Maybe you noticed, and maybe you didn’t, that I took a small hiatus from blogging the last few months. Last fall I went back to school to work on a Master’s degree, and combined with my already busy schedule at church, the intense workload became too overwhelming for me. I stopped reading the blogs, websites, magazines and news articles that keep me up to date on popular culture. Before I knew it, I felt completely out of touch. My youth were mentioning songs, events and stories I didn’t know, to both their surprise and mine. As passionate as I am about the intersection of youth ministry, pop culture and media, there just did not seem to be the time in the day to proactively find the open doors for faith conversations or to consider in advance the best way to articulate godly perspectives of the world around them. I was responding to their prompting, but it felt delayed and incomplete.
I considered that maybe it was time to take a more permanent break from writing about pop culture and youth ministry.
Then in one of my last weeks of teaching contemporary issues in eighth grade Religion class, we were discussing the impact of music and media on our thoughts, hearts and values. I asked the class, “What is the purpose of movies, YouTube and TV?” One student quickly responded, “Mindless entertainment.” The rest of the class nodded in approval. Internally, I did a facepalm. Had I taught them nothing?
“So, music and media are just things to be used for fun? You don’t think they have any messages or something they are trying to sell you?” I responded in the kind of tone that tells them they might need to rethink the answer. Their responses were quick in coming and they didn’t change their minds. No, they were convinced that media and music was simple fun, mind-numbing amusement, something for their enjoyment and nothing more. No message, no value and nothing that could influence them.
I took a different approach. “So what’s your favorite band?” I asked. Silence. No one was willing to admit they listened to the likes of Nicki Minaj or Drake. One student offered up what seemed like a safe answer, Johnny Cash, with Michael Buble and Journey coming in shortly after. I waited a beat more and heard, “Smashing Pumpkins”.
“And you want me to believe that Smashing Pumpkins doesn’t have a message in their music? You think their music is mindless, thoughtless entertainment? Because I think they would fervently disagree.” Suddenly, they were singing a different tune.
We spent time looking over lyrics from recent Top 40 hits and watched clips from YouTube and TV. For each piece we worked together to compare their messages to God’s Word. What was true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable for us to think about as God commands in Philippians 4? Did the words we listened to over and over encourage us to follow God’s law or did it belittle what God wants for us to strive for with the help of the Spirit? Did it encourage us to give and receive grace and forgiveness so freely given to us through Jesus’ death on the cross? Slowly, they began to see the messages where once their minds had been numb, and to perceive the words of our culture that had slowly crowded out the Word, the cross and the Gospel.
As I left the classroom, I was filled with a new enthusiasm for helping my teens navigate the complicated world around them in a God-pleasing way. In a world where everything is commercialized, designed for entertainment and split into 30-second sound bites, there can be no escaping the messages or the sly sales pitches of media. I may lose touch with what’s new in our culture, but I can cling to the fact that God does not lose touch with me. God does not change and He does not go silent. He does not leave us on our own to navigate the complicated world with its competing messages, but rather He gives us Himself and His Word to help us navigate. Popular culture is something to be ignored only at our own peril, and we can only be grateful God continues to send His message of forgiveness and hope through Jesus.
After a couple of months away from this blog, I am reminded anew of just how important it is to help our teens see the media-driven culture around them through the lenses of faith and the cross. If we don’t, the messages and the values they pick up through exposure will take root and leave us with a much more difficult battle to fight. I hope that you, too, are encouraged as Christ works through us, strengthening and encouraging us, to help teens live and grow in faith fed by Scripture and not by Top 40 hits or reality TV. I hope that we can work together to be prepared, not waiting for them to come to us with questions, but with all the tools we need to walk alongside them with the Gospel through our world today.