A few weeks ago I ran into two boys from my congregation, high school juniors, in the local mall food court. I stopped to talk with them about their summers and getting back into school. After about 10 minutes of small talk I politely excused myself to go grab my dinner. As soon as I sat down, they joined me and we proceeded to eat and banter for a good half hour. If I ever felt like I was doing the relational part of my job well, it was now.

I was thrilled to get to know them better, they were only sporadic attendees of events and worship and I hadn’t gotten a chance to really talk to them in depth. They questioned me about my personal life, or lack of one. I asked them about their lives and the texts they kept receiving all through the meal. As we finished up, I asked them if they were at the mall just to eat or to do shopping. They laughed and looked sheepish, “We’re going to Spencer’s,” one of them managed to get out.

Now, I like to think that if there is one thing I have mastered it is the poker face for when kids say things to get a reaction out of me. Sure, I know what kinds of items get sold at Spencer’s, and they aren’t items I would condone these boys purchasing for the most part. I wasn’t about to let on that their shopping destination was a bit distressing to me. I simply nodded, “Excellent, I’m headed to Target.”

Now comes the rub. They asked me to go with them to Spencer’s. I wasn’t sure why they were asking, if it was to get a reaction or if it was to get me to come with them. I double checked, “Do you REALLY want me to join you?” Both quickly repeated the invitation, and I agreed to go. This was followed by a round of laughter. They asked me if I knew what kind of store Spencer’s was, and I assured them I did.

It was about halfway to Spencer’s that it struck me that this whole thing might be a bad idea. Would this circulate stories of the DCE who took her teens to Spencer’s? Is this sending the message that the things they see in Spencer’s are all totally okay for them to be purchasing? What was I thinking? I was still warring with myself internally when I graced the inside of Spencer’s with two teenage boys, as I watched them shop, as I shopped for new earrings, as I protested the buying of raunchy shot glasses for their girlfriends, as I watched them buy said shot glasses for their girlfriends, as I left them after 45 minutes in the store, as I got home, and as I came to work to tell the tale the next day.

Our youth are deeply entrenched in pop culture. They are fed messages in the media, from their peers, from stores like Spencer’s about what is popular and what is not. Part of helping teens grow into adult disciples is helping them to see all culture, popular or not, around them with Christ’s eyes. I want to facilitate the growth of a Christian filter for what the world has to say. If I am far away from popular culture, I will only have limited success. The same is true if I am too far encased in popular culture. It is a balancing act we all perform to various levels of success.

Sometimes you have to spend time with them in the Spencer’s. Sometimes you have to see with your own eyes what word of law needs to be spoken before you can speak it effectively. Sometimes you have to be where they are to see where God’s grace needs to be announced. Sure, you can do it from outside, far away, but I think both are far less effective when done from a distance. In the end, I would rather know what that shot glass says (and that they are buying shot glasses at all), than not know.

Jesus did not shy away from going into the houses of tax collectors and sinners. He taught about how to see them through His eyes, and He made it clear that it was for those sick in sin that He came to die. How are we doing at this? Are we too far away or too close? Are we taking opportunities to be where they are? How are we approaching our popular culture with our teens? As supportive adults, it is important for us to be sure we are meeting students where they are at in order to share the good news of Jesus.