For More Teens, Jesus Is Way Cool

Chanon Ross is a youth minister in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, who recently wrote an article called "Jesus Is Not Cool." He says that all the focus on fun and games waters down the real message -- and hard work -- of following a faith.

While many youth ministries organize trips to Christian music festivals to attract more kids, Ross does not.

"It confuses what it means to follow Jesus. Are you passionate about loving your enemies, or are you really passionate about what you felt at the rock concert?" he said.

Ross also complains that "cool" youth ministries based on going to rock concerts and mission trips is making religion a "commodity-driven thing" with youth as their consumers.

"These concerts are moneymaking events," Ross said. "There's a drive to market Jesus as cool, make Jesus a rock star … then you can get the kids interested."

Rebels With a Cause

But the push to fit religion into the culture at large is nothing new.

"It goes back to the roots of Christianity … how to make faith relevant within the context of capitalism," said Lynn Schofield-Clark, an assistant research professor at the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication who studies youth culture, marketing and religion.

"There's always the argument that things are too commercial," Schofield-Clark said. "It's always kind of an interesting negotiation -- how to make religion relevant and appealing."

Schofield-Clark says that current religious branding, which extends much further than Christian rock music -- to things like "cool Jew" apparel and Muslim pop music -- helps young people born into a certain faith distinguish themselves from their parents and their generation. It is a way to rebel -- but still stay within the faith.

"Religious groups are trying to find ever new ways for young people to see themselves as different," she said. "It enables a young person to be more expressive, but it isn't exactly countercultural."

Big companies and advertisers are not overlooking the profitability of the religious youth market. Bill Graening, director of the Alive Festival, said that with nearly 25 big festivals a year, there were probably 2 million to 3 million kids in attendance, and the numbers are growing.

Graening said he and several other festival directors recently talked about working together to market the events, and Graening said he'd been contacted by several large companies interested in sponsoring the Alive Festival.

"Companies are seeing the size of the youth evangelical market growing, with growing disposable income, growing education," Schofield-Clark said. "They're seeing the evangelical Christian market as a viable market."

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