Blur: A New Paradigm for Understanding Youth Culture

Blur: A New Paradigm for Understanding Youth Culture

by Jeffrey Keuss


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to today’s blurred youth culture

Mobile. Connected. Wired in. This is a generation that skips over perceived cultural boundaries and resists definition. They are a mash-up of identity, a blur of old categories and classes. Creators and consumers of a rapidly changing culture.

But how does one reach a demographic that is so difficult to pin down?

Many of the most popular approaches to youth ministry today begin by portraying youth as collections of fixed snapshots, “profiles” based on sociological research studies. Yet according to Dr. Jeff Keuss, today’s teens cannot be adequately characterized by these simplistic and static descriptions. Keuss argues that what is needed, instead, is a qualitative approach to describing young people, one that recognizes the “blurred” nature of today’s mobile youth culture.

Jeff Keuss presents an optimistic new way of thinking about youth, one that sees them more holistically and less clinically. As we learn to see youth culture through this new lens, we will become better informed and better equipped to minister to the teens of today’s rapidly changing world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780310514848
Publisher: Zondervan
Publication date: 02/04/2014
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jeff Keuss is Professor of Christian Ministry, Theology and Culture at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) in Seattle, Washington. Jeff is a regular contributor to The Kindlings Muse monthly podcast on theology and culture ( His books include Your Neighbor’s Hymnal: What Popular Music Teaches Us about Faith, Hope and Love; Freedom of the Self; A Poetics of Jesus; and The Sacred and the Profane. You can follow him on Twitter @Jeff Keuss as well as his blog:

Read an Excerpt


a new paradigm for understanding youth culture

By Jeff F. Keuss


Copyright © 2014 Jeff F. Keuss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-310-51484-8



Learning to Meet Youth Where They Are

Prior to my work as a pastor and theologian, I worked as a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America. One of the largest youth social service organizations in the world, the Boy Scouts of America was founded in the United States in 1910 following the model of youth leadership formation put forward in Britain by Lord Robert Baden-Powell. Core to Baden-Powell's vision was the importance of providing focused adult mentorship and training for young people in order to instill character traits of honor, courage, and charity, regardless of social class. Baden-Powell was a committed Christian, and much of the growth in scouting during the last century has been through aligning many of the ideals found in the gospel with the organization of the Boy Scouts.

I served a large area of greater Seattle by training volunteer leaders and helping to form new dens, packs, and troops in community centers, schools, and churches. I also worked with groups of young people to help them connect and grow in these community-based scout groups. At an organizing event at an elementary school one evening, I was pulled aside by a mother and her young son. She told me her son had made friends in his troop, and she truly enjoyed seeing him grow in his self-confidence. "His patrol group even has a Bible study," she exclaimed. I told her that many scout groups had found that having faith be central to life together in community was an authentic way for a number of the scouting ideals to be lived out. "I can see that," she replied and then followed up with an interesting comment: "The youth pastor of the church where our Boy Scout troop meets spoke to the troop about the church's youth ministry and encouraged the boys to attend. The problem is, the scout meetings are on the same evening as the youth group. Our scoutmaster has asked the youth group to meet at a different time, and the response was to ask the troop to change their meeting time. It's been a standoff for quite a while." She then said, "If my son is growing in faith and maturity where he is, why should I take him away from that?"

This question of having to choose between meaningful, generative programs isn't unusual. Many parents battle the challenges of time commitments with sports, music lessons, and, of course, church and parachurch groups. But what do you say if a young person is growing in faith—yet not in an expressly Christian context? In this woman's case, she and her son attended regular Sunday worship services, but the peer faith community and adult mentorship in faith wasn't going to happen in a church or parachurch—instead, it was happening in the Boy Scout context. Was she making a poor choice for her son? What was evident in that conversation was that God was working in a powerful way in this family and drawing a young man into a deeper sense of faith without what many would consider an orthodox Christian form of catechesis. This young man was growing and developing as a Christian despite the fact he was likely off the radar screen and certainly outside the context for much of what's considered youth ministry in some church traditions. This is becoming more and more the case. While the traditional models of church-based youth ministry continue to have a place, and parachurch ministries such as Young Life and Youth for Christ continue to make an impact, teens are also encountering God in meaningful ways outside of the church. This has been true throughout the centuries, but perhaps now more than ever it's important for those who work in youth ministry to humbly acknowledge and actively support alternatives to traditional youth ministries, rather than compete with them. As the lines blur between what's considered a Christian versus a non-Christian context for teens, so should those boundaries blur for parents, mentors, and church leaders.

