I’ve been a youth pastor or intern in about as many different settings as there are complaints about the first three episodes of Star Wars. I’ve served at KJV-only, seeker sensitive and “high” churches. All three were fascinating case studies on totally different approaches to youth ministry. Let me highlight a few of the most common mistakes we make in how we interact with the culture around us.
1.) Culture transplanting. I have a friend who has decided that their entire church needs to become “Family Based”, and has agreed, with his pastor, that the youth ministry will be…well, obliterated. It’s a nice way to work oneself out of the job, but more than that, I can already prophesy that this is not going to work out. Why? Because family based church models that work are churches that start that way. It’s interesting to me that nearly all of the youth pastors from big, brand name churches discourage other youth ministries from copying their programs. They do this because they recognize a simple fact: we all live in different cultures. Your church history is different, your head pastor is different (some of them more different than others), and your church size is likely much different. Your students have different tastes, values and knowledge of the gospel. Of course, we can learn some good universal principles from the big-shots, but we can’t be copycats. Besides, that’s cheating.
2.) Creating a subculture. Do you find yourself using words and phrases like “relevant”, “missional” or “postmodern-orientated-meta-narratively-focused” in youth group? If so, you’re probably not any of those things. I’ll be honest, in my context, we tend to create “Holier than thou” students. We love theology, high expectations and serious exposition of the Bible. At the same time, we often have bad music, lame videos and an unappealing room schema. This is great for our homeschool-based fan page, but it’s not helpful or hospitable to those on the outside. It gives us a little extra to be proud about, and has the backward effect of communicating to our conservative students: “This place is for you, not non-Christians. So, keep attending youth group the way you like it, and, by the way, did you want fries with that #5?” We need to feel comfortable with the tension of the great commission: “Make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
3.) Failing to use culture. Culture is a force, like gravity. It’s not always good or bad, but it’s always there. I’ll never forget the time in high school when a youth speaker read aloud the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, word by word. He used the word “nihilism”, and explained what the song was really about. I’ll never forget that moment, because I knew that speaker had incarnated himself into my culture, analyzed it, and saw it in a totally different light than I did. I did this same thing with the movie “Tangled” in youth group a few weeks ago. I purposefully chose “Tangled” because of how seemingly innocent it is, and, honestly, because it was going to be hilarious when I explained to my students that the thieving jerk was never going to get a job, the princess would eventually become frustrated that he sits around and eat Doritos, and that the only reason either of them fell in love was because she was desperate and he was horny. If we don’t teach students to think about the culture around them, they won’t. But they’ll accept it. How does technology affect their devotional life? What do advertisements tell girls about their self-worth? What does the latest film say about true success? We have to know student’s lives, in the same way Jesus knew ours.
4.) Mindlessly embracing culture. This, unfortunately, is probably the most common mistake I see in youth ministry. Have you ever thought twice about why you play that favorite game where someone is humiliated at the end? Have you ever considered the lyrics to the popular worship song you’re playing in youth group? Have you ever thought about what you’re saying about God when half of your message is a hilarious story about you, and the other half is bending over backwards to make that fit in with the Bible verse you thought might apply? Youth ministry is all about numbers, but it’s not about numbers in a room. It’s about how many of those in that room know Jesus Christ. Does everything you do communicate the truth of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ? If not, it’s time to take what culture handed you, and hand it over to God.
Nicholas McDonald is the Cornerstone EPC 180 Director and blogs at www.theradicaljourney.com.