the youth again believe that their every emotion is worthy of everyone’s immediate attention. This produces something I call the “Two Weeks, Five Feet” Rule. The rule is simple: youth who receive this type of parenting and ultimately view of self can usually only see two weeks out and are only concerned with what is happening with in a five foot radius.
Seeing the larger picture and the long term effects of actions are two things that youth are notoriously poor at recognizing. They become exponentially more inept at these practices when the way in which they are raised locates their wants and whims at the center of their parents’ functionality. In youth ministry the practical implications of this sort of thinking are annoying, time consuming and incredibly frustrating. The real life implications of two weeks and five feet are devastating to both self and others.
My wife and I were discussing a recent issue of Time Magazine which featured a cover article heralding the wars over chores among married men and women. The article spent five whole pages discussing the “chore wars” in the American household. By reading the article you would think this is a real epidemic. If you flip just a few pages over you come to an article that is more than a little sobering. The article is about Somali refugees fleeing in the midst of drought and famine. These refugees have no home in which to do chores in, much less fight about to whom those chores belong. After being enthralled by the article about chores, I felt both humbled and humiliated to realize how limited my scope of importance was.
We are a nation engulfed and captivated by the most petty of things. We place massive importance on some of the most non-consequential happenings. When surveying our priority landscape it is disheartening at best. While adults are better at long range planning than youth, the radius of concern is often not much wider.
I was in a session with Mark Oestreicher in which he was discussing the elongated adolescence in our society. In his presentation he talked about how adolescence is lasting in to the late twenties and early thirties! This all was happening during the Charlie Sheen fiasco so I asked if this was just indicative of what I was coining the “Charlie Sheen effect.” Mark laughed, said that was exactly what was happening and told me I should copyright that phrase. It is amazing how a man, well into his forties, made $1.8 million an episode by coming to work and acting in front of the camera exactly as he acted in real life: like an angry, hormonalized 16-year-old! Please understand me: I am not picking on Charlie Sheen, just the opposite. I am identifying a major shift in our culture. Charlie Sheen is the archetype of elongated adolescence. This example of elongated adolescence has been around for years, but usually as the exception and has served as comic relief. What the Charlie Sheen effect tells us is that it is no longer the exception to the rule and is also being embraced and glamorized by the general public.
The natural product of parent trap parenting seems to be a combination of an elongated two weeks, five feet and the Charlie Sheen effect as well as a country full of young adults who care more about real housewives, those kids from New Jersey and their fantasy leagues than a Somali refugee.
The gospel of me says this:
“Jesus died for your sins.”
“God loved you so much that he sent his only son to die for your sins.”
“When Jesus was on the cross he was thinking about you.”
The problem with the gospel of me is that it is heretical.
We as the church have become all too good of friends with the gospel of me. The gospel of me had its humble roots in the Protestant Reformation. In a time and place where the “self” carried very little importance, (i.e., it was all about the church) Luther and the gang began to move the pendulum the other way. I do not think that they intended their efforts to culminate in a gospel of me theology, but they knew that there were personal choices of faith, even interpretation throughout scripture, and they were not seeing these choices reflected in their church. While there were many other reasons for the Reformation, this foundational concept of the priesthood of all believers in many ways seems to be the unintentional great-grandfather of the gospel of me.
Before you string me up and pull out the torches, let me affirm that I completely believe in the priesthood of all believers; it is a core doctrine of my faith and I could not imagine my spirituality without it. This belief, however, unknowingly became a great tool of modern Christianity’s movement towards meism. Where Luther and friends were trying to reform the Catholic church, they ended up creating some more divisions of Christianity. This result set a precedent. When others down the road did not agree with the way the denomination was going, they had the precedent to split and form a sect of the original denomination. The pattern continued until today, and we have thousands of Christian denominations in the U.S. alone. Meism has taken something that was incredibly needed and good in the Reformation and turned it into a self-serving consumer driven way to make church fit my needs.
