I’m currently 33 years-old. I’m not that old, yet, But in a teenager’s world, I am OLD! And I feel it… not in a diminishing physical way, but in an ever-widening gap between me and the middle school students way.
I was in middle school (grades 6-8) from 1988-1991. There was no internet (as we know it). Most phones were still attached to the wall with long cords and long distance calls were expensive. Cassette tapes were on their way out and CDs were making their splash. Boom boxes and Sony Walkman’s were cool (no such thing as an iPod). Pants with pockets and rolled up at the bottom was in style. Tony Hawk was every skateboarder’s hero. And I could go on and on…
Today’s culture is very different, and considering… I am really OLD and out-of-touch with it.
The argument in youth ministry circles usually swirls around how much cultural relevancy does one need to have and how much biblical/scriptural relevancy does one need to have, and how the two interact.
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Lately I’ve listened to a conversation going on in youth ministry circles on whether or not it’s valuable to be versed in youth culture . . . to be “culturally relevant.” I think this conversation is of vital importance to us as youth workers. Give me 4 minutes of your time to share my thoughts (and I welcome yours, as well).
I believe youth workers must strive to be experts in two things: Scripture and culture. Let me explain.
We know the truth of Scripture is timeless. It’s as effective today at spiritual transformation as it was hundreds and thousands of years ago.
However, culture is not timeless. Culture is fluid. It changes with time and geography. You would never attempt to reach a people group in another culture without considering that culture’s unique realities. You wouldn’t travel to rural Chongqing, China and teach the exact same lesson you would teach in Idaho Falls. While the underlying biblical truths have a universal application, the cultural “vehicle” through which your lesson is communicated would be wholly ineffective.
I believe as youth workers we should approach reaching our students with the same level of cultural awareness that we would take in approaching another people group in another culture.
Why? What are the benefits of a commitment to cultural relevancy? Glad you asked.
- It’s Strategic
Knowing youth culture helps you tailor your message in order to deliver Scripture’s un-changing truth in a way that is wrapped in the rhetoric of the society surrounding your students.
- It Shows You Care
Whenever I travel internationally, I learn some basic conversational phrases in the native language. When I need something and engage someone in their native language (however clumsily), they are much more inclined to help. It shows that I value their culture. Knowing youth culture says the same thing to your students.
- It’s Proactive
If you’re aware of a trend, movie, or TV show that you know you will need to respond to (such as this one), you can be proactive in engaging your students. By doing so, you have the opportunity to equip your students with a biblical response to whatever the specific issue is.
- You Become a Resource for Parents
I recently heard Josh McDowell say that the generation gap between parents and teenagers is wider than it has ever been . . . and parents don’t know it exists! You can become an invaluable resource for parents as they try and raise children in a culture that is pretty hostile to the ways of God’s Kingdom.
So, I’ve answered the “why.” What’s the “how”? How do we make sure we are as culturally relevant as we can be when it comes to youth culture? It’s actually pretty simple:
- Behave Like A Teenager
Watch the movies they watch. Read the magazines they read. Visit the websites they visit. Listen to music they listen to. By doing so you craft your cultural vocabulary. You will know the cultural factors influencing your students.
- Engage Students in Cultural Conversation
Titus 2:12 says that we are to “say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” You can help your students know how to say “no” to the harmful elements of culture by engaging them in conversation regarding the cultural influences in their lives.
- Look for the bridges to God’s Word
I believe one of your goals as a youth worker is to help your students develop a biblical worldview, to be able to see the world through the filter of Scripture. It’s vitally important to look for bridges back to Scripture as you discuss what you see in culture. By doing so, you help students rise above the negative effects of culture.
As I stated earlier, I believe all youth workers are called to be versed in culture. Want biblical evidence? Look no further than the way Paul conducted himself in Athens. Acts 17:22-23 says this:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship.
Paul studied Athenian culture then used this knowledge to craft a Gospel message unique to his audience. It is our call as youth workers to be committed to the same level of cultural relevancy. The effectiveness of your ministry is at stake.
It’s a tricky dance. Some youth pastors strive to be “cool” and “hip” with the students. And they are… for a while. But then they get old… like me. And you either have to grow in cultural relevancy and biblical relevancy and connect the two, or you have to quit and go work at Starbucks or something else.
Here’s what I think: I don’t think teenagers care how cool or hip or cultural relevant or versed you are. They just want to know how much you care. They want relationships. They want adults who look past their quirkiness and accept them for the rapidly changing human beings they are (developmentally) and still like like them. They want relationships with adults who can converse and field questions and thoughts and be safe with them. It’s the risk to be relational that youth pastors or any adult mentor to a teenagers needs to embrace to be “relevant” with teenagers.
Trust me, being cool is fleeting and temporary. Being relevant relationally? Well that has withstood the sands of time. It seems like human beings were made for significant relationships. Interesting, eh?