Understanding Today’s Youth
The adolescent world is changing rapidly; it is virtually im¬possible to keep up with every new fad and movement of the culture. The pressures of today’s culture hardly compare to those of previous times. To accentuate the challenge of ministry in today’s culture, let’s look at some frightening information. In 1940 :he top offenses in public schools were as follows: running in the hallways, chewing gum in class, wearing improper clothing (which included leaving a shirttail out), making noise, and not putting paper in wastebaskets. In 1980 the top offenses in public schools were as follows: robbery, assault, personal theft, burglary, drug abuse, arson, bombings, alcohol abuse, carrying weapons, absenteeism, vandalism, murder, and extortion!1 Not a great deal of comment is necessary, except to say that times and conditions have changed.
The Revolution of Change
The young people that you and I work with today are different from those of any previous generation. They are smarter, better-looking, and filled with greater potential than people of any other time in history. This same teenager is filled with more stress, anxiety, and pressure than teens of any previous generation. Their world is a maze of continuing transformations. In order to meet the important needs of this generation of young people, we must keep our ears and eyes carefully tuned to the rapidly changing beat of the culture. There is a revolution of change taking place in the youth culture. Youth workers can help make a positive influence amid the frightening changes taking place.
The Family Revolution
In 1986, a general sampling of youth workers taken by Youth Specialties indicated that 35 percent to 75 percent of the adolescents in any group were not living with both of their natural parents. The stable under¬pinning of the family is not just buckling—it has col¬lapsed. Even those young people whose parents are not divorced are not free from anxiety. Every time their parents have an argument, they wonder: Is my family next? The adolescent of today has been deeply affected by this family permutation. In the past, the family was stress reducing; now the family is stress producing.2
Many studies tell us that the greatest place of violence in America is inside the home. It’s no secret that the home is no longer a happy place to be in the majority of teenagers’ lives. Physical abuse and neglect are at the top of the list of problems in the home. We can’t assume that the kids in our groups are doing okay at home.
Much of our youth ministry must be geared at helping the family make it. The family is, by God’s design, the center of life and even of the young person’s Christian education. Youth workers cannot neglect the fact that one of their major goals must be to help families succeed. Your job is to promote the family.
The Sexual Revolution
In 1967, 85 percent of the teenagers surveyed believed that premarital sex was morally wrong. In 1981 only 26 percent felt it was wrong. Nearly six out of ten 16- to 18-year-olds have had sexual intercourse. The average age for the first sexual experience is 16 years.3
A conservative estimate of teenage pregnancies in a year is one million. At least a third of those pregnancies will end in abortion. Only one of every ten teenagers who get married because the woman is pregnant stays married, meaning that nine out of ten get a divorce. Teenage pregnancy is the number one cause of school dropouts for females. The suicide rate among teenage mothers is ten times that of the general population.4 Who says there is not a price that is paid in the sexual revolution?
Where the Puritans did not want anyone to know that they had sexual feelings, our generation is ashamed if it does not show its feelings. Sexual stimulation is not new, but the overwhelming sexual barrage from every aspect of our society is a relatively new phenomenon in our country.
The church must take a strong stand for morality. In a world of phony, instant intimacy, the church must teach and live the values of commitment and fidelity taught in the Bible. Because sex is a dominant issue in the minds of young people, the church can no longer remain silent. We must let our kids understand that God is not the great killjoy; He cares about their sexuality. God created sex, and within His biblical guidelines He sees it as very good Genesis 1:31). It’s time for the church to provide a healthy view of sexuality and a wholesome respect for relationships with the oppo¬site sex.
The Relationship Revolution
The Robert Johnson Company conducted a study for Junior Achievement all across the United States in 1960 and 1980 on the teen environment .”5 In this study they discovered a radical shift from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. The question was asked, “What is the most dominant influence in your life?”
Most dominant influence in 1960 1980
1. Mother/father 2
2. Teachers 4
3. Friends, peers 1
4. Ministers, priests, rabbis 6
5. Youth club leaders, advisors, Scout masters, coaches 9
6. Popular heroes, sports, music 5
7. Grandparents, uncles, aunts 10
8. TV, records, movies, radio 3
9. Newspapers, magazines 7
10. Advertising 8
The shift in major influence is really quite startling. In this study, mother and father were replaced by friends and peers as the most influential relationship, with the friends moving from num¬ber three to number one. Notice also that the greatest shift occurred in the area of television, records, movies, and radio. In 1960 this area of influence came in at number eight, but by the 1980’s it was number three in influence.
