1. Understanding Culture
2. Understanding Cross-Culturally Ministry
3. Understanding Youth Culture
1. Understanding Culture
Philip Bock and Edward Hall speak of culture as that which what makes you a stranger when you are away from home. It includes all those beliefs and expectations about how people act which have become a kind of second nature to you as a result of social learning. When you are with members of a group who share your culture, you do not have to think about it, for you are viewing the world in pretty much the same way and you all know, in general terms what to expect of one another. However, direct exposure to an alien society usually produces a disturbing feeling of disorientation and helplessness that is called culture shock. Culture determines the timing of interpersonal events, the places where it is appropriate discuss particular topics, even the physical distance separating the speaker from the hearer, and the tone of voice that is appropriate.
Wendy Griswold, in Cultures and Societies in a Changing World, presents a cultural diamond - to suggest that culture has four dimensions: Cultural Objects; Creators; Receptors and Context. All cultural objects have creators; all cultural objects have people who receive them; all objects, creators and receivers are anchored in a specific context or social world.
Paul G. Hiebert, in Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, Baker, 1985, suggests a definition of culture: "Culture is the more or less integrated system of ideas, feelings, and values and their associated patterns of behaviour and products shared by a group of people who organise and regulate what they think, feel and do."
A. Dimensions of Culture
The definition shows that culture relates to "ideas, feelings and values." These three dimension are involved in culture. (1) Cognitive - this refers to the knowledge shared by members of a group or society. Without shared knowledge, communication and community life are impossible. Knowledge provides the conceptual content of a culture. It also tells people what exists and what does not. Cultural knowledge also includes the assumptions and beliefs we make about reality, the nature of the world and how it works. Because our culture provides us with the fundamental ingredients of our thoughts, we find it almost impossible to break away from its grasp. Even our language reflects and reinforces our cultural way of thinking. Also, culture's influence is implicit: we are not even aware of it. Culture affects the way we perceive our world without our being conscious of its influence. (2) Affective - culture also has to do with the feelings people have - with their attitudes, notions of beauty, tastes in food and dress, likes and dislikes, and ways of enjoying themselves or experiencing sorrow. Cultures vary greatly in how they deal with the emotional side of life. This dimension of culture is reflected in many areas of life: standards of beauty, tastes in clothing, food, houses, furniture, cars, and other cultural products. A culture where everything is only functional would be drab and uniform. Feelings find particular outlet in "expressive culture" - in art, literature, music, dance and drama. (3) Evaluative - each culture has values by which it judges human relationships to be moral or immoral. It ranks some occupations higher or lower than others; some ways of eating proper and others unacceptable. Each culture has its own moral code and its own culturally defined sins. It judges some acts to be righteous and others to be immoral. Each culture has its own highest values and primary allegiances, each its own culturally defined goals. one pressures people to make economic success their highest goal; another assigns top priorities to honour and fame, political power, the good will of the ancestors, or the favour of God.
B. Manifestation of Culture
Another part of the definition involves "behaviour and products." These are the manifestations of our culture that we can see, hear or experience through our senses. (1) Behaviour - people are taught how to behave by their culture. While this is the case for formal behaviour, everyday life is usually less formal and the individual is allowed to choose from a range of permissible behaviour. These choices suit the occasion and our personalities, as well as our decisions of the moment. In a sense our culture encompasses the set of rules governing the games of life we and other members of society play. We often try to "bend the rules" a little and get away with it. If we are caught we are punished, if we are not, we gain some advantage or sense of achievement. All cultures have ways to reinforce their rules, such as gossip, ostracism and force. (2) Products - culture also includes material products - houses, cars, computers, carts, etc. People live in nature and have to adapt to it, or mould and use it for their own purposes. In tribal societies people live in an environment largely moulded by nature, but in Industrial societies most of the environment is culturally moulded. By looking at human behaviour and material objects we are easily able to study a culture.
