Teenagers from First Baptist Church Decatur. Photo by David Gushee

My visit to the land of teenagers

In this column I offer a completely unscientific set of impressions about characteristics of today's teenagers. It is based on a weeklong immersion experience with my Decatur, Ga., church's youth group, currently on retreat together in rainy Panama City, Fla. I welcome reader feedback on this one.

Think about this amazing thought: just about everybody in the group was born in the 21st century. If kids are 16 today, they were born in 2001! So they have no memory of 9/11. Even the financial crash of 2007-2008 occurred when most were too young to be aware of it. I wonder how much their consciousness has been shaped by historical events at all.

What they mainly seem to be shaped by is an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary music and online reality. In the six-hour van ride south, I was struck by how pretty much every kid knew every word of every song that came from every music collection that we sampled from multiple iPhones.

Our savvy youth minister had the kids play a competition game called "Name That Meme." There were 24 memes, most of which the kids could guess within two seconds simply from a verbal description. They knew not only what the meme was but what it's agreed name was, like Grumpy Cat or Mannequin Challenge.

Here is where I really felt old. Most every generation has had its favorite songs that everyone memorized. But these odd little snippets from YouTube, Twitter, and other expressions of virtual reality are a new kind of cultural product. Almost all of them were entirely unknown to me, while being embedded in the brains of at least most of the teenagers.

I would also like to congratulate Apple on their complete conquest of our teenagers. I didn't see phones from any other provider. I didn't see many kids without phones. And I saw once again that the only way to get phones out of most kids' hands is to ban them. That kind of market domination is an extraordinary achievement in any field. Of course, it is deeply worrisome in a great number of ways. But facts is facts. Apple rules.

Here's some happy news: Our kids seemed totally and unselfconsciously inclusive racially. They are real easy with each other across racial lines, almost as if the lines no longer exist for them. I thank God for where they are on this. They have much to teach their elders.

On the religious front, of the two dozen kids on our retreat, I asked, and only about half expressed any real familiarity with the Bible prior to the retreat. Some of the kids who admitted lack of familiarity had grown up in church, but apparently hadn't been taught much. But to the credit of our church kids, they also brought a bunch of friends with them who had no religious background or experience.

At least for the South, this feels new to me: the completely "unchurched" kid, with no community, family, or cultural force giving them any familiarity with the Bible or Christianity at all. So as I was trying to teach a Bible overview in five sessions, I had to adjust on the fly and start almost entirely from scratch: Here is how the Bible is organized, here is how the system of book/chapter/verse works, here are the main sections of the Bible, here's the whole Israel and the Church thing, etc.

So those of us attempting to communicate Christian faith to a new generation are facing a situation where Christianity is for a majority no longer the "language spoken at home."  Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, and the meme of the week are this generation's native language, while everything else is a second or third language.

This is a very, very different cultural situation from that which prevailed when most Americans were taught some kind of religion from childhood.

To the very great credit of our group, they seemed to learn eagerly and to want to master what I was teaching them. Especially when we set things up as a competition — they love to compete with each other and with themselves. I had forgotten how much that was part of my adolescence as well.

But the challenge is daunting. How do we communicate the Christian faith in such a way that kids will care enough to first make the effort to learn this new language, and then decide that they want it to become the central language in their own life? Are we attempting a direct challenge to the mainstream culture that is wired directly into their brains via their earbuds, or are we merely supplementing it with a new addition? And in a cultural moment relentlessly tuned to the new and latest, how do we make a 2,000-year-old religion seem anything other than musty and ancient?

Two things seem immediately clear. First, we cannot let old, irrelevant Bible translations block the understanding of the Bible's content when we do get the precious chance to have kids read the Bible. No more King James Version, ever.

Second, we have to draw meaningful connections between what is going on in their lives and what is said in the Bible. Job's question about why innocent people suffer, Ecclesiastes on whether life is really meaningful, Song of Solomon on romantic passion, and the prophetic cry for justice, Jesus' teachings about love of God and neighbor — these and much more still speak if we know how to help students draw the connections.

The last time I attempted to do youth ministry was in 1986. Ronald Reagan was president.

But you know what? It is still precious work. I still seem able to talk to teenagers. (That's a relief.) And there is so much to learn from these ambassadors from tomorrow's America.


  1. As someone who has volunteered with teens for 13 years, I think you are spot on. I may have pumped my fist at “No more King James Version, ever.” But more important is your point about needing to make the Bible relevant to their lives. Just telling Bible stories doesn’t mean much to this generation without tying it to real life as they know it. Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs aren’t the Bible stories of flannel graphs, but (in my opinion) they speak to human experience more than Noah’s Ark or Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
    The one caveat I would make is that instead of categorizing teens as not remembering 9/11 (which is absolutely true) I think it is more telling that they don’t know an America before 9/11. The idea of domestic terror attacks, Muslims labeled as terrorists, and war in the Middle East has always been a part of their experience in America.

  2. Today’s teens are certainly better than we were. It’s easy to be pessimistic but the human race goes on. People are better and life is better than it was in the 1950s.

  3. I’ve never thought of it before, but you and Dr. Gushee are quite right: we are not approaching youth (or adults) with the parts of the bible that might best engage people today: the Wisdom literature, and for certain people, the prophets. We tend to give the young an entry to the bible through biblical characters demonstrating heroic obedience to clear and obvious instructions from God (Abraham, Moses, Noah, Gideon) , and whose struggle was to obey in the face of strong external obstacles. But, this is not where most American people are starting. In America today, non-religious people (and even many Christians) can relate much better to Koholeth than they can to Joseph or Daniel.

