Retro-worship: Challenging the Techno Paradigm

October 2nd, 2009

Lights are off, and the closely packed fellowship hall is warm from the heat of dozens of scented candles. About sixty teens, their shoes piled out in the hallway, sit worshipping quietly, some on couches and others cross-legged on the floor. Open prayer and testimony time has begun, and participation is enthusiastic. If the power goes out, which it does from time to time around here, Jim Ramos’ Tuesday night high schoolers probably won’t even notice. They’re on Holy Ground.

Conversation is subdued, and hugs break out spontaneously. Gone are the edgy sounds of a Christian band’s latest CD, they are replaced by a soulful Irish folk-lilt of instrumental hymns. The high dollar LCD video projector is dark, and the worship band has traded in their drums and amps for acoustic guitars. Games and crowd icebreakers are used only sparingly nowadays. The Starbucks espresso maker is cold; volunteer barista Mark Watson no longer pulls shots or steams milk for a lineup of decaf cappuccinos. Watson now leads a breakout group.

The scene is especially odd; since only two years earlier, Ramos had worked doggedly to fund the equipment that would bring his ministry into the new millennium, joining scores of other youth pastors nationwide. Yet if current wisdom says the path to teen cultural relevance is digital, then why has Ramos done such an about-face, challenging the computer-café model of youth ministry?


His answer? Intimacy. While many smaller youth ministries struggle to match the big bucks spent by prominent churches on multimedia spending sprees, Ramos has opted to slow down and take a side road. He’s thrown out the user-friendly model that targets non-churched kids by recreating their culture within the church campus. Not even song sheets are used. Regular attendees know the lyrics; visitors are left to sink or swim—again, part of Ramos’ refusal to mirror the outside world. Ramos believes that by rejecting the multimedia-wrapped package preferred by growing numbers of churches, he can offer teens a more deeply real experience. Holy Ground is simply a way to reach back to simpler times before the fun-driven, fast lane existence overtook American culture. If that makes Holy Ground seem radical to some, Ramos is not surprised.

“We have created ‘anti-church’,” he says simply.

“I think most youth pastors are too immature to understand what is needed these days to go deep—they need to look at and rethink what these teens are really wanting and needing. We are catering to the believer.”

Despite Ramos’ decision to pull the plug on electronic ministry aids, the techno-gen teens that attend his weekly high school ministry at El Morro Nazarene Church in Los Osos, California, don’t mind the shift to Holy Ground; they seem to prefer it.

Is this evidence that retro-worship will shortly displace the recent wave of “techno” youth ministry? Ramos isn’t ready to go that far.

“I think this is at a paper fire stage; we won’t know for sure if this is just a cool new thing or the real deal for probably years.” Even while waiting to see how Holy Ground plays out over time, Ramos acknowledges that momentum is high, “even among kids who are not strong believers, which was surprising for all of us.”

Walking the Walk

Ramos isn’t bashful about presenting a full-strength message of Christ, telling his high schoolers that Christian talk without a Christian walk is not the stuff of true commitment. Stung by a few high-profile moral failures among his flock, Ramos is more concerned about integrity than squishy feelings. After all, they are on Holy Ground, an intentional reminder of Moses’ face-to-face encounter with God in Exodus 3:5. Kids are admonished to leave their attitudes at the door, along with their shoes.

Ramos isn’t out to sober his kids under a load of old-line legalism; the idea for Holy Ground is a totally different vector. The former Vineyard member and Youth For Christ staffer had been at the helm of El Mo Naz’ Bay Life Ministries for nearly a decade, an eternity in youth ministry tenure. Despite enjoying successes that made Bay Life attendance greater than most area churches, Ramos entered a period of personal unsettledness. Holy Groundwas birthed after a lengthy season of prayer and taking the heart-pulse of the surrounding teen population.

This area’s lifestyles have largely driven the need for intimacy among teens.Holy Ground serves high school age youth in Los Osos and Morro Bay, two beach towns on California’s Central Coast. Little industry and a low-wage tourism economy often push both parents into the job market. Long hours mean adolescents face empty houses after school and at dinner. Divorce is common, even among churchgoers; a disturbingly large majority of Holy Ground youth come from divorced or single-parent households. Kids immerse themselves in media and the Internet, where they quickly discover the impersonal nature of entertainment. Pregnancies remain a chronic problem.

Parental abandonment has forced local kids to form families among themselves. Sizable numbers of 16 and 17 year-olds, some legally emancipated, live on their own, many opting to test out of high school early. “We have good kids by anybody’s standards; they are wholesome, intelligent and educated,” says Ramos; yet their families have embarked on a binge of self-destruction. “They are kids that don’t just accept divorce, they expect it. They expect parents are not going to be there, and in a sense they expect to raise their parents.” Such responsibilities leave little time for computer games and web surfing while instilling a great hunger for relationships.