To take this conversation further, it's helpful to reflect on the changing nature of society's understanding of what a teenager is and how culture is to contribute to the development of young people. Western culture is fixated upon what it means to be a teenager. The idolization of youth, the apparent limitlessness of life's possibilities, and the wonderful tension of adulthood and childhood blurring together all contribute to romanticism about and concern with what teens think, feel, and believe. Yet who teenagers are and who adults think teenagers should be is in itself in constant tension.

Should teens be fully realized adults once their bodies are mature? Should teens have as deep a grasp of the complexities of the Christian faith as their parents and the leaders of their faith communities do? Should we be concerned if teens can't articulate clear and concise faith statements by the time they reach junior high? High school? College? As media and mass culture moves faster and faster, it becomes harder to lock down what sources teenagers use to augment their ever-shifting notion of what it means to become an adult. This blurring of sources also makes it challenging for parents and leaders of faith communities to come up with a clear picture of teenagers in this fast-paced world. In the end much of the fixation on what a teenager is—or what adults think a teenager should be—makes it very difficult for most adults to track down and actually engage a teenager. Where are these teens? What are they thinking? What are they feeling? What social media outlets are they spending time on ... and is it healthy?

In his seminal text on the history of adolescents in America titled Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present, Joseph Kett states:

Those who measure the success of revolutions by their completeness will judge the revolution which has overtaken American young people in recent decades to be one of the most successful ... They are essentially consumers rather than producers. Their contacts with adults are likely to occur in highly controlled environments such as the classroom, and the adults encountered are usually conveyors of specialized services such as education and guidance ... [T]he economic and social relationship between youth and adults has clearly changed. Further, the change has been abrupt as well as been profound.

This abrupt "change" in the relationship between adults and teens is in many ways the central concern of this book. What we hear in this quotation from Kett is that there's a growing chasm between the perceptions of who teenagers are and who they really are. Because of these rifts and because of our desire to better minister to generations that radically differ from our own, many church leaders have turned to quantitative studies such as Smith and Denton's now classic study of American teenagers in Soul Searching. The reason for this shift toward placing a high value upon social science research on how and why we do youth ministry is understandable and to be applauded. For far too long, much of what passed as youth ministry was primarily based on a desire to indoctrinate youth, rather than understand and engage them.

However, while such studies provide helpful data, they don't show the whole picture. There are blind spots in these studies that I will address in this book. As you'll see, I challenge the dominance of data-driven approaches to youth ministry because they lack an openness to the full—and often perplexing—story of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. This is what will be referred to as blur: a willingness to view teenagers in a way that embraces the complexities and paradoxes of coming of age in faith as a work in progress. It's my hope that rather than being concerned that teenagers lack clarity in their core faith statements and in many ways are on a journey to discover the height, breadth, and depth of a relationship with the God of the universe, you'll come to a place of grace, hope, and love for these teenagers whom God is raising up into a faith that's wild and mysterious and not the least bit boring or static.

The time has come for faith communities who love Jesus and trust God with our youth to reflect on youth culture through a lived, embodied, and fluid view of what it means to be human. With the rise of surveys and data-mining websites where adults can collect information about how teenagers think, what teenagers like to do, and where they like to spend their time, there's always the danger of seeing teenagers almost too objectively. At such a distance we can be left with a quantitative lens under which these young men and women are reduced to trends, attitudes, and fads rather than people with faces, names, hearts, and souls.

In an effort to quickly and efficiently assess and care for young people, there's a temptation to focus on finding the disease without asking what it means to be alive. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the early church fathers, said Christians are known not by their sickness but by their cure. For us this can mean we don't watch for students to fall, but we invite them to run the race of faith with us by taking on Paul's challenge to fix our eyes on what lies ahead and run for it in a blur of motion and action. Just as the mother of that Boy Scout did, it's important that we step back and pay attention to where God is working in that moment and how young people are growing in faith and deepening their love for Jesus. If we do this, perhaps we can support rather than compete with the culture in those moments. Working with young people will always mean moving into the confusing, yet-to-be-fully understood world they inhabit—but we're to do it with the right spirit.

This was always made clear to me during my first meetings with parents and volunteers in the youth program at the beginning of the new school year. When I was a youth director, it was during this meeting that I would outline the various Sunday school themes and texts we'd be studying, the programs and themes we'd be focusing on in Wednesday night youth group, the various outreach and mission activities we were planning, and the ways in which we hoped parents and other adults in the church could be actively involved.

The youth ministry I was involved in at one point was at a midsized church in a middle- and upper-middle-class area. Many of the parents in this congregation had an image of youth ministry as being a safe space where teenagers would always be engaged with clearly outlined social and intellectual markers to know what a Christian was supposed to be. Of course these are wonderful expectations, and certainly this was part of my vision of youth ministry as well. Yet more often than not, there would always be one or two parents during the question-and-answer time who would ask something to the effect of, "One of the concerns I have is that my child is [listening/watching/ reading/etc.] too much secular [music/movies/videos/books/ magazines/etc.]. I wondered if you have any suggestions for Christian [music/movies/videos/books/magazines/etc.] that I should be encouraging [him/her] to [listen/watch/read/etc.] instead." Let me be clear: I've been blessed by the ministry, artistry, and creative vision of many artists who are faithful followers of Jesus. But what was often behind this question was an assumption about youth ministry being a place to indoctrinate and ultimately protect and separate one's child from the secular world. There's an idea that if the church doesn't teach young people to be very critical—and at times fearful—of the culture around them, then like sailors called by the beguiling sirens in Homer's Odyssey, teenagers will be drawn away from God and toward certain destruction.

When I first started in youth ministry, I felt this anxiety. So in response, I'd exclusively play contemporary Christian music, direct the youth to books with overtly Christian themes, and watch films with them that, if not overtly Christian, were at least easily understood within a Christian moral and cultural framework. What I found was that while I was trying to tie the youth group to the mast of Christian media, God was showing up in these teenagers' friends' secular music, books, magazines, and videos. The result was that my students found themselves living in two worlds, where the world of the church and youth group was a foreign country with a different language, customs, and holiday traditions.

So when parents asked, "Do you have suggestions for Christian [music/movies/videos/books/magazines/etc.] that I should be encouraging my child to [listen/watch/read/etc.]," I began providing tools to help them see that God is continually blurring the lines of what's sacred and secular; that certainty of faith and what deepens faith may be different at times; and that the aspects of our culture that are mysterious, wild, and out of our control may not be scary and dangerous after all. Another way to say this is that in order to truly minister to teenagers, we need to engage the culture in which they're being formed and deepened: we need to listen to the beats of their music; actively watch the videos they celebrate; read the fantasy novels that awaken their imaginations; ask why tattoos and piercings are profound and—at times—sacramental experiences; discuss the challenges and possibilities of the educational system that occupies much of their waking lives; and delve into the complexities of race, economics, status, and ethnicity that frame the bodies, minds, and souls of these young people. With opened eyes, ears, and hearts, we may find that God is doing so much more in teenagers' lives than we thought.


The question of how young people grow into a sustainable faith is at the forefront of many faith communities' concerns, and it needs our collective cultural attention. Various resources produced over the past few years have leaned heavily on data to back up ministry practice and effectiveness, and 2012 marked the ten-year anniversary of the first wave of data collected by the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR). As many church leaders and youth workers in America can attest, this study (which sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published in 2005 as Soul Searching) has been profound.

The NSYR began its work as a representative survey of U.S. households in forty-five states with teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, and it progressed to include qualitative in-person interviews with 267 representative teens from across the country. The NSYR offered the cumulative view that young people in America were developing not as orthodox to their respective faith traditions per se, but rather into Moralistic Therapeutic Deists. According to Smith and Denton, teenagers view God as a means for discerning right and wrong ethical behavior (moralistic); believe God has a central and primary concern for the individual needs of the self prior to those of a community (therapeutic); and see God as ultimately distant from the day-to-day activities of our lives, usually only interceding in times of crisis, if at all (deism). This distilled rendering of the NSYR into the catch phrase "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD)" has become so commonplace in many faith communities that it's hard to remember a time when teenagers were thought of in any other way. Even in faith communities that are unfamiliar with the specifics of the NSYR, the implications of the study often affect the way in which youth ministry is carried out. The concern that young people are neither talking about nor living out faith in ways that are considered traditional, let alone orthodox, is something that's been around for centuries. And every age must address the changing means by which the next generation takes up the mantle of the faith and builds bridges into the future. I've shared with some other theologians that what's needed isn't necessarily more clarity from the youth who contribute to the NSYR report on faith, but perhaps more mystery, wonder, and awe.

As we review Christian Smith's trilogy, Soul Searching, Souls in Transition, and Lost in Transition, as well as Lisa Pearce and Melinda Lundquist Denton's A Faith of Their Own, we can see in the first three waves of the NYSR that the outcomes point to the complexity of teenagers' faith journeys, yet also sound a note of alarm. The result is that faith communities who receive this data frequently respond with fear rather than hope. In large part this is due to a basic reality that anyone working directly with young people will tell you: the future that teens desire and the resources through which they encounter and deepen their Christian faith is often not in sync with the pasts of their parents and youth leaders. Language, images, and metaphors all shift and change with the culture and so, too, do the means by which young people discover and affirm what faith will be.

