A law enforcement friend with 21 years of experience got rattled last week.
He was on a call to confiscate a straight-razor, cocaine, and a note threatening extreme violence from a 12-yearold girl at a local school. That was bad enough, he said. But the most disturbing part was the girl’s nonchalance. “It struck me that I was more emotionally involved in her arrest than she was,” he said.
As I listened to my friend, one word came to mind: narcissism.
The Culture of Narcissism
Narcissism is a cultural reality we youth workers must seriously consider if we hope to be effective in youth ministry.
Narcissus, you remember, was the mythological Greek youth who couldn’t take his eyes off his own reflection. Self-absorbed, his world revolved around nobody and nothing but himself.
I didn’t remember learning about Narcissus until I was a college senior. The Culture of Narcissism (1979) by Christopher Lasch was assigned reading in a sociology class. Lasch believed that as a result of the political turmoil of the 1960s, Americans had retreated into themselves and were focusing solely on personal preoccupations. This type of living in the moment cut all ties to the traditions, rules, conventions and cultures of the past. “I” became the center of the universe and source of reality and morals.
Lasch’s “culture” of narcissism has snowballed today to the point where it’s even more deeply entrenched in our students’ lives. Their generation has inherited the legacy of their self-absorbed ancestors to become second- and third-generation narcissists.
If you don’t believe it, just spend some time with pop culture, listening and watching as music and music videos promote me, myself, and I entitlement. Watch the auditions of tens of thousands of youthful “American Idol” wannabes who believe the lies that “I’m a star” and “I can sing,” even though Simon Cowell tells them otherwise. Consider how readily kids expose their thoughts, photos and lives for all to see on social networking sites such as MySpace (note the My). Narcissistic devotion to self is nothing less than idolatry.
It’s All About Me
If we want to see our students communicate the selfless Kingdom of God as it confronts their narcissistic culture, then we must first recognize and confront their own narcissism.
This task will be difficult, because if we are honest, we will find ourselves facing our own narcissism. What are its characteristics?
Narcissism’s love affair with wealth and materialism. Hammered by a marketing machine that exploits their youthful anxieties and aspirations, today’s teenagers are being socialized into narcissism; and they are eagerly embracing materialism as a lifestyle.
Narcissism’s self-serving theology. We have replaced Almighty God with a god made in our image who comes running when we snap our fingers to serve us and cater to our needs.
Christian Smith’s not-quoted-enough research on the shape of teenage faith offers convincing proof that narcissism has led to a self-defined faith that is also very self-serving. (See his book, written with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Oxford University Press, 2005.) Smith describes a lethal distortion of orthodoxy in which American kids believe that I must be a good person, be happy, feel good, and that I can call on the God who exists for me whenever I need something.
Narcissism’s human-centered corporate worship. In a narcissistic world, the criteria for “good worship” is that worship leaves me “feeling good.” Rather than centering on God and God’s character, worship’s content and focus is centered on me. When it does mention God, God exists because of what He can do for me. If you want to put what I’m saying to the test, ask your students this question: “What makes worship good?” Many of them will answer in ways that reveal their narcissism.
Narcissism’s empty faith in practice.
We need to recognize the disturbing shape of our faith in practice. In his book The Culturally-Savvy Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2007), Dick Staub describes our narcissistic faith as “Christianity-lite.” It tastes great, it’s less filling—and it leads to spiritual impoverishment.
Narcissism’s emphasis on spiritual consumerism over spiritual conviction. There’s no denying the fact that 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 their crosses. Church and faith have become commodities to market and sell.
Getting Back to God-Centered
How can we shape our youth ministries to counteract this pervasive focus on self and lead kids into a lifetime spent on the narrow, God-centered road that leads to life?
First, understand the importance of studying and teaching theology. All of us teach theology, 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. Our mission is to serve as signposts pointing to God, making an effort to consciously know and teach the God to whom we point. Doing so will go a long way in exposing narcissism’s lies while promoting God’s truth.
Second, deliberately promote a theistic world and life views. Sure, that’s what we’re doing already; but the culture of narcissism dictates that we can’t do it enough or too intentionally. Kids need to be reminded over and over that all of life is to be God-centered, not me-centered. The most timely and foundational words in Rick Warren’s best-selling Purpose Driven Life are its first four: “It’s not about you.”
Third, shape worship to focus on the audience of One. Times of corporate worship shouldn’t be about entertaining a group of kids. God is not the performer when we gather to worship. God is the audience, and we perform for Him.
Even more importantly, don’t allow your kids to fall into the trap of believing that worship is nothing more than singing popular praise choruses. The reality is that worship is what we’re called to be about 24/7, through our constant devotion to God in all the activities of life.
Fourth, lead students into a God-centered lifestyle. As people charged with the task of leading them to spiritual maturity, our goal should be to help focus their eyes and energies less and less on self and more and more on God while embracing His will. Think of the prophets Amos and Micah. Their messages from God made it clear that He requires His followers to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before Him—postures contrary to a narcissistic lifestyle.
Finally, pray for crisis to enter the lives of your students. Narcissism advances well in a culture that feeds the beast of self-absorption from a deep well of luxury and wealth. Sometimes it’s not until the well runs dry—through poverty, want or crisis—that young people understand their thirst for what it really is: a longing after God.
Obsessed with God, Not Self
When I was a teenager, my dad had an ever-ready arsenal of clichés. One he’d shoot my way whenever my narcissistic tendencies reared their ugly heads was this: “Walt, the world does not revolve around you.”
Dad’s words were truer than I knew, and they have wound up being some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever heard. We must be obsessed with God, not self. Let’s look for ways to pass that same message on to our kids. In today’s world, it’s a message seldom heard and more rarely lived.
Walt Mueller is the founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (cpyu.org). He is the author of several books, including Youth Culture 101.