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Whiteboard Wednesday: A Nutrition Plan for Consuming Culture

In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday experiment, we take a hard look at our “cultural diet” and consider what wise, Jesus-centered standards we can use for both our own life and for our ministry.

The Old Testament urges God’s people to be holy—to set themselves apart from an “unclean” culture. And so the Law required a lifestyle of separation from “unholy” things. It’s an outside-in approach to holiness, later replaced by the inside-out approach to holiness made possible by Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is already holy, and we’re invited to share that holiness as grafted-in brothers and sisters of his. We get Jesus’ life—his set-apart-ness—because his Spirit lives in us. Now, we don’t need to separate ourselves from unholy influences in the culture to live a set-apart life; we carry holiness with us into the culture. In fact, Jesus tells us his redemptive mission requires us to be “in the world but not of it.”

For centuries the church has worked hard to pursue the back end of that challenge. We’ve so distanced ourselves from the world that we’ve sometimes devolved into a “Christian ghetto.” In biblical terms, we’re in serious danger of losing our “saltiness.” Salt can’t season itself; it must infiltrate something foreign to itself before it makes an impact. Conversely, we’ve approached the tension of living as salt and light in our culture by simply capitulating to it. We ignore or explain away the obvious dichotomies between the values of the Kingdom of God and the values of our culture.

Several years ago, I asked student leaders in youth groups across North America to journal what they saw, heard, spoke, and experienced on the very same day. These were cream-of-the-crop kids handpicked by their youth leaders, so I was a little stunned when the journals came back with few or no references to Jesus’ influence in their everyday lives. Curious, I gathered another diverse set of student leaders and videotaped interviews with them. I wanted to know if they felt they could be “real” at church. The answer was a resounding no.

But why? In effect, these kids told me they knew their cultural baggage wouldn’t be welcome in a church that had removed itself from culture. So they played the game, contorting their personalities to fit both the mainstream and Christian ghettos.

Kids want a church that’s unafraid to move in the culture because it’s assured of God’s primacy over it. That means our Jesus-centered imperative is to encourage conversations in kids’ native tongue—popular music, popular film, popular TV shows, and popular gaming. “In but not of” means we never embrace all the values represented in media influences and secular culture, but we faithfully use what teenagers are already attracted to in order to spur gospel-filtered discussions. A church that requires “outsiders” to speak its language first is a church that’s unwittingly working hard to distance itself from those it’s trying to reach.

Jesus never modeled or advocated distance in ministry. In fact, he so closely attached himself to “worldly” people and environments that some claimed he was “of the world” himself. So how can we urge teenagers to take Jesus up on his promise to make them “fishers of men” when, at the same time, we tell them to stay away from the ocean? Here’s a starter-kit for teaching kids to engage their culture, not adopt it or deny it:

  1. First, we wake up. As youth workers, our first responsibility is to engage in kids’ media influences firsthand. We listen first to discover what they’re watching, clicking, and listening to. Then we use Uncle Google to help us “taste and see” what these things are all about.
  2. We use what’s common to teenagers, but use it shrewdly. When Jesus used fishing, farming, money, or common cultural practices to unveil his good news (bad news to some), he was bridging God’s transcendent truths into the people’s everyday world. But he was selective about the cultural practices he used as “bridges”; for example, he never used idol worship as a discussion starter. My basic rule of thumb is this: If most teenagers have seen it, listened to it, or played it, then it’s incumbent on us to consider using some part of it as a launching pad for an exploration of truth, as revealed by Jesus. The key word is “consider.” If you’re worried about how profane a cultural influence might be, choose another widely experienced influence that’s not as profane.
  3. Teach kids to think critically about their cultural influences. Not long ago I created a survey for Christian teenagers I nicknamed the “In-But-Not-Of” study. Our aim was to discover how kids felt the church was training them to engage their culture in a Jesus-centered way. Among many other eye-opening findings, we discovered that just 17 percent of Christian teenagers say their participation in a church youth group has helped them “a lot” to think critically about films or videos (the stats were 18 percent for non-Christian music, 12 percent for TV shows, 8 percent for video games, and 14 percent for websites).

Jesus often challenged the people of his day to think critically about their cultural practices; for example, he prodded his disciples to consider who was making the bigger sacrifice, the rich religious leaders who made a lot of noise when they gave out of their excess income, or the widow who put a penny into the temple offering even though it was all she had (Mark 12:41-44). We’re Jesus-centered when we teach kids to critically “push back” against every cultural influence in their life.

  1. Regularly force kids to solve problems that require critical thinking. Find and give teenagers biblical problems to solve. For example, why does Jesus treat the Canaanite woman who asks him for help in Matthew 15 so harshly? Or why, in John 7, does Jesus tell his brothers he wasn’t yet going to attend a feast in Judea and then later go? The key to making this work is asking many, many follow-up questions after kids give their first answers. Think of yourself as a miner drilling deep into the earth because you’re looking for gold. You really want that gold, so don’t give up easily. You can also challenge kids with cultural problems (“Should gay people have the same rights as married people?”) and relational problems (“How far would you go to ‘love your enemies’ as Jesus commanded?”).

Can you imagine worshipping a Jesus who was frightened by his culture or who stood on a mountain and railed against the pagan idol-worshipping practices common in his “mainstream” society? Jesus saved his “rails” for hypocritical religious leaders, not his culture. That doesn’t mean he approved of idol worship; his mission was to “draw all men to himself” so that idol worship would fade away from disinterest. The more we grow the “wheat” in teenagers, the less room in their “soil” for “weeds.”

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Whiteboard Wednesday: A Nutrition Pla...

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