There is a tension that exists between students being themselves and students behaving the right way. This is not a problem to be solved, but a tension to be managed.
One of the things that we have observed over time is that students who feel too much behavioral pressure can’t be themselves and as a result no real change or transformation takes place in their life.
It’s sort of like when you want to have a good conversation with a student – an authentic talk about life and struggles, and instead of a good conversation what you end up with is the student just giving you the answers they think you want to hear. They couldn’t be themselves, they felt pressure to give the “right” answers and therefore there wasn’t any substance to your conversation.
So in our student ministry we decided to allow students to take off the masks and stop pretending and simply be themselves. Instead of trying to get them to conform behaviorally, we focus on honesty and start with their heart and then work our way out to behavior. Which sounds like a reasonable plan…. until you’ve got students smoking in the parking lot or dropping F-bombs in front of old women. Then what happens is people say “we gotta get these kids to act right, to have respect”. It’s in that moment that we are faced with a common student ministry dilemma… “do we want students to be accepted or act the right way?” There is a tension that exists between students being themselves and students behaving the right way. This is not a problem to be solved, but a tension to be managed.
What parents want is for their kids to grow in their faith, and to be in a safe environment. The difficulty is that “safe environment” often really means that everyone is behaving the “right way”. This type of environment, where students can not be themselves, and everyone behaves the right way because they are pressured to, is a sterile environment. It’s clean and germ free…. you won’t hear any jokes about oral sex, but ultimately it’s sterile. “Houston, we have a problem”… A sterile environment doesn’t allow anything to grow. In fact the opposite is true, the best fertilizer, the thing that promotes the most growth is Manure….
It’s the mess of life that brings about the most growth. So let the mess come out. Instead of asking students to behave the right way every single time, allow them to be themselves, which is messy. Create an environment that allows students to be themselves and all the ugly stuff will surface. Let the crap come to the top and when it does view it as an opportunity to love students and speak into their lives. Don’t just talk about grace, show them grace. This is what helps students become more like Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong, as disciples it does matter how we live. We are often challenged in scripture to live a life worthy of our calling. In our student ministry we do have boundaries, but not to the point that students can’t be who they are. We have processed through what boundaries we have – what we allow and do not allow. And we will continue to manage the tension. It changes a little each year. I would encourage you to consider how you will manage this tension. A good question to ask is “does the answer to this tension look differently in a missional context?” Just remember, it’s not a problem to be solved.