What I learnt from a billboard for beer
Written by Graham Stanton, Principal of Youthworks College
What's the message?
When I first saw this billboard I was incensed. With rates of dangerous alcohol consumption on the rise among young Australians, what hope do they have when the alcohol companies are preying on them with such intent?
Another image in the same series appeared on another billboard near where I live. Passing it regularly gave me plenty of opportunity to mull over the powerful cultural story being told here.
In the words of the general manager for marketing from this particular beer producer, "life's best moments are shaped by random fun and forgetting about the day-to-day obligations which hold you back". Campaign notes on this series of advertisements observe that "Each execution features a call-to-action for young Aussies to live in the now and focus on the realisation that you're only young once".
Having seen it in the story behind selling beer, you begin to notice the same story in other places as well – from selling travel to chocolate milk! ‘Be the hero in your own adventure!’ ‘Why grow up when you can have fun playing?’
Live in the now
If you want to get a barometer on culture then pay attention to advertising.
It’s no accident that the message to ‘live in the now’ and ‘focus on the realisation that you’re only young once’ is being told often. The advertising companies have spent enormous amounts of money running focus groups with the target demographic to gauge their hopes and values and the stories that move them to action. Unlike a television series or feature film that have such long lead times, a well-produced advertising campaign can be articulating the cultural pulse with much greater speed.
These advertisements give us some insight into the challenges of reaching young adult Australians with the gospel. It’s hard to talk about eternal destiny when beer is on the other line.
Fun, experience, and church
Rather than simply point the finger at ‘the world out there’, we should sit up and consider 'how much this has influenced the church?'. Recognising this powerful cultural story it’s worth asking how much the message of fun and experience has influenced our attitudes to young adults and the expectations we have (or don’t have) of them.
Sharing these thoughts with a group of young adults at Youthworks College, we identified negative influences such as a lack of commitment to regular ministry activities and unwise use of time by partying late into the night despite obligations the following morning.
One way that this entrapment to culture can become embedded in our churches is through the common practice of isolating young adults in discipleship groups that don’t include anyone younger or older than them. The phenomenon of a bunch of young adults relying on no one but each other to work their way through life has ominous echoes of Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12. Having inherited the throne of Israel form his father Solomon, Rehoboam rejected the advice of the elders and chose instead to surround himself with the other young men he had grown up with. With disastrous consequences.
Instead, Paul urges Titus to enable inter-generational discipleship, with a particular focus on engendering self-control in the young (Titus 2:3-6). Cross-generational discipleship would go a long way towards helping young adults in our churches stand against their culture and affirm the need for responsibility, commitment and self-control.
The aim though is not to end up as mere cultural reactionaries, selling an alternative, more dowdy, lifestyle. What we really need to do is to extend Jesus’ call to young adults to serve him with all their energy and opportunity.
Life in all its fullness
Interestingly there’s another cultural story in the air that might be helpful in this regard.
This advertisement for the Australian Army Reserve has echoes of the desire for adventure that is evident in the ‘life is about fun and experience’ story, but with a shift from being self-serving to serving others.
There is something in the stories behind this advertisement that’s also there in the advertisements for beer and travel and flavoured milk. That life is an adventure. And in this our culture sends us back to Scripture to see there that God has given us every good thing for our enjoyment (1 Tim 6:17); that God provides us with food and fills our hearts with joy (Acts 14:17); that Jesus did not come simply to teach us discipline and responsibility, but to give us life in all its fullness (John 10:10).
The adventure however doesn’t come through serving ourselves, nor does it come through challenging ourselves to serve others. Instead we’re inviting young adults to join with us and all the members of the church as the missionary people of God, enabled by the Son and empowered by the Spirit.
The invitation is to take up our cross and follow Jesus, and by so doing to share in the life that really is life (1 Tim 6:19).