The other side of at-risk

Freeing youth from suburban oppression

Photo by Jdsimcoe

From suburbia to seminary and back again

I grew up in the suburbs. The college I attended was comprised predominantly of white, middle to upper class students and faculty. As a Youth Ministry major, I participated in internships in local, suburban church communities.  When I graduated, I served for a number of years as a youth pastor in an affluent suburban church, ministering to affluent suburban teenagers and young adults. In seminary, I continued to think about and study the church in suburban America. I have become incredibly worried.

What worries me is the subtle, perhaps even invisible, oppression of teenagers in the suburbs. When we think of oppression we tend to think of the poor and needy, those without a voice whose cry goes largely unheard – and we are right to do so. Please don’t miss that. In nothing I am going to say do I mean to imply that this form of oppression is not one of the greatest challenges (read opportunities) facing the global church today. It is, and there is much work to be done. At the same time, however, this fact does not excuse us from ignoring other forms of oppression, equally as sad and perhaps harder to address.

We may take the oppression of the Israelite people in the book of Exodus as an example. It was Egypt’s system of power, domination, and racism which served to oppress God’s chosen people. God heard the cry of Israel and called Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to liberate the people from their oppression. But at the end of the story, as God was leading Israel into the Promised Land, God went to great lengths to warn Israel of becoming comfortable and boasting of their wealth. This, God knew, would be to trade one form of oppression for another. More than this, it would be a form of oppression which would not only harm Israel as a nation, but would lead them hopelessly to a place where they would play the role of Egypt, the very people and power who had oppressed them. Sadly, as the narrative of the Older Testament unfolds, this was exactly what happened.

When the promised land turns oppressive

Leaping from the Old Testament to the United States today, particularly the suburban U.S., the powers of consumerism, materialism, and individualism have become so all-pervasive that we scarcely recognize them any more. When combined, these forces have resulted in enormous pressure on teenagers to strive for success in all that they do in order to achieve the “American Dream.” But any force which compels us to pursue a dream which isn’t God’s is an oppressive one.

There are a number of ways we could approach this discussion. We could look at how these powers distort our notion of what it means to be the bearers of the image of God. We could examine how these powers distort our theology. We could speculate as to how churches and youth ministries, far from seeking to liberate teens and others from these powers, actually utilize them to facilitate “successful” ministry. These angles are each important, but I want to come at the discussion from a different vantage point. Since it is Jesus who embodied God’s dream for humanity, including suburban teenagers, I would like us to ask the question, How do these oppressive powers prohibit suburban youth from practicing the way of Jesus?

From consumerism to stewardship

Let’s start with consumerism. By consumerism I mean that cultural force which encourages us to create an identity for ourselves based on our consumption of goods and services. Though not unique to the suburban context, consumerism is a defining characteristic of suburban life. In 2003, teenagers in the United States spent $112.5 billion. There were roughly 20.5 million teenagers in the U.S. in 2003, which means that on average, teens were spending more than $100 per week. Most of this money was spent on clothes. Teens in the suburbs rally around certain name brands, styles, stores, and products in search of their identity. Flowing straight out of a capitalistic approach to society comes the notion that our chief end is to be consumers—those who possess, with increasing capacity, the ability to consume more and better goods and services. This is part and parcel of climbing the proverbial economic and social ladder. Fed from all angles the lie that what is of prime importance is their pursuit of “being whoever they want to be,” teens are all but stripped of their ability to discern, and thereby resist and subvert, the oppressive force of consumerism.

More problematic than this is the church’s tendency to uncritically adopt the consumeristic tendencies of suburban culture “for the sake of the Gospel.” Yet as Marshal McLuhan, unappreciated in his own time as a 1960’s communications theorist, aptly noted, “The medium is the message.” What this means for the church is that to adopt a consumeristic model of ministry is to lose the thrust of the Gospel message itself.

Whereas the “American Dream” necessitates that teenagers derive their identity from what they consume, God’s dream for them is that they learn to be stewards of all they have—indeed, of all of creation. Jesus was anything but a passive consumer. Armed with a razor-sharp understanding of God’s desire for humanity and creation, Jesus sought to rectify wrongs, reconcile relationships, and restore that which had been lost. Suburban teenagers, like Jesus, ought to be free from the oppressive force of consumerism in order that they may come to understand who they are in and through their participation in God’s way of being, exemplified by Jesus. The upshot of all this is not only that the consumerism so latent within suburban culture oppresses teenagers, but that when the church fails to point out the contrast of the Kingdom of God to this force, it handicaps itself in its ability to come alongside teenagers as we seek to help them practice the ways of Jesus.

