In discipleship of any kind (with any age group) today, one of the things you quickly realize is that “church touchpoints” are only one small slice of the spiritual formation pie. Sunday mornings, midweek gatherings, small groups—these are vital and indispensable. But they amount to maybe three or four hours of a Christian’s week. Meanwhile, the average young Christian spends upwards of 40–50 hours per week looking at screens and social media. They’re on TikTok almost constantly. And it’s forming them powerfully.
This is why it’s crucial that Christian parents, pastors, and youth workers are engaging this part of students’ lives. Where are young Christians spending their time? What are they watching, listening to, reading? And how do they make these decisions? What grid do Christian young people have for evaluating, with biblical wisdom, whether a piece of media will be nourishing or poisonous for their soul?
If you’re a parent, pastor, youth leader, or mentor, here are five questions to discuss about media with youth.
1. Are you swinging on the pendulum?
Many Christian young people are susceptible to “the pendulum problem.” Maybe they’ve grown up somewhat sheltered or limited in what media they’re told is appropriate for them. They often come to resent this, however, viewing “Christian caution” as legalistic or simple-minded. Maybe they’ve gone to college and become “enlightened” to the wonders of the complicated, gritty world. Or maybe they’re just trying to keep up with their friends. Being young people with little capacity for nuance, they start swinging to the other extreme.
I know this trajectory well because I was on it, back in the day. My evangelical upbringing wasn’t as sheltered or legalistic as some (for which I’m grateful), but in my 20s I relished the opportunity to engage a broader range of media—including lots of R-rated movies I wish I could unsee. I swung the pendulum too far in the other direction—from overly cautious to recklessly uncritical.
Now in my late 30s, however, I’m more settled between these extremes. I still engage a wide array of movies and TV shows in my writing, but I’m more careful in what I choose to watch and (even more so) what I recommend. This is what my book Gray Matters is all about. I try to offer a paradigm for navigating the space between legalism and liberty.
When you start to notice the pendulum problem play out in the lives of Christian young people, don’t freak out. It’s normal. It happens in almost every generation. Sometimes by God’s kindness the young person will come to a realization on their own—that he’s gone too far, it isn’t good for him, and maybe his parents were wise to be cautious about media. But sometimes it’s worth probing a bit to nudge him into this awareness. The next question is one way you can do that.
2. Is your media diet making you spiritually healthy or sick?
I wrote my recent book The Wisdom Pyramid to prompt Christians to think more about the formational power of media habits. In the same way that what comes into our bodies—what constitutes our diet of food and drink—makes us either physically healthy or physically sick, what comes into our souls (ideas, images, voices, arguments) can make us spiritually healthy and wise or spiritually unhealthy and foolish. The Wisdom Pyramid’s premise is that our diet of media shapes us. The movies we watch, the podcasts and music we listen to, the books we read—basically, where we give our attention and where we spend our time—grab our hearts and form our loves. If we’re not careful, they’ll direct our loves in unhelpful directions.
So ask your students to audit their diet of media and entertainment—what’s “feeding their soul.” If you notice a change in a student’s spiritual health or sense she’s veering in the “deconstruction” direction, chances are something has shifted in her intakes. Look for the source.
3. Are you consuming too much media?
If it’s clear there is spiritual unhealth downstream from bad media habits, one helpful question concerns the quantity of media in one’s diet. This is a formational question even apart from the type of content it is.
Quite simply, most of us today are media gluttons. It’s what the algorithms want. Before you finish watching one episode of a show on Netflix, there’s a “watch next!” button to move you along to something else. Unless we’re actively choosing to resist it, the natural rhythm of life in the smartphone era is to be mediated constantly. Look around you when you’re in line for something. Look at the driver in the car next to you at a stoplight. In almost all the gaps in our lives, if our phone is within reach, we reach for it. We start scrolling. We’re conditioned. The result? Every last vestige of our lives is being colonized by content. It’s not doing our souls good.
Unless we’re actively choosing to resist it, the natural rhythm of life in the smartphone era is to be mediated constantly.
