03 Sep

For the young people I work with, term starts again in the next few days, and so I’m currently putting the final touches to what our term programme is going to look like up until December.

I’ve been wondering over the summer what I should be aiming at, though. I’ve read Bob Dylan’s incredible autobiography Chronicles, as well as Shane Claiborne’s book The Irresistible Revolution, over the past couple of months. Dylan’s book in particular is one that really challenged me – when he looks at people it’s like he looks into their souls, sees what they are truly about, and it got me wondering what it is that I am about.

People like Donald Miller and Shane Claiborne don’t just sit down and choose to write books like Blue Like Jazz or The Irresistible Revolution, they’re the products of the life that they live. An expression of who they truly are. And they are men who I respect and who I’m deeply challenged by.

The temptation in planning for the new term has been to try and come up with ways to teach my young people how to be relevant to culture, to come up with a programme that is accessible to their friends. The truth is, though, that unless they get their head around faith, it doesn’t matter how “relevant” the programme is, because their evangelism won’t be an expression of who they truly are or what they truly believe.

On some level, it will just be selling cool, which I’m not sure really helps anyone.

So here’s my question for today – does a youth group have to be cool to be relevant, or is the heart of the Christian faith so opposed to the idea of “cool” that trying to create a cool youth group is always going to be a kind of uneasy balance?

What do you think?


Posted by on 03/09/2011 in God, Other


13 responses to “>> HOW TO BE UNCOOL

  1. Rachael

    03/09/2011 at 1:30 pm

    You’re so cool Tom. In fact, now that Ilse has left, I think you might have a shot a “coolest person in our house” Tom. Maybe.

    • Tom

      03/09/2011 at 1:39 pm

      Well, debatable as that may be, I nonetheless feel as though a lot of the so-called “cool” that I allegedly possess comes from my being truly, dramatically uncool.

  2. Dawid Potgieter

    03/09/2011 at 3:43 pm

    Would you say that it’s reasonable to define ‘cool’ as being successful in making a good impression on other people? I’m sure Jesus mentioned something about living for God rather than to impress others…so by that reasoning it might not be ideal to focus on being cool.

    Having said that, the gospel of our creator is obviously relevant to all of His creation. We can therefore assume that the Jesus can be appealing and make a good impression in spite of not trying to be ‘cool’. If that makes sense then the question is: how do you appeal to young people without making any effort to be cool?

    • Tom

      03/09/2011 at 4:12 pm

      Dawid, I think you’re right that “cool” relates to appearance, to how people see you – I feel as though some of it relates to power, too, to being in control.

      I’m not sure whether the answer is to give the appearance of cool whilst having the focus that Jesus did underpinning it – ie. Look accessible but be radically committed to humility, grace, serving others and helping them encounter God. So I think maybe we have to make the effort, but also have to be totally committed to the essentials at the heart of our faith too, to the extent that any philosophy of welcome is tied into that.

  3. John Morgan

    03/09/2011 at 5:43 pm

    Tom, if I may offer my two penn’orth – (and with apologies in advance as I suspect you know as much about this by now as I do!) I think you’re asking two questions.

    1. Does the substance of what a youth group teaches have to be cool to be relevant? The answer has to be no – it simply has to be biblical, and that must be the start and end point.

    2. Does the manner in which that teaching is dressed – and what surrounds it – have to be cool to be relevant? Probably, for at least part of the group you’re trying to reach.

    The expanded answer for question 2 is of course that how to present biblical teaching will depend on who you’re speaking to, and how you’re doing it – and you may need to approach presentation in more than one way (sometimes at the same time!) with different groups – that’s why small groups, carefully selected on the basis of the participants having a common approach, are so important.

    For some – “cool” is all. For others it isn’t. The tricky bit is working who needs what without losing the core of the teaching you’re trying to deliver – and for that I have no pat answer – except that I can guarantee that you won’t always get it completely right – but that you’ll usually hit the right notes for some of the people you’re dealing with if that core remains intact.

  4. Jon Tansey (@Jon_Tansey)

    03/09/2011 at 5:49 pm

    I guess it depends on your definition of cool. I think some things are cool that a lot of people would not. For me “cool” is a product of the background of the individual: their environment, desires, aspirations and even insecurities. I think we often see someone as cool when we see something in them that we want ourselves. Working out from that idea I guess a lot of what defines cool in our culture is based on similarities in peoples environment and desires.

    Taking it a step further – since we are all designed to desire a relationship with the creator, it stands to reason that God should be the ultimate expression of cool however in this fallen world those same feelings and mechanisms that should attract us towards God are often twisted to focus our aspirations on people, objects, lifestyles etc. rather than God.

