Editors' note: In this five-part series, youth workers explore trends in culture, technology, and economics. They consider how we prepare young people for the world they will inherit as adults, in such a way that they remain faithful to and fruitful for Christ. To learn more about the contributors and how Rooted advances grace-driven youth ministry, check out their site and fall conference in New York City.
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I grew up in an era of college football where the constant refrain was “defense wins championships.” During my childhood glory days I watched Alabama’s coach, Gene Stallings, win four SEC West titles and a national championship with smothering defense and a boring, anemic offense. Stallings loaded up his talent on the defensive side of the ball and played a conservative offense, which rarely scored any points. He had huge success with this strategy.
Today, Stallings would fail decisively. With evolution of various offensive styles, defenses cannot keep up with the changes. Teams have to be able to score points now, even if their defense is strong. Championships require strong offenses and strong defenses. Coaches must adapt in order to compete in the future. Weakness on either side of the ball markedly limits a program’s prospects for championships.
Like college football, the world for young people has changed dramatically. High exposure to media via technology and the deluge of mixed messages in the culture have created an incredibly difficult landscape for parents and children to navigate. On average kids ages 8 to 18 consume seven and a half hours of media per day. Statistics indicate that teen media consumption continues to rise largely as a product of technological advances in mobile devices. One can presume that the technology will not regress, and exposure to media only will continue to increase as kids enter adulthood.
If I may borrow terminology from college football, parenting and ministering to kids who will remain faithful to Christ after they leave home and youth group requires both a strong defense and a strong offense.
Let me define what I mean with these terms. By defense, I mean that parents and churches must attempt to protect children from damaging content. Adults have a responsibility to establish boundaries that guard kids from harmful material in movies and television before they are mature enough to wisely navigate these matters for themselves.
By offense, I refer to a parent and church’s responsibility to train children how to engage and discern the messages of the world. For the frequent occasions when young people encounter information and values that undermine Christian truth, they need tools that enable them to analyze and evaluate those messages.
A central role in forming young Christians involves cultivating a belief system grounded in truth. In the current climate, young people encounter a barrage of messages, some containing truth, some with destructive implications, and many with some combination of both. Gone are the days of the Brady Bunch and Andy Griffith and in are those of The Real Housewives and The Bachelor. In sometimes subtle ways, shows like The Bachelor and Grey’s Anatomy portray sex as a casual, self-interested interaction free of consequences. The Real Housewives and Southern Charm elevate wealth and status as ultimate goods. In more explicit and destructive ways, pornography can create long-term damage for young people.
Responsible ministry to young people involves protecting them from these temptations. Kids do not need free rein over what they view on television. They need boundaries on their access on Netflix. I implore—absolutely beg—parents to install a monitoring device or filter like Covenant Eyes on their teenagers’ smart phones, iPad, and computer. Parents have to get savvy. Playing good defense involves guarding the heart of children from falsehood that leads them toward the empty life naturally found apart from God’s ways.
While I fully advocate playing good defense, parents must understand the utter impossibility of shielding their child from every destructive message. Given the pervasiveness of technology today, children will see ungodly material. Furthermore, when children leave the home and enter the increasingly virtual world, they will not have parents and mentors to protect them from the media flood.
I was awakened to this reality early in parenthood. On a Saturday afternoon while watching a football game, I turned to see my 3-year old son staring at a Pepsi commercial with Beyonce dancing in far too little clothing. Meanwhile, my desire to shield my daughter from the warped paradigms of womanhood portrayed in women’s magazines and popular culture was shattered at age 1 when we read our first princess book. Here my sweet baby got her first message, compliments of Jasmine and Ariel, that the ideal woman sports a two-inch waste, an enormous chest, skinny legs, and hardly any clothing.
Respond with Truth
Churches and parents alike need to train their children on how to evaluate messages in the culture and how to respond with truth. A good offense hinges on kids who know how to assess the validity of the messages and who possess a knowledge of truth with which to counter the content. Trying to simply run and hide just won’t work.
This approach to culture can build faith as well. So many elements in arts and media affirm aspects of the gospel. The children’s stories Love You Forever and The Runaway Bunny resemble the unflinching love of God in books with no religious terminology. Even the music of Lady Gaga, Pink, Eminem, or Katy Perry somtimes express the deep human longing and shows the universal need for the gospel. For young people to see the truths of Christianity lived out in the world affirms belief that the Christian message is real. Having this skill of discernment will enable them to turn arts and media into a source of encouragement as they enter the world as adults.
For churches, I encourage incorporating examples from pop music, television, and movies into teaching whenever possible. It models such faithful cultural engagement. Parents need not simply change the channel when something bad comes on. They should ask their kids questions about what the horrendous Hardee’s commercials say about women and sexuality and ask what life insurance commercials say about security. They should discuss how Frozen may or may not reflect the themes of Christian freedom.
Most importantly, do not freak out. Jesus has won the battle. We can approach this issue with wisdom and rest.