Recently when Jessica’s father died unexpectedly, she turned to her friends at Holy Ground for love and support. With her mother just out of a substance recovery program, the Morro Bay high school junior now has to pull the weight of her entire family, and the relationships she has with her friends help. For her, Holy Ground‘s soft lighting and warm fellowship provide a safe sanctuary where, for a couple of hours, she can set aside family responsibilities and openly grieve the loss of her father.

“A dark atmosphere allows a teen to feel this is a safe place, where they can cry and laugh and be themselves and not be ashamed of that fact,” observes Ramos. “Combine that with heartfelt worship, loving adults, and an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit is invited to come, and you have the ingredients for a life change.”


The presence of Holy Ground raises another question: Has our infatuation with technology been good for us? A report recently released by the Alliance for Childhood called, “Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood,” suggests not.

“Anyone who thinks computers are going to solve educational problems or accelerate intellectual development, the evidence is just not there,” says the Alliances’ Colleen Cordes. Citing risks from early eyestrain to repetitive stress injuries, the report even recommends that schools impose “an immediate moratorium on the further introduction of computers in early childhood.”

The report cites another side effect of the information age—emotional detachment. Teens themselves may already have discovered that fact. While baby boomers and gen-X technophiles, ministry leaders among them, generally assume teens are as awed as they are by virtual reality games and the Internet, that’s not the case, says Ramos. “I think teens are burned out by technology; familiarity breeds contempt. They’re bombarded by MTV, bombarded by high tech; they can have the best and have it now.” Even the church can be permeated, Ramos believes, by a false mentality that tomorrow’s technology somehow holds the promise of making life simpler.

“These kids know that isn’t true,” he says.

“Speed itself is the characteristic of a technological society,” observes youth ministry pioneer and Youth Specialties co-founder Mike Yaconelli. “Busyness and workaholic-ism is a value. Kids are pushed by parents to get good grades and SAT scores. They’re swamped and busy. Then the church comes along and it has its own set of busyness.” The result is that teens become so overwhelmed that they simply withdraw. Yaconelli sees adult-style burnout happening as early as age 16 or 17.

Another reason for Holy Ground‘s success is one that Ramos holds as perhaps its most important aspect. “First, kids are deeply spiritual and want to experience God,” he says. “Anything done in love will be accepted by the kids.” That love becomes a natural counter to the cold and impersonal world of information and the media, Ramos believes. Citing 1 Corinthians 8:1, he states, “The Bible says knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. There’s nothing in [technology] to build them up. They’re hungry for the experience of God, and they want a group of people who will love them and walk with them and nurture them long-term.”

Back to Basics

Ramos thinks prepackaged ministry techniques designed to dovetail with larger church goals can exclude youth seeking God. He suggests many are looking for something outside the box: “an experience that is mystical and uncomfortable to a boomer or an older Christian,” Ramos says.

Holy Ground youth are not alone in their search, according to Yaconelli. “There’s a whole movement that is now occurring to go back to early church disciplines, fasting, and solitude.” Even Yaconelli’s son is involved; Mark Yaconelli heads the Youth Ministry Spirituality Program, a study that attracted enough interest to receive a large Lilly Foundation grant. Major denominations reportedly have taken a keen interest in the study, with good reason, he says. “The way to do ministry is to listen and be quiet in solitude and prayer, and by eliminating all these razzle dazzle programming kind of things.”

Ramos’ brand of retro-ministry even goes against the flow at his own church where regular outreach events ranging from dinner theaters to community carnivals are the norm. Still, Ramos’ senior pastor, Dr. David Grinder, has given him free reign to do as he believes God leads him.

“He has the authority and responsibility for that ministry, so that’s why he has the power to do that,” says Grinder. Nor does it hurt that Grinder likes the Holy Ground concept. “I do think there is a movement back to simplicity of faith, and I’m encouraged by it.” Holy Ground provides a God-focused venue where teens can experience spiritual reality. “That’s good for young people who have heard lots from the boomers about God but have not seen much of that reality in their lives.”

But the change in thinking that led to Holy Ground hasn’t been totally comfortable for Ramos. “As I grow older, I’m not as cool as I used to be, so I ask, what biblical principals can God use in my life down the road at fifty and sixty to reach new generations? I keep coming back to intimacy with God through prayer and the scripture, speaking the truth to teens unapologetically.”


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