Mueller urges youth ministers toward 'knowing,' not 'becoming,' the culture

NEW ORLEANS (BP)--Understanding youth culture is a key step in helping teenagers become mature, thinking Christians, said Walt Mueller, founder and president of the Center for Youth/Parent Understanding (CPYU) based in Elizabethtown, Pa.

"We don't need to think for youth, but think with them, so when they are adults they can think as mature Christians," he said, "[Teens] are at the point of making faith their own."

Mueller, who has been studying youth culture more than 25 years, is the author of the award-winning book "Understanding Today's Youth Culture." Having dedicated much of his life to helping Christian teens integrate the lordship of Christ into all areas of their lives, he was one of the featured speakers at Youth Ministry Institute sessions Jan. 6-10 and 13-17 at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

The Youth Ministry Institute, started by R. Allen Jackson, associate professor of youth education at NOBTS four years ago, provides learning opportunities for seminary students, youth ministers and others interested in youth issues. Attendees may choose to participate in workshops for academic or certificate credit. YMI also conducts weekend meetings at various times throughout the year.

"John Stott said that there are two conversions -- there is a conversion 'from the world to Christ' and then 'back into the world with Christ,'" Mueller said. "Some have withdrawn from culture and created a separate Christian subculture; I don't think that is the right thing to do biblically."

Mueller encourages parents and youth ministers to interact with teens and help them process decisions in light of biblical revelation. Before this type of dialogue can happen, he said adults must research and develop an understanding of youth culture. Discovering culture can be quite shocking to the average Christian parent or youth minister, he said, but it is a needed step in reaching out to teens.

Mueller pointed to the apostle Paul's Mars Hill sermon as a biblical precedent for interacting with culture. Recorded in Acts 17:16-34, Paul showed that he understood the culture by framing the gospel in a way that spoke directly to his listeners, but he did not change the message.

In much the same way, being culturally informed will help adults understand the struggles teens face and address issues that are relevant to them. Mueller said the goal should be to draw young people into a deeper walk with Christ, to help them be "in the world, but not of the world." The process includes teaching them to find answers in God's Word and think "Christianly."

Youth ministers and parents should begin by studying mass media, Mueller said, noting that it must be done carefully, prayerfully and only with the Holy Spirit's guidance.

"Don't cross the line and go to a place that will cause you to sin," Mueller warned. The goal, he said, is "knowing" the culture and not "becoming" the culture.

Today's teens are especially impacted by magazines, music, movies and the Internet. Each is sending a message to youth, Mueller said, and discovering these cultural messages will help adults build effective dialog with teens.

"Don't feel pressure to act, look and talk like kids. You can't change who you are, but you can be a person who is vulnerable and cares," Mueller said. "Kids are looking for relationships and authenticity."

Magazines are a special source of concern for Mueller. He spends time reading and "deconstructing" magazines geared toward teens. He examines covers, reads stories and studies ads. What he finds "grieves" him.

Messages about physical appearance, sex and mystical spirituality are subjects he finds throughout magazines geared to adults and teens alike. Studies show that stories, ads and photos that are unfit for adults are being read and viewed by an increasingly younger audience.

For instance, Seventeen, once read by older teenage girls, is now being read by 12-14-year-olds. The older girls are moving on to adult magazines like Cosmopolitan. Teenage boys are captured by the near-nudity and coarse editorials of Maxim and FHM. Girls are even being lured to Maxim, which boasts that 25 percent of its readership is female.

The results are alarming, Mueller said. These magazines leave teens struggling with body-image issues, shaping the way they view themselves and other teens. Mueller said girls are struggling because they don't look like "J-Lo" (Jennifer Lopez). Boys begin to define the worth of girls based solely on appearance, casting aside those who don't match up. Secretly boys struggle with body issues of their own, longing to have the muscular builds they see in magazines, Mueller said noting that statistics show that these body image struggles begin at an early age.

Mueller said 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of becoming fat and 42 percent of first-, second- and third-graders want to be thinner. Most troubling to Mueller are the 5-10 million adolescent girls and nearly 1 million boys battling eating disorders and "borderline" conditions. The problem can be seen in the growth of the supplement market among teens, he said, with 4 to 6 percent of high schoolers having used steroids and many experimenting with sports and herbal supplements.

Teen magazines also create a "downward spiral" in youth, they feed materialism and promote "age aspiration" -- the desire to be perceived older, Mueller said. These realities, he said, demand a thoughtful response from the Christian community.

Teenagers are vulnerable to negatives in culture because they are going through so many changes, Mueller said. Their bodies are changing and they are beginning to think for themselves, but many decisions are still based on emotions or formed by listening to their peer group.

Despite all of the negatives, hope is not lost for today's teens, Mueller said. God wants to use teens as "salt and light" in the world to bring about change. Mueller encouraged the ministers at YMI to do their part in the process by seeking to understand their youth and helping them biblically "think through" the difficult issues.

Among all the influences on youth, Mueller sees music as influencing them most. Thus he has developed a tool to help teens evaluate what they listen to. "How to Use Your Head to Guard Your Heart: A 3-D Guide to Making Responsible Music Choices" is available online at CPYU's website (www.cpyu.org). The goal of the 12-page booklet is to assist students in "integrating biblical habits into daily music choices." Mueller's website includes many articles and resources to facilitate cultural research. CPYU also publishes a quarterly newsletter, youthculture@today, which includes articles about music, media, the Internet and current issues in youth culture.

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The Youth Ministry Institute at New Orleans Seminary can be accessed at www.youthministryinstitute.org. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: YOUTH EXPERT'S INSIGHTS.

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