I’m standing at the entrance to the sanctuary, with my camera in my hand and a big idiotic smile beaming across my face. From where I’m standing, I can see the front of the church, where five middle-school-aged children huddle around a microphone, and I can also see the hallway, filled with younger children, all dressed as donkeys, sheep, angels, shepherds, and one girl is even dressed as a star. It is our annual Christmas play, and these kiddos are retelling the Story of Christ.
But not only are they are retelling the Nativity, they are also cute, which is exactly why every parent (including me!) has a phone out and is ready to snap a few quick pics of our sweeties in their costumes because—again—they are super cute.
Is the Church about “Cuteness?”
Indeed, as the conversation in coffee hour following the performance continues, it seems that the cuteness of the children is the most popular topic of conversation. As I realize this, I find myself wondering: “What was that performance really about?”
The problem is not making kids look cute, but rather, the problem lies squarely with us: we want them to look cute for our own enjoyment.
Now, before I say anything else, let me clarify that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having kids do cute stuff like having kids dress up in costumes and reenact the Christmas story. I’m actually a big fan of it. But the narratives surrounding the Christmas play seem to betray our most basic desires and motivations behind putting on such an event.
While “weren’t the kids so cute” may be an appropriate primary narrative for an underage runway show, I’m not sure it makes much sense for a faith community whose children are participating in one of the most foundational narratives and mind-blowing mysteries of the entire Christian tradition. As we continue talking, however, I come increasingly to the conclusion that the performance we just enjoyed, more than it was a means of passing on a living participation in the ongoing Christian story to our kids, was primarily about us.
The performance was about our enjoyment of our kids’ collective and individual cuteness. Sure the kids had fun. Sure they liked putting on that donkey-head-shaped hat. That’s exactly what made it so freaking cute. We wanted to experience our kids’ cuteness, and so we had them put on a play.
Actions Reveal Values
I understand that all of this sounds really sinister, as if we were exploiting our children for our own pleasure. I’m not trying to suggest that any of us would even want the story to sound like this, but that’s precisely the point: sometimes what we want isn’t what we think we want. Sometimes what we most desire, what we most want exists below the surface of our conscious awareness, but it operates within us nonetheless.
In a way, what we seem to most love about the elementary-aged cast of our church’s Christmas story is that the kids make us feel warm and fuzzy—“Aw, look at her!” “Isn’t he such an adorable little wise man?” If it were about passing on the faith, wouldn’t we talk about how exciting we found it that little Jonas got to speak Gabriel’s words himself, rather than how sweet he looked with his bent pipe cleaner halo?
While just wanting to see our kids as cute in the Nativity play is innocent enough, the sad reality is that by subconsciously making their cuteness the goal of the Nativity play, we have actually begun objectifying our children, and in so doing, we have depersonalized them.
I know that sounds harsh, and it is. But the reality is that we are using them to make ourselves feel a particular way—that is the very definition of objectification. The problem is not making kids look cute, but rather, the problem lies squarely with us: we want them to look cute for our own enjoyment.
Objectification or Ministry?
Unfortunately, this reality of objectifying our young, using them for our own purposes is not something that is contained only to the realm of Christmas pageants. It has become habitually engrained in us that by the time they are adolescents, we may even pass off our objectification as attempts at “youth ministry.”
James K. A. Smith writes that such a way of being becomes so engrained in us that “it becomes second nature… ‘Nature’ simply takes care of a process that hums along under the hood of consciousness. Those habits that become ‘second’ nature operate in the same way: they become so woven into who you are that they are as natural for you as breathing and blinking.”1 Snapping pictures of kids in donkey costumes is not a problem per se, but it may be one manifestation of a larger cultural issue that Chap Clark calls the “systemic abandonment” of youth.2
…one day we wake up and suddenly realize that the kids in our communities have become adolescents, and adolescents aren’t that cute… [Instead, they are] persons in their own right, persons who demand relationship, rather than continuing on as objects to be used for our own ends.
In Adoptive Youth Ministry, Stephen Bonner suggests, “adolescents are being used by the adults in their lives as means to adult ends.”3 He then points to areas of extracurricular life “when parents use students vicariously to recover something from their own childhood…when commercial interests commodify students…when coaches, instructors, and directors use students to win competitions and thus secure their own status, adolescents are objectified.”4 Unfortunately, I fear that even in the church we are guilty of the objectification of our youth.
Adolescents Resist Objectification
If objectification is all about using someone else for one’s own purposes, then it is worth noting that youth ministry tends to deal with adolescents by sending them away from the larger community. We tend to isolate young people in our communities, deeming it the job of one or two “gifted” (i.e., young) adults to keep faith “relevant” to them in order to “keep kids in the Church.” Why might we do this? After all, aren’t we trying to help them?
But perhaps we do this because one day we wake up and suddenly realize that the kids in our communities have become adolescents, and adolescents aren’t that cute. After all, it’s hard to feel warm and fuzzy when our young people begin pushing back against the theology of the Church, when they begin expressing their doubts and frustrations with Christianity, when they begin articulating their own pain and longing and look to sinful behaviors to calm the storm they feel inside.
When these things happen, adolescents begin to emerge as persons in their own right, persons who demand relationship, rather than continuing on as objects to be used for our own ends. And because we can no longer use them to feel all the feels, we simply send them away until the Ladies’ Luncheon needs servers.
Youth ministry demands the hard work of having our own eyes opened to how we have participated in the systemic abandonment of youth. It won’t be fun, and it may mean that we have to look at some of the institutions we have established within youth ministry culture in order to understand how these seemingly sacrosanct events are more about us than they are about inviting young people to participate in the overwhelming mystery and joy of God’s Kingdom.
1. James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), p. 17.
2. Chap Clark, Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), ch. 2.
3. Steven Bonner, “Understanding the Changing Adolescent,” Adoptive Youth Ministry, ed. Chap Clark, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), p. 33.
4. Ibid., p. 33.
Christian Gonzalez is the Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for the Youth and Young Adult Ministries Department of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.