To Laser Tag or Not to Laser Tag? That is a Serious Theological Question!

October 2nd, 2009

I was planning one of my group’s favorite events when one of the parents (our church secretary) told me that her husband didn’t approve of the event. Curious, I asked her why. Her response: “It’s too violent.”

“Too violent?”

I was surprised. “Really? What’s violent about going to a laser tag facility to ‘zap’ each other?”

Her response: “He feels like it’s emulating the violence of war or killing.”

I was incredulous. “Really? Are you serious?” She was.

This experience brought home a perennial problem for my work in youth ministry. That is, how I am promoting and developing the truth of the gospel in my ministry as opposed to the corrosive effect of “secular” culture? How do my activities and programs confront and challenge secularity while affirming the life-changing truth of the Christian faith? These are obviously heady questions for a guy who wants to take a bunch of high schoolers to the Darkzone Laser Quest facility (and, no, that name didn’t help my case!), but maybe there is something worthwhile about working through the issue that was raised.

It might be of comfort to know that this question isn’t a new one. It has a long-standing heritage in the center of church history. Imagine that—youth pastors working out one of the central issues in church history. One theologian has claimed that this is a perennial problem, something that has been (and will be) continually revisited.

One of the most recent, in respect to 2000 years of church history, and well-known attempts to outline and examine the question of Christ and culture was by Richard H. Niebuhr in his 1951 book Christ and Culture. He created a typology to describe what he considered were the five most prominent ways that Christian thinkers and churches have dealt with this issue. The typology goes like this: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.

So, back to my dilemma, is the gospel against laser tag, for laser tag, above it, under it, or the transformer of it? I guess the point is to see that there are numerous ways to understand the relation of youth ministry to the culture. Positively, this allows us to see that there are a variety of ways of construing how our youth ministries interact with, engage in, and utilize secular culture for the sake of the gospel. Negatively, it causes it to seem quite complex. Let us simplify.

Though Niebuhr points out five typologies, maybe we can simply focus on two. For me, two particular typologies seem to have existed in tension for some time: the Christ against culture and Christ as transformer of culture models. As an evangelical youth worker, I think I have a vested interest in both of these positions. First, youth ministry itself is an expression of the church attempting to relate its timeless message to contemporary realities. Secondly, I want to engage with the changing culture, but not at the expense of the integrity of the gospel message. Whew.

The Complexity of the Issue

The complexity of wanting to engage the culture for the sake of vibrant and relevant ministry while at the same time maintaining some core beliefs is a tall order. I think for me, it has been easier to throw my lot in with one side or the other and call it a day. After all, I have other demands that need my attention: a ski trip to plan or recruiting more small-group volunteers. Resolving whether a ski trip reflects or deflects from the gospel is a bit too heady when the main speaker has just cancelled and I have to quickly prepare three insightful, spiritually-uplifting messages.

Even so, this issue needs to be visited. Although some might think this is an all or nothing kind of proposal, I find myself unable to choose one typology and stick with it. There are a couple of reasons for my non-position. First of all, Christians are clearly part of culture as a whole. We can never be completely separated. We use banks, shopping malls, and maybe even laser tag facilities. And clearly we’re never completely for culture because there are some elements that are completely incompatible with the Christian faith. On this point, writer Rodney Clapp in A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society wryly asks us if there can be such a thing as a Christian Mafioso? As if we might pray “for a competing mobster before shooting him.”

Jesus Wants Us to Experience This Tension

It’s encouraging to see that Jesus comprehended this kind of in-between-ness tension that his followers would experience. We hear these words of Jesus in John chapter 17. In it, Jesus asks his heavenly Father to recognize that his followers are “in the world” (vs.11) but also “not of the world” (vs. 16). Jesus’ heart is filled with passionate prayer for those disciples who are working at balancing the in but not of dichotomy. His prayer also reveals a fascinating dialectical model that’s broad enough to account for human experience in a wide variety of historical and social locations. It applies even for those youth ministers who are struggling with the issue of laser tagging with a bunch of kids, many of whom have an Anabaptist (read: pacifist) heritage.

Unfortunately, churches, and many youth ministries, have collapsed the dichotomy and either end up veering headlong into secular culture or constructing a religious bunker. When there’s no “Christ and culture” tension, I wonder if we’re missing out on an important ministry dynamic. Perhaps there are some practical ways of keeping this in but not of the world balance.

