Learning to Listen

Last week our church youth department engaged in an experiment of sorts. So much of the research deals with the our failure to listen to the young people.[i] Hip-Hop arose out of a community of forgotten and ignored young people. These young people boomed and bumped body-rocking bass lines and blasted their bombastic lyrics as a creative protest to a world that refused to acknowledge their presence and value. This is why Hip-Hop still resonates so deeply with youth around the world. 

We live in an age where the education still sputters to provide quality instruction and cutting edge resources to a large group of American youth. This is the age when young black boys are victimized in the street and their assailants allowed to go free. In is this age parents spend far too much time chasing the American dream and far too little time helping their teens sort through the challenges of adolescence. We are not listening to our young people. 

This is one of the primary reasons why we held the listening party; to give us a forum where we can hear their hearts and minds on the media that bombards their daily lives. Furthermore, we want to be intentional about teaching them to engage that media. We want them to read it carefully and deconstruct the music and images that the culture constantly feeds them. We want them to be more like conscious critics and less like careless consumers. 

The Master Plan

The plan was a simple yet radical one. We invited a professional DJ (who happens to be a member of our church) to set up on the sanctuary rostrum and preform a set to get the teens’ attention. Then we invited them to give us their iPods and tell us what to play. We listened to the music that they brought and then we recorded quotes, lyrical images and concepts from the songs on a giant flip chart. Then we discussed the lines and concepts that were listed.   

We utilized the sanctuary’s giant screens to show popular music videos, and to project the lyrics of songs using rap genius to help us follow more closely. We were not there to prescribe or to berate…just to listen and discuss. The key is to ask the right questions in order to determine the depth with which they are engaged with the content in the music. 

We knew that it would be difficult to get them to open up about the music and their personal reactions to it, so we determined early on that parents would not be allowed to attend this session. However, we would maximize the moment be creating a parallel session for the parents to listen to music and watch videos themselves and engage in their own discussion about how they see what their kids are seeing. We identified a mother and father team that are pretty “well-informed” about what’s hot among the teens (given they have 3 teens themselves), and they would lead the discussion for the parents. 

We also added an essay contest leading up to the event. Teens were challenged to scan the QR code on the flyer, download the music video (by Wale, entitled “Golden Salvation”; see below) and write an essay responding to the song. The winner would receive a brand new iPod touch. The idea was to add to the excitement leading up to the event and to add one more opportunity to get them to think critically about the music.

Shaky Ground

As we prepared for this event there were a few places where we knew we were treading shaky ground.

The Big Surprise(s)

We were prepared for the backlash from those who were not excited about what we were doing. However, we were surprised and shocked at the response we got from the youth. Here are a few things that weren’t prepared for that blew us away.

The Really Big Surprise

When we planned the program we had no idea that we would have visitors. As it turned out we had a choir visiting from a Seventh-day Adventist academy to sing for the morning service, and then there was a concert scheduled to immediately follow the listening party. I am certain that if we had known that they were coming on the same date we probably would’ve rescheduled yet it was too short-notice for us to do anything other than improvise. We made sure to invite them and let them know that they were welcome to participate. 

One of the students from the visiting choir took to twitter to protest the decision to pull them out of the session. Might this be yet another example of our youth's frustration with our refusal to hear them?

One of the students from the visiting choir took to twitter to protest the decision to pull them out of the session. Might this be yet another example of our youth’s frustration with our refusal to hear them?

While the DJ set up his equipment and we tested the video feed we noticed that the students from the visiting Christian school, bobbed in concert with the beat. They knew the songs and they were excited to see what was about to happen. However, much to our surprise, their chaperones decided that “because they didn’t have their parents permission to participate,” then it was best that they were kept out. Some of  students were visibly upset and one young lady even voiced her disapproval on twitter. 

I found it ironic and intriguing that on the very day that we had the listening party we would also be hosting a traditional SDA academy choir from a school whose leadership would not support our attempt to authentically engage and dialogue with the world that is definitely shaping the world of those very same young people. It turns out that there are still many who prefer the ostrich method of engagement rather than taking the bull by the horns. We’re not mad at them, but we have determined to listen to our kids and then to teach them how to listen. We have determined to engage them and teach them how to engage with the world around them from a biblical worldview.

We have only just begun. 


[i] See Bakari Kitwana’s,The Hip-Hop Generation, and Why White kids Love Hip-Hop. See also Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip-Hop.

One Response

  1. i love the efforts, direction, and motives…love how God had it play out, as well. a lot of adults have no clue how to connect with youth n young adults; there’s a general unwillingness to listen, to engage, to enter THEIR world, to take THEIR perspective. this whole event brings to mind a quote that’s stuck with me about how Christ was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves…cuz THAT’S why He came and who He came to save n THAT’S where churchmen ought to be n be about. the problem? most of us either believe we’re above that or would rather cling to the safety net of rules disguised as reverence…anything to keep Jesus tamed and in a safe little box of our own making…anyhow, i’ve gone on long enough..good stuff; God bless 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *