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christian youth culture

April 28, 2010

Imagine you are a new high school student and you walk into a room filled with other high school students. There are kids bunched up all over. There is loud hip-hop music playing over the sound system. There are the jocks, the Abrocrombies, the computer nerds, the punks, the band geeks, the over-achievers, the apathetic losers, the sexually active couples, the hip-hop crowd, and the religious group. Where do you fit in? Where are going to stand or sit? Will anyone talk to you? Will you be liked? Is this place safe emotionally and physically? This room can very easily be the lunch room on your local high school campus, or this could even be your youth room on a typical evening at youth group.

In my years as a youth pastor what I have observed is that social structures on a high school’s campus are the same social structures as at youth group. How students behave and interact all week at school doesn’t change the moment they walk through the door of youth group. There are a wide variety of cliques. These cliques rarely interact. Within these groups there is infighting, bickering, and jockeying for position. Even the students who participate in leadership within the youth group display the same ladder of social order.

As youth workers, we want all of our students to be in the “leaders’ clique” in our youth ministry. These are the students that get it: they are excited about their faith and are striving to live it out daily. And if they can articulate their beliefs and in their actions they can abstain from worldly pleasures then they get to become a part of the leadership clique.

Now these student leaders might speak a more Christian language, but most students’ attitudes and actions are just the same as any other clique on a high school campus. Take the movie “Saved” as an extreme example. There was worship, prayer, Christian music, abstaining from drugs and sex, and even reaching out to friends who are walking away from their faith. Even though the characters said the right words and participated in the right activities, there was still infighting, backstabbing, exclusion, violence, gossip, and blatant cruelty which are no different than any other clique. But what makes it worse is that this Christian clique allowed these attitudes to continue and they even were exalted in the name of God. What this movie did was show that all the right words and actions don’t make a person a good Christian. The missing piece was the truth that it is the Holy Spirit that transforms our lives and that our values and attitudes are fruit of a life walking with the Spirit. What hurt my heart the most is that the attitudes portrayed in this movie are lived out in churches and youth groups all over America, even within my own church and youth group.

I think the problem is that we have tricked ourselves (or I have tricked myself) into thinking that by changing the cover on youth culture, students would grow in their relationship with Jesus Christ. For example if a student was into Nelly, the rap artist, I would let them borrow my Gritz CD, if they were into death metal, then I would let them borrow my ZAO CD. I would give away Christian T-shirts and W.W.J.D. bracelets. When we would go on trips I would only play Christian music and show Disney movies. And if a kid would go on their own to the Christian book store and by a Christian CD, then I knew I was making progress.

But what I realized is that I was creating more problems instead of solving them. On one hand there would be the kids who would give lip service to the Christian music and the “no cussing rules” at youth group, but then leave and continue living exactly how they had before. They had become more and more numb to Christ’s impact on their daily lives. I have created a little Christian clique that is no different than any of the other cliques on a high school campus. Sure, they may listen to Christian music and may know scripture, but they are just as self-centered, just as rude. There is a social pecking order with inside stories and jokes just like all cliques, but what is worse is that they are self-righteous. Because they don’t drink or have sex and listen to Christian music they think that they have a strong faith but in fact are just as numb to Christ’s potential impact on their daily lives.

As I have wrestled with this problem I am starting to think that creating a parallel Christian youth culture that mirrors secular youth culture is not the answer. Instead, I think that we as youth leaders have an amazing opportunity to truly create a new culture. Not by changing the surface issues of youth culture like their music, clothing, or even their common interests. These are just surface issues. Culture is much more than this, it is attitudes and values. We have an amazing opportunity to create a culture that is not just on the surface Christian, but is Christ-like. Christ’s attitudes and values shape a ministry and will shape student’s lives at the heart level.

I spent four years with a student named Zach. He was a popular kid and into all the wrong things. But after a camp high experience his freshman year he bought into the Christian thing hook-line-and-sinker. He cleaned up his language, was honorable in his relationships with girls and over the years grew in his knowledge of scripture and ultimately finished out his high school career as president of the Christian club on his way to a great Christian college. Zach seemed to be growing in his faith so I put him in leadership positions and let him share at youth Sundays and at youth groups. But actually he was just climbing the Christian social ladder. And all of this change was superficial for their wasn’t any heart change. He didn’t get plugged into bible studies or college ministries, etc. He went off to college met a girl, and quickly became sexually active. He is no longer concerned about his faith and put our relationship and his relationship with Christ on the back burner.

As someone who poured my life into Zach for four years I was heartbroken about the recent developments in his life. And I was also heartbroken for the way I think I contributed to his spiritual downfall. I put all my effort into changing the surface of his life and rewarding those superficial changes instead of going deeper and looking at his heart and challenging him to do heart work instead of head work.

There has to be a better way.

Jesus calls us to be a city on a hill. A city that gives light to the surrounding area and will draw people to it. We are not to be a spot light that focuses all the light into a concentrated beam that actually repels people in the dark with our self-righteousness. But we are to be a beacon of hope, love, and justice. Out light is not our words, but it is our good deeds. And our good deeds are motivated by love. It is easy to love our friends. We all do this easily. But Jesus calls us not to just love our friends, but to love our neighbor, parents, and enemies. This is unique in this world and even more unique in youth culture. But this is the foundation of what a new Christian youth culture could look like.

Paul gives a great summary of what Christian culture and what Christian youth culture could be. Colossians 3:12-14 Because of our identity in Christ, “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” We are to not separate from the world, be self-righteous, look down our nose at others, but “clothe yourselves with COMPASSION, KINDNESS, HUMILITY, GENTLENESS, and PATIENCE. BEAR with each other and FORGIVE whatever grievances you may have against one another. FORGIVE as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on LOVE which binds them together in perfect unity.”

This is what should characterize Christian culture. Sure Christian music has a place, yes it is good to challenge our kids to not drink or have sex. Yes we absolutely want to teach our kids how to read scripture, pray and develop “quiet times.” But if what we are doing doesn’t result in changed lives that are truly and deeply transformed, then I think we (I) might be just fooling ourselves. This is exactly what happened with my student Zach. The fruit of the Christian life is LOVE, JOY, PEACE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GOODNESS, FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS, and SELF-CONTROL. This is what I want to model in my own life and challenge kids to live in their lives.

But the real question is how to do this. And for that I don’t have any easy answers. I do know that in a typical youth ministry schedule we have Sunday school, youth group, bible studies, special events, and retreats. These are little chunks of time that we are in charge of and that we can some-what control. So why not just work hard at teaching scripture and promoting the latest Christian band, and challenging kids to not be of this world, but to shape culture around them.

Let’s face it, being a teenager is difficult and they always have to be on their toes socially. Everywhere in their lives they are divided up into cliques and sub-cliques. They are trying to fit in, be accepted, and not put their foot in their mouths. High school can feel like total war and absolute chaos. Instead of having a youth ministry that has the same social structures just in a Christian context, why not work to create a safe harbor in the storm? A place where kids will be loved and accepted by the staff and students alike.

I want to create a youth ministry that was shaped by compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another, forgiveness, and love. When you figure out how to do this, you can write the article and let me read it. I think it is a next to impossible task, but I think that it is the direction that youth ministry needs to go. Until then let’s at least not settle for cultural change at the surface level. Let’s instead challenge ourselves and our students to live lives that reflect the One who saved their lives, to love our neighbor, or parents, our enemies, to be light in the darkness, to bear with one another, forgive one anther, and to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Amen.

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