Based on our exclusive national research, Christian teenagers are watching and listening to a lot of profane entertainment, but their youth groups aren’t doing as much as they could to help them think critically and biblically about what they’re taking in. Here are practical, powerful tools that will help you train them to be “in but not of” the world.
by Rick Lawrence
In the film Amadeus there’s a profound scene where Salieri, Austria’s royal court composer, hurls a crucifix into his chamber fireplace. He’s furious because God has gifted Mozart, the boyish, often crude composer who is Salieri’s rival, with a genius for composing beautiful music. Rather than embrace and support Mozart’s gift, Salieri vows to “destroy [God’s] creation.” His envy twists him into an enemy of God bent on revenge.
To be awake in life means to recognize the strategies and patterns of our Salieri—Satan. So here’s a strategic truth: About two-thirds of all Christians (63 percent) make their first commitment to Christ prior to age 18. That means every ministry to children or teenagers is an enemy target.
What strategies are deployed against us? One is to make faith in Christ irrelevant to the “real lives” of children and teenagers. There’s evidence this strategy is working.
Results from the National Study of Youth and Religion have just been released (see my interview with the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Christian Smith, on page 106). In the broadest, deepest exploration into teenagers’ religious beliefs and behaviors that’s ever been done, the picture that emerges portrays kids’ collective relationship with God as shallow at best. While one out of 10-or-so adolescents have a living, vibrant, everyday relationship with God, nine out of 10 see God as a “divine butler or cosmic therapist” who exists only in the background of their lives, waiting to be summoned when they have a problem.
For the vast majority of teenagers, God is irrelevant to their everyday lives. In our exclusive survey of almost 15,000 Christian teenagers, we discovered that almost two-thirds (62 percent) of them watch R-rated films “a lot” or “occasionally,” but only a third of them (34 percent) say they often have “real conversations” at church about the films they watch. Also, just over a third of them (36 percent) say their youth leader knows “a lot” about their “real world.” (See the full results of the survey in the box titled “The In-But-Not-Of Survey,” on pages 91-94.)
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 everyday world of the people. We must do the same.
Don’t Retreat From the Real World
It’s time to stop retreating from the “real world” into a Christian subculture that looks more and more like a ghetto. It’s time to reassert our identity as people who live in the world but are not of it.
It’s time to focus on training young people to think critically about their cultural influences. This is “in but not of” youth ministry.
We must first be clear about what we’re doing and why. I think Steve Turner’s great book Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts (InterVarsity) is a crucial primer. In it, Turner dissects what the Bible says about the “in but not of” life.
- The Bible warns against “the world” and “worldliness.” God deemed the world he created “good.” It remains “good.” “Worldiness,” on the other hand, is defined by Turner as the “rebellious system of thinking that’s at war with the kingdom of heaven.” Turner writes, “We become worldly not by engaging with the world but by allowing it to shape our thinking. Jesus prayed to God ‘not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one’ (John 17:15).” It’s God’s expressed desire that we stay right in the thick of the world while shrewdly, passionately countering its “rebellious system of thinking.”
- We can’t love humans but hate human culture. This is exactly why kids don’t believe the church has much that’s
useful to say about their culture. Our “love” message seems two-faced. We say we love them, but then say we hate their culture. We’re called to engage the culture with renewed minds and an unshakeable commitment to subjugate everything to the heart and mission of God.
Sadly, our kids don’t have many examples of this. I remember Diane Sawyer’s interview with Mel Gibson just when The Passion of the Christ was released in theaters. It was one of the few times I can remember a public figure
showing both his passion for life and his passion for Christ entwined as one.
The Dichotomous Life We’ve Role-Modeled
We’ve trained our kids to look a lot like us—people who see no dissonance in living separate “everyday” and “church” lives, people who’s primary focus is often to extract ourselves from culture—instead of being salt and light.
A couple of years ago I recorded a Dr. Phil show on parent-teenager conflicts. One segment featured a mother who was upset about her son’s rap music, primarily because of its profane lyrics. Dr. Phil read to his audience some bleeped-out lyrics from popular rap songs, then advised the mother (and the parents in the audience and millions of viewers) to collect their kids’ objectionable music and destroy it. Then he went to a commercial. I literally leaped out of my chair and talked back to the TV. What ridiculous, short-sighted advice! Though I mostly enjoy what Dr. Phil has to say, I think his response effectively advocates breaking communication with kids instead of gaining the opportunity to train them. Dr. Phil’s response is very much like the way kids experience the church’s response to their culture.
The church has responded to popular culture in three primary ways, I think.
1. Denial and Blind Hope—Many in the church deal with the dissonance a threatening culture creates in them by denying it could be impacting their kids and assuming they’ll be alright no matter what happens. The truth is that these adults are afraid of the truth and deal with it by denying reality. Our real goal should be to have “unveiled faces” (2 Corinthians 3:18)—that means staring clear-eyed at the truth.
