Youth culture is always changing. Every week or so, there is a new movement, social connection, video game, movie, behavioral trend, or teen cultural issue that makes youth workers like me scratch our heads. Whether it's emos who cut themselves, another teen's obsession with all things vampire from the Twilight movies, or being engrossed in the latest violent video games, there are constantly cultural patterns that demand a response from youth workers. In youth ministry circles, these are known as "hot topics".
I used to be one of those guys who felt the need to address every diabolical trend that came down the pike. And there was no shortage of fodder for lesson material. I might have been in a rut and not sure what I should teach for Wednesday night. Suddenly, I get an email from a leading voice in youth ministry about a cultural trend that was cause for concern. I might contact a few students to ask them if they'd heard of this. Then I did some research online about it. Then, of course, I would find a Bible passage that speaks to the issue (not the specific issue, but to the idea behind the issue), and then VOILA! I have a youth lesson.
But in hindsight, here is where I think I was getting it wrong. Youth culture changes so much that I think addressing these little issues is really getting to the symptom rather than the problem. My lessons were knee-jerk reactions to all the terrible evils floating around in youth culture and were attempts to steer my kids away from them, rather than showing them how to learn to navigate these issues themselves. If we mold our ministry around the concept of teaching students to avoid certain issues or telling them what to think or believe about those issues, what happens when they go on in life and are forced to formulate those values for themselves? Are they going to continue to ask, "I wonder what my youth worker would say about this?" Or, are they going to be able to articulate a healthy stance on the subject through a mature, faith-based world view? Another problem is there are so many things that could be seen as worthy of being addressed--TV shows, movies, video games, new things kids are doing at parties, things students are doing on social media, cell phones, new drugs, bullying... Where does the list end?
So in recent years, my approach has been to teach Scripture as it relates to modern culture. In this sense, I feel, I am keeping the horse in front of the cart. For example, we've had an issue in recent months with boys and girls struggling in their interaction with one another. While teenage interaction is usually awkward and unrefined to say the least, there are things that are appropriate and things that are not. Rather than doing a lesson on how students should interact with one another, I have been doing a series on the book of Ruth. Through studying Ruth, we get to learn about the Israelite culture and what social nuances were expected of the characters. We also learn how the characters worked within those social confines to communicate admiration for one another in a socially appropriate manner. Another thing the story teaches is how Boaz was attracted to Ruth because of her commitment to Naomi and to the God of Israel.
So in teaching Scripture, as opposed to teaching cultural issues, the intent is that we are laying a foundation that will be relevant not just to the areas of immediate concern, but that will have meaning throughout the students' lives as they make their journey into adulthood and beyond. To put it plainly, I prefer to teach Scripture in light of youth culture as opposed to teaching youth culture in light of Scripture. A good metaphor would be one of riding in the front seat with the students driving the car rather than driving the students to the desired destination. Through the Bible, we are giving instruction, but ultimately it is the students making the decisions. I do find myself doing topical lessons on occasion, but usually to break things up (this statement posted after Adam McClane's comment) a bit. Topical lessons do have their place in ministry. I just don't think they should be the main focus.
So what are your thoughts? Have you ever found yourself formulating a ministry around knee-jerk teaching? When and how often do you do "hot topic" lessons?