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Youth Culture Window

Christian Chameleons
Are Teenage Believers Blending in
with Culture?

An article from David R. Smith at

“Luke” had a reputation on his high school campus as the guy who could “get stuff” for you. Alcohol, stolen merchandise, and drugs were his specialty. When he got busted, some people were surprised to find out he was a pastor’s son.

Some weren’t.

No doubt about it, Luke was a claimed follower of Jesus Christ. I had spent enough time with him to know what he said he believed… in theory anyway. Unfortunately, not all of Luke’s actions were in line with his proclaimed beliefs. I’d heard him share his testimony about “living for God,” but also knew that Luke did a lot of “living for himself.”

A Blurred Line
There are a lot of Lukes in our youth ministries. Maybe not drug dealers or felons, but kids that reflect the morals of the world more than scripture. Take cheating for example. In a world where 95% of high school students have admitted to cheating, 78% of these students claim their religious beliefs are very important to them. (You may remember me focusing an entire Youth Culture Window article on this cheating phenomenon a year ago). The sad truth is, the lifestyle of a “churched” or “Christian” teenager is far too similar to the lifestyle of an unchurched or non-Christian teenager these days. The line between Christian and non-Christian has become so blurred that distinguishing who’s who is often hard to do.

We at lament this fact as much as anyone else, but we still take the time at our seminars and workshops to educate youth workers of this reality. Here are just a few examples to help you understand culture’s impact on our students.

Example 1: The Lure of “Free” Music
Music is a language of this generation. Its rhythm – and message – is consumed by masses of teenagers, and if you don’t believe it, just check out their iPods. While you’re at it, ask them where they actually got their songs from. If they’re honest with you, 81% of unchurched teens will admit to engaging in music piracy (illegally sharing/downloading copyrighted music). That’s the bad news; the worse news is that 78% of churched teens also steal music.

That’s only a difference of 3%! I’ve seen bigger “margins of error” in presidential polls.

Example 2: Belief about Cohabitation
Cohabitation, the act of living together as husband and wife without legal or spiritual sanction, has been on the rise in the last few decades. Some Christians refer to cohabitation as “living in sin.” Regardless of what you call it, millions of teenagers endorse this arrangement. In fact, according to a Gallup Youth Survey on the subject, 86% of unchurched teens approve of couples living together prior to marriage. Again, that’s just part of the story. Of the students who claim to be “churched,” 49% approve of this lifestyle, as well.

That means half of our students can’t – or won’t – distinguish between right and wrong.

Example 3: Politically Correct Theology
For the most part, those who refrain from lying, cheating, and kicking puppies believe these acts to be morally wrong. So, what are we to think of the millions of “churched teenagers” who have struggles like those mentioned above? It usually indicates a very flawed belief system, which is true in this case.

When Newsweek partnered with Beliefnet to conduct a study, they found that 91% of Catholics and 83% of Non-Evangelical Protestants believe “a good person who isn’t of your religious faith can go to heaven or attain salvation.” Think about this for a second. This study is basically asking the difficult question, “Is my Muslim friend going to Heaven?” It would probably make us all warm and fuzzy if we answered “yes.” These high percentages make it clear that lots of people have bought into this convenient and dangerous lie. By the way, only 73% of non-Christians agree with the statement. That’s right; there’s a wider misconception of the truth in these leading religious groups than in non-Christian groups!

If you’re Baptist or EV Free and you’re giggling right now, you might want to hold off for a second. Sadly, a full 68% of Evangelical Protestants agree with the above statement.

This means the church as a whole is not only acting a lot like the world, but believing a lot like it too!

Blending in with the Backdrop
That’s what chameleons do. Their entire image morphs depending on where they are at any given moment. When “churched” and “Christian” teenagers do it, they develop an “image problem” according to David Kinnaman of the Barna Research Group. That image problem is essentially what his book Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity is all about.

Studying a group he calls Mosaics, those born between 1984 and 2002, he found that 84% of the young people in this group knew at least one committed Christian, but only 15% of this same group could see a difference in lifestyle between themselves and their self-proclaimed Christian friends. How sad is that? Try explaining that fact to your youth group. “Hey, according to your friends, only 15% of you look like Jesus.”

The Luke’s of today need a solution for their serious, and costly, problem. Luke doesn’t need us to lower the standards that govern his spiritual life, nor does he need us to share empty platitudes with him. No, what he needs is a total image makeover.

Reclaiming the Proper Image
In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul writes that “we are being transformed into His image.” With every passing day, we’re supposed to look more and more like Jesus. The church - literally “the called out ones” – was never intended to mirror the world that so desperately needs it. But that’s exactly what’s happening! Luke’s greatest need is not a new message, just conformity to the old one.

We encourage you to spend some time talking with your teenagers about the example they set before their peers. Many of our actions are seen by others, and all of them are tied to consequences, for good or bad. If you need a little help jumpstarting this conversation, check out this MOVIE CLIP DISCUSSION or this SPIRITUAL GROWTH AGENDA for a few ideas.

Spend all the time it takes with the Luke’s in your ministry, helping them understand how important it is to remain godly in the midst of culture. It will be time well spent.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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