Again, meism was not the fault of the Reformation, but a completely unintended byproduct. The magic really happened when the priesthood of all believers was set up on a date with American consumerism, they fell in love and before we knew we had a little bundle of meism. Our consumerism really was the perfect enabler for the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to transform into the gospel of me. It allowed a doctrine that was intended to keep the Pope and the religious aristocracy in check to transform into something that created millions of sovereign papacies, each with their own ideas of what the gospel is about. Soon, verses about God loving the world so much were retranslated into God loving me so much. Our sermons became focused on our personal needs. Our Bible studies focused on self-empowerment. The gospel began to turn inward and so did our focus.
The gospel of me helps us pick churches based on the music we like, sermons that speak to our daily lives and small groups that meet us in our life stages. While all of these things can be strengtheners of our faith they often end up being the focus points of our faith. The church has found itself in a place where it is more concerned with feeding itself than feeding the world.
We have become a spiritually obese and gluttonous people.
What I am about to say has been said so many times but it needs to be said again and again until we hear and change. We build enormous buildings, spend millions of hours in Bible study and worship and spend comparably very little time and money in taking care of the people Jesus chose to spend most of his ministry with.
Our youth see the church act this way.
Our youth practice this form of religion.
And they are becoming bloated like the rest of the church.
This is an epidemic, and we must find a cure.
As I have written this chapter I have felt really bad. My tone has been preachy; my message, dim.
There is hope.
We have the opportunity to become and create heretics. When a person or a group rejects the tenants of a religion they are often labeled heretical. There is a cult of me in our world and we have the distinct opportunity to lead a religious rebellion against it. We will be labeled heretical, extreme and even delusional but we will also find ourselves changing the world and reclaiming the universal scope of our faith.
There are some foundational pillars that I believe we can build upon as we reform our faith. These pillars focus not only on the individual fight, which might perpetuate another form of meism, but also on how we do this as a community. This is not an exhaustive list but these four pillars are a beginning point from which to launch our revolution.
Language is a powerful thing. Our language communicates messages both intentionally and often unintentionally. I always cringe when I hear people talk about the good feeling they get when they do something for someone else. It is not because that good feeling is bad but often times it becomes the driving force behind our missional endeavors.
Here’s an example: Recently, some massively devastating tornadoes rip through our state and city. Hundreds of people were killed; thousands were displaced and left homeless. In the beginning agencies were bursting at the seams with requests to go in and help. It was a beautiful moment to see so many people want to help. The problem with these sorts of disaster situations is that there is some on-site, ground zero-type work to be done in the beginning, but the majority of it has to be done by professionals with certain skills and safety training. Within a week and a half after the disaster, the majority of the work that could be done was off site, away from ground zero and usually involved sorting supplies, cooking meals and packing relief kits. It was not glamorous, it was tedious and more often than not it was boring. When agencies would answer phone calls from eager workers and offer these less than glamorous jobs, many of the tones changed dramatically. Soon people began to decline this monotonous work with answers like (and these are real responses!), “I want to do something that I feel good about,” “I want to have a meaningful experience,” “I want to feel satisfied with the work.” For many the relief effort became more about how they felt while doing the job and less about the importance of the job they were doing.
We have to stop being “pastoral” in these situations and in good and loving ways help our people and youth understand that disaster relief is not about how they feel or what they get out of the work. Unfortunately in the modern church this attitude switch rarely happens. We have to begin to construct theologies with our youth that regularly put them into unsatisfying situations, give them work that does not give them a “mission high” and all along the way help them understand that the work of God is referred to by Jesus as a cross we are to bear.
The last time I checked, carrying a cross was not very fulfilling, satisfying or a good experience. It is important to reframe our work and mission as something that is much bigger than ourselves, our desires or our plans. We need to help our students see that God was at work in the situation before we got there and will continue to be at work long after we leave.
This thinking will require a shift in our teaching as well as our actions. The self-help studies and sermons are not helping anyone. Our youth are longing to be called to something beyond themselves; do we have the courage to be the ones calling?
