Monday, October 11, 2010

Youth Ministry: Why I Quit Doing Hot Topic Lessons (mostly)

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?


adam mclane said...

I'm with you for the most part. And I do my best to make Scripture speak into today's issues and whatnot. But I've found that it helps to build in some times where I talk about Christian living stuff. So I might spend a long time teaching Romans or whatever, but I'll teach on dating/sex in February. Or I'll do a 4 week "theological terms" thing. In other words, I use topical stuff to break up my bible teaching.

One thing this helps with is parents... they aren't going to talk to their kids about sex, so it helps them bunches when you do and give the kids homework to talk to their parents. I've also learned that doing topical stuff occasionally can help students invite their friends.

Jason Huffman said...

Absolutely, Adam. And I do hot topics on occasion in the way you mentioned, but it was hard to label the post (Why....topics for the most part)LOL! I just know my focus has shifted from more of teaching Scripture first instead of starting at the other end and trying to address every cultural issue out there. Thanks for your comment!

adam McLane said...

Yeah, and I'm a huge proponent of majoring in teaching the bible. That's ultimately the framework for folks to process everything anyway.

One fun thing we did "back in the day" was an annual stump the pastor night. Our students would put bible questions or morality questions in a box and then we'd put our pastor on the spot to give answers. Sounds cheesy, but was amazing.

Benjer McVeigh said...

I agree, to a point. Here's the thing: if the ministry and church as a whole values going through the Bible and simply seeing and teaching what's there, then "hot button" topics can actually encourage more of the same. I agree with Adam-- sometimes it's helpful students to go through a topic or question with a "What's the Bible say about this?" approach. To not do so would be to discredit systematic theology in general, would it not?

Jason Huffman said...

Benjer, I agree, completely. I do think topical issues can lead to deeper study of Scripture. What I am saying is that when we approach our ministry like an exterminator trying to snuff out all the terrible issues that teens face, we only treat symptoms rather than core problems. That's why, I think primarily we should start and end with Scripture. If all we do is address cultural issues, there will always be issues we don't address which leaves our students unequipped to deal with them. However, if we teach them to understand and interpret Scripture, we give them the tools to face just about any issue. Thanks again for your comments.

Kristen Sloan said...

I agree with most of what has been said. Also, I think teaching based on the Bible such as a 4 week series on Ruth or an 8 week series on Romans is important because our youth often are not versed in the Bible. I have found the youth at the churches I have served don't know the Bible and by focusing on "hot topics" we teach the Bible as bits and pieces.

Jason Huffman said...

Thanks Kristen. I was one of those kids who knew all kinds of Bible stories from children's classes and youth group, but couldn't put it all together. I didn't necessarily know that David was after Noah, or Jacob was before Elijah. When I started to put things in order and realize what God was doing in the big picture, the Bible came alive. One of my favorite lesson series is one I call "Through the Bible in 52 Weeks" where each week is a key story from the Bible starting with creation and ending with the formation of the NT church in Acts. I agree that sometimes kids miss the big picture. thanks for your comment.