I recently received an email from a Ypulse reader who is a consultant to youth ministries. He wrote, "I know that you seem to have a general disdain with how Christian organizations target the youth of our culture..." I track Christian teen media on Ypulse because it is a multi-billion dollar industry and creating its own version of teen media and marketing. I am fascinated by how this subculture appropriates popular youth culture and creates its own version of everything -- Christian wrestling, the Christian version of American Idol (called "Gifted"), Christian rock festivals, Bibles that look like teen magazines, Christian manga (Japanese style comic books) and skateboarding ministries. I've met youth ministers at the same youth marketing conferences where marketers pay $1-2K to attend to learn "What teens want." It may have a "higher calling," but Christian teen media is big business.
To my critic's point, I actually don't have a problem with all youth ministries at all -- especially those that teach tolerance and respect towards people who don't share their beliefs. I grew up with an evangelical parent (mom became a "Jewish believer" when I was 5) and I am very familiar with Christian fundamentalism and the black and white thinking it breeds. What I do have a problem with are games like the new Left Behind video game (based on the absurdly popular fiction series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins about the Bible's Book of Revelation). The story takes place after the Rapture, when all of the true believers (born again Christians) go to Heaven and the nonbelievers are "left behind" to face the wrath of Antichrist. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story."
This game perfectly illustrates the militaristic metaphors used by the religious right who really believe they are fighting a war here on earth with the rewards coming only in the afterlife. The enemies are secular rock stars, muslims, gay people, MTV and other forces they believe are battling for the souls of young people. Another organization to watch in this space is Teen Mania Ministries' Battle Cry, which is filling stadiums with teens who believe that "We need to answer the Battle Cry" against the "corporations, media conglomerates, and purveyors of popular culture have spent billions to seduce and enslave our youth." The worst of these ministries is actually Stephen Baldwin's Livin' It, which looks and feels like a slick action sports site (and whose events attract more young people than the X Games), but tells young people to forget about making this world a better place. According to a Salon.com article: "Baldwin preaches that free will is a lie of Satan -- we must shut off our brains, he says, and be led by what God tells our hearts. Furthermore, he writes, efforts to end global poverty and violence are just the sort of 'stupid arrogance' that incur God's wrath, which we'll be feeling any day now in the coming apocalypse."
I believe that progressive youth ministries need to proactively work to demilitarize the language being used to reach young people and preach a version of their religion that is inclusive and respectful of diversity -- even if you believe homosexuality is a sin, you can agree to disagree without making a gay teen's life hell on earth. There is nothing wrong with a healthy critique of pop culture or commercialism. But when thousands of teens are being told they are only living on this earth in preparation for the next life, and that everyone who does not believe is going to burn in hell and is some kind of agent of Satan, all in the guise of skateboarding videos and rock concert like rallies, well, Houston, I think we have a problem here. A famous dude named Matthew once said, "Judge not, lest ye be judged."