Culture | Families | Leadership

Today we’re happy to interview Walt Mueller, the president of the Center for Parent and Youth Understanding, an organization committed to helping empower youth workers to care for and empower youth leaders to ministry to students in today’s modern world. You can visit it at CPYU.org.

How did you get started helping youth workers understand the world of youth culture?
I was doing youth ministry at a church in suburban Philadelphia back in the 1980s. We were very intentional from the start about doing what is now called “family-based youth ministry.” We knew that biblically and pragmatically parents had the greatest influence on the spiritual development of their kids. We worked to recognize and honor that in everything that we did in our ministry. Because we worked to foster respect for our kids’ parents and because we worked to equip them, they felt a good connect with us. Out of that came a request from a group of those parents: “We have a problem. We don’t understand the world our kids are growing up in.” Remember, these were the days when Madonna and George Michael were making parents’ heads spin!

Tips from Walt Mueller to help teenagers filter their media choices.

These parents asked me to help them understand their kids by helping them to understand the rapidly changing world of youth culture. I reluctantly took the challenge…with fear and trembling…as I was not sure how I could be of help to them. I started to research youth culture more intentionally, and actually began a 12-week Sunday morning class on youth culture for the parents. I talked about things like music and media, peer pressure, substance abuse, materialism, parental pressure, depression, etc. That class grew like crazy and people kept coming back week after week excited about how it was helping them understand, connect with, and nurture their kids. I was happy that our kids weren’t mad at me for selling them out to their parents. They actually were happy with the new connections they were feeling with their parents. I started to get requests from other churches to come and share what I was learning. That grew into recognition of an obvious need for this kind of thing…then that grew into a calling…that I reluctantly accepted (thanks to the forthrightness of my wife!). The rest is history and I’ve been doing this for almost 24 years now! Since then, I’ve realized that parents and youth workers need to see themselves as cross-cultural missionaries. At CPYU, we’re working to help them stay ahead of the unfolding and rapidly changing youth culture. We don’t know everything. In fact, we realize more and more each day how much we don’t know. But we keep forging ahead! I never imagined that this is what I’d be doing with my life.

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What is one key thing youth workers can do help their teenagers survive a sex-saturated culture?
Plain and simple here it is: Talk about sex and keep talking about sex. Kids have come to believe from the way we’ve handled sex in the past that sex is a big “NO!” with God. We need to talk about God’s big “YES!” for sex … that he made it, that he gave us the desire for it, and that he constructed our bodies for it. We need to explain that God’s big “YES!” for sex is for the best sex ever—the kind of sex that one man and one woman give to each other in the context of covenantal marriage. But we also need to be talking about the culture’s big and boundary-less “YES!” to sex…and how destructive and dangerous that cultural “YES!” really is. That’s the message they are hearing 24/7. Youth workers need to live in their kids’ world and talk about the cultural messages they are seeing and hearing…debunk those messages, challenge those messages, get their kids thinking about those messages through the eyes of God’s Word. For example, you should talk about the ads you are seeing and hearing. Deconstruct the ads with your kids. We can’t talk about sex enough, because the culture is talking about it all the time. One more thing, be sure to equip parents with the same tools and knowledge.  

How can we better equip parents to understand this world as well?
This is an essential question that we often fail to answer because we think we need to be busy ministering to kids. The simple answer is this: Communicate everything you learn about youth culture to parents in as many ways as you can. Use parents meetings, tweets with helpful links, social media pages, trend alerts, weekly emails, whatever. Get the word out!
What is one thing you used to tell youth workers that you don’t now?
Great question! The first thing that comes to mind—since we’re talking about youth culture—is this: I used to tell youth workers to get to know kids by getting into their bedrooms. That sounds and is so creepy in today’s world. Back then, it wasn’t an issue. But it is an issue in today’s world. The bedroom was the place where a youth worker could do an amazing ethnographic study just by looking at how the teenager had set up and decorated their room. You could literally see their values, attitudes, influences, and behaviors all over the walls. Now I tell youth workers to NEVER go into a student’s bedroom—male/male, female/female, male/female (obviously). Again, we live in a different world. Today’s “bedroom” is more easily accessed through social media. Kids are putting it all out there on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Now, I’m telling youth workers to be careful in how they use social media!

Tips from Walt Mueller to help teenagers filter their media choices.
What is the “must have” resource or event to help youth workers get youth culture and help them in their ministry to teens?
You set me up with this question…and for that I’m grateful! While it sounds horribly self-serving, I have to point to the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. After all, that’s why we exist and what we’re trying to do. Our Web site is a great place to start: cpyu.org. It’s updated daily. Also, youth workers can sign up for our weekly Youth Culture e-update, a free resource that you can forward on to your parents and staff. Our monthly “Parents Page” is one of the few things we offer that isn’t free, but it’s almost free: $5 a month for four pages of stuff that you can forward on as a pdf, or print out and hand to parents with unlimited rights. I would also love to have folks plug in to any of the seminars I do at many of the national conventions … and I always love to come and speak for churches. All that’s on our site.

Thanks, Walt!

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