Incarnational Youth Ministry [Part 5]: Cultural Factors

This series is adapted from a paper that I wrote for a youth ministry class in Fall 2010.  Posts in this series will appear on Tuesdays for as long as it takes to get through the content in manageable pieces.  Enjoy!

In addition to the cultural assumptions about Christianity and the watered-down faith infecting the young people in America’s churches, there are cultural factors and concerns that are deeply impacting the core practices of youth ministry in contemporary society.  Three of the core cultural factors are: the breakdown of the traditional family unit, the relentless presence of bullying in America’s high schools, and the rise of technology usage among young people.

The world of an adolescent in today’s culture is significantly impacted by the cultural breakdown of the traditional family unit.  Jim Burns comments on this breakdown in his book, Uncommon Youth Ministry: “Family dysfunction and instability have a direct impact on adolescents today.  In the past, the family was stress reducing; now the family is stress producing” (Burns, Uncommon Youth Ministry, 39).  Young people are probably the population most affected by the increasing divorce rates in the United States, where “41 percent of first marriages end in divorce” and “every year, more than one million children in the United States experience the divorce of their parents” (Burns, Uncommon Youth Ministry, 39).  These statistics are huge in their effect on youth ministry in the church, and some of that effect will be addressed in a later post in a discussion on Engaging Parents in Youth Ministry.

Another disturbing cultural concern facing youth ministry recently is the escalated media attention being received by bullying and teen suicide, particularly among teenagers who are perceived to be homosexual.  The reality is that with all of the recent media attention from news sources and even Hollywood on the topic, the church really needs to find a voice on this cultural issue.  In fact, when The Trevor Project and It Gets Better were established in the fall of 2010 in response to a string of teenage suicides, the church was overwhelmingly underrepresented in the conversation.  In an age when the church is overwhelmingly perceived to be antihomosexual, the church must be willing to stand up and be a voice of repentance, grace, redemption, and hope for the lives of young people.

One final cultural concern impacting contemporary youth ministry is the explosive growth of technology usage among teenagers in the United States.  Jim Burns identifies technology as “the main source of influence and connection in the lives of this generation of youth” (Burns, Uncommon Youth Ministry, 42).  The overwhelming use of technology among teenagers–be it text messaging or social networking–is affecting issues of identity and issues of community.  First, technology “has created a cyber reality in which students can assume whatever identity they want within that reality, assuming any personality they wish and fitting in wherever they want to fit in” (Burns, Uncommon Youth Ministry, 42).  Christian author Donald Miller would probably argue that this is not just a problem with teenagers, but that it is something they are learning from adults both inside and outside of the church: “If there’s anything obvious about humanity, it’s that people are obsessed with projecting an identity” (Miller, “The Danger of Projecting an Identity”).  Aside from the projection of identity, another serious danger associated with the explosion of technology usage is that it has created a generation that are so over-stimulated with virtual connections that they miss out on real, face-to-face relationships:

While Facebook and other social media connect us to more digital relationships, at the same time, they deteriorate our ability to maintain healthy relationships in real life… Our social technologies are increasingly serving as an obstacle in the process in young people.  If certain kinds of social media are introduced prematurely in the lives of teens, they may inadvertently short-circuit basic developmental milestones crucial for establishing healthy relationships later in life (Shane Hipps, “What’s [Actually] on Your Mind?”).

With the rise of popularity of text messaging and social networking among America’s teenagers, it is absolutely critical that the Church take steps to help young people establish healthy and meaningful relationships outside of technology and pass along to them the wisdom to discern the effects that such technologies may have on their sense of authentic community and relationships.  Clearly, the cultural issues facing young people today need to be informing the way the church is practicing youth ministry that has been founded on the theological bedrocks of repentance, grace, redemption, and hope.

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