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Youth Pastor: Escape Your Cocoon and Engage With the Culture

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For years, I listened only to Christian music and watched only PG-13 films (as long as “Plugged In” approved of them). I played only E-rated video games (as long as no shooting at humans was involved). I prioritized preserving holiness and guarding hearts. And that was all good and fine. Holiness-preserving and heart-guarding aren’t bad things, no matter how we choose to engage in culture. But as a youth pastor, I was strangling opportunities to reach teens.

Years ago, I listened to a teenager excitedly talk about a new book. Everyone was reading it, even grownups. I approached Libby with a perfectly innocent, no-judgment-pending statement: “Are you sure that’s the best thing to fill your mind with? Isn’t it about witchcraft?”

Libby, equally innocuous and judgment-free, responded: “Have you read it? There’s actually some stuff in here that could point kids to God.”

Someone flicked a wand my way and commanded “Lumos!” And a light bulb went off. What if stuff in pop culture that lacks a Christian tagline still has Christ in it?

That weekend I read “Harry Potter” cover to cover. My next conversation with Libby was about a.) how much I loved the story, b.) how pretentiously awesome Hermoine is, and c.) the Christ themes we noticed throughout the book.

Soon after, I wrote a series for our small groups about using a Jesus-filter for pop culture. Kids told us their favorite songs, movies, TV shows, video games, and websites. Then we pulled information from each and discussed how to find (or not find) Jesus in them. (An excellent resource to help guide your program in this direction is Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry by Rick Lawrence.)

All these years later, those students still reference their Jesus-filters.

Consider Jesus’ Teaching Style

Teenagers began taking modern-day stories to a spiritual place. I saw them engage friends in conversations using real-life stories from everyday life. Honestly, it seemed as if we were watching Jesus throw down some parables. After all, he’s the master at taking modern-day (at the time) stories and making them eternally significant.

My students were engaging that filter. Taking music and messages their friends were familiar with, they flipped those into conversations about Jesus—pretty much like every story he ever told.

Almost two decades after that revelation, my instant and easy connection to culture—my own teenagers—have begun moving out of the house. But as a youth pastor, I’m as committed as ever to knowing what songs, books, and messages kids consume.