We need to talk about some things. There are a few issues in youth ministry that for reasons of awkwardness, pride or taboo, simply never get discussed. When they do, we limit ourselves to pat answers and hypothetical, third-person examples. And because of all this awkward silence, none of these things get solved. So it’s time for some radical honesty, time to talk about the things we don’t talk about. Welcome to The Elephant Room.
Let’s call him Harry. You know him, I know him. We’ve all had a Harry in our youth group. He’s the kid that can turn your Friday night youth club into a two hour nightmare. His behaviour is awful and his selfawareness is worse. He seems to have no interest in anything you want to discuss, and zero interest in the Christian faith. He interrupts constantly. He takes tuck when he thinks no one is looking, stuffs himself full of stolen sugar, then reacts so violently that the last hour of your session on the rights and wrongs of Euthanasia have you reconsidering your argument. He’s not particularly popular, and perhaps worst of all, he’s not even very funny.
We need to talk about that kid
First of all, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Of course he almost always has some serious stuff going on in his life, and you’re providing the one safe space where he can release all that pent-up stuff. Whether he’s from a poor, broken home where dinner isn’t always a certainty, or struts precociously to church from the big house owned by his wealthy parents – who, by the way, have handed him to a succession of babysitters and au pairs since the day he was born – his behaviour almost certainly has a nasty root cause. We also know that he’s probably testing boundaries and seeing whether you’ll reject him just like everyone else has done. He may be deliberately trying to sabotage your relationship with him, just so that you don’t retain the power to reject it yourself.
The fact that Christian youth work provides a place where the most broken young people can find some sort of home is wonderful, but knowing the cause of their brokenness doesn’t make dealing with the symptoms all that much easier. Nor, if we’re really honest, do pat reminders about Jesus going after the one lost sheep, or calling us to remember the last, the least and the lost (I’m not sure that’s in the Bible, but it sure does get said a lot at conferences).
Remembering...that it’s really our insecurities that he’s testing, might just enable us to have a little more patience and grace for a young person bursting with insecurities of his own.
Because the reality for us is that Harry spoils our hard work, and our own enjoyment of it. He takes a big pair of kitchen scissors to the bouncy castle we just spent an hour inflating – hopefully in most cases that’s only a metaphor. He’s one of the reasons we sometimes consider giving it all up and becoming a vicar; he has us staring at ourselves in the bathroom mirror before we go out, summoning up courage like a strange alternate version of Eminem in 8 Mile, in which Eminem is listening to the new Hillsong album instead of some gangster rap. And of course, Harry is always, always there.
The real problem
Here’s why we struggle with Harry so much. Not just because he’s annoying, not just because we can’t control his behaviour, but because he reminds us of our own weakness. He reveals that we’re not the accomplished relational masters we’d told ourselves we were; he shines a light into the gaps in our youth work skill set. And because we find him so difficult, he illuminates the worst things we know about our own character too: our impatience, our superficiality, our lack of unconditional love. Yes, Harry is hard work, and sometimes he’s not acting out because of some sort of personal trauma; he’s just an irritating kid. But in truth, our problems with Harry are more about us than about him.
Recognising this is perhaps the first step toward a better relationship with the Harry in our youth group. Remembering when he calls out at exactly the wrong moment and spoils that carefully worded illustration, that it’s really our insecurities that he’s testing, might just enable us to have a little more patience and grace for a young person bursting with insecurities of his own.
It’s only natural that we’re going to like some of the young people we work with more than others. And Jesus doesn’t even tell us to like everyone. He does compel us to love them though, and more than that, to submit to them: to put their needs ahead of ours. Loving the kid who drives us mad – and who brings out the same reaction in almost everyone else who knows him – can be a huge, prophetic act of submission that in the painful process, brings us closer to God. In the long term, being the one consistent person who doesn’t push Harry away, no matter how much he tests you, might just be the thing that brings him close to God too.