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Challenges of postmodern youth ministry: what is the truth?

We’re looking at effects of postmodern thinking in youth ministry this week and after an overview of what postmodernism is exactly, we’re discussing three challenges that we face in postmodern youth ministry. Today we’ll discuss the concept of truth.

Absolute truth vs subjective truth

One of the biggest challenges postmodernism brings us is the conviction that there are no objective, absolute truths. Postmodernism teaches that truth is personal and subjective, that what works for you is the truth. There is no direct relation anymore between truth and reality and as a consequence, truth has become very pragmatic and flexible.

This of course has big implications for how young people view God, Jesus, Christianity or religion in general. Religion is considered a personal preference, not an objective truth. Declaring religious statements as absolute truth (like stating that Jesus is the only way to God), is often seen as fundamentalist, intolerant and in many ways simply rude, because it doesn’t respect people who feel differently.

Consequences of subjective truths

This view of the truth has had a big impact on the religious views of young people. It’s the leading factor why Moral Therapeutic Deism (see explanation in yesterday’s post on Postmodernism) has become so ‘popular’ because it’s a belief system that is inclusive, tolerant and seemingly loving.

But it has also had a big impact on the moral views of our young people. A 2008 study by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith about young people’s moral lives shows that they are really bad at thinking and talking about moral issues. Young people see moral choices as a personal choice, an individual matter. They aren’t immoral in their own behavior, but they feel they can’t judge others or impose a moral framework on anyone else. Smith calls this a combination of an extreme moral individualism, relativism and non-judgmentalism. (1)

young woman

Challenging the lack of Truth

So what do we do with this knowledge that youth doen’t believe in absolute truth? How to approach them with Christianity then? My approach to challenge this lack of truth would be this:

1. Focus on relationships

We’ve heard it often, this generation of youth is very relational, more than any generation before. But do we always apply this truth to our methods? Sure, we know we need to build relationships with our students and I know most of us try and do that. But do we apply this to all aspects of our youth ministry? Take preaching and teaching for instance, do we really make this relational?

Our teachings, in whatever form they take place, have to be contextual, have to be developed with our hearers in mind. We have to speak to where our young people are in their spiritual journey, where they are in their lives, what’s happening around them. ‘You can’t develop a sermon in isolation from the hearers’ (2). Is your sermon affected by the people who will hear it or do you write and deliver it regardless of who hears it?

2. Focus on (personal) stories

Because postmodernism is relational and experiential, stories work very well especially in teaching truth. This narrative approach may need to be adopted for more than just teaching or preaching, but also for how we view and approach discipleship, spiritual growth and even relationships. Just like Jesus, we can use stories to teach, to explain, to show, to encourage or admonish and to build relationships. If we consistently show truth through stories, it will have effect.

3. Focus on the Bible

If we believe the Bible to be the Truth, then we can trust God to use His own words effectively. The first thing to do then is to use this truth consistently to speak into the lives of our young people. Whatever we do with them, we must always use the Bible and we need to make clear that what we teach, aren’t our own thoughts and convictions, but are based on the Bible.

Secondly, there’s the issue of the infallibility of the Bible, because it was ‘written’ by God Himself. We must emphasize again and again that the Bible is no ordinary book, but God’s Word. We can show them without ending up in endless apologetic debates how each and every prophecy came true, how accurate the Bible has been preserved over thousands of years, etc.

4. Focus on teaching the Truth

The message of Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life may not be a culturally acceptable one, but that doesn’t mean we should stop teaching it. In my experience, radical clarity about the Truth trumps postmodernist vagueness every single time. Don’t water down the Gospel in any way to make it more acceptable. Jesus should be front and center at everything we teach, for He is what the gospel is all about.

The same goes for personal conversations, while we should always love the person, that doesn’t mean we should love their viewpoints. Let’s lovingly disagree with false religious statements, convictions, etc. Let’s speak the Truth into our students lives in personal conversations as well.

Also, we can discuss the whole concept of truth with our students. In a recent youth service where I spoke, I did a dialogue-type talk about truth based on that same verse from John 14:1-7. We talked about the concept of absolute and relative truth and I had them come up with several examples for both. Then I asked if Jesus’ statement was absolute or relative and we got into a great discussion there. It was an eye-opener for many of them, so I’d encourage you to keep challenging postmodern culture in that sense!

Do you recognize this view on truth in your students? How do you handle this or challenge this?

(1) David Brooks – If it feels right

(2) Re-imagining preaching

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0 thoughts on “Challenges of postmodern youth ministry: what is the truth?

  1. […] most of the time it’s not positive. We rail against youth who won’t grow up, against changed standards of truth or individualistic morals. We complain about the sexual undertone of commercials, about the dangers […]

  2. […] challenges it brings. After a brief discussion of what postmodernism is exactly we’ve examined the meaning of truth in postmodernism and how we can communicate the Truth to a generation that doesn’t believe in absolute truths. […]

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