Youth Culture: Try to Think Like a Missionary (1992)

Welcome to Post-Christian America & the New Media World

By Terry Mattingly

It’s a fact of life: young people change faster than the weather. The same goes for the trends that shape their daily lives.

This is true of individuals, these days, and it is also true of groups. It’s true of the young people in your pews and of those in other mission fields around the world.

We’re talking about more than a stage of life. We’re talking about rapid changes at both the personal and cultural levels. But these trends touch the hearts and minds of individual young people. To them, everything feels personal, not cultural.

Change. Growing pains. The joy of discovery. The fear of the unknown. The struggle to find meaning, while your thoughts ricochet between the stars and the boredom of daily life.

In the United States, young people frequently complain that they are bored and that they have nothing to do. They seem to be saying that they wish things would hurry up and change. Suffice it to say that people who work or live with today’s young people rarely share these sentiments.

Is any part of the lives of young people around the world constant, other than change?

Picture this.

  • In many lands, such as India or Columbia, young people wrestle with centuries of class conflict and prejudice, while their nations struggle to enter the world of satellites.
  • In Africa, traditional forms of family and tribe are bombarded by media signals from other cultures. Missionaries report that young people are often exposed to sexually explicit Western movies on video cassettes, while the reality of the risk of exposure to AIDS threatens their lives in growing numbers.
  • In China, young rebels have used FAX machines to send appeals for help, while a totalitarian government seeks to focus the dreams of millions of people in ways that please foreign corporations. Modern forms of media are used to defend, and attack, the state.
  • In what once was the Soviet Union, young people dream of living the lifestyles they see on American television and hear sung about in American rock music, while trying to earn enough money to own a pair of American blue jeans. It is significant that Boris Yeltsin drew 110,000 people to his historic rallies that toppled the Marxist regime. But note this: Days after the coup, the hard rock bands Metallica and AC/DC drew 500,000.
  • And in North America, many rural teen-agers try to dress like members of urban gangs, acting out messages they have pulled down into the living room using their parents’ satellite dishes. In the inner city, children of impoverished single parents spent hours each week watching TV shows about mythical millionaires, or dreaming of the day when they can copy the moves of singers and athletes who endorse shoes and clothes that they cannot afford.This list of images and issues could go on. Forever.You would need to prepare a new list every year. Forever.

This list of images and issues could go on. Forever.

You would need to prepare a new list every year. Forever.

This is frustrating and it often creates feelings of despair among church leaders. It is easy to think about giving up, when it comes time to try to learn about the changes affect the lives of modern young people.

But apathy is not an option. Young souls are at stake. In some cases, human lives may be at stake.

It would be impossible for the leaders of an organization, such as the Worldwide Leadership Council, to paint an all-inclusive portrait of the young people who live in any one city, let alone any given nation around the world.

But perhaps we can help you discover your own paints and brushes. Perhaps we can suggest ways for you to begin work on your own images of young lives — in your cities, in your own culture — that you want to touch and shape.

What follows are 10 questions about the lives of young people. After each question is a short summary statement about why the Worldwide Leadership Council’s leaders believe this question, and others that flow out of it, is important in the modern world.

Some of the questions are very simple and, quite frankly, may seem too obvious. A few will apply to some of your young people more than others.

But please take these questions seriously. Often, important changes are hidden in the normal patterns of day-to-day life. Important opportunities for ministry can be found by looking closely at the lives of young people.

We believe that if you strive to answer these questions you will gain a better understanding of the forces that mold the lives of young people in your own culture. The questions are very broad in nature, because we are trying to create a tool that will apply to all cultures. It is up to you to think of ways to find the specific details of the picture, in your own place of ministry.

Of course, these questions have been prepared by Americans who live and minister in the context of our own culture.

We can only apologize in advance for this fact, while sincerely asking for your help in molding these study materials into forms that will help other church leaders in the future — in your culture and in other locations around the world.

We want, and we need, your help.

(1) Can you create a time line — in terms of year-to-year changes — that describe the major events in the lives of the young people you want to reach?

— When do they begin, and leave, school?

— When to they begin working, part-time or full-time?

— When do they move out of the home led by one or both of their parents?

— When do they begin courtship rituals, or dating, and how does your culture influence this part of their lives?

— Do the sexual practices of your culture, its accepted norms of behavior, conflict with Christian teaching? Will this help or hinder your work with young people?

— When to young people begin to thing about marriage?

SUMMARY: The goal is to reach young people at times when they are undergoing major changes in their lives. During a major life change, young people may need or seek help. They may be open to making a major change in their spiritual lives.

(2) Can you create time lines — in terms of week-to-week, or even day-to-day changes — that describe the lives of young people in your church and culture?

— How do young people spend their time?

— How do they spend whatever money they have?

— Does this pattern change during different seasons of the of the year?

— Do you know enough about the young people that you want your ministry to reach to anticipate how they spend time on weekdays? Weekends?

— What do you know about the lives of unchurched young people? How do they differ from Christian young people? Where do they gather, in your community?

— Do your young people work? For the family? Outside the home for pay?

— How are the daily lives of young people in your culture affected by poverty? Poor health? Hunger?

SUMMARY: All ministry must take place in the context of the daily lives of the people we want to reach. We cannot plan programs to reach real people if we do not know enough about their lives to be able to anticipate their needs and desires.

