Did you watch the Billboard Music Awards this past week? Were you teeming with anticipation to see Taylor Swift & Brendon Urie’s performance or Drake’s wins. Well if not the Billboard awards, then certainly Avengers: Endgame—maybe the most anticipated movie decades, and on its way to breaking multiple box office records. This is the stuff of culture and whether you’re a youth leader, a parent, or teacher not only is it exhausting to keep up, but it is often disturbing, confusing, and often downright annoying.
As youth leaders, we walk a fine line between knowing just enough culture so we don’t seem out of touch, but not so much that we send the wrong message. But maybe you are just like my wife, who would much rather listen to worship music all day and shut out the world and be perfectly content with being out of touch. But as our kids are growing up, making new friends, and experiencing new things; she is continually aware that she cannot control everything for them. But the time has come. She now has to become a cultural expert to help our own kids navigate the world they are entering.
But what does that look like? Here are a couple of things.
Culture is about what we do with creation
There is one thing that God did not create. He didn’t create culture. God created everything we can see. Every tree, rock, plant, the atmosphere, the universe, and humanity. But he left the creation of culture up to us. After God had created humanity, he gave them a task. He told them to multiply and care for creation. Essentially he told us to create culture. The cultures that we live in are a reflection of what people have decided to with God’s gift of creation.
Our students have an incredible opportunity. They have the choice to let culture impact them or embrace their responsibility to influence culture and create change for the good. But as a teenager, they don’t yet have the skills to navigate culture to fulfill Gods call to build a world that reflects him. But they won’t get the skills unless we teach them. But to teach them, we need to know the culture they live in. We need to constantly work to be experts in what students are confronted with daily, the temptations, and the messages being broadcast to them.
Of course, it is a great thing to remind students of their sin, their need for Christ, and what belief in him means for the life to come. Jesus has saved us from idolatry, our desire, and ourselves to do things our own way. But what does our salvation mean for this life now? Think about the last time you were blessed to be able to lead a student to Christ, what do you tell them came next? Salvation is from our sin, but it is also to a mission. It is a mission to enter the world. It is a mission to take the gospel back into a sinful culture, not run from it and we are called to live in that tension between good and evil.
A few years ago I was blessed to lead a student to Christ. I have to admit, the best part was not introducing her to Jesus or to even see the Holy Spirit work in her life. Actually, the best part was her motivation to re-enter her world—a broken and torn family—and preach the gospel to anyone and everyone she knew. The problem with that is it would mean she would have to re-enter the sinful culture that raised her. Before Christ, it was all she ever knew, and if she wasn’t properly prepared, she risked that corrupt way of life regaining its foothold on her.
If we, as youth leaders and parents are not actively engaged in youth culture, how can we help students discern what they can and cannot handle? We must walk alongside them, help prepare them, and then send them.
Navigating the Digital World
Students today, have a greater amount of information at their fingertips than any generation before them. The days of parents, teachers, and pastors as life’s experts have been replaced with Google. We have become a culture of instant communication, information overload, and on-demand everything. For most parents and youth leaders, the reality of owning a cell phone was a post-college experience. Now it is not all that unusual to see middle school (or younger) students with not just a mobile phone, but a smartphone. How can such a young mind navigate instant communication and information without some kind of mentoring or coaching?
I have a few other posts on this topic, check them out here.
When I was a Christian educator, so many of my students complained that they were just being sheltered. And to that I said, Yes you are! That is precisely what Christian schools, youth groups, and even the home is trying to do. Shelter our kids. It is the parents (and other adult leaders) responsibility to ensure that their children are prepared to engage the world for the gospel. Soldiers go to boot camp before going to war, students are adequately trained in college before starting a career, even young drivers need to be properly trained and tested before venturing out on the road on their own. So then why would we send students into the world unprepared for what is waiting for them?
But here is the challenge. Every time a student goes online, leaves the house, is at school, hanging with friends—in fact, every time they pull out their cell phone, western culture is working overtime to shape and influence their lives on every level. No matter how many shelters or training camps we create, we can’t prevent it—even if for a time. So what we know about culture and how we teach students is more important than ever.
I get it. This means we will have to watch things we might not want to. I didn’t really want to binge watch 13 Reasons, but I did, so I knew what all the fuss was about. I would have gone to bed early than stay up late rewatching the Billboard Music Awards. There are plenty of movies, books, YouTube videos, and social media platforms that I would much rather ignore. But as someone who walks alongside youth, I make it part of my ministry to be informed. Not to promote it, but help students navigate it.