Tag Archives: youth culture

Adding a Cultural Descriptor

back in 2007 or 2008, when Scott Rubin and i were writing the manuscript for Middle School Ministry: a Comprehensive Guide to Working With Early Adolescents, i wrote a chapter with seven descriptors of middle school culture. not long after the book was published in 2009, i realized they were descriptors of youth culture in general. then, a bit later, i realized they were apt descriptors of western culture in general, which brought me to the realization that my original identification of these realities was more about encroaching cultural realities, rather than uniquenesses of being a young teen (or teenager) in america today.

the uniqueness, for teenagers, is that they are indigenous to this culture (and these realities), whereas those of us over 30 are immigrants. for example: i live in a culture of information just as much as a 13-year-old does; but my immigrant status allows me to see it (if i choose to). for a teenager, it’s the air they breath, and the only cultural realities they’ve every known. that means their identities and world view and faith have been inseparable shaped by these realities every day of their entire lives.

a few years ago, i posted a blog series on these descriptors, and multiple people suggested an eighth descriptor (in varying language), which i’d then added as the fourth on this list:

  • A Culture of Information
  • A Culture of Immediacy
  • A Culture of Disposability
  • A Hyper-Sexualized Culture
  • A Culture of Consumerism
  • An Intense but Temporary Culture
  • A Networked Culture
  • A Driven/Sedentary Culture

reading an article in Time magazine the other day, i realized another shaping descriptor that needed to be my ninth:

  • An All-Access Culture

this reality has overlap with the first two on the list (really, all of them have overlap with one another, informing each other and creating the soup of cultural experience). but i think it’s worth noting separately.

until very recently, our lives, and the information we had access to, were almost-completely curated by people and organizations who acted as gate-keepers.

publishers curated reading options (books, magazines, newspaper). and our options were significantly limited by these gatekeepers.

TV was curated by a few networks and their broadcast schedules. i very much remember, as a child, how all of the kids playing on my detroit block would run simultaneously run inside on friday nights to make sure we didn’t miss The Brady Bunch at its scheduled broadcast time.

of course, there are still gatekeepers and curators (for good or ill). but in a revolutionary shift, most people now choose what (information, entertainment) to consume, from a functionally endless or infinite catalog of options. and most people now choose when they will access this what. and the what is just as likely to be user-generated (social media, for example) as it is to be curated. in fact: teenage engagement with information and entertainment certainly skews to user-generated content (us older folks access some of both, but still rely quite a bit on curators).

think about how this reality would shape you if it’s all you’d ever known. there are upsides, to be sure (cultural realities almost always have benefits as well as risks): having the ability to make choices is empowering, and offers us the advantage of parsing our intake toward our interests.

but this shift brings threats also, particularly when it shapes everything you understand about yourself and the world. some possibilities (i would love to hear more in comments below) include an increase in narcissistic egoistic perspective, along the lines of “i’m the best arbiter of what has worth.” marinating in an All-Access Culture for your entire life (and particularly, your formative years) could also lead to a distrust or dismissal of input from those with informed perspectives, or curators with the best intentions (like: a youth worker).

thoughts? additional implications?


is youth ministry the cause of the american church’s juvenilization?

like many of you, i read the cover story in the current issue of christianity today with interest. the article, by huntington prof thomas bergler, is called When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity. if you haven’t read it, take a few minutes now — i’ll wait. the article is a synopsis/excerpt of bergler’s new book (which i haven’t read, so these comments are only in connection with the CT article).

anytime CT is willing to address any subject pertaining to teenagers or youth ministry, i’m intrigued (particularly as i find that youth ministry is still considered “junior varsity ministry” in most church leader thought circles).

it’s a very well-written article, with great bits that were new to me. bergler traces the history of youth ministry in the american church alongside the rise of the seeker movement and the dumbing down of worship. on the surface, he’s gracious to youth ministries, saying that the approaches forged in that context were appropriate.

but bergler takes it a HUGE step further: the basic thrust of the article is that youth ministry approaches are responsible (exclusively, since he doesn’t name other factors) for the shift in the american church to a feel-good, dumbed-down, pep rally:

Youth ministries and juvenilization contributed to this surprising outcome by making the Christian life more emotionally satisfying. Passion was in, duty was out. This kind of individualized, emotional connection to God sustained religious interest in a changing society in which custom, tradition, and social pressure would no longer motivate people to care about faith or attend church.

