I recently heard a sermon in which we were admonished to learn the language of the youth if we want to relate to them and keep them in the church. I totally agree with this, but I think it is too simplistic.
It reminds me of the Spanish students who accompany us on our cross-cultural programs to Guatemala and Mexico. They quickly pick up the local street language and use it frequently to the delight of the hosts in each country. However, this slang is often country- or even region-specific, and causes a break down of communication when traveling from one country or region to another. What evokes a smile of recognition in Guatemala may cause a frown in Mexico.
In addition, if the student uses only street talk and doesn’t develop more legitimate language and expanded vocabulary, they will be quite limited in what they can say and how they relate to their host culture. Original smiles of cultural identification through street-smart language will turn into scowls of derision when the attempts at communication remain at a superficial level.
The same can be said about trying to relate to youth and young adults. I have spent 27 years working with young adults teaching at the college level. They can smell a fake, an adult trying to be cool, as easily as a mouse smells the cheese on a trap. And they aren’t impressed. They might smile or chuckle at our initial attempts to use their vocabulary, but if that is what we base our relationship on, the smiles will soon turn to frowns.
What young adults want more than cutesy youth speak is authenticity. They want adults who relate to them to be real. And they want adults who will spend time with them; to listen to their concerns and to take them seriously; adults who share with them their own doubts; fears and struggles. They want us to accept them and love them for who they are; tattoos, piercings and all.
I can text and tweet and do all the cool stuff on Facebook and learn all the symbols necessary to be understood by young adults, but if I “have not love [and time], I am nothing but a clanging cymbal.” Authenticity, love and time are what create relationships, not specialized street speak; and those transcend any culture or language.