The Use of Pop Culture to Reach Teenagers Through Local Student Ministries

Tim Bertram
November 1, 2015

Culture is a funny word. Not in the “ha-ha” funny sense but in the difficult-to-define sense. Culture by dictionary definition is the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time(1). By this definition, our artwork, music, religious and political beliefs and our views on others define and shape our culture, making us who we are as a group or society. A similar definition in an article Cross-Cultural Youth Ministry by Paul Hiebert states that culture can be defined as “the more or less integrated systems of ideas, feelings and values and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel and do.” In short, “Culture is…the sum of the distinctive characteristics of a people’s way of life.”(2) Whether by a simple definition or a more broader definition the word “culture” has become, according to Jacque Barzun, “a piece of all-purpose jargon that covers a hodge-podge of overlapping things”(3)
While there are no shortage of definitions about culture, narrowing down how it effects or influences any given society is harder to define. People have spoken or written on or about almost every segment of culture in a society: the counterculture(things that go against a culture), cross culture(things that cross over into other cultures), subcultures(a cultural group within a larger culture) which could include anything from corporate culture to teenage culture to popular culture.
Churches have suited up and marched into the culture wars and in doing so they have created their own culture. The church culture is often one that is designed to be separated from the world but if you look at some of them they look nothing more like a ripped off advertising campaign from the world. Repackaged with some corny Christian slant the “Christian culture” is often mass produced for the onward Christian solider consumers.
Whether you can simply define culture or it if it is indeed “hodge-podge” , it is evident that it affects every aspect of our lives from politics to art, entertainment, fashion and even our churches.
One of the groups that may be most influenced by the changes in cultural trends are teenagers. Teenagers are a good barometer for what is happening on a larger scale in our popular culture. Popular culture is by book definition a collection of thoughts, ideas, attitudes, perspectives, images (you name it) preferred by the mainstream population.with the most common pop culture categories being entertainment, sports, new, politics, fashion, technology and slang.(4) With the cultural influence being so apparent in teens it often makes youth ministry and ministering to teenagers difficult. After all every youth minister’s dream is to reach thousands of youth via their respective student ministry and often that is achieved through the penetration of their culture and utilizing pop culture.
Therein lies the challenge. How do you effectively reach the culturally saturated teen without compromising the truth of the gospel? How do you separate the secular from the holy?
If you walk into a youth worship service and witness upon the stage, kids with big hair, pleather pants, flashing strobe lights, fog machines and the heart thumping beat of a kick drum that mimics a bad 80’s hair band rather than a worship band maybe you’ve gone to far. But I believe there are ways to utilize things from their “culture” and not sell your soul to the devil.
Jesus, in John 17, is praying to His father on behalf of his disciples to be able to operate within the world knowing that they do not belong here. “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do. Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth. Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world.”(5) We are called to be “in the world and not of it”. The Apostle Paul says we are not to “conform to the world but be transformed”. David Kinnaman, in his book, Unchristian, states that young people are splintering into more subcultures than ever before.(6) He states that one of the ways God wants to use his people is through one of the most “fascinating phenomena of our society”: America is fragmenting into diverse subcultures. With most Americans taking their cues from a unique subculture, deriving meaning, values, heroes, self-expression, identity, and viewpoints from a segment of society(7).
So as believers we must be aware of culture and cultural differences in order to more effectively reach the lost and to minister to those that we have in our churches. The church is called to “penetrate and preserve the cultures of this world so that all peoples may hear and heed the good news of Christ’s kingdom”.(8)

