Here I would like to make the argument for why focusing a youth ministry on cultural issues is important.
Youth and culture are intertwined. There is nowhere culture does not touch and impact the lives of adolescents. Whatever the culture may be, it is not just something that is one part of the lives of young people, it is interwoven into EVERY part of the lives of young people. A good metaphor I have seen used is that of a growing tree or plant. The tree cannot choose the soil where it is planted, nor the atmosphere that is around it as it grows. It is there and it has to adjust, adapt, and create in the midst of that soil and atmosphere. This is what culture is.
It is important to note that there are many different kinds and types and levels of culture. For starters there is the wider macro level of culture. This is broad culture within which a group of people live. In the West this is mostly a postmodern culture. There has been a lot written and discussed about postmodernity and I am going to assume for the purpose of this series (and to not get too sidetracked) that you, the reader, has some basic understanding of this. Young people, for the most part, today in the West have been born into a postmodern culture. The values, beliefs and understandings of the postmodern culture are the world that young people are growing up in. This is also where a lot of the popular culture that we think about associated with young people resides. From the music to the video games and even to the medium through which these are experienced (mostly ways to access and interact with the “world wide web”), these are all operating in this larger macro space of culture.
The macro level of culture is indeed large and covers most of North America. This is where youth ministries who focus on culture often operate. They build their ministries in ways that connect to these cultural pieces in the lives of young people. For example a few years ago I heard about a church who did a “Temple Run” night that included running on a treadmill while dodging “branches” and jumping over “pits”. (Youth pastors are so creative and fun!) They also spent some time talking about the “obstacles” we face in our faith and how we are to strive on the journey for Christ. The whole night was indeed an “experience.”
This is helpful for youth ministries on a number of levels. First, it communicates that they understand youth and their world. Because macro culture is so widely reaching most youth can identify with these themes and elements. By utilizing these parts of the macro culture, the ministry creates a space where young people are familiar and comfortable. Second, it communicates a deeper level of understanding of young people and their culture because it often moves past just acknowledging those elements of culture, but helps youth discover the truths and lies within that broader culture. Third, this allows youth ministries that all exist within the larger macro culture to share ideas and innovations for connecting with youth and sharing truth (just look at all the youth ministry ideas on Pinterest!). The challenge here is to make sure the youth ministry is a student of broader youth culture in order to keep up with the changes, fads and latest broadly popular things.
Another level of culture is the local level. This is typically where language, overall religious expressions and behavioral rhythms are located. On the local level of culture youth are shaped by their families towards certain affiliations and patterns of behavior. A language and accent are shared here (as a friend of mine who is from South Korea but currently studying in the United States once told me, “You all speak English, but it is not the same English!”). Communities also typically have certain expressions of religion and worship that are deemed acceptable (and others not acceptable). Rhythms of work and entertainment are also shared, adapted and innovated at this level of culture. This is not a totally separate level of culture from the macro level, but rather resides within the macro level.
A good way to conceptualize this is local sports teams. In a local area there are certain teams that are adopted as “home teams” and the community there buys in at various levels to cheering for that team. I live just outside of Lexington, Kentucky where everyone is a University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan. The best time to go to any store if your goal is to encounter as little traffic as possible is during a Kentucky Wildcat basketball game. Everyone is watching the game. This is not a national issue, but it is something that is expressed in this local area. For a youth ministry here to schedule an event during a Kentucky game is to ask for no one to come!
Youth ministries who are aware of both the macro and local levels of culture, often make sure to recognize that each school system has its own local culture that operates inside the larger macro level of culture. (See diagram above.) Therefore this ministry will be sure to make space for gatherings of adolescents that are a part of these different local cultures. For example they might have time or space for small groups that are geographically centered or focused on students from a specific school (Public High School A small groups meet on Tuesday night; Public High School B small groups meet on Thursday night; Home School small groups meet on Thursday afternoon, etc.). In this way the youth ministry acknowledge the macro culture issues as well as the local culture issues for these youth. There are just some issues that cannot be understood by an outsider from that local culture.
This helps youth ministries in several ways as well. First, it acknowledges the realities of the specific local lives of youth in that community. Just because two teenagers go to the same church does not mean that their local issues are the same. Second, it allows ministry application to become more specific to the rhythm, values and lifestyle of that specific local culture. If my middle school dance is on this night, then my small group can make sure to avoid meeting that night and perhaps even find ways to be present at that specific local event. The challenge here is to recognize the differences in the different local cultures.
For youth leaders who have moved to a new area to be employed, there is a learning curve for this part of the local culture. One youth pastor I know moved from a part of the United States where the local culture valued hard work above almost everything else. At this church the youth pastor excelled not because he was gifted in his teaching or curriculum writing or programming, but because he worked very hard and everyone knew it. In this local culture he was seen as one of the best youth pastors they had ever known. When he arrived in the new local culture there was much more value placed on being able to both work and play. The youth pastor started his time there by working as hard as he could. He was embracing the values in the previous local culture that had made him so successful. But in the new local culture he was never really embraced because he never took time to play with the people there. It was not until he had already made the choice to move to another church and local culture that he finally stopped to play with the people of his church. It was then that the people began to accept him into their community.
By being aware of both macro and local levels of culture, youth ministries can meet teenagers in the world where they live. They can respond to the soil and atmosphere around youth to point them to Christ and to help them navigate the tough decisions of adolescence. Without this knowledge and interaction, youth ministries who do not engage in culture do not really ever get to the place where youth really live.