Youth Ministry as a Magical Technology: Moving Toward the Theological

Andrew Root

The room was packed with excited youth workers numbering in the thousands. The lights dimmed and the spotlight moved to the left side of the stage to flood a man in his late thirties in jeans and button-down shirt. On the multiple screens behind him, in a cool font, his name was displayed, and below his name his title stated, “CEO Idea Guy.” He owned a consultation business that helped people find their “big idea” and turn it into a reality. For six minutes he pumped up the youth workers by prodding them that they possessed the next big idea that would change the church, that would bring hordes of young people back to the church — that would become a big deal. “You have this big idea in you,” he said. “You just need to do it! Design it and do it! It will be big, and lead to big things for your ministry, and for the church. Do not sell your idea short; move into creation and watch your wildest dreams come true, watch the impossible dawn!” With his last punctuated phrase, the spotlight faded to black and the room cheered with the kind of roar that signaled that these youth workers had been moved.

Youth Ministry as Technology

Since its inception in the mid-20th century, American youth ministry has been entrenched in a technological mindset. North American youth ministry has been a technology. The “CEO Idea Guy” was scratching the technological itch endemic to youth ministry, the thought that with the right idea moved into technical action, deep levels of efficiency (big and exciting youth groups) might follow.

It is no surprise that the age of the technological, the age in which American society was gripped by a consumption-driven thirst for the new and better (that only a technological society could provide), was also the age of contemporary American youth ministry’s beginnings. Youth ministry had it birth in the 1950s, but came of age (and force) within the church in the ’70s and ’80s.

During the world wars the scientific worldview of western societies turned headlong into the pursuit of efficiency; how could science help create the most efficient guns and bombs? Science operationalized for efficiency was bound to technology. After the World War II the battlefield moved from the fronts of Europe and the Pacific to the consumer marketplace. The technology that provided the weapons to defeat Germany and Japan would now provide the refrigerators and televisions that would shape the capitalism that would win the Cold War. If technology provided the magic to win the war, then technology could solve all our problems, whether those problems be medical, engineering, or even the decline in religious involvement.

Technology is science used for functional ends, to achieve or solve some problem that will result in increased capital. This capital could be economic, social, or cultural (even religious). Richard Stivers, a sociologist and author of Technology as Magic (Continuum, 2001), explains that technological innovation often happens, or is sponsored, because of the increase in efficiency it might bring. More efficiency brings more capital. Youth ministry was created as a technology, needed to solve the problem of adolescent religious apathy; thus it existed, as all technologies do, for functional growth. Youth ministry was created to increase capital by solving the technical problem for which it was created. The functional problem was low religious commitment (kids did not like church) and immoral behavior (kids were doing drugs, having sex, and not reading their Bibles). As a technology created to solve these problems functionally, youth ministry could only be judged by its increased capital. If more kids where coming to church or youth group on Sunday and Wednesday, and if more kids were sober and sexually pure, youth ministry was successful. It was meeting the functional end it was created for, bring the efficiency desired. And as a technology, its good (its reason to exist at all) was only to accomplish its functional end by expanding the desired capital.

Technology as Magic

Stivers argued that the technological mindset that flourished since the 1950s, and within which cultural ethos youth ministry has been formed, has oddly turned toward the magical. It seems strange to assert that technology born from science would lead to magic. But Stivers argues that it is so. He explains, “Magic represents an attempt to persuade nature to act in the best interest of humans. Today, however, technology is perceived to be a force greater than that of nature, for it is successfully used to exploit the resources of nature and re-recreate nature” (2).

Stivers explains that we put our trust in technology, assuming, like magic, that it will solve our problems. We have little idea how the apps on our phones actually work, for instance, but they do, giving us the efficiency we want as they magically summon a taxi before we even think to need one.

The “CEO Idea Guy” at the youth ministry conference fired up a crowd of youth workers by claiming that technology, that their technical ideas (not God or the Holy Spirit) would solve our problems. Youth ministry as technology has (if we will seek it) the magical ideas to efficiently increase the capital that will solve our problems.

Youth ministry has often been seen in our churches as a magical technology. We assume we have no clue how teenagers work, their inner lives as convoluted and confusing to us as the chips and circuits of our iPhones. Most people in our congregations see young people as complicated devices needing an expert to wire and program – a youth worker who has the youth ministry technical savvy to magically bring the efficiency we desire. Much like the Mac genius at the Apple Store, most people in our congregations have no idea how our young people, or ministry to them, works. But we are happy to hire an expert as long has his or her technology brings efficiency that makes the spent capital exponential.

Simon the Magician

There is more than a little similarity between contemporary technological youth ministry and Acts 8, the story of Philip meeting Simon the magician in Samaria. Simon is a powerful man of magic, able to do signs and wonders. But when Philip shows up, Simon’s magic pales in comparison to the power of the resurrected Christ. Even magic must bend the knee to the action of God, and next to the work of God, Simon’s technology seems deeply dated. With the infatuation of a discovery at a new technology convention, Simon follows Philip everywhere he goes.

But Simon is confused. Philip is no magician; he has no technology to manipulate nature and reach his desired efficiency. Philip is a disciple, not a techie. He is a follower of the action of God that comes not in powerful know-how but in the weakness of suffering love. In honest powerlessness of the human condition comes the Spirit of life.

