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Youth Culture Update: Developing a Theology of Pop Culture

  • Steve Rabey Editor, YouthWorker Journal, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Email:
  • Updated Jul 28, 2011
Youth Culture Update: Developing a Theology of Pop Culture

This article originally appeared in print journal March/April 2002.About once a year, the folks at Fuller Theological Seminary take temporary leave of their senses and ask me to teach a class called "A Christian Perspective on Popular Culture" at the school's branch in Colorado Springs.

The first day of class is always exciting. I particularly enjoy getting to meet new students and asking them to talk about who they are and what they do. The diversity of backgrounds, interests and callings is never less than amazing.

Early on, I ask everyone to describe to the class, in a sentence or two, their theology of pop culture. At that instant, a number of faces typically grow blank. I can imagine the furious mental processing that's going on behind the opaque facades.

"OK," they're thinking, "I know there's a theology of the Holy Spirit, and even a theology of ministry; but a theology of pop culture? I don't know."

At times, I think I can detect a tear coming out of the eyes of some of the other students. They thought the course might provide a brief respite from serious reflection and instead devote all our class time to sitting around watching movies and listening to rock music. These folks wanted a course that would be the seminary equivalent of a P.E. class.

"NO!" I shout, waving my arms in the air (I would rap people on the knuckles with my wooden ruler, but Fuller doesn't allow that.) "This will not be a walk in the park like all those other lightweight Fuller classes—like hermeneutics, systematic theology, and Greek!"

In time, everyone recovers from my outburst, and their thoughts start pouring out.

In the Beginning
"I'm here to develop a theology of pop culture," said Courtney, a Young Life staffer who works in the parallel universe known as Aspen, Colorado. "I'm not real engaged in pop culture, but I'd like to use it as a tool in ministry."

Her husband, James, agreed. "I would like to use pop culture to point the way to Christ."

Sue, a youth minister from Garden City, Kan., said, "Popular culture is a barometer of society as a whole, and we need to understand it if we want to get at what's going on in the world."

Dan, a Young Life staffer from Pueblo, Colo., hoped the class would help further his mission of using music as a bridge to reach out to young people whose lives rarely intersect with the church. "Kids are really searching for spiritual stuff, but they see the church as not relevant to their lives. Many in the church see culture as sinful, but I'd like to see the coming together of these two."

Todd, a youth pastor from Houston, said, "We live in pop culture every day, so we should have a biblical, theological foundation for that, as for every part of our lives."

Rich, a veteran youth worker from Sugar Hill, Ga., boldly proclaimed, "The culture has influenced the church more than the church has influenced the culture—and I'm not sure this is a bad thing."

Melanie, meanwhile, had left what she described as the insulated bubble of the parachurch/youth ministry culture to work in a restaurant where she rubs elbows with spiritual seekers on a regular basis. "Culture is a way to discern God's beauty and mystery and how people perceive God," she said. "Pop culture helps me enter into where the people are. It breaks down barriers."

In the Middle
Over the next few days, we spent more than 30 hours reading books such as Francis Schaeffer's little Art and the Bible, Neil Gabler's provocative Life the Movie, and Richard Niebuhr's classic Christ and Culture (which argues that there's never really been one single Christian approach toward popular culture, but rather, Christians have historically responded to the world around them in five typical patterns).

We conducted a number of field studies into what my friend, Glenn Paauw, calls "spiritual archaeology." We listened to popular songs, searching for any possible signs of spiritual life. We discussed whether or not films like "The Sixth Sense" were performing a religious function in movie-goers' lives. And we scoured our Bibles for any clues to help us make sense of everything we were thinking.

Some of the passages we examined only seemed to confuse matters. "Do not love the world or the things in the world" commands the author of 1 John 2:15. "The love of the Father is not in those who love the world." But what do we do, then, with John 3:16, the verse that has anchored a million evangelistic sermons: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."

We could've spent months debating the ministry applications of three separate passages on the issues of meat offered to idols (Acts 15 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10). Equally intriguing is Paul's appropriation of pop culture artifacts in Acts 17. His sermon to the Athenians at Mars Hill compliments them for their religiosity—even though it's far from Christian—and he quotes both a popular poet and the inscription found on a statue to a pagan god.

In the End
At the end of the week, I made a depressing announcement. "Students, by the mere fact that you've taken this class, read the assigned books, and explored these issues for 30-plus hours, you're now members of an elite group. You've probably given more serious attention to pop culture than 98% of the Christians living in America today."

Then, after a brief, mandatory period during which we all wept and gnashed our teeth, I again invited the students to describe to the class, in a sentence or two, their theology of pop culture.

"I'm still very much in a learning process," said Todd. "I'm trying to answer this question with my own youth group: How does a Christian student live in the world but not be of the world?"

James was equally indecisive. "I'm in the middle of wrestling over how much I really want to dive in and engage with the culture."
Courtney was giving fresh thought to the implications of Christ's incarnation. "I'm thankful that Christ came to us, and I want to have that same incarnational experience with my kids."

Sue was wondering about how to balance the seemingly conflicting demands of incarnational ministry and holiness. "How do we discern and engage without being caught up in the world?" she asked. "It seems that the more we're exposed to things, the more desensitized we are into accepting everything as normal and okay. But at the same time, Christians have been so disengaged from popular culture, and that disengagement has created a spiritual vacuum that had to be filled with something else."

Dan was growing increasingly impatient with believers who divide the world into two distinct segments: the evil, secular world and the safer, Christian subculture. "My struggle is to think of the whole world as God's world."

Melanie said the main reason Christians retreat into a comfortable world of parochial music and books is fear. "God doesn't call us to be afraid of anything, but to be discerning and listen and have more compassion for the lost."

Rich concluded our discussion  by clarifying an important point. "When Jesus talked with prostitutes, he didn't have sex with them."

On that note, our formal conversation ended. But hopefully, the questions we'd explored during the week would continue to challenge, provoke, and haunt us all.

How should Christians view the world and the cultural artifacts that seem to fill it to overflowing? How can we critically examine popular movies, music, and even TV shows for clues to people's unspoken hungers and prayers? And how can we help young people develop the ability to be discerning culture consumers and clear-headed ambassadors of Christ?