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Stirring It Up: Confronting Consumerism: Waking from the American Dream

By Trevor Miller | Director of student ministries at Mt. Horeb UMC in Lexington, South Carolina. He has been working with students for the past nine years. | April 4 2012

As a 17-year-old high school student, I saved as much money as I could and purchased a 1995, two-door, Dodge Neon. This was my second car after a short run with a Chevy Cavalier that I neglected to put oil into. (Cars are so high maintenance!)

My neon was black with purple emblems and shook when exceeding 59 miles an hour. Needless to say, it was a babe magnet.

Soon after I signed the papers for my new set of wheels, I felt something strange. It wasn't joy or excitement as might be expected from a young vehicle owner. Instead, it was the all-too-common feeling of consumer disappointment. It was a sense that what I had just purchased reflected on me as a person and that reflection was less than desirable, certainly less desirable than the sophomore with the red Hummer.

How could paint, metal and some tires define me as a human being? Was that my real identity?

As a youth pastor in a local church, I see students each week struggling with the idea that the material things they have (or don't have) possess the ability to give them their identity. From the media, Internet, adult examples and peer pressures, our students have been conditioned to believe the more stuff they have and the nicer the stuff, the more they will be liked, accepted, successful, popular, secure and happy.

For many, the message they receive from the Bible is that Jesus loves you…as long as you have the newest iPhone and designer jeans. This perception has a way of warping a student's understanding of what Jesus found to be most important in life.

Jesus said loving God and loving others were the activities we should  pour our energies into, not making sure we have the American Dream of more, bigger and better.

As youth workers, the mind-altering message of consumerism should concern us. In the way we relate to our possessions, we are saying something about God whether we are or are not teaching on program night.

The isms of materialism, consumerism and the American Dream are so dangerous because they often have a way of sneaking into our lives while we're not looking.

Frankly, that's why it is so hard for youth workers to combat isms. To condemn consumerism is to condemn our own lifestyles as youth workers, because we have bought into the idea the more we have the better off we are.

What can we do? Try taking a step back and looking at the unspoken lessons your youth program is teaching students.

• Try keeping trips and events affordable so students don't equate experiences with Jesus with dollar signs.

• Opt for mission trips and service events instead of events based strictly on fun.

• Don't be consumed about your attire. Jesus doesn't give brownie points for style.

• Demonstrate generosity in your personal tithing and public giving.

• Instead of playing Xbox and going to movies when you hang out with students, go backpacking or play Frisbee in a park.

These are just some of the many simple ways to rethink our youth ministries so we clearly communicate with whom our value originates.

Jesus Himself drove home this point in Luke 12:15 when He said, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

By following Jesus' example of self-sacrifice and generosity in our youth ministries, perhaps our students will stop buying the lie that they are what they own.

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