Youth Culture Distractions
Within the last 50-100 years, life for young people has changed in the West. Following World War II, a new level of prosperity arrived and, with it, leisure time. For virtually all prior history, and still in many parts of the world, young people worked with their families until they married and set up their own homes. Even then, many still functioned as part of a clan or community. In that context, children grew to be adults; it was a gradual process, but childhood gave way to adulthood without any intermediate stage. Then the “teenager” was invented!
I mistakenly thought that youth culture and rebellion evolved simply from the idleness that post-war prosperity, two working parents, and modern technology made possible. My generation, the Baby Boomers, certainly carried the trend forward with its rejection of the Establishment, mistrust of anyone over 30, and a guiding principle of “Make love, not war.” However, “the teenager” did not come by evolution but revolution, one that had begun even earlier. According to one writer referring to Jon Savage and his book Teenage: Creation of Youth Culture, “Men like J.M. Barrie and Oscar Wilde glorified the image of eternal youth, and the life of leisure always comes as the highest virtue to most if not all developing empires. Attending this new cultural milieu, came the obligatory dishonor of parents, generational severance, family disintegration, child labor laws, family fragmenting corporations, public schools, sexual assertion on the part of girls, pop culture icons, immodesty, dating, and teen fornication.”
For a Christian, this attack on the family and the very fabric of community is disappointing, but it should be eye-opening. In every aspect of Christian life and ministry, we see accommodation to the teenager and youth culture. I have become particularly sensitized to it as I work with young people from other countries, especially third world countries where the old family structure still exists, and with it, young people still respect their elders. In their cultures, respect for elders and those in authority is practiced with deep conviction. Hospitality is practiced. Instead of youth culture, rites of passage take children into adulthood without the rebellion and rejection of authority seen here.
If we are to have any possibility of turning this situation around, we Christians need to think deeply and plan carefully. We wise elders may recognize the problem readily enough, but it will take more than that to change things. In a culture already settled into this youth orientation where the teenager rules, our words will merely assure them that we want our power back. Why should they surrender?
As it must be in any area of cultural contention, we must demonstrate what others have lost, in this case young people. We must also be careful to acknowledge where parents and others in authority have used their power wrongly, or we will not be given credence. So what have “teenagers” lost with the advent of youth culture? Each of the following is a substitute for something far better:
Popularity—It was devilishly clever to suggest, whoever first did so, that your parents and family have to love you, as if to say that their love doesn’t count. As a result, kids quickly get the idea that they must get affirmation outside, among their peers, by becoming popular. What is the basis of this? Looks, the right clothes, the right friends, perhaps sex–whatever it is, whatever it takes–many quickly learn that it is transient and unreliable. A cool kid can become an outcast over night. Within our spiritual family and spirit-filled human families, unconditional love does 2 things. First, it sees beyond the superficial and changeable to love the unique individual and help him or her become the unique person God designed each one to be. Second, it helps the loved person become a likably decent human being, one connected to others more deeply than by popularity.
Peer Approval—How many choices, against their own consciences, do young people make because their peer “friends” manipulate them into doing so? “Why not, are you afraid?” “Don’t you want to be cool?” “Everyone is doing it?” “Don’t be a baby.” As I began mentoring young people, I realized that my friendship—the friendship of an older person—could offset this typical phenomenon of peer friendships, the encouragement to do wrong. Instead I could offer genuine encouragement to do wise and beneficial things. I quickly realized that I could be a powerful influence against common fears: I’m stupid. I’m ugly. I’m not cool. Unlike a parent, I have no obligation of blood that motivates my love, so my demonstration of genuine concern and affection are also powerful. If I was wise, I could also help bridge the frictions that arose between parent and child, so typical of the teen years today. The approval of a manipulative friend means very little, but the encouragement of a true friend cannot be over-valued.
Pleasure—Wise people learn that pleasure is elusive. C. S. Lewis wrote an entire book, Surprised by Joy, just to contrast the momentary but elusive pleasures of life from true but lasting joy. Nevertheless, the proponents and purveyors of pleasure have done an exceptional job of convincing youth and adults that life is all about pleasure, especially the sexual kind. Rather than being the deepest, most delightful part of an intimate committed relationship, it is just simple fun…no risks…no big deal! Sadly, this promise is a lie. Intimate pleasures lead to broken relationships and to cynicism. Seeking after pleasure of any kind becomes a huge disappointment because pleasure is merely a part of life, not life altogether. In place of seeking pleasure, wise people seek to grow and a find contentment in maturity. Patience gives pleasure an added dimension, a hope deferred but finally enjoyed, one ultimately fulfilled in eternity.
Pressure—The net effect of seeking popularity, peer approval, pleasure, and other things outside the family and community is pressure. I’m still surprised when I hear a young person speak of all the pressure they feel. I know that some may come from parents who grew up in the same sort of youth culture, so they still share some of the same values, only now with a sense of disappointment. They want their children to do better, and they encourage them toward the same dissatisfying goals. A family expresses confidence and hope in their child: “Do right.” “Work hard.” “Love your family.” “Love your neighbor.” “I love what you can do.” “You’re beautiful.” “You can do it!” “I love you.” They also watch for the signs of pressure, wherever they might arise, so they may relieve them. Modern pressures can lead teens to suicide, the ultimate tragedy!
Power—Many of our cultural institutions recognize the power of the young because they have helped give them that power. Businesses sell to youth. Entertainers cater to youth. Schools manipulate youth. Government chases after the youth vote. Ironically, they have given them power, but they have failed to get them to use it or even care. The allure of celebrity and technology is the perfect distraction, along with all their concerns about popularity, peer approval, pleasure, and pressure. Mature believers need to avoid worrying too much about the power of youth; instead, we must work to produce trustworthiness and wisdom in today’s youth that they might become tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders of the next generation in their turn.
Purpose is the alternative to all of the above. God gave each of us life with a purpose. Instead of the aimlessness and disappointment in all the false substitutes, we need to show young people that every life is meant for a unique purpose. Much of our work with youth should be designed to help them find their particular purpose, partially revealed by the gifts and talents they possess and the interests they reveal. Modern youth culture builds on sameness—wear the cool clothes, have the cool friends, be like the cool celebrity. God’s message through us: “You are special. You are unique. I love you for who you are and whom God made you to be. Don’t be like anyone else; just be you. You have interests, gifts, talents, and they represent your purpose. It may take a lifetime to determine totally what that purpose is, but that is the adventure worth taking. Even though we may not end at exactly the same purpose, let’s take the adventure together, knowing we will finally reach the same destination in the end while we’re enjoying life together along the way.”
I have had occasion to read about rites of passage in other cultures, and I think we need to create a “rite of passage” for modern young people. We can’t revert to something primitive; that would be meaningless. I don’t think it should occur at too young an age, but I think preparation needs to begin in early teens. The intent is to signal that completion of the rite marks the beginning of adulthood. Bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls serves this purpose in Judaism, but I don’t know if something similar would serve for Christian young people. As schools have dummied down their teaching, churches, I fear, have followed. While personally, I’d like to see a rite of passage have a learning achievement part, I think it also needs something that is more action, something service or outreach oriented.
Youth culture and youth culture thinking won’t go away unless or until they are demonstrated to be worthless and counter-productive. Such a demonstration is not likely come from the culture, and it won’t come from the Church, if we don’t decide to face the problem of youth culture differently. Right now we accede to its demands, making our efforts largely useless. Young people who survive it and thrive do so largely by being exceptional…and rare. I believe the Church can do much better, but only if we decide it is necessary and do it!