Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Abercrombie, Youth Ministry, and Clothes Everybody Can Wear

I know this post makes it seem as though I'm late to the current event conversation, but I promise I was participating from the beginning. I do not live in a cave or under a rock, although I do find myself much more versed in toddler culture than adolescent culture of late. It's just that life gets in the way of this blog sometimes...or maybe this blog gets in the way of my life sometimes. Either way, it's about time I muse about Abercrombie CEO, Mike Jeffries, and his bigoted remarks that went viral and trended on Twitter this past May.

Warning: these musings do not hinge on Jeffries, as though we should be surprised at the exclusive nature of his company's marketing schemes. After all, based off what you see in catalogues and malls across the country, Abercrombie is so consistently exclusive that even their wash-board stomached models are not allowed to wear their clothes. Instead, my musings are targeted at all of us- churches, youth ministries, youth pastors, youth, and faith-based ministries.

Here are some modest, pun intended, questions for us to ponder:

Who Are We Targeting with Ministry Programs and Communities?

There are many youth ministries and youth ministry-ish programs whose strategy sounds a lot like Jeffries, "If we can reach the cool kids we can reach anyone." We then observe these programs and participate in these faith-based communities and realize they are pretty vanilla. While they are quite good, actually excellent, at reaching this popular, in-crowd demographic, it is often to the alienation of others.

Yet, when we look at Jesus and his cast of followers, the Crucified One did not exactly start with the cool kids or attractive All-American prima-donnas. Instead, Jesus' ministry began with fishermen who didn't make the cut, women with shady reputations, children whose worth and witness were undervalued, Syrophoenician refugees looking for table scraps, oppressive and short-in-stature tax collectors, and those who doubted the entire three-plus years they followed their teacher and friend. Jesus' ministry was all about and hinged on those on the social and religious fringe.

Jesus himself was a first-century, marginalized, Palestinian Jewish rabbi. It's safe to say that the Messiah did not exactly register high on the cool meter, and neither did his ministry.

So why do youth ministries assume we have to start with the cool factor? Is it really that important to convince youth and (young) adults alike that to follow Jesus is to be "cool?"

Is it not more important to lead others to follow Jesus because it is the Way to a real life that lasts?

And speaking of lasts, this Way often begins there- with those who are last.

Let us not replace Jesus' kingdom mantra with a trendier one that further isolates those relagated to the end of the social line from from those who are perpetually ushered to the front.

Who Really Belongs in Our Faith Communities?

The beauty of the church and the hope of the gospel is that everyone belongs, even the cool, attractive, All-American kid and those skilled at reaching them with the good news. There's also and especially a place for those who don't feel cool enough to pal around at their gatherings and those gifted in creating hospitable environments for these sorts of youth. There is a place for everybody in the body of Christ. My own tradition says it beautifully:

"The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone." (The PCUSA Book of Order F-1.0302a).

"The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church's membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unifies persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theologcal conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person" (The PCUSA Book of Order F-1.0403).

As we craft ministry calendars, develop weekly Bible studies, innovate missional partnerships, imagine new programs, and meet with youth in our congregations and beyond, my prayer is that we exclude no one. My prayer is that in the church all would find a place to call home and all ecouraged to discover opportunities to exercise their gifts and talents for the sake of others. When the church and related youth ministries embody unity and inclusivity, the diveristy is everything but vanilla!

What's the Real Risk and Trouble?

I read somewhere that Jeffries is misinformed (thanks, Captain Obvious). The growing market is actually not for the industries with cookie-cutter clientele, but for companies who advertise to those commonly labeled as ordinary, average, and plus-sized. In other words, the Abercrombie model is a dying business model that's really in trouble.

Is it possible that some of pop-culture is beginning to see that ordinary is beautiful?

I won't hold my breath. Still, I will take on the Jeffries Challenge and risk the supposed trouble that comes when all are invited to put on the soaking-wet baptismal clothes, granted access to gather at the sacred and sending table, and challenged to follow Jesus in and for the world.

What about you? What about your congregation? What about your youth ministry?

Who are you going after? How do those on the margins feel about your community and witness?

Is it all inclusive or exclusively vanilla?

May disciples of Jesus be forever clothed in the compassion, kindness, humility, welcome, and love of Christ. These are clothes everybody can wear (Colossians 3:11-17).

"Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful..."

---1 Corinthians 12:11, The Message

"The Church of the Holy Spirit is full of variety. Sameness and conformity are the demands of alien spirits."

---N. Gordon Cosby in Elizabeth O'Connor's, Eighth Day of Creation


Quote in image above is from Business Insider,