Mixed Messages


Andrew is a tech-savvy sixth-grader. His bedroom has satellite
TV and a computer. He listens to MP3s, and he blogs and emails
daily. For Christmas, Andrew’s parents bought him a video iPod. He
text-messages his friends on his cell phone. He even taught his dad
to program TiVo. And last week he visited his first pornographic
Web site (on a dare). Andrew feels at home in front of screens, but
he finds church irrelevant. “I love Jesus,” he says, “but church
doesn’t help me much.”

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Hannah enjoys video games, especially The Legend of
and The Sims. She has a digital camera and
keeps a photo journal. In her fourth-grade class, she learned
PowerPoint and digital art. She’s created dozens of visual
masterpieces, including several with religious themes. Hannah reads
Cosmogirl (a girl at church gave it to her) and is
fashion-conscious. Hannah struggles with church and especially with
modesty. “I don’t see the big deal,” she says, “about wearing my
low-rider jeans.”

Bryan quotes lines from movies including Bruce Almighty
and The School of Rock. To his delight, his class attended
the Narnia movie. He admits he’s learned most swear words from
movies, but says he won’t watch anything steamier than a kiss on
screen. Bryan has overheard schoolyard conversations about oral sex
but confesses he’s clueless. Bryan is also struggling in his faith.
“I hope God is like the guy in Bruce Almighty,” he says, “but my
Sunday school teacher didn’t like that movie.”

Today’s kids are a different breed. Sure they face similar
pressures to the ones we did, but let’s face it: Kids’ cultural
influences are vastly different than ours were. It isn’t “family
hour” anymore. Beaver has truly left the building. It’s not exactly
7th Heaven on network television, and Sex in the City
rules cable. Everybody seems to love Raymond more than
righteousness. Home Improvement sounds so 1990s — and virtues seem
like they’ve vanished without a trace.

I heard my first movie cuss word at 10 (The Cowboys
with John Wayne). At 17, I regrettably snuck into 10,
starring Bo Derek, and witnessed my first nude sex scene.

Kids love our Sunday School resources!

Today, though, there’s not much need for sneaking. TV’s
family-friendly Extreme Makeover: Home Edition morphs into the
sexually-charged Desperate Housewives without warning. The recent
family edition of The Amazing Race featured “mooning,” lewd
comments, and crass jokes (while the most insensitive,
mean-spirited, and aloof family was a Scripture- quoting Christian
family). FOXSports’ most popular sports show is The Best D—
Sports Show Period. Afternoon television features Jerry Springer,
saucy soaps, and explicit discussions. Popular music is riddled
with profanity, sexuality, substance abuse, and violence. Mean
girls and bad boys are Hollywood icons. Nudity sells seats.
Senseless violence and graphic language are unremarkable. Salacious
adult themes even pervade animated kids’ flicks such as Shrek. Even
if you censor television and movies, you’re caught unaware by
commercials for inappropriate programming, sexual enhancement
products, and adult entertainment. Even our local football games
are interrupted by advertisements by the downtown strip clubs. Our
kids live in a minefield of moral corruption.

Perhaps an even greater issue for Christian parents and leaders
is knowing what to do when kids’ cultural icons send confusing —
even contradictory — messages. Red-hot rapper Kanye West professes
Christianity and then delivers profanity-laced lyrics, including
the award-winning gospel song “Jesus Walks.” Country superstar Toby
Keith sings the spiritually insightful “If I Was Jesus” — as well
as tunes glorifying adultery, alcohol, and revenge. Jessica Simpson
says she advocates virginity and Christian values, but dresses
provocatively and makes millions selling her sexuality. “Jesus is
my homeboy” T-shirts are fashion accessories on stars such as Paris
Hilton and Ashton Kutcher. Professional athletes, actors, and
musicians credit Christ with their success, yet publicly worship
sex, drugs, alcohol, and money.

It’s no wonder children get mixed messages about God, Jesus, and
Christianity. In our culture, discerning truth is downright
difficult. Our kids struggle to differentiate between piety and
parade. Children rely on their parents and other adults to help
them navigate life and learn which messages matter. The question
is, how do we respond to cultural influences, especially the
negative and profane?

