The teenage years. No child can make it to adulthood without navigating the raging river of physical changes, hormonal shifts, and identity quests that mark adolescence. What makes the journey even more complicated is that parents trying to help their teens through the process hardly recognize the world in which their children are maturing.
How can parents love their children well during these difficult, yet critical, years? How can youth leaders and church members help the church’s teens engage with culture thoughtfully when kids are so prone to disengage from adults?
Walt Mueller has thought about these questions for years, and he has some answers. As the founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (CPYU), Mueller strengthens families by helping parents understand the world in which their children live, equipping teens to understand and respond to the challenges they face, and teaching youth leaders, educators, and others about youth culture.
Mueller studies the messages teens receive from the internet, music, movies, books, and social media, and then asks questions about what these messages mean to kids.
In all of this, he equips adults to see student ministry for what it is: a cross-cultural mission field.
In the early 1980s Mueller was working as a youth pastor in suburban Philadelphia. As he ministered to students, he tried to develop a family-centered youth ministry — a philosophy that proved challenging because parents seemed so intimidating to the young Mueller.
Then a group of parents came to Mueller with a request: Could Mueller help them understand their teenagers?
The baby boomer parents realized the world in which they were raising their children was very different from the world they had experienced growing up, and the parents did not know how to relate to their own kids.
Mueller had always found youth culture fascinating — he earned his undergraduate degree in sociology — but the parents’ request allowed him to carefully study the culture of his students while also translating that culture for the parents. Mueller began a Sunday school class for parents of teens.
Each week Mueller immersed himself in one aspect of teen culture, and on Sunday he walked the parents through it. Over the weeks his class attendance ballooned, and even parents from other churches began attending.
In retrospect, Mueller sees that he gave the parents cross-cultural ministry training. As he studied the culture, he saw more clearly the world that the “baby buster” generation inherited — broken family systems left gaping holes for influence that the family and church were no longer filling in a teen’s life.
“As a generation, these kids were being guided increasingly less in the right direction by family, and that opened the door for the culture to come in and shape them,” he said. “It was alarming to me, and the Lord used it to build my passion even more.”
A few years later Mueller left ministry in the local church to start CPYU. His 12-week Sunday school class became the basis of his book “Understanding Today’s Youth Culture,” first published in 1995.
Understanding Youth Culture Today
Now the students whom Mueller first taught in the 1980s are themselves parents with teenagers. And like their parents, they do not recognize the world in which their teenagers live. Or, as Mueller puts it, teens are swimming in the soup of the culture, but the soup of the ’80s had a fraction of the ingredients that fill the pot today.
Mueller’s work is anchored in his love for students and his commitment to engage with them on their home turf. Mueller immerses himself in the world of teens, but he doesn’t consume it uncritically. He exegetes. He studies the messages teens receive from the internet, music, movies, books, and social media, and then asks questions about what these messages mean to kids.
Much of Mueller’s work is helping parents and youth workers understand the challenges and temptations facing teens today. “Culture is catechizing our kids 24/7, and so I need to know what culture is teaching so I can affirm the good and push back against the things that are not right.”
Both independently and in partnership with other ministries, the team at CPYU has developed resources to help adults wade into the culture with their kids without being swept away by the vicious current. Sexual integrity, transitioning to college, media discernment, navigating the digital world — CPYU offers tools to tackle many issues that keep parents of teens up at night.
In spring 2016 CPYU added another resource to its already extensive list: the “Youth Culture Matters” podcast. The hour-long program gives listeners a chance to hear Mueller discuss with other youth culture experts the news, research, and trends affecting teens. The “Youth Culture Matters” website also provides links to news stories referenced in the podcast discussion and books for further study.
Beyond the Church Walls
Mueller’s expertise has opened doors for him to speak to audiences who don’t share his Christian worldview but are desperate for his wisdom.
Mueller keeps busy speaking at churches, Christian schools, colleges, and student ministries, but he also receives frequent invitations from public school districts to talk with students, parents, and educators. After the Columbine shootings Mueller was asked to speak at church and school venues in Colorado.
Recently CPYU entered a partnership with the Milton Hershey School — a non-religious, residential school in Pennsylvania for children from low-income families — to train houseparents and create a digital-literacy program.
Mueller also presented information to educators and parents in Steubenville, Ohio, as the community began healing after the highly publicized “Steubenville Rape Case.”
Mueller is grateful for these opportunities, but he treats them as indicators of how helpless adults feel when it comes to guiding students to make good choices. “It is more about the brokenness that is out there and how desperate people are to make sense of the culture and … just to lead kids away from danger,” he said.
The Acts 17 Student Ministry Model
Mueller and the CPYU team want cultural observation and cultural exegesis to shape the way parents and youth leaders respond to teens.
The covenant vows church members take at an infant baptism still apply during the tumultuous teen years. Church members who are not raising teens still have a responsibility to join parents entering into the world of youth culture.
In his books and seminars Mueller explains the trends in youth culture, shows what the trends teach observers about youth culture, and helps parents and youth workers see what they can learn from the trends. He encourages parents and youth workers to enter into aspects of teen culture that have captivated their students in order to help students look at life through the lens of the Gospel.
In 27 years of work, Mueller has encountered plenty of skeptical parents and church leaders who question the notion that Christian parents should immerse themselves in popular music, movies, technological trends, and young-adult books in order to speak insightfully to their children about those influences.
To this objection, Mueller notes that learning to discern truth in culture is not the same as mindlessly consuming culture. Reformed thinkers such as Abraham Kuyper and Francis Schaeffer also encouraged this type of informed, thoughtful cultural engagement.
But for a model of cultural discernment Mueller looks to the Apostle Paul and his adventures in Athens recorded in Acts 17.
In the opening comments of his famed Areopagus speech recorded in Acts 17:22-31, Paul tells the Athenians that he “passed along and observed” the objects they worshipped, including the altar to an unknown god (v. 23). Mueller notes that Paul did not pronounce condemnation on the idol worship and then flee the city. “He stayed, watched, listened, and learned what it was that was driving them,” Mueller said.
So parents, youth leaders, and church members should engage with the students in their lives. If they don’t know and understand the ways that the world seeks to influence youth, Christian adults cannot effectively push back against those influences.
This type of cultural study must be balanced by study of God’s Word, Mueller says. “I take seriously John Stott’s challenge to be a dual listener — to God and the world. I make sure I’m being nurtured spiritually to stay on track and then look at the outlets that are out there … to try to learn as much as I can.”
The cross-cultural ministry mentality explains why Paul’s work in Athens became the subject of Mueller’s doctoral dissertation.
Churchwide Cross-Cultural Ministry
As appealing as it seems, running away from the world and its deadly catechesis is not the best approach. New ingredients might splash into the youth-culture soup pot at a dizzying pace, but the biggest struggle facing students today is the same struggle that has plagued humans since the Fall.
“The fundamental issue hasn’t changed,” Mueller said. “What they battle the most is what everybody battles: the sin nature.”
The narcissism, technology addictions, and hypersexualization that pervade teen culture will find the youth of the church at some point, Mueller said. So parents must prepare their teens to thoughtfully engage the world around them.
For Reformed churches, there is another reason to care about students and youth culture. The covenant vows church members take at an infant baptism still apply during the tumultuous teen years. Church members who are not raising teens still have a responsibility to join parents entering into the world of youth culture.
“Because kids have so many voices from culture screaming in their ears, everyone needs to step into the lives of young people and speak truth into their lives,” Mueller said. “For covenant children, this is where the body of Christ is really able to live that out. And it is an urgent need.”
Even amid the emotions and teenage angst, the hope of the Gospel still shines, offering a path not just from childhood to adulthood, but from death to life.
For more information on books, podcasts, and seminars from CPYU, visit cpyu.org.