Decoding the Postmodern Teenage World

October 2nd, 2009

When some of you saw the title of this article you might have already started thinking, “Great, just what I need—something else to remind me how old I am.”

The last thing in the world I want to say is that to be effective in your work with kids you need to be up on every new trend. In fact, if you have limited time to invest in your ministry with students, for goodness sake, don’t waste it watching MTV and trying to learn skater language. But you’ll notice as you look around that the world has seen lots of changes.

There’s no question that this is a challenging time to work with kids. At some level, we’d be right calling them troubled times, but these are also some very exciting times for youth ministry—with teens spiritual openness, quest for true community, and apparent enjoyment of adult relationships. To take advantage of this era, it’s vitally important that we take the time to get a sense of what matters to todays teens.

“I Walked Around”

In Acts 17, Paul is on a missionary journey to Athens. He’s been separated from his friends for a few days and “while Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”

He begins dialoguing with the people of Athens and, as the gospel is prone to do, stirs up controversy. Before you know it, he finds himself at the Aeropogus—a kind of public forum for discussion—where he’s questioned about what he’s teaching. He says in verse 23, “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.”

“I walked around,” he says.

Most of us are already doing this. We’re in relationships with kids; we enjoy spending time with them, inviting them into our homes, sharing experiences with them, bumping into them at the mall, getting out to a game or recital—the basic stuff of which relational ministry is made.

Paul said he “looked carefully at your objects of worship.” Notice that he explored and understood his audience’s culture. He’d taken the time to notice what mattered to them, what they valued. In doing so, he found a crucial connecting point, so that he could respond to what he’d seen in a culturally appropriate way, a link in Athenian culture through which he could naturally, effectively, and without offense present the Gospel. Instead of condemning them for their idols, he used them as a framework for sharing Jesus in a way the people could understand.

There’s a lesson for us in how to interact with culture. Because culture both shapes and reflects the values of our kids, it’s crucial that we understand what’s happening in their world.

What todays kids need in their lives are thoughtful adults who are willing to explore what’s happening in adolescent culture and who will then use what they learn as a window—a natural point of entry—into the souls of a generation, and to respond with the gentle love of Jesus.

Postmodern Worldview

So, let’s take a quick walk around. Here’s something that’ll come as no shock: kids today seem to see their world in a whole different way. It’s called their worldview, and it’s important for us to understand it. A worldview is simply the lens through which a person views and understands the world.

You’ve probably heard people talking about a “postmodern worldview as the new lens through which the world is being seen and understood.” You may be surprised to find that this “new view” is much more like the thinking of New Testament times than we realize. That makes biblical truth more relevant and perhaps even more understandable to this generation than it has been to any recent generation in the church. That’s great news for every youth worker.

The biggest difference you’ll find in this new (old) way of thinking is in the way it deals with truth. To the modern mind, a declaration of propositional truth is the starting point for understanding relationships, feelings, and experiences. The kids we’re working with today see it in a whole different way. They’ll tell you that it’s in their relationships, experiences, and emotions that they can encounter and discover truth.

In this approach, truth isn’t found in declarations and statements, but in a personal encounter with the one who is “the Truth.” So what?

None of us would argue with how important relationships are in youth ministry, but have you ever thought about what motivates us to establish relationships?

It used to be to “earn the right to be heard.” We’d hang with kids, go to their recitals, coach their teams, all with the idea that if we did it long enough and well enough, we’d eventually get the opportunity to dump the whole load of truth on them. Relationships had been reduced to a tool or methodology—a means to an end. It’s no wonder some kids were feeling used, betrayed, and manipulated—like someone’s project.

In this new way of viewing ministry, our role is simply “to be.” It becomes a ministry of offering our presence. Relationships become the path to the truth.

What about the way we’ve done evangelism? Many of us began with the assumption that our audience believed the Bible to be true and authoritative. Our evangelistic approach was to systematically and logically persuade people to buy into Christianity by carefully crafted arguments.

This “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” has given way to an approach that begins with your story and my story and weaves those into His story—leading us into an encounter with truth. And the resources being written for youth ministry today are beginning to reflect some of this.

As we look more closely at the world of kids today, we begin to see some of their altars—the things that really matter, the places they invest their time, energy, and money. Here’s some of what we’ll find as we look around our own “Athens.”

Remember as we work through this that these altars are not idols in and of themselves. We don’t need to fear what we find. In fact, if we’ve looked with spiritually sensitive eyes, we will find hints of kids longing for that same “unknown God” of the Athenians of Pauls day.


It’s a high tech, but not high touch, world. Often technology provides a gateway to what appears to be intimacy—they long for connectedness so deeply.

