middle school culture, part 2

i have a new book releasing in december for parents, called Understanding Your Young Teen: Practical Wisdom for Parents. the book is a significant rewrite of some of my chapters from the book scott rubin and i co-authored a couple years ago, called Middle School Ministry. In this series, i’m excerpting portions of one of the chapters, called “White-Hot Temporary (Early Adolescent Culture)”.

my first post in this series covered a culture of information, and a culture of immediacy.


A Disposable Culture
Along with everything being instantly accessible, we also live in an era of disposability. Some things, such as disposable contact lenses and printer ink cartridges, are understood entirely as items to be used up and thrown away. Many more things have a sense of disposability to them, from cell phones to iPods to laptop computers. Even an MP3 file seems more disposable than a physical CD.

Just like other aspects of the middle school world, this “use it a bit, then toss it” mentality has been the norm for these kids their whole lives. So it naturally flows over into other realms of their thinking in ways that are new to this generation:

Relationships have a sense of disposability to them these days.
Knowledge has a sense of disposability to it these days.
Beliefs have a sense of disposability.
And affiliations.
And trust.
And truth.

The subconscious thinking is: If something new is going to replace this next week anyhow, why should I be attached to it now?

A Culture of Consumerism
Earlier, I noted that it’s time for us adults to own our complicity in today’s culture. Nowhere is this more true than with consumerism.

A significant portion of the still-forming identity of today’s middle schooler is just that: “I am a consumer.” They’ve learned this from the obvious places, such as advertisements everywhere. It’s become so prevalent we may not even realize that it’s not always been this way. For example, do you remember when major sports arenas weren’t “sponsored”? Or the era before ad revenue was the primary fuel of the Internet? Do you remember when product placement was a term you didn’t know?

But schooling in how to be a consumer is not just a product of those people in the marketing world. Almost everything and everyone in the lives of young teens treats them as consumers.

And treating young teens as consumers–get ready for the “ouch”–is what most of our churches and youth ministries do also. Unfortunately, I see it played out in many homes also.

Some time ago, I heard British youth leader Mike Pilavachi speak at a Youth Specialties National Youth Workers Convention. He shared the narrative of his earliest days in youth ministry, when he worked hard to provide the best “youth ministry show” in town. A turning point came for him on the night he put together a fun movie party for his group. He arranged comfortable seating, provided fun movie snacks, prepared a bit of stand-up comedy beforehand, and showed a fun film. At the end of the night, the room was trashed and all the kids were walking out. The last girl looked at the state of the room, turned to Mike, and said, “Wow, this room is a real mess.” He thought she might offer to help clean it up, but instead she said, “You’re really going to have to clean this up!” And then she walked out.

Mike was furious as he went about the work of cleaning up. He thought about how unappreciative the kids were, and he even thought how they “didn’t deserve him.” But an intrusive thought (from God, Mike was sure) came to him: Why are they this way?
The only honest answer Mike could give was, I’ve made them this way. Mike said, “When we treat them as consumers, they play their part very well.”

Or, consider this example of the consumerism perpetuated in our own homes: I was chatting with my middle school guys small group about their parents, and asked the very abstract question, “What role do your parents play in your life?” The first boy to answer smiled and said, “My parents are the people who get me stuff!”

This is one of those “less neutral” parts of middle school culture that we can work to undo. Or at least we can be intentional about not adding to it.


up next: an intense but temporary culture, and a networked culture.

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