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.
As we prepared for this event there were a few places where we knew we were treading shaky ground.
- A DJ in the sanctuary?!?! – What’s crystal clear is that the church does NOT belong to the young people. Just look at the very nature of your typical AYS program. It’s held after the primary service when most of the church is at home asleep after a large Sabbath lunch. AY is an afterthought. So we set them aside…outside the sanctuary. Furthermore, we tell people, “take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there.” We say, “lay it all on the altar.” Yet, are there still some things that we don’t want people to bring to Jesus? Is the church too holy to discuss and address my mess? Jesus welcomes and accepts me and all my ratchetness and sin. However, he does not intend that I will hold on to it. He told a rag-tag bunch of misfits to follow him and insured them that he would grow them into faithful and efficient ministers. He took their violence, vulgarities and all. Which brings us to the next issue.
- What about profanity? – I answer that question with a couple questions. We said we were going to listen to whatever is in their iPod right? So what would be the takeaway if we asked them to give us their iPods and then we refuse to play what’s in it because there was obscene language? Our fixation on censorship (no pun intended) is an indication of our unwillingness to truly listen. We only listen on our own terms. We listen until we hear the first four-letter word. Then we shut down. But is that listening at all? To truly listen is to accept all that we are presented with just as it is presented to us. We listen recognizing that what they share is authentic and honest. It is not profane and obscene for the sake of obscenity, but rather as a representation of the world they live. So we made a decision. We will play exactly what they bring us.
- Is this compromising the holiness of God’s house? – This is the heart of the matter. And I believe the answer to that question lies (at least in part) with the intent with which we approached the event. Are we encouraging them to listen to ungodly music? Absolutely not. Are we promoting some sort of rave or club atmosphere? Certainly not. Will there be dancing and gyrating in the Lord’s house? Not on my watch! Rather, we want to encourage them—in the very presence of Lord to “come and let us reason together”; to consider carefully what surrounds them and then to consider how they might respond. I believe the Lord smiles on our attempt to “teach them to be thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.”
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.
- It was pretty much all rap music.I was expecting some Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber here and there, but there was not one such mention of any of those types of artists. With the exception of one Beyonce song (that actually does feature Jay-Z rapping), all we heard was Big Sean, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and the like.
- Music has really changed. So much of it is so graphic and obscene that one of the facilitators referred to it as “lyrical porn.”
- They’re listening and they get it. That is, a great deal of it at least. This was probably the most surprising. From Beyonce’s surfboards and watermelons to the philosophical underpinnings of borrowing Christian imagery and concepts in Rick Ross’ “Sanctified”, the depth with which they are engaging the music is very impressive. What has yet to be seen is how they are responding to the music and how they synthesize the concepts and work out the issues in their daily lives.
- They really do want to talk to us. There is a tendency for them to tell us what we want to hear. Yet, I believe that they default to the pat answers when they get the sense that it’s a quiz rather than a quest. When we sincerely want to hear from them and we engage them on their terms, they light up and they respond.
- They want to keep it going. I believe that they’re more reverent than we give them credit for. Yes a number of them are in the rebellion stage, but they get it. They know their music is inappropriate, but as long as we’re willing to address it head on they’ll keep coasting along the highway. But when we stop them to seek their perspective they want to keep talking about it. As if on cue, they all asked if we could do it again
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.
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.