As the world gets younger, missionaries face a complex array of social problems.
Ours is an ever-shrinking, international, multicultural world. It’s also an increasingly younger world, one packed with problems confronting mission agencies serious about bringing Jesus Christ to the world’s youth. Youth ministry requires cultural sensitivity and wisdom. As Mark Senter says, “The day of the monolithic society for people fifteen years old and younger is a thing of the past. Perhaps it never existed. The new paradigm of youth and children’s ministry must be prepared to deal with the pluralism of the new generation.”1
But first we must consider youth ministry’s global and eternal significance.
Reaching adolescents for Christ is not just a white, middle-class, Western phenomenon. It is a global reality, a challenge bigger than anyone imagined when “traditional” youth ministry began.2
The sheer volume of young people calls us to take notice of youth ministry as a cross-cultural, global challenge. According to The Changing Shape of World Mission:3
- One-third of the world’s population is under the age of 15, and 85 percent of these children and youth live in the Two-Thirds World.
- The great majority of people make life-shaping faith decisions before they reach the age of 20.
- MARC estimates that over 80 percent of the world’s young people — 1.4 billion — are growing up in non-Christian settings or non-Christian homes.
While Western countries are “graying,” the non-Western world is getting younger. John Allan, an urban youth worker in the United Kingdom, writes, “The proportion of teenagers in the total population increases annually, and most of them are being born in places where the church is weakest.”4
We approach youth ministry not only as sociologists, but also as followers of Christ, who declared, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). Jesus, who taught that “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” motivates our outreach to youth. Our worldwide mission to youth must be shaped by our biblical values.
Young people live in the “hinge” years of life. During adolescence, they formulate their world views, wrestle with their sense of purpose, form their core values, explore their sexuality, choose a career and a spouse, and make choices regarding their faith — all of this at a time of life when many are ill-equipped for such pivotal decisions. As youth workers, missionaries come alongside young people in these transitional years offering to help them make wise choices.
The following questions pertain to the “big picture” of international youth ministry. Mission agencies have to search together for answers.
1. Does the global youth culture transcend cultural distinctives?
A landmark book published in 1988, The Teenage World,5 introduced the concept of the “universal adolescent.” The authors postulated that music, dress, and other aspects of youth behavior were creating a distinct global youth culture in which youth in Hungary, for example, have more in common with youth in Australia than with their parents’ culture.
If this is right, the implications for cross-cultural youth ministry are staggering. Rather than reach individual cultures, missionaries would need only to identify the entry points of the “universal adolescent” and address their ministries to these. Theoretically, one standard method of youth ministry would fit anywhere in the world.
But the universal adolescent concept is too simple. It may be valid with middle-class youth, but most children and teenagers who remain untouched by the gospel are poor. Some aspects of youth culture may affect young people worldwide, but these are usually blended into a particular mix of traditions, local culture, family values, and religious convictions.
Global youth ministry cannot be reduced to a universal recipe. Youth workers in a multicul-tural context must be missionaries, sociologists, and anthropologists tominister effectively.
2. What are the universal cultural themes affecting young people and youth workers?
Although the “universal adolescent” concept is doubtful, youth of all cultures and economic classes do face certain common influences. Take pop media for example.
Today’s teenagers share both a collective personality and a collective consciousness. They watch airplanes in the sky above them, listen to the radio, and watch a rocket launched on TV. They think of these as everyday events. A 14-year-old in Bangladesh may watch the same television program as a 14-year-old in Germany, Israel, Turkey, or Taiwan. Media knows no borders; ideas and events are transmitted to all corners of the globe, defining what is new or desirable, and are assimilated by young minds.6
Closely related to television is music, an influence that caused the writers of Time to conclude that “America is saturating the world with its myths, its fantasies, its tunes and its dreams.”7 “Boris Yeltsin drew 110,000 people to his historic rallies that toppled the Marxist regime; days after the coup, however, the hard rock bands Metallica and AC/DC drew 500,000.”8
Michael Keating observed the impact of Western music on one culture:
I spoke recently with ayoung man from the South Pacific island group of Fiji. He told me that life there is not the same as it was a few short years ago. Fijan youth are increasingly rebellious and disrespectful to elders, the crime rate is soaring and the drug traffic booming. Why the change? After all, Fiji is quite remote. Television programming has only recently arrived on the islands. His answer: American music. It arrives there as soon as it arrives here, and it has captured the youth. What sort of life do these youth idols glorify? Animal sexuality, rebellion against all authority, violence of every kind, and party, party, party. Such a lifestyle works well for no one, least of all the rockers themselves, whose lives tend to be a mess of fear and frenzy. But the youth do not know that, and they think them glamorous and powerful instead of pitiable and despicable.”9
Many youth are growing up in abject poverty, urban violence, and in the midst of war. A 1991 memo from World Relief cited 31 countries that were living in some state of war. Fort