Review: Consuming Youth

A young girl walks into the youth room bragging about her new Victoria’s Secret PINK apparel.  A teen boy proudly passes around his new iPhone for all to marvel.  These youth are bragging about their identities to a group of peers who intuitively understand their culturally situated actions.  To some youth workers their actions might be normal teenage behavior but to John Berard, James Penner and Rick Bartlett these teenagers have been consumed.

In the recently released book Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture, authors John Berard, James Penner, and Rick Bartlett describe the formative power of consumer culture on youth and suggest the church embody an “alternative script for youth.”  Through the work of James Cote and Anton Allahar, they provide a socio-political narrative of adolescence in a developing capitalist society.  Finally they make a suggestive antidote via a case study they believe embodies a counter-formative ideology of youth.

The writers explore three ideas in their work.  First consumer culture is effecting youth and the church.  They try to identify and explain what consumer culture is doing to youth.  They do this through sketching a historical narrative of both the development of the concept of adolescence along with the development of capitalism within the North American context.

Second they incorporate James Cote and Anton Allahar’s political economy perspective to articulate the story and experience of youth being raised in a consumer-saturated culture.  They conclude that the adolescent marketed identities are the sexualization of females (they use the term midriff) and infantization of males (they use the term mook).  Essential they explain the characters of Jeresy Shore without naming them and hold up Snooki and The Situation as the archetypes of female and male identities of North American adolescence.  Then they suggest a different ideology of youth and a focus on vocation in youth ministries as a corrective.  Through the work of Cote and Allahar the writers call youth ministries to offer three destinations for youth in the church, youth independence, welcomed influence of youth and valuing youth as resources.

Third they offer their own narration of the development of youth ministry in North America in order to show how the practice of youth ministry has been affected by accepting the developing concept of adolescence and capitalism.  Though slanted toward their common ministry associations, their historical development of youth ministry does provide a compelling picture of how youth ministry has been affected by the concept of adolescence and advanced capitalism.  Finally Ministry Quest is explored as a case study to offer a suggestion on the counter-formative practices that church can embody.  In the end they hold up a focus on vocation as the way forward for youth ministries.

The Good

The book is a great resource to have for any youth worker.  The authors dig into some of the root issues of consumerism.  They do a great service in helping youth workers understand the historical and sociological development of adolescence, capitalism, consumerism, and youth ministry.  They also help youth workers overcome three common myths as it relates to consumerism.

Myth #1: Youth Workers in a consumer culture know what consumerism is.

Youth workers typically don’t have a grasp on what consumerism (great video on that here) is let alone how it effects youth and their identities (me included).  There is a lack of understanding about the historical development of capitalism and consumer marketing among youth workers.  Most youth workers that I know take current historical situations as normative for much of the world and so we talk about other cultures and historical contexts with consumerist language.  So the level of engagement with the effects of consumerism is shallow at best in youth ministry.  The narratives that the authors write will help youth workers move to a deeper counter-cultural engagement with the effects of consumerism.

Myth #2: Youth in a consumer culture know what consumerism is.

Youth workers typically talk about consumerism as though youth can actually discern it from any other ideology.  The reality is we are located and formed in a consumer-saturated culture and we cannot escape our situation.  So it is wrong to assume that youth will be able to discern consumerism by use simply talking about it with them.

Myth #3: Consumerism is a behavioral issue.

Youth workers typically talk about the effects of consumerism in behavioral terms.  In other words we focus more at medicating the symptoms of consumerism (over consumption, debt, taking before sharing, etc.) and rarely focus on root issues of consumerism.  There are many reasons for why youth workers don’t focus on the root issues of consumerism but chief among them is a lack of knowledge. The case study of Ministry Quest offers a deeper engagement with youth on the issue of identity and calling.

The Bad

The book lacked an engagement with the physiological realities of the adolescent period.  Specifically, if they are going to present the effects of consumerism on youth then there needs to be an engagement with the development of the brain during this period.  Current research in neuroscience has led to a sanctification of extended adolescence within many faith communities in North America (Read Mark Ostreicher’s push back on this point here).

There was also an insignificant engagement with technology in the book.  Technology is a critical part of opening up the reach for marketers.  The flood of images, sounds and physical devices allow consumer driven marketers into the lives of youth.  Technology also allows youth to get access to multiple brands and identities like no other generation of adolescents in recent history.  Thus, I assumed that any engagement with consumerism and it’s effects on youth would also have to include an engagement with technology.

Finally I felt like their depiction of the marketed identities of adolescence was flat.  To focus on the sexualization of females and infantization of males is to over generalize the nuance to female and male identities that exist today.  What about the nerd, the hipster, the fan-boy, the designer, the American Idol, etc.  There is a plethora of identities out there for youth to try with their next purchase but the writers only mention the fluidity of identity in a passing reference.

Conclusion

The book is a must read for every youth worker in North America.  The book offers a transformative model for youth ministry and youth culture.  The suggested practices will allow youth workers to begin to imagine how they can begin to shape their faith communities to be counter-formative to the prevailing ideology of youth in a consumer-saturated culture.

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Paul Sheneman
Paul Sheneman is an author, speaker and youth pastor. He serves with the Macedonia Methodist Church in Ohio. He drinks way too much coffee for his own good. His main interest is exploring Christian formation. You can follow most of his ramblings on his blog at www.discipleshipremix.com or on Twitter @PaulSheneman.

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