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The Forgotten Social Science of Youth Ministry: Cultural Anthropology

(Cultural Anthropology photo brought to you by:  Copyright All rights reserved by anthonyiz)

Youth pastors are dealing with an ever changing and diverse unchurch teenage population.  The forecast is that teenagers are becoming more and more unChristian.  Some regions across the US (west coast, pacific northwest, East coast) and already across the world (UK, Canada, China, Australia) are removed from Christianity/Christ/Church culture.

My proposed problem: There is not enough youth workers researching, studying and learning about the “other” types of students (who don’t attend our youth group/church).  In order to reach the “other” students, youth workers need to know everything about them.

My church employment theory:  The theory goes like this:  the longer you work in a church context the more removed and out of touch you become with the non-Christian teenage culture.  Remember teenage culture is always changing.  Once you think you have a pulse on what is happening in the life of the teen, it changes.  When a youth worker works at a church for more than a year, he/she will most likely get sucked into the church vortex so fast he/she will not even know what sucked him/her in.  The church vortex has it’s own culture, language, rules, values, rituals, people, clothes, and traditions.  Indirectly, the church vortex begins to dictate the youth pastor’s every decision, sermon, words, thoughts and even determines how he/she prioritizes their ministry time.

Youth pastors must know how NOT to be sucked into the church vortex.  One of the ways youth pastors avoid not getting sucked in the vortex—– is by getting out of the church office and studying the local student population.  The term that best describes this studying is: cultural anthropology.

Cultural anthropology is when a professional youth worker becomes a participant observer of the student societies and clusters that populate their community.  

I love the discipline of cultural anthropology because it requires immersion.  It forces a youth worker to immerse himself/herself in their local teen culture which will make him/her very uncomfortable. Unfortunately a youth pastor has to abandon their comfy air conditioned church office and post up somewhere else in the local community where teens are hanging out and just observe.  In order to learn, a youth pastor must immerse him/herself into the student culture.

For example, what is the fastest way people learn language? You practice it and insert yourself into the culture that speaks the language you are learning.

Youth pastors cannot be culturally clumsy.  Immersion is necessary.  As youth pastors ministering in a post-Christian context the best training is getting out there into the community and start learning first hand from the teens that don’t attend your youth group.

How To Conduct Cultural Anthropology In Your Local Community:  Youth Workers Exploring Teenage Land

–  select one place (in your local community) that is highly populated with teenagers.  (i.e. movie theaters, malls, skate parks, strip malls, beach, community center, coffee shops)

–  schedule 5– 4 hour hang out times where you observe, interact, interview, and hang with teens.  essentially you are studying the “other” teens for 20 hours in 5 different time frames.

–  it will be very awkward at first, but after a few rough goes it will get easier and students will start to warm up to you in their environment.

–  make sure to take a notebook and pen and record ALL observations.

–  you cannot police these students when you observe their bad behaviors.  you want them to talk to you about why they are doing what they are doing.  you need to stay very objective in your study.

–  don’t get all spiritual on the teens you interact with.  just be natural and blend into the crowd.  just listen and ask a lot of deep questions.

–  at the end of 20 hours, do a lab write up.  in the write up, reflect on what you saw and learned when you were interacting with the other students.

–  extrapolate 4 – 5 ideas from your lab write up that will make you a better youth worker in the town you minister in.  these 4-5 ideas should shed light on how to reach the “other” students.

The goal of cultural anthropology is getting “christian youth workers” to immerse themselves in unfamiliar teenage environments which will give them a better understanding of today’s teens and help them better contextualize Gospel centered environments for students to encounter and experience Jesus.


My Cultural Anthropology Experiment: What I Learned By Spending 20 Hours At A Local Mall

–  teenagers can persuade any homeless person to buy them cigarettes and alcohol. they simply tip them a few extra bucks when the homeless person delivers their goods

–  teenagers were extremely comfortable talking about their raging hormones in public

–  parents want to quickly get rid of their teen by dropping them off at the mall and parents hand their teen cash to blow at the mall

–  teens were quick to make fun of the clueless christian teens in the mall

–  teens did not like the mall cop/security and repeatedly made fun of him

–  teens have a very distorted view of God

–  if you ask the right questions, most teens will open up and tell you what they are thinking

–  teens need to witness more adults being an incarnational witness.  basically more students need to see more adults model (not talk about) the Christian life


I invite you to engage in cultural anthropology by observing teens for 20 hours on their turf.   I would also love to hear your conclusions and observations if you do decide to conduct cultural anthropology in your community.    


About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

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  1. You’re speaking to my heart on this one, JZ! I have always believed that youth ministry is cross-cultural ministry for any adult. Because youth culture changes so rapidly, even 20-something youth workers are not immersed in it any longer. Of course, I also did my undergrad in sociology with a heavy emphasis in cultural anthropology, so I’m a little biased.

    • yes i am finding more peeps who love sociology!!!!!! about 2 years ago i sat down with a few anthropology professors and picked their brains on how to conduct anthropology in the field of youth ministry.

      • It simply makes sense, and eliminates a number of problems such as YPs trying to be a peer/friend rather than a missionary to youth culture as it exists in their community. We don’t have to be one of them, we have to learn how to communicate Christ in ways that make sense to them through their cultural lens.

  2. Thanks for the Post. I live in the pacific northwest in canada. The population is %5 evangelical. I still think the best way to reach teenagers is peer to peer. So, that means as a Youth Pastor gets older, the better he/she needs to be at training teens to reach their friends.

  3. We as youth pastors NEED to hear this message. A huge task of a missionary is to understand the people he or she is serving and their culture. Why should it be any different for those who are serving and loving those within adolescent culture?

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