Youth groups are meant to be places where kids can be accepted, have fun and be brought up in the ways of their churches. This is generally the unsaid mission statement of the modern youth group. While learning, community and fun are essential parts of the youth group (and church for that matter) they have taken the vast majority of our time and resources when compared to the missional aspect of our ministry.
Take a moment, look at your youth budget, your youth worship series and your youth calendar over the past six months. Divide them by percentage into categories of fun (community), teaching/worship and mission. How balanced is your ministry? If you are like most youth ministries in our country (mine included), the missional piece of the pie is not something to write home about. I think one of the problems lies in the fact that we have a missional piece of the pie! What if we understood our entire student ministries as missional endeavors? Instead of relegating mission to something we do, what if we restructured and redesigned our ministries so that our theology of mission permeated every piece of our budget, calendar and teaching/worship?
The missional shift has to be intentional. Our worship has to transform our youth in ways that turn them out instead of in. Our community has to be formed as communities that function as inclusive entities. Each line item of our budget has to be held under the lens of and examined by the standard of this missional emphasis. Mission can come in so many forms as well. Just look at Jesus’ life. He taught about inclusion as well as practiced it. He walked and helped and loved all people, regardless. He spent his ministry breaking down political and social barriers that oppressed others and ultimately died because of it. Referring back to chapter three, we have to decompartmentalize our understanding of mission and let it flow over our entire ministry.
Social media is important. It is the new telephone. It is how we communicate; unfortunately our communications have been pretty narrowly focused on ourselves. A part of this revolution is not to limit social media but exploit it as a form of inclusion, refocus it from ourselves and let it be a place of mobilization. In the past few years social media has begun to function as sort of global town square. This move has been exhibited no better than in the Middle East. In the Spring of 2011 we saw the rise of the Arab Spring. This series of revolutionary movements in the Middle East was fueled by social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter. These platforms allowed people to organize and mobilize both effectively and efficiently. The tweets coming out of the Arab Spring had nothing to do with #winning or #Beiber. They were reports of the movement, of encouragements and of calls to action. Social media was used to get an urgent message out to millions and to do it instantly.
Unfortunately when our social media is not being used to transmit silly 140 character snippets of our day it is often used to bully and isolate. This behavior should be a call to each of us to make social media a place of inclusion, encouragement and communication for the cause of helping others. We live in a time and place where the quietest among us can spark revolutions, inspire thousands and change the world. We have seen the YouTube videos of the amazing flash mobs. These videos provide incredible entertainment. What if we flash mobbed places of despair, parks whose city cannot pay to have them cleaned, communities that need a helping hand? What if 150 of us showed up at the same time to do yard maintenance on a city block in disrepair? What if 10 youth groups from across your city mobbed a park full of homeless people and in 10 minutes fed every one of them? These dreams and so much more can become very easily realized realities with just a little initiative and some courageous people among us who care enough to act.
If the National Study of Youth and Religion has taught us anything it is that we can do very little without the support, encouragement and enabling of the parents of our youth. One of the trickiest parts of becoming heretics in the cult of me is coming alongside the parents and helping them land their helicopters. There is plenty of parenting data about the dangers of over-parenting that we can resource and help our parents practice. Part of our job, as dangerous as it is, is to help the pendulum swing back from the extremes we have seen in the past decade. If we do not believe our jobs should include ministering to parents as we minister to their youth, then we are probably in the wrong line of work. Long gone are the days of the one eared Mickey Mouse7 and isolationists youth ministry. I question if we can even still call it youth ministry. To just call it youth ministry is to deny 70% of what the NSYR revealed to us. As we help guide the choppers in we have to also provide a new model parent ministry for our congregations’ families. There are some really good resources already out there on this kind of ministry but we are still in the earliest stages of this shift in ministry with the church’s young people and their families.
We’re only in the beginning of the heresies; I hope to hear of more and more communities of heretics springing up all over the country as we reject the false gospel of me and embrace God’s concern and love for the world.
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