"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Understanding Generations X and Y

Your Teen's Changing World (Part 2)

Walt Mueller

How Can We Help Our Teens?

Facing the truth about the way things really are isn't always pretty, comfortable, or reassuring. As a result, we often choose to cover up the pain and live in denial. But denial keeps us from addressing issues that must be dealt with and often leads to a more critical and costly situation. So it is important that you avoid two common responses to these feelings that are unhealthy and counterproductive.

  • Don't assume that everything will turn out alright.

When I was a junior in high school, my chemistry teacher recounted a few class horror stories of experiments gone haywire and the resulting damage to people and property caused by explosions. I guess he didn't want anything to blow up in our face just because we carelessly assumed that we were invincible.

While parenting was never intended to be a haphazard experiment, some people live that way. Many years ago I met a mother who felt that her six kids would be able to weather the teenage years without any of her help. Fully aware of teenager developmental issues and armed with a working knowledge of youth culture, she felt they were good kids; they would turn out OK. Her approach was to let them make their own choices and decisions without the help of any unsolicited and informed parental input. "After all," she reasoned, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Unfortunately, that mother underestimated the power of the combination of forces that were shaping and molding her growing children. While she assumed that everything would turn out all right, she was wrong. Victims of an experiment gone awry, all six kids have continued to pay the price of the foolish decisions they were allowed to make without parental guidance. Two became unmarried teenage mothers. Others struggled with alcohol- and drug-abuse problems. One was in and out of trouble with the law. All of them turned their backs on the church. That mother's good intentions blew up in her face. Her carelessness and naivete may have been the biggest factor that led all six kids to make a series of poor choices that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Parents, don't make the mistake of understanding the pressures and dynamics of the teen years while assuming that your kids are invincible, immune, and able to weather the storm alone.

  • Don't think it can't happen to you.

A frustrated youth worker who had worked hard to help parents by raising their awareness of the many pressures facing teens today called the parents together for a meeting. He wanted to inform them of some behavioral trends among local students in which many of their own kids were participating. Only a handful of parents showed up. It was too bad because the parents who had stayed home were the ones who needed to be there. These were good loving parents. But it was their kids who were sneaking around without their parents' knowledge. When he began to share with these parents sensitively on an individual basis, the majority responded in anger and disbelief. "Sure we know what's going on out there. But none of those things are happening to my children!" Their ignorance somehow made them immune. They refused to face the truth.

I have found that parents, in general, have little or no idea about what's going on in their teenagers' lives or world. Many are clueless about the changing values, attitudes, and behaviors that make up today's youth culture. Even some of those who know are in the dark when it comes to their own kids. They think bad things can't happen to their kids. But look at the statistics on the next page.

It is a mistake to understand the world of children and teens and respond to the various developmental and cultural issues by assuming your children won't be touched. No family is immune.

As you think about your kids and their adolescent experience, ask yourself, In what ways are my children being affected by the culture that surrounds them? How can I help them sort out all the influences on their lives?

The Widening Cultural-Generational Gap

It took the Fonz to show me how hopelessly out of touch my mother was with the real world. Barely into puberty ourselves, my brother and I squirmed with embarrassment while watching Fonzie help Richie



1. Have you had one or more alcoholic drinks? 66% say yes   34% think they have 
2. Have you considered suicide? 43% say yes 34% think they have 
3. Have you ever smoked? 41% say yes  14% think they have
4. Do you tell your mom about boyfriends and sex?  36% say yes  80% think they do 
5. Have you ever used drugs?  17% say yes  5% think they have 
6. Have you lost your virginity? 70% say yes  14% think they have 
7. Have you thought about running away from home?  35% say yes  19% think they have 46

Cunningham hide his first hickey from his parents. 0ur mom was in the room with us. Our nervous adolescent snickers turned to hysteria, however, when my mom naively asked, "What's the big deal? Isn't a hickey just a pimple?"

