For years, I listened only to Christian music, watched only PG-13 films (as long as they were approved by “Plugged In”), played only E-rated video games (as long as no shooting at humans was involved), and prioritized preserving holiness and guarding hearts. And that was all good and fine. Holiness-preserving and heart-guarding aren’t bad things, no matter how we choose to engage in culture. But I was strangling opportunities to reach students.
Years ago, I listened to a teenager excitedly talk about a new book. Everyone was reading it, even grownups. I approached Libby with a perfectly innocent, no-judgment-pending statement: “Are you sure that’s the best thing to fill your mind with? Isn’t it about witchcraft?”
Libby, equally innocuous and judgment-free, responded, “Have you read it? There’s actually some stuff in here that could point kids to God.”
Someone flicked a wand my way and commanded “Lumos!” And a light bulb went off: What if stuff in pop culture that lacks a Christian tagline still has Christ in it?
That weekend I read Harry Potter cover to cover. My next conversation with Libby was about a.) how much I loved the story, b.) how pretentiously awesome Hermoine is, and c.) the Christ themes we noticed throughout the book. Soon after, I wrote a series for our small groups about using a Jesus-filter when it comes to pop culture. Kids told us their favorite songs, movies, TV shows, video games, and websites. Then we pulled information from each and discussed how to find (or not find) Jesus in them. (An excellent resource to help guide your youth ministry in this direction is Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry by Rick Lawrence.) All these years later, those students still reference their Jesus-filters.
Teenagers began taking modern-day stories to a spiritual place. I saw them engage friends in conversations using real-life stories from everyday life. Honestly, it seemed as if we were watching Jesus throw down some parables; after all, he’s the master at taking modern-day (at the time) stories and making them eternally significant. My students were engaging that filter, using music and messages their friends were familiar with and flipping them into conversations about Jesus—pretty much like every story he ever told.
Almost two decades removed from that revelation, my instant and easy connection to culture—my own teenagers—have begun moving out of the house. But I’m as committed as ever to knowing what songs, books, and messages kids consume. Pop culture doesn’t need to be metastasized in us just because we’re trying to maintain a relevant stance in our ministry. Relevancy comes from relationship, not knowledge. I want to know what truths teenagers are taking in so I can help them find ways to compare or contrast it to real Truth. And sometimes I even like pop culture. I loved the entire Harry Potter series. Sure, I read it for youth ministry, but the books were also entertaining. It’s okay to like pop culture…
…as long as you guard your heart. And isn’t that what we’re trying to teach our students—to be in the world but not of it? I confess, some areas of pop culture I just won’t explore. I don’t listen to music with lots of explicit lyrics. I still walk out of movies that are too “mature” for me, regardless of their rating.
Recently I was immersed in secular music. I love a good diva tune and songs that make you want to do car karaoke and distract other drivers sitting at red lights. But I was also becoming cranky, irritable, dissatisfied. As I attempted to pinpoint the source, I realized maybe I hadn’t been diligent enough in guarding my heart. The music I listened to wasn’t “bad,” but neither was it uplifting or pointing me toward Jesus in any way. So I pulled back a little, varied my entertainment diet, and established some guardrails about how much culture I consistently consumed. I discovered that guarding your heart isn’t the absence of culture; the distillation is what purifies the process.
Holy cocooning isn’t the way of Jesus. He bumps up against culture all the time…Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, even his own disciples. When he does so, Jesus always keeps his personal holiness in check. And he uses culture as a tool to engage in fearless conversation. Sometimes that can be just the “oculus reparo” someone needs to see Jesus in a clear light.
BONUS: Boldly examine some of the toughest issues facing young people today with LIVE: Journey to Freedom. These 36 lessons will help junior high through college-age students break free from life’s hurts and habits. Go beyond behavior Band-Aids and cut right to the heart of what’s really going on for true healing. It’s all about finding freedom through Jesus. Try it free.