We need to lead the next generation in developing a more robust view of the gospel. The gospel speaks to every single area of life and has something to say to every area of culture. This is true because Jesus is Lord of all. As student ministry leaders, if we are to begin to affect that kind of change within our students’ lives, the consistent work of contextualization will be key. Our work in this area is never finished because culture continues to adapt and change. So, how do we embrace this work in a way that will help our students begin to view all of life through the lens of God’s Word and its gospel? Here are some insights I gained from my time in seminary that continue to inform my own life and ministry.
The Gospel Both Affirms & Critiques Every Culture
We must seek balance in the way we employ the gospel to dialog with the culture. This means we must embrace the truth that the gospel both affirms and critiques every culture and every area of culture. The gospel affirms some things in every culture simply because all culture is derived from God’s good creation. For instance, we can affirm something in even the most vial musician/lyricist, if only to point out that the creativity with which he creates art can be traced back to the fact that he bears the image of God in his creativity. Because of this, we must be careful not to just rail against certain aspects of our culture to our students. We must not deem specific areas of our culture to be completely evil, as well.
Every cultural context is structurally good because all culture is created out of God’s good creation. Instead, the problem with culture is that most of the time, because of sin, it is directionally bad, or corrupt because of sin. God gave the mandate to create culture to humanity prior to the Fall (Gen 1:28, 2:15). The post-Fall problem we have is not with the creation of culture itself, but rather the creation of culture that does not properly image God or return worship to him. Consequently, this is how the gospel necessarily critiques all culture. It critiques the sinful, perverted and self-glorifying direction of the culture created.
What Happens when we have Imbalance: Two Illustrations
When we choose to cast certain areas of culture negatively without offering balance to the discussion, we fail on a couple of fronts. First, we fail to speak to the real issue, which is the negative direction. At the root, culture has a worship problem. We must help students understand who God has created them, and redeemed them, to be: worshippers. We can’t help students become worshippers by simply harping on culture and telling them to stop participating in it. A good illustration for this is sex. We can all agree just how woeful and twisted the idea of sex has become in much of our culture. We should and must exhort our students in this area. But if we fail to first affirm sex as a good creation by God that has been created within his order and ordained as a way for two people who have become one flesh to worship God, then students simply hear the idea that “Sex is bad.” Students never really develop a proper sexual theology or ethic, and the surrounding culture further marginalizes the church and its voice.
Second, we stand the chance of allowing our preferences to trump the gospel. A good illustration for this is music. I continue to hear Christian voices (and even some student ministry leaders) deem certain genres and styles of music as evil or bad. This is especially true of rap or hip-hop music today. But I am thankful that some who are solid believers and also very gifted in creating this type of music have begun to challenge this notion by allowing the gospel to redeem the direction of that genre of music. They are proving that God can be glorified and Christians can express worship through all styles of music. At the end of the day, our desire should be for our students to be shaped by the gospel, not our personal preferences.
The Gospel Must Have a Seat at Every Cultural Conversation
We cannot spend our precious little time with students attacking culture while ineffectively commanding them how they should view certain aspects of it. In my 13 years of experience this does not aid students in attaining the ability to think biblically about life. All too often this instead usually pushes students away and raises their curiosity to explore the very things they are being told not to do. Students do not respond well to being pressed into a mold, nor should they. Instead, students must hear that we are including them in the most important discussions we can have, and at the same time learn how to use such tools of discernment for themselves. When we fail to take the time in facilitating those types of conversations, we stand the chance of sending either dogmatic, religious bigots or shallow, ineffective “Christianettes” into a world that desperately needs to see what robust faith looks like. We should adopt the challenge of seeing a new generation of students who are driven by the question, “What does the Bible say?” while confidently and winsomely offering a biblical voice to every conversation that arises.
A Tangible Example: Using Music as a Tool
Music has always held a central place of focus within culture. This is especially true with students today. I halfway joke sometimes that our students are bilingual, with music being their second language. I sometimes struggle to decide whether a student’s Social Media status update includes that student’s actual thoughts or a lyric from the latest song they have adopted as their life’s mantra. If it is true that music holds such a central place within the lives of our students, why not utilize it as an incredible tool for contextualizing the gospel? Here is one tool you can use. Take the lyrics of a current popular song (I like to actually survey students anonymously for their current favorites) and evaluate them with your students using the following 3 questions:
- What do these lyrics suggest about the worldview of the artist? Using this question, we can seek to identify certain philosophical beliefs about various areas of life.
- What does the gospel have to say to these views? Now we begin to allow the Scriptures and the gospel to critique the direction of the artistic expression we are evaluating. Here we begin to ask the question, “What does the Bible say?”
- Are their any ideas in these lyrics that seek to “take us captive” and are “not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8)? This question exists as the main focus of this exercise. We want to teach our students just how cunning our enemy is in attacking us. We want to expose the sinful undertones of his deceptive lies. He desires to take our minds and hearts captive, usually through our emotions, in order to destroy us (John 10:10a). What lies are being proposed to us and how can they negatively affect our lives were we to buy into them?
Go ahead and give this a shot! Take a popular song and begin to evaluate it for yourself. I would suggest doing this several times before you include some students. After some work on your own, use it in a small group setting or in your large group! This is a great tool to offer your small group leaders, too. Have you developed or utilized any tools that help students grow in their ability to converse with the culture through the lens of the gospel? I would love to hear about them in the comments section below!
 Much of what I discuss here finds its foundations in some of the things discussed and taught in a class at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary called Introduction to Theology and Culture, led by Dr. Bruce Ashford.
 For more on this idea, check out Dr. Ashford’s recent book, Every Square Inch: An Introduction to Cultural Engagement for Christians, (Lexham Press, 2015).