When every square inch of our lives is filled with content, we have no space for anything we consume to be processed into nutrition. It’s all just junk food we binge on—TikTok candies fed to us by AI developed in China; sugary Instagram candies dialed into our tastes by a behavioral psychologist on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll. We have no space in our lives to think, make connections, synthesize, discern, consider, weigh. We just consume.
Challenge students, and yourself, to resist the urge to be constantly mediated. Start small. Can you keep your phone in your pocket and not look at it when you’re sitting alone at a bus stop for five minutes? Then go bigger. Can you spend an hour reading a book or sitting silently outside in nature rather than doing something on a device? What about two hours? We desperately need to recover space for silence, rest, quietness, and prayer. The ability to put down our devices has become an essential new spiritual discipline.
4. Is this media helping you love God more?
Given the massive glut of entertainment and media that makes unmediated silence so hard, how can we make the best decisions as Christians? If I choose to limit myself to only one movie or show every so often (and I think this is wise!), what considerations should inform my choice?
I want to suggest that, biblically, a great way to think through this question is by considering the two most important commandments, as identified by Jesus (Matt. 22:35–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 10:25–28): love God and love your neighbor.
I’ve spent years thinking through these issues, and I keep coming back to this simple reminder: most choices in the Christian life should be filtered through the grid of the greatest commandment. Will it help or hinder my worship of God?
Most choices in the Christian life should be filtered through the grid of the greatest commandment. Will it help or hinder me in my worship of God?
What does it look like for a piece of media or entertainment to help us love God more? I could regale you with countless examples from my personal life, but I won’t bore you. Everyone has experienced those goosebump moments of transcendence while watching a movie, or a concert, or even a sporting event (for me, KC Chiefs football and Kansas Jayhawks basketball). For the secular person, these vaguely spiritual experiences end in themselves: momentary pleasure stirs our emotions and maybe our soul. For Christians, however, the goosebumps point to the fact that this world is not random and meaningless. It’s the ordered creation of a Creator (Ps. 24:1). Everything beautiful and meaningful in the world testifies to this fact—and can lead us to praise God.
Remind your students that story and beauty are God’s ideas. He chose to reveal himself to us in Scripture not with a 2,000-page list of bullet point “takeaways,” but with beauty and story: heroes and villains, tension and resolution, poetry and parables, metaphor and song. And he created us to not just be brains on sticks, but full-bodied creatures with senses and emotions.
This is why art, beauty, and entertainment can help us love him.
5. Is this media helping you love your neighbor?
There are many implications for how the “neighbor love” consideration informs our entertainment choices. One is simply the content of the entertainment. Are the humans on a screen in front of me being dignified and treated as humans, or are they being exploited and demeaned merely for my pleasure? Does the film or show I’m watching take seriously the many textures of human existence in ways that ring true, or does it flatten and trivialize it in ways that feel false? As a spectator to the lives of people I don’t know—whether they’re TikTok stars or dancers in a music video—am I growing in empathy and love for them, or are they merely products for my consumption?
Choose media that dignifies humans and helps you appreciate, understand, and love people as precious image-bearers with real struggles, real talents, and real lives.
Choose media that dignifies humans and helps you appreciate, understand, and love people as precious imager-bearers with real struggles, real talents, and real lives.
“Neighbor love” should help us make media choices with our community’s collective edification in mind. We might decide to not watch something because of how it affects not just me, but others in my community (see 1 Cor. 8). Positively, we might view entertainment as a communal experience more than a privatized, “just me and my device” experience. Go to concerts with groups of friends. Start a movie discussion club. Resist the self-oriented pull of the iWorld. Enjoy the world’s beauty with others.
Finally, “neighbor love” should spark us to view our entertainment habits through the lens of mission. Do our choices compromise our witness and erode our credibility as “set apart” people? How might we think creatively about entertainment as an opportunity for outreach? One value of being a thoughtful, critical observer of pop culture as a Christian is you learn a lot about the questions, longings, confusions, and idols of our secular age. This can lead to fruitful dialogue with unbelieving neighbors that might get them thinking about spiritual questions they otherwise ignore. Someone who might not immediately accept an invitation to church might watch a Terrence Malick film or geek out over Lord of the Rings with you—opening doors for theological dialogue that might otherwise be closed.