I grew up outside Cleveland, Ohio, back in the glory days of Cleveland Indians baseball. To this day, I can still tell you the starting lineup and defensive positions of most Indians rosters between the years of 1995-2001. So as a kid, baseball was my passion. I played, I collected the cards and the newspaper clippings, and to this day my room still bears the baseball-themed wallpaper border I put up when we were going to the October series every year, or at least coming close.
Naturally then, movies like The Sandlot, The Rookie, and Angels in the Outfield were always playing in the VHS player. One such movie was Field of Dreams. Nothing gets the heart of a baseball fan going more than the idea of the legends of baseball, and Field of Dreams promised just that, with a little James Earl Jones to top it off. All that stood between Ray and the baseball-lover’s dream game playing in his backyard every night was a baseball field where corn was standing. “If you build it, they will come,” the mysterious voice whispered in the corn.
In thinking through youth ministry in our present-day context, many youth ministries still carry with them the mindset of “If we build it, they will come,” the idea that having a cool youth room, relevant programs, crazy games, rock concerts in your church… you name it – if you have it, students will pour into your programs and your numbers will go through the roof. And so youth programs drive themselves in circles to grab onto the latest trends and the hippest logos for their ministries, thinking that somehow the right image for your ministry will attract the crowds.
The problem with this mindset is that it ultimately places its trust in the belief that students gravitate toward what is “cool” rather than what is meaningful. Deconstructing this mindset leaves you with the bottom-line understanding of students as consumers looking for what they can get and what improves their standing, what appeals to their tastes, rather than seeing students as image-bearers of God who are looking for someone to piece together the shards of a mirror so they can see truly see themselves.
One of my youth min professors made this observation about students today in relation to the Christian life: “The central issue to the faith of students is not whether they are going to opt-out of the Christian faith, but whether they are going to opt-in.” In post-Christian America, the majority of students are not being raised in or into the Church. Religion and spirituality is certainly an aspect of their lives that they are aware of, but it is no longer a central fixture in the American family life. Thus, when faced with making faith decisions, it is a question of whether they are going to choose to be Christian, rather than having to choose to give up a faith they have received from a young age.
Student ministries that are desperately trying to attract students to events and the latest programming model will ultimately be ineffective at reaching the students of today. Their message becomes just one of the 3,000 other advertisements students receive in any given day, just another sales pitch trying to market a product based on how it will benefit them or how it will make them a better person.
What student ministry needs to offer to today’s students is depth, meaning, intentionality – all of which are values overlooked by a consumer culture dominated by 30 second sales pitches. We cannot expect students to come to our events or our teaching times and walk away changed. This is a mindset still fixated on the quick-fix, self-help, your best life now culture. Dedication to individual students, meaningful and intentional relationships and a depth of teaching that can handle the gray areas of life is what students today are looking for, not whether the logo of the ministry looks anything like what the 200 other logos they see on TV and the web every day.
Building an obscure baseball field in the middle of an Iowa cornfield wasn’t a very popular idea among Ray’s friends in Iowa. But it resulted in drawing an old recluse out of hiding, granting the unfulfilled dream of a young baseball player, and ultimately reuniting a father and son. The newfound popularity of the field is but a passing thought, caught in a final camera sweep fading into credits.
“People will come,” Terrence prophecies, “…for its money they have and peace they lack.”