Connecting Faith and Life

Understanding Urban Youth

1. INTRODUCTION

India is home to the biggest youth population on earth. India also has a large and growing Urban population. Census 2001 reports that 27.8% of Indian population lives in urban areas. The urban youth is a strategic people group in many ways to evangelize India. They are the future leaders and have tremendous potential to shape the course of the nation. Nevertheless, the task of communicating the gospel to them is challenging. They are vulnerable, potential, volatile, and reactive, all at the same time. They think and act differently than the rest. In short, they possess a culture of their own. Unless we know their worldview, problems, and specific needs, we may not be able to relate with them in an effective way. This paper is an attempt to understand urban youth sub-culture in India, with the intent of finding effective ways of communicating the gospel to them. In this paper, apart from making use of relevant literature, I have incorporated insights which I gained through ten years of ministry among urban youth.

2. URBAN YOUTH: THEIR WORLDVIEW, PSYCHOLOGY AND PROBLEMS

In this section, I would discuss some of the prominent trends that symbolize urban youth culture of the present times. The following account is just a representative description of the major trends and issues found among youth in many of the Indian cities.1

2. 1. Media and Peer Influence

Two important forces that shape today’s young people are Media and Peer group. The Western media invasion of India after the economic liberalization program of 1991 has brought about a cultural revolution. Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV and Channel V, Viacom’s MTV have changed the aspirations and values of urban youth forever.2 This generation spends an incredible amount of time watching television, browsing the Net and listening to music. The media have become a source of information on everything from sexuality to politics to alternate life styles to issues of moral choices.3 It is said that the life of an average young person in an urban set up is saturated with music. Similarly, visual images which young people see via music videos, movies and other media, influence their life style.4 Moreover, the Peer group is everything to young people. It constitutes their world and it becomes the yardstick by which they function. The adolescent usually is so dominated by the influence of peers that he or she tries to mould and develop his or her personality in such a way that he or she will have the approval of the peer group and their total acceptance.5 Some of the peer pressures in an urban youth culture are – To have a perfect body, to be dressed and groomed stylishly, to be socially active, to drink and use drugs, and to have an active sexual life.6 One of the basic reasons why young people are controlled by Peer group is due to their longing to be accepted. They also seek attention and affection. They fear rejection and therefore yield themselves to peer pressure even though they may not personally like certain things.

2. 2. A World of Money-making, Extravagant Life-Style, and Fun

An important feature of today’s young urban world is its craze for money and materials. In India, thanks to globalization young people today have the potential and possibility of earning big money immediately after their schooling. A journalist observes,

What the new generation likes is money. According to a survey conducted by Coca-Cola, the primary ambition of young Indians from the smallest villages to the largest cities is to become rich. Young people hope to achieve this goal through enterprise and education. Liberalization has created a new social contract in which making money is respectable. “India’s salvation lies in free enterprise,” says Vinay Aranha, 22, who illustrates the trend. He works two jobs – selling cars and doing marketing for his family’s small business in Pune.7

With big money comes the craze for extravagant life styles. Young people believe that ‘things’ bring happiness and they are symbols of successful life.8 No wonder, youth become the main target of today’s market. They are the bulk buyers. According to a report of 2001, there are over 2000 brands, mostly in fast moving consumer goods, which are now part and parcel of the life of young Indians.9 Moreover, young people look for excitement and action. They long to experience new things in life which provide them thrill.10 Making money and spending it happens to be the biggest fun for them.11 More prevalent among upper and high middle class youth of the cities are the pubs and hang-outs. They present opportunities for young people to mingle with opposite sex, smoke, drink, dance and even find sex partners. Moreover, these pubs also become centres of drug circulation. A well researched paper by Arun Saldanha gives an account of pub culture.

Bangalore is known as pub city of India. There are about one hundred pubs which specifically aim at youth from well to do families. The owners of The Cellar, for example, have cleverly reacted to the enormous demand for leisure sites. On Saturday afternoons, the pub is the place to be for teenagers who are not allowed to go for discotheques at night. Particularly, for girls from the more orthodox families, The Cellar is one of the few places where they can practise global lifestyle together with peers…The spot lights create an atmosphere between cosy and disco, everybody drinks and most smoke (alcohol, cigars, and marijhuana are no longer male privileges)…12

Young people live for the present; past and future are remote in their perspective. Present assumes a new significance as the one time in which life is relevant, immediate and knowable.13 Therefore, they do not normally think of consequences. They just plunge into whatever excites them.