Keep Jesus the Center of Everything You Do.
The use of movie clips, cultural references, social media, stage lighting and contemporary music are not evil. In fact when used correctly they can be great resources to convey the message of the gospel or to emphasis a spiritual truth. They have their place and must never be used to replace the truths found in the Scripture. When teaching has been replaced with entertainment the student minister is doing nothing more than becoming a late night talk show host like Jimmy Fallon. Jesus is no longer portrayed as the Savior and Lord but becomes “pop-culture icon” Jesus and this is very dangerous.
It is understandable why youth pastors want to utilize pop culture to engage teenagers. Deep down inside is the desire for the message of Jesus to reach people where they are. Paul’s, “Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some”(9) often becomes justification for being absorbed into the world. But “being all things to all people” does not mean you become like them to the point that the gospel is hard to discover or even disappear from your ministry. Paul never compromised the truth but he understood cultural differences and knew how to utilize them in order to communicate the gospel as he demonstrated in Acts 17 at the shrine of the “unknown god” in Athens.
The problem when we exchange the truth for a cultural compromise is the context of who Jesus really is gets misunderstood by the intended audience. We then are producing confused people and not making disciples. “Where religious images are often absent, pop-culture representations of the faith can become the formative symbols and images that a faith community encounters. People begin to actually see Jesus primarily through the lens of materialism and pop-culture, both of which by their very nature are constantly in flux. As a result, evangelical faith becomes faddish, salvation is a style and praise is a phase.” (10) Jesus is misrepresented when we are not true to the facts found in the Bible about who he really is.
While Jesus confronted the culture of his day head on he still used cultural teaching points in his parables to reach people but never sugarcoated the truth. He used everything from farming, the temple to a coin with Caesar’s image on it to point people to him. The kingdom of God is like…a farmer who planted good seed in his field (Matt 13:24), a mustard seed planted in the field (Matt 13:31), yeast a woman used in making bread (Matt 13:33), a treasure that a man discovers hidden in a field (Matt 13:44), a fishing net that was thrown into the water and caught fish of every kind (Matt 13:47). H. Richard Niebuhr refers to the “Christ-of-culture position” that Jesus was relevant to his time.(11) Jesus’ cultural references to everyday life were stories that he used to teach people in simple ways so that they may come to know him.
In over twenty years of student ministry I have made many mistakes. I have often relied on the movie clip or the trendy study to communicate to students instead of taking the time to fully prepare a lesson on my own. It was done out of conveniences sake and the neglecting of my duty was sinful on my part. I have had my fair share of hyped up events just to fill the seats. I have given away prizes, played messy games and even taken pies to the face for the student who invited the most friends to Vacation Bible School. Those things in themselves were not harmful. Although the pie into the face can have lasting effects on your nasal passages! What was harmful was depending on things or events to do what only the word of God can do, transform lives.
It would be a huge mistake not to utilize social media to connect with your students. Social media is a definitely an element of our culture that is not going away anytime soon. It is okay to have fun, get together and fellowship, eat pizza, play games, go to “Christian” concerts and head bang. These things have their place on occasion. When Jesus is removed from the center of your ministry you are setting yourself and your students up for failure. It is ok to use pop culture references in your studies but only to prove a point and point your students to Jesus.
Carefully Screen Everything You Use.
What is the harm in using an “R” rated movie clip in your lesson? After all it is from a great movie and all your students have been to the theater to see it or they have even viewed worse. Right? Or how about that song that is super popular right now even though it is heavily laced with expletives? You can bleep them out. Right? After all you want to be viewed as the cool, trendy youth guy that is up on all current pop culture…Wrong! Offensive or shock value material is always inappropriate to use. As the spiritual mentor of students your job is not to be cool or a walking version of TMZ but to protect them from evil and you never cross that line. By setting boundaries in your ministry you are also communicating that not everything in pop culture has a place in the life of the believer. Christians are responsible for evaluating everything against the plumb line of scriptural truth.(12) Adopting the mentality of a missionary partnering with God’s common grace, youth pastors(Christians) have a balanced approach to culture, to affirm what is good while resisting anything that conflicts with Scripture.(13) Do not be an endorser of inappropriate material but use it as an opportunity to direct students to fix their thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. (Phil 4:8, NLT)
I have attend many youth functions over the past several years and there have been occasion where I have left shocked by references or song choices or the personnel that they have allowed to occupy the stage and masquerade as a “worship” band. I once witnessed a female adult leader do an “interpretive” dance as her youth group band performed Todd Agnew’s “Grace Like Rain” that was noting short of exotic dancing with clothes on. Really? She thought she was worshipping and being culturally relevant when in reality she was offensive and misleading. If you have to depend on questionable material to be relevant you need to move onto another profession. As youth pastor you have been ordained guardian of their spiritual galaxy, you must monitor and screen everything you are going to do in light of the scripture and the message it may convey.
Cultural Relevancy is No Substitute for Real Relationships.
Many student ministers feel pressure to produce big numbers within their youth groups. For someone on the outside looking in, a student minister may be graded on how successful he is by the number of students that attend any given event or service. While this is totally shallow and wrong that does not negate the fact that it happens. This pressure may be self-inflicted. It may come from the pastor or other staff member. Church member, leadership, deacons and parents have put undue pressure on student ministers to run a numbers based ministry. This type of pressure may lead to a disastrous merger with the world by sacrificing the gospel for a compromising cultural driven ministry.
The bottom line is this: At the end of the day students want to know that you care about them. Period. Teenagers straight across the board; good homes, broken homes or homeless, want to be loved and accepted. No amount of pop culture influence or concerts can accomplish that. “For decades the church has allowed the tail to wag the dog in regard to youth ministry. We have attempted to find the answer to every problem facing teenagers by flooding money into bigger and flashier programs”. They could care less how much you know about pop culture, Taylor Swift’s new album, the latest Youtube video or how much you Snapchat. They are not even interested in programs(their parents are) or events. They want to be loved and cared for and the student ministry is a great place to create an environment of grace, love and safety.
The way you do this is simply be involved in their lives. Find ways to connect with students where they are. Between 2008 and 2010, I began to totally rethink student ministry and my own personal approach to how I lived and served in the Kingdom. My findings were this: I had become to much like the institution rather than imitating my Heavenly Daddy and in return I was passing those same bad habits down to my students that God had entrusted to me. I was failing in leading them toward Christ. The end result was no one was growing spiritually under my watch. Not me. Not my students.
I began to read and study the life of Jesus. His parables. His miracles. How did he teach? How did he respond to critics? How did he love and serve others? How did he interact with his disciples? In addition I began to read other books on breaking free from the bondage of institutionalized church and how to be a true follower of Christ. I read David Platt’s Radical, Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution, Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church and other assorted “radical” books that were available at the time. I began to trim fluff out of my program and began focusing on building relationships, serving others and discipleship. Teaching time became precious and if I had forty five minutes to teach them, that is what I used. Fluff events were replaced with service projects and mission focused activities. And while I utilized pop culture in my lessons they were kept to a minimum and only used as a teaching point not the main point. I began to get to know students, tell them I loved them often and tried to make every effort to be involved in their lives. I began to see growth and I began to realize that students do not want a show they want people to care. I also learned this is not always a popular approach to ministry. Tragically, some parents and leadership are not fans of a Jesus focused youth ministry. The end result in my case? I was asked to resign ten months into 2010 but I have no regrets on the shift in ministry. Teens(and all people) ultimately desire a relationship not cultural relevancy or a hip and trendy youth guy that has compromised everything Jesus died for.
Regardless of your definition of culture. Regardless of the time in history, geographical location, or influence that culture has had on any particular society. At the heart of every culture are people. Pascal says there are only two kids of men: the righteous who believe themselves sinners; the rest, sinners, who believe themselves righteous.(15) There are two categories of people in every culture that have existed ever since the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden: you are either lost or saved. If you are saved you have a higher calling to live a holy life before God who calls you out and away from the evil influences of culture. If you are lost the calling is to come away from the world, sin and separation into the forgiving embrace of a Savior who died for the sins of the world.

