There’s a classic episode of The Simpsons where Ned Flanders, the show’s exorbitantly cheesy Christian stereotype, runs a Bible study in his home. The group has one teenager – an air-headed bully called Jimbo. In order to keep the study relevant to Jimbo, Ned keeps throwing in techy terms, ‘Now let us download the holy tweet of the Lord!’ When Jimbo begins to get bored and heads for the door, Ned yells desperately, ‘Mousepad! Double-click! Skype! Skype!’ Anything to give off the pseudo air of relevancy.
Relevancy is one of those magic words that we youth workers love to throw into our strategy statements and mission plans! Relevancy is as relevancy does though. On the one hand, relevancy genuinely can help us connect with young people at a deeper and more meaningful level. It can create a bridge into their world and smooth the path of the Gospel into their lives. On the other hand – as Ned established – relevancy can also become simply a disjointed and awkward attempt to look trendy and fashionable without any real depth. What makes the difference
A couple of years ago I knew an elderly gentleman who, before he passed away, rode the bus every morning when the teenagers got on for school. He struck up conversations with them, told them about Jesus, and somehow had them hanging on his every word. It was incredible! He was doing my job – in his eighties – better than I do it! This was more than a little humbling. The thing is that he wasn’t trendy, he wasn’t tuned in to their music, books, or box sets, and he wouldn’t know what a ‘skype’ was if you whacked him around the head with a webcam. What he was though was incredibly authentic.
Authenticity is what makes relevancy real. Authenticity is the magic ingredient that creates a connection with people who are different to us. Authenticity is what actually makes us relevant. This elderly chap would listen actively and intently, he would show genuine compassion, he would remember names, make eye contact, and be honestly interested. It didn’t matter one bit that he didn’t know who Chris Pratt or Kanye West was. He was authentic. He liked them, and they liked him. He was authentic – so he was relevant.
Getting on Trend without Being on Trend
It’s not that understanding teenage culture or following what’s ‘on trend’ is a bad thing. Of course it’s good to know, understand, and engage with what’s happening in their world. It’s healthy to be able to speak into the activities they’re committed to and the media they’re consuming.
It is their world though – and when we come off as being as much in it as they are we kill authenticity dead. Teenagers are super smart, and they can smell a rat a mile away! If we try to understand their world by being in it as much as they are – buying the same things, dressing the same way, watching all the same shows – then it’ll just end up weird. A little knowledge and some common ground is great, but it’s not what makes us genuinely relevant.
Authentic people engage with teenagers in meaningful and lasting ways. Let’s prioritise authenticity. So, what makes us this kind of authentic?
• Active listeners are authentic
• Honest and transparent storytellers are authentic
• Humble people are authentic
• Compassionate and interested adults are authentic
• Those who generously give time are authentic
• Those who set consistent and healthy boundaries are authentic
• Those who cultivate thankful spirits are authentic
• Content people who trust God for what they need are authentic
• People who create situations for multiple voices to be heard are authentic
• Those who ask good questions, yet don’t have all the answers are authentic
• Those who talk clearly, and unapologetically from the Bible are authentic
• Those who mention Jesus; His life, death and resurrection are authentic
And these authentic people are genuinely relevant! Trying to understand culture without understanding the things above will leave you as a desperate square peg, forever jamming yourself into a round hole. Irrelevant!
I recently got my hands on a copy of Jessie Faerber’s new book More Than Just Pretty, and it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. More Than Just Pretty is a book that connects with the genuine struggles and ambitions of young girls in a solidly relevant way. It’s relevant because it’s authentic. You get the feeling as you read it that Faerber has really been there, and can empathise with girls while simultaneously giving permission for them to be so much more than what culture expects. She’s authentic – so her message is relevant! With my own book on the Bible and youth ministry, ‘Rebooted’, coming out in September, I hope that I come across with even half the authenticity that Jesse does!
With the Jimbo-generation in our projects, let’s not cheapen their experience of Christians by Ned Flandering all over them; ‘skype! Skype!’ Instead let’s be compassionate, interested, actively-listening adults who share with them authentically. Then we and our youth ministries will be truly relevant!