Not surprisingly, in the process of adapting to the new immature adulthood, churches started looking a lot like youth groups. Contemporary churches appeal to thousands of Americans by providing an informal, entertaining, fast-paced worship experience set to upbeat music. Everything done in these churches to reach “unchurched” people was already being done in the YFC rallies of the 1950s. And this parallel is not coincidental.

now, i don’t deny for a second that youth ministries can (and hopefully do) have a shaping influence on their churches, and on the church at large. that reality is one of the primary reasons i have stayed in youth ministry all these years! and i don’t want to be defensive, and ignore the negative ways youth ministry may have inadvertently shaped the church for the worse.

but the further i got into the article, the more i found myself moving from a response of “yeah, i agree!” to a response of, “wait, that’s not a logical conclusion.”

as a more minor point of contention, bringing in worship styles seems to be a weak example to me. i’m with bergler that there’s been a theological shift toward a feel-good gospel, and that has had (and will have) damaging implications for the church. call out the lyrics — that’s fair; but the musical style seems to miss the point.

but my bigger issue is that i just can’t buy it that youth ministry has that much power! (maybe we should all be flattered!) the broader, and much more influential issue, from my perspective, is the juvenilization of american culture in general! expressions of church are far from being the leading case studies of juvenilization. and, at the end of the day, the bigger influence on the church has been an american culture where youth (and the values and norms, styles and preferences, attitudes and behaviors) reign. institutional loyalty is out the window in our culture, and “what works for me” is the primary deciding factor for the average adult decision, whether in the church or outside of it. it’s a stretch to imply that youth ministries were anything more than a response to those broader cultural shifts. and the church just went down the same path, a few years later.

middle school culture, part 4

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. the second post in the series included a disposable culture, and a culture of consumerism. the third post included an intense but temporary culture, and a networked culture.


A Driven yet Sedentary Culture
This is an interesting, paradoxical tension among young teens today. On the one hand, the pressures on middle schoolers are greater now than they’ve ever been. Today’s young teens are driven in ways that are almost scary. Some of this drivenness comes from their own choosing; but most of it is an external drive from parents and schools.

Not all kids play sports, of course; but for those who do, involvement in sports seems to be less about having fun and getting exercise. Instead, involvement in sports often carries with it a sense of the future: What doors will this open? Sports are seen in a utilitarian sense, as a means to get somewhere in life. In other words, the pursuit of the American dream (financial freedom and career success) is more competitive and fleeting than ever. And sports are seen as one of the many Lego pieces that will build an edge over others, increasing the likelihood of “success.”

Yet sports are only one example. We see this driven reality play out in the lives of countless nonsporting middle schoolers, too. The message seems to be: You must be the best at something if you hope to be successful in life.

Of course, this plays out academically also. Not every kid is college-bound, but the pressure to succeed academically permeates much of teenage culture–including the culture of young teens. I’m pretty sure there was no such thing as SAT prep for middle schoolers when we were that age.

But with all this pressure and drivenness, there’s an odd tension at play in the lives of young teens: They are more sedentary than ever. They don’t move as much. They watch more TV, sit at computers, sit in their rooms and text their friends, and sit in front of gaming systems for hours on end. The notion of a pick-up game of stickball in the street has little more than an old-timey Norman Rockwell vibe to it these days. When the young teen guys I know get together with friends, it’s rarely for any kind of physical activity; young teen guys typically get together to play video games.

middle school culture, part 3

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. the second post in the series included a disposable culture, and a culture of consumerism.


An Intense but Temporary Culture
In the chapter on middle school relational change (chapter 6), I wrote that young teen girl friendships are often surprisingly intense yet also tend to be short-lived. To some degree this is also true of middle school culture in general.

Some of this is developmental. In their effort to sample and discover, young teens often immerse themselves into their interests, affinity groups, or value systems. They try these on as if they’re the last ones they’ll ever try on, as if they’re going to give their lives to this new direction.

My daughter, Liesl, who’s now 16, has always been an all-or-nothing kid–and this was especially true during her young teen years. When she was into art (taking art classes and such), she was convinced she’d spend the rest of her life doing it. When she decided she wanted to be a skateboarder, she adopted everything of that subculture (including music, clothing, and many other seemingly unrelated variables) in a “this is who I am” manner. Liesl has gone through a dozen or more identity makeovers, and has only in the last year or so started to settle into some less-temporary identity wrappings.

We adults tend to either try things on more tentatively or immerse ourselves in things we will stick with for a long time. Not so, usually, with young teens. I titled this chapter “White-Hot Temporary” for this reason: Young teens give themselves wholeheartedly to the interest, relationship, choice, value system, or belief that’s in their faces, but they also easily discard it for the next sampling exercise. This is a cultural issue, in addition to being a developmental issue, because it’s what they observe all around them in other young teens.
It’s considered normal.

We adults might ask, “Why don’t you ever stick with anything long enough to really know if it’s you?” But their peers sure aren’t saying that to them.

A Networked Culture
Obviously, this is a huge shift in young teen culture. The fact that most young teens (sure, not all of them) have cell phones that instantly connect them with parents and friends is a whole new world of instant, networked connectivity. Text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools have created a middle school culture that exists in bits and bytes.

This is a fascinating shift. While relationships are as important as ever, these relationships are more dependent than ever (seriously, more than ever–in all of history) on the written word. Friendships are no longer primarily dependent on physical proximity, audible vocalization, and listening. Friendships and social networks of middle schoolers are more dependent on networks played out over transmitted data.

As such, the “Who’s in your network?” question of identity and affinity is more than a cell phone company marketing tag. Most young teens consider online and text communications to be both the foundations and the buttresses of their relational cathedrals.

A quick example: My daughter has a formerly very close friend who lives only about a mile away from us, but no longer attends her school. He has a cell phone, but it’s almost always out of minutes (since he has a very limited prepaid plan). So she can rarely reach him by cell phone or text message. He doesn’t use Facebook (which Liesl does). So even though he lives in reasonable proximity to Liesl, she’s finding she has no real means of sustaining the friendship. She has other friends who no longer attend the same school she does, but she still considers them to be very close friends because they constantly–daily–connect via text
messaging and Facebook (and the occasional phone call).


up next, in the last post in this series: a driven yet sedentary culture.

Cartel Culture (The Youth Cartel free awesomeness, part 2)

this week, The Youth Cartel (my kick-butt little company!) launched two amazing, free youth ministry resource emails. yesterday, i wrote about YouTube You Can Use, the weekly mini-discussion built around a youtube clip. free. really. that sucka will come out pretty much each and every monday (but only to the wise and savvy youth workers who sign up for it, here).

but that’s not all! if you order now, we’ll throw in the ginsu knives

wait. no.

oh, yeah, it’s CARTEL CULTURE.

let’s be honest: no one wants weekly emails full of long letters and articles — that’s what blogs are for (c’mon, sing that last line to the tune of michael w. smith’s ‘that’s what friends are for’; i’ll wait for you). links. when it comes to FREE weekly emails about stuff youth workers should see, it’s gotta be links, baby.

that’s what the weekly CARTEL CULTURE is. it’s a free link-fest (all in a beautifully designed shell, i must say, created by the unstoppable adam mclane). looks like this:

you’ll notice there that we have 6 links, each in a different “bucket”. but those are only 6 of the 15 “buckets” we’ll rotate through each week. the whole list includes:


who knows, maybe we’ll throw in some more categories over time (we’re sneaky that way — we’re a cartel, after all).

some of the links go to The Youth Cartel site, so that we can host some conversation around the bit. others go to external sites.

you can sign up here for the weekly CARTEL CULTURE email, which is free (did i mention that?). you’ll see the other emails you can sign up for also (YouTube You Can Use, and our event and book and curriculum news, the latter two of which will only be sporadic, at best). we promise, we won’t spam you or sell your email address or anything like that. hey, once you’re in the cartel baby, you’re like family.

middle school culture, part 1

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)”.


A Culture of Information
We all live in a culture of information. So, in a sense, this isn’t unique to young teens. What is unique is that this reality is shaping them significantly during their early adolescent development and in ways that weren’t true prior to the last decade. What’s also unique is that today’s young teens have always lived in a culture of information.

Almost every bit of information needed (as well as excessive quantities of information that are not wanted or needed) is available with the click of a mouse and in ways that shape our worldviews. This is both about access to information and the onslaught of information. The access of information shapes middle schoolers’ culture of immediacy, their sense of entitlement, and their work ethic. On the other hand, the onslaught of information has a numbing effect. Since everything middle schoolers need to know is readily available and since they’re constantly bombarded with suggestions and data of every sort, they’re less attentive to the stuff that passes by.

A Culture of Immediacy
Think for a minute about the things you had to wait for as a middle schooler that today’s middle schoolers don’t. They can take a picture on their cameras or cell phones and see the results instantly. They hear a song on the radio, and they can instantly download it to their computers or cell phones. Want to buy something? They can jump online in seconds, browse a customized and instantly generated list of sites, get others’ input about an item via user comments, and then, if they want the item, make an instant purchase and wait a day or two at most for the item to arrive. If you’ve ever been “stuck” somewhere without your cell phone and tried to find a pay phone to make a call, then you’ve been reminded of this shift.

