Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture
John Berard, James Penner, and Rick Bartlett. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010. 184 pages.
Over the years, the topic of consumerism has received considerable attention from youth ministry experts who have lamented and criticized its impact on young people ad nauseam. In spite of its title, Consuming Youth should not be written off as yet another such screed. Berard, Penner, and Bartlett—youth ministry veterans associated with Youth for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Ministry Quest, respectively—offer a thorough and thoughtful reading of the situation along with a meaningful and actionable practical theological response.
Consuming Youth amounts to an engaging practical theological situational analysis of the dominant contemporary Western ideology of youth and proposes an alternative, biblically informed ideology and supporting cultural framework in light thereof. According to the authors, the coming-of-age process has been hijacked and altered. Western common sense notions of “adolescence” are traced through the last hundred years in order to demonstrate that such an ideology is an invention through and through—the product of multiple factors, not least of which includes advanced capitalist consumer culture. Having set the stage, Berard, Penner, and Bartlett introduce the possibility of a counter-script—an alternative ideology of youth, arranged around vocation and calling.
The book is divided into two sections. The first frames the situation—the contemporary context within which adolescence exists. A survey of social-structural shifts over the last century highlights the gradual ghettoization and alienation of adolescents from adult society. Enter advanced capitalist consumer culture, which offers disoriented adolescents a consumption-based narrative by which to live. The category of “adolescence”—that life stage popularly characterized by rebellion, self-absorption, peer orientation, and consumption—is established as a modern construct, a culturally informed innovation that exerts gravity on the developmental process. Once Berard, Penner, and Bartlett make it plain that both commonsensical notions of what it means to be an adolescent and accepted processes upon which growing-up are predicated are themselves largely products of cultural dynamics, they introduce their proposal—a different ideology based on a biblically informed understanding of youth.
Section two brings the history of youth ministry into conversation with the culturally accepted ideology of adolescence and the consumer-driven market economy in order to inquire whether and how these have shaped youth ministry and the response of the church to adolescence. A survey of key youth ministry movements reveals the impact of advanced capitalist consumer culture on both youth ministry and youth ministry responses to culture. Withholding judgment, the authors acknowledge the culpability of youth ministry in affirming such a constructed social reality before inviting the church to contemplate a shift in the way the church relates to youth. The authors, applying an appreciative inquiry approach, investigate Ministry Quest (MQ)—an initiative connected to the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary—in order to learn how a contrast culture with a particular understanding of and emphasis on call and vocational development shapes a different ideology of youth. Theory is paired with stories about MQ participants and of the re-storying potential of such experiences in order to demonstrate that a vocation- and calling-oriented culture supports desired outcomes.
The authors manage to draw on an extensive field of relevant source material. They use as their jumping-off point the political-economic perspective outlined by sociologists James Cote and Anton Allahar. The authors’ mastery of existing works enables them to create a framework within which to better understand the contemporary situation. As a result, the response formulated in the book has a thoughtful relevance worth serious consideration. The text includes an appropriate combination of theory and practice, supported by anecdotal evidence. Discussion and study questions are stimulating. Endnotes are helpful, providing a rich bibliography for those interested in further exploration of the subject.
Consuming Youth is written for anyone who spends time with teenagers. This is the book I would like to have read when I started out in youth ministry. It will serve well as a youth ministry course text and is a “must read” for church workers and anyone interested in helping youth navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood.