Entering a Teen’s Pop-Culture World is Never Wasted Time

No Christian parent wants a child to leave the faith or to drop church like a hot potato once they leave home, but it’s increasingly common for kids to do so. A five-year study completed by the Barna group in 2018 found that nearly 3 in 5 children raised in the church would leave after age fifteen, either for a long time or for good. When interviewed, the teens and young adults in the study cited six main reasons:

  1. Churches were overprotective, demonizing everything outside the church (including popular culture).
  2. Their experience of church was boring and shallow, the teaching didn’t go deep enough, and the content didn’t seem relevant to them.
  3. Their church seemed antagonistic to science.
  4. The church’s grasp on sexual issues was judgmental and overly simplistic.
  5. They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity in a pluralistic world.
  6. The church is unfriendly to those who doubt.

We could sum up this feedback by saying: too often, churches take a defensive posture towards the world outside its walls and the difficult questions the world raises for young Christians. It seeks to hunker down. But hunkering down often proves lethal to the faith of its young people.

What’s a Christian parent to do?

How can we engage our kids in spiritual topics without an evasive or stonewall response to modern culture? A lot of times, our success in connecting spiritual topics to everyday life hinges on how we relate to hobbies and entertainment we might consider unspiritual, like the music, games, and shows our kids watch.

Let me tell you about something that happened to me a few weeks ago. I live in the Czech Republic, and my wife and I are both teachers (I teach in a university, she in a Christian school). Being a teacher during COVID is weird and difficult. Neither of us much cares for online teaching. But COVID actually gave us an extra ministry opportunity this summer. Our Czech church puts on a week-long English camp every summer, a time for students ages 14–24 to improve their English. In the evenings, there is a lecture on some spiritual topic, and then a discussion group afterwards. Generally, a group of native English speakers flies in from Ireland or the U.S. to teach, but that couldn’t happen this year. So they asked folks who were already here to facilitate the event. We had a great time!

Making a Connection

At the beginning of the week, I wore my “Batotoro” tee-shirt. It’s a logo that combines the Batman signal with Totoro, the beloved character from Japanese animator Hiyao Miyazaki. One sixteen-year-old guy in our class immediately noticed it and asked if I liked anime. I said sure, that we watch it and enjoy it. I could see him mentally filing that information away.

In the middle of the week, the camp had a day off from classes. Instead, the whole camp took a sixteen kilometer (about ten mile) hike together. As a leadership team, we were urged to use the time to engage students in spiritual conversation, not to let the time “go to waste.” That same student noticed me wearing a tee-shirt that bore an image from a popular anime series called “One Piece.” He was excited that his teacher shared his interest in anime, and we walked much of the hike together. We spent time talking about which anime series we were watching and which were the best. (He’s into weird, dark animes that raise interesting intellectual questions, including some classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion.) He has his favorites posted online.

From there we talked about music, about progressive rock and the indie bands we liked, like Radiohead and Pink Floyd (a band I was passionate about when I was in high school). He waxed eloquent about bands I’d never heard of, including one musician who spent eight albums imaginatively painting a musical portrait of an old man’s last eight hours. I got to introduce him to some indie artists on the rise, like Phoebe Bridgers. When that topic trailed off, we talked about his future and his passion for coding (and that one time he hacked a website when he was twelve). None of these topics struck me as specifically spiritual, but the way he lit up showed me that they were super important to him.

Was it time well spent?

I was tempted to write all of this off as “wasted time” because it didn’t lead to a “spiritual conversation” during the hike. But the following evening, after the discussion group ended for the night, he stayed behind. He had questions. Why did God rest after creation? Why did he have the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden? Where did evil come from? Not easy questions, but ones that I love talking about, and we talked for a long time.

Turns out, this young man is growing up in a very strict church where they frown on asking questions or expressing doubt of any kind. It was as if the conversation we had on the hike, where I entered his world to talk about things that lit him up, made me safe enough in his mind to talk to about spiritual things.

It’s Never Wasted Time

Moral of the story: loving kids this way and showing interest in things that they are interested in is never wasted time. If you really want to know what’s going on inside your child’s heart, get into his or her pop cultural world. Ask if you could watch something together that they choose—and promise to withhold judgment (nothing shuts down communication with a teen like snap judgments about their favorite shows). If a computer game is multiplayer, ask if you could play with them (prepared to be owned). If not, watch him or her play, and ask intelligent questions. Ask what bands he or she is listening to and listen to them on YouTube, Bandcamp, or SoundCloud. Which YouTube influencers are they tracking with? Watch some videos and talk about them. Get up-to-speed on the current memes (Reddit’s r/Memes and knowyoumeme.com are invaluable here; don’t be discouraged if you don’t get everything).

Moral of the story: loving kids this way and showing interest in things that they are interested in is never wasted time. Click To Tweet

In short, build up a knowledge-base and vocabulary of your teen’s entertainments. Start speaking their language. Of course, there might be some inappropriate stuff you’ll want to steer clear of, and guide your teen to steer clear of as well. But your default setting should be one of openness, of wanting to connect with their world. Doing so shows love to your child and might just make you safe enough to talk about things that really matter.


THE POP CULTURE PARENT: HELPING KIDS ENGAGE THEIR WORLD FOR CHRIST

Popular culture doesn’t have to be a burden. The Pop Culture Parent equips mothers, fathers, and guardians to build relationships with their children by entering into their popular culture–informed worlds, understanding them biblically, and passing on wisdom.

About the author

Ted Turnau

Ted Turnau teaches culture, religion, and media studies at Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic. He has a PhD from Westminster in apologetics and wrote Popologetics to help Christians engage popular culture. Ted Turnau authored The Pop Culture Parent. He and Carolyn have three grown children. Ted enjoys jazz and blues, movies, games, and Japanese culture.

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Ted Turnau

Ted Turnau teaches culture, religion, and media studies at Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic. He has a PhD from Westminster in apologetics and wrote Popologetics to help Christians engage popular culture. Ted Turnau authored The Pop Culture Parent. He and Carolyn have three grown children. Ted enjoys jazz and blues, movies, games, and Japanese culture.

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