The chasm between adults and an apparently alien youth culture is very real. A few years ago, I was driving a van full of junior high students to a church function. While sitting at a stoplight, I noticed the older couple in the car next to us looking with curiosity and mild contempt at my cargo. A quick glance over my shoulder confirmed my suspicions. The kids were acting like kids. Granted, while their behavior could easily have been construed as immature, socially unacceptable, borderline criminal, and flat-out disgusting, they were really just being "normal." While the woman shook her head in repulsion, her husband prepared to speed away from us as soon as the light turned green. I couldn't resist. I rolled down my window, looked at the woman, shook my head with disgust while pointing back over my shoulder, and said, "Teenagers!"

Let's be honest. Kids and their rapidly changing world are difficult to understand. Everything changes so quickly. The language changes. What was once "cool" became "hot. " What used to be "good" turned "bad." If it was "for real," it's now "bogus." I remember the ultimate cut was to be called 'a dope.' Not long ago even this became a compliment!

The world of music changes by the week. I used to listen to bands like Chicago, Kansas, Boston, and the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Play this stuff for today's kids and most of them will laugh!

Yesterday's heroes can't stand the test of time. Today, the only qualification for being a hero is not character or what you stand for but how much of a celebrity you are. Basketball players, skinny supermodels, TV stars, and whoever happens to be on the Billboard Top 100 chart are often mentioned as heroes among today's teens.

And how the styles change: A good gauge of how the fashion page has turned is to watch your teenagers laugh hysterically as they look through your high school yearbook! My kids see my graduation picture and use words like gross and disgusting. I'll admit I look at it and wonder, What in the world was I thinking?

While we all share space on the same planet, the world of parents is drastically different from the world of teens. Sadly, for many parents and teens, their daily encounters with each other go beyond what is natural and normal to become like my encounter at the stoplight. There are a few quick uncomfortable glances, the light turns green, and both parties continue down the road of life separate from each other. In the process, parents and their children can grow farther and farther apart.

You can be sure that changes in youth culture over the last three years exceed the amount of change that took place during the previous ten years. I've even heard twenty-one-year-olds say that they're out of touch with today's high school students - it's changing that fast. Today's teens are complex kids growing up in a frantic and fast-paced world.

When the cultural-generational gap widens, relationships become strained as parents and teens begin to find themselves unable to understand each other. As communication breaks down, parental influence decreases. Children and teens, longing for someone who will listen and understand, may look elsewhere for guidance, love, and understanding. Even Christian parents may be left reeling by the fact that their kids have bought into a set of values, attitudes, and behaviors contrary to Mom and Dad's.

Certainly there are many teens who fare well on the road to adulthood. But it is alarming to see an increasing number of kids adopting narrow self-serving values and ungodly attitudes. Our kids need parents who constantly work hard to stay in touch with youth culture so that they can guide them through the maze of growing up.

Getting in Touch with Our Kids

How is it that so many parents - including well-meaning Christian parents - have found themselves "out of touch" with the real world of children and teens? Some make a conscious decision to avoid entering their child's world since the teen years "will soon be over anyway." Others make lifestyle choices that leave little time or reason for understanding their teens. But through these choices, parents are paving the way to stay out of touch with their kids.

What about you? Think about yourself as I describe the following six common reasons for allowing the cultural-generational gap to continue. Have any of these "excuses" found their way into your conscious or unconscious justifications for staying out of touch with your children? Have these obstacles to family growth opened the cultural-generational gap in your house?

I'm scared.

To put it simply, raising kids is a difficult task that scares the daylights out of us! The fact that we live in a rapidly changing world that often scoffs at our values doesn't make the job any easier.