Unfortunately, at the same time that the family influences seem to be disintegrating, the mobility factor is increasing. People are moving more often and farther away from home and their ex-tended family. Youth workers must seriously consider the fact that in our mobile society some young people are retreating from making significant friendships. The result is a sense of loneliness. Many analysts of the teenage culture call this decade the “decade of loneliness.”
The church youth group can fill the need for positive influence and intimate relationships. One of the major goals of any youth ministry is to provide an opportunity to form a healthy, Christ-centered community of peers influencing each other in a positive way. One 14-year-old expressed it this way to me: “Until I found this youth group, I had moved so many times that I just gave up on making friends anymore. Every day after school I retreated to my TV set in my bedroom.”
The Media Revolution
Television is much more influential than most of us realize. Modern television holds teenagers’ attention through sophisti¬cated technology. Visual stimulation is a “high” to the mind similar to that of a chemical high. Today a young person’s morals, values, and thought process are molded as much by media as by relation¬ships. Television profoundly affects our society.
Jennifer’s parents separate. Instead of feeling any grief, she represses her emotions because on the latest television drama which she watches with religious fervor) everything turns out okay. Her mind is programmed to see 45 minutes of murder, divorce, and robbery, but by the time the show ends everyone is happy again. Jennifer doesn’t realize what she is doing, but she is living with a mixed agenda of the expectations of television and of the real world.
Television is so real to its viewers that no less than 250,000 Americans wrote to TV’s Dr. Marcus Welby seeking medical advice, as if he were an actual physician. Markiewicz (past president of National Public Radio) and Swerdlov (free-lance writer) cited the results of a two-year study in which a college researcher asked children ages four to six, “Which do you like better: TV or daddy? Forty-four percent preferred television.”6
I’m not one who advocates record-burning parties; however, I m very concerned about the emphasis shift in music today. Let’s get something straight: Kids listen to rock music. The latest statis¬tics available tell us that teenagers listen to four hours a day of rock music and ten hours a week of MTV music videos. There is no way to :calculate what that kind of exposure does to an adolescent, but it’s scary.
According to a study from the University of Tennessee at Chat¬tanooga, almost 60 percent of MTV music videos contain sex or violence! Tasteless, graphic, and explicitly sexual songs saturate the airwaves and bombard our homes. Many of the songs are nothing more than rock pornography.
What is unique about the rock songs of today is not the blatant sexual language; there was music like this before. What is unique about this music is that it is not unique: These pornographic rock songs tend to be the rule rather than the exception. Aristotle wrote, “Music has the power to form character.” Music forms and influences our imagination.
Is all media evil? I’m not convinced it is. However, youth work¬ers have two important roles to play when thinking about the media. First, they must be willing to keep up with the changes in order to know what is influencing the people in their own ministry and community. To think that the church’s weekly one to four hours of influence is overpowering the media’s 30 hours is to be naive. Second, youth workers must help their teenagers learn how to view the media with proper suspicion. Since young people are and will continue to be influenced by media, a good youth ministry program will help students learn to filter what comes into their lives. We must teach them that they have a choice; they do not have to be unduly influenced by the media.
You Can Make a Difference
Given the reality of the influence and transformation of our culture, many youth workers feel paralyzed: What can I do in our little church? That is precisely the feelings of the Israelites when they encountered the Philistines, and particularly Goliath. The Israelites were paralyzed with fear. The young shepherd boy David came out to the battle, at his father’s request, to bring supplies to his older brothers. When David observed Goliath mocking the people of Israel and the living God, David decided to do something about it . Armed with five smooth stones, a sling, and his faith in the living God, he killed the giant Goliath. When other people’s phi¬losophy was He is so big that we can’t win, David’s belief was He is so big that I can’t miss. With God’s help, David prevailed. We look at the realities of the culture and often see them as too big to overcome. Yet in actuality, with God’s help we can make a differ¬ence that lasts for eternity.
What can we do? For starters we can begin to help kids view life on a different level.
