I have a confession to make. I have not eaten a meal in a fast food restaurant in over five years. It's not just because I'm a vegetarian, though that fact certainly makes it more of a challenge when encountering fast food menus. It's not because I don't like fast food, though "like" might be too strong a word. As with most Americans, when I'm near a McDonald's and start to smell those French fries cooking, I too get an urge to stop. The primary reason I no longer eat fast food was that I realized I usually felt lousy after eating it. For some reason the burgers and fries and milk shakes just didn't sit right with my stomach—though I never really considered why. For years I simply responded to the craving and ignored the fact that though I desired the food, I didn't really enjoy it. Have you ever had this experience?
Many children and teens in the United States are raised on fast food. They can recognize Ronald McDonald and the Burger King much more quickly than they can a photo of the president (I shudder to think how Jesus would fare in that competition). A recent study revealed that commercials for unhealthy food, particularly fast food, still make up the bulk of the advertisements that children see on TV. Our young people's brains are saturated with messages urging them to crave fast food. In fact, a recent online article from Psychology Today argues that fast food restaurant chains do more than simply bombard children and teen with messages. These businesses actually have studied the brain and know just how to appeal to everything the young brain thinks it wants.
Case in point: Fast food is loaded with sugar (including those French fries!). Even seemingly healthier items such as fruit smoothies are full of the stuff. And for good reason. Sugar is an addictive substance. It may not be good for us in huge quantities, but all the brain knows is "I want that!" Relatedly, fast food taps into a teen brain's lack of impulse control. With burger joints and taco stands on every corner, eventually teens are going to give in and at least order something "to go." Should any of this really come as a surprise? The teen brain (Okay. My brain, too.) has an evolutionary attraction to high calorie foods, something left over from even before our hunter-gatherer days when scarcity motivated humans to seek out food with the most calories per bite. Of course, in our more sedentary culture, these high calorie foods are no longer necessary for most of us—but the brain doesn't know that.
In addition, the brain is drawn to the branding of fast food restaurants. We like to see the Colonel smiling at us when we enter KFC. We like to see the familiar insignia on the Starbucks coffee cups. It's not by happenstance that the menus in most fast food restaurants tap into the brain's desire for patterns, repetition, and predictability. Go into to any McDonald's or Hardee's in the country and you will find the same menu, same prices, same employee uniforms, same smells, and same basic decor.
Perhaps it's not surprising that our fast food restaurants long ago discovered that the quickest way to a teen's heart is not through her stomach but through her brain. We can just chalk it up to good business and savvy marketing. But I sometimes wonder if the Church uses these same tactics in a way that undermines our own efforts to offer teens an authentic, transparent, and mature experience of the gospel.
Case in point: How often in youth ministry do we attempt to lure youth into our churches with those things the brain craves? Yes, there is the requisite junk food—the pizza and chicken nuggets and chips and soda heaped on tables at just about every youth gathering. If it works for the fast food joints, why shouldn't we use it, too? But of course we don't stop there. We intuitively know that the brain craves novelty and distraction and so we throw in promises of entertainment as a way to entice teens. How many youth ministries across the country will kick off their fall schedules in the next few weeks with big back-to school parties complete with bouncy houses and wacky games and rock bands and the chance to win prizes?
Many of our youth ministries have even tapped into the power of branding to attract teens. We give our ministries catchy names like "ExtremeFaith" or "PowerHouse" (remember the good old days when we just called it "youth group"?). We have professional logos crafted for our ministries to lend credibility to our identities. "Nike has a cool logo," we argue, "so why shouldn't we?" We make certain that logo shows up on our t-shirts and our website and all our printed literature. And it works, because though there might be many teens who yawn when you ask them to come to church, they might be more than happy to show up at "ExtremeFaith" for some crazy games and pizza.