Helping Students in Your Youth Group by Understanding Their Culture

What show are students binge-watching on Netflix? How long will Fortnite be a thing? What is the most popular social media platform and who are students following? How much of youth culture ought we, as youth leaders, be a part of and how much should we try and provide shelter from it?
The struggle is real. I have seen first-hand youth leaders argue intensely over the use of social media in youth group and whether or not Fortnite gatherings should be used as a means to reach students. As youth leaders, we walk a fine line between knowing just enough culture so we don’t seem out of touch, but not so much that we send the wrong message. Maybe you are just like my beautiful wife, who would much rather listen to worship music all day and shut out the world and be perfectly content with being out of touch. But as our kids are growing up, making new friends, and experiencing new things; she is continually aware that she cannot control everything for them. She has recently come to the realization that she has to become a cultural expert to help our own kids navigate the world they are entering.
It is an ever-present conversation in our family and in every youth group I know. There are four key factors or reasons why anyone working with youth ought to be as culturally savvy as possible.

Creating Culture That Reflects Christ

Our students have an incredible opportunity. They have the choice to let culture impact them or embrace their responsibility to influence culture and create change for the good. But as a teenager, they don’t yet have the skills to navigate culture to fulfill God’s call to build a world that reflects him. They won’t get the skills unless we teach them. But to teach them, we need to know the culture they live in. We need to constantly work to be experts in what students are confronted with daily, the temptations, and the messages being broadcasted to them.

In Their World for the Sake of Their World

A few years ago, I was blessed to lead a student to Christ. I have to admit; the best part was not introducing her to Jesus or to even see the Holy Spirit work in her life. The best part was her motivation to re-enter her world—a broken and torn family—and preach the gospel to anyone and everyone she knew. The problem with that is it would mean she would have to re-enter the sinful culture that raised her. Before Christ, it was all she ever knew. If she wasn’t properly prepared, she risked that corrupt way of life regaining its foothold on her.
If we, as youth leaders and parents, are not actively engaged in youth culture, how can we help students discern what they can and cannot handle? We must walk alongside them, help prepare them, and then send them.

Shifting Through Information Overload

Students today have a greater amount of information at their fingertips than any generation before them. The days of parents, teachers, and pastors as life’s experts have been replaced with Google, Siri, and Alexa. We have become a culture of instant communication, information overload, and on-demand everything. For most parents and youth leaders, the reality of owning a cell phone was a post-college experience. Now it is not all that unusual to see middle school (or younger) students with not just a mobile phone, but a smartphone. How can such a young mind navigate instant communication and information without some kind of mentoring or coaching?

Culture is What is Shaping the Lives of our Students Whether we Recognize it or not

When I was a Christian educator, so many of my students complained that they were just being sheltered. And to that I said, “Yes you are!” That is precisely what Christian schools, youth groups, and even the home are trying to do. Shelter our kids. It is the parent’s (and other adult leaders) responsibility to ensure that their children are prepared to engage the world for the gospel. Soldiers go to boot camp before going to war; students are adequately trained in college before starting a career, even young drivers need to be properly trained and tested before venturing out on the road on their own. So then why would we send students into the world unprepared for what is waiting for them?
But here is the challenge. Every time a student goes online, leaves the house, is at school, or hanging with friends—in fact, every time they pull out their cell phone, western culture is working overtime to shape and influence their lives on every level. No matter how many shelters or training camps we create, we can’t prevent it—even if for a time. So what we know about culture and how we teach students is more important than ever.
I get it. This means we will have to watch things we might not want to. I didn’t want to binge watch 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, but I did; so I knew what all the fuss was about when students talked about it. I have no real interest in watching videos or hearing the music of Childish Gambino, but I need to know what the fuss is about. There are plenty of movies, books, YouTube videos, and social media platforms that I would much rather ignore. But as someone who walks alongside youth, I make it part of my ministry to be informed. Not to promote it or put ourselves in a position of sin, but help students navigate it and properly engage it for the sake of the kingdom and advancement of the gospel.
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