 

SOURCES CITED:

(3)Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. 500 years of Western Cultural Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

(2)Buchanan, Justin. “Cross-Cultural Youth Ministry,” August 26, 2010. Accessed October 27, 2015. http://www.youthworker.com/youth-ministry-resources-ideas/youth-ministry/ 11637026/.

(8)Clowney, Edmund P. The Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,1995.

(14)Cosby, Brian H. Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry From An Entertainment Culture. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2012.

(10)Kangas, Billy. “The Problem with Pop-Culture Christ: Rescuing the Church from Creating a Savior in Our Own Image,” March 14, 2014. Accessed October 27, 2015.
http: www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/problem-pop-culture- christ#bQ6VYWegAdXse2HP.99.

(6,7)Kinnaman, David. Unchristian. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2007.

(1)Merriam-Webster Online. Accessed October 27, 2015. http://www.merriam-webster.com dictionary/culture.

(11)Niebuhr, Ricard H. Christ and Culture. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1951.

(5,9)New Living Translation………

(12,13)Pearcey, Nancy. Saving Leonardo:A Call to resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2010.

(15)Reynolds, John Mark. The Great Book Reader. Bloomington, MN, Bethany House Publishing, 2011.

(4)West, Gary, “So, What is Pop Culture, You Ask?”,1999-2013. Accessed October 29, 2015. http:// 50.62.42.42/what-is-pop-culture.

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