The Ladder of Cool
This article was originally posted on 5/28/2013 on FirstThird.org
Derek Tronsgard, one of our First Third Voices gives his take on Sarah's Bane's thesis topic in:
Youth Ministry, Stewardship, and the Ladder of Cool
(Before reading this post, we highly recommend reading Sarah Bane's thesis. It's posted again at the bottom of this blog. It's brilliant & it's worth the read.)
Sarah's on to something when she talks about stewardship being more than “giving”. She's also on to something when she lifts up stewardship as a paradigm for youth ministry.
We live in a society that's obsessed with stuff. And the idea of biblical stewardship – knowing that every single atom in the universe belongs to God and that we are just caretakers – flies in the face of that.
But we rarely talk about stewardship with youth. For the most part, stewardship in our congregations is reserved for adults only on one or two Sundays.
But like Sarah points out, stewardship is a vital conversation to have with kids. Stewardship has EVERYTHING to do with how we witness the good news of Jesus to kids in a consumer-driven world. And if we're not talking about stewardship – if we're not practicing it ourselves & passing it down to the next generation – then we're missing a big piece of the puzzle, because to talk about stewardship is to talk about the Gospel in a world where we're bound and trapped by consumerism.
And this is just as true for adults as it is for kids.
Earlier this month the clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch got in hot water over some comments the company's owner made several years ago. In an interview, he remarked that, “...we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely."1
After these comments re-emerged, an outcry went up in the media (and rightly so), but my hunch is that many of these high-end clothing companies feel the same way whether they say it publicly or not. The ad wizards have made people believe that exclusivism is cool, that uniqueness gives social capital, and that there's a mysterious social ladder of cool that you want to climb, and stuff can help you do it.
This is the lie of consumerism, and anyone who has gone to a middle or high school knows what I'm talking about. Stuff like clothes, phones, electronics, and accessories have the power to make you “cool” or “uncool”. This ladder of cool is why I ditched my beloved sweatpants & Star Wars T-shirt in Jr. High for some Air Walk skate shoes and hoodies even though I've never owned a skateboard.
For our kids – our students – this is the world that they live in. Their identity, meaning, purpose, and station in life can be dictated by an invisible social capital of “cool”. And consumerism says that their purchase choices can either help or hinder their spot on the ladder.
And like Sarah points out, churches even fall into this trap. Both implicitly and explicitly, we try to sell kids on joining with us in ministry that will help them on the cool ladder. We try to tell kids that coming to our youth group or our events or our church will help them out on their climb.
But the sad result of a consumer ministry model is bankrupt theology & a grace-less gospel. In consumerism, you're cool & accepted based on your actions – not on God's grace.
This is why we need a better understanding of stewardship in youth ministry. We need kids to know that there is an alternative to the ruthless social ladders of the world. We need kids to know that there is a place where they are loved unconditionally apart from what they do or buy or own. We need kids to know that ultimate acceptance & belonging & identity aren't things we make for ourselves, but instead are things that are gifted to them by their Creator.
This is what stewardship in ministry is all about.
Here's Sarah Bane's thesis: