October 26, 2018 | Andrew Hurst
Advances in communication and technology especially in the realm of social media have had a direct impact on youth culture. Respectively, the communication methods and techniques used by youth ministers have evolved to effectively reach today’s youth.
Dr. Garland Owensby, Youth and Student Ministries Professor at Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU), has coordinated the institution’s Youth and Student Ministries degree program for the past 20 years. During this time, the number of youth ministry courses has doubled with classes being added to help students address contemporary issues that the younger generation face today.
“I think one of the big challenges they (youth ministry majors) have is living in two worlds at once,” says Dr. Owensby. “We have pastors, churches, that see the world one way, but they are speaking to a culture that’s seeing the world a different way.”
“And so, the challenge we have is how can I be a bridge between the adults and the students. How can I be a bridge between my pastor and my students? How can I be a bridge between our church, which may do things differently, and a generation that needs to hear the message?”
“Contemporary Issues in Youth Culture” is a course offered for youth ministries majors to help them navigate difficult issues in youth culture. “I always say it’s the class that’s the most work for me because I have to update it constantly,” said Dr. Owensby. “I was just in class the other day, and I said, ‘this isn’t in your notes because a new survey just came out, and let’s talk about it.’ We’re able to talk from a pastoral viewpoint about issues such as self-injury, addictions, sexuality, and gender identity. If youth and kids are dealing with it, we want to inform our students about it.”
One of Owensby’s favorite class assignments is a project in which students must pick a song that has been in the Billboard Hot 100 in the last 6 months and perform a background study. Students research the personal background of the artist, his or her political and religious views and even the artist’s family life. Then they begin to analyze the message behind the lyrics. From there, they construct the worldview that is shown through the song and eventually, a Biblical response to the worldview and the message that is portrayed in the song.
“The assignment allows them to experience critical thinking with media,” said Dr. Owensby. “They can then teach their students how to do the same thing. And now, all of a sudden, the students are policing themselves rather than the youth pastor going, ‘This is okay to listen to, this is not okay to listen to. This one's okay and this one isn't.’ You don't want to be the media police. You want to be someone who is empowering students.”
One of the hands-on experiences that Youth majors participate in is youth evangelism in local schools. After clearing background checks, students sign up as volunteers spending 10 hours a semester on a public school campus. “It’s not just equipping students to win the campus but it’s about how can you be a presence on the campus,” says Dr. Owensby.
Being present in local schools has also opened doors for some of SAGU’s volunteers. Often, they may receive a letter of recommendation from the school’s teachers or administration which assists them in their next step whether it be serving on another school’s campus or in a church setting.
Getting real-world, out-of-class experience has been key to the success of the Youth and Student Ministries program. Dr. Owensby stated that he even uses SAGU’s pool to instruct his students on how to properly perform baptisms.
“Everything is practical,” says Dr. Owensby. “The assignments that they do in class are practical, are hands-on, there's no busy work.”
As American teenage culture continues to change, Dr. Owensby ensures that SAGU’s Youth and Student Ministries degree program will change to respond to the needs of the next generation. However, amid an ever-changing curriculum, Dr. Owensby says that one of the program’s greatest strengths and what excites him the most is the relationships that are formed.
“We often say that if you come to Southwestern thinking you're getting a four-year degree, you're wrong. You're getting a four-year degree and a life-long relationship where your professors who will ask about you, will text you, will send you messages, and connect with you well after you're gone from here.”