Utilizing Youth Culture Series: Part 1

3 Steps to Effectively Engage Youth Culture

I view my role as a youth pastor as being a translator.  My job is to take biblical truth and communicate that truth effectively to the youth with whom I work in ways they can understand.  I’m also trying to help adults in my church (the Sr. Pastor, church leadership, parents, other volunteer workers) understand what’s going on in youth culture so that they can more effectively reach youth in their ministry context.

As with all translation projects, it’s incredibly important for the translator to intimately know the languages with which they are working.  As a youth pastor, that means I need to know the “language” of both youth culture and biblical truth.  Knowing these languages takes time and effort, and the learning is never over.  Youth culture rapidly changes, and biblical truth is like a pool that keeps getting deeper and deeper.

Even a cursory look at the form, techniques, and content of Scripture shows us how adept the biblical authors were at communicating God’s truth in ways that could be understood by their contemporary audiences.  Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Acts 17 provides one clear example of the benefits of having a working knowledge of the culture.

Many youth pastors have been or are pursuing training in the “language” of the Bible.  Awesome.  This is an essential characteristic of a youth pastor.  We need to know biblical and theological truth.

But we also need to know the language of the youth culture in our ministry context – something you likely will not or did not learn in seminary.

To cultivate a working knowledge of youth culture, I have found the following three steps to be incredibly important for those of us working with youth:

1)  Cultivate a general awareness of the cultural diet of the kids in your youth group.  Every kid has a cultural diet – the books, music, and movies they ingest.  If we want to speak into their cultural situation, it’s important to know something about their situation.  Functionally, this means continually trying to find out what the kids are listening to, watching, and reading. 

2)  Once you’ve figured out your kids’ cultural diet, actively engage the local youth culture, looking for trends in messaging.  We need to be listening to, watching, and reading enough of what our youth are listening to, watching, and reading, to get a sense of what the songs, books, TV shows, and movies are saying.  As we do this, it’s important to make sure that we are engaging a cross-section of what the kids are ingesting in their cultural diet. For example, it will be easier to spot broad cultural trends if you read a variety of Y.A. fiction authors, watch movies of many different genres that appeal to youth, and listen to a variety of musical styles rather than focusing on just one author, one genre, or one type of music.

3) As you engage youth culture, analyze and weigh the messages within the youth’s cultural diet in light of the gospel and biblical truth. This is incredibly important.  We aren’t to be passive consumers of youth culture.  We are not doing this primarily for our own entertainment (though it is often entertaining as well).  As we engage youth culture, we are seeking connections, conversation starters, truths that we can affirm biblically, lies that we need to expose biblically, etc., as we listen, read, and watch.  As translators, we are trying to better understand the nuances and mood behind the language of youth culture so that we can better communicate to youth situated within that culture.

By doing these three things, we can become more effective translators in our ministry by making connections between biblical truth and our students’ cultural context.  It will help us in the illustrations we use, the questions we ask, and the applications we make.  Additionally, it will aid us in our ministry to parents as we help them navigate the cultural waters with their kids.

Want some practical ways to cultivate a better awareness of youth culture trends in your day-to-day study?  Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series.


Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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