(3) Where do young people gather to spend their free time?

— What do they do to have fun?

— What are their favorite forms of indoor and outdoor recreation, in the sense of games, activities and sports?

— What role does music play in your culture? Drama?

— Where do they eat, other than at home?

— In what locations might a Christian worker be able to meet with young people in your culture, if they are not part of the church?

SUMMARY: Fishers of men, and women, know where and when to fish. St. Paul knew where people gathered to talk and listen. If he didn’t know, he soon found out.

(4) What is the status of the families of your young people?

— When do young people leave home?

— Do they live with both parents, or one parent?

— How common is divorce in your culture, or homes broken by one parent simply abandoning the other?

— What roles to elders play in daily family life, such as grand parents, aunts and uncles?

— What is the biggest cause of tension and stress in families in your church? Among the unchurched?

— Can you name three factors that cause families to break up in your culture?

SUMMARY: All ministries affect families. All families — the good and the bad — shape the lives of young people. Our goal is to help support and strengthen families. But we also must be sensitive to the fact that, in some cultures, conversion to Christianity can cause tensions or pain.

(5) Can you name three major forms of electronic media in your culture that are popular with young people?

— Cite at least three artists or titles of songs, films or television shows popular with young people in your culture.

— In what locations are young people exposed to media and entertainment, either locally produced or from the West?

— What percentage of people in your community own television sets? Do any own VCRs?

— Can your young people afford to go to movies? Where?

— Where could you meet with young people to see and hear their favorite forms of media?

— Is media a source of tension in families, in your culture? Does it divide old and young?

— Can you name specific examples of artists or programs that cause division in your culture?

SUMMARY: Around the world, waves of mass media have carried modernization and change into homes and churches. This trend will only increase, in the years ahead. The changes caused by media often divide generations and cause tensions in homes and churches. We cannot ignore this reality about modern life.

(6) Other than mass media, what cultural forces most shape the lives and goals of your young people?

— What is the role played by schools?

— Are churches involved in the educational process, in your community or nation?

— Are there times during the school week, or settings in or near the schools themselves, that would provide opportunities to meet with young people?

— Do young people attend any kind of social clubs?

— What impact do gangs and other informal bands of neighborhood peers have in your community?

— What role is played by trade unions and groups linked to government job programs?

SUMMARY: For most young people, the future is linked to either the education process or the learning of job skills. Also, it is hard to touch the heart without reaching the mind. Note: In some cultures, the church may be able to an active role in the education of the young.

(7) How would you tell young people in your culture about a new program being offered by your church?

— By what means would you get the message out to the unchurched?

— How about members of your own church?

— What does it cost, in terms of effort or money, to spread a message to young people in your culture?

— Does your community or nation support some form of public radio, television or newspaper?

— What forms of religious media exist in your culture? Could your organization help create or support a religious radio station, or some similar venture?

SUMMARY: In this age, it is hard to reach people outside your own church buildings without understanding media. Remember, “media” can range from hand-painted signs posted in public courtyards to high-technology systems linked to satellites.

(8) What is the dominant form of religion in your nation?

— At what stages of life will young people in your culture have chances to accept, or reject, some form of organized religion?

— What role does Christianity play?

— Will young people in your culture know anything about the church, in terms of good or bad impressions?

— In your culture, what will school leaders, or media figures, have to say about religion?

— With what faith groups, churches or denominations will young people already be familiar?

— Where will young people hear information, good or bad, about Christianity and the church?

— What groups or institutions will speak ill of Christianity?

— What are the most common alternative religions and cults in your nation, and what are these groups doing in terms of reaching out to young people?

SUMMARY: Read Acts 17: 16-33. Our goal is to learn to think like missionaries, even though we are working in our own culture. Every day, change creates new mission fields.

(9) Who are the heroes of your young people?

— How does your culture define the word “hero?”

— Name three people, living or dead, who would be admired by young people in your nation?

— How do young people choose heroes and learn about the people they admire?

— Do they have heroes they can realistically hope to meet, or are they only attracted to media personalities?

— Do young people in your community tend to admire, or distrust, religious leaders?

— Does your government produce “heroic” figures?

— Will evangelistic efforts, in your culture, be supported or opposed by the official “heroes” of the local and national governments? How about those in the media, or sports?

SUMMARY: The Bible is full of heroic figures. So are daily newspapers and movie screens. The moral examples set by media heroes is often a major hurdle the church must clear, in reaching the hearts and minds of young people. You should know who your young people admire. In whose footsteps do they want to follow?

(10) What are the dreams of your young people?

— As a rule, are young people in your church hopeful, or fatalistic, about their futures? What about the unchurched?

— Do the media in your community include many reports about despair and hopelessness among young people?

— Do your young people talk about being lonely? How do they want to relate to other young people?

— What do they want to do with their lives, in terms of work?

— Within the reality of your culture and economy, what can young people expect to be able to do during their lives?

— How do your young people want other people to think about them? How do they want to relate to other people?

— In your culture, are there changing patterns of marriage and family that will affect your young people?

SUMMARY: When your young people pray, what do you hope and pray that they will pray for? Dreams are the soul’s road maps. How do you want the Gospel to affect young minds and hearts, in your time, in your community, in your land?


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