Cultural Narratives and Youth Ministry
In his essay, “The Native Hill,” Wendell Berry examines the worth of the two worlds in which he resides; one world is the literary, the place of his profession, and the other the natural, the place where he was raised. He knew both worlds offered tremendous value in his life, yet each distinctly unique values. His ultimate conclusion came to this, “…the world would always be most fully and clearly present to me in the place I was fated by birth to know better than any other.”
We all have that place, that place we are “fated by birth to know better than any other.” For me, however, that place did not come as a birthright, but as a cultural heritage.
By the time I was in the fifth grade, I had lived in six states. When people asked me where I was from, I would simply respond, “America.” While shrouded in an air of sarcasm, it was sincerely the only answer I knew to give. My formative years were spent being the “new kid” – learning new places and orienting to a new way of life, only to pack up a few years later and begin the process again. So truly, my origin could only be described as a mosaic of all the cultures I encountered during those years.
Because of this, my childhood was heavily influenced by the reality of culture – or the beliefs, traditions, and systems of a place/group. I learned early on that culture matters because it informs. Since graduating college and beginning full-time ministry, my residential resume has expanded to include eight states, four countries, and three continents. The Lord has brought the lessons of my childhood into full play in ministry, as He has fashioned in me a passion for the influence of culture on ministry. I have seen firsthand how the culture of a place not only impacts our way of life, but our ministry as well.
In my first five years of ministry, I spent two years serving youth overseas, and three years serving youth in a city context. Then, right over a year ago, the Lord drew me out once more. Only this time to a very different context: the suburb.
I found myself, like Berry, torn by having to let go of one place for the other. I did not want to leave the city because the harvest was plentiful. In the city, the brokenness of the world was evident to my students, as they witnessed it day in and day out in their homes and schools. I spent most of my time proclaiming over them the love of a Father that cannot fail. Moving to a suburb, I knew this would not be the same.
As youth leaders, we have to look for these cultural realities. As much as we would like to, we cannot prevent our students from inheriting certain aspects of their culture. The world will always be clearest to them in their “fated” places – or the cultures of their hometowns/cities. Knowing this, the question we must ask now is: how does/should culture influence our ministry to students (as well as our students’ ministry to their peers)? Here are a few places we can begin:
Learn Where Culture Services the Gospel Conversation
Just as Christ lent many of his parables and illustrations to culture (Lk 10:29-37, Mk 4:1-20, Lk 18:9-14), or as Paul used cultural artifacts to emphasize the truth of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:33, Ti 1:12, Acts 17:24-29), we too should occupy the cultural spaces around us and our students. We should seek avenues to expose the gospel conversation in such a way that not only proclaims the truth, but intentionally contributes to the affinities in which we reside.
Remember that cultural distinctions are not defined simply by linguistic borders. Even from one city to another, the heritage of a people is deeply rooted in the history and systems of that city. And this heritage informs and shapes how the people interact, even down to their verbiage. By way of example, take the phrase “student ministry.” Where I now refer to my work as “student” ministry, I once carefully exchanged the term for “youth” ministry. Why? Because in that culture, youth and student were not necessarily synonymous.
This requires an investment of time, time spent intentionally seeking to understand the cultural values of the place in which we minister. As we do this, not only will we find the spaces where the gospel truth is already deeply rooted, such as in the brokenness of a city, but we will also find the spaces where the gospel can redeem the culture and bring renewal of hope.
Be a Faithful Voice in the Cultural Conversation
Too often we, as Christians, choose to distance ourselves from regularly engaging in the cultural conversation of our societies. We choose to stay in our Christian subcultures and hope others will enter our space when they have needs or questions. Then, when the big, cultural moments happen in our societies, we get frustrated that culture does not seem open to what we have to say. If we desire to contribute to the conversation in the big moments of pain and suffering within our various cultures, then we must remain a faithful voice in the small moments as well.
However, as leaders of youth, regular engagement in culture for our students can be a scary thought. How do we teach them to boldly engage the culture around them, while remaining faithful to the gospel?
We go with them. Just as Jesus instructed his disciples to follow him, or as Paul took Timothy with him on his missionary journeys, we too must bring our students alongside us as we remain faithful to the cultural narrative. May we boldly enter into the cities/towns God has placed us in, taking confidence that He has ordained each man’s boundaries and dwelling places (Acts 17:26-27). May our desire be that, as our students end their time with us and enter a new cultural scene in college, they be well-equipped to be faithful voices on their campuses. May we pray for our students, as Christ did for us, that the Lord would not take them from the world, but instead that He would protect them from the evil one as they are sanctified by His word (John 17:15-18).