2. Retreat and Fortify—Another popular church response to a threatening culture is to raise imaginary walls in hopes of keeping the bad stuff out. That’s why we’ve created Christian versions of…everything. But that’s like building a corral under the surface of the sea. It looks like a corral, but it doesn’t really keep anything out—or in, for that matter. Adults who want to retreat and fortify are acting out of fear. Our real goal should be to act out of security, with strategies that are ultimately shrewd.
3. Attack, Attack, Attack—When all else fails, the church attacks what is threatening to it. Call this the Dr. Phil paradox—when you attack and try to destroy the cultural forces that kids use as mirrors, you guarantee a break in communication with them. Our real goal should be to maintain communication so that we can train them to think critically and biblically about their culture.
How Was Jesus Culturally Relevant?
Do we have real answers for kids, parents, and people in our congregations regarding pop culture? Most often, the answer is no. But we have a God-given and Christ-modeled responsibility to connect faith to real life.
When I talk about this in parent or youth leader workshops, I ask people to form trios and pick one of five examples1 where Jesus engaged his culture in some way. Then I ask them to come up with a “now equivalent” for their chosen example. I mean they must brainstorm what Jesus would have done in our current culture that’s similar to what he did in ancient Jewish culture.
For example, often those who choose the example of Jesus allowing a known prostitute to wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair come up with a current-day scenario of Jesus inviting an avowed homosexual to go to a Sunday school class with him. After trios have a chance to report on what they come up with, I ask them if they think their current-day equivalents would be offensive to most people in their churches. The answer is always an overwhelming yes! In the silence that follows, most people begin to realize that Jesus was far more engaged in the world than we are in the church.
The sobering upshot is that the dichotomous lives we’re living—our real-world selves and our church selves—have “trickled down” into our kids’ lives. We’ve effectively communicated to them that church is not a relevant place where we can talk about the real world in critical and biblical ways.
Giving Our Kids the Critical Tools They Need
We need tools that will build biblical bridges from kids’ cultural influences to God’s truths. That’s Jesus-style relevancy.
1. Use cultural resources as ministry tools. Jesus was a subversive—he used the stuff of his surrounding culture to teach his followers about God, confounding his critics as he did. That’s exactly why two years ago our group team created our online resource MinistryandMedia.com and a companion regular article of the same name in every issue (check it out on page 24). Both the Web site and the group articles offer background, critique, and biblical discussion questions for feature films, video clips, popular songs (both mainstream and Christian), and breaking news. Our site has more than 1,300 searchable, topically organized discussion starters based on familiar cultural influences. Go to www.ministryandmedia.com for a free tour of the site.
2. Talk often about their media influences. Our survey found 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 numbers are 18 percent for non-Christian music, 12 percent for TV shows, 8 percent for video games, and 14 percent for Web sites). Jesus often challenged the people of his day to think critically about the “givens” in their culture—for example, he challenged “acceptable” male-female contact when he engaged the woman at the well in John 4. Here’s one way to do the same: Challenge kids to come up with a list of five things their favorite TV shows are teaching them. Then use those lists as fodder for a Bible study series that uses clips from their favorite shows as part of the study.
3. Use what’s cool. Challenge your group members to come up with a top-10 list of “things that are cool” that everyone agrees on. Once they’ve wrestled through that challenge, give them a greater one. Have them come up with a definition of what makes one thing cool and another thing not cool. Use their list and definitions for a Bible study series on “What Jesus Thinks Is Cool,” using their examples throughout the study.
4. Establish “problem time” as a regular part of your gatherings. Jesus used parables to introduce critical-thinking problems to his followers. So at least once-a-month give small groups a problem to solve that’s linked to something in popular culture. For example, you could use a clip from the movie Hulk as a lead-in to this problem question: “Did Jesus condemn or embrace anger?”
Also, you can find thematic links in movies, TV shows, and music to tie into three categories of “problem” questions: gospel (“Why did Jesus treat the beggar woman in Matthew 15 so harshly?”), cultural (“What makes music Christian?”), or relational (“What’s the difference between our youth group and a clique?”)
5. Teach kids to question everything they take in (including Christian stuff). Jesus often spurred people to question faulty cultural assumptions—typically, he started by saying, “You have heard it said…” We’re aiming to train kids to think critically instead of passively taking in the messages in their culture. It’s just like reading the nutrition information on food products. For example, not long ago I noticed the cover of a Best Buy flyer that read “Reality is overated—lose yourself in our huge home theater selection.” What’s the message Best Buy wants us to buy into? What’s the promise they’re offering? Is it a kingdom-of-God promise? You can use literally anything in popular culture to spur critical-thinking conversations with your teenagers.
Soon, when kids are driving alone in their car, they’ll hear something and a little voice inside will ask, Is that really true? When that happens, you’ll have helped change the way they engage with their culture and opened up a new, deeply relevant phase in their relationship with God.
This article was originally published in a 2005 issue of Group Magazine.