A Christian mom and dad who love their children dearly were concerned that a sinful world could exercise a negative influence on them and their children. So while the kids were still young, the couple, guided by a lifelong conviction and practice of keeping themselves "out of the world," made a decision to do whatever was necessary to keep their little ones from harm. They sent them to a Christian school (and be sure that I am not biased against Christian schools!) and allowed them outdoors only when going to and from school or out on a family walk. Never did the children play with the neighbors. When they were in the house, the kids were not allowed to watch TV or listen to the radio. Like the "bubble boy" whose nonexistent immune system forced him to live in a germ-free plastic bubble, these parents provided a protective shield around their kids. They reasoned that, by separating themselves and their children from the world, the world would never influence or affect them in negative ways.

Granted, this is an extreme case. But even in less extreme cases, this unrealistic approach, rooted in fear and ignorance, can be counterproductive. While we might be successful in protecting our kids from the world's influence for a while, sooner or later the bubble will break, and the germs will rush in. Or our kids will decide to move out of the bubble and into the germs. Without the protection of a parent-instilled immune system strengthened by years of learning to understand the world and its potential influence, their spiritual, emotional, and even physical health could be in jeopardy. In fact, many sheltered kids venture out into the world only to find themselves curious about what they have never seen before. Then they are enticed into willing participation in the very things they were shielded from while growing up.

And what happens then? How can these parents respond to their kids when they don't have a clue as to what their kids are dealing with since they've spent years of living life in a protective bubble themselves?

A better approach would be to realize that, yes, the world is a scary place and that we are called not to be involved with obscene entertainment, pornography, sinful behavior, and anything that could be considered idolatry. But Jesus has called us to be salt and light by learning how to live in the world while not being of the world. He's also called us to be sheep in the midst of wolves. Scary? Yes! But the Good Shepherd promised protection! Observing youth culture helps us to understand and relate to our kids while equipping them to relate to the world around them.

Something to remember ... Observing and learning about youth culture does not imply participation in or acceptance of the worldly aspects of youth culture. It simply means that we want to know as much as we can about our kids and their world so that we can understand them, help them develop a realistic framework for making good choices, and equip them to live as light in the midst of the darkness.

Not now ... I'm too busy. 

Pushed by a father who is emotionless, busy, detached, dictatorial, and totally out of touch with his son, Neil Perry of the movie Dead Poets Society attends a prestigious prep school in order to fulfill his parents' dream of becoming a doctor. While at the school, Neil's father directs his every move. On the few occasions that his father visits, it is to remind him that "I made a great many sacrifices to get you here, Neil, and you won't let me down. " Neil cries out to a father who never hears him. He tells his classmates, "He's planning the rest of my life for me. He's never asked me what I want." The movie climbs to its tragic climax when Neil disappoints his father by finally discovering that he wants to become an actor. Dragged home by his father and removed from the school after giving an outstanding debut performance in a community theater production against his dad's will, Neil fights back in the only way he knows how. He takes his own life while sitting at his father's desk. On finding the body of his son, Mr. Perry cries out, "Neil! My son ... my poor son!" Too little. Too late. One has to wonder what would have happened if Mr. Perry had only taken time out of his busy schedule to listen to and understand his son.

We live in a busy day and age. We get wrapped up in the demands of our work, house chores, social engagements, church activities, community affairs, softball leagues, etc. While many of our pursuits are important, could it be that we are letting even more important pursuits slip through the cracks - like taking the time to understand our kids and the changing world in which they live?

David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University and author of The Hurried Child, All Grown Up and No Place to Go, and Ties That Stress, argues that one result of our busyness and the individualistic thrust of American society is a generation of parents who have become egocentric. They either forget or find it impossible to understand, nurture, and meet the needs of their children. In effect, they are out of touch and become more out of touch as time goes on.47 If Elkind and others are right, then one consequence of parents' shifting their energies from raising kids to a focus on "me, myself, and I" is the current cultural-generational gap.

Something to remember ... The task of parenting requires a consistent and concentrated effort at listening, observing, and understanding your child and your child's world. It may demand major changes in your lifestyle and priorities in order to have the time to parent effectively. If you were to take an inventory of how you spend your time, what would you learn about your priorities? Are your kids getting the short end of the stick? Or are you taking the time to get to know them and their world? to help them grow into healthy adults?