2. 3. Young Hearts: The Unseen Battlefield

Young people have their own concerns and problems. They are vulnerable to negative feelings like self hatred and self pity because of personal failures in life.14 Here is an account of a psychiatrist. R. Karthikeyan writes, “Two thirds of my clients seeking psychotherapy are below 20. Depression, suicidal behaviour, love failures, relationship problems, sexual deviations, drug dependence, psychosomatic ailments and body image disturbances are the major complaints.”15 Similarly, young people are often disillusioned with establishments like family, religion and society. This may be because of the hypocrisy and flawed nature they see in them.16 Hence, they desperately look for role models in their lives. As young people grow into independence  they also begin to face an identity crisis. On one hand they want to conform themselves to their peers, but on the other hand want to be different from others in some way to get their self identity. Who am I? What do I need? Where do I fit? These are some questions they face.17 Sometimes, unable to cope with some of these stressful situations, young people get into drugs, alcohol and discreet relationships. This directly leads them into a vicious cycle of depression, addiction, relief, frustration and so on.

2. 4. Religion of Urban Youth: Post-Modern Suspicion and Lure of Cults

Two characteristics of contemporary youth towards established religions are irreverence and suspicion. Some think that being religious is totally unscientific and irrational in a modern world. The general tendency among many others is to think that religion is a matter of one’s personal preference. This comes from the post-modern philosophy of life.18 Nevertheless, among young people we also find a new trend. There is a revival of spiritual search. Many are being attracted to cults and sects. Cults attract youths experiencing psychological stress, rootlessness, feelings of emptiness and confusion. They offer relief, sense of belonging, and a means of escape from the realities of the world.19 Ellen M. Allexander, who did a survey among young people of Bangalore three years ago, observes, “A significant trend in Bangalore among youth are reports that the well educated, fashionable are now getting high without drinking and smoking and are now swaying to pop bhajans.”20

3. THE CHALLENGE: COMMUNICATING THE GOSPEL TO URBAN YOUTH

3.1. Incarnational Ministry

Incarnational approach refers to becoming incarnate or figuratively being born into another person’s world.21 This approach has its basis in the fact that Jesus came into our world and became one of us so that we could come to him (Jn.14-15). I think this is an effective approach to win young people for Christ. As they are generally antagonistic towards traditional religions, we cannot expect them to come to our churches and special meetings. The traditional approach to evangelism was to invite them to our worship services and churches. Preaching at them from pulpits may not work well anymore.22 To reach them, we have to enter into their world. Only when we identify with them, they would associate with us. We have to find them where they are – the pubs, parties, campuses, and other meeting places.

Moreover, we need to do what they do. This does not mean that we have to compromise our values and convictions. Young people love excitement and action. Partying, games, eating-out, biking, trekking, going out for movies, listening to popular music, are things which young people loved to do. These are activities which are not essentially sinful although there would be several things that we may not approve. In the case of those things which are contrary to Scripture, we will be naturally tempted to condemn them. Our judgmental attitude would only distance them from us. We need to accept them as they are. We also need to be appreciative of some of the good values followed by young people.23 For instance, youth generally dislike hypocrisy and love justice. Such qualities need to be appreciated. Our lives should teach them moral lessons rather than our condemning words. Living amidst young people and showing them the truths of the gospel by life is important. They are looking for role models. Hence, I believe incarnational approach is foundational to youth ministry. In short, this means spending time with them on their turf, talking and listening to them, loving and being for them at all costs.24