C. Symbols of Culture
A third part of the definition is the word associated. Human behaviour and products are not independent parts of a culture; they are closely linked to the ideas, feelings and values that lie within its people. This association of a specific meaning, emotion or value with a certain behaviour or cultural product is called a symbol. Culture is made up of many sets of symbols, ie. speech, writing, traffic signs, stamps, sirens, bells and smells. Even dress conveys feelings and values. These symbols acquire meaning within the specific culture in which they are used, and they also may have a number of different but related meanings. Ie. "It is a red house" (colour); "I saw red" (emotions of anger) or "The stoplight was red" (command to stop). Finally, for symbols to be a part of a culture, they must be shared by a human community. We may use symbols to communicate with ourselves, but they become culture only when a group of people associate the same meanings with specific forms. It is the shared nature of cultural symbols that makes human communication possible.
D. Patterns of Culture
The definition says that symbols are used in specific ways - the association of a specific symbol with a particular use or context is called a cultural trait (ie. we use forks when we eat most foods). Groups of these traits are linked to one another in larger patterns sometimes called cultural complexes (ie. when we eat a fork is used with a spoon, knife, table, chair, linen, etc.). Some behaviour is not patterned: like accidents (not prescribed by culture) or personal behaviour (having no significance in society). Cultural traits and complexes have meaning for the members of a given society. Some traits are limited to a single person in society (the kings wears a crown); many traits are practised by specific groups of people within a society (ie. cricketers; missionaries; men/women all have unique patterns of cultural behaviour) and some traits are practised by most or all the people in a society (ie. all wear clothes in public). These traits and complexes are organised around systems of belief. In complex societies it is hard to speak of a single culture. While some beliefs and practises may be accepted by all, there are significant differences as well. In such societies we speak of "cultural frames" which are social settings that have their own subcultures - its own beliefs, rules for behaviour, material products, symbols, structures and settings. In modern cities there are many such frames and the differences between them are great. Religious, social, political, educational, economic, aesthetic, and recreational institutions form their own subcultures. The diversity of cultural frames in modern societies reflects their growing complexity and the increasing specialisation of their institutions.
E. Integration of Culture
Cultures are held together not only by economic, social and political organisations, but also by fundamental beliefs and values shared by the people. Much of the knowledge of a culture is explicit, ie. there are members of the culture who can tell us about it. But behind such knowledge are basic assumptions about the nature of things which are largely implicit. Like foundations, they hold up the culture, although they remain largely out of sight. Those who challenge these assumptions are considered crazy, heretical or criminal - for if these underpinnings are shaken, the stability of the whole structure is threatened. The definition speaks of culture as a "more or less integrated system of ideas..." because cultures and cultural frames are never fully integrated. Humans are creatures of curiosity and explore different areas of the world around them. They then formulate competing theories and beliefs, which are never fully consistent. There are often gaps and internal contradictions in these theories, just as there are in their behaviour. Also, cultural integration is incomplete because groups or individuals within the same society often hold different theories. The common world view (the basic assumptions about reality which lie behind beliefs and behaviour of a culture) of a culture adds stability to the culture, and a resistance to change. But, internal contradictions in the culture may lead to changes in world view. It is clear that integration is limited by the fact that all cultures are constantly changing, some rapidly, and some more slowly. New traits are added and old ones are dropped.
F. Commonality of Culture
A culture is "shared by a group of people." Humans are social creatures and depend on one another for survival and meaningful existence. All human relationships require a large measure of shared understandings between people. They need a common language, a shared set of expectations of one another, and some consensus of beliefs for communication to take place. In other words, people need to share in a common culture. The more they have in common the greater are the possibilities for interrelating. A society is a group of people who relate to one another in orderly ways in different settings. The basic order that underlies these relationships is called a social organisation or structure. A social structure is how people actually relate to one another. This is linked to, but different from, their culture, which encompasses their beliefs about relationships.