I didn't know!

 In the late 1980s a mother came to me and excitedly told of a "major victory" in an effort to nurture her fourteen-year-old daughter in the Christian faith. "I've finally gotten her interested in Christian music. She loves listening to that guy who wears a cross and who has made an album called Faith. In fact, she's going to see George Michael in concert tonight! " I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. All I know is that I almost had to pick the poor woman up off the floor after giving her a copy of the lyrics to his song "I Want Your Sex": "It's natural, it's chemical (let's do it), it's logical, habitual (hey, we're doin' it), it's sensual, but most of all, sex is something we should do.... I want your sex!"48 I'll never forget what she said to me: "I just didn't know! "

This wasn't a parent who didn't care about her kids. She loved her children dearly and was a fine example of what a parent should be. Yet her naivete about the unique youth culture in which her oldest daughter was steeped had led to a difficult situation. From that moment on, she committed herself to becoming an informed student of youth culture so that she could better understand and guide her own children.

More than one parent has been caught off guard. I recently read the obituary of a fourteen-year-old honor student who was found hanging in his bedroom. His mother told me that he had died while 'scarfing" (autoerotic asphyxiation: masturbating while limiting the blood flow to the brain by constricting a rope around the neck), an activity popular among junior high boys to heighten the sense of sexual pleasure. Still grieving over the death of her son, she told me how she wished someone had warned her about autoerotic asphyxiation so that she could have discussed it with her son. In an open letter to other parents printed in a local newspaper, this grieving mother writes:

People may not realize that they need to warn their sons about some very dangerous experimentation that may be going on. We are willing to share what little we know with any parent who wants to call us. A beautiful light has gone from our lives forever, and the only way to deal with the pain is by trying to prevent this from happening to anyone else. Information is the only weapon we have in our struggle to protect our most precious treasure - our children.

Something to remember ... Those who don't understand the world of teens don't make a conscious decision to be naive; more often than not, it's a matter of circumstance. They are loving, caring parents. But all parents should take the time to become informed so that they can better help their kids sort through the many muddled messages that bombard them during the turbulent teen years.

Who cares?

One night when I was leading our youth ministry, I asked the high school kids to break down into small groups to answer this question: If you knew the world was going to end in five minutes and you had the opportunity to say one thing to one person, what would you say and who would you say it to? The kids were used to questions like this from me, so the discussion started rolling. One group of eight seemed to be laughing hysterically at the answers the group was giving, so I went over to listen. But when it came time for Janelle to answer, they all got very quiet. Finally, with an angry look on her face, Janelle shared her answer through gritted teeth: "I would walk right up to my father, look him in the eye, and say, 'Dad, you missed it!"'

Janelle was a beautiful young girl, gifted intellectually and musically. A straights student who had the lead in school plays, she was the kind of kid who would make any parent proud.

After youth group I asked her, "Janelle, is everything all right at home?"

"No," she said. "I'm not a bad kid, and I try really hard at every thing I do. But all my father is concerned about is work and reading the paper. He never talks to me or my mom. He never comes to my plays or concern. He has no interest in my life. He doesn't care!"

Janelle is not alone. There are lots of kids whose parents just don't care. Maybe it's a matter of messed-up priorities. Maybe they never wanted to be parents in the first place. Maybe they are so at odds with themselves and their own past that they have no time or energy to care for a spouse or children. Parental apathy can take many different forms. But there is one common thread: When parents don't care, there is no way to close the cultural-generational gap and grow as a family. Janelle's dad didn't even have time for a five-minute conversation. How could he find the time to discover what was going on in her world?

In the end, most of the Janelles fall prey to whatever cultural voices seem most inviting. A few kids, by the grace of God, will find a teacher, neighbor, or other relative who will guide them through the teen years and into adulthood. Regardless of how children of apathy turn out, most of them will carry the burden of animosity and hatred toward apathetic parents with them for the rest of their lives.

Something to remember ... Think about your relationship with your children. Would they say that you are "missing it"? We can love our kids and care deeply about them, yet still be apathetic about getting to know them by not getting to know the world that they live in. We need to take the time and energy to say, "I love you. I care about you. I want to walk with you and guide you as you grow up. And in order to do my best, I'm going to take the time to get to know the world that you are growing up in so that when you need me to, I can help you to understand it."

It can't be that bad. 

A few years ago I took up jogging in an effort to beat my body back into shape. While the lazy country roads near my home are relatively free from the danger of cars, they are full of another road hazard: dogs!

During one afternoon jog, I found myself overcome by terror and fear (while trying to look cool on the outside) as I rounded a bend just in time to see a very large Rottweiler charging down the hill and right at me. His bared teeth and throaty growls sent my heart to my feet and a shiver up my spine as I realized that there was no way I could reason with this beast. With no place to run and not a single tree to climb, I wondered what part of me he would cat first. I tried to act brave and conceal my fear by yelling something like, "Down, Satan!" The dog appeared to be deaf. Just as my life began to pass before my eyes and Cujo was only five feet away from a big supper, the dog's master appeared around the corner. With a loud and angry yell, the man shouted a command (it sounded like "Nol  I'm making you a steak!") that stopped the dog in his tracks. With his head down, the dog ran back up the hill to his master. I felt like running up and kissing the guy.

As I continued my jog, I thought about my surprising confrontation with the dog. At the initial moment of panic, my wisdom and experience had told me in no uncertain terms that I was in danger and that I needed to react. I could have stood there and denied that there was a dog running at me. I could have tried to convince myself that even though there was a dog, he wouldn't hurt me. If I was really stupid, I could have watched the dog take a chunk out of my leg while yelling to the owner, "Don't worry about it. He's not serious. He's just playing." 

Contemporary culture is rushing like a hungry Rottweiler down the hill at our kids. Now, I will be the first to say that not all elements of contemporary culture are bad. (Like everything else in this world, culture is a creation of God that is fallen and polluted by sin.) But let's focus a minute on just the bad. As the bad runs down the hill with it, teeth bared, inexperienced and uninformed young children and teens might not realize that they are in danger. They might ever reach out to pet and embrace the dog. Fortunately, most parents fulfill their God-given responsibilities by acting on their wisdom and experience. They step in to protect their children from harm and provide for their well-being. But tragically, there are many parents who leave their children "to the dogs" because they have never gotten to the point where they themselves see the danger. They look at the rapidly changing world and say, "It's not all that bad; it hasn't affected me. And my kids are smart; it won't affect them." But parents who deny the power of culture handicap themselves when they could be helping their children grow into healthy adults.

Something to remember ... Contemporary culture has an incredible effect on our kids and their values, attitudes, and behaviors. How aware are you of your teen's world? Parents who get serious about understanding the influences on their teens equip themselves mightily in the fight to save their kids "from the dogs."

Times have changed-lighten up! 

The last reason for the continued growth of the cultural-generational gap is perhaps the most frightening and difficult to deal with. It occurs when parents become so entwined themselves in the prevailing postmodern cultural climate that they fail to see any need to understand or deal with it. Unlike others whose apathy, busyness, and denial keep them from acknowledging and understanding the powerful influence of culture on kids, these folks know the culture too well because it's too much a part of them and they're too much a part of it. It is as if they were hijacked by the culture so long ago that they are now enjoying the ride.

I was once speaking to a group of church parents on teenage sexuality. My presentation included an in-depth overview of contemporary teen sexual behavior, the reasons for an increase in sexual activity, the consequences of premarital sex, and some suggestions for how parents can begin to instill healthy sexual attitudes in their children based on God's design for our sexuality. During the question time, a woman, obviously puzzled and frustrated by what I said, raised her hand and asked, "You mean to tell me that God wants me to teach my fourteen-year-old daughter that she has to wait until she is married to have sex? After all, she's reached puberty. That's so outdated. This is the nineties!"

