Understanding Young People–A Cultural Divide

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I like studying and thinking about culture. A recent Kindle purchase that I’m working my way through is Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book entitled Talking to Strangers, which I highly recommend. I’ll probably at some point play with the title of that book for an annual ministry theme for short-term ministry. Last year the theme Hot and Cold Culture was based off of another interesting book, Foreign to Familiar, by Sarah Lanier.

But my thoughts currently are not so much about country cultural differences, but rather generational ones. And my thoughts have been provoked by a recent week with three people that I love and appreciate very much, my own kids. I love them, but I have come to realize that I need to invest more time and energy into understanding them, because I must confess that I really do not. Indeed,  I experience quite a bit of internal stress many times when I am around them.

First of all I should mention, for those of you who do not know our family very well, and perhaps haven’t met our kids (Daniel–21, Cathy–19 and David–17) that we are probably not a very typical missionary family. I say that for a couple of reasons. One, we are totally bi-cultural. Mayra is Mexican, I am American (or from the U.S., which is a more exact designation, because all of us are “Americans,” right?). Our kids grew up speaking much more Spanish than English, and were totally integrated into Mexican culture. They would consider themselves, to this day, more Mexican than American…although they are becoming more American, I think, as they live in the U.S.

Secondly, we deliberately tried to not raise our kids in a ministry bubble. Frankly, with the level of integration at all levels into our community, it would have been impossible anyway. Our kids grew up knowing and understanding some of the more harsher realities of life, in school, on the street, with their friends families, with ministry realities. They are familiar with both Mexican and U.S. music and movie culture. They know what divorce and inter-familiar violence looks like, because they’ve seen it close-up. They have a dear friend whose father “disappeared.” They’ve seen a neighbor offer me a beer.  They like tattoos. They were one of the first to tell me about Kanye’s new album.

We as parents often ask ourselves…and really, we do…did we allow them to experience too much? Some of it was unavoidable, certainly, just the reality of living in a fallen world that we’re trying our best to redeem. Should have we given our permission, at age 17, for each one of our kids to get a tattoo? Hope that isn’t totally scandalous to anyone, but it may be. Daniel got one that said “God is My Judge,” on his collarbone in Spanish, which is what his name means. Cathy got a pretty jacarandas flower on her ankle. David got “God is Love” in English tattooed on his collarbone. Out of sight. But meaningful, for all of them. I keep telling them that I’m going to get my two boy’s faces tattooed on my butt cheeks. I’m kidding, by the way.

But it’s hard for me to enter into their world, to understand them. Sometimes I must admit that I’m scandalized by their seeming lack of discernment, by the way they joke about gender in a way that seems almost sacrilegious to me, how they are aware of the latest trend, last night’s incredible dunk by Lebron James, the latest meme on Snapchat. The music that they like has no melody, no harmony, not even a recognizable rhythm, in my humble opinion. It’s hard to listen to!

Understanding the youth of today is difficult, because culture has moved, and continues to move, light years away from what I grew up with, and technology is driving change faster than ever. My generations struggled, both in the church and without, with understanding homosexuality, but no one argued that there were more than 2 sexes. Today…26+ and counting. For porn, one had to venture into a local newspaper store, or into a public movie theater. Now, a simple Google search will suffice. Racism was certainly present, but I was blissfully unaware of it. Drugs, prescription and otherwise, were invisible.  I did not have access to a whole world of information in the palm of my hand. I did not maintain daily Snapchat “streaks” with multiple friends.  Addiction was relatively rare. How times have changed.

I certainly do not intend to justify the multiple sins of this generation, different as they may be from the multiple sins of my generation, the bitter GenXers (haha). I hope and pray that my kids can maneuver their way through their late teens and early twenties, such a difficult task. I am encouraged when I see evidence of their faith, and strong convictions.  One thing I do know…all three of them are leaders, in their different spheres of influence. If any young person has the tools to figure out culture, both Mexican/American and godly/demonic, they do.

As parents, ministers and missionaries, we do not do the younger generation any favors by ignoring their challenges, or relegating the decisions of our youth to immaturity.  I hope that I can begin to understand. I think the younger generation needs more people who are intentional in bridging the enormous generational gap. We need each other, after all. Something about being part of the same body, part of the same family.




3 thoughts on “Understanding Young People–A Cultural Divide”

  1. Hi Rod,
    What a great looking family! Your kiddos are all grown up and good-looking.

    I’ve been doing a lot of work with cultural mindfulness workshops–especially centered around the honor-shame and innocence-guilt value systems. When I have given the workshops to a younger crowd, I’ve always gotten the sense that I’m talking about their parents’ values and culture. Their own values are so different. So lately I’ve been doing some research and thinking about the global cultural upheaval that is going on, particularly with the younger generations.

    A book I read recently that was pretty helpful is called Global Youth Culture, by Luke Greenwood. You might enjoy it.

  2. Wow!
    Very insightful, Rod. Your heart for God and people . .. . the people in the generations behind us . . .shines though.

    Thanks for sharing this.

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