2. Understanding Cross-Cultural Ministry
One of the questions to answer is: Must ministry be cross-cultural? Phillip Donnell in Youth Ministry in Black and White says that all youth ministry must be cross-culture. He finds support for this view in the ministry of Jesus. (1) The Woman at the Well (John 4:3-30) - Jesus intentionally established contact with this woman even though she was from a different culture - in fact a culture that he, as a Jew, should not have had any contact or dealings with, namely the Samaritans. (2) The Roman Centurion and Samaritan Leper (Luke 7:1-10, 11-19) - Jesus gave a public affirmation of other cultures here as he praised the Roman Centurion and the Samaritan leper who returned to thank him. (3) The Cross-Cultural Commission (Matthew 28:19) - Jesus’ great commission includes a clear commission to reach across culture groups so that the whole world can hear the message of salvation in Christ. (4) Jesus’ Vision for the Church (John 17:20-23) - his vision was that there would be unity within the church.
How can we go about ensuring that our ministry is cross-cultural or at least culturally-inclusive?
A. Help Youth With Moving Between Cultures
When individuals, youth leaders or young people, or youth groups minister cross-culturally, they will experience the following process during the various stages depending on their adaptability: A person grows up looking very much like the cultural background in which they were raised. If their cultural background is “square,” they turn out to be square. If it is “round,” they are round. When they leave the safety of their own culture and enter another, they do not leave their cultural baggage behind. They take it with them, and they may feel like a square peg in a round hole. but they can adjust; they can fit in. They can adapt to the new culture. They can make the transition effectively and gradually identify more and more with the people from the new culture. But it only happens as they are willing to adapt. Those who won’t make the necessary adaptions simply do not fit in to the new culture. Youth leaders are not a unique species, who are immune to the influence of their culture. They too have to undergo the process of adaptation that makes cross-cultural ministry possible. In fact, any cross-cultural ministry experience with young people will follow this process.
B. Building a Culture-Friendly Youth Group
Group Magazine, April/May 1992, quoted Gordon Aeschliman’s book, Global Trends: Ten Changes Affecting Christians Everywhere: “The world is shrinking faster and faster. What used to be unfamiliar, distant faces seen by North Americans only in National Geographic and on public television specials are now the faces of our grocer, tax consultant, mechanic, and neighbour. All the world now lives next door.” It is already a reality, that in a youth group, the world is represented. As the world becomes a global village more cultures will be represented within youth groups. How will leaders respond to this challenge, especially in a society that has a history of successfully creating homogeneous groups of people? While many may have difficulty keeping up with youth trends in their own society or culture group, they are going to have to develop skills to keep up with a diversity of culture groups. The challenge for a leader is to create a group that is culture-friendly, or a ministry that is culturally inclusive, rather than culturally exclusive.
In order to produce a group that is culturally-friendly, a leader should incorporate the following principles: (1) Learn from Cross-Cultural Youth - As leaders genuinely interact with young people from other cultures they will learn how to relate and appreciate their diversity. They should enquire about family and home life, hobbies and customs. Research into the background of the person’s culture will also help this process along. (2) Be Sensitive to Cultural Differences - The word ‘different’ does not mean ‘wrong.’ For example, one culture values punctuality and another does not. A youth leader will get frustrated if they do not appreciate the difference between these two mind-sets. The key is: be slow to judge! Seek first to understand and then to be understood. Watch out for behaviours that are acceptable in one culture, and taboo in another, such as dating. Avoid pushing youth into doing things that they feel uncomfortable with. (3) Challenge Prejudice in the Group - Some of our casual assumptions about other cultures are wrong. Not all Africans live near a jungle, not everyone from Central America is a drug smuggler, not every Arab is a terrorist, etc. These destructive, offensive stereotypes prevent healthy communication. Leaders should watch out for them in the group, even when they are expressed in humour. (4) Plan Culturally Sensitive Programmes - Programmes and activities are often planned with the assumption that everyone shares similar experiences. But the language or the humour may not be understood or appreciated by all. (5) Look for Unusual Ways to Celebrate - Find out about unusual celebrations in the different cultures and celebrate them. Youth will enjoy the opportunity to get to know customs of other cultures.
