Religious and spiritual media have, in many ways, become the new
missionaries. And they are traveling to wherever their prospective
converts live. That means old media are not enough. They have to get
wired. "This generation turns to the Internet for everything," says
the Religious Institute's Haffner. Guideposts for Teens has added a
website, gp4teens.com, as have other Christian magazines.
Guideposts' print edition for younger kids was completely replaced
by an online version. It averages about 2,000 unique visitors a day.
Another site, IslamiCity.com, offers a variety of activities for
Muslim youth, including a Koran-recitation competition for users
between the ages of 6 and 25. Their recitation is made available to
other visitors in streaming format and ranked by a panel of judges.
"Parents really want to encourage their children to participate,"
says Mohammed Abdul Aleem, CEO of the site. Before Sept. 11,
according to Aleem, the site had about 400,000 unique users a month;
now it's up to 1 million.
Online radio is another venue for spiritual content for kids.
Founded two years ago, acaza.com is a Christian music site aimed at 12- to
24-year-olds. Relaunched in February, the station, according to
general manager John Macleod, has had almost a fourfold increase in
visitors. "The teen demographic has been neglected somewhat," says
Macleod. The site has all the bells and whistles of other
hipper-than-thou music sites, including snappy graphics, news about
bands and discussion boards. Recent topic: compromised Christians
(that is, those not committed enough to Christ).
Music has always been a great proselytizing tool, and Christian
bands like P.O.D. have learned much from their secular brethren
about selling themselves and their message. In look and attitude
they are often indistinguishable from secular bands. P.O.D. even
played on Saturday Night Live last month. "Kids have so many choices
that when they buy something, it has to hit them on numerous
levels," says Ron Shapiro, co-president of Atlantic Records,
P.O.D.'s distributor. "It's about the music and the message." A
typical P.O.D. lyric is pointed but tries to avoid religious cliche:
"Commit my life to rebirth, well respected, 'cause that's my
word/I'm sure you heard, about a new sound going around."
Rabbi Davidson points out that if there's a downside to turning
to the media for finding one's spiritual satisfaction, it may be the
risk of creating a sense of isolation. "It's positive that youth are
searching for something in their lives, but if the search is done
alone, it separates kids from a wider religious community. One
beautiful aspect of religion is that you become part of a religious
Enter Teen Mania. Combining teens' desire to belong to a larger
group while also catering to their appetite for popular culture,
Teen Mania started the Acquire the Fire rallies in 1991. The
fast-paced live events, with light shows, music and dancers, offer a
21st century iteration of the Gospel and draw 5,000 to 10,000 kids
each weekend. Ron Luce, head of the organization, aims to have
something different happening onstage every five or six minutes, and
each song or performance, skit, speech or video clip carries a
Gospel message. Significantly, five or six minutes is about the
length of two rock videos.
"We're communicating in a way that kids are used to receiving,"
Luce explains. Thus there's also a website that receives more than 9
million hits a month and a TV series that airs on Christian
networks. Last month the organization's yearly convention, "Stand
Up: The Invasion," drew an estimated 45,000 young attendees to
Indianapolis. "The message was to invade the world with the love of
God," says Luce.
Teen Mania wants to move teenagers beyond complacency, as it did
with Jessica Ray. "Our attendance has grown 15% over last year. It's
indicative of a spiritual hunger," says Luce. "We're not a bunch of
hype. We're helping kids to feel real with God, and we're doing it
in teenage language." And those who have the pierced ears to hear
the message are listening in.