From materialism to simplicity

Consumerism is directly related to materialism. Whereas the consumeristic force of culture encourages suburban teenagers to derive their identity from what they can consume, materialism adds to this sort of oppression by deceiving our students into believing that their own value is connected to the value of their possessions. Perhaps because of suburban ideologies, the bulk of families, however involved in church activities, tend to ignore the material dimension of spiritual formation. Teenagers do not develop materialistic tendencies out of thin air. Rather, these tendencies are learned from family, friends, and their culture. To return to the biblical narrative, God saw this coming for the nation of Israel—that they would go in and possess the land, become wealthy, forget the Lord, and in the end destroy themselves.

The suburbs are among the most economically polarized places to live. There is often a powerful pressure for families to move into nicer homes, with more space, further away from any sort of risk to themselves or their things. In suburban contexts, if both parents live in the same home, they are usually both working full-time jobs, sometimes just to make ends meet (though sometimes those ends exist because they are already trying to live beyond their means), but often to climb ahead economically. While many parents have the seemingly noble intention of “sacrificing for the good of their children,” they seldom stop to ask what they actually should be sacrificing and what is actually “good” for their kids. Chap Clark, in his book Hurt, speaks of the way that this notion of “sacrifice” is actually more like abandonment. He writes,

We have evolved to the point where we believe driving is support, being active is love, and providing any and every opportunity is selfless nurture… Even with the best of intentions, the way we raise, train, and even parent our children today exhibits attitudes and behaviors that are simply subtle forms of parental abandonment. [Chap Clark, Hurt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 46-47.]

It is the powerful force of materialism, the desire to have more and more of tangible and intangible things, which drives this trend. It is damaging both to families and to the spiritual formation of suburban youth.

During one of the years that I served as a youth pastor in an affluent suburban mega-church, we held a New Year’s Eve all-nighter. One of the draws, or so I thought, of the evening was our contest to give away a car that someone from the church community had donated (in case you can’t tell already, I’d do things differently today). You can imagine my surprise then when the young man who won (newly sixteen, I might add) asked me if he HAD to take it as he was sure that his parents intended on buying him something a bit newer and nicer. We never did that again.

Jesus lived unencumbered by worldly possessions. Consequently he was able to both give freely and receive joyfully. Because so many evangelical suburban churches proclaim a gospel which primarily has to do with going to heaven when you die, as opposed to seeking to give people a taste of heaven on earth (like we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer), the grip of materialism on our people, most painfully our teenagers, goes largely ignored. Like the oppressive force of consumerism, materialism within suburban culture—especially when unaddressed by churches and youth ministries—robs our teenagers of the freedom they might know in practicing the simpler way of Jesus.

From individualism to relatedness

Interrelated with the other two oppressive forces we’ve discussed, individualism undergirds them both. Individualism is so ingrained in our culture that we rarely take note of its existence, let alone judge it as a potentially oppressive reality. Our educational system seems predicated on a “survival of the fittest” philosophy in which individual effort and ability are what we reward. Athletics and other extracurricular activities, though usually team-oriented, are often little more than covert opportunities for students to do whatever they can to stand out. Marketing, likewise, is often individualistically structured. As Burger King teaches, “Have it your way.” Or as AT&T advertises, “Your world. Delivered.” In all these ways and more, there is a power at work in suburban cultures which encourages the oppressive force of individualism.

I can imagine that the Israelites in the Promised Land grew to rather enjoy their self-sufficiency. There was plenty of land for everyone, more resources than they knew what to do with, and no real need to depend on one another, let alone anyone outside of their own nation. Quite the same, suburban teenagers enjoy the great benefits afforded by a culture which seeks to meet their individual needs. The question is whether or not this is in keeping with God’s dream for His people. When we survey the whole of scripture, we see that God’s desire for humanity—including suburban teenagers—is that they find joy not in their individuality alone, but in their relatedness with and to others. To miss this is to be sorrowfully oppressed.

One final time we might ask, “How might the oppressive force of individualism be hindering our teenagers from practicing the way of Jesus?” Through and through, Jesus’ life, ministry, and teaching were relational and not individualistic. Jesus gathered a band of disciples to teach and share in ministry. His healings and exorcisms, though obviously of personal benefit, were aimed at restoring people to community. Jesus’ teaching centered on how we are to relate to one another (in the Beatitudes alone we have Jesus’ wisdom with regard to murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge, enemies, giving, etc.—all relational matters). More than this, Jesus’ central message of love loses all significance when understood individualistically, for love is unthinkable outside of relationship. To say it another way, God’s personal involvement with us is always a beginning and never an end. God’s ultimate end is a communal way of understanding life and salvation that I hope we might be able to offer suburban teenagers who are oppressed by individualism on various fronts.

