meritocracy and youth ministry

– From the box entitled “take others’ ideas and run with them.” –

Having read in a couple of places (here and here) about Tim Keller’s talk on Justification and the Gospel at Campus Crusade for Christ’s ’09 Staff Training, I felt like this idea of America’s meritocratic society, and by association the American church’s assumption of the same, needed to be fleshed out, at least in my own mind, in the arena of youth ministry.

What does ‘meritocracy’ mean? If you did not click through to read the blog posts above, in short a meritocracy is, “a system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” – American Heritage Dictionary A meritocracy stands against other systems, such as oligarchies, democracies, and ethnocracies, in that the requirements for leadership rest upon the actions taken, both past and present, which entitle the person to positions of power and prestige.

It is no surprise that America is a meritocratic country. The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. The Land of Opportunity. We are a nation where pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps is a badge of honor. The rags-to-riches story is our nation’s central myth. (I use the word myth in the community-forming/guiding sense rather than the fictitious sense; see here.) Our nation was founded, or so the G-rated, schoolbook polished version of the story goes, by religious outcasts trying simply to find a place where they could live out their personal convictions without being persecuted. Leaving aside the racial, ethnic, and social-economic injustices which then became inextricably intertwined with that original postmillenial/puritanical ideal of America becoming “God’s Country,” what the colonists unknowingly did not leave at the door, if you will, was the idea of personal achievement equaling communal success. That is to say, personal achievement is a sure-fire sign of entitlement for public success.

Obviously, here I am making very broad generalizations. (Which is one of the reasons why any writing on “culture,” whether it be in regards to general cultural trends, the interface between church and culture, etc., is by its very nature overly simplistic. One can speak properly of cultural trends, but once one begins to get more specific in definition the appropriateness of that description narrows to a smaller set of people. Moreover, taken to its (il)logical end, the definition and description of a culture will ultimately collapse into a culture of one, which is to say that for every individual there will be a distinctly, definable culture. I apologize for the length of this aside, perhaps it should, and will be, a post of its own, but the issue of church and culture is a hot one now and I find, more often than not, that the definitions and descriptions of American culture claim far too much.) But, with a few modern examples I believe that I can support my claim that this meritocratic ideology is endemic to the American cultural landscape.

  • Consider the educational background of our “leaders”: politicians, professors, etc. Do we find many state school graduates, community college graduates, vocational or technical school graduates?
  • Consider the perceived hierarchy of employment opportunities. The distinction between so-called blue collar and white collar jobs is not incidental. Among the white collar crowd, as well, there exists a pantheon of desired jobs: lawyers, doctors, celebrities, athletes, etc.
  • The last two examples from above only serve to highlight the meritocratic nature of America. That someone’s ability to deliver a line with passion or comedic genius or someone’s ability to play a sport with excellence necessarily gives that person a voice outside of their arena of expertise.

Now this is not to say that a meritocratic system is bad in all regards. Part of the reason why it is so infective to a culture, especially one so influenced by philosophical pragmatism is that in most situations ‘it just works.’ People who excel do so because of their talents and abilities. Where this gets dangerous is when they step into areas where they may not have the same level of expertise and yet are treated as if they do because of their previous accomplishments.

I believe that the American church, at the least, has adopted this same sort of meritocratic mentality. This can be clearly seen when success is defined by church membership numbers, hip cultural engagement, and the like. Or perhaps, on a smaller level we can see this in how we value those in the church. How often have we, whether wittingly or not, placed value judgments on those in the church defined by how much they contribute or how successful they are in their particular spheres of ministry?

Do we look up to certain pastors? certain “worship leaders”? Do we value more highly those people in highly visible roles over those faithful servants who work behind the scenes eschewing any form of recognition?

There must be a distinction made between faithful performance of one’s duties and giftings, and one’s value as a Christian and a person. Meritocracy ought to speak nothing to value.

What is it that Jesus said to the rich man who asked him what he must do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? “Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” The recompense was that this man would then have treasure stored up in heaven, but in order to attain to that he had to humiliate himself in his own eyes and in the eyes of his peers. He had claimed, “all these things I have kept, from my youth” in response to Jesus’ call to keep all the commandments. Jesus knew this was a gross overstatement and a claim to greater righteousness than he actually possessed. So he then called the man do reject the meritocracy of wealth and nomism (religious legalism) and embrace a self-sacrificial love for his neighbor (which is, in fact, one half of Jesus’ summary of the Law found in Luke 10.27). The Way of Jesus is one of self-sacrifice not of self-service.

This then means that one’s station in life has nothing to do with their personal value. Whether a person is wealthy or poor, influential or marginalized, multi-talented or lightly gifted, etc., they are called to self-sacrificial living.

Turning from this, how does our meritocratic system affect youth ministry?

Who are the “good kids”? Who are the student leaders? Do they tend to be the hard workers, the outgoing, the popular, the ones’ whose parents are leaders of the church? Do we measure a kid’s worth (to us, which is itself a self-serving rather than self-sacrificial move) along these lines? If so, we have capitulated to the meritocratic system.

From another angle, and one which I feel is endemic to upper-middle class America, how do we as parents view our children? How is their worth/value defined in our eyes? Are our kids “good kids” if they keep out of trouble? If they don’t do drugs? Don’t hang out with “bad” people? Are they “good kids” if they do all their homework? Do it well? If they excel in school, athletics, music, etc.? Of course we want our children to do well in life, but what defines the term “well”? Do we allow society at large to define it or do we all Jesus to? [ed. I will grant that this is a rhetorical dichotomy. We cannot so neatly divide things in real life. We are always affected by both extremes and this, in some ways, not a bad thing. If, however, our interaction with society at large is not reciprocal, that is, if we do not affect society, only allowing it to affect us, then we have failed. But to answer this problem would require a post all of its own.]

Do you believe that your child has succeeded if s/he does well enough in grade school to merit entrance into an elite class of universities? If s/he graduates and gets a “good” job? What is a “good” job? Is it defined by pay grade? Levels of influence? What if God’s “good” plan is for him/her to have a minimum wage job for his/her entire life? What if God’s “good” plan is for his/her life of struggle to picture, in miniature, the sufferings of our savior? Who’s dreams are shattered? Yours or theirs?

I find myself in that position. Having been extremely gifted in many areas (Please hear me, this is not a boastful statement. In fact, it is quite possibly a judgment on me for my unfaithfulness in using those gifts.) I look at my son Nolan and want the good education, the position of influence and power, and all those things which I am decrying.

Our goal, mine as father and youth pastor, is to inculcate in the next generation the values of our Christian faith. We are to tell them the stories of our faith and work for the development of their character. Hard work, faithful service, striving for excellence, all those things which we want for our kids will still be there, but they will be found in their proper place. Godly character, biblical wisdom, and all those things which truly matter will lead our kids in the way of righteousness far better than the American meritocratic work ethic. We will, in the end, produce children who are self-sacrificial rather than self-servicing. We will have children who desire Jesus’ name to be great, rather than their own. And they will look not to others for their own self-worth, but to the only one who is able to truly place a value on a person.

Jesus’ statement at the end, “well done, good and faithful servant,” emphasizes our place. Servitude. And this is a “good” thing.

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