POP Culture Hits the Parish

Five trends every children's pastor needs to know about.

Mom, you're going to that?"

Our 20-something son was astonished I planned to attend the huge consumer electronic show, Digital Life, in New York City. After all, Matthew knows I'm a tech klutz. And quite honestly, when the moment arrived, I was hesitant to step into the exhibit hall. But after getting past the shock of being pursued by robots, I appreciated this glimpse into an emerging world. I feel compelled to learn about the media and technology that is impacting families.

After all, to effectively reach the next generation for Christ, we must understand the ministry implications for children of the Web.

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Tech is in the air kids breathe. The facts are certainly well documented:

• By the age of 3 months, about 40 percent of babies regularly watch DVDs, videos or TV.
• During the first year of life, the average baby is exposed to more than 500 hours of television.
• Fifteen percent of 2- to 5-year-olds use cell phones.
• The gaming life cycle begins by the age of 6.
• Initial exposure to satellite radio and portable digital media players begins much later, at the age of 9.
• By the tween and teen years, 96 percent connect to a social network at least once a week, and the future appears just as tech-driven: By 2010, 71 percent of tweens, ages 8 to 11, will be online.

Tech-related statistics reflect only one aspect of the changing landscape, however. The ever-present forces of pop culture and living in the post-9/11 era also have a huge impact on children and their families. We live in a time when schools consider mandating student use of bulletproof backpacks and "going green" is more than a social statement. Spas offer infants canola massages and tattoos for babies are guaranteed not to fade for 10 years. In an age of fluid content, social persuasion becomes an element in marketing to kids.

As children's ministers—or any pastor concerned with younger generations, for that matter—this is the world you contend with in an effort to effectively reach children. It's crucial, then, to understand the movements occuring in their world, both from a "marketing" standpoint and to see how they are being influenced by the cultural shapers surrounding them.

Because words define our life and times, here are five concepts that reflect the underlying societal trends currently affecting children.

1. The Soundtrack Generation
Music has always been a defining and shaping influence for children. Today, however, the portability and ever-presence of music have molded the kids you serve into the "soundtrack generation." Recent research indicates that although more than 80 percent of teens listen to music during their free time, interest in music starts much younger.

Mattel's I Can Play Guitar, a popular gift during the holidays, targets ages 6 and up, and parents generally welcome music as an option for older kids who spend too much time in front of screens. The iPod, rock video games and youth celebrities (e.g., Hannah Montana) continue to fuel interest in music.

Although Christian artists offer music in all genres, the faith-based sector has not synergized artists across various media platforms to the extent that we've seen in the general market. That, in turn, increases the role your children's ministry can play in promoting safe, creative expressions of music.

For larger ministries, hosting a Christian music festival or concert tour can allow kids to personally relate to the artists beyond a CD or MP3 recording. Gamemaker Digital Praise offers music (for churches of all sizes) in exergame format that can serve as an ideal filler before or after meeting times. Remember that for some kids, the music they're exposed to then can communicate a message more effectively than a sermon, drama or puppet show.

Is your children's ministry defined by its music? How are children and their families involved in music production and performance at your church? What are ways you have effectively used music to reach today's soundtrack generation?

The acronym KAGOY represents the concept "kids are growing older younger." KAGOY has been called the scourge of the toy industry, as this age compression implies that children are growing out of their toys at a younger age. But the KAGOY influence is evident across the board, from girls clothing lines to music exclusively for boys.

Last summer, fragrances from both Disney's Buzz Lightyear and Pirates of the Caribbean brands targeted 4- to 11-year-old boys. A new cosmetics line from Mattel's Barbie and Bonne Bell, scheduled to launch soon, will aim at girls ages 6 to 9.

Some churches have responded to KAGOY by reorganizing Christian education classes. In one church, the program for 10- to 12-year-olds is now called "young teens." In another, the class for kids 8 to 12 has been segmented into micro-niches, simply because "8-year-olds dress so much differently than 12-year-olds."

Clothing and fragrances aren't the real issue, however. The major implication is how KAGOY might be changing our perception of childhood. When a 9-year-old can fix a glitch in the computer program you're using for your class, it's tempting to let those tech skills shift your understanding of child development. But even though a tween is tech savvy, he still gets homesick on a weekend camping trip. Or, like 9-year-olds throughout history, he might struggle with social rejection during a lock-in.

If the developmental framework of your staff members has been tainted by the misleading pseudo-sophistication of KAGOY, you may need to remind them of the facts of human development. Consider contacting a local college for a speaker who can identify basic ages and stages for your staff in all areas: social, emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual. Then review your programs to ensure that content and format match developmental needs of students.