C. Ministering to People of Different Cultures
In order to understand Christianity, there is no better experience that cross-cultural ministry. Working with the poor or the oppressed gives believers what sociologists call an alteration of consciousness, a kind of second conversion. By working with the poor, youth leaders and young people can enter a radically new and spiritually powerful understanding of what of what it means to be a Christian, an understanding that transcends the social and recreational limitations that masquerade as Christianity. Mother Theresa speaks of seeing Jesus in the eyes of Calcutta’s dying, and said that it was a privilege to work among the poor. When Jesus comes to us through suffering or impoverished people, we experience Him in a unique way, and are changed profoundly. It leads to repentance for a passive or active involvement in the oppression of the poor. It leads to a new outlook on possessions and the tendency to hang on to materialism as a way of life, as it generates repentance for a Christian, affluent lifestyle. It challenges believers to live a lifestyle that is radically obedient to the Lord - which means that at times one may have to act counter-culturally to a church or national tradition. It means that Christianity becomes socially dangerous.
Practical Guidelines for Ministry Across Cultures: (1) Be informed about the community, its people’s history and culture. (2) Be yourself by being real without putting on qualities that are not you. (3) Be flexible, ready to adapt, modify or change. (4) Be sensitive as you observe other people’s feelings and ideas - do not violate cultural customs. (5) Emphasise the universality of Christ’s atonement. (6) Learn the value system of the other culture - know what is important to them and why it is. (7) Contextualise the message by using concepts that are familiar in their culture. (8) Communicate according to their thought patterns.
Practical Suggestion for Cross-Cultural Ministry Experiences: (1) Develop a personal friendship with someone from a different culture. (2) Invite speakers from a different culture to address the youth Group. (3) Expose young people by linking up with a youth group from a different culture. (4) Plan and run a holiday mission in a poor community. (5) Invite different culture groups to attend a youth group camp or other event.
The commitment level model is not to be identified with a specific culture. Even though it may have originated in the West, it is a model that is designed to be adapted and contextualised into each local church context. There does not appear to be any reason to think that it will not “work” in a village in Africa, in a town in Asia, or in a city in Europe. As long as the youth worker is involved in adapting the discipleship strategy inherent in the philosophy behind the model they should be able to do the work that is needed within the local context to see it work effectively. This is why there are no programmes that are attached to the different events. Although at times curriculum books are recommended, these would be chosen with the local context in mind. As the global village becomes more and more of a reality in the world through the extension of media and travel, the differences between different contexts will become less and less.
3. Understanding Youth Culture
The primary target of youth ministry is obviously youth, so it is important to explore the creation of a youth culture within the larger culture and identify the characteristic features of youth culture.
A. The Formation of Youth Culture
In terms of the creation of youth culture there are two views: (1) Youth culture is created by the media - youth today are manipulated by an industry that markets music, fashion and images to the. It is these adults who give youth the means to be different. (2) Youth culture is created by young people - youth use the media to create meaning for themselves as they use the symbols offered by the media - ie. hairstyles, clothing or language - to create their own particular style. Both views have a point. While youth are affected by the media as they construct their own style, they are still involved in the decision making process.
Pete Ward in Youthwork And How To Do It, explores three sociological theories about young people. (1) Youth culture is only natural. Young people go through a process of socialisation before they are considered to be adult - which involves knowing how to behaving, holding certain values and keeping moral rules. As youth journey from childhood to adulthood they band together for support in groups which are half way houses between the world of being a child and the world of being an adult. Here they help each other by providing a context to share advice and knowledge. (2) Youth subculture is a question of class. This view says there is really no such thing as ‘youth culture’, but there are a large number of different youth subcultures. These subcultures act as places where youth create cultural space for themselves over and against the dominant middle-class culture. From this perspective youth subcultures are a set of rituals designed to reflect the stresses experienced by working-class youth in modern society. (3) Youth subcultures are about shock tactics - in this view youth create subcultures to shock - through the choice of the things they wear.
B. The Characteristics of Youth Culture
A clearer understanding of youth culture can be seen in identifying the key characteristics of contemporary youth culture:
(1) Youth create their own cultures and sub-cultures by the choices they make when they go shopping. These are choices based on their identities.
(2) Youth are involved in the evolution of their culture because much of what they create is new: fashion, music, graphic design, codes of behaviour, etc.