After baptizing some of the locals, Peter and John are called to lay their hands on the people so that they might receive the Spirit. When Simon sees this he is captivated and confused even further. He wants this technology to distribute the Spirit, knowing that this will increase his capital; Simon wrongly assumes that Peter and John have a magical technology that might be distributed. Simon offers a significant amount of money to have this technology, but he is rebuked. Confusing God’s action with a magical technology, Simon assumes that, with enough money, he can buy this technology and make God’s action into a commodity, thus increasing his own capital exponentially.

He believes the name of Jesus is magic and that the disciples possess a technology they can give him. But the disciples know differently. This God of Jesus is no magical technology that can be controlled; this God comes without warning, behind closed doors with flames of fire. Simon’s intention is to bring forth the Holy Spirit, but Philip, Peter, and John know that no one brings forth the Spirit as an efficient function; God’s Spirit comes when and where God’s Spirit comes.

Too often in youth ministry we function like Simon the magician, seeking magical technologies. We earnestly want the Spirit to come but we spend so much time focusing on how we might technologically distribute it to young people through programs and activities. We aim our attention on our own action, wondering what new magical model or program may awaken God. We scrutinize our own technological functions so much that we lose sight that our very purpose is to participate in God’s action, and God’s action comes most often by revealing our weakness. It comes often closest to our deepest yearning, not as technology but as an event of encounter in our weakness and need.

From the Technological to the Theological

This technological ethos has begun to feel like a noose around the neck of many youth workers. Sucked into this technological character of youth work, it feels as if their ministry is always searching for the next big program, model, or idea. In other words, it is looking for the next big technological breakthrough that will finally help exponentially increase its capital (yielding the magic that gives them a big youth group filled with praying virgins). Youth workers cheer when people like “CEO idea guy” claim they can even create their own technology that might rival all the technologies in youth ministry marketplace, providing them with the personal capital of importance. But in the end, this search for magical technologies that will bring efficiency to youth ministry has become soul-depleting (not unexpectedly, leading to high turnover rates in youth ministry).

It is not surprising then that some youth workers have begun to wonder if there is not more to ministry, or if ministry is even something different altogether than managing technologies to increase religious capital. They are wondering about God, and God’s act and being, in youth ministry; they are seeking, like Philip, to follow the action of the living God as opposed to chasing technologies. They are seeking no longer to be driven after the next magical technology, like Simon but looking for the act of God in the ministry context within which they find themselves. These youth workers are wondering whether deep thoughts and reflection are sucked dry by youth ministry’s technological addictions, or if it might be possible that right within the locale of doing ministry they might be pulled into deep theological reflection. Those who have taken the brave step away from the technological and sought the action of God in their ministries with youth have taken what Kenda Creasy Dean and I have called the theological turn (The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry [InterVarsity, 2011]).

Dean and I have noticed, and sought to perpetuate, a turn of youth ministry from the technological to the theological. We have tried to encourage youth workers to see youth ministry as not for solving a functional problem that, when resolved, will increased capital (the technological), but instead as a locale to encounter the revelation of God next to the humanity of young people themselves (the theological). Youth ministry, we believe, seeks to reflect deeply on the action of God in and through the lives of young people who are both within and outside the church.

But, I need to be precise and say that the turn to the theological in youth ministry is not, and is different from, a turn to theology (see Mark Lewis Taylor’s helpful distinction in The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World [Fortress, 2011]). To turn to theology is to turn solely to doctrines and traditions, believing that if we can get such information into young people’s heads that we have met our goal. Some have actually used the technological mindset to turn to theology, believing that if young people simply get theology in their heads this will magically increase young people’s commitments and make youth ministry more efficient.

A turn to theology may be more sophisticated than just the technology, but at its heart it has little difference. A turn to theology in youth ministry risks a retreat away from the concrete and lived experience of young people. But a theological turn seeks to explore the concrete and lived experience young people have as the location for encounter with God. The theological in youth ministry seeks to explore young peoples’ lived experience for the ways God is present and absent in their lives. It is dwelling in these experiences as the shape of ministry, as the embracing of young people’s humanity, that nevertheless moves us together into deep contemplation. The theological is spotted when a young person confesses the pain of the divorce of their parents, grieves the death of family dog, or wonders on a mission trip why God would allow some people to be in poverty and others to live in three-garage homes. It is in sharing in these questions and thoughts that youth ministry turns to the theological. A theological youth worker is one that brings experience and theology into conversation, transforming it into the theological.

A youth ministry that turns to theology seeks to move young people into forms of formal knowledge (to assimilate to the doctrinal); bound in the technological it still seeks to increase numbers and behavior. A youth ministry that turns to the theological seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience of young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God together. The theological youth ministry is not motivated or directed by the ends of capital growth, but by the desire to glimpse and then participate in the act of God in the concrete lives of young people.

I believe this theological attention, this focus on God’s act in our concrete lives, frees youth ministry from the technological. It invites us to participate deeply in young people’s lives. There we discover the presence of the Spirit that calls us not to create magical technologies that can actualize a functional goal, but to trust in the living God who comes to us as the one who meets us in our concrete experience, taking what is dead in us and bringing it to life.

Posted Nov 20, 2013