Is Youth Ministry Marketing Juvenilizing Christianity?

Today, Fr. McTeigue posted an article on Aleteia named “Beware the juvenilization of American Christianity.” In it, he claims that marketing is watering down the church. As current marketing professional, a former youth minister, and as it so happens, a former student of Fr. McTeigue's, I felt compelled to reply.

Fr. McTeigue’s critique certainly contains important points that are important to wrestle with. That being said, his broad sweeping generalizations about both youth ministry and marketing come from a perspective that disparages both but wholly understands neither.

He claims not to be old enough to be a curmudgeon, and I do not disagree. However, the perspective from which he writes is the perspective of a church that curmudgeonly resents the modern age and refuses to accept the reality in which it exists. The article’s central claim is the following:

My concern is the juvenilization of American Christianity being employed to attract young people who have been “Sesame Street-ed” into believing that anything worthwhile must be entertaining.

Any one of us who has had the misfortune of being forced to sit through a homily conflating the gospel message with being nicer to your neighbors and had their communion prayers interrupted by another round of a feel good David Hass hymn can agree with Fr. McTeigue here wholeheartedly. Christianity has indeed been watered down and the gospel message has very definitely been lost in our modern Catholic culture. So we are in agreement up to this point. But when it comes to the cause of this loss of identity, I can follow Fr. McTeigue’s line of reasoning no longer.

What has “sesame streeted Christians?” Fr. McTeigue’s answer:


*gasp* How horrible that the Church should deign to make herself attractive! Doesn’t she know that such modern tactics are beneath her?

Tongue in cheek comments aside- I think it is important to point out that in many ways, I absolutely agree with him. The important distinction to make here, that perhaps even Fr. McTeigue would agree with, is that it is not “Marketing” that juvenalizes the church, but BAD Marketing. If we could agree on that, then perhaps our views are not too disparate.

However, I am not sure that this is the case.

He decries what he sees as those pesky youth minister’s efforts to attract young people by making their youth groups look fun and exciting, as well as their “highly stylized” pictures of JP II, and photos of young people with their hands in the air “to indicate that some kind of praying takes place amidst all the fun.”

To drive his point home, he quotes Thomas Bergler’ sweeping condemnation of youth ministry in general:

At their best, youth ministries attract and at least temporarily retain teenagers who might otherwise leave the church. But the relentless attention to teenage tastes ends up communicating that God exists to make us feel good.

He finally ends his article with the claim that this horrifying situation would not have happened if we hadn’t “elected to outsource the spiritual care of our children to the ‘professionals.”

Inasmuch as Fr. McTeigue and I both agree that the reality of the cross and the radical nature of Catholic life need to be rediscovered by Catholic culture, we are allies. As a Youth Minister, however, I absolutely did put on goofy events and designed flashy posters with modern fonts and cool distressed patterns, hoping to attract passers by to an event where they would get a taste of the gospel. Do I regret those efforts after reading Fr McTeigue’s article? No, because
many of the youth who I first met at those fun events later came to stations of the cross, mission outreaches, and intense lenten fasts that could have put nineveh to shame. Some of those students are now in seminary, doing mission work with NET, applying to FOCUS, teaching religion at private schools, and being just plain awesome Catholics.

So what is my point? For the last decade Youth Ministry has been the first place where the Church has seen an outpouring efforts in marketing. Posters, social media, websites, blogs, vlogs, all of the logs, you name it, youth ministers have done it. This is because Youth ministers have been on the front lines. Confronted with the reality of high schoolers leaving the church in droves after confirmation and the sea of blank faces at CCD classes, youth ministers have realized that they needed to change the way that church was perceived if they were ever going to get the opportunity to speak the gospel message.

I believe that Fr. McTeigue therefore doesn’t understand the purpose of marketing, or its effects on the church. This is because he is conflating targeted marketing with bad marketing.

Since leaving youth ministry, and spending the last few years of my life running marketing campaigns for businesses and not for profits- I discovered that the principles that we were using in Youth Ministry directly related to what marketing is and does.

That principle is this: different audiences, different needs, different message.

No business speaks to its committed daily users in the exact language and messaging that it uses to speak to people who don’t know about it. Good marketing packages the personality of business in a way that the audience can understand. Does Apple compromise its brand when it tells customers that it makes beautiful products, when in fact this grossly understates the power of its engineering? No. The customer often learns how powerful it’s interface is after buying their first Macbook.

The same is true with the church.

For us to use excitement, beauty, joy, and community as lead off messaging for an audience that will resonate with those features of our faith doesn’t necessarily dilute who we are, so long as we give them next steps once they’ve taken the first ones. St. Paul, missionary extraordinaire, also demonstrated this perspective when he says to the Hebrews, “You need milk, not solid food!” (Hebrews 5:12). Paul was never a man to pull a punch or compromise on truth, but he did know when people needed the fire, and when they needed the sweet milk.  

John Bosco also understood this well when he used magic shows, juggling, sports, and free food to get an audience to church. His tactics created an entire religious order that flowered out of his way of life.

In summary, although there are many churches where youth ministry or marketing is done poorly, the fact that youth ministers and marketers are out there right now, working on flyers, graphics, videos and snapchat filters that characterize the life of faith as beautiful, exciting, or adventurous is a great thing, and if the church is suffering from a juvenalization, it is not because of these mediums.

If Fr. Mcteigue would like to levie withering critique on the lack of young adult or even adult discipleship and formation, Catholic Creatives would be happy to design graphics for the post, and we promise not to use the word “fun.” At least not more than once.

Blog by Marcellino D'Ambrosio

Marcellino is the Creative Director for D'Ambrosio Creative  and a speaker/musician for The Crossroads Pursuit