Monday, July 1, 2013

How 7 Words Should Shape Youth Ministry & the Church

I work with high schoolers at the church I currently attend, and have been working with them since I helped lead my youth group during my senior year of high school. I've always felt a pull to this age group since, as a high schooler, I felt like most church goers wanted nothing to do with us.

My high school youth group experience consisted of very few volunteers (usually grumpy parents), disconnected youth leaders, very broken kids, and confusing life situations (for me and my peers). High school was a season of life I hated. I was depressed, confused, hurt, scared and trying to help make myself into the person I wanted to be by fighting against the person I was. Besides dealing with the "normal" high school issues of hormones, acne and boys, I also had to deal with traumatic life situations that would be hard for adults to deal with, let alone kids.

Me, circa junior year, on a youth group outing.

So when I say I know--and vividly remember--what high school was like, it's because I do. You don't forget some of the hardest, biggest, most life-shaping experiences of your life. And when I say that high school is hard, it's not in the patronizing way that some adults say it, with air quotes and rolling eyes and, "You know teenagers." Yes, I know teenagers and life in high school and that sometimes you just need one person to really care.

You also need a solid foundation in your faith to get through some of the things that life throws at you. You need to know not only what you believe, but many times, why you believe it. You need to know why it's worth being different than your unchurched peers, why it matters how you act, dress and behave. You need to know that it's not just because Christianity is stodgy and boring and filled with rules. You need to know that your life isn't just about the here and now, but the eternal, the forever that exists beyond what you can see.

And that's why I work with high schoolers, and why I think the Church needs solid Christian youth leaders now more than ever. Because the lines of Christianity are getting more and more muddled, by those claiming to be Christ-followers, and those not. As progressivism is pushed in the Church, often times for the wrong reasons, what we need are teens who know the Bible first and foremost, who understand it, and allow its truths--not the pressures of social acceptability--to govern their lives.

The point isn't to raise up a self-righteous generation of goody-goodies. The point is to bring this young generation back to the Bible. To educate them in the love of Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the justice of God.

All too often I see churches turning to an attitude of mere acceptance of "socially acceptable" worldliness and unhealthy behaviors, instead of following a biblical model for handling such situations. Or churches swing the exact opposite direction and choose to shame and cast out those who make mistakes.

Let's take teen sex and pregnancy as an example, since for the longest time, that has been held up as one of the worst sins. I love looking at Jesus' example for handling such situations.

John 8:1-11 tells the story of a woman who was caught in adultery (having sex with someone she wasn't married to). The religious folk of that time--including leaders and teachers--had gathered and were prepared to stone her. Jesus was present, so they asked him what they should do, and I love his answer. He doesn't say any of the things we'd expect, like, "She's a sinner, cast her out," or "Get on with it," or even, "It's hard to abstain," or "Everyone's doing it, so why can't she?" He says, "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."

One by one, each person leaves until the only person without sin is left--Jesus. And amazingly, the only person in that situation who could throw a stone, doesn't. But he doesn't leave without doing something. He doesn't lecture, he doesn't condone. He simply says, "Then neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin."

Wait, what? Doesn't that go against everything both "sides" of the Christian spectrum are fighting for? It goes against condemnation, self-righteousness and the general practice of shaming. It simultaneously goes against acceptance, turning a blind eye, or saying "Get a condom, prevent unwanted pregnancy."

I see two things in this passage: love and encouragement to right living. And really neither look like what we'd expect. In today's society, we think loving people looks like merely accepting them for who they are and what they do, regardless of what that is. Jesus demonstrates that loving involves more than just accepting. It includes encouragement to right living. "Go and leave your life of sin."

As Christ-followers, how are we handling the prospect and occurrence of teen pregnancy? Are we jumping on the bandwagon that says, "Teens are having sex, it's happening, so let's be sure to teach them about contraceptives"? The problem is this view is ultimately toxic as it treats the symptoms and not the problem. It may stop pregnancy, but it doesn't stop a destructive (yes, destructive) behavior of teen sex.

But, neither does condemnation stop teen sex. It just pushes teens out of the Church, which should be the one place they can find help. Because as a body of people claiming to follow Christ, we should be governed by his loving example. We should take up his words of "Go and leave your life of sin," using it to teach teens the following:

1. Mistakes happen. You aren't perfect and never will be. We've all made mistakes and don't pretend to be perfect. We don't expect you to be perfect and we won't kick you out or look down on you or love you any less for making mistakes. (Like the religious leaders in John 8, we aren't in a place to throw stones.)

2. Your mistakes don't have to become habits, they don't define you. Just because you make a mistake, doesn't mean the behavior has to or should continue. Poor choices and mistakes that are allowed to continue will eventually become habits, and these are not habits you want to form.

3. The Bible outlines the ways in which God wants us to live, not out of compulsion or a desire to be "good enough" for God, but because he wants the best for us. And, if we have a relationship with Jesus, our understanding of his sacrifice fuels our desire to devote our lives to him. We will educate you on this, and we'll have open dialogue about issues like teen sex, pregnancy, etc., because nothing is off-limits for discussion. We don't believe in remaining silent.

4. There is so much more beyond the here and now, and we want to help you fix your eyes on what is waiting after. We believe that knowing life doesn't end here, changes your perspective on the here and now. Sure, things feel great here, but it's all temporary, it all fades. Life in Christ lasts forever.

5. We want to help you, encourage you, equip you and motivate you to live your life for Jesus. We want to help you wrestle with the tough questions. We want to support you in whatever you are dealing with. We will provide a safe place for you to talk through whatever is on your mind or going on in your life, without judgement or condemnation. We are, after all, a family.

Can you imagine how churches would be changed if people stepped outside of their preconceived notions of church and how they think it should be and got back to just the Bible? In times of question, when the Church is wrestling with where it should stand on important issues, the only place it should turn is the Bible. We shouldn't look to the political climate, the actions of others, social pressures, or a demand for progressivism. In the end, those aren't the things we'll be answering to; we'll be answering to God alone, and I think he wants us to listen to him.

Oh, and what happens when one of your youth group attendees ends up pregnant? Is she out the door, or told to get an abortion before anyone knows she was having sex? Do you think Jesus would encourage either one of those responses? I don't. I think it takes love, grace and a group of people who will offer help and support because there are now two lives that need Jesus, and none that need condemnation.

I hope in the end I will have helped some teens not only survive high school, but become stronger in their faith, more sure of their beliefs and more equipped to know and understand the Bible and the truth it contains. And I pray for love like Jesus, for me and for the Church.

2 comments:

Malachi said...

Great post Elise. I've always been amazed at how to be more biblically minded always makes one more relevant. That certainly rings true in your post.

I'm grateful for how you started this post. I think most youth programs at churches around the country are treated & thought of, at best, annoying "kids" groups and, at worst, irrelevant and completely independent of "the real church". Which speaks to the 70% church attendance drop-off upon high school graduation.

I know this post was specifically addressing church youth programs, but how should these issues (teen sexuality, abstinence, pregnancy) be handled in a non-church environment? At a public after-school program for instance.

Few churches have youth leaders that are willing to have an honest conversation about sex, without sacrificing biblical truths. Clinton, Iowa is lucky to have you & Nick.

eliseloyola said...

Thanks, Malachi, it's great to hear from you and I appreciate your encouragement!

I always feel like it gets a little tougher to approach "spiritual" topics in a secular environment, especially when dealing with people who don't have the same convictions as professing Christians. It then becomes a matter of asking ourselves, how much should we work on treating problems through--for lack of a better term--behavior modification, and how much should we work on sharing the gospel so the Holy Spirit can do the "modifying"? (My belief is that we should be more concerned with sharing the gospel of Jesus and less concerned with how people are living. We all know that we need Jesus before we need to be told what we should/shouldn't do, and before we can really do it. It's a two step process.)

But, with teen sexuality, I think you can still approach/encourage abstinence from a "non-spiritual" angle because of the obvious consequences (STDs, pregnancy, emotional pain). My public high school health class taught a strictly abstinence-based program, which surprised me at the time because I was waiting for the condom talk, which never happened. They didn't say that we should wait until marriage outright, but they stressed the importance of abstinence. I think we can still do that as believers, while praying for God to open doors for us to minister within a public school context. And for those students who don't choose abstinence, I think our response to them should be the same as in a church context: love, support, help, and encouragement to healthy behavior. (And always prayer, lots of prayer.)

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