I spend a decent amount of time each week immersing myself in youth culture. Granted, some aspects come easier than others. I don’t care much about certain music styles for instance—say rap or r&b. But I’ve read every popular young adult book, have seen the TV shows teens watch, I can quote Taylor Swift or Katy Perry lyrics, and I know which teen star is dating whom.
Why do I go through the trouble of investing time and energy in immersing myself in a culture that’s first of all not ‘mine’ (I’m 40 and as such really don’t qualify as a young adult anymore…) and second of all, often not even remotely Christian?
It’s a good question, one that I have asked myself on several occasions. Because considering the utter garbage that you encounter in youth culture every now and then (with music videos and lyrics being the worst offenders), what do I gain from it?
Map and Mirror
Walt Mueller refers to youth culture as a map and a mirror. For young people, their culture is a map of how they need to live what they need to like, who they need to be. As youth leaders, it’s important to know what map our students are using to shape their lives.
But it’s also a mirror we can use to show students where they are going, whom they are following and if that’s really who, what, and where they want to be. We can help students evaluate their culture and decide for themselves where they want to ‘play along’ and where they want to be different and push back.
Unless we know youth culture well, we can’t take up this role of helping teens reflect on their choices. If we want to address specific cultural issues we know run counter to God’s culture, we need to know about them first and truly understand what they are and where they’re coming from.
Let me give just one example: I think TV series especially have played a huge rol in shaping teens’ opinions on homosexuality and gender issues. Every show aimed at teens has at least one gay or bisexual character nowadays, where this was unthinkable a decade or two ago. Surely this has a huge impact on how teens think about these issues, whether you think this is positive or not.
As someone who speaks multiple languages, I have firsthand experience of the importance of translating something exactly right. My native language is Dutch. When we moved to Germany a few years ago, I mastered German well enough to be able to speak and teach in church. But I struggled with getting it just right, because I missed out on nuances I wasn’t (yet) able to make in German, which would have been no problem in Dutch. Even in English I have to think hard sometimes to get the exact right word.
With students, it’s much the same. To communicate effectively with them, I need to speak their language and I need to get it right. If you have ever heard a grown up try to use youth slang, only to get it all wrong, you know what I mean. Using the right words, using references teens will understand makes communicating Biblical truths far easier.
I’m a storyteller. In every talk I give, I include multiple stories. And when I speak to teens, these stories often come from youth culture. Too often, I hear speakers use examples and stories and quotes from ‘grown up culture’ or even from plain historic culture. Teens can’t relate to these.
I use both positive and bad examples from the news, like teens being recognized for outstanding behavior, or teens making plain stupid decisions. I also use storylines from TV series and movies or from well-known books. These can function as the parables of our times!
While being liked by teens should never be your first goal, knowing their culture will give you credibility as a youth leader. It shows them you know their world, that you are interested in them.
One of my former students in The Netherlands is a big reader and I regularly give her book tips when I’ve read a great young adult book. She does the same for me by the way and our common love for books creates a strong bond. But we also talk about what we’ve read and what this means to us. I love these discussions and so does she!
That’s it. That’s why I immerse myself in youth culture. And I think all youth leaders need to do this to a certain degree. I don’t think you can be an effective youth worker if you stay completely out of youth culture. It sort of comes with the territory…
What do you do to stay current on youth culture? Which aspects do you find hard to follow and which come easy to you?