“Use the Culture, to Reach the Culture.” That was the mantra for Liberty University youth majors back in the ’90’s. We had outstanding mentors that encouraged us and mentored us to understand the culture of the kids we were going to minister to. That’s one thing I’ve tried to do over the years, even though I’m not in full time minister and am only a lowly volunteer youth leader (said in jest and sarcasm), I’ve always made it a point to try and understand the culture of the people I was ministering to. When I lived in Harrisonburg, VA, I was part of a fairly new church plant that didn’t have a youth ministry, but their ministry was focused on the the 3 surrounding colleges, so I had to understand the culture that was Harrisonburg. It was pretty challenging because it ranged from JMU, to Eastern Mennonite, to Bridgwater College (which is Church of the Brethren). Each campus had it’s different cultures, yet the one thing that was similar with each student was that they were searching for what was real. Real Faith, Genuine community, and consistent leadership in Biblical teaching. We had that At Alethia church and I’m so thankful for the two years I spent there. I’m living now in Culpeper, VA, and am a part of a vibrant youth ministry with Mountain View Community Church. The challenge for me, especially as I get older, is understanding the culture of this town’s teenagers. It’s always a challenge, but this article helps. If you’re part of a youth ministry, the author is spot on about how to understand the culture of the teens in your community.
Imagine with me that you have been selected by your church to be a missionary to a foreign land. Where you are going there are many clans that each speak a strange language, have strange rituals, eat different foods, and behave in some awkward (to you) ways. What would you want to know about the people there? How would you approach this kind of assignment? This is the exact place youth leaders find themselves in!
WHO NEEDS TO KNOW YOUTH CULTURE?
Whether you are just starting in a new community or you have been in the same place for twenty years, we as youth leaders need to be students of culture. The one constant in culture is that it is always changing! This is one of the reasons the church and youth ministry should always be changing. Before you go too far, it is important to put some intentionality to this.
WHY KNOW YOUTH CULTURE?
The most important question we have to start with when it comes to learning culture is: “why?” If we are just learning youth culture so that we can manipulate youth to do what we want them to – even if we think our motives are good – then we are no better than all the other marketers trying to get something that we want from teenagers. But if we are serious about loving youth and knowing all about them so that we can better understand, communicate with, and care for them, then that sounds a lot like Jesus. Our agenda has to be about relationship first and foremost. This is what the incarnation models for us! “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14 MSG). We are invited to follow Christ to where youth live and breathe in order that we might love them. What a privilege!
WHERE DO I START?
This motivation to love people where they are compels us to want to know about youth culture because you care about what that teenager cares about. This is not so we can dress like teenagers and talk with the coolest new words. If you care about someone, then you become interested in the things they are interested in. There are all kinds of places and ways to get information about the broad youth culture, but it is important to remember that the statistics do not necessarily represent the young people you know. As my friend who has done ministry in the Bronx, New York his whole life says, “There are demographics and then there are hoodographics.” He talks about the value of knowing the stats and trends, but he finds that there is something about walking around your neighborhood, knowing the people there, encountering their struggles, and feeling what life is like. The best place to start learning youth culture is with the youth in your own ministry!
5 STEPS TO LEARNING ABOUT YOUTH CULTURE
Just a like a good missionary, we youth workers need to employ some good methods to really learn about youth culture. Remember that culture is always changing and so are adolescents, so it important to keep learning. Usually what it takes to learn about someone is simply asking questions and spending time together. So what do we look for? What do we pay attention to? There are many different models and ways to learn about culture, but my friend Jim Hampton from Asbury Theological Seminary has shown me a model that has been very helpful for youth leaders trying to learn about culture. It is the simple acronym: LASTS.
Some of us live in communities where we may hear a language other than English spoken on a regular basis. This is important to pay attention to, but what I am more focused on with language, even if it is our native language, is the words and phrases particular groups of teenagers use. We all know that our church, denomination, and schools have their own words, acronyms, and phrases that outsiders do not understand and insiders do. The same is true of youth clusters and groups. What are the words and phrases that the teens you know use? Are there some that you do not use or do not understand? Because you care, you should ask what those words mean and where they come from. This is a bit risky. You might get made fun of or laughed at because you do not know what “on fleek” means. But just by asking you are acknowledging what they already know (you and not one of them), and demonstrating that you care.
What do the young people you know do? If they work, what kind of work do they do and where? If they have free time, how do they spend it? Our actions speak louder than words.
Where do the teenagers you know spend their time? Some of us who are older can tell stories of hanging out at the mall. Some of us who are a lot older can tell stories of hanging out “on the strip.” Where do teens today go? In most communities that I know this includes some virtual spaces. Pay attention to these too. What websites do they visit? What YouTube channels do they frequent?
What is a “normal” day in the life of the teens you know look like? When do they get up? Is their day completely structured and scheduled out or do they have some free time? If they have free time, how do they use it? Time is one of our most precious resources and how we spend it tells a lot about what is important to us.
This one can be a little harder and may take some time. What images, words, shapes, and colors do you see often around teenagers? By paying attention to these you might begin to pick up on some cultural elements that make your community unique.
Learning about culture starts with a genuine desire to be in relationship with someone. Pray with your youth ministry team that God will give you the eyes to see and the ears to hear what is happening in the lives of the youth in your community so that you can know them and care for them. How well do you and your team know the youth culture in your community? Invite them to join you trying to fill out answers for each of these categories. Come together in a couple months and compare what you have found, look for trends, talk about how different sub-groups operate, and ask God to show you where He is already at work in those young people’s lives
BRIAN HULL has been involved in youth ministry for over twenty years and is currently the Associate Professor of Youth Ministry at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. His youth ministry experience includes work at the local church and denominational levels. He is both a former member of the Lone Ranger fan club and a PhD. Brian is passionate about connecting people to each other and to the best kind of life found in Jesus. Brian is also one of our YSASNprofessors, leading youth ministry majors and other college students through the NYWC experience. If you’re a professor, check out all the YSASN benefits at NYWC.COM/YSASN.