This is America: Student Ministry in a Time of Childish Gambino and School Shootings

Is this really America?

This has been the question on the minds of millions since the May 5th release of Childish Gambino song and music video, “This is America.” What began with little hype has become a still-growing, overnight, cultural sensation – a sensation our students are talking about.

What Is It?

Childish Gambino is the stage name for actor, director, producer, and musician Donald Glover. The music video was released in conjunction with the song’s release. The video has most prominently been described as a social commentary on the current state of America. But truly, I would say it is not as much of a commentary as it is a conversation opener.

Glover portrays the lead role in the video, the personification of America herself. The video employs topics such as gun violence, racism, and diversion through entertainment. And while the video does contain graphic scenes in reference to gun violence, Glover actually uses these graphic scenes as intentional moments to shock the viewer out of the trance of just enjoying the song, which he then quickly draws them back into amid the chaos.

The video takes its viewer through roughly four minutes of entertainment, scares, and bewilderment, leaving them confused yet intrigued – and most likely ready to hit the play button again. Glover has since refused to give any explanation of “This is America”; and in the country’s desperation to understand the meaning of the song and video, we have actually been joined together in a conversation that most often divides.

Why Should We Care?

On Monday, “This is America” debuted in the top spot on the Billboard Top 100 as the Number 1 song in America. At its release, the video received 12.9 million views in the first 24 hours and currently has over 170 million views and rising.

Even if a student has not watched the video themselves, with its increasing popularity, the probability of them hearing about it is extremely high. Glover ignites a cultural moment that our students find themselves in the middle of. The video has opened conversations over everything from the Charleston church shooting, Jim Crow, social media desensitization, the Parkland shooting, and entertainment as a form of escape. Yet, Glover has done what most cannot do, he has left his audience with questions instead of assuming answers.

Now, even as I write this, reports have just flooded my screen of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. So regardless of our stance or preference, our students – whether they want to be or not – are engaged in this conversation. Over the last week, I have spoken with students about Glover’s video. And just as the rest of America, our students are wondering. Now, with the weight of this conversation and the ones to come with the events in Texas, my prayer is that we as youth leaders and parents join with our students by becoming an even stronger voice in their frightened and confused conversations.

How Should We Engage?

1. Open the conversation. Knowing the growing popularity of Glover’s video, consider sitting down with your child or students and watching it alongside them. Listen to their response. Watch their reactions. Then ask them their thoughts. This allows you to engage in their initial questions and concerns. You may not want to watch the video and that’s okay. But open the conversation now. There is always great benefit to being a primary voice in the conversation with your student rather than a secondary. By joining early, you can help them to understand the right questions to ask by helping them build a proper gospel framework.

2. Help your student view the cultural narrative through the gospel lens. Glover is not leaving us hopeless, but the weight can feel overwhelming. The video ends with Glover running away from everything he was surrounded by; and you can see in his face an urgency to free himself. This is often the feeling many of us have; we see disparity and we want to run. Yet, even when the world may seem in chaos around us, we proclaim a hope that is not of this world. We look to the resurrection hope of our returning Christ, who will restore all things. Until that time, Christ has already come to transfer us from the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of His Son.

This video leaves us wondering if Glover, or America, will be able to escape its brokenness. Is it possible? There is not an answer. Yet, as followers of Christ, we do have an answer and it is one of hope. But our hope does not lie in whether or not America is broken from the bondage of suffering, but our hope is that Christ’s bride, the church, will be. Not even the gates of hell will prevail against Christ’s church. Our students need to know that restoration is coming; and that redemption is already here.

3. Look for teachable moments. Look for the symbolism and nuances that can also lead to gospel conversations. Paul, in Acts 17, looked at the idols around him and – upon seeing the altar to the unknown God – addressed those around him with gospel truth, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” There are many opportunities within “This is America” for us to do the same.

For example, take the subtle way the guns are handled – with great care and what looks like a red velvet cloth. A question we could ask here is, “what is it that we treat with subtle, yet great care in our own lives?” Or when, in the midst of all the rioting, no one notices the chaos around them because of the dancing; the question then could be, “what in our lives steals our focus and might cause us to miss what God is doing around us?” Another thing to mention might be how the violent scenes in the video – the shootings – actually shock the viewer into reality, but only for a brief moment before Gambino begins dancing again. This right here is key. The question then becomes, “how are we like this in our lives? How quickly do we forget the hurting or broken? How fast are we to move away from injustice?”

All of these questions have the ability to lead to gospel conversations with our students. But I think the greatest teachable moment from this video is in its name, “Is this really America? If so, should this scare us?” These are moments to reveal sin and expose the heart. Do we truly believe the gospel hope that is to come for the believer? Do we actually live as if we do? Are we placing our hope on what America can be, or are we placing our hope in who God already is?

Youth leaders, as you well know, the culture is hurting. We cannot see the juxtaposition of “This Is America” reaching number 1, followed by the school shooting in Texas, and not hurt for our students. I pray that we would be faithful to the call of Christ as we shepherd our students. May we not merely teach them the gospel and send them out of our doors, but let us walk hand-in-hand with them as they seek to love God while seeking justice and loving mercy.

After spending 10 years working in youth ministry, Kendal currently serves as a Groups Minister at Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City, MO. Originally from Memphis, Tenn. Kendal received her BA from Union University. After graduation, she served 2 years overseas working with youth in Central Asia. After returning to America, she spent several years working for a parachurch youth ministry before moving to Oklahoma to serve as a Girls Minister in a local church. Kendal loves to travel, and dreams of one day being able to say she has enjoyed coffee in every country.

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