There is so much wisdom contained in these words that follow in regards to this week’s topic. While summer is very busy for youth ministers I hope you have time to read, as we continue our great countdowns this week with…..
“Top 10 Phrases to Avoid in Youth Ministry”
Ali Chappell is a second year seminary student at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. She graduated from Meredith College in Raleigh, NC and loves Texas, but loves North Carolina much more. Ali is currently on staff as Minister to Youth at Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, TX. She loves cheering on the Baylor Bears, Boston Red Sox, and Carolina Panthers while eating Mexican food and drinking diet coke.
- “Love on” First of all, this just sounds weird. Loving “on” and loving are two extremely different things. As Christians we are commanded to love all people and do our best to let them know that they are loved. But adding the word “on” to the word “loving” almost makes it sound like we, ourselves, don’t need any love or support. While we, as youth ministers, need to be seen as ministers, we don’t need for our students to think that we are superior to them in our humanity.
- “Backslide” This word simply suggests a hierarchy among Christians. We have the backsliders and then the ones who aren’t backsliders. In a time as delicate and fragile as adolescence, no student deserves to feel lesser than one of their peers. It is one thing to talk personally about choices, situations and circumstances, but that can be done without using this toxic phrase.
- “If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it” In a church like my own, there are many different views concerning divine providence. While this could comfort some students, it could also cause deep misunderstanding for others. There are much more productive ways to process hard situations and assuring them of God’s presence without using these confusing words.
- “#Blessed” I’m guilty of using this phrase (as a joke) when I’m with my friends who. We joke around, thinking we’re way too funny by mocking people who actually use the hash tag “blessed.” The bottom line is… sometimes students don’t understand jokes like this. If you even say it lightheartedly in front of your students, even if they know that you’re sarcastic and know that you’re probably joking, they may not be 100% sure of that. I didn’t realize this until another youth volunteer said it in front of a group and then a student later came to my office in tears wondering why she was the only one who didn’t feel blessed. So, be careful.
- “A Bible that is falling apart usually has an owner that isn’t” This is just a bad, bad example of how to tell whether someone’s life is going well. I’ve heard this on multiple occasions, both as a student and as an adult, from moderates to liberals to conservatives to students themselves. I take issue with this statement on several levels. One, if someone’s bible is really falling apart, they will probably purchase a new one; and two (the more important reason for disagreement), horrific events can happen to the most devout, so the physical state of someone’s bible has absolutely nothing to do with the events that take place in someone’s life that are outside of their control.
- “you know… they’re a Christian” Acknowledging celebrities who are Christian and using their faith to promote something like Habitat for Humanity, AIDS prevention organizations, or fair trade is, without a doubt, beneficial and worth recognition. But, we also must encourage our students to take action to do good even if it is not necessarily in a Christian context.
- “When God closes a door He opens a window” Similar “God bringing you to it” this suggests that if you are a good enough Christian, you will always have an alternative when you get into a bad situation.
- “That was a God Thing” I’m guilty of using this phrase, and that’s something I’m really trying to change. When we say things like this to a student, it once again brings up the concept of what God can and cannot control. We tend to only use this phrase when we’re happy about something or rejoicing in good news, but we never really use it when we’re down and out and have to go to our church family for support and love. If you’re going to use it for one, it needs to be used for both.
- “The Bible clearly says” In the mind of an adolescent, not too much is “clear.” By using a statement like this, we automatically constrict the thought process of a student and discourage them from venturing out and asking questions. While fielding these hard questions isn’t necessarily my favorite part of youth ministry, I’m grateful that students feel comfortable asking those questions and expressing their interpretations. Using a phrase like this limits interpretations, doesn’t allow for feelings, and can shut down a productive conversation.
- This isn’t a phrase, but it’s my two cents on phrases to avoid. Each youth group is different, each church is different, and each youth minister is different. There are phrases in this list that I would never even consider using, and then there are some that have slipped out on occasion. There’s not formula to saying the right thing to a student, but there is the concept of authenticity that can help guide us through this rough territory of knowing exactly what to say in each and every situation. Be authentic, be honest, and let the student know that we’re together in our brokenness and God is with us in our brokenness.
Chris Cherry is an ordained minister who received his Masters of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology. He enjoys foosball and skittles, but doesn’t particularly care for static electricity. He is currently serving as Minister to Students at St Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, SC.
I learned early on in my ministry experience that everything we do teaches. Everything. Like really, it’s true. Even many of the things we DON’T do teach lessons, as well (it’s called Null Curriculum and it’s kind of fascinating if you enjoy nerdy pedagogy things… I say as I hide my excitement…).
