Ecclesiastical Pornography: The Danger of Popularity in Youth Ministry

October 6th, 2009

Behind closed doors in offices and homes around the world, how many youth workers insatiably click away at dozens of Web sites, secretly flip through countless graphically eye-melting magazines, and, on trips away from home, dish out hundreds of dollars to the professionals of the world's oldest trade?

I'm sure you don't need the help, but yes, this “trade” actually is…you guessed it…youth ministry. So many youth workers model their approaches to youth ministry after other successful ministry models. These guides, usually of the published kind, come complete with prefabricated games, worship-experiences-in-a-box, and sermon outlines. “What's the big deal?” you may ask. The big deal is that in the not so distant future (in the United States especially), the way we do youth-ministry may become a cookie-cutter, drive-thru, entrepreneurial, McFaith franchise ministry. Did anyone notice that postmodern emerging worship experiences are beginning to feel more commercial than ancient? I fear that with the breadth (and depth) of the resources now available, youth workers may find themselves leashed to the local Christian bookstore for power in ministry rather than to God.

McFaith Franchise Ministry

I don't know precisely how many youth workers have fallen prey to the resource blitz, but I'm one of them—and I'm definitely not alone. With youth ministry becoming more and more systematic, glitzy, and professionalized, and with books being churned out on every topic imaginable under the youth ministry sun, the number is likely to grow.

But before I get misunderstood and hung by my nose hairs (from Creative Games For Hairy Youth) as a dissident of the published youth ministry world, let me say that I believe articles on “The Ten Marks of Relational Youth Workers” are indeed needed, ministry model books are helpful (when biblical), and insights and leadership of the Yaconelli and Burns kind are priceless. Indeed, the vast majority of these resources are developed with a Soli Deo Gloria desire, where equipping the saints for ministry involves building a platform upon which to build a healthy ministry.

But I wonder, as the professionalization and systemization of youth ministry continues, will there be a subtle shift in the hearts of youth ministry product consumers in regard to power? There seem to be so many youth ministry resources—games, Bible studies, sermon outlines, programming, organization, purpose, administration, leadership development, culture, family ministry how-tos, relational skills, small group ministry, and evangelism—in kits, books, magazines, DVD, Web, audio, conferences, and a variety of other formats—that coming to God in prayer first might seem…well, secondary.

Our Ministries At Risk

As youth workers called by God into a spiritual mission, several things are at risk. One is dependency. Ultimately such resources threaten to shift our spiritual dependency on God and distort our ministry. We live in the age of the supertrained youth worker; there are more events to equip and encourage youth workers than ever before, and the literature and approaches are becoming perhaps too easily available. When relying on a ministry product that has been proven to work elsewhere, we can lose touch with the wonderfully creative God who wants to lead us even through the details of a lock-in or retreat. There needs to be wisdom in implementation—we mustn't attribute power to these methods, and we must understand that ministry is an ongoing, usually hard process and not a softcover product. Otherwise, we can become less dependent on the Spirit of God and more trusting of methods and religious entrepreneurship. The question again is: Where do we place power in our ministry?

A second potential danger involves a certain glorification of ministry. Eugene Peterson in Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness warns against “ecclesiastical pornography” and states that, “parish glamorization is ecclesiastical pornography—taking photographs (skillfully airbrushed) or drawing pictures of congregations that are without spot or wrinkle, the shapes that a few parishes have for a few short years. These provocatively posed pictures are devoid of personal relationships. The pictures excite a lust for domination, for gratification, for uninvolved and impersonal spirituality.” Peterson is sounding an alarm particularly relevant to those of us in youth ministry.

Even though I don't think published authors and resources claim to have the ultimate secret or promise perfect ministry, I do think that an unhealthy reliance on ministry resources can ultimately become pornographic for readers in the trenches and ultimately lead to frustration and, in Peterson's analysis, a synthetic and possibly less-relational ministry. I think it's ecclesiastical pornography when:

1. We imitate other churches because we feel we can bottle blessings and therefore bottle God.

2. We seek the experts before the Spirit.

3. We are obsessed with numbers as a goal not as a fruit.

Wisdom and Discernment

So what do we do next? Meet your local network of youth workers and burn the books? No, that'd only accelerate global warming. Instead, read them differently. This article isn't about condemning the awesome work of our fellow youth workers; it's about handling the resources with open eyes and with a stronger dependence on our God.

