Your teen daughter’s favorite show is “Pretty Little Liars.” Week by week she learns the singular lesson that her value depends on being beautiful, rich and sexy. Her younger brother hardly watches TV anymore, and you are relieved: Their fights have decreased significantly. But there is a price to pay: He’s in his room all afternoon and evening playing “Monster Hunter: World.” Though his sister and he are not fighting they are also not talking, and he only talks to you when you ask him a direct question.
It is beginning to dawn on you that your children are immersed in a value system you despise. They are learning that self-fulfillment is the most important — perhaps the only important — thing in the world. The idea that the goal of life is to feel good, or at least avoid pain, and that money is the way to that goal, is constantly reinforced. Sex, as demonstrated again and again in the media they consume, is represented as an exciting and pleasurable, but fundamentally meaningless.
They are learning that rules are made to be broken, which is the recurring theme of the TV shows your daughter binge-watches with her friends. In those same shows, parents are almost always ridiculous and stupid, and religious people are hypocritical and mean. When God is talked about, which is not often, he is portrayed in such a distorted manner that he is unrecognizable: A straw God.
Some parents, when they discover this, try to restrict their children’s media consumption, but by then it is too late. And, while limiting exposure to social and other media is a wise thing to do for children, teens, or adults, it is not the answer. What parents need to do is offer their children an alternative to the culture of self-absorption.
Urging children to lose themselves in work or sports is not an alternative. It is the same addictive lifestyle with a different drug of choice. What children need to see is a radically different value system, where life itself is good and people are objects of love. This is certainly not what they see presented in the media.
Nowadays the media, including media targeted at teens, glorifies darkness. Darkness is considered more “grown up,” more important, than light. The class of critics that lives in a symbiotic (or perhaps parasitic) relationship to the media are constantly extolling it. It is up to parents to help their children see the joy and beauty — and especially the meaningfulness — of light.
Parents must also demonstrate to their children that doubt is not automatically superior to belief. Contemporary culture regards doubters as more intelligent than believers, and this is particularly true in the academy. As Dallas Willard once quipped, “You can almost be as stupid as a cabbage as long as you doubt.” Intellectuals of an earlier generation would have been astonished by such an idea. Doubt may be a shortcut to academic acceptance today, but it was not, and will not, always be so.
Immersed in a culture where dark is light and light is dark, doubt is wise and belief is foolish (or worse, unsophisticated), many young people — the numbers are alarming — are leaving the church and the faith. There are various reasons for this but an important one is that they do not see any connection between the faith their parents espouse and the good life, as they have had it portrayed by the culture around them. Unless they are presented with an attractive and workable alternative, the faith cannot help but seem to them irrelevant or even illusory.
The people best positioned to present that alternative are their parents, but parents need to see it demonstrated themselves. This is where the church comes in. One of the most important things it can offer, more important even than sermons and Sunday School lessons, is the example of the extraordinary man or woman who lives the compelling life of love through faith-filled interaction with God. They shine with a light that makes the self-absorbed life appear petty and drab. In their presence, the life described in the Bible is no longer an abstraction, but a three-dimensional, attractive, real-life possibility.
Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.