The number one question I get asked by people young and old is, “Ben, how do you stay so hip and relevant?” People look at me and watch me in action and they can not believe a man in his late 30’s is so cool and has such a bead on the youth culture. Just to prove it, I downloaded Rebecca Black’s song from iTunes last week, when there were less than 1,000,000 hits on youtube.
So, instead of hoarding all my best tricks to myself, I thought I would pass on my list of top 10 ways I say right in the middle of main stream youth culture. Giddy up!
10. Realize you are not hip: The sad, sad, truth is that no student thinks I am him and relevant. They pity me and think it is cute that I try so hard. The only people who think I am “with it” are other adults who are old and un hip too. You see, we are adults. And because we are adults we are immediately excluded from the youth cultural world. This means that the more we try the more we come off like posers.
But in an attempt to understand their world, their context, and the stories that shape them, it is vital for us to be aware of and engage culture. We do this to understand our students, to have touch points with them, and to hopefully find those “thin places” where the gospel story can connect with their cultural story. With that being said, here are some of my tricks.
9. Subscribe to Entertainment Weekly. This is the best $20 you could ever spend. It is impossible to know what music, movies, tv shows are out there. We are busy with our lives and the media we like. It is painful for me to listen to my students’ music. But Entertainment Weekly is a weekly summary of what is going on in the world of pop culture. Instead of you relying on what you think is cool and relevant, which is never a good call, we get to rely on the people who are actually defining that for our students to give us the scoop.
8. Do a media survey and series at youth group: Our students consume media at an amazing rate. If we can’t beat them with the movies and music they consume, let’s join them. Have them fill out an anonymous survey to find out what their favorite songs, movies, tv shows, and websites are. Then spend a month or so examining their media through a biblical worldview. Walt Mueller has amazing tools for this and is a great resource. Plus you now have access to all the media that your students love the most. By researching this series you will get a crash course of what is hip and connecting to your students right now.
7. Spend a work day at the mall food court: It is so easy for us to spend our time doing great work, but separated from the culture of our students. Sure we go to games and hang out on campus. But this is with a purpose to connect with students. We bring an agenda when we do this. By bringing your work to the food court and spend the day working and people watching you get to be a social scientist as you simply observe the media and materialistic world our students bathe in. Check out the people, the stores, the advertisements, the music. Advertisers know our students better then we do, so let’s see what itch they are trying to scratch.
6. iTunes top 10: I realized the other day that my favorite playlist has songs that on average are 15 years old. The songs I love and that are meaningful for me are old! But because they are my songs, I have no desire to listen to the radio for hours and hours attempting to learn the latest and greatest music. But iTunes does that work for me. Every week I check in with the list and listen to one or two of the songs. And as you become familiar with the music and the artists, you will listen differently to your students and be able to pick up on the music that they love the most. It is like learning a new language. The more you are familiar with the artists and the songs, the more you recognize in the world around you. These are the songs that students sing along to, are featured on Glee and American Idol, and playing in the mall.
5. Watch some of the shows your students watch: Most of us have our own shows that we like and are committed to. But these shows are what adults like, not necessarily what students like. After you have given your students a survey you will know what tv shows they like best. Pick one a week or so to watch. This is a fast and easy way to familiarize yourself with the stories and jokes that form most of their light hearted conversation.
4. Have your students make CD’s for road-trips: Of course you have to be sensitive to your context and to your convictions, but this is an amazing tool to connect with students. Believe it or not, Christian music is the smallest amount of media your students consume. So instead of making them live two lives, we can help bridge their two lives into one. By making the music that they love become the soundtrack to an amazing youth group experience you are actually changing the emotional connections to those songs. Now when they hear a particular song on the radio or in their iPod, those songs are connected to the memories of a great trip.
3. Go to the movies: Most students are not very creative. So when they want to get together and do something as a group, the movies is usually on the top of the list. Because of all the research you have done, you will know what movies are big and have been seen or at least talked about by most of your students. Take some petty cash and go and see it in the middle of your work day. Check out the commercials at the beginning, the previews and the movie itself. These are the stories shaping their world view. When we are aware of them we get to use these stories to tell the ultimate story. It is time to put to death Star Wars, Batman, Matrix, and Brave-Heart illustrations. We can only do this when we understand their stories.
2. Ask for help: Like I said at the beginning, our students know we are not hip and when we try we come off like idiots. My favorite trick is owning that I am a poser and clueless about their world. And then I ask questions about their world and the media that shapes it. I ask them about what songs they like and why, or ask them to help me understand the appeal of certain movies. Not knowing pop culture gets to be a plus when we allow students to be the experts at something and we become the student. I have found that students love to share their world with me. I just takes me being humble and asking questions.
1. At the end of the day, IT DOESN’T MATTER: What is so amazing about student ministry is that our main job is to simply love students. And not just love students in the macro sense of the word, but love actual, individual, unique, amazing students. While it is helpful to understand their world and their context, the truth is that more than anything students need to be seen and cared for. Understanding their world or at least being interested in their world is a great way to begin conversation and friendship.
The awful truth is that we are not hip and not cool. And what makes matters worse, when we actually try to use our knowledge of pop culture to gain street cred and be cool we actually do a disservice. Students spend their entire lives jockeying for position and status. When we become one more relationship where they have to preform and be hip, we take away the beauty of what makes student ministry so amazing. Our job is to be a safe adult, an adult who cares about them and their world, an adult who doesn’t judge them or humiliate them. Understanding culture and being relevant is just a tool. It is a good tool, but just one of many.
No matter what tools we have in our box, let us continue to strive with all our hearts to be youth workers who strive to know and love our students so that they will somehow be connected to the One who knows and loves them completely.