  4. I do believe that each successive generation is less racist and bigoted than previous generations. I have lived in the South for 45 years and can attest to the changes I have witnessed.

  5. For those of us that didn’t grow up with Facebook we see a difference in how we relate. It’s my understanding that social media can be very “likes” driven. It is easy for us who are a little older to see how this can be a little superficial. With that in mind for those of us who grew up in a bible based culture verses a Facebook culture, how many verses have we “liked” with a highlighter in our Bible? I have a few. I like what that says, highlight. Superficial. So if you use the stuck zipper approach to look at this problem (sometimes you have to back up to get unstuck to go forward) then what do we change ourselves. When we see this in ourselves we find a new relevance and that new relevance is probably the answer.

  6. Best of luck in your attempt to bring the next generation to love the Lord into reality. (edit) Just don’t go off on your own tangent and follow the Bible.

  7. Proverbs says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Fill their hearts and minds with God’s word (Josh.1:8) and then teach them how to do that for themselves AND help others do that too. And teach them how to defend the faith as well.
    Addendum: Agreed! old outdated translations should not be used – the Latin Vulgate for example. Instead use newer translations – like the King James. If the KJV was good enough for Peter and Paul its good enough for me.

  8. Very good piece. I agree in principle with your comment about the King James version. But I know teenagers who have figured it out. One of the things KJV does that most modern translations do not is distinguish between second person singular and second person plural. Our modern English does not either and so some of the original meaning of the text is lost and misunderstood. I know that’s a minor point, but it does make a difference. Do you know a good translation that show this distinction, even if in footnotes?

  9. “On the religious front, of the two dozen kids on our retreat, I asked, and only about half expressed any real familiarity with the Bible prior to the retreat. Some of the kids who admitted lack of familiarity had grown up in church, but apparently hadn’t been taught much . . ..”

    It’s no surprise to me that today’s young people are virtually ignorant about the Bible! The main reason for this is that their generation has grown up with search engines like Google that quickly provide them all the fast and brief answers they need in any situation they face!

    This feeds into the strong emphasis of evangelicals that their kids must learn all the RIGHT ANSWERS, rather than consider the rich contexts and fuller meaning of Bible passage. A more careful reading of the Scriptures, gets at the broader principles involved and not just the “don’ts contained in the easy, “proof-text-correct-answers.” Those pat answers respond to the standard questions like “who’s saved and who’s lost, the sins of abortion, homosexuality, HETERO-sexual desires and impulses, which race carries the mark-of-Adam, etc.”

    The added tragedy is, there’s little reflection of what the scriptures mean to the everyday lives of young people in today’s circumstances.

  10. “If the KJV was good enough for Peter and Paul its good enough for me.”

    You’re kidding, right? You’ve got to be. The KJV came out in 1603 (or thereabouts).

  11. I tell that joke frequently – and am met mostly with groans. I cannot help it people don’t have a refined sense of humor. Lol.

  12. While I’m on a roll: Did you know the bible says men will be in heaven a half hour before women? Yup. Read Revelation 8:1. It’s right there.

  13. Yeah, cuz every one knows that marketing strategies are so much more effective in bringing people to a saving knowledge of Christ.

  14. The KJV has had a tremendous influence on the English language and I refuse to give it up. No other translation renders the common tongue so gracefully and beautifully. I am an English teacher (retired) and so everyone must defer to me on this issue at least.
    Those teens who have “figured out” the Elizabethan English of the KJV are truly remarkable. I am impressed.

  15. Excellent article! I do agree that the majority of youth today will not relate to the KJV. There are excellent versions available – The Message, Amplified Bible, Living Bible, etc. And if there is anyway possible, I think we should put those phones to use in influencing these youth for Christ. If Apple can develop ways to keep people tied to their phone, surely we, who have God’s creativity inside of us, can develop ways to use those phones for good.

  16. Proverbs says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.” – Worked for me didn’t it!

    Surely – if you train a child you are over-riding that child’s ability to exercise “free will”, aren’t you?

    OK- we probably don’t have free will but training a child to be a Christian is different from training a dog to retrieve – how?

    And if you are a Christian because you have been trained to be one you are not a believer through choice but through conditioning, aren’t you?

    I assume being a trained, that is to say obedient to the trainer rather than God, Christian disqualifies the trainee from Heaven does it?

    If that’s the case trying to train a child is tantamount to attempting to bar it from (the non-demonstrable concept of) Heaven. Should a person who claims to be a Christian seek to prevent others reaching eternal salvation? What effect on the trainer’s salvation would that have?

    No wonder Martin Luther said you can’t be Christian until you have plucked out the eye of reason!

  17. Yeah – lovely language (sometimes) but used based on the bishops’ knowledge, which was sometimes sadly, though necessarily, lacking.

    For example –
    they had no idea what “Asherah” meant so they guessed based on the context and their assumptions about Druidism – and got it horribly wrong!
    They also had some ideas about how human beings worked which we now know to be erroneous (male seed etc.).

    I know people who pretend to be Christians because they “like the music” – is there also a danger of liking the beauty of the language more than the validity of the content?

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