Being mindful of the things we do, say, and teach is key. Below is a list of 7 things, in no particular order, that we should avoid in youth ministry (I took a couple liberties with the “phrase” part, hope that’s ok). Seven isn’t truly a top 10 list, of course, but this post was already long enough.
- “He”—This is a big one for a lot of people. Continually using the masculine pronoun “he,” especially in reference to God paints only one side of a multi-faceted portrait of God’s identity. First of all, the Bible attributes both masculine and feminine traits to God—or really, God’s traits line up with what WE think are masculine/feminine. Check out Isaiah 66:13 and Matthew 23:37 for a couple (of many) examples of God as Mother.
Second, referring to God constantly as “he” can mean a number of personal things to different people. While it’s true that it’s most common for folks to identify with God as a father-like figure, this image presented alone can be damaging to others. Some people were/are abused by their father, some have never known their father, some lost their father at an early age, and some have seen fathers do abhorrent things. We can think of God as Father as long as we acknowledge that this is simply one side of the image of God. God is also Mother, Nurturer, Physician, Leader, and so on. The point here isn’t to push people away from connecting to God as father, but to express the validity of others’ experiences, as well. God is God; how God’s traits line up with our conventions of masculine/feminine is totally our own doing.
- “If you bring a friend, you get a discount on your trip.”—I’m guilty of this one. I’ve bribed our youth to bring friends for various things. Whether it’s as significant as a trip discount or as minor as a bag of skittles, bribing youth to bring friends makes that friend an object and a means to an end. Of course, we want youth to invite their friends, but we want them to do it because they love their friends and they want them to become a part of a ministry family that will also love them. Bribery for friends is damaging to the friend, as well as the youth who needs better guidance for why bringing friends is important.
- “God doesn’t want you to do _____”—I’m not sure this one is as common in the circles of people who may read this blog, but it’s definitely out there in youth ministry. Most commonly, this line is applied to our female students who express an interest in ministry or missions. First of all, how absurd is it for us to decide who God is calling to do what? Second, regardless of our personal theological stances, our role should be about encouraging all of our youth to do their best in everything they do. God calls women (and men and all people) to all kinds of roles, including the pastorate.
- “Sorry, that event is canceled. Not enough of you signed up.”—I’m guilty of this one, too, and I’m not proud of it. In my defense, ministry events are often hard work and trying to scale something down usually means more work and some disappointment. That being said, a little extra work is always worth it if it means one student, two students, ten students, or whatever small means in your context gets a chance to engage with the God of the universe. In my experience, it’s often those smaller group experiences where God shows up in a big way. I’ll never again cancel an event because of a small turnout (a lack of chaperones, maybe, because that can be a legal issue).
- “Absolute” language—What I’m talking about here is when fallible humans (us) make claims about something being an absolute truth. These are pretty audacious claims that we have no authority over. There’s also a great deal of theology and philosophy that goes into this question. Our faith can lead us to believing something is true, acting on that truth, and teaching that truth to others, but in the end, only God decides what’s absolute.
- “Ask your parents” or “Our youth parents”—I don’t know about you, but referring only to parents when talking about the guardians of our youth doesn’t work. As the idea of family changes, we need to be sensitive to the individuals involved. Our personal thoughts about family structures shouldn’t get in the way of making sure all our youth and their families (regardless of how those families look) are fully included. When speaking to the large group, it is a little bulky to say, “Ask your parents, grandparents, and/or guardians,” but it’s worth it and important. I usually get around it by saying, “Ask whoever is in charge of your life.” Gone are the days when it’s safe to assume things about the families of our youth.
- Games that are fun (for some), but send the wrong message—Every youth group at some point has played dodgeball. Many youth groups play paintball from time to time. Games like these are fun (for some), but consistently teach things we don’t want them to teach. Dodgeball teaches dominance and bullying in a setting where those lessons are not appropriate. I’m not one to hand out trophies to everyone, I’m all for some good natured competitiveness, and I’m fine with declaring winners when the situation calls for it. I am not, however, going to send the negative side of those messages in an over-the-top way while at youth group. Things like paintball are more obvious, since they simulate and glorify battle, war, and guns in ways I will not teach during a church function. There are many other games and activities out there that send the wrong messages. Let’s avoid them.
In a world where everything teaches and our words and actions are pointed to as an example, it’s our job to understand what’s behind the things we do and say. Our efforts to love and welcome and accept our youth should be the primary reason behind our avoidance of these phrases and others.