As Scripture has moved from scrolls to books to apps, what it means to merely read and engage the Word of God has dramatically changed. Images that represent faith have moved from being fixed images on canvas and stained glass to CGI and flash animation. People find community in virtual as well as physical locations, and the space between them is a blurred continuum of meaning-making where the online conversations spill over seamlessly into face-to-face encounters. Sometimes this is cause for concern, but it's also a cause for hopefulness and inspiration.


Excerpted from Blur by Jeff F. Keuss. Copyright © 2014 Jeff F. Keuss. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Seeing the blur of youth as ‘Sacredly Mobile Adolescents’
Chapter 2: From studying the pictures to ‘seeing the blur’ – creating a space for authentic ministry in a postmodern context
Chapter 3: Seeing the blur of youth as Jesus did – a phenomenological reading of Jesus’ encounters with youth
Chapter 4: Seeing the blur of youth through ‘Confessions’ on the dance floor: the role of St. Augustine for a practical theology of youth culture.
Chapter 5: Seeing the blur of youth in the midst of Conviction, Character and Community
Chapter 6: Seeing the blur of youth as 'coming of age' - from Goethe to Star Wars, The Matrix, Harry Potter and Twilight.
Chapter 7: Race and White Privilege: Taboo topics in today’s youth ministry

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Blur: A New Paradigm for Understanding Youth Culture 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
trevor_wells More than 1 year ago
In this book Jeff Keuss takes a unique look at the confusing culture that the youth of America live in. That is why the title “Blur” fits so well. Youth live in blurred cultures where they are constantly bombarded by the media. This culture glorifies being a consumer and using all of the different resources at their disposal, while not necessarily being shown what God desires for their lives.  These youth are being communicated many different messages from the world around them that bring lots of confusion to their lives and understanding of their culture. Keuss offers a suggestion to approach this unique generation in a different way than before. Many Christian communities and churches try to teach from a pre-set formula that teaches the youth in an isolated setting. However, Keuss suggests attacking the ever-changing and transforming culture that youth are involved in, by meeting youth in their context rather than separating them from the culture that they live in. This book is very good for challenging the way that we as leaders view the youth in our ministries. It is very important to recognize that youth are unique individuals and all ministries should be intentionally thought out and applied to the youth in the ministry. Keuss effectively brings up these issues in a way that allows the reader to be challenged but shows that there is not one single answer for this big problem in our culture.
Shane_Hunter More than 1 year ago
This book, by Dr. Jeff Keuss, is full of useful information and advice regarding encounters youth ministry workers have with today's young people. He points out the paradigm shift which is taking place in children today in regards to their spirituality and their 'mobility' as he says throughout the book. He comes to terms with the fact that culture is effecting the youth in our world and our church at a breakneck pace which can no longer be ignored or dismissed by the church leadership. He addresses the common questions by parents about what their children should and should not be listening, watching, or taking part in in relation to mass media, saying that these things should not be viewed as hindrances to their children’s spiritual life, but can actually enhance it. This is a good example of his philosophy of ministry, very much steeped in using the culture in which youth preside to best help them encounter God. He also operates on the premise that results are not ours to either determine or observe in our own phrase of reference, as lives will be changed not by our efforts but by God’s working in their lives. I think if I have one problem with the stance he takes, it is that he may be too inclusive and liberal on the extent to which youth ministry should incorporate pop culture, secular music, movies, and other forms of media as inspiration for spiritual growth. I understand the Apostle Paul’s strategy of ‘becoming like all people’ in order to best minister to others, but Jesus came to affect the culture, and such should be our goal as well. I think the information which he gives is useful, and some of his ideas are practical as well, but formulating a whole philosophy of ministry around it using somewhat flimsy scriptural evidences tied allegorically to his strategies isn't something I would adopt.
kirkrex More than 1 year ago
I feel like this is a great book that shows the importance of bridging the gap between adults and teens and the importance of understanding who teens are and to know the things that make them who they are. I thought this book was easy to read and enjoyed the length of the chapters and how reading this book wasn't a burden. I really enjoy Jeff Keuss' emphasis on building a relationship and connection with teens and avoiding the feeling of generation gap and gives ideas on how we can go about doing so. I would recommend this book to anyone with youth ministry in mind but also keeping in mind that this book is only one of many out there that address the importance of understanding youth