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Why The Church Needs to Stop Sheltering Young People from Secular Entertainment  

Hot-button issues surrounding children’s entertainment have led to some of the fiercest battles in the so-called “culture war.” To avoid exposing children to the barrage of junk and filth that has infiltrated much of today’s media, concerned parents have typically taken one of two approaches. 

First, we have boycotted disagreeable secular entertainment (as evidenced by the dismal box office returns for Disney’s LGBTQ-affirming Lightyear and Strange World). Second, we have embraced less problematic alternatives (such as the Daily Wire’s Bentkey streaming platform or Kirk Cameron’s BRAVE Books). Both responses have their place. But they also represent an isolationist approach to culture. Christians should condemn ungodly filth in culture, and we should take comfort in entertainment catered to our own religious sensibilities. But a third option is also available: to engage with secular culture head-on.   

The Same…but Different

Contemporary media leaves a lot of room for criticism. But to be fair, we also tend to view the “good old days” through nostalgic, rose-color glasses. Entertainment expressing concerning content and secular messaging is nothing new. Early Disney content wasn’t exactly a bastion of biblically agreeable storytelling either. One thing that has changed, however, is the sheer amount of entertainment that is available.  

Twenty-five years ago, a family would drive to a video rental store together and choose one of the VHS tapes from the limited options on the shelf. Today, a kid can grab a tablet, open a streaming app, and gain instant access to a near-infinite number of viewing options. The content hasn’t necessarily gotten significantly worse, but staying informed about the options has become much more challenging (if not impossible).  

The entertainment landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. Thus, it may be time to update our approach to helping children navigate that shifting terrain. Rather than attempting to shelter kids from all exposure to unbiblical ideologies in entertainment content, which can be akin to trying to hold back a crashing wave with our bare hands, perhaps we should focus on equipping them to withstand the wave without being swept out to sea.   

Isolation is Not Preparation

Years ago, I was invited to speak at a Christian school where students spent several years of focused biblical training after completing high school. My first lecture was on navigating and engaging with the entertainment industry as Christians. Well, there must have been a miscommunication in the booking correspondence. After my talk, the headmaster awkwardly informed me that the school had a strict “no media” policy.  

There is tremendous value in doing a media “fast” or “detox” to focus on spiritual matters. Yet I was struck by the irony of the moment. The school was readily acknowledging that perhaps the most serious threat young Christians were facing was the pervasive influence of media, but the institution went to extreme lengths not to train the students to face the challenge. Such a disconnected approach often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: fear of the media’s destructive influence leads Christians to treat media as taboo, which leaves young people ill-prepared to think critically about it, which ultimately makes them vulnerable to its power.   

If you’ve read anything I’ve written during the last several years, you know that I’m far from pleased with the state of children’s entertainment. When I suggest that perhaps the church should allow kids to be exposed to more media, I’m not making light of media’s influence. Rather, it is for that reason that children must be properly equipped.  

Christians have taken proactive approaches regarding other challenges to the faith. When the evolution v. creationism debate reached its peak, many churches equipped Christian youth with the apologetic arguments they needed to engage with atheistic objections. Mature Christians prepared youth to tackle Darwinism not by forbidding all scientific discussions but by exposing teenagers to more Darwinism. Churches (rightly) reasoned that students would inevitably confront evolutionary theories, so it was better to examine such arguments under the guidance of mature fellow believers than in a secular classroom among peers who mocked their faith.     

Young people are entering a media-saturated world. Is the church adequately preparing them for it?  

Media’s Bark & Bite

The important question is not whether entertainment influences us. It does. To think otherwise is naïve at best and foolishly arrogant at worst. The more important concern should be how much and in what way. Those questions have spawned widescale research, much of which is still ongoing.  In general, I believe we overestimate entertainment’s influence and underestimate young people’s ability to handle challenging material.  

The alarmist way Christians sometimes speak about entertainment reduces viewers (of any age) to passive participants in the experience, as though watching something on the screen is no different than injecting that ideology directly into the viewer’s life via an I.V. drip: seeing violence leads to committing violence, watching nonbiblical worldviews leads to embracing them, etc.  

For example, Christians may argue that allowing kids to watch Harry Potter will set them on a clear path toward the Occult, as though children lack any capacity to reflect and conclude, “Creating magical animals with a wand is just a fantasy.” Viewers can process what they see, particularly when they receive adequate guidance.  

I’m not trying to diminish concerns about today’s media. As a parent myself, I share many of these concerns. Parents can (and should) set boundaries, and those parameters will look different for each family. But I have also learned that many of the “problems” that provoke the church into an uproar can be addressed in a casual conversation in the car on the way home from the theater.  

Take Pixar’s recent film Elemental. It draws inspiration from eastern religions and includes a subplot about fortune telling. As a result, the internet was filled with worried and angry Christians. In fact, my review remains the most-read piece I’ve ever written. Does the movie’s worldview reflect biblical teaching? No. Does it depict aspects of the real world? Absolutely. I had a delightful chat with my kids on the drive home about world religions and how they differ from Christianity, the true religion.  

I never once felt concerned that my kids were being set on the path to Hinduism or that they would seek out a medium. Instead, I viewed the experience as an opportunity to spark some meaningful spiritual conversations. As a parent, I’m not preparing my children for a life of solitary meditation on a secluded mountaintop; I’m training them to take biblical truth with them into the real world. If they can’t handle seeing the “real world” on a movie screen, how will they cope with living in it?    

I don’t want my children to believe in God because it was the only option they had. I want their faith to be based on their understanding that Jesus is indeed “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As the church, we are often happy to baptize young children based on their profession of faith in Jesus, trusting their ability to embrace the gospel. Yet we seemingly don’t trust their spiritual maturity to withstand even the awareness that many people won’t share that belief (even when those “people” are fictional cartoon characters).   

It is not a sin for a Christian to be exposed to alternative worldviews. If anything, it is worse if we are not, since isolating ourselves from all opposing beliefs makes it impossible to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Media has power, and we shouldn’t take that for granted. But neither should we underestimate children’s intelligence.  

No, a 5-year-old is probably not ready to tackle the “philosophical problem of suffering” just yet (most adults aren’t either, if we’re honest). A 10-year-old doesn’t need to watch HBO’s Euphoria to learn how to navigate the sexual perversion in the world. The point is not to be careless but to recognize that children can often handle more mature, challenging material sooner than we’re willing to trust them with it. As the church and as parents, our fear about media’s power should not make us neglect our responsibility to prepare our young people to face challenges when they come. Christians are called to be both “shrewd as serpents” and “innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).     

More, Not Less

Notably, when “prodigals” and “exiles” (those who have left their childhood faith after graduating from high school) are surveyed, the reason they give for leaving the church rarely includes exposure to new “forbidden” media. Instead, many express that church was an intellectually suffocating place that didn’t leave room for them to ask questions. That’s not to say media didn’t play a significant role in their decisions. But their answers imply that what enticed them to leave the church was the allure of having the intellectual freedom to explore these concepts, not merely the ideologies themselves. Tell kids they can’t do something and that one thing will be all they want to do. That’s been the human story since the Garden of Eden.   

How can we expect young Christians to go boldly into a dark and confusing world if only a few years prior we didn’t even trust their faith to withstand an animated Disney film?  

The best time to prepare for a storm is before it arrives, not once the tempestuous winds are already swirling. As with all things, Christians should be guided by the Holy Spirit. The entertainment industry poses a serious challenge to the church, but not an insurmountable one. Christians should be cautious, but also intentional. Today’s young people are living in a media-driven culture that is unlike anything previous generations faced. As the church, we can ill-afford to leave our youth unprepared, regardless of our good intentions. Our calling as Christians is not to hide away and try to remain unscathed until we reach heaven; we have been commanded to shine a bright light in a dark world. And to shine a light in the darkness, we must first recognize the darkness.    

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1 Comment

  • by Stephen Hayes
    Posted February 29, 2024 5:33 am 0Likes

    Well said Daniel. I remember when I was at University in the 1970s the issue of watching or reading unwholesome material came up. A preacher said. by all means read or watch it, BUT let a brother or sister know you are (don’t do it in secret) and spend three times as long in the Scripture as you do with the nasty stuff. I think this was intended to refer to particulalry bad material, sexually explicit etc rather than general ‘worldly but not particularly evil’ and to warn against using the supposed need to know what the world was thinking as an excuse to enjoy unhallowed entertainment for pleasure.

    I am engaged to some extent in ministry around Creation/Evolution and C S Lewis style apologetics. In both cases, I don’t see how you can engage with the world without being familiar with worldly writing, film, philosophies etc.

    I have a ‘nasty’ library in my downstairs toilet where three world changing books, The Quran, Origin of Species and Mein Kampf sit together alongside heretical Christian books. e.g. Bishop Spong denying the Resurrection, Teilhard de Chardin with his ‘another Christ’ ideas, and atheist stuff by Freud, Huxley, Dawkins etc. Yes, the world would be a better place if these books had not been written, but they WERE written and if we are to fulfil the Great Commisison and like Paul ‘be all things to all men so that by all means we might save some’ then we need to understand what strongholds have captured men’s minds in order to offer them the right key to free themselves from their chains.

    Keep up the good work brother!

    PS it’s not only Christians who are culpably ignorant of thnigs they ought to know. I continue to beg my fellow citizens to read the Quran and see for themselves what plans it has for them.

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