– By Walt Mueller
©2006, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding
Christmas. Lately it’s been a time for me to pursue some re-directed thinking. The problem is that I’ve spent so many years immersed in and pursuing the nostalgic, commercialized, feel-good Christmas that’s so much a part of the American experience, that the December 25th that exists in my mind sometimes looks more like a Norman Rockwell painting than anything else. What a tragedy.
What I see when I read the Bible paints an entirely different picture. In the center of the picture stands Jesus Christ, that bright light who came into the world. This is the moment when—as Eugene Peterson says in The Message—“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” What surrounds that light in the landscape of the neighborhood offers quite a contrast. It’s an ugly darkness that reeks of hopelessness and death. Sadly, we’ve allowed ourselves to let the light in that picture morph into the dim version of Christmas bought at the mall. And the Christmas picture we look at today serves to further dumb down and dim the light by not even depicting the darkness as we’ve come to believe the lie that the world isn’t really that bad after all. Without the contrast, the light suddenly appears faint.
My re-directed Christmas thinking has been my personal attempt to trudge through the fluff of a consumer-oriented Christmas in order to repaint the picture. That way, I can more fully understand and appreciate what the celebration is really all about. To do so, I not only have to ponder the greatness of the Incarnation, but I have to ponder the futility, brokenness and deep need that exists in the neighborhood that brought him here at all.
This year, I’ve focused my Christmas thoughts on the darkness that exists in today’s youth culture. My thinking about this darkness was sparked when I was asked a few months ago to put together a list of “surprising things you need to know about today’s youth culture” for an organization that is helping pastors become more effective in their proclamation of the light that’s come into the world.
When I completed my list, I noticed that nine of the 10 “things” were fairly dark and dismal in nature. “Shouldn’t I be more positive and encouraging?” I wondered to myself. Then I thought about a verse hidden deep in the pages of the Old Testament. It contains a description of a relatively small group of people who joined David and thousands of other warriors to liberate the Ark of the Covenant. The Chronicler describes these men of Issachar as people “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (I Chron. 12:32). As people called to do ministry in rapidly changing times, we must embark on a never-ending quest to know our culture and world as they really are, no matter how dark they might seem. Theologian John Stott challenges Christians to engage in “double listening,” by consciously seeking to hear both the Word and the world, even if that world is dismal, dark and full of death. Listening to the world allows us to discover how best to relate the Gospel to it. Knowing the neighborhood helps us incarnate truth. Just as Jesus—God incarnate—was sent as a particular man, at a particular time, to a particularly dark and needy place, so too are we placed by God as particular people at this particular time into this particularly dark and needy world.
As you think about Christmas this year, ponder these dark realities that make up the youth culture soup our children and teens swim in everyday. From the moment they are born, kids marinate in a mix they absorb through the “pores” of their impressionable young lives. Eventually, it all becomes a part of who they are, shaping their values, attitudes and behaviors. Reflecting on these trends will not only shape the way you relate and minister to the children and teens you know and love, but they will allow us to see the light that we celebrate each and every Christmas in all of it’s blinding glory.
Advertising is a powerful shaper of kids. The typical child sees between 3,500 and 5,000 advertisements a day, all of which are carefully constructed by marketers who seek to create a continuous need for products by understanding and exploiting kids’ anxieties and aspirations. Because of where they are developmentally, children and teens live lives brimming with anxieties and aspirations, making them especially vulnerable to advertising. Marketing taps into their spiritual brokenness, exploiting that by promising redemption, fulfillment, wholeness and satisfaction through the purchase and use of products. In effect, marketing substitutes a false gospel for the true gospel we’ve been called to communicate. But ads don’t only sell a product. Their greatest power lies in their ability to sell a worldview. They serve as a map for curious young hearts and minds that are looking for guidance that will shape their behavior.
Everything’s happening at younger and younger ages. This phenomenon is known as “age compression.” Marketers have used it as a strategy to expand a product’s market by pushing adult-type products, values and attitudes on kids at younger ages. What’s resulted is an environment where what used to be for 18-year-olds is now for six-year-olds, who are increasingly dressing, talking and acting like yesterday’s 18-year-olds. Some of the most direct effects can be seen in what children at younger and younger ages know and believe about sexuality, materialism, and violence. The children in your life are far less innocent and far more jaded than their peers in previous generations.
They are engaging new media in new ways. Because they live in a world where technology is developing at warp speed, today’s kids are more media-saturated and media-savvy than any prior generation. Researchers report that on average, children ages eight to 18 spend a total of eight-and-half hours a day exposed to the gamut of media. Because they are using multiple media simultaneously, their average daily media use is just under six-and-a-half hours a day. The amount of time spent in school, at church and in conversation with their parents pales in comparison. Not only that, but more and more kids are using media alone in their rooms. Seven out of 10 have a television and one out of five have a computer in their bedroom. This means that family viewing time is becoming a thing of the past. As a result, a growing number of kids are processing everything they see and hear void of adult input. In today’s world, media is raising and shaping the kids.