Help Your Kids Experience Life
Many leaders believe they have to entertain their group to have a successful program. Wrong! Young people must experience the work of Christ if they are to grow in their faith. For example, we can never just talk about missions and expect our young people to understand. Kids must experience missions, whether it’s painting a widow’s home, working at a rescue mission, or visiting a rest home.
Help Your Kids Learn the Joy of Service
Our society says “What’s in it for me?” and “Look out for number one.” On the other hand, Christ calls His people to serve. We can instill a sense of servanthood in our young people. The ones who find the joy of serving stay in the church.
Help Your Kids into Community
We need to teach and practice a sense of community in our youth groups. Young people will stay in the church because they are drawn into the community by faith. They are socialized into a community that affects their actions, beliefs, attitudes, and values—even their dating habits.
The young people of this culture will not be dazzled in the church through good programming. They can stay home and watch programming on TV that is 100 times better. However, as our technological society continues to become more and more imper¬sonal, the church can meet the more important needs of students and make a difference in their lives.
Young people today need to know that they are loved uncondi¬tionally. We must love our people with the “Jesus style” of love. He loved unconditionally, with no strings attached. Kids today need to be loved even when they don’t produce or don’t look good or aren’t successful. We can learn so much about working with students by observing how Jesus related to people. Consider, for example, His meeting with the woman caught in adultery (John 8). He didn’t agree with the sin, but His love and forgiveness were evident in the conversation. He knew that greater change takes place through demonstrating love than through inflicting guilt.
Too many Christians are never challenged to go farther, dig deeper, or walk the second mile. Your students need to be chal¬lenged to leadership and service. They must understand the high calling from God to serve. Living out the Christian faith is so much more than coming to youth group only when they feel like it. Young people are continuing to join religious cults at epidemic levels, and I’m convinced that this is because the cults provide a challenge that the church has failed to offer. Don’t soften the words of Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
Along with challenge comes accountability. If your students don’t follow through on something, they must understand that it matters. When it comes to following through on assignments or even discipline, expect results in a loving way. We bail them out too quickly, and they lose the opportunity to feel needed. At one time we started holding our leadership core students accountable for attending leadership meetings and the worship service, or else they would be asked to step off leadership. Our attendance dou¬bled.
We learn and grow through tension. We must prepare students for the future by dealing with difficult subjects and bringing up uncomfortable questions. If the struggles of the faith aren’t brought up in church, where there is love and security, then the difficult issues will be brought up somewhere else. It’s a matter of with whom and where you want these tension issues dealt with. My youth group didn’t like me bringing up the fact that our little four-year-old neighbor was dying of cancer, but it was the best meeting we had that year on the subject of prayer. Difficult life experiences must be dealt with, especially in a culture that tends to repress the struggles of life.
Most of today’s young people are starved for affirmation and encouragement. Unfortunately, few people take the time to affirm. Affirmation and encouragement are possibly the central ingre-dients when battling the impersonal culture. There is power in affirmation. I realized this truth when I developed a relationship with Tom. I really liked him, but he was different from most of our group. He was quiet and extremely intellectual, and he was dealing with faith issues that very few high school students would ever think about. He was very politically minded even though most of our students never thought about politics. During our times together I affirmed him for his intellectual searching in his faith and his political interest. He wrote me a letter from the mission field recently that said, “Thank you for encouraging me to use my interests for the kingdom of God. The affirmation of challenging me to be me was what I needed to find my call to the mission field.”
One of the major roles of a youth worker is to help his or her young people realize their God-given potential and giftedness. Whenever we place our giftedness alongside the superstars of our culture, we lose. Our job is to instill a knowledge of the fact that all of God’s people have spiritual gifts and abilities. He has created each person unique. Not only should we help our young people discover their gifts, but we must encourage them to use their gifts, abilities, and talents for the glory of God.
Kids today need someone to trust them and give them hope. They need to see light where there is only darkness. We must refuse to let go of our dream for them. Christ is the hope that keeps us going in the midst of a changing and confusing culture. As you give young people hope in Christ, they too have the power to become all that God desires them to be.
The above article, “Understanding Today’s Youth” was written by Jim Burns. The article was excerpted from chapter 3 in Burns’ book, The Youth Builder.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”