Adolescence, Part IV: The Church, Demographics, and Relevance

Much of the modern American church doesn’t understand what it means to be relevant. Business gets it a bit better. That’s ironic, since the church has in many ways been emulating business…but of course, the church is usually lagging on understanding trends, rather than setting them. Also, the church is sometimes too concerned about communicating to youth, rather than communicating with youth.

Churches started addressing children and youth with concepts like Sunday School before the 1900s. In the 1900s, they slowly realized that teens were speaking a different language, in a sense, and needed some ministry focused on them. So, youth ministry started to take shape. Parachurch organizations like Youth for Christ and Young Life were in the forefront. Churches also started to hire youth pastors and have youth specific programming. All this, in my opinion, was good, except for one thing: it has ended up further dividing demographics from each other. By separating everybody into a demographic, there is the danger that we cease to be with people who are in many ways different, and we cease to relate to people older and young and otherwise different from us. In essence, we cease to be the diverse body of Christ.

What does it take to relate to another person? To start with, let’s bring in the concepts of missions, because if you are doing any type of ministry in America with it’s frequently changing culture, you may be doing cross-cultural ministry. If you are going to relate to a person in a different culture, it would be helpful to understand a bit about what actions mean, what it meaningful to them, and what language they speak. You need to be a learner with a degree of humility. You have to show a certain degree of respect for their culture to gain their trust. Still, we are all human. There is some common ground among all of us. Further, our needs are largely the same. The ways to meet them may differ, and the priority of a need, but we all have needs, such as: food, shelter, friendship, love.

To relate takes time. When a suburban middle class white person enters an inner-city African-American community, does relevance mean the white person needs to dress the same, speak the same way, and listen to the same music? Those things may be helpful, but the answer is no. If the white person is going to do those things, they had better be authentic and from the heart as a learner, and not arrogantly trying a method to better relate so as to better help poor people in the inner-city. I have heard comments from African-Americans who wonder: Will you stay? When it gets hard, will you leave? Will you take the time to understand us? Will you be among us?

Do all teens relate to each other? Are all teens the same? Do they have the same needs? Adoscent cultures are often the extreme of what is meant by pop culture, where popularity greatly defines the culture. Even so, they are diverse. They don’t all relate to each other, nor are they the same. What about needs? Needs, as said above, are easier to identify, easier to relate to. What does it mean to be relevant? Relate to a person’s needs. Relate to what’s going on their heart. If you don’t relate to that, all your efforts at relevance miss the point.