It was in my first year of ministry with middle schoolers when I realized how popular the Twilight novels were with seventh and eighth grade girls. Having never been a seventh or eighth grade girl myself, I didn’t really understand the fascination. But through letting middle school girls tell me about Twilight, I was able to understand them better―it was a language through which they could communicate their hopes and dreams for life. I also learned that I knew very little about what media my young people were consuming.
What we watch, read, or listen to helps form our expectations of reality. As important as it is for youth workers to understand the Bible and how biblical stories can bring truth to a sixth grader, it is equally important to know what the sixth grader expects from reality. And to learn about this, it is necessary to exegete both young people and their culture, much like we would a biblical text.
So whenever a middle schooler or high schooler is explaining what they love about the latest John Green novel, listen! […] As someone who is learning their language, take the opportunity to let the young person teach you about their culture.
When I exegete a text, I spend time with the text and get to know it—what kind of story does it tell? where does it come in Scripture? how does it communicate (and not communicate) with the reader? and so forth. Exegeting a text also involves learning about the culture of the text—what norms it presupposes, how characters were supposed to act, and what societal gender roles looked like at the time, and the list goes on, and on, and on. Good exegesis is a long, difficult process!
Perhaps the world inhabited by middle schoolers and high schoolers today feels more familiar to us than the world of Scripture. In fact, I fear that it does. A culture that feels more familiar to me is a culture I don’t make an effort to understand. Why would I? After all, I’m probably sufficiently familiar with it to understand what today’s young people are going through. While this may seem to be true for many of the young adults who are working in youth ministry, it is a huge mistake. When we believe ourselves to be experts on a culture that is not our own, we miss the opportunity to allow for the culture to teach us about itself on its own terms and in its own language.
Communicating with others in their own language has always been the mandated practice within the church. From the very beginning, on Pentecost, the disciples preached to the myriad people before them in their own language (Acts 2:1-13). When Paul was before the Areopagus in Athens, he began preaching by establishing he had become familiar with their gods (Acts 17:16-34). Paul describes this method of evangelizing to the church in Corinth, saying, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).
Looking beyond just the example from within Scripture, it’s worth noting that the Bible itself was written in Koine Greek—the language of the common people of the empire, not the language of the Jews. And the Reformers ran with this, with both Luther and Calvin insisting that the common people have a Bible they could read in their own vernacular. The goal has never been to change the biblical message or to “update” it—God is the same yesterday, today, and forever—but rather to make it accessible to all people by using their language, their figures of speech, and their images.
The nice thing about having a faith based around the Bible is how we are regularly confronted with the strangeness of assumptions and behaviors from 2000 years ago or more. But exegeting the Bible is only the first part of the task we have been given. We are also called to speak God’s truth found in the Bible in the language of the culture to which we’re speaking.
If we follow this practice, we need to develop a familiarity not just with “youth culture,” as if it’s this monolithic thing that’s the same wherever youth are. It’s necessary to develop a familiarity with our young people specifically―their needs, their jokes, their struggles, and their dreams. And the best way to do that is to watch, listen, and ask questions in order to learn more. From what you learn, you’ll be able to pursue other avenues to immerse yourself in their culture, like reading books they enjoy, keeping up with musicians and YouTube personalities they listen to, and following them as they use (or don’t use) social media. You’ll also see other ways that God is already at work in their hopes and dreams, since you’ll better understand their language.
To be clear—the goal in doing these things is not to stalk the young people you’re ministering to. It’s also not to become a young person yourself. This is an ethnographic project: a way of studying a culture different than your own by observing it from within. An ethnographer doesn’t pretend to be part of the culture she is observing, but is an honest questioner, wanting to understand why the culture acts in certain ways. And understanding the “why” behind how young people act helps us to comprehend the language in which they are expressing themselves better.
Learning about the culture of our young people also doesn’t mean we can now forget about biblical exegesis. This completely misses the point! The purpose of youth ministry is, at heart, the same as the purpose anywhere else in ministry―to explore how Jesus is working to form and transform our lives. But in order to accomplish this, we need to know about who Jesus is and what he’s up to, and that sort of stuff is found most directly in Scripture. In seeking to learn the language of our young people, we cannot forget about studying the language of Scripture.
So whenever a middle schooler or high schooler is explaining what they love about the latest John Green novel, listen! If you’ve read the book, then you can ask good questions—not to show off that you’ve read the book, but to learn more about the young person. As someone who is learning their language, take the opportunity to let the young person teach you about their culture. The more fluent you become, the better you can make the Bible accessible to young people by sharing your knowledge in a language they can understand.
Joel Moody is an M.Div. student at Princeton Theological Seminary and is working toward ordination in the PC(USA). He believes not only that young people are the future of the church, but that they also have an integral role to play in the present. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, he loves any excuse to play sports or board games, particularly with his wife, Kate.