Cornerstone Church, the nondenominational evangelical congregation in San Antonio helmed by Christians United for Israel’s John Hagee, has built a new, $5 million ark for the younger members of its flock, slated to open Saturday:

… the scale and sophistication of Cornerstone’s new facility — and particularly its collection of electronically controlled animal replicas — might be unmatched nationally, say experts in Christian children’s ministry. Nine of the 16 creatures will be animatronic, created by Animal Makers, a Southern California firm that specializes in robotic animals for Hollywood movies. Some are new, and some were formerly leased. The rhino, for example, had a short appearance in the John Cusack film “2012,” [Matthew -- JB] Hagee said.

Asked whether the animatronics was too extravagant, Hagee said no — not when today’s culture bombards children with competing venues for their attention on Sundays, from recreational sports to theme parks to kid-themed pizza restaurants. “If casinos can build opulent buildings to incentivize gamblers to want to come and enjoy their weekend, how then can you justify not building something that would incentivize people to come and hear about the Word of God?” he said. “I don’t have any problem with somebody saying it’s over the top.”

The writer goes on to quote a “children’s ministry expert”–an editor of Children’s Ministry Magazinewho says it’s a great idea that the church is “competing with things that capture kids’ attention.”

Such is the prevailing wisdom of children’s ministry advocates today. It dovetails with the view that a main goal of youth ministry is to create a “safe” environment for kids to socialize with other Christians. Matthew Hagee says it himself–he wants to “incentivize” children like casinos “incentivize” gamblers. Bring the kids in with flashy theatrics and animatronic animals, and hope they stay for the five-minute testimonials and worship band.

The impulse to protect one’s children from the sins of the world is an understandable one. But as a practical matter it’s an ambitious goal–requiring considerable resources, pastoral and otherwise, that smaller congregations are unlikely to be able to muster. And desirable as it is, young Christians need more than a vaguely Christianized social space.

What is the appropriate amount of time and resources a church should devote toward creating one? I don’t have the answer, but it’s probably somewhere short of $5 million for an animatronic ark.

This circle-the-wagons mentality goes beyond youth ministry. One of the demographic observations in Becoming Right (my review here) is that collegiate evangelicals are less interested in conservative politics than other Christians, despite sharing many of the same views. The suggestion was that they preferred to meet both their social and spiritual needs in campus ministries. The decline of the religious right as a political force is usually attributed to the fact that the children of evangelicals don’t remain evangelicals, but I do wonder if this social self-segregation doesn’t play a role. It seems increasingly true that those who caution Christians to be “in it not of it” aren’t even really in it anymore.

(See Hagee’s greatest hits, including his epic “Four Blood Moons” sermon here.)