Unicycle Consultants

Come to think of it, this reminds me of unicycles. Yes, unicycles. Now it’s not quite as cool as, say, a surfboard, mountain bike, or rappelling harness, but I think it might be apt metaphor for the Christ and culture balance. Unicycles are awkward looking, maybe even a bit nerdy, but when people find the balance on a unicycle, I can’t help but admire their odd achievements. The in but not of is also an odd balance to strike. It will certainly make the youth pastor a bit of an oddity even in his or her own church. But we cannot create this balance on our own. Perhaps while trying to master this one-wheeled wonder called Christ and culture, we could locate some unicycle consultants.

Finding a qualified youth group (or youth pastor) critic can be difficult, but good ones do exist. It might be an insightful parent, fellow staff member, youth sponsor, or constructively critical Christian writer (Rodney Clapp and Tom Sine are wonderful examples). Beyond these resources are youth leader ministerials and retreats. I would sometimes complain about and avoid, youth leader gatherings and retreats in my rural setting. Yet when I was motivated by guilt or occasionally by an appropriate sense of purpose and responsibility and actually attended, I was glad I did. Just by hanging out and talking with youth workers can be an incredibly humbling and insightful experience. I listen to youth ministry stories and am motivated to become more focused on engaging the Christian faith or disengaging with secular culture. One is trying a lectio divina Bible study deal with his group—an attempt at counter cultural guerilla tactics—very cool. Another is setting up a drop-in center for at-risk kids—also very cool. At times, my fellow colleagues, without knowing it, help me to see how to go guerilla and build Jesus culture; other times I can envision how to be more engaging.

Insightful parents, fellow youth workers, and good books have often led to prayer and contemplation: what, as a youth minister, I would call the Mr. Miagi mode. Thus, I could ask, while doing the crouching tiger on my desk, does my ministry need to “wax on” or “wax off?” Or, shifting into preying mantis pose, does it need greater engagement with culture or greater disengagement? For example, do I need to ban Discmans and MP3 players on my next middle school retreat, or play video clips of Modest Mouse and U2? Do we need a good round of laser tag at the Darkzone or have a discussion about the negative effects of simulated violence? Or do both at the same time? Ahhhh…I almost feel like I am getting the hang of my unicycle…maybe.

I think critical reflection of this matter may yield some profound fruit in our youth ministry. Maybe next time we can skip laser tag and find a way to emulate the love and sacrifice of Jesus. I wonder which one he’s calling me too?

A More Personal Assessment

Though I’m waxing eloquent about balance (yes, that was a pun from two paragraphs back), I do have a preference. And for that matter, I suspect readers of this article will also have a tendency to lean either closer to or farther from the culture. I think most youth pastors I know have favored the Christ as transformer of culture (myself included). I’m often amazed and surprised at how far we evangelicals can take our ministry practice when fueled by the desire to connect with culture. Thus, we’ve produced Christian music, Christian clothes, Christian celebrities, Christian schools, etc. ad infinitum.

One example that sticks out in my mind is the common practice of magazines that compare Christian bands to secular counterparts with similar styles. So Third Day might be seen as the Christian Hootie and the Blowfish, or Bleach is referred to as the Christian Foo Fighters. I realize that part of the rationale is to help people identify the kind of Christian music that will suit their tastes, but I wonder if this exposes a deep longing for youth ministries and youth pastors to be cool—just as cool as the secular culture. Do our youth ministries engage secular culture because we’re insecure about the Christian faith and want to appear cool? I have to admit that at times, my attempts at engaging are mixed with this longing.

I think I’m starting to feel the squeeze that Jesus prayed so fervently about. I’m in this place but also not of it. My allegiance and my connection is not just to this world but also to another world that God wants to create: a kingdom of righteousness. Time to get back up on that unicycle.

Unicycles R US

Jesus doesn’t want us to simply react to popular culture but instead prays for us to be in the world but not of the world. It’s really a spiritual journey towards balance. It’s a funny balance—a unicycle kind of balance. It’s finding a way to ride the unicycle with some grace and poise (words probably never connected to unicycles before), which is a tough job. I suspect that some of us lack the confidence in the power of the gospel to be more engaged with the culture around us, while others might lack the confidence in the power of the gospel to disengage and remove ourselves from the culture. Those who more critically assess culture and others who less critically engage it must find the balance of Mr. Miagi, but more importantly the balance of Jesus.


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.