When you’re a Youth and Family Ministry major, a few things are expected of you. Facial hair and/or a trendy haircut. At least a loose understanding of and presence on Twitter or Instagram (Facebook belongs to the parents and grandparents now, and making ironic jokes about having a Xanga account stopped being funny like 4 years ago). Chacos should be your only option for footwear, even in the winter.
And if you’re gonna talk about music, it should consist of All Sons and Daughters, Hillsong United, and Relient K if you’re feeling nostalgic. If you really wanna get edgy, you can prove how relevant you are to modern youth culture by talking about Lecrae and other Christian rappers because hip hop is the way we reach this generation.
Fortunately, I’m going to break down that barrier and completely change your mind about Yeezy in a single blog post.
Just kidding. I’m not Kanye; I’m not that arrogant.
Now, I could talk your ear off about Kanye. I won’t because I have a feeling several people have already stopped reading at the point where they really realized that this is what this post is actually about. But I will ask for something from you: the benefit of the doubt.
I understand Kanye is a point of contention for many people. And I understand that he’s decidedly not a point of contention for others because we’ve pretty much made up our minds about him. But I would ask you to put that aside for a moment to hear an experience I had and what that taught me about my relationship with God. And don’t worry, we can talk more Kanye later.
The primary point to lead with, I think, is that we need to be digging for the Gospel in everything. And I get this creeping feeling that many of us agree with that statement until it comes to actually doing it. But when it comes to how we as Christians interact with the culture of the world around us, especially in a context of youth ministry, we’ve gotten a lot of things wrong. Looking at the tone and state of youth ministry at large over the past few decades, there have been some conspicuous and somewhat disturbing trends.
A while while back, the method of approach to worldly culture was to outright reject it. We’d show our teens things in their culture that are directly opposed to Christ and they should purge their lives of any influence from it. Rock and roll is the sound of Satan’s heartbeat and if your pants don’t go past your knees, your feet will transform into hooves and you’ll be swallowed by the earth.
We now, of course, realize that these notions are all true and have thankfully purged the earth of rock and roll and short shorts.
Then, as youth ministry began to become more popular, the opposite effect took place. At large, youth ministry became very attraction-based, leaning into youth culture so as to bring kids into the ministry, but never actually address the things that were in fact problematic. Programs became based on fun instead of God, and a youth group might have been indiscernible from any other gathering of teens.
Thankfully, we have since remedied these problems and modern youth groups are basically factories that you can put your children into for about 6 years and get them back on the other side as responsible, spiritually mature young adults, ready to take on the world and walk in stride with Christ without stumbling.
Modern youth ministry, as far as I’ve observed and been taught, is taking on a new stage. Instead of rejecting culture or embracing it openly, a more common tactic (and an effective one, as far as I’ve seen) is to repurpose culture. To dig for God in secular things. When my brother was in the youth group, they did a whole series where they would take popular songs from the radio, and try to find ways to see God in them. This was of course difficult in the age of “Lips of an Angel” and “Crank That” by Soulja Boy (which plays on a loop in Tartarus), but it got the teens thinking critically, and thinking critically searching for God in the world around them.
This can be a slippery slope, because a question of ends and means arises. Does the possibility of the ends of finding God justify the means of exposure to things that are considered “non-Christian” or objectionable? And that is by and large a personal question, one that parents are largely concerned with. Here are my views:
Christian culture, specifically media, is currently in the midst of a plague and it is doing nothing to enrich the way we interact with the world around us. We call for more Jesus in Hollywood, but are unwilling to look for Him there. Instead, we have our own Jesus Christ, Superstar in the form of Kirk Cameron and every low-budget Christian film that he has put out.
Now this may be striking uncomfortably close to home for many of you. But I for one cannot go on pretending that things like Fireproof and Facing the Giants and To Save a Life are quality productions. As a former aspiring film director, and as a person with eyes and ears connected to a functioning brain, I can assure you those movies have no cinematic value. Is that harsh? Absolutely. Accurate? I believe so.
I understand that the acting and plot can be overlooked for the message inside it. They reinforce good Christian values, and they do so very conspicuously and positively. But isn’t that where the double standard lies?
We’re willing to look past content for meaning whenever it’s got a big, fat Jesus label on it, but not if it’s got an R rating. I guarantee you, you will have a more enriching theological discussion on The Book of Eli than on Facing the Giants or Courageous.
It’s interesting to consider the question of having to wade through the bad to get to the good. It’s one that’s been an issue for forever. And when you turn to the Bible, you’re not gonna find particularly helpful answers. Throughout the Exodus, the Israelites are instructed to commit “the ban” or a total destruction of the towns, cities, etc. that they came across. That seems to contradict a theology of love anyway, right? That’s very disturbing to read, especially from a non-Christian perspective. Christians want to say that their God is all-loving, and yet he commands his people to wipe out whole cities? Seems pretty sketchy.
But that was done for Israel’s own well-being, not physically, but spiritually. Because if there’s one thing Israel’s good at, it’s not trusting God and turning instead to the false gods that were all around them, familiar in the land that they were in. And doesn’t that sound sort of like the solution that youth ministry had tried before? Reject the culture, perform the ban, and keep yourselves holy and pure by doing away with what the world has to offer.
And then there’s Jonah. Jonah is a prophet who God seems to want to do the complete opposite to. Jonah, go to Nineveh. That place is messed up in every way. But I need you to dive into the middle of that so that they can see me. And Jonah runs and he doesn’t want to until God makes it abundantly clear that he is not messing around. So Jonah goes and in an act that resonates profoundly, at least with me, Jonah gets pissed off that the Ninevites get off because of the work he’s done. God spares Nineveh, and Jonah couldn’t be less pleased because in his eyes, they didn’t deserve it.
That’s an angle for another time, but what changed between the Exodus and Jonah? Answer: a whole heck of a lot, Kevin, there was a lot of time between those two events. True. Noted.
But my point in bringing that up is that Jonah didn’t bend to Nineveh’s influence. It was all around him, and he was aware of it. But God was with him in the thick of it. God walked with Jonah. And if Jonah was a pebble thrown into a pond, instead of the pond swallowing up the pebble, the pebble spread out across the entire pond.
That’s the sort of backward logic that only God can achieve.
So my question is: why aren’t we giving God that credit? Why do we draw lines, sometimes arbitrarily, and say “God can’t work through that”?
I hate the phrase “you’re just digging yourself deeper into a hole.” When someone misspeaks and then tries to explain their intention, people always say this, and it aggravates me to no end. Because all you’re saying when you say “you’re just digging deeper” is that you have become unwilling to listen. You have shut off that person and their intentions.
I hope we’re not telling God that He’s just digging Himself deeper into a hole.
This post has sort of gotten away from me, so I’m going to turn this into a multi-parter, if only because I think this point is important enough to stand on its own.
When we refuse to give things around us a chance to show us God, we’re effectively denying that God can work through those things. That’s why I’m ok with bringing lessons out of Game of Thrones and Kanye West and even *gasp* that Noah movie made by an atheist. If we can say God can make good come out of disasters, why can’t we say he can make good come out of an R-rated movie?
God is everywhere around us. I believe that. Chances are you do, too, if you’re a Christian. It’s up to us whether or not to trust Him to walk with us through the “bad stuff.”
I’m confident that if we can walk into those things and continue asking Him “where are you in this,” He may reveal something to us that screams out “right here.” And I don’t want to miss it just because I was unwilling to look and listen.