Sadly, this type of cultural accommodation has infiltrated the church. The Barna Group's research concluded that most Christians are living a "Christian facade" that does not demonstrate or reflect the spiritual depth and commitment required of Christ's followers. There is little evidence of an intense pursuit of faith.49

Some of us have become so much like the world that we don't see it as we should. We create for ourselves a comfortable mix of bits and pieces from the world and from our faith. Then we begin to enjoy the world and its culture. Author and cultural analyst Tom Sine says this: 

Until we recognize our captivity we cannot be free. To the extent that our secular culture's values captivate us, we are unavailable to advance God's Kingdom .... We all seem to be trying to live the American Dream with a little Jesus overlay.50

If we fail to model and teach our children about true faith, we will only hurt our children. And the cultural-generational gap will continue to grow.

Something to remember ... When we are honest with ourselves, we know we can't guide our kids through culture until we deal with the inconsistencies in our own lives first. We have two choices. We can take the easy way out (for now) and keep sailing along on the same course, preferring not to rock the boat. Or we can row vigorously into the sea of youth culture, striving to understand it. I'm thankful for all you parents reading this book because you have chosen the second option!

But before you read on, let me challenge you to conduct a personal inventory with the help of your family members and a few close friends. Do you fall prey to any of the following reasons for continuing the growth of the cultural-generational gap:

? I'm scared.

? Not now ... I'm too busy. 

? I didn't know! 

? Who cares?

? It can't be that bad.

? Times have changed-lighten up!

Ask for your spouse's opinion. Ask your kids for their opinion and then really listen to what they have to say. (And remember you asked because you want answers that will lead you to make positive changes.)

lf you find that you need to overcome one or more of the obstacles, develop a plan that is guided by prayer and the advice of family and friends.

Principles That Bridge the Cultural-Generational Gap

There will be times when you will feel overwhelmed with responsibilities as you go about raising and leading kids. When you do, keep in mind the following six facts. They'll encourage you when you need it most!

1. Understanding the world of kids is a parent's calling. 

Youth workers, Sunday school teachers, and other significant adults all play an important role in the spiritual development of children, but Scripture is clear: The primary arena for Christian nurture is the home. Parents are called by God to teach the truth of God's Word by precept and example. An understanding of our kids and their culture helps us to prepare them for the unique challenges presented by the world. Only then can we effectively teach them to walk through difficult times by integrating Christian faith into all of life.

2. It's never too early. 

Don't wait until your children are eleven or twelve years old to develop a working understanding of youth culture. Prevention is still the best medicine. We live in a world where youth culture doesn't just affect teenagers. Second graders talk about having sex; kindergarten boys cry if their hair doesn't look just right; third-grade girls go on diets; four-year-olds watch MTV (Music Television) while parents naively sip coffee in the next room; eight-year-olds carry guns to school. The innocence of childhood has been lost as young children face pressures once limited to the teen years. They desperately need well-informed parental guidance as they deal with an increasing set of choices and expectations.

Many parents would echo the thoughts and frustrations of a father who approached me after I finished teaching a seminar on contemporary youth culture. "This was really great. I learned so much," he said. "I only wish I had heard this ten years ago." Now is the time to begin to understand the world of children and teens. An early and ongoing understanding of youth culture will equip you to take conscious and informed steps to counteract the negative influences of youth culture while your kids are still young, minimizing the later effects of the cultural-generational gap in your family.

3. It's never too late. 

What if your kids have already entered into the adolescent years? Every time I speak, I see war-weary faces of parents who feel they have failed. In spite of trying "everything," communication has broken down. Hurt and heartache rule at home, and they are haunted by guilt. Is it too late for you if this is your situation?

