When adolescent culture began to splinter into its endlessly expanding collection of sub-genres, each with its own music, look, language, attitude, and rules about how to wear your pants, I must admit that I reluctantly gave up.
I had prided myself for years in the fact that I knew what wuzzup (or down if that meant up…or bad if that meant good). I could “name that tune” in no time at all, because I was a careful student of pop culture in all its forms. I understood the importance of staying current. I thought that all I needed to do to stay relevant in my ministry was to know what was going on in the world of my students. That way I could ensure that the good news I was commissioned to get into their lives would be heard in a language that they would understand.
I compared my trips to the record store or magazine rack to the anthropological forays of a missionary preparing to reach a remote tribe of headhunters. “He is no fool,” I thought to myself, “who leaves no stone unturned in exploring the cultural details of the people he’s called to serve.” My church happily renewed my subscription to Rolling Stone every year, and I faithfully watched whatever was the latest prime time adolescent soap du jour. My students seemed impressed—or at least mildly amused—that I knew as much as I did about their constantly changing world. It meant that I could converse intelligently about what was going on in that world. It meant there was at least one adult in their lives who knew what was going on.
I suppose if I still believed that knowing what’s going on in the world of students is the most important part of keeping my ministry relevant, I’d still be doing my best to keep up with every rising musical flash-in-the-pan or outrageous fashion trend. But I’m a little older and hopefully somewhat wiser after a few decades of working with kids. I’ve discovered an important little secret. The students I serve are far more responsive to my willingness to listen to what is going on in their lives than in my franticness to try to keep up with what is going on in their world. I’ve come to the place where it feels like it’s time for me to learn to use my microscope as well as I’ve learned to use my periscope. To become a careful student of my students is the new agenda, and it means that I can no longer look at them as a fascinating social demographic group or the sample in a well-crafted research piece. I have to start looking at them as individual kids with individual stories. Knowing their culture is important, but knowing their stories may be even more critical.
Relevance in ministry has always been about scratching where they itch; but the longer we’re in ministry, the more we understand the uniqueness of every student’s rash. To be prepared to connect the freeing power of the good news with specific kids means that it’ll be as important for me to take the time to listen to their stories as it is to spend time exploring the cultural soup in which they swim. In fact, when I have to make a decision about how to invest my limited hours, the pursuit of personal relevance usually wins over cultural relevance. If I’ve got a discretionary hour to invest in my ministry it will generally be better spent with a kid and a Coke than watching one more episode of Total Request Live.
But I need to be clear on something. This isn’t merely about spending time with kids. It’s about paying attention to details. “I see you’ve been hanging out with Jeff a lot more these last few weeks. What’s up with that?” It’s about listening carefully to what’s being communicated beneath the words. “I couldn’t help but notice the frustration in your voice when you were talking to Melissa tonight. Are you guys OK?” It’s about asking questions that invite a deeper level of interaction. “Your dad’s been gone a month now, Tim. What does it feel like to live at your house these days?”
Most importantly, though, it’s about modeling personal authenticity, openness, and appropriate self-disclosure in our interactions with students. Unfortunately, this is where it becomes costly for most of us. The pursuit of personal relevance places a far greater demand on our souls than the sometimes arm’s-length, armchair exploration of contemporary culture. To become entangled in the stories of the kids we serve is expensive in terms of time, energy, and applause. It requires us to expose our own lives to the scrutiny of teenagers who also pay attention to details, listen carefully beneath our words, and ask us tough questions. It can be a thankless job, but given the relational woundedness of this generation of young people, I’m not sure I know a different way.
Am I suggesting a “head-in-the-sand” naiveté or lack of interest when it comes to matters of media, technology, worldview, tribal identity, and changing adolescent social structures? Of course not! My concern is with the smug illusion that so many of us live with—the notion that, because we can speak intelligently about postmodernism, or the latest musical trend, or some emerging media phenomenon, we are equipped to provide a ministry that connects deeply with kids. It’s just not that simple. Somehow we’ve got to find the balance.
I’ve learned a few things about staying culturally connected without having to lose valuable relational time. We are fortunate in youth ministry today to have some balanced and wise culture-watchers who are called to provide that piece of the ministry puzzle for us. Unlike the vinyl-burning crusaders of the past, people like Walt Mueller at the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding free us up to build relationships with kids by providing us with a thoughtful analysis of the world our kids live in. Steve Rabey writes a column on youth culture in every issue of this publication. And Youthworkerdevotes its first few pages of every issue to its “Youth Culture Update.” All of these folks happily do much of the time-consuming work of scanning the cultural horizon and giving us the heads-ups we need to stay current. They understand that their contributions allow those of us on the frontlines to do more of what is ultimately most important—spending time with kids.
Another strategy I’ve learned is to use the times when I can’t be with kids anyway to do some cultural exploration. When I’m in the car alone I can spend a half hour checking out a new radio station without cutting into relational time with students. I can keep a copy of YM or Spin in the bathroom so that even those moments (which certainly won’t be shared with kids) can be effectively spent. Instead of randomly watching MTV, it might better to record a weekly top ten “countdown” show to stay abreast (no pun intended) of the latest musical voices speaking to our kids. We can be efficient in our pursuit of cultural relevance so that we can be effective in establishing personal relevance.
And by the way…let’s not overlook those kids we’re spending that time with as potential culture professors for us. When they know we’re genuinely interested in them, they’ll gladly tell us what they’re watching, reading, surfing, and listening to, and how it all shapes and reflects their views of the world.
Do you want a ministry that’s cutting edge relevant? Start replacing some of your radio listening time with time spent listening to your kids. Start watching them in their families instead of only watching MTV. Start reading their relationships instead of Teen People. That’s where true ministry relevance is found.