As you may know, I grew up in The Netherlands, in Europe, and that’s where I first started doing youth ministry. One church I was serving in became big fans of Rick Warren’s ‘purpose driven’ model and the youth pastor wanted to use Doug Field’s resources. He had bought small group studies for instance, with the idea to translate them into Dutch and use them in our small groups.
It was a big fail.
There’s nothing wrong with these studies, except that they’re very, very American. That in itself is fine, as long as you are using them in an American context. But you can’t just use these studies, or any American resources, in a different country and culture. You’ll have to adapt them to the country and culture you’re using them in.
Let’s look at a few aspects you may want to have a look at:
The US is one of countries that scores very high on the individualism scale, as opposed to countries like for instance Germany that lean far more towards collectivism. An individualistic society depends upon the values of (personal) freedom and independence, while a collectivistic society depends on group harmony and consensus.
This is a big difference that I cannot stress enough. Most Asian countries are collectivistic for instance, meaning that resources that stress independence and freedom will not do well here. Moreover, examples that highlight individualism won’t hit home. An example is referencing to fights kids may have with their parents. In some cultures, this is unthinkable and would be a big ‘sin’ whereas in other cultures this is quite normal. These can be examples that really set a wrong tone or example, so make sure they for your culture.
But this also becomes clear in the small group interaction. Whereas American small groups are used to disagreeing with each other, or at least have spirited conversations (and the same is true in my home country, as the Dutch are almost as individualistic as Americans), in other countries this will not work at all. Students will simply not disagree, or if they do, it will be seen as ‘bad’.
That’s okay. If your culture leans towards harmony, consider changing the questions to create less tension, or find a model where you talk things through until you find consensus. Remember: one culture is not better than the other, just different.
Youth Ministry in the US is divided according to the school system, meaning that they have middle school ministry (also called junior high) for kids 11-15 and high school ministry for kids 15 and up. The exact ages differ per region or state by the way, depending when the break off for middle school and high school is. Resources are also based on these age categories.
In other countries, many youth groups are either integrated, meaning younger and older teens are in the same group, or the age division is different. In The Netherlands it’s often 12-16 for instance (in Holland you start secondary education at age 12) and then 16-23, because college students are included in the church ministry.
If your country has a different age category, make sure the resources you use from the US are age appropriate. This has to do with the level of abstract thinking young teens are capable of for instance, but also whether it’s a topic that’s relevant to them.
The Americans also place great value on the ‘high school experience’, as you may have noticed from watching American TV series or movies. The reality is often very different, but fact is that ‘school’ is an experience here unlike in many other countries where school is a privilege or a necessary evil.
Baseball and American football references are very common in youth min resources, with the occasional basketball story thrown in. In the rest of the world, these sports aren’t nearly as popular. You may want to change these examples into a sport that’s popular in your country, for instance football (meaning soccer), cricket, or rugby. Otherwise the students won’t get it.
It’s a sad reality that most American youth min resources are ‘white’. That means they are written from the perspective of a white, middle class person, often a guy by the way. All the examples will show that white perspective—and this is really where culture matters.
Depicting a ‘white Jesus’ is just one example where Christian resources in general miss the mark, but it’s more than that. It’s about ‘white’ Biblical characters, a theology of privilege and relative wealth. That’s a message that does not connect with audiences outside of white middle class America.
So read the resources with care. Change any examples, jokes, or references (especially all stories) to something from your culture. Look at the key point the author is trying to make and find a culturally fitting example that communicates that same message.
Let me give one example. In a resource, the author used ‘sports’ as an example of something that can become your idol, that can become the most important thing in your life instead of God. This is a good example in the American culture, which places such a high value on sports. But in many other cultures, for instance in The Netherlands, this wouldn’t be the best examples as sports aren’t nearly as important and popular. So a better example would be clothes (for girls), or games (for guys). In your culture, this may be something else.
Last but not least, it’s important to be aware that even the theology depicted in these resources is American. As much as authors say their message is ‘Biblical’, there’s always a cultural theology in there.
Take the individualistic tendency in the US I mentioned earlier: of course this deeply affects American theology. You read and interpret Biblical stories and truths through this individualistic lens. That’s where it can be really helpful to read non-white commentaries, or commentaries from different cultures (including from women by the way). It’s very possible that you come to a different interpretation, so take the time to ‘test’ the resource’s key message to see if you agree.
Another example is the emphasis on ‘fun’ in American culture, including in youth ministry. Again, this may be something that is not necessary or that wouldn’t even do well in your culture. Dutch humor is completely different than American for instance, so any American jokes would totally fail in my country.
Yes, this means that it’s a lot of extra work to translate American resources into your culture. I know that from experience. However, if you don’t do this translation, if you just copy-paste materials and use them as-is, you’ll discover that they won’t do very well.
Youth ministry always has to be highly contextualized. It’s about your culture, your specific circumstances and situation. You cannot use a study written for white middle class American kids and use it in, say, South Africa, India, The Philippines, or Nigeria. It would make no sense and it wouldn’t help in discipling your students…Hopefully the suggestions above will help you with this ‘translation’ process!
I know I have many readers outside the US. I’d love to hear some experiences from readers in using American resources outside of the US! Leave a comment below.