In the past, I've used more and more resources when I procrastinated or when my schedule has, willingly or unwillingly, become too hectic. In those moments, my kneejerk reaction was to run to my shelf and find something to eat up group time. So the questions remain: What role do resources play in our ministries? Should they be mostly ignored or mostly applied? Unfortunately I cannot give an authoritative answer, but the key issue isn't how much we use; it's whether we use them with wisdom and discernment.

The Resurrection

The power central to Scripture is the power of the resurrection. In the many resources, approaches, and models available today, this is still where the ultimate power lies, whether stated or unstated. It isn't commercial, and no one can copyright it. As youth workers we've been called as God's instruments to raise people back to a spiritual life and relationship with God through the resurrection of Jesus. Christian bookstores can't sell this—the products can only set better conditions for this to occur.

Ultimately, I find this both humbling and refreshing. God desires to bless us regardless of our shortcomings. And since this power isn't our own and we can't make resurrection happen, we have one less thing to worry about. We don't have to have that ultraclean, polished youth ministry with all guidelines and schedules always met. Ministry happens. Even books on games and icebreakers ultimately desire resurrection. Fun and games lead to community, community leads to relationships, relationships lead to vulnerability and conversation. Hopefully, conversation becomes proclamation and resurrection by God's grace.

Faithfulness, Not Success

One thing that always bugged me about Scripture was that, more often than not, God would call servants to love the rebellious with a promise that many would refuse (Isaiah 6). As such, our ministry call isn't primarily a call to success but a call to faithfulness, despite what we may sift through in the books and models we follow. I've often caught myself thinking more about youth ministry as a field than about my own God-appointed ministry to youth; I've desired success in the field of youth ministry, proclaimed the urgency of youth ministry to the multitudes, learned the latest approaches in youth ministry relevancy, and implemented emerging philosophies in youth ministry. These were moments when youth ministry success became the focus rather than helping the student I was called to guide. When this happens, youth ministry busy-ness can become something we hide our pride behind, with the inevitable manipulation of the sheep to make us look like a good shepherd.

As youth workers, we must ask ourselves: Are we ultimately driven by a desire for success or a desire for God? Does youth ministry ever become a career? I was recently involved in planning a conference for a council of churches in Philadelphia. By any human standard, the event was a success in terms of numbers, the response, the speakers, the worship, and the loudness. In hindsight, even though there's a place in Christianity for large events, the Holy Spirit impressed upon me that I could have just as much impact in God's eyes by sitting down with a hurting student over a cup of soup and simply listening.


I grew up in Italy and my family still lives there. Recently, I had the opportunity to return home for a ministry break and attended a church where I knew the pastoral leadership. From its humble beginning of three, the church now has hundreds of members. To avoid any additional ecclesiastical pornography, let me jump to the point: they vibrantly grew despite the lack of ministry resources and formal theological training. The recipe was quite simple: prayer, fasting, and lots of joy in God's salvation. While I was there, it struck me that if anyone would attempt to implement emergent worship service philosophies in Italy, they'd likely get little response. The aesthetics of candles, darkness, and solemnity would be ineffective in a culture where the vibrant, seeker-sensitive model is still so effective.

The principle of customization is essential in ministry. Similarly in the United States, my experience with the vast majority of ministry resources is that they need tweaking—some minor and many major. So I take the main ideas and tweak them to my group's faith, maturity, and interests. It seems that most ministry resources are relevant to suburban, predominantly white ministries, and therefore aren't overly effective in second-generation ethnic churches (like where I'm currently pastoring).

The Basics of Youth Ministry

In other words, I don't make things harder than they should be. At a recent Loveland, Colo., event, a respected youth leader said youth workers often “make ministry harder than it is,” that “youth ministry is ultimately quite simple!” In a nutshell: love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself—practically speaking: have fun, focus on Scripture, and get others involved.

No matter what devotional book I've read, the ultimate applications always fall on a select few: all-surpassing grace, the need for accountability and community, and loving the unlovable until it hurts. Remembering that God ultimately loves people more than we ever will as youth workers, we can be sure that God will work.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes how the tempter distracts a man from spending much time thinking about God: “Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of 'real life' (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all 'that sort of thing' just couldn't be true.” Even though the allusion is to those debating God's existence, it's relevant to the whole of our spiritual lives. The most effective way to distract from the spiritual is to see the physical.

Reducing ministry to purchased manuals, principles, and strategies has the potential of distracting us from a God who, in a very real yet mysterious manner, still comes to us in clouds and desires to be the first source of power. Perhaps, it may help to hold off buying the next youth ministry book, come before God in prayer, and rely on those around us. Chances are you already know what needs to get done, and if you don't, God does.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.