What Novelist John Green Teaches the Church about “Reaching” Young People

HERE COME THE FEELS!

BRING ON THE FEELS!

If you’re a fan of John Green (and if you’re not, what’s your problem?), you’re going to want to check out the New Yorker profile, THE TEEN WHISPERER: How the author of “The Fault in Our Stars” built an ardent army of fans.

John Green is like Colbert to me: someone who’s extremely good at what he does and who brings a joie de vivre to his vocation. I can’t help but root for him.

The church is awash with concern these days about the so-called “nones”: people who are not affiliated with any religion, who may (or may not) consider themselves spiritual but not religious… many of whom are in the millenial generation—aka many of John Green’s fans.

How can we “get” more young people? churchy people ask. Is there a way we can “appeal” to them? The format of the questions reveals their purpose—to find more members so that our churches won’t decline and die.

Guess what? Young people don’t care to be our institutional life insurance.

(Neither do 42 year old mothers of three, actually.)

That said, being interested in young people isn’t necessarily opportunistic. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, and young people are our neighbors. (So are old people, married people, single people, LGBT people, poor people, Muslim people…)

Jesus also calls us to serve, and that’s something that motivates millenials a great deal. (As the saying goes, they love Jesus; they don’t love the church.)

So. In the spirit of connection rather than conversion, friendship rather than membership, partnership rather than fixing, here are some things we can learn from John Green and his tremendous appeal.

He isn’t trying to “reach” young people. Green reportedly hates being called the “teen whisperer,” which is to his credit. His crazy popular vlogbrother videos were not started as some calculated attempt to build his fan base. (Well, not primarily with that purpose, though you can’t argue with success.) Rather, he and his brother Hank started them in order to play with the online video format, which was pretty new back in 2006. They created something winsome and irresistible and the fans thronged to it.

Do we in the church see millenials as a means to an end? 
What are we doing that is winsome and irresistible? 

~ 

He takes young people seriously and learns from them. The Fault in Our Stars is filled with wickedly good dialogue, pitch-perfect one-liners and deep wisdom. Some have criticized him for this because “Teenagers don’t really talk like that.” I read somewhere that Green doesn’t try to duplicate the speech patterns of teens. He tries to write the way teens sound to themselves and one another—clever, weird, and wise, assured sometimes and sharply insecure at others. It’s like teen-speak, boiled down to its essence. You have to love and admire and understand young people to pull that off.

Also, the protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars was inspired by an actual teenager with thyroid cancer, Esther Grace Earl, whose experience helped shape the book. Four or five times a month, Green talks on the phone with kids who have cancer, sometimes through Make a Wish, sometimes not. He is also fluent in social media and engages folks on Twitter and Tumblr. And once every few months, he Skypes with teens who are struggling with serious illness.

Is your church present where young people are present, whether online or in person?
Are you cultivating actual relationships with them, not so you can bestow your wisdom,
but so we can all grow together?

~

He’s created a tribe. There are traditions and catch phrases and a shared history—not all of which were created by him. (This is important.)

Last year I checked out a John Green book from my local library and when I got it home, out fell a note that had been tucked into its pages: “Hey, nerdfighter! Don’t forget to be awesome!”

DFTBA is very big with this tribe.

And there’s a focus on giving to others. Esther Day is a holiday that Esther Earl asked people to observe on her birthday. According to the New Yorker, “Her idea was that it could become a celebration of non-romantic love—a day when you’d say ‘I love you’ to people who don’t often hear it from you.” And check out the Project for Awesome that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy causes.

How does Christianity help people (of all ages) become a part of something larger than themselves? (Hint: as the Project for Awesome demonstrates, they don’t need us in order to feel this. Still, what is our distinctive gift in the midst of the broader culture?)
And are people encouraged to bring their own energy and ideas to the table, or are we the keepers of our traditions and norms?

~

He’s a learner. Check out his Crash Course videos. In these, he (and Hank) are teachers, but he comes at his topics with the posture of a student. And my kids love his Mental Floss videos in which he tests out various lifehacks:

Do we have all the answers, or are we willing to learn?

~

He employs humor with substance.  From the New Yorker profile: “In a post advising boys on how to charm a girl, John jokingly said, ‘Become a puppy. A kitten would also be acceptable or, possibly, a sneezy panda’—an allusion to a popular clip on YouTube. But he also said, ‘If you can, see girls as, like, people, instead of pathways to kissing and/or salvation.'”

As communities of faith, do we offer meaning and substance… while taking ourselves lightly?

~

He loves the grand gesture. Again, the New Yorker: “Many authors do pre-publication publicity, but Green did extra credit: he signed the entire first printing—a hundred and fifty thousand copies—which took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder.”

Which leads to my final question for the church:
When’s the last time you undertook an extravagant gesture for the sake of this world God loves? 

9 thoughts on “What Novelist John Green Teaches the Church about “Reaching” Young People

  1. Katrina

    I read “The Fault In Our Stars” and enjoyed it. Having read this blog post as well, I think I want to read more! What would be the top other John Green novels you’d recommend?

    Reply
    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I have not read them all–I loved Waiting for Alaska and Will Grayson Will Grayson was also good.

      BTW, I didn’t have room to say in the post that John considered seminary and worked as a hospital chaplain for several months beforehand. Which cured him of that aspiration, but still, interesting!

      Reply
  2. Jeri

    My husband, son and I have enjoyed Mental Floss…especially the List Show. He was serving as a chaplain and enrolled in seminary (not attending yet) when he met Esther. Instead of continuing the process to become an Episcopal priest, he began to write. He has a powerful ministry.

    Reply
  3. Bob Braxton

    interesting that I never grew out of “teen-speak” — in fact I barely grew into it — and since most of my talking is to myself, my audience (what does he know?) thinks I am cool – like referring to my 1950’s baseball cap as a Lid.

    Reply
  4. Jill Jensen

    Hubby and I are huge JG fans, and his books helped me connect with my goddaughter in a whole new way. Thanks for the post and the questions!

    Reply
  5. Pingback: You Can’t Resist It When It Happens to You (An Update*)

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