3. 2. Friendship Evangelism

Young people give utmost importance to relationships. That is why friendship bonds are so strong among them. Hence, friendship evangelism could be an effective tool in reaching youth. This is sometimes called as personal evangelism. Generally evangelism is understood as an event. Therefore, traditional evangelistic efforts revolve around tracts distribution, one-day retreats, crusades, revival meetings and so on. We expect a person to be converted at the end of the event. Although these type of evangelistic efforts do have a place in our mission and are effective at times, they are an ineffective way to approach today’s urban youth. To reach a commitment to Christ, young people need time to reflect on their lives, issues and problems.25 Hence, we need to build relationships before we share the gospel. It means being with young people in their joys and sorrows. It takes our time and energy. This approach is not target oriented but focused on producing lasting fruits. Jesus spent around three years with his twelve disciples, living with them and leading them gradually towards his new way of life (Mk. 1:17-18, 4:41, 8:27-30, 16:14-15). I think this is what we need to do with our youth. The Church should enable and motivate her believing youth to develop friendships with non-Christians. ‘Young people reaching out to young people’ would be the ideal case as peer influence is strong among adolescents.26

3. 3. A Caring Community: Being Holistic

The Mission of the Church is holistic. Merely sharing the gospel would not suffice. Young people, as we have seen in this paper, have their own problems and needs. Gospel then must address these issues. Mission to youth may mean providing counselling and help in times of trouble, organizing career guidance programmes, tuition, skill training, and so on.27 Many young people live amidst constant hurts, frustrations, and stress. What they are primarily looking for is a community where they can feel genuine love, a sense of belonging and care. In other words, church worship and our gatherings must become a hang-out place for youth.28 Many a time, a traditional church does not attract young people. The usual worship service and preaching do not cater to their needs and confused minds.

Sometimes, Christians shut the doors of fellowship to certain kinds of youth like gays, lesbians, tattooed, and differently looking personalities. This attitude should change. Jesus Christ set a perfect example in this regard. He loved the sinners and accepted them in his midst though he confronted their sins (Jn.4:1-27). This should be our attitude towards today’s youth. Small groups are the best suited set up for young people to come together.29 They provide more opportunities for sharing and caring better than big congregations.

3. 4. The Content and Expressions of the Gospel Message

The content and expressions of the gospel have to be contextual to be effective. More so in the case of reaching urban youth. Young people, as discussed in the paper, are often captivated by Media. Many things compete in the world to get their attention – philosophies, ideologies, materialism, etc. Therefore, it is important for us to present the gospel in such a way that not only gets their attention but convinces them of its truth. Alexander writes, “Unless the gospel is presented as a superior option, good for them and what is lacking in their culture and life style, they will simply pass by it. This offering also has to be in the context of the rising trend in spiritual experiences offered by cults.”30

There are certain concepts which do not mean anything to urban youth. For instance, youth live for the ‘present’ and therefore to talk about life after death and eternity may not be an apt idea to focus in evangelism. Similarly, the concept of sin is not so strong in their worldview, and therefore to talk about punishment of sin and redemption may not be relevant.31 This does not mean that these concepts are less important. Nevertheless, they are not good points of contact. Youth look for freedom, happiness, and a secured future. Moreover, considering the fact that youth are struggling with issues of hurt, anxiety, loneliness, depression and so on, our focus should be on providing answers for these issues. Jesus may be presented as the source of happiness and freedom. He could be portrayed as a Friend who is ever present and fully understanding. Jesus may also be presented as the perfect role model. This would be relevant and appropriate. Finally, a word about intellectual approach. Usually it is thought youth are looking for intellectual answers more than anything. This is not fully true. They look for reason as well as emotion. Hence, our gospel presentation needs to be both intellectual and appealing to their emotional needs.32

Concerning modes, we have to look for those things youth like and try to use those avenues to share the gospel. Media is an effective tool for attracting young people. Music videos and movies also hold a sway over them. Hence, Christian music and movies should keep in pace with the changing trends to captivate youth. Moreover, instead of merely using the age old preaching and teaching modes, which today’s youth consider as boring, we need to look for alternate methods. Kevin Graham Ford comments, “Generate excitement. Make gatherings feel like a party – a celebration, not a funeral. Make youth feel like VIPs. Surprise them, even shock them a bit. Shake them up. Make worship fun and stimulating.”33

4. CONCLUSION

God loves young people and He loves urban centres which are the hotbeds of today’s world. The message of Jesus Christ is the only solution which can transform today’s urban youth world. The Church is entrusted with this great task. Urban youth sub-culture demands a change in our traditional evangelistic approaches. This paper has attempted to draw out some relevant contextual approaches. Nevertheless, communicating Christ to today’s youth is an on-going challenge. We don’t have easy options but to work hard to understand their culture in order we may share Jesus Christ effectively. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit but sharing meaningfully the gospel is our responsibility. Jesus Christ is our model. He contextulised himself to help us understand and believe in Him. Our success lies in following His methods.