Kids don’t even know that they live in a technological world; it’s the only world they’ve ever known. This year’s high school freshmen were born with a remote control in their hands. They actually were born after the introduction of home computers, VCRs, CDs, and satellite TV. Pagers and cell phones aren’t neat new gadgets; they’re the basic means of communication. Kids now know more about technology than their parents and most of us do.

You must pay attention to technology in your ministry, but don’t overuse it. As helpful as it can be, technology can get in the way of relationships and community. Avoid the temptation to stop phoning kids or mailing them an actual note. Avoid the temptation to opt for the easy “video night” instead of doing the harder work of planning an evening of interaction and conversation. Don’t be fooled into believing that the answer for your youth group is a bigger sound system or better video projector.

Teach discernment and discipline. Don’t assume that kids are making wise choices with all that’s available to them. Because they see technology as their ally and friend and because their level of comfort with it makes them feel a bit invincible, they don’t always see the dangers. I’m not suggesting a paranoid approach, just wisdom and good counsel from people they respect.

Seeing Is Believing

This is a visual generation. They respond to things they can see; yet there are so many intense images out there screaming for their attention and they come in so many forms. This is a generation living under the law of diminishing returns. What was impressive last year isn’t impressive anymore. What thrilled me last week no longer thrills me this week. What pushed the edge of decency yesterday is routine and boring now.

There is no question that images are powerful and motivating. How can we take this resource and use images for more effective ministry?

Visually impact your youth room. Use a series of still pictures to evoke a response.

Create “harmonies” in Powerpoint or MediaShout to reinforce teaching. A “chorus” simply puts on the screen exactly what you are saying, i.e. it says it with you. A “harmony” puts on the screen a reinforcing message or image, not exactly what you’re saying but an image or parallel statement that strengthens your point.

Use video as a discussion starter, illustration, or point maker.

A Tribe Apart

That’s how Patricia Hersch described adolescents in a superb book by that title. She spent three years following eight teens around in their world. What she found was a fascinating web of relationships and encounters that allowed her to see deeply into the soul of a generation. Her insights are profound and they remind us of just how important it is to understand the relational structure of that world.

To really understand adolescent relationships you need to understand the concept of tribes. Sub-groups of adolescents have their own language, dress, music, values, attitudes and lifestyles. They have a low level of tolerance for anyone outside their tribe, and tribal membership represents a primary point of identity—especially for kids who feel like outcasts.

Tribes are a basic subset of adolescent culture as a whole. Within these tribes lie the basic social units of the adolescent world. They’re called friendship clusters. When we understand these informal friendship clusters, we can understand how kids connect with one another. These clusters are made up of 3-6 close friends. Involvement in an informal cluster is more important than joining formal groups. Think of the kid who passes on running for student council because it’d mean less time with his friends.

Ministry Implications

It’s absolutely imperative that we distinguish clusters from cliques, and that we not work against clusters. They are the fabric of adolescent culture and must be nurtured rather than sabotaged. Cliques are just unhealthy clusters. Rather than trying to break up the relationships, we need to address the relational health of the cluster.

Outreach may need to be “tribe specific.” Before kids come to Christ, they’ll be relatively intolerant of other tribes. In Cincinnati, theres a ministry that assigns volunteers on the basis of the tribe they touch, rather than to a specific age group, school, or geographic area.

The goal is still unity (see John 17). We’ve all seen the way walls break down on a mission trip, during a service project, or even in a meaningful worship experience. This is what the body of Christ is all about—unity in the midst of diversity. When that begins to happen, we know that God’s at work.


In a world marked by subjectivity and the law of diminishing returns, kids will always keep looking for one more way to create a memorable experience. They have the resources at their disposal to help them create their own experiences that’ll give them some sense of satisfaction when all is said and done.

When creating experiences for kids, avoid the temptation to structure every experience in a way that demands a predetermined outcome. Let the Holy Spirit work in the experience. You know how we used to do camps and retreatstightly scheduled days with devotionals, a speaker, and scheduled activities. Would you be willing to take the risk of planning an event in which the outcome is not predetermined?

Also, teach your students to be inwardly sensitive so that they can experience what’s happening in the present to hear God’s voice in the silence, to feel God’s touch when in pain, to sense God’s nudging in times of decision. Redeem experiences they’re already having. Strengthen experiences by providing a tangible token of remembrance. For example, a lesson on salvation could be reinforced by handing each student a nail. A lesson on growth could be reinforced by handing each student a packet of seeds, and so on.

We’re called to use our understanding of our students world to help them see that what they’re experiencing as “unknown” is really Gods movement in and around them.

As for the rest of Paul’s story in Acts? If you go to the end of the chapter, you’ll find that when people heard Paul talk about the resurrection, some laughed; but others wanted to hear more. Paul discussion ended, but some joined him and became believers.

Maybe you should take a walk in the world for awhile.

“Decoding the Postmodern Teenage World” is adapted from the 2001 Youth Specialties National Resource Seminar.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.