Several months ago, a man came to me with tears streaming down his face. 'My son and I used to do everything together. But for more than a year he has shown no interest in church or Christianity. He won't talk to me. And when he is home, he shuts his door and just listens to music. He is angry. He has even pulled a knife on his mother. I have spent the last year trying so hard to understand him and figure out what has happened."

He looked at me, waiting for a response. What could I say to him? I wish I could have handed that agonizing father a ten-step plan guaranteed to correct complex problems in an even more complex world. But there is no such thing. Instead I told him that it's never too late. No situation in life is unredeemable because God is sovereign. In the midst of crisis, conflict, and turmoil these words can sound like a cliche. Yet, they are true! Hurting but not hopeless, this man has continued to pray about his relationship with his son. He has not given up. His hope is in almighty God. He continues to work hard to understand his son and his son's world in the hope that he might exercise a redeeming influence in the situation. And guess what? His work is paying off. He has since told me that his newfound understanding of his son has opened the door of communication. The slow process of healing has begun!

Whether your relationship with your teenager is full of heartache or extremely comfortable, it is never too late to increase your understanding of youth culture.

4. It's not going to be easy. 

When you begin to study youth culture, it won't be long before you realize that there is only one thing of which you can be sure: Youth culture is always changing! This book will serve as a springboard on your quest. To stay in touch with the unique adolescent subculture, try the following:

? Continue to read literature written about the world of your children and teens. (See "Good Reading for Parents" at the end of this book for additional resources on the topics addressed during each chapter.)

? Watch programs and videos that are popular with your children. This will give you a window into your child's mind and heart.

? Observe teenagers at a mall, church gatherings or at your house to help you gain insight into their attitudes, values, cares, and concerns. Listen, watch, and notice what is going on.

? Don't be afraid to ask your teen questions. Ask them about their heroes, fears, hopes, dreams, etc. Good questions can't be answered yes or no.

It is the wise parents who work hard to take as many paths as possible to understand the unique world of their children and teens. 

5. Understanding youth culture equips parents to pass on the torch of faith.

Maybe you've heard your teens moan and groan about how boring and irrelevant church is. In many ways, kids have a legitimate gripe. Granted, the message of God's Word is as relevant and necessary as ever. But the problem lies in the package: We haven't taken into account the cultural context in which our kids live.

Maybe it's time we take a clue from the ministry of Jesus. His starting point with people was always an understanding of them and what made them tick. He wasn't a dispenser of pat religious answers and formulas. Rather, he spoke to the deep needs and hurts of people that he understood intimately. The God-Man took the time to know people and the world in which they lived. His communication was effective and relevant because he knew how to bring the light of God's truth to shine on the darkness of people's needs.

Christian parents need to see that it is difficult to pass on the faith apart from knowing and understanding the cultural context of their children. Modern-day missionaries don't stop with knowing the truth and talking about it; they are meticulous about adapting the gospel to their target culture. There are three steps to communicating the gospel to kids:

  •  Know the Word.
  • Know kids and their world.
  • Bring the light of the Word into their world.

There is value in knowing what our kids watch and listen to. There is value in knowing how they think, what they believe, what they value, and how they communicate. Those of us who have chosen to teach our children to follow Christ must be aware of the fact that culture is challenging our kids to get in step with the times and do whatever they think is all right to do at any given moment. But armed with a well-informed understanding of youth culture, parents can begin to present the never-changing truth about God in ways that our children, living in and influenced by an ever changing world, can understand. You are a cross-cultural missionary!

6. Understanding youth culture fosters family closeness. 

When teenagers were asked to describe their relationships with their fathers, the majority of daughters described them as distant, uncomfortable, withdrawn. Sons most frequently reported that their fathers were judgmental, withdrawn, insensitive, careful about what they said, serious, uncomfortable, criticized, unwanted, and distant. Rarely were sons or daughters likely to be playful, relaxed, open, or to feel loved and accepted when around their fathers. The study concluded that, in comparison with other important persons in their lives, teenagers feel most distant from their fathers.51

Words such as "We just don't talk anymore," "I don't think they understand me," We haven't spent time together for who knows how long," and "We've grown apart" are being spoken with increasing frequency by both parents and teens. In his classic book The Five Cries of Youth, Merton Strommen identified one of the five cries as the "Cry of Psychological Orphans" who "need to be part of a family where we love and accept and care about each other."52 In his later book The Five Cries of Parents, Strommen's research identified the parent's "Cry for a Close Family."53  The crying hasn't stopped. It's gotten louder, and it continues to echo through our culture today.

