When we focus on lag to try to answer questions of relevancy, youth workers become reactionary, at best, and look foolish, at worst.
One of the more common questions I am asked by new youth workers is about my method for staying abreast of popular trends. While we could ask why they are sitting in my office, and not someone else’s, could be explored (our community has an almost chronic tendency to hire fresh youth workers cheaply, and therefore we tend to see a large turnover in the paid youth staff sector) and may be discussed at a later date. But their question, and a question I see bandied about often, seems to be one dealing with relevance. But the mistake made by these questing youth leaders, besides coming to me, appears to emerge from a confusion between what is relevant to the culture students exist within and how to relate to teens. While the two may be related, they are distant cousins at best. If this trend were only visible in new youth workers, my musings would be unnecessary (even more so than they already are), however, I continue to see this same dogged practice amongst my peers who have been in ministry for as long as I, and, unfortunately, some longer. It should be noted that I truly believe that the intentions of such a youth worker emerges from a desire to see students connected to God, rather than some ill-fated attempt at staying young or grasping at past glories. My concern, instead, emerges from the systems, or the lack thereof, we put into play when we chase the trending, white rabbit. A recent post over at Simply Youth Ministry, brought this tension to light as they defined the disconnect between students and youth workers as cultural lag (if you missed the post you may find it here).
The author ties into an advertisement showing a group of people who live for a short amount of time with an oculus rift set to give about a three second delay to the goggles. The video is both fascinating and fun as you watch people try to cook and play table tennis. The author of the article connects this beautiful illustration to the lag time we encounter between ourselves and our students. “How can we reclaim our lag time?” the author asks. As I pondered this over a cup of coffee, I tried to consider other places where a type of lag time develops as we age and the ways we approach them.
For those of you, like me, who seem to become a little slower each year (in the same way the ground in the church seems to grow harder between each overnighter), the way we approach ministry with our students changes. We no longer attempt to play both ends of the field in Ultimate Frisbee and we settle for not being the one to lead the charge every game. We are willing to acknowledge, hopefully, that we are not pillars of athleticism and we adapt. I have yet to see a seminar to train youth workers to run a sub-five minute mile, nor would I want to. We know aging means that we will not be able to keep the same speed as our students and so we compensate to remain relevant in our youth games.
A few months ago, the boy scout troop at our church invited me to play capture the flag with them. In my prime I might have been able to keep up, at least that’s what the past me emerging from the fog of ages tells me. As with any youth worker moved past his prime, I employed what my students lovingly call my “old man tricks.” Rather than expend lots of energy running about, I set myself up for intentional success. As a scout rushed to tag me I stepped to one side and as the student turned his shoulders to run towards me, I would take a step towards the student’s back, letting the student’s momentum work for me. As I get older and the lag in both reaction time and cultural trends grow, I recognize that I can little afford the time and energy to flail about hoping to catch a break. I see many youth workers make similar plans in a game, conserving energy reserves to last the game and make smart, intentional moves; yet this same thing cannot be said about the way we approach cultural lag time.
When we focus on lag to try to answer questions of relevancy, youth workers become reactionary, at best, and look foolish, at worst. This is not to say that we blind ourselves to the culture our students exist within, but neither do we make shortened lag time an obsession. Trends change, fast. And I have seen peers lose hours in an attempt to stay relatable. My experience has shown me that relevancy comes from presence and not from the latest youtube video or teen magazine, and in spending time with our students (hours that many of us have to battle for in a culture demanding our students’ attention) we are able to keep a finger on the cultural pulse of our students. Forget the lag. It exists and will continue to exist no matter how much effort you or I put into swimming the ocean of cultural norms. Relevance does not come from cultural connection but from relational connection.
So what does this look like in practice? I’m glad you asked, or rather continued reading. The intentional youth worker makes culture work for her by introducing a particular type of culture to their youth ministry. Within this framework students are then encouraged to bring parts of themselves to flesh out a culture with its own intricacies. The latest fads and memes will show up with your students and there is little reason for us to go chasing them down to build the trendiest youth lesson. With my own students I do not pretend to be aware of every last trend, but when a trend shows itself relating to the culture of our youth ministry (we focus on cultivating a culture of belonging) we praise it. Through positive reinforcement our students become active participants in a culture taking definite steps rather than reacting to outside influences that usually have more interest in selling our students a product than seeing them develop into Christ centered community members.
The focus on eliminating cultural lag is problematic for youth ministry. It is distracting and, frankly, a poor use of the precious little time we have each week. So, what do you think? How should we respond to cultural lag? Leave a comment below and thanks for reading.