It’s a Sick, Sick World

Bird flu is spreading through Europe. AIDS is decimating Africa.
Countless viruses pollute the air. Salmonella, E. coli, and other
toxins threaten our food supplies. If we truly knew the dangers, we
wouldn’t dare breathe or swallow. Similarly, our cultural air
harbors pollutants — sexual innuendo, graphic violence, profanity,
explicit sex, and nudity — most of which are cleverly repackaged
and marketed to our children in movies, television, books,
magazines, and Web sites.

Historically, we Christians have responded to negative cultural
messages through isolation. Monasteries are a notable example, but
so is the Christian “subculture” — Christian music, art,
bookstores, colleges, radio, films, and television. The wall
separating church and state has been built by both sides. But
quarantines are never permanent solutions for disease — either
cultural or biological.

The other extreme we use to approach cultural messages is
through immersion. This reaction encourages a no-holds-barred
baptism into cultural waters where children are introduced to
various values without censorship or instruction. Parents escort
kids to R-rated movies and purchase raunchy CDs or explicit video
games despite warnings and clear statistical evidence against such
parenting practices.

Yet another approach to cultural messages is through
inoculation. Inoculation occurs when we recognize that many
cultural messages are offensive, repugnant, and dangerous — and
above all that they do exist. But rather than isolating from or
immersing in this cultural soup, we deliberately introduce the
harmful or offensive agent into our systems. This “cultural
vaccination” will gradually help kids grow immunity — or decisive
righteousness — against the behaviors propagated in cultural

This doesn’t mean “anything goes.” Some things, such as graphic
violence and sexual activity involving nudity, should never be
introduced to children. Jesus actually calls Christians to a fourth
option: incarnation. He says we are to live in the world but not of
it. Jesus stepped out of heaven and incarnated into human
existence, but remained sinless.

Incarnational Christianity encourages believers to live in a
culture with offensive messages and activities without falling prey
to their seductions by relying on God. Incarnation is possible if
we adopt “3-D” cultural vision.

Your children’s ministry can grow G-rated kids in an R-rated
culture to love truth, purity, and righteousness if you’ll
incorporate and wear 3-D glasses for your ministry. Your ministry
will impact the heart (or values), the mind (or choices), and the
behavior of every child you reach. What does 3-D vision of
children’s ministry look like?


Conversation about cultural messages is crucial. Equip parents
to engage kids in dialogue about what they’re seeing and hearing.
Too many schoolyard discussions never make it home. Most Christian
parents struggle to talk with their children about the explicit
nature of television, movies, books, or music. So kids converse
with each other. Instead, spend time listening to the artists your
kids like. Watch their TV shows. Do you know why Fear Factor is a
fifth-grade boy’s favorite program? Have you read Harry Potter? Or
taken a look at Nelly’s lyrics? And now the real test. Can you
build an incarnational bridge from your world to kids’?

Could you use a clip from Star Wars to teach a biblical truth?
Or a U2 lyric? Or a scene from Survivor? You can’t dialogue until
you understand and empathize. Remember, Jesus stepped into our
world through incarnation because we couldn’t climb to his.


Engaging cultural messages without teaching discernment is
dangerous. Media messages aren’t neutral. Consequently, kids must
learn context. For example, profanity and bloody violence is
expected in a war movie, but it’s edgy and unnecessary in many
comedies or dramas. Nudity is natural in the historical Schindler’s
List, but gratuitous in Titanic. The magic in Narnia is different
from that in Potter. Drug references in Walk the Line are
acceptable, but often pointless in other films.

A slow immunization to these messages is key. Parents and
leaders have to exercise discernment and discrimination themselves.
Preschoolers require wholesale protection from even mildly
offensive content, while older children must learn context. Most
children learn inappropriate language inappropriately. They’ve
heard it so they repeat it.

A couple years ago my son discovered his middle finger. He
didn’t understand the power of this fleshly digit. First he and I
discussed the gesture’s meaning. I taught him the context of where
he’d likely see it used, and then suggested its appropriateness, or
why he should avoid it. I modeled personal discernment.

Too many leaders and parents might’ve come unglued at their
fourth-grader flipping off the neighbors. The problem wasn’t my
son’s insolence, but his ignorance. To my knowledge he’s kept his
fingers properly holstered ever since.


