Winter Jam Review

22 03 2010

On Saturday night, we took a busload of kids over to CenturyTel for the annual Winter Jam concert.  The entire youth group had been excited about this show for weeks: when else do you get to hear 8 or 9 major Christian bands for just $10? It was a great deal, and promised to be a night of wholesome Christian entertainment.  But by the time intermission came, I was completely disenchanted by the whole thing and found myself turning to Jordan to ask, “When did I become so cynical?”

Maybe it’s because I’m saturated in youth ministry right now, or maybe it’s because it had been a really long week, or maybe the raging liberal is coming out in me…or maybe I’m just overreacting… but I was deeply disturbed by some of the messages that were being subtly promoted by this concert tour.

Don’t get me wrong.  I do believe that the organizers of this tour have the best of intentions.  And on the whole, the evening was great: the technology was well-done, the concert flowed smoothly, and I have a lot of respect for their dedication to making this Tour affordable for all.  But it is precisely because the concert was so well-done, because there was so much hype about the Tour, and because the Tour does in fact represent the heart of Christianity to nearly 350,000 teenagers across the country, that the flaws seemed so glaring to me.  So, if anybody affiliated with Winter Jam happens to read this, please know that I respect what you do and am making these criticisms in love.  In short, these were the problems that I had with my experience on Saturday night:

1. Racism, sexism, and homophobia.  Near the beginning of the concert, one of the concert hosts was talking about how you can use music as a form of outreach.  He used the example that you could give a Christian CD to one of those Asian women at the nail salons, because you can’t understand a word they say anyway.  Jordan and I looked at each other: Did he really just say that? Out loud? I really would like to believe that he walked offstage and hit himself in the head, wondering why those words had come out of his mouth.  However, I also know that the Bossier City stop was one of the Tour’s last, and everything was extremely well-rehearsed, even a bit canned.  He had obviously said those words many times before, during many other concerts.

Equally problematic, or perhaps even more so, were featured speaker Tony Nolan‘s comments during his message (and here I paraphrase because I did not write down his exact wording): Girls, imagine that you could own all of the clothing in the world.  Wouldn’t that be great?  Guys, we don’t care so much about clothing.  Or if you do care, well, then, I’ve got to be a little bit worried about you. (cue laughter from the audience)

Okay, I know those comments aren’t exactly at the level of Westboro Baptist Church.  But that’s not the point.  How many teens in the audience were struggling with their sexuality that night?  How many of them had already been marginalized or ridiculed by the church?  Why would you ever pass up the chance to show love to these teenagers and instead make a joke about it?  It is never okay to use people’s race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality as the butt of a joke…especially not when you are a leader in youth ministry… and especially not in a concert setting filled with thousands of impressionable Christian youth.  When you make the joke, then you are implicitly making it okay for them to go out into their churches and schools and make more jokes.

2. The Sinners’ Prayer.  This is more of a theological difference than anything, and I do want to be clear: it is not the prayer itself that I have problems with, but the hype that goes before and after it.  I take theological issue with the idea that salvation happens in a moment, but I also recognize that the organizers of the Tour probably have different theological leanings than I do, and that the inclusion of this altar-call moment was in keeping with their theology.  However, I take practical issue with the emotional and peer pressure that was put on students to “stand up if you prayed this prayer.  Come on, don’t be ashamed of your faith.”  About 30 seconds later, the speaker proudly proclaimed that several hundred  students had just made the decision to give their lives to Christ.  No further instructions were given to the students about what to do with their newly changed life, other than to stand and be counted.  I understand that they may have been short on time, but I believe they missed an opportunity to go a few notches deeper than simply “getting saved.”

3. The Mission Moment.  I would consider myself to be a pretty mission-minded person, and it takes a lot to make me criticize a missional focus.  I am all for creating experiences that challenge youth to get out of their middle-class bubble.  But I think there is a tendency in the Church to accept all things Christian as equally good, and that’s simply not the case.  As leaders especially, we must be discerning in what we choose to endorse and in how we choose to endorse it.

The featured mission organization was Holt International, an international adoption agency based out of Eugene, Oregon.  Tony Nolan spoke about his own experience of childhood abuse and said that he felt God was calling him to be the voice for children around the world.  His speech was well-done and moving.  Then, he brought to the stage his three-year-old child, whom he adopted last year, and let her speak into the microphone to say, “Help children like me.”  It was cute, for sure, but I do not believe there was any need for him to parade his child around and use her for his cause.  In 10 or 15 years, when she can speak for herself, that will be a different story.  But…maybe then she won’t bring quite the same cuteness factor onto the table.  Perhaps Tony is just a good salesman, but somehow I think I would have had less of a problem with the whole thing if he had just shown a picture of his daughter rather then handing her the microphone.

Then he asked the audience something along the lines of, “Do you believe God is calling you to be in mission?” (Who could say no?)  And the response was, “If so, then go down to Holt International‘s table and pick out a child to sponsor.  We’re trying to sponsor 200 children tonight.”  All these good, dutiful youth then streamed down to the table, ready to pick out a cute child.  Which is not the end of the world, I guess.  But I am puzzled by their choice of charities to support.  While I am aware of problems inherent in Charity Navigator‘s star-ranking system, I think it is worth noting that Holt International has only received two out of four stars and is not even included in several other ranking sites, such as the American Institute of Philanthropy.   Again, if Winter Jam is promoting excellence in all things Christian, then I believe they have the duty to think critically about the mission organization which they choose to promote.  And, I know this is just wishful thinking on my part, but I sure would love to see an event go deeper than “pick out a child that looks cute” and instead to engage deeper issues of philanthropy and mission.

Fortunately for us, the second half of the concert made up for the shortcomings of the beginning.  Tenth Avenue North was excellent, both in their music and their message.  Their songs all seem to speak to a deep sense of grace and healing, and I have continued listening to their CDs this morning :).   And the lead singer of Third Day came across as surprisingly authentic, recognizing the overwhelming consumerist nature of an event like Winter Jam while attempting to go deeper and challenge the audience to see into the heart that inspired their music.

As we left the Century Tel center and headed toward the bus, we were surprised by snow!  I guess, on the eve of spring, Winter Jam brought some winter weather to Louisiana!

Here’s some of our group on Saturday night: