By Mike Andrews
In his book Hurt, Chap Clark describes how today’s teen culture has been largely disconnected from adult society. In fact, teens have become so disconnected, they’ve largely developed a culture foreign to most American adults. Left to blindly lead each other, youth culture tribes have often fallen into patterns of living and thinking that tell them they don’t matter.
I spent a recent evening at a community prayer vigil after a series of accidental deaths of far too many of our next generation. Many of these young people died from actions taken under this prevailing philosophy: I’m young and free, and it doesn’t matter what I do because I’m just a kid. I don’t really matter. This mentality is so pervasive in our youth culture, this sad scene could have taken place anywhere across the United States. The church is positioned to bridge this gap and reach these youth with the hope-filled message that not only do they matter, they matter to their maker.
If we can circle the globe and learn the thought processes, languages, and customs of remote villages in order to share truth with them, we can also learn methods to reach the young tribe that lives among us. But we must see there is more than a typical generation gap at play, and recognize some of the distinct cultural barriers we’ll need to overcome.
What’s Distinct about Youth Culture?
They’ve adopted an unexamined secular mind-set. For most of this nation’s history, kids grew up within a Judeo-Christian framework that shaped (or at least influenced) their thinking about what is right and wrong and where we all came from. Many of today’s social systems have pushed God out of public view so consistently that youth don’t often consider God’s perspective toward the moral issues of the day. Their decisions are largely led by what they want, what will gain them some standing with their peers, and what might benefit society as a whole. What God wants usually doesn’t factor into the equation.
They’ve developed a very different idea of what is socially normative and acceptable. The secular mind-set results in a very different set of social expectations when it comes to behaviors. In past generations, someone engaging in behavior that was outside the norm would often hide it for fear of being ostracized or worse. Today, without any objective foundation informing their concept of how humanity should be, and in the name of tolerance and acceptance, young people are left to collectively shrug their shoulders at the abnormal. Any practice is acceptable, it seems, except telling someone their behavior is wrong.
They employ technology for relational purposes like no generation before them. Social media has changed the communications game for the next generation. While my generation may use social media, youth culture breathes it, soaks in it, and sneezes it. They’ve turned social media companies’ names into verbs. Instead of “posting a picture on Instagram,” they instagram. They don’t “check Facebook,” they facebook (at least for now). Students have become the curators of their own lives, choosing which details they want to share with their networks and how.
Moments of teen drama are now played out for a live audience of their closest couple hundred “friends.” While this can become incredibly narcissistic and feed the worst parts of our egos, it is where young people live, and the church would do well to become more competent and comfortable communicating in 140-character bursts.
So What Are We to Do?
We need to convince them they matter. They matter to us, but more importantly, this young tribe matters to God. In Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture, Walt Mueller says, “Our calling is to take God’s unchanging Word to young people. As cross-cultural missionaries, we contextualize the unchanging message in forms that are familiar to them.”
We have to tell them with humility. If we do not approach youth in humility, we have little hope of accomplishing this contextualization. We may need to set aside our ideas of what good music sounds like, and even our assumptions of what is appropriate regarding tattoos, proper English, or how to “dress for success.” We may even need to rethink what success really is.
We should listen and ask a lot of questions. Listening creates a sense of openness to youth culture. This new tribe is very heavily weighted toward tolerance, and they are comfortable with ambiguity. Students will quickly tune out any message that seems closed to further input, so we need to be careful how we represent the One who is the only way, truth, and life. Students need to know they can be heard and that their thoughts matter.
We can let students run with their ideas and follow up on their own input to show acceptance of them and their thoughts, even while we challenge them to the transformation Christ desires. With respectful direction, this allows youth to become a valuable part of the ministry team, not simply consumers of a ministry product. It further reinforces the core message that they matter to God.
We need to invest the time it takes to build trust with students, rather than demanding their trust. The young tribe around us needs to know we’re here for them, and not just focused on having our own way. The church cannot become yet another adult organization that has commodified or abandoned them. As we earn their trust, we develop an environment of learning both with and about students. As they learn, we learn from them as well. The students who lead our ministries to youth become cultural informants, to an extent, helping us understand the rest of their tribe. Who better to teach us how to communicate with their tribe than those who are of it?
We need to look beyond the shells they present. The young tribe around us often feels in danger, so they’ve developed an air of disconnect and toughness, as if nothing anyone says or does can really hurt them. As relationships with students deepen, we begin to see beneath the hard exteriors.
Adults often mistake this air of callousness for genuine hardness and indifference, thus perpetuating the distance between them. Adults are, frankly, afraid of most adolescents and therefore too intimidated to see how deep the layers of hardness go. Adolescents often mistake this as a lack of care and concern for them, Chap Clark says, and thus the cycle continues.
Are we willing to spend enough time with students to allow them to feel safe enough to shed their layers and reveal what lies within?
The goal of a cross-cultural missionary isn’t just to understand another culture. It is to catalyze an indigenous expression of the body of Christ that is captivated by his mission in that culture. Just as mission workers in nonnative settings aim to teach locals to pass on the message they bring, youth workers should work to develop and equip students in mission to their own culture.
This requires all of the church, not just a handful of specialists, to rely on Christ for transformation. As we build relationships with students, and as they are drawn into his work to redeem them and their peers, the message is passed on through them.
They may do it in ways that are too loud or too messy or too frenetic for our taste. But if we will humble ourselves with the attitude of Jesus and embrace the mentality of the missionary, today’s young generation could surprise us all. Imagine the church moving forward under the headship of Jesus, engaging all the heart and passion and energy of today’s youth in his mission!
Go, make disciples of this young nation.
Mike Andrews has served in youth ministry for more than 15 years. He now serves as youth minister with WestWay Christian Church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska.