Social media and a “me-centered” popular culture have driven our teenagers to a level of narcissism possibly never seen before. What does youth ministry look like in an age of selfies and self-promotion? What guidance can we give to teenagers and to their families?
For the last 10 years or so, some of us who love youth and youth ministry have been talking about the youth culture in terms of the self-love of the millennial generation (also called “Gen Y”). According to dictionary.com, narcissism is defined as “an inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity; self-centeredness, smugness, egocentrism.” One of my favorite jokes makes a pun out of the Nintendo game console: “Our culture is so narcissistic that we spell ‘we’ with two ‘I’s’” (see what I did there? Wii with two I’s?). Never mind.
I have heard students talking who seem to define their sense of worth by how many times they are retweeted, shared or liked. Studies have linked the number of “likes” to the level of self esteem.1 Counselor friends have told me that the trend of taking smartphone selfies can lead to mental health conditions that focus on a person’s obsession with looks. According to psychiatrist Dr David Veal: “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites.”2
A search on narcissism and selfies turned up an article in the Birmingham (England, not Alabama) Business School describing a study titled “Tagger’s Delight? Disclosure and liking behaviour in Facebook: the effects of sharing photographs amongst multiple known social circles” which concluded that people who post more selfies have more shallow relationships with people. The researchers polled 508 young adult Facebook users, asking them how close they felt to friends, coworkers and relatives. Then they compared that data to the number of selfies the same young adults had posted on their page.3
Narcissus was the guy in Greek mythology who saw his own image reflected in a pool of water and he couldn’t take his eyes off of himself. He rejected relationships with others (even the beautiful but verbally-challenged Echo) and became so self-absorbed that he wasted away and his body became a flower. I never said it made sense, that is just where we get the word. In 2007, Walt Mueller wrote an article for YouthWorker Journal which put into words what many of us were feeling.4 He described narcissism as “a cultural reality we must seriously consider if we hope to effectively understand and reach our kids.” Mueller also said,
Think about narcissism as you watch the auditions of thousands of youthful “American Idol” wannabes who believe the lies that “I’m a star” and “I can sing,” even though Simon realistically tells them otherwise. Consider how readily kids expose their thoughts, photos and lives for all to see on social networking sites like MySpace (note My). Narcissism moves to a deeper level on Facebook, where members no longer refer to themselves as “I,” but become part of their own audience by referring to themselves in the third person, much like “Jimmy” and “George” in the classic “Seinfeld” episode. Toby Keith captures the reality in his recent hit song “I Wanna Talk About Me,” where one narcissist who can’t seem to get a word in edgewise butts heads with another: “I wanna talk about me/Wanna talk about I/Wanna talk about number one/Oh my me my.”
It seems that all of this self-absorbtion runs counter to the goal of church or youth group. Even this morning, one of my students e-mailed and asked about factions, cliques, and divisions within his group. I am not sure he is focused on the right question. While these divisions may exist, they may be merely a collection of individuals who have not learned to pursue anything collective. Since we who call ourselves adults are just as affected by the culture of narcissism in which we live, it is tough to verbalize let alone model the challenge for students to fulfill their calling as the church in the world,
Mueller pointed out some of the causes of our self-absorbed culture. The list is his, and the comments are mine.
Fascination and pursuit of money and wealth. Enough said.
Our theology which has reduced God from almighty to “a god made in our image who comes running when we snap our fingers to serve us and cater to our needs.”5
Our increasingly human-centered corporate worship. Both the time given to singing and the lyrics to the songs themselves point to the goal of feeling good. In many venues where students go, worship is more experiential than theological, more adoring of the moment than of the Creator. In the extreme, if you didn’t know you were in church, some lyrics would lead you to think you were listening to a love song on the radio.
A “Christianity-lite” faith. It tastes great, but it’s less filling. Dallas Willard expounds that in today’s church, “One is not required to be, or intend to be, a disciple to be a Christian and one may remain a Christian without any signs fo progress toward or in discipleship.”6
Spiritual consumerism over spiritual conviction. When we try to advertise students into our youth ministry, we hold them until a more attractive marketing plan takes them away. I have to go back to Walt Mueller for a better explanation:
Narcissism and materialism have combined in a mix that shapes our message and methodologies: we treat people as consumers who need to be won over by marketing efforts that convince them to choose our church, rather than calling them to the self-sacrificing life of carrying one’s cross. We are spending more time becoming what people want, rather than focusing on frankly telling people what it is that they need. Church and faith have become commodities to market and sell. The sad reality is that in a narcissistic world, there’s not much of a market for a faith that’s not all about me. The temptation is to water down “the product” so that it will sell.7
So what do we do about it?
We own the problem. We have been sucked in by the culture of narcissism. We are just as self-absorbed as the students. Willard’s book has beat me up as I read the challenge that we are marketing a discipleship that is optional–you can be saved from hell without “going the next step” and becoming a living sacrifice.
Become theologians. I am leading a study at the seminary on the youth minister as theologian. It is a subtle distinction between the theology of youth ministry (we have been distracted by the silly disucussion of whether youth ministry is biblical) and the realization that speaking of theological truth is a primary role of the youth minister. Mueller said “All of us teach theology, whether we do so consciously or unconsciously. If we aren’t consciously pursuing a deeper knowledge of God, we might be unconsciously promoting all types of heresy—including narcissism—without even knowing it.” If our mission is to serve as signposts pointing to God, making an effort to consciously know and teach the God we point to will go a long way in exposing narcissism’s lies while promoting God’s truth.”8
Make missions and service part of the fabric of ministry. Start with ministry teams that extend ministry out of the youth ministry and into the church body. Can’t youth run power point, mow the yard or polish the pews? They can probably even handle the choreography of the offering. Then make it a priority to move into the community on a regular basis with mission projects. A paradox of the generation is their passion for social justice while at the same time passionate about their own image and comfort (narcissism).
Challenge the content of worship, discipleship, and Bible study programming. Investigate lyrics, curriculum, and methodology to make sure it centers on Christ and His message rather than a takeaway that is so oriented to application that it shifts focus from “Thee to me.”
For leaders, we must challenge (and model) a lifestyle of piety and purity. The normal progression in adolescence is to realize that we are not the center of the universe as we move into the challenges of adulthood. In many places in our culture, we have so protected children from failure that they haven’t developed the skills they need to creatively solve problems. We have also failed to model and teach that God does not exist for us but that we exist for Him.