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Teens and culture: Why the middle of society matters most

I first stepped into the high school classroom 20 years ago. Fresh out of college, I was only a few years older than my students, and while I was eager to teach, I soon realized that I had just as much to learn. One lesson I learned early on is the profound influence that I could have on the hearts and minds of my students. It excited and humbled me at the same time.

There’s a certain amount of hand-wringing that adults often do over teenagers. We want to guide and influence them for good, but there's this nagging sense that at any point they will rebel and find everything that we try to instill in them to be either irrelevant or uncool. These concerns can be exacerbated by a growing sense of distress over the negative impact that an increasingly secular American culture has on our youth. It leaves parents and teachers feeling that they are losing their teens to the “culture wars.”

The middle matters

Yet, this sense that our youth will ultimately succumb to the temptations of a secularized culture is born from the false impression that culture is shaped by the people at the top.  On the contrary, people’s hearts and minds are more likely to be influenced and shaped by the organizations that often occupy the middle of society, such as the family, schools and the church. These institutions can have an equally profound impact on our youth.   

A Barna study in 2014 compared millennials who were active in the church to millennials who were no longer active in the church. Fifty-nine percent of those that remained active attributed their steadfast faith to a well-developed Christian worldview that was fostered by a mentor within the church. This speaks volumes to the importance of healthy families, churches and schools in the development of a youth’s worldview and is further proof that these institutions in the middle of society can have the upper hand in the so-called culture wars. Consequently, teens that are well-versed in a strong gospel-saturated worldview have the potential to hold the center of culture for future generations as well.

Fostering a biblical worldview

With this in mind, families, schools and churches should be proactively intentional about impacting their teens’ hearts for the sake of the gospel. Here are some practical ways to foster a biblical worldview in your teen in light of a increasingly secularized culture:

1. Encourage your teen to think critically about the culture around them.

Critical thinking is one vital aspect of education that is neglected in the school systems today. Nonetheless, it is something that can be fostered and encouraged at home and in the church.

Critical thinking is vital to cultural engagement. The Apostle Paul exemplified the power of critical thinking and cultural discernment while preaching the gospel to the Athenians as recounted in Acts 17. Paul devoted time to studying the culture of the Athenians upon his arrival in the city. He found much that was admirable about their culture and praised them for it, but at the same time, he discerned that other aspects of Athenian culture had departed from the truth of the gospel. We can teach our teenagers to do the same.

Noted theologian Abraham Kuyper was correct when he said, ”There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”  Music, art, science and the humanities all reflect the infinite worth of God. Encourage your youth to to seek out the good in these aspects of culture while thoughtfully critiquing the aspects of culture that fail to reflect the infinite worth of God.

2. Give your youth a safe place to work out their ideas.

Critical thinking and big ideas take time to foster and grow. You may find that your teen needs to wrestle with some really big ideas regarding scripture, truth and future plans.  There may even be a need for some real soul-searching to take place in a youth’s heart.  Think about youth mentoring in terms of a marathon, not a sprint. You may find yourself having to forbear through some awkward stages of thought with your teen.  

A good friend of mine who successfully raised four teenagers, all of whom are now devout Christians in their 20’s, amusingly recalled to me that when his oldest son was 17, he informed the family that he planned to live as a homeless person in Japan for a year—just for the experience. Rather than dismiss the idea as foolish (though it was a challenge not to), my friend respectfully dialogued with his son over the course of several weeks. He is happy to report that he convinced his son to avoid homelessness.  

Over and over again, I have found that teens whose family and church “stuck it out” with their youth and patiently mentored them beyond these awkward stages were far more successful than parents who insisted, and even worse bullied, their youth into ascribing to their values.  

3. Always remember that the relationship is the most important thing.

Surveys of Americans under the age of 30 have proven time and time again that they value authentic relations above all else. There are some pitfalls to this value system, as younger people have a tendency to idolize human relationships to an unhealthy degree.  Yet, such a longing for relationships and authenticity provides parents and churches with outstanding opportunities.

It can be tempting to allow your relationship with your teenager to lax, especially when they push back against you, so try to avoid unnecessary arguments and always keep Proverbs 15:1 in mind: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Faith and hope are necessary for your youth to grow in godliness, but it must be nurtured in an environment of love. Do all you can to preserve a healthy and loving relationship with your teens so that faith can grow.

Parents, teachers and church families, you are far more vital to the lives of youth than you realize. The life-giving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is decidedly more powerful than anything our secularized culture has to offer. Share it with them enthusiastically, and remember God’s promise in Isaiah 55:1: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

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