3. Yesterminutes
An accelerated pace of life characterizes our world. With the growing affordability and accessibility of technology, smartphones, blogs and instant messaging transform morning headlines into old news—i.e., yesterminutes. Some observers comment that a key reason for declining e-mail use among some kids is simply because "e-mail is too slow." Time has the ultimate value—and not just for adults.

The morphing of light-speed technology and consumerism hasn't helped. Online purchasing power is just as immediate for an 8-year-old with a loaded credit card as it is for a grown-up. Prepaid cards (otherwise known as training cards on wheels) allow even younger users to click and buy—furthering the notion of delayed gratification for a younger set.

How will children who grow up in a world marked by "yesterminutes" respond when slower classmates are involved in a round-robin reading of the Bible story? Should the pacing of children's church elements match the expectations of today's instant gratification generation? And how can we help our children embrace the biblical virtue of patience in a world where fast is the norm and faster the ideal?

4. Social Networking
Although some parents still consider social networking a figment of science fiction, statistics don't lie: One site alone, Disney's clubpenguin.com, has 12 million members—or, as noted in the Washington Post, a penguin for each person in Maryland and Virginia.

Kids use social networks to communicate with friends by openly sharing messages and photos. They track old friends and make new acquaintances while advertising their personal popularity. In the social network culture, the number of friends you have contributes to your status.

Many social historians say participation in a social network is how today's youth gain a sense of self-importance. They use social networking as a way to distinguish themselves from other generations. Other observers hint that children of time-starved parents substitute online attention to fill their need for personal connections. For example, a young girl might unconsciously develop her site's pages as an extension of herself, just as she would personalize room décor or customize her cell phone ringtones.

A limitless online existence, of course, includes the potential for evil. From cyberbullying to cyberstalkers, young social networkers face potential hazards. What does that mean as you minister to them? Can cyberethic lessons be offered through your children's ministry? Could you offer parents and kids tips to manage public identity, respect for intellectual property and the ethics of user-generated content? Can your church-sponsored extended-day program demonstrate how to use the Internet as a resource for schoolwork without plagiarizing and cheating?

5. Rimmersion
Children today aren't just surrounded by media, they experience rimmersion, which is when kids are "deluged by R-rated sounds and images." Unfortunately, media literacy is not yet nationally mandated in U.S. schools. As a result, children do not learn how to assess values, various points of view or underlying messages communicated in media. On the surface, parents are concerned with the unacceptable levels of nudity, gore and profanity that have already entered the teen market and are now encroaching on children's media. Yet even when teachers control viewing and parents allow the purchase of only sanitized DVDs and PG-rated films, rimmersion remains a real threat.

This was obvious on a recent flight. Across the aisle from me, a child stared intently as the passenger next to him watched laptop images that were anything but sanitized. Of course, the parent accompanying the child should have been alert to the situation since parents are the primary guardians to children's hearts and minds. But as any children's pastor knows, such needed protection doesn't always take place. Research shows, for instance, that many parents still don't understand the basic television rating system.

This is where children's pastors can step in. Beyond just teaching children how the TV ratings system works, leaders can (more importantly) teach them how to make discerning media choices by setting an example and through hands-on instruction. Allow the same technology that triggers rimmersion to provide service opportunities. For example, allow your older students to help with the technical aspects of children's worship services (e.g., running PowerPoint or sound) or with maintaining your ministry Web site.

How are you maximizing the up-to-date skill set of tech-savvy kids? In what ways can you help children and youth avoid rimmersion and learn to make wise media choices? How can you reduce the fear factor among parents while providing useful tools to guide their families?

Digital Natives

The mobility of new and emerging media means that children expect you to reach them wherever they are. Parents might sit in a pew and absorb what a pastor has to offer, but their children expect you to connect with them. This single observation reflects the fact that more than the landscape has changed; the mindscape has changed.

I personally experienced this in the Digital Life exhibit hall. My ears were assaulted by clicks and beeps and whistles. Unfamiliar stimuli came at me from all sides. I felt completely out of place. The young people around me were in their comfort zone, for they are the digital natives. I was the digital immigrant.

Because we are the newcomers, we must work especially hard to understand this emerging world. We are called to reach these natives—both the children and their families—for Christ. Like missionaries throughout history, we must learn the language of the people. du u gt th msg?

Mary Manz Simon is a national conference speaker, corporate trend analyst, media personality and best-selling author. Her newest titles, Noah Builds a Boat (Random House) and My First Read and Learn Book of Favorite Bible Verses (Scholastic) release this month and the next respectively.

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