Moving towards God’s dream for suburban teenagers

I have always been leery of those who presume to tell me what I needed to do without personally knowing me or my context. Nevertheless, I would find all of this discussion to be quite worthless without some practical application. I would like to offer a few suggestions for those of us who work with suburban teenagers in the hopes that you will be able to find creative ways to make this live in your context.

With regard to the oppressive force of consumerism we might start by simply raising this issue with students. Ask them what they think about it and help them explore the tension between consumeristic tendencies and the life of Jesus. By challenging and partnering with your students in concrete anti-consumeristic practices and actions, you could help them not just understand this issue, but also experience it for themselves. We might help our students examine the ways in which suburban culture perpetuates consumeristic trends. Or, more positively, we could help our students dream about how they might be better stewards of all that God has given them.

Because of its complex relationship with family dynamics, the oppressive force of materialism can be harder to combat. Nevertheless, you might consider inviting a group of students to think differently about possessions. You could explore ways to share more, to give things away to those in need who can offer nothing in return, or to trade expensive things for more modest ones. Perhaps these students, attempting to practice this dimension of Jesus’ life, might serve as a catalyst for change within your group as a whole

How do we practically combat the oppressive force of individualism? The answer must be more nuanced that getting students to “fellowship.” It must even be more involved than giving students the opportunity to serve others. It requires a fundamental shift in how we understand what it means to be bearers of the image of God. Students need to feel the weight of their responsibility to and for others. This is not a mere grief over suffering, but a more holistic sense of needing others to understand ourselves. We are only who we are in relation to others. These are complex matters, but we can begin making progress by simply asking the right questions and leading students into the right situations.

My final admonition comes as something I, much to my embarrassment, have had to learn the hard way. As leaders, if we are not modeling a life of freedom from the oppressive forces of consumerism, materialism, and individualism, any and all other efforts are quite meaningless. Jesus’ message had credibility because he preached it with his life. More than attractive and entertaining ministries and programs, the great need of students in suburban America is to be invited into the lives of men and women who are practicing the way of Jesus. The homes we live in, the cars we drive, the ways we spend money (our own as well as the church budget), the way we make decisions, our concern for others, the clothes we wear, the way we speak—all these dimensions of our lives are under the constant scrutiny of the students we serve. If we are not modeling the sort of life we envision for our students, there is little chance we will ever help them experience it for themselves.

Returning to the Exodus story, we can pause to think about what is at stake. As God led the Israelites into the Promised Land, he warned them through Moses what to expect and to guard against. The ramifications pertained not merely to Israel, but more importantly to all those who were supposed to be blessed by them as the people of God. Likewise, the oppressive force of the powers we have discussed here bear significance not only for the suburban teenagers we are focusing on, but for all those they are meant to impact – their families, their friends, their classmates, teammates, co-workers, and all those they come in contact with. They are particular forms of oppression which have universal implications.

While I know these issues are way bigger than could be meaningfully addressed in this brief article, I also know that many who read this will be in churches and ministries who perpetuate these forces, making this task seem quite impossible. I can only respond by asking you to join me in placing your faith in the One who embodied God’s dream for us, who lived as a steward over all creation, who lived simply, and who lived a life of relatedness. For it is this Jesus who is jealous for his bride, the Church, and he continues to move and act that she might be presented to him without blemish.

Action Points

  • Do you agree with J.R. that oppression exists in suburbia, too? What reasons do you have for lobbying for or against his position?
  • How do you tend to classify the kids you work with—as more suburban, urban, rural or small-town? Are they more wealthy, working-class, or impoverished? What ways do you see these oppressive forces play out in different socioeconomic contexts, and how have you seen them at work in your community?
  • The last section encourages us to think about practical ways to combat the oppressive forces of consumerism, materialism and individualism among the students and families we serve. What specific first (or next) step from this list can you begin to make this week to address these forms of oppression?
  • As you think about ways to engage your students regarding money, status, stuff, and consumption, check out our curriculum resources, which are based around a framework that helps students begin to view the world through Kingdom lenses. You may also want to download our interview with Tony Campolo, which addresses some of these driving forces of suburban youth ministry.

 


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