NEW ORLEANS (BP)–If you did a search on the word “cries” on Walt Mueller’s Internet site, you’d find an article about children and teens who cut themselves or break their own bones to vent their inner frustration and relieve themselves of the daily pressures they face. You’d also learn about a young woman’s life who was wasted by anorexia, typical of the body image war that teens constantly battle. You’d read the true stories about the hopelessness and emptiness of sometimes-suicidal teenagers, who are often outcast by their family and their peers.
Also from the website search, you’d find insights into the empty and angst-ridden lifestyles and lyrics from the nation’s most sought-after musical groups like Limp Bizkit and Alanis Morrisette. You’d see the influence of postmodernism, an “anything goes” worldview and the changing face of the family and its toll on kids today.
“These,” Mueller said, “are the cries of the hearts of youth,” to which he asked, “Are we listening?”
Mueller, founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding and 25-year authority on youth culture and family issues, is one of 12 experts who spoke at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s first annual Youth Ministry Institute (YMI). The YMI is a cutting-edge approach to educating youth ministers in the new millennium, held during the weeks of Jan. 10 and 17.
An extensive writer, Mueller is the author of “Understanding Today’s Youth Culture,” a critically acclaimed book. Mueller has also studied adults’ responses to today’s youth.
For too long, Mueller said, adults (particularly those in the church) have attacked the way youth express themselves through popular music, body mutilation (such as tattoos and body piercing) and sexual exploration, without ever hearing the youths’ cries.
Mueller said he has been criticized as worldly, unholy, and compromising of his faith for affirming youth workers who take the time to share an interest in the music, art and literature of today’s youth.
“Go ahead and listen to Kid Rock,” he told the 50 youth ministers and students assembled at NOBTS on Wednesday, Jan. 12. “Read Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone from cover to cover. Watch at least one World Wrestling Federation event, and go to some of the movies that your youth are watching,” he said.
These media reflect the issues kids are facing, Mueller explained, giving intimate peeks into their minds and hearts. Instead of ranting and raving about the students’ interests, he counseled youth workers to immerse themselves in the youths’ cultures to get to the heart of where they are, listen to what they have to say and what the songs and movies say for them.
In a passionate response, NOBTS undergraduate student Josh Arnold underscored the necessity of just listening. Having only graduated from high school just last year, Arnold, now a youth minister at Solid Rock Baptist Church in Covington, Ga., still understands how it feels to be unheard.
“What we have to say is important,” Arnold said. “Just because we are young doesn’t mean we don’t have good ideas and aren’t willing to do things. We just want to be listened to.”
Said Mueller, “As a result of listening and observing, we can target our evangelistic efforts at the relevant ‘touchpoints’ in the lives of young people. By quoting their music, art and literature, we are able to meet them on common ground, thereby opening lines of communication.”
This mission strategy certainly isn’t original. Consider, Mueller said, the amount of time and energy spent in preparing candidates for foreign missions who will immerse themselves in a new culture, which is often very sinful.
“And yet,” he pointed out, “we set constraints on our youth workers and accuse them of compromising their faith if they attempt to understand the culture of their youths.”
Even the apostle Paul was sneered at for the missiological methodology of examining the culture before evangelizing it, Mueller recounted. In Acts 17, before addressing the men of Athens in his sermon at Mars Hill, Paul painstakingly examined all the objects of their worship, even reading their inscriptions and poetry. By taking the time to observe their culture, Mueller noted, Paul was able to speak directly to their point of need and appeal to their “hole in their soul,” by revealing the unknown God whom they wanted to know.
Does this mean accommodating the world and embracing it as a part of the Christian faith? Certainly not, Mueller said. Instead, Christians should infiltrate the world just as Jesus did (“Be in the world but not of it”) while transforming it. While being salt and light in the world, Mueller acknowledged that believers must each decide what lines to draw in our personal observation of the worldly culture.
“It is one thing to be entertained,” he said. “It’s another thing to critique something and view it in light of the opportunity to communicate the gospel.”
Far too often, however, Christians communicate the gospel in ways that direct animosity toward it, he said.
“Though the gospel is offensive, the messenger need not be,” Mueller said.
Like Paul’s example, explore ways to reach people at their level and then explain the gospel, Mueller counseled. “To do this, you must know the unchanging Word and share it with changing kids in a changing world,” he said.
Allen Jackson, the NOBTS associate professor of youth education who organized YMI, echoed the need for new approaches for reaching youth. To that end, YMI exists to further the development of those men and women who serve as youth ministers in local churches.
“When I was thinking about YMI, I knew I’d have to have someone address the adolescent culture, and since we wanted the best, we asked Walt,” Jackson said. “He didn’t disappoint us. He understands the personalities and patterns in the youth fields, which are white for the harvest.”