The Game Churches Play

The title of a new book caught my attention: Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture. The young man who wrote it is a youth minister in a Presbyterian church. Since he is Presbyterian, we would take strong issue with what he teaches about salvation and other matters. However, what he says about trying to draw crowds through these means is on the money and indicates a shift in thinking among some denominations. In fact, some Baptists in Nashville a couple of years ago came to the same conclusion and changed their strategy as well.

The author mentions some of the extras churches use to appeal to young people: movies, video games, fog machines, circulating lights, magicians, comedians, and lots of fast food and junk food. In the midst of all this spectacle they try to slip Jesus in somewhere. The name of the game is obvious: big numbers.

The first chapter says it all: “Why Entertainment Hasn’t Worked.” The writer observes that churches spend an enormous amount of time, energy, and money to put on a big show for the young people to get them interested in religion. But the next morning those feelings are gone. Teenagers in particular are back in the real world of problems and temptations. More importantly, this youth minister has learned something that gospel preachers, especially older ones, have cautioned congregations about for years: you can draw big crowds with these gimmicks, but you won’t keep them. These denominations are finding that they are losing many of their young people in spite of all the excitement they give them.

Why has this approach not worked? This book offers an interesting observation. Our culture is obsessed with having fun. People go from one “pleasure high” to the next, but how do they really feel inside? Does surrounding ourselves with constant entertainment and pleasing the senses satisfy us? Not at all, the author says. Instead, our young people are often lonely, depressed, and down right bored! But isn’t this what the book of Ecclesiastes tells us about ourselves, especially in chapter two? In the end, the thrill of earthly amusements leaves us feeling empty.

At this point the author gives an insight based on his years of working with young people. Others have observed the same. It may appear that young people want to play all the time and expect to be entertained at church, but they actually want something deeper. They want to know about the soul and eternity. They want to know about how to deal with guilt. Contrary to what the programs of many churches suggest, Bible study does work.

Had people been reading and following the Bible to begin with, they would have never turned to these methods. Take a moment and ask yourself if Jesus ever tried to lure people with these appeals. Do you read anything in the book of Acts or in the epistles about congregations using this approach?

—Kerry Duke

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