1Urban culture is a complex phenomenon. Urban centres have the rich and poor, the educated and illiterate, the orthodox and out-going. The focus of this paper is to highlight the youth subculture which exists within the Urban culture. To know more on the concept of subculture, see John Gulick, The Humanity of Cities (New York: Bergin & Garvey, 1989), 182-183. Moreover, the research would limit itself to the elite section of the youth community, who mostly come from upper and middle class families. Similarly, it has to be noted that behavior and worldview of young people slightly differ according to their age group. People between the age group of 12 and 25 are normally identified as youth. Early adolescents (12-15), Middle adolescents (15-18), and later adolescents (19-25) have varying haracteristics of their own. There are differences between boys and girls as well. This research does not deal issues separately, rather, attempts to give an overall trend found among young people of the age between 12 and 25. For an indepth study of the differences within adolescence, refer M. Panchar Longchar, Campus Ministry among Christians (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2003), 17-21, and Sumati Ghosh, Adolescent Behaviour (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1999), 1-29.

2Manjeet Kripalani, “India’s Youth,” http://www.businessweek.com/1999/99_41/b3650015.htm (accessed 13 February 2008).

3Walt Mueller, Understanding Today’s Youth Culture (Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1994), 43.

4Mueller, Understanding Today’s Youth Culture, 67-69.

5Ghosh, Adolescent Behaviour, 95.

6Mueller, Understanding Today’s Youth Culture, 180-189.

7Cited in Kripalani, “India’s Youth,” http://www.businessweek.com/1999/99_41/b3650015.htm (accessed 13 February 2008)

8Mueller, Understanding Today’s Youth Culture, 237.

9Cited in J. N. Manoharan, Christ and Cities (Chennai: Mission Educational Books, 2005), 146.

10The physical (hormonal) changes during adolescence and the subsequent psychological attraction between girls and boys propel them to look for socializing and partying. Ghosh, Adolescent Behaviour, 18-20.

11Cited in Manoharan, Christ and Cities, 149. Working young people make it almost a regular feature to visit these pubs to relax and recreate after a week of stressful work.

12Arun Saldanha, “Music, Space, Identity, global youth/local others in Bangalore, India,” http://www.cia.com.au/peril/youth/arun-msi.pdf (accessed 14 February 2008).

13Lee Vukich and Steve Vandegriff, Timeless Youth Ministry (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), 28

14Longchar, Campus Ministry among Christians, 20-22.

15Cited in Manoharan, Christ and Cities, 151.

16Young people generally give importance to relationships. They expect love, affection, acceptance from their parents, siblings, and friends. When relationships are affected, it leads to severe depression. Vukich and Vandegriff, Timeless Youth Ministry, 32-33.

17Ghosh, Adolescent Behaviour, 116.

18Vukich and Vandegriff, Timeless Youth Ministry, 28.

19Vukich and Vandegriff, Timeless Youth Ministry, 35-36.

20Ellen M. Alexander, Communicating the Gospel in an Urban Context (M.Th. Thesis, TAFTEE, India, 2003), 33.

21Kevin Graham Ford, Jesus for a New Generation (Illinois: IVP, 1995), 200.

22Ford, Jesus for a New Generation, 200.

23Ford, Jesus for a New Generation, 201

24John M. Dettoni, Introduction to Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995), 21-22.

25Ford, Jesus for a New Generation, 192.

26[n.a.], Witnesses for Me: A Manual for Evangelical Unions (Chennai: UESI Publications, 2007), 18-24.

27Alexander, Communicating the Gospel in an Urban Context, 65-66.

28Alexander, Communicating the Gospel in an Urban Context, 69.

29Ford, Jesus for a New Generation, 209.

30Alexander, Communicating the Gospel in an Urban Context, 63.

31Alexander, Communicating the Gospel in an Urban Context, 65.

32Ford, Jesus for a New Generation, 174.

33Ford, Jesus for a New Generation, 205.

By Sam K. John

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