Sure, you and I also have access to all this immediacy. But most of us didn’t grow up with this being normative. Today’s young teens have never known a world without instant everything. Doesn’t it strike you as funny that their idea of “old time hominess” includes making bread in a computer-enabled machine that does all the work?

Here’s a great example of this shift: For us adults, email communication changed everything. We were able to send and receive written communication without writing it by hand and going through the “hassle” of using the postal system. Written communication became almost instantaneous. But no one predicted that teenagers would dispose of email as being too slow and clunky and then opt for the intensely more immediate communication pathway of text messaging. We adults saw text messaging as a utilitarian means of quick planning. Teenagers turned it into a social phenomenon.

Middle schoolers don’t have a willingness (or perhaps even the capacity) to wait for anything. Our culture has trained them to expect everything instantly. Patience is a rough one; “delayed gratification” is a foreign concept; and slowness can have a deeply profound impact on them, since it’s something they simply don’t experience in their everyday lives.


still to come: A Disposable Culture, A Culture of Consumerism, An Intense but Temporary Culture, A Networked Culture, and A Driven yet Sedentary Culture

teenage, the movie

loved the book a few years ago (which really helped me understand the historical back story of youth culture). so i’m stoked to find there’s a short movie coming out in 2012:

the synopsis:

Based on a groundbreaking book by the punk author Jon Savage, Teenage is an unconventional historical film about the invention of teenagers. Bringing to life fascinating youth from the early 20th century—from party-crazed Flappers and hipster Swing Kids to brainwashed Nazi Youth and frenzied Sub-Debs—the film reveals the pre-history of modern teenagers and the struggle between adults and adolescents to define youth.

Incredible archival material mixes seamlessly with 16mm recreations featuring actors. Based on actual teenage diaries, the footage resembles period home movies made by kids themselves. Stylized narration dramatizes this turbulent story and a contemporary soundtrack heightens emotions. The result is a visually explosive, pop meditation on how teenagers were born.

here’s the website, with a blog and other stuff

(thanks to robb gossen for pointing me to this)

10 “new” questions youth workers must be asking

my friend brian berry published a great post the other day about the changing/new questions he’s asking himself these days (compared to his earlier years in youth ministry). good and honest stuff, and a great reflection of the changing world of adolescents in america:

I have at least 10 questions I’m asking now that I wasn’t asking when I started this phase of my life (or at least I couldn’t have articulated them if I did).

1. How can I create an environment where students can think about faith genuinely and live out their faith intentionally?
2. Is it even possible to raise 5 teenagers in one home who love Jesus and serve God in a way that is both genuine and owned as an individual? What kind of parent do I need to be if that is going to be a reality for my family?
3. What is the effect of facebook, social networking, and computer screens on a faith and community?
4. Why do so many of our students date people who don’t share a common faith system with them?
5. Is the good ol’ fashion work ethic really that old fashioned? Why are so many young adults around me just plain lazy?
6. Why are homosexual and lesbian lifestyles increasingly being embraced by students and how can I create an environment where this is openly discussed like any other decision/issue students face?
7. Do my own kids want me to be their youth pastor? What are the benefits and dangers inherent in that?
8. If faith is more caught than taught, what characteristics are contagious in me and the ministry around me? What is being “caught”, regardless of what is “taught”?
9. What am I doing as a norm in ministry that I will genuinely have to apologize to the next generation of youth pastors for?
10. The Bible, plain and simple, is not being read by well over 90% of the students in my ministry. Period. Is there anything I can do to change that?

what questions are you asking? more specifically, what new questions are you asking?

growth of facebook

saw this visually-compelling little chart on bob’s blog recently. really, this says more about the times and culture we live in than it does about facebook, per se. sure, i’ve started to hear a backlash against facebook, mostly from hipsters and indie types who don’t seem to like anything that has gone mainstream. and i’m sure something will eventually come along to unseat facebook — that’s not really the point here.

the point is that we live in a time when reaching mass acceptance of a particular technology can take place in 5 years! i’m sure the speed also makes the acceptance less firm, in some ways (as in, there’s likely a corresponding quickness with which this technology will be usurped by something else). one of the things i notice is that the fuel for the fast rise of the most recent technologies has come from youth (whereas the older technologies were forced to go through the slower progress of adult acceptance first), which says something about the leading role of youth culture in the world today.

would love to hear your thoughts…