    I’m not saying that it’s bad to think things are cool but it should be done for the right reasons:

    “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

    For me If our expressions of faith fit into these categories and are considered cool then we are doing it right if however we have to compromise those values in order to become cool then we’re in a dangerous place

    • Tom

      04/09/2011 at 1:40 am

      John and Jon,

      I think you’re right that there has to be some consistent central belief – something that you hold on to with integrity. That is to say, for example, I believe that introducing people to Jesus will transform their life, and so I will commit to continuing to do that in a variety of ways because that is important.

      When we start chasing numbers or actively trying to be cool then I agree that it starts to be a problem. But holding onto something with that kind of integrity is threatening to a lot of people. They claim that you’re not being accessible, that you’re one-sided, that young people don’t have a sufficiently broad understanding of faith – and so the temptation is to chase what seems to work as a measure of success.

      And because the cool is often popular, that often equates to chasing the cool.

  5. linus

    03/09/2011 at 9:05 pm

    1 tell your kids you think Jesus is mint. Tell them why you think this.
    2 tell your kids its ok to be honest. That they don’t have to pretend to be someone else anymore. Prove it to them by being yourself unashamedly. (This is, as you say above, what Don Miller often achieves in his books, and i love him for it).
    3 “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

    For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?” (From James’ letter)

    Make sure your programme(!) is at least as attractive to the kids who aren’t percieved to be cool as it is to the kids who are percieved to be cool. And love them all the same.

    Everything else is bollocks.

    • Tom

      04/09/2011 at 1:43 am

      James (and John),

      I love your comments, and I couldn’t have put it any better. Thanks for that reminder.

      If we start living it out we’ll have a whole lot more interesting stories to tell too…

  6. Arukiyomi

    04/09/2011 at 12:15 am

    Seeing as we share a love of his writing, I’ll let Mr Miller speak for me:

    If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.

    beware relevancy in trendy clothing. Relevancy is simply Good News.

  7. thepygmygiant

    04/09/2011 at 2:07 pm

    Hey, can I weigh in?
    Amen to the above…
    I think maybe trying to be cool is the curse of teenagers’ lives. And what they’d really like is somewhere world you don’t actually have to be cool but are still accepted and liked. Happily, that’s the gospel 🙂
    I can remember when I was a teenager, one of the cool girls in my year randomly saying to me, ‘you’re cool, Mel, because you don’t care what anyone thinks about you.’ This was of course a very backhanded compliment cos it meant, ‘you’re not cool, but you still seem happy anyway.’ (And I actually did care what everyone thought about me, it clearly wasn’t working…) But I think maybe that’s what people really long for. That is a different kind of cool. Don and Shane aren’t cool, we just think they’re cool because they have integrity… that’s the Christian kind of cool. Being free to be yourself. And living an authentic life. Everyone wants that, I think, even though that’s the opposite of playground ‘cool’.
    I have no idea how you are supposed to apply this to your youth group. Bummer. Encourage them all to be themselves unashamedly and to love everything about each other? Maybe. That’s easy enough right? 😉 x

  8. Jo

    05/09/2011 at 12:20 am

    I think everything I want to say has already been said better above. (But I’m going to say it again anyway…) I read your question and thought, “well, duh, some of the coolest people I know are Christians!” Then I realised that this is only because my definition of cool has changed dramatically since I was a teenager: when I think of cool people now, I think of awesome people who aren’t afraid to be who they really are and to live and love abundantly. I don’t even think that’s a Christian thing; I think it’s an adult thing – realising that being enthusiastic and genuine is far more satisfying and fun than trying to live up to some kind of artificial social construct. But that is not what was cool when I was fourteen, and I imagine it is not what is cool to fourteen year olds today, and I don’t even know if it’s possible to make it fourteen-year-old-cool. Being fourteen is pretty rubbish, really. (This is why I’m not a youth worker.)

    I also, as has been said, think it’s important to remember the uncool kids who are there. I think my youth group when I was a teenager erred too much on the side of being too cool. The leaders would constantly play pranks on us and do dumb stuff with aerosols and lighters, and insist that we all party to dance music at the start of each meeting, and I, as a neurotic and bookish teenager, and the very antithesis of cool, found this all terrifying and off-putting, and was mocked because of it. Most people loved it (I was really the only geeky kid there), so I can see why they did it. But it also encouraged me to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, and made me feel out of place because of who I really was. And that, while possibly fourteen-year-old-cool, is definitely not really cool at all.

  9. Tom

    05/09/2011 at 10:39 am

    Jo and Mel (and others),

    Maybe it’s about nurturing people’s confidence in who God made them to be so they can step out in faith – after all, something that teaches you to be cool just within your immediate peer group doesn’t have that much lasting impact. So if you can create an environment where people (even awkward people) are built up and then sent out then it’s not just “come to my cool group!” but “come to my group and learn how to transform the world outside”, which is undeniably powerful.


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