Every year I lead numerous parent-teen weekends. In preparation for my time with families, I ask that a group of parents and teens gather to discuss what they feel their needs are as families. And every time, the parents and teens unanimously agree on three major needs. First, they want to relearn (and in many cases learn for the first time) how to communicate with each other. Second, they want to relearn how to play together so that they might enjoy laughter as a family again. And third, they sense that they are not functioning as a healthy family and want to discover what God is calling their family to be. Take all three of these needs, combine them into one, and what do you get? A desire among parents and teens to come back together, eliminate the gap, and be the family they were created to be!


A recent television talk show on parent-teen relations confirmed the need for closeness in families. Teen after teen shared stories of heartache about life at home with parents who were out of touch with their kids. As the show came to its conclusion, the host asked the audience for their comments. A fourteen-year-old boy stood up, with his mother standing beside him, and shared these words with a national TV audience: "This is my mom. She's the best! She knows me." 

Closeness can be restored through loving and caring. Be a parent that closes the gap by taking a loving interest in your child and his world!


Part 2 of this article is from Understanding Today's Youth Culture, Revised and Expanded Edition, by Walt Mueller (c) 1994, 1999. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.  All rights reserved.

This well-researched 461 page book won the Gold Medallion Book Award, which recognizes excellence in evangelical Christian literature.  You'll see why if you read the book. It is a goldmine of information on youth culture for parents, teachers and youth leaders. 

To purchase this book in its entirety, either visit your local Christian bookstore or order online through Amazon.com. You may visit Tyndale's website at http://www.Tyndale.com


Walt Mueller is president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, a nonprofit organization serving churches, schools, and community organizations in their efforts to strengthen families. See his site at http://www.cpyu.org/

Walt has been working in youth and family ministry for twenty-four years. He is a recognized authority on youth culture and family issues and appears regularly on numerous national media outlets (including Moody Open Line, Dawson McA1listar Live, 100 Huntley Street, and The Dick Staub Show) to discuss teenagers and their world. He speaks frequently for seminars and conferences in the United States and around the world, communicating effectively with adults and teenagers alike.

Walt has written extensively on youth culture and family issues and is the author of two books. He is a regular contributor to a variety of professional and popular publications, including Youthworker Journal, Parents of Teenagers, GROUP, Junior High Ministry, New Man, Current Thoughts and Trends, Living with Teenagers, and Today's Father.

Walt earned his BA  in sociology from Geneva College (Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania) and his M.Div. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hampton, Massachusetts).

Walt and his wife, Lisa, live in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, with their four children: Caitlin, Joshua, Bethany, and Nathaniel.

End Notes

46. "What Parents Don't Know," Parents & Teenagers, February/March 1989,2.

47. Elkind's thesis is covered by his books The Huriied Child (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1981) and All Grown Up &No Place to Go (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1984), and Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

48. George Michael, "I Want Your Sex' from the album Faith, CBS Records, 1987.

49. George Barna, The Barna Report 1992-93 (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1992), 44.

50. Tom Sine, 'Will the Real Cultural Christians Please Stand Up," World Vision, October/November 1989, 21.

51. James Youniss and Jacqueline Smollar, Adolescent Relations with Mothers, Fathers, and Friends (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 49ff., 68ff., 87.

52. Merton Strommen, The Five Cries of Youth (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974), 34.

53. Merton P. Strommen and A. Irene Strommen, The Five Cries of Parents (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 68.