I am a nerd, not just a nerd, a dork, a geek. I love books, I love maps, I love history, languages, music, dance, PBS Masterpiece… I love theater, and I actually voluntarily read The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders and keep up on the changes the American Psychiatric Association makes to it periodically. I am over the top, losing my mind excited about the new Doctor Who. Such is the power of my nerdiness.
One of my favorite things to geek out over is the Kathy Reichs’ books and TV series “Bones”. Perhaps I love this series so much because the main character is based on Kathy Reichs’ own life experiences as a forensic anthropologist and the correlation that I draw between Bones’ career and the calling of a Youth Leader…. Now hang with me for a minute. I contend that our roles as youth leaders are a form of cultural anthropology. Not only that, but if we are to be effective in our ministry, looking through a lens of cultural anthropology may be prudent. In reading about this discipline, (because I do that), one of the key factors in cultural anthropology is linguistics. Language. How we communicate. Understanding one culture and language and relating that culture and language to another.
Oof, what are you doing?! This is a bit of a deep dive, isn’t it? Is this absolutely necessary? Why can’t I just go into the youth room and lecture about Jesus!? Well, you totally can. We can also endeavor, with the Spirit’s work, to bring them into deeper engagement with God’s Word. If you want them to understand and appreciate the absolute truth of the Bible, you may want to help students make the connection between The Bible and their everyday lives.
This means that you are going to need to understand your audience. Who are you speaking to? What vernacular is going to hold the most meaning for your students? The absolute beauty of our God is His inﬁnity. He is always relevant. Youth Culture on the other hand is constantly changing. So how can we convey God’s truth effectively?
Listen, I’m not saying you need to get a TikTok and completely immerse yourself in the culture of your young people, in fact this probably is not a good idea. Youth need perspective and you can’t provide that if you are too invested in their world. You need a healthy perspective before you can provide that to your students. So maybe, for you, that is step number one. Gain an understanding of the world around you, see how God’s truth is evident in your own life, by being in God’s word as a matter of practice. How does this impact you and your own vocation? Now we can continue to the next step.
When you walk into the youth room, observe. Put on the cultural anthropologist hat and just watch. What are your students doing? What music are they listening to? What words are they using to express positive things, or negative things? What are they wearing? Fashion is actually a really amazing cultural indicator. Not only that, but it can also be a critical indicator if something is wrong in a student’s life. Seriously, pay attention to what your students are wearing. Now, you’ve observed. Start to ask questions. “What does ‘drippy’ mean?” “Why are you wearing mom jeans, when women fought and died so you would never have to be subjected to that style of clothing?” “Who actually is Lil-nas-X, and why are adults so scared of him?”
Avoid yes or no questions, ask the essay questions, and then listen. You’ll learn about things that affect them every day and that is where God our Father can speak to in their lives. That, my friends, is where you begin to aid our students in making those connections between God’s truth and how we can see Him working in our world. Educators call these “teachable moments”, and it’s totally ﬁne to manufacture these moments as well as taking advantage of moments that happen “organically.”
Let’s gain a little more objectivity before we get too excited. Is there a pediatrician in your congregation that you can talk to? Law enforcement personnel? Teachers or principals? These resources are invaluable. Doctors and law enforcement can inform you of trends in young people in your community, maybe not the kids in your youth room, but your students are deﬁnitely coming in contact with kids who are abused, use drugs, have been sexually assaulted or physically attacked. Your students deﬁnitely know someone who lives every day in fear and this affects them, it affects how they see the world and it deﬁnitely affects how they see God.
I know we get uncomfortable when we talk about these challenges in young people’s lives, but these are the lives they are living. God put these students here at this time and in this place, and He called you to minister to them. Also, please don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that “Church Kids” don’t have problems. Church is where kids go to ﬁnd comfort from their problems, and Jesus longs to be their friend, conﬁdant, and Savior. Our job is to make that introduction. To tell these students who are struggling with so many things, that Jesus loves them more than they can ever imagine. Jesus knows suffering, even death for us, and that He is with them in their suffering. We share that even when they can’t articulate their struggle, Jesus goes to the Father on their behalf.
Yeah, sorry guys, if you signed up to work with youth because you thought it would be all fun and ice breaker games and water park trips… you came to the wrong place. Our students’ lives are more challenging than ever, and now they can live those challenges on a world stage. They can access more information than ever and ﬁnd validation for any number of dangerous and destructive attitudes and behaviors. So, if you literally can’t handle the heavy (and if you can’t that’s ok) ﬁnd someone who can. Cultivate resources for your students (background checked resources) who are comfortable with the hard stuff. Preparing ourselves to transition students to professional care if necessary is important. Unless you are a doctor of psychology, your job is not to completely take on the responsibility of a student’s mental health.
As we know, ministry is a balance, so deﬁnitely do the water park and the icebreakers and the snacks and concerts. Students need to know that it’s ok to ﬁnd joy even when the world seems to be off its axis. This is where your teachers come in, yes, they can clue you in on some more challenges, but they can also give you those language updates, and these change fast, my friend! From drippy shoes to sheesh and lit, sick and salty, these words may not mean what you think they mean. Teachers are in the classroom all day long with students and they have a front row seat to the evolution of slang. And it is constantly evolving. In fact, by the time this article is published, I guarantee at least one of those words will not be in use by students any longer. You can google “youth slang” and this can give you some fairly popular terms on a global and national level, but there are going to be local idiosyncrasies in language as well. So, your teachers are excellent resources. Please don’t worry about adopting your students vernacular, in fact don’t try. It is important to understand it though. Like reading Spanish so you can understand signs and what people are saying when you’re visiting Spain, but if you try to speak it in Spain, they look at you funny because your accent is all wrong… I mean you need to know where “el baño” is, but it’s nice to not look like a fool while you’re searching.
So, we’ve discussed local resources, but we need to address larger issues and resources. Remember how I said students live on a world stage? They are acutely aware of this and therefore pay a lot of attention to what is going on in the world. Gone are the days of us Gen-X kids not giving a care. Today’s students care a lot. They pay attention to Supreme Court decisions, wars in Ukraine, environmental changes, and human rights issues. They practice active shooter drills in school so they are aware, if only on a subconscious level, of the possibility that people their age end up on national and global news.
So, guess what you need to do… keep up with current events yourself. Then go to the Bible and see what God has to say about events like these. Attempt to avoid making trite comments that are theologically questionable as they can be counterproductive. The best and easiest way to get students to recognize God’s power and inﬁnity is to ask them what they think God has said about a challenge or an event. Get them to open their Bible’s for timeless answers to contemporary problems. This serves a dual purpose of getting students into the practice of using their Bible’s and relying on God and helps them to begin to draw the connections of seeing Biblical truths in their own culture.
Don’t neglect national and global resources that have statistics that will help in your ministry as well. The CDC, Mayo Clinic, WHO, FDA, and the UN. Following these entities on social media or looking up speciﬁc issues in an online search can not only give you a larger perspective, but also provide you with valuable resources and information. I’ll say once again, don’t make the assumption that statistics don’t apply to Church kids.
Appreciating the culture in which our students live, will help us guide them to the timeless truth of Christ and His care for each one of them. Thank you for your commitment to enriching our students’ relationships with God their Father, Christ their Savior and Friend and the Holy Spirit their comforter.