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Understanding culture, language called necessary for youth ministry

ATLANTA (BP)–Ministering to today’s youth is comparable to being a missionary in a foreign culture, according to the leader of a June 13 conference at the Woman’s Missionary Union annual meeting at Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Laurie Register, a consultant with the South Carolina WMU and leader of a conference titled, “Trends Affecting Today’s Youth,” said teenagers today have their own culture, with a language and style of their own. Effective ministry, she said, requires acceptance and understanding of that culture.
Citing the books, “Battle for a Generation” by Ron Hutchcraft and “Generation Next” by George Barna, Register defined today’s teenagers as a generation troubled by loneliness and a struggle for self-worth.
Today’s teens are seeking meaningful relationships, Register said, and they are failing to find them from the most important source — their parents. In a time when more children grow up in single-parent homes, many parents don’t spend enough time with their teenagers.
Teenagers who don’t find love at home seek it elsewhere, Register said. They seek it in friendships and dating relationships, which she said accounts for the increase in sexual activity among teenagers in recent decades.
“For them, sex equals love,” Register said.
She said that two of every five teens have had sex by the time they enter high school. Of high schoolers, 50 percent are sexually active, she said. She added that 43 percent of the members of a typical conservative church youth group are sexually active.
“There is not a lot of difference [in statistics] between Christians and non-Christians,” Register said.
Another defining characteristic of teenagers is that they are uninformed, she said. She described teens as experience-oriented and not interested in current events outside their sphere of influence.
“The world has to happen to them before it matters to them,” she said.
In another area, today’s youth lack boundaries, Register said. More than 80 percent believe that there is no absolute truth, that there is no such thing as right and wrong. Sixty percent think cheating is OK and lying is necessary.
Ironically, she said, teenagers want boundaries. They want authority, but it must be earned. Authority and trust must be earned by developing meaningful relationships.
The problems facing today’s youth are the results of four decades of loss, Register said. Quoting Barna, she traced this trend from the 1950s to the ‘80s, citing a particular loss for each decade.
The ‘50s, she said, were characterized by a loss of innocence. The influx of television and music exposed teens to many issues and ideas that they would previously have had to learn from their parents or by reading. The ‘60s were characterized by a loss of authority. It was decade of rebellion against any and every authority.
The ‘70s brought a loss of “lovedness,” she said. More and more parents were working, and more were working more often.
In the ‘80s, Register said youth lost the only thing left to lose: hope. Teenagers are the only age group for which the death rate is rising.
“Every 78 seconds, a youth tries to commit suicide,” she said. “Every 90 minutes, one succeeds. Every 18 minutes, one is murdered.”
Today’s youth face problems, Register said, and they’re turning to the wrong places to find answers. Quoting Hutchcraft, she said that for most teens today, “Anesthetic is more important than the cure.” Anesthetics include music, drugs, alcohol and even suicide. Fifty percent of teens have used illegal drugs at least once, she said, and 90 percent have used alcohol.
To effectively minister to youth, Register said churches must accept them as they are and learn to adapt to their culture.
“An eight-track church in a CD world” was how one conference participant described the way many churches are relating to young people.
According to Register, one teenager reported, “Kids in our school think Satan is a lot more interesting that God.”
Today’s youth are seeking spiritually, Register said. They want something spiritual, and many of them find it in things that are not necessarily Christian. With so many alternatives available, more and more youth are seeking meaning in the wrong places, she said.
“Whoever gets there first will probably get them,” Register said. “We need to make sure it’s us.”

Imms is an intern with LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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  • Tony Imms