The most difficult, and yet most important, factor is
discipline. Most people know their actions are wrong, but they just
can’t stop doing them. Their vices become habits. Profanity flies.
Sexual conversation flows. Violence happens. Have you ever wondered
where a preschooler learns to hit? or to “spoon” another child? or
curse? These are learned through personal experience. They
experience it at home, school, even church. They’re acting upon
what they’ve learned. Consequently, parents, teachers, and leaders
must protect kids’ emotional and physical safety and discourage
(even remove) offending behavior. Hurt children hurt children. Too
many parents think its “cute” when little Joey uses the f-word but
fail to recognize that 10 years later his “cuteness” will be social

We removed our daughter once from a church classroom where
another child was biting and hitting. We were criticized but our
daughter’s safety was too important. The teacher wouldn’t deal with
the offending child and so we had to take action. We aren’t doing
children favors when we give them free behavioral passes.

A good test of cultural discipleship is to visit your church’s
youth ministry. Listen to the teenagers’ conversations. Ask them
what movies they attend. Inquire about their musical tastes. Learn
what magazines and books they read. Watch how they treat each
other. These kids were once in your children’s ministry. Hopefully
you’ll find seasoned talk, not salty language. Hopefully you’ll
discover they choose appropriate movies, music, and magazines.
Hopefully they dress with modesty. What you see is what they

Ultimately, by pursuing dialogue, discernment, and discipline,
we’ll equip children to engage their culture incarnationally. As
the children’s song says, we mustn’t “hide [our light]under a
bush.” Isolation isn’t the answer. But neither should we cast our
pearls before swine. Cultural immersion is dangerous. Only
inoculation and incarnational living are suitable solutions — the
solutions modeled by Jesus. Jesus walks when that happens. That’s
where Kanye West got it right.

Rick Chromey is the author of The Children’s Ministry Guide
to the Smaller Church (Group Publishing, Inc.) and a professor of
Youth and Family Ministry at Kentucky Christian University in
Grayson, Kentucky.

Tools for Leaders

Stay abreast of cultural trends, language, and icons with these

  • Children’s Ministry Magazine (www.cmmag.com) — Leading
    resource for trends, ideas, and information about children’s
  • The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (www.cpyu.org) —
    Youth culture analysis and reflection.
  • Kidscreen (www.kidscreen.com) — Studies kid culture with a
    magnifying glass and reports on hot products, technology, and media
    impacting kids.
  • Ministry and Media (www.ministryandmedia.com) — The one-stop
    site for ideas and insights on using media (television, movies,
    music) within ministry.
  • USA Today (www.usatoday.com) — The “nation’s newspaper” is
    also a goldmine for current statistics, news, and opinions.
  • Relevant (www.relevantmagazine.com) — A cultural magazine to
    equip Christians to better interpret and engage their world.
  • Wired (www.wired.com) — A cutting-edge technology periodical
    “wired” to understanding the fringe of cultural innovations.

What’s Your Cultural Relevance Quotient?

Answer the following questions with a 1 to 6 rating:

1 = Always true
2 = Usually true
3 – Occasionally true
4 = Occasionally false
5 = Usually false
6 = Always false

  1. I read and/or subscribe to newspapers such as USA Today and
    magazines such as People or US Weekly.
  2. I view channels, programs, and Web sites I hear my children
    talking about and can name several of their favorites.
  3. I believe Christians should live actively within culture and
    never completely separate, even when cultural messages are
  4. I use secular music, movies, and television when I teach
    children spiritual truths.
  5. Though I find many messages in the media disturbing, I
    generally tend to be positive about what I see and hear.

Total your score:

26-30: Survivor — I clearly prefer isolation from
21-25: Fear Factor — I find much of worldly culture
16-20: Temptation Island — I struggle mixing God and
11-15: Extreme Makeover: Home Edition — I’m working to find ways
to connect with children and their culture.
6-10: The Apprentice — I’m learning to dialogue on culture.
1-5: Bob the Builder — I love building cultural bridges into
children’s lives.

Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and
prices are subject to change.


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Children's Ministry Magazine

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