Family violence is rampant. It’s frightening to think that much of our nation’s child abuse and sexual abuse goes unreported, but it’s believed that one of every four girls and one of every six boys is sexually abused by the age of 16. Most of the abuse is perpetrated by a parent, sibling or close relative. In addition, studies indicate that as many as 10 million children are exposed to domestic violence annually. Children who are exposed to or victims of family and sexual violence are more likely to become perpetrators of violence themselves. They’re also more likely to exhibit a variety of health and behavioral problems growing up including depression, self-abuse, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse. Home used to be a place of refuge and a source of much-needed resiliency for kids growing through the normal difficulties of the adolescent years. In today’s world, relational deprivation and breakdown is a mark of the emerging generations.
The nature of peer pressure has changed. I was 12 when I was first exposed to pornography. My friends convinced me to join them, and we hid and huddled behind a neighbor’s stone wall to look at a magazine found on the side of the road. We did what we did where we did it because we knew it was wrong. Back in those days, peer pressure took the form of a verbal invitation to come and do something that both you and the person inviting you to do it knew was wrong. In today’s world, peer pressure usually takes the form of an unspoken expectation to come and get involved in behavior that the overwhelming majority of your peers think is normal and right. Today’s peer pressure is much more intense and difficult to resist.
Materialism is a desirable lifestyle. The dawn of the new millennium has brought increased economic opportunity and wealth into the lives of children and teens. More and more kids are working long hours, buying cars and furnishing their rooms with the latest in electronic gadgetry. Many have more monthly discretionary income at their disposal than the average adult. Others are showered with material “blessings” from over-indulgent parents. Young people are going through their teenage years developing life expectations—and related priorities—of having whatever they want whenever they want it. They are, and will be, accumulating debt at unprecedented levels. Their present situation indicates that today’s teens are building their lives around the desire to possess things.
Oral sex is big. Researchers are now beginning to look more seriously at oral sex and teens, a practice that has become so prevalent in that age group—especially among middle school students—that it’s considered to be a recreational activity that takes place casually and without any sort of dating relationship, either when alone with another person or in groups. The most recent data indicates that among 15- to 19-year-olds, more than half of boys and girls report giving or getting oral sex. By the time they reach the age of 19, three-quarters of all teens will have engaged in oral sex. When asked if oral sex is “sex,” many young people answer “no.” The reason? Because you can’t get pregnant from it.
Far too many kids are depressed. The increased intensity of peer, media and family pressures has made the teenage years more difficult. The constant barrage of confusing messages and expectations can be too much of a burden for some teens to handle during adolescence, especially when parents are absent or ignorant of what is going on in their teenager’s life. One study of students in grades six, eight and 10 found that 18 percent of youths reported symptoms of depression. Our children and teens are at increased risk for being more than down in the dumps. Teen depression has reached epidemic proportions.
There’s little difference between churched and un-churched kids. There’s a sad and sorry trend I’ve been noticing more and more over the past several years: increasingly, kids from Christian homes and churches are looking more and more like their mainstream teenaged peers, and less and less like Christ. While many of these kids claim allegiance to Christ, their values, attitudes and behaviors indicate there’s a disconnect between their stated faith and daily lives. This reality is reflective of a growing trend among Christians of all ages who are failing to integrate their faith into the place where it rightfully belongs … all of life. Sadly, more and more students are living dis-integrated lives with their faith saying little or nothing to how they relate, learn, date, play, work, etc.
While all these trends are negative and deeply troubling, there is some good news. In the midst of all this, children and teens are increasingly becoming more and more aware of their deep hunger for something more. The great need of teenagers is to have the God-shaped emptiness in their lives filled by God. If you listen and look closely, you’ll see and hear it in their music, films, books, magazines and very lives. Even when they don’t recognize it as such, we can rest in the assurance that their hunger is for God and the heaven we proclaim. Without even knowing it, they are longing for Christmas to burst into their lives, not the Norman Rockwell kind of Christmas, but the kind of Christmas that’s full of the blinding light that shatters the darkness in their lives to its very core.
In his wonderful little book, For All God’s Worth, N. T. Wright challenges readers to think about Christmas in a new way. He writes, “Christmas is not a reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilized ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in a room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St. John, and the darkness has not overcome it. Christmas, then, is not a dream, a moment of escapism. Christmas is the reality, which shows up the rest of ‘reality.’”
The world of our children and teens isn’t all that pretty. But that’s why we celebrate the particular One who came as light into the world, and who’s called us, in particular, to continue doing the same.
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