Youth ministry in America is obsessed with rules.
I could mention the recent post on a youth ministry forum, where a new youth pastor listed a long list of stuff he was not allowed to do anymore with students. It had gotten to the point where he was completely frustrated and could not build effective relationships with students anymore.
I could refer to the many youth pastors who have had to sign a code of conduct, or a similar document, listing many, many rules.
But I don’t think I need to convince anyone. We all know how many rules have been ‘added’ to doing youth ministry in the last, say, ten years.
We do background checks on new volunteers. We have volunteers sign a code of conduct. We take out doors in offices and church rooms and put glass in instead. We can’t hug students, can’t drive anyone home, we’re not allowed to be alone with a student (it used to be a students of the opposite sex, but with the increase of LGBT issues, same-sex rules have been added as well), there’s to be no private texting or messaging…and the list goes on.
I get where churches, organizations, and people are coming from, I do. The intent is good, even if liability plays too important a role at times. We want to keep out the bad apples. We want to protect both our students and our volunteers and staff.
The Price of Rules
But here’s my real question: do these rules really work? And even if they do, are we willing to pay the price for them?
The price is high. First of all, these rules severely limit us in building relationships with students. More importantly, they establish a culture of rules based on distrust. We’re basically telling our volunteers that we don’t trust them to drive students home, to have private conversations, to spend time with students, without crossing a line. And thirdly, we create a false sense of security in thinking that rules will keep our students (and volunteers/staff) safe.
Exaggerated? Maybe. But there’s a core of truth we can’t deny. The rules have taken the place of something else. All these rules are the manifestation of a much bigger problem: the lack of true, deep relationships with each other and an over-appreciation of tolerance which results in a fear of confronting ourselves and others.
Lack of Deep Relationships
We live in a world where deep relationships have become rare. We’ve begun to value quantity over quality, validation and admiration over honesty and authenticity, and being liked over truth. And this has infected the church as well.
How well do we really know each other anymore, even if we’re serving in the same ministry? We don’t share meals together as the early church did. We don’t go through life together. We show up on Sunday, we do our thing at youth group, and we go home to post about it on social media.
Jesus taught us that we shall know a tree by its fruit—and that still holds true today. Except we don’t look deep and hard enough to judge the fruit, to see the rotten core despite the shiny outside.
Over-appreciation of Tolerance
And even when we do spot glimpses of a bruise on the fruit—or worse—we fear to speak out. After all, we are supposed to love each other right? And tolerate each other. And aren’t we all sinners? Who are we to judge? It’s not like we’re perfect…We’re taught to tolerate, to respect, to not-judge-least-we-shall-be-judged.
Nowhere is the massive influence of our culture more visible, than in the over-appreciation of tolerance. Publicly stating that you believe Jesus is the only truth, way, and life is considered intolerance these days, not to speak of holding on to conservative Christian viewpoints on marriage or the value of life.
We’ve become too politically correct—and that attitude has invaded our churches as well.
My guess is that in many of the cases where something inappropriate happened between a youth leader and a student, someone did notice something. Something small, most likely. A youth leader spending a lot of time with a certain student. Inside jokes. An inappropriate social media post. Lingering touches. Something that feels like…flirting.
But it can’t be, right? And so we see, but we don’t speak up. We notice, but we stay silent out of fear that we’re wrong. That we’ll falsely accuse someone. That we’ll be the ones getting hurt for speaking up and damaging someone’s reputation.
Let’s not forget the other side as well: do all these rules and the over-emphasis on correct behavior stimulate youth workers to share struggles they could have? How open and receptive is your youth ministry culture to sharing weaknesses, sins, and imperfections? Certainly the threat of being removed from ministry has led more than a few volunteers to keep their mouth shut in the early stages of a struggle—way back, when something could have been done to prevent worse.
Should we do background checks? Absolutely. It’s a first way to keep known offenders out the door. But once they’re in, all the rules in the world won’t be as effective as this: deep, true relationships and loving confrontations.
We should protect our students, let me be very clear about that. Transparency and accountability are crucial. I’m a big fan of clear rules, both for students and for your team. But rules alone aren’t gonna do the job. After all, rules don’t change the heart—and that’s where the real problem is.