(3) Youth cultures are constructed from a whole series of choices about styles of behaviour, language and fashion. Contrasting elements are used in combination - they have significance and are symbolic.
(4) Youth culture is a patchwork of different individuals who identify strongly with each other and create groups. They dress alike, listen to the same kind of music, share common hopes and dreams and in some cases have a common name, such a metallers or punks.
(5) Youth bonding in groups is also a survival mechanism - a way of sorting out their common problems.
(6) Youth culture is based on informal networks (“proto-communities”) - a sense of togetherness is formed around informal and transitory popular symbols and events which have a power to create values and attitudes. Youth may belong to a few proto-communities at the same time (sports club, community projects, etc.) and move easily between them, each time participating in different a way of looking at the world.
(7) Youth socialise in an informal way. Wherever they gather (ie. at clubs, parties or in malls) they are free to chat, go out for air, eat, sit in small groups, lean on or even sit on each other. If they discuss they often all speak at the same time.
(8) Youth communicate constantly in the small groups that they form. They review events in their home to school lives.
(9) Youth Culture is characterised by informal expressions and ways of speaking.
(10) Youth culture is extremely creative and is always changing. Youth creatively interact with the media and fashion industry. Youth culture is both an escape from the world and a dialogue with that society. Teenage style creates safe group identities in which youth feel that they belong. Their behaviour and style is often a reaction to issues in society, ie. unemployment, poverty, homelessness, education, violence or prejudice.
(11) Youth culture is very creative in its use of the visual arts. Young people are primarily “visually literate” and in tune with pictures and images. They are the front runners in the world of graphic design.
(12) Youth culture is based on experience more than intellectual considerations. It is based on a collection of different kinds of experiences. Youth are interested in what feels good and they go to great lengths to achieve what is often a short-lived and shallow experience.
(13) Youth culture plays with symbols in a search for meaning and identity.
(14) Youth reject leadership which is officially sanctioned or appointed unless respect is earned. They make an informal response to those to wish to guide and lead them.
(15) Youth culture is built around music. Music is very close to a young person’s heart.
(16) Youth culture is closely related to dance - feelings can be danced out, youth are caught up in the experience of music in a unique way as they dance.
(17) Youth culture is a way of making sense of life. Youth need someone to come into their world and understand them and their music. They need someone who will understand why they seem to enjoy shocking adults, why they tend to run away from the love they need so much, and why they look hostile when they are really open to love.
C. The Characteristics of Youth Communication
The following features of youth communication are suggested in the book: Called to Care: (1) Emotive - It is raw, gutsy, aggressive, emotional, and loud. It communicates imprecisely what the person feels. (2) Earthy - It is not abstract or subtle. It is concerned with the here and now and will express itself in uncensored form. Polite euphemisms are not substituted for the inelegant, often pungent, observation. (3) Hyperbolic - Deliberate exaggeration is used for effect. (4) Informal - It is casual, careless about correct grammar, and not intended to be taken with total seriousness. An assertion may be tentatively offered but quickly withdrawn, as if to say “don't hold me to it”. (5) Abbreviated - It delivers chopped, terse expressions with an economy of syllables. A teenager makes points quickly without wasting words. (6) Coded - It is purposely obscured to exclude unwanted adults and other aliens; if a term is co-opted by outsiders, it will be dropped from their lexicon. (7) Profane - Disrespectful phrasing and obscene expletives make for a kind of verbal swagger, warning away the squeamish. (8) Trendy - The latest fad contributes its own coinages to the vocabulary. Adaptations of the “in” words can result in unconventional syntax.
D. Learning about Youth Culture
If youth leaders want to find out more about youth culture in their own area they should find answers to the following questions: (1) What are the major land mark events in their lives? (2) What are their weekly life-changing experiences? (3) What are the places where youth spend their free time? (4) What are the dynamics of their family relationships? (5) What are the major forms of electronic media? (6) What are the cultural forces shaping their lives? (7) What methods of communication do their use? (8) What is the dominant form of religion in your nation? (9) Who are the heroes of young people? (10) What are the dreams of young people?
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