A few years ago, my wife and I had the privilege of visiting her sister’s family on a mountain ledge in Papua New Guinea, where they live and serve the Pal tribe. As missionaries with Ethnos360 (formerly New Tribes Missions), they live deep in the jungle, 30 minutes by helicopter or a three-day hike. Living in this new environment was a huge culture shock for us. We were not used to the food, the clothing (or lack thereof!), the homes, the animal and plant life, the daily rhythms of the people, and the tools they used. The differences in culture were overwhelming, yet we loved my sister-in-law and her family so much, we wanted to support them in their work and see the people they were serving first hand.
Over the course of our visit, God began to grow in us a fresh love for the Pal people and the unique challenges they face. We celebrated the birth of a new baby in a nearby village, while also mourning the loss of someone’s farm that got destroyed in a mudslide. We saw the inauguration of a language school to help with literacy and saw the daily challenges of tribal life.
In many ways, God gave us eyes to see this culture as similar to our own—full of people in families with hurts, hopes, dreams, fears, and loves. The cultural aspects that we weren’t used to became less noticeable as we grew in our love for the Pal people and started to catch a glimpse of God’s heart for these people, made in His image.
Crossing cultures is hard work, but necessary for Gospel advance and Gospel transformation. Every tribe, tongue, and language need to hear the good news, but the good news must also take root in those bearing the message. In God’s sovereignty we see missional ministry wonderfully sanctifying those involved as they humble themselves before another culture and follow Jesus’ own incarnational example (Philippians 2:1-11).
As I work with parents and adults who love students and are trying to minister and disciple them in today’s world, I see a number of parallels to the cross-cultural work of global, tribal missions.
Adults today often have a hard time understanding youth culture. Moreover, recent factors from the Internet to the ubiquitous smart phone have helped create a global youth culture phenomenon that reinforces this “strange new culture.”
According to Ben Pierce, the globalized youth culture is
defined as “Those between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five and can be
found in every major city. They represent more than one billion people, and,
despite being spread out all over the world, they are more connected than ever.
They generally dress the same, watch the same movies, and listen to the same
music, and, as a result, they look and act alike.”
Ben Pierce goes on to explain why the global youth culture have a shared sense of identity from several unifying factors. For example, they are connected through the Internet with an unprecedented access to entertainment, information, and social media. They are socially isolated, often from the ironic reality of being constantly connected electronically, without developing the natural skill of translating that connection in the physical, social world. They are obsessed with fame and popularity as they are being shaped by their daily, digital appetites to see value attached to certain actions of the famous, beautiful, and “happy.”
They are sexually broken from constant exposure to a pornographic culture and growing up believing “sex is meaningless, gender a personal choice, and monogamy a joke.” They are confused about reality without the morals and framework of biblical categories for ethics, human value, and God-given meaning. And they are consumers, who often treat people like products because their consumption has moved from a hobby or lifestyle to a religion.
In many ways, this growing global youth culture seems very different to what many older people in the church are used to. As a church who loves students and wants to embody Jesus in how we love, live, and serve, we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us!
Two examples that come to mind are learning to understand the tools of the culture and pushing against the culture in strategic ways. First, regarding tools, I was terrified when I first arrived in Papua New Guinea with my wife and every male I saw was holding a foot-long machete. I came to learn how important these tools were for everything from farming to traveling throughout the jungle terrain. After a week in the tribe, I began seeing this tool as more than a weapon, but helpful on many levels.
In the same way, we need to think about more than just the dangers of smartphones and being digitally connected, to see ways of harnessing these tools for discipleship and ministry advance. We need to think theologically about how these phones are not only shaping students, but also shaping us. A resource I highly recommend is Tony Reinke’s book, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You.
Secondly, we need to push against the culture in strategic ways. Introducing literacy to the Pal tribe was an important push against their oral-only culture because it enables them to read, write, and study God’s precious Word. They have been coming to faith by the written truths in Scripture and are learning to teach others to read and study God’s word and establish a church with indigenous, literate leaders. Even though the work is slow and uphill, missionaries see the long-play of building a healthy, bible-studying, literate church.
In a similar way, we need to find ways as a church to push
against the diminishing effects occurring from the technology of the global
youth culture. We need to address the inability to concentrate and a loss of
literacy among our young people who are being formed by their digital habits.
Ethicist Oliver O-Donovan describes how the digital age hurries us and shatters our concentration into a million little pieces making the greatest challenge to literacy our short attention spans: “Caught now by one little explosion of surprise, now by another. Knowledge is never actually given to us in that form. It has to be searched for and pursued, as the marvelous poems on Wisdom at the beginning of Proverbs tell us.”
We need to help young people recover an ability to have sustained reading of God’s Word, “as a deer pants for flowing streams” (Psalm 42:1). This happens in personal Bible reading but also in corporate worship. Unless we drink from God’s Word and spend regular, formative time beholding his glory through the written and preached Word, how will we be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18)?
There are so many factors stacked against having today’s global youth culture sit for regular, extended times in weekly worship services. And yet, God equips us all with the same faculties that should be exercised for what is not only best for us, but will ultimately provide us the deepest joy.
Tony Reinke explains, “God has given us the power of concentration in order for us to see and avoid what is false, fake, and transient— so that we may gaze directly at what is true, stable, and eternal. It is part of our creatureliness that we are easily distracted; it is part of our sinfulness that we are easily lured by what is vain and trivial. Our joy in God is at stake. In our vanity, we feed on digital junk food, and our palates are reprogrammed and our affections atrophy.”
God is inviting all of us towards deeper humility, wisdom, and passion as we incarnationally engage the global youth culture. May we learn to be more effective cross-cultural workers who love, live, and serve the global youth culture like Jesus.
For those ready to take the next step, we have a tremendous
opportunity this week to hear from a national expert on the global youth
culture who will be speaking at Friendship Church on November 10. David Pierce
is the founder of Steiger International, a worldwide mission organization that
is called to reach and disciple the Global Youth Culture for Jesus.
Steiger raises up missionaries and equips the local church to proclaim the message of Jesus in the language of the Global Youth Culture and establishes long-term presence in cities through ongoing outreach, discipleship and local church partnership. Come learn with us how to be gospel-focused, cross-cultural lovers of today’s youth.
 Ben Pierce, Jesus in the Secular World: Reaching a Culture in Crisis, 23.
 Ben Pierce, Jesus in the Secular World: Reaching a Culture in Crisis, 30.
 Ben Pierce, Jesus in the Secular World: Reaching a Culture in Crisis, 23-34.
 Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, 85.
 Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, 86.Topics: Generations, Technology, youth