The word conjures different meanings for different people. In Texas, that word means ‘I have a gun…so I am safe, but you might not be.’ In the world of junior high boys, it means throwing a thumb to your forehead before you have to ‘claim’ the fart. Apparently it means something in football, too – but I’m not athletic….so I can’t really speak to that.
Safety means different things to different people – but it’s a non-negotiable for ministry. Especially with students. Now I’m not talking about background checks on your volunteers (which should absolutely be done!). I don’t mean carrying insurance and keeping your church vehicles well-maintained (which absolutely should be done!). I’m talking about a culture of safety – and it starts with the youth leader.
Teenagers can be unintentionally ruthless in their teasing. Create a culture of safety by requiring that jokes never use another student as the punch-line. We’ve always had a ‘no-slams’ rule in our student ministry. If a teenager cuts someone down, they have to give two compliments to the person….even if it was all in jest…even if the other person laughed. Once, we were playing a game in our youth ministry group. One of the teenagers said something off-handed to another student….something along the lines of ‘don’t be such a girl’ or something like that. Everyone laughed – including the student who was targeted. About 20 minutes later, and out of the blue, it took me and three football players to pry that kids white-knuckled fingers off the neck of the kid ‘who was just teasing.’ I am confident that the wounds ran deeply and silently enough in the assailant that he would have absolutely strangled that young man to death had we not been there to stop it.
Teenagers can be unintentionally wounding in their pranking. Pranks seem harmless enough, right? Wrong. Pranks merely exploit the one for the amusement of the most. And in a culture where most kids are trying to make sure they don’t say, wear, or do something that brings unwarranted attention to them…pranks can be a switchblade to the throat. Recently, I heard a story of a sixth grader on his first youth trip. He was nervous about going and almost backed out at the last moment. During the trip – and while he slept – and with youth pastor sanction – the students painted this young man’s face with finger nail polish. Harmless enough. But when the young teenager awoke to find he had been violated, he had a complete meltdown. Safety. It just wasn’t there. Not only was this kid not ‘protected’ – he was set-up by the adult he trusted and taken advantage of during our most vulnerable time…while we’re dreaming. Not only that, but after his meltdown, the youth pastor simply said ‘Suck it up.’ No apologies. Just more danger.
Teenagers can be unintentionally callous in their youth groups. New kids come in – they’re never greeted, never spoken to, never engaged. It communicates a silent death to kids who are looking for connection. “You can’t find that here – you do not belong – we don’t know you – and we don’t care to.”
Is your youth ministry safe? If you are allowing, encouraging, or participating in teasing…it isn’t.
Is your youth ministry safe? If you have a heritage of pranks, initiation, and hazing, even seemingly harmless ones…it isn’t.
Is your youth ministry safe? If you don’t stand in the gap for students when they’re wounded, taking seriously their tears, their hurt, their scars…it isn’t.
Is your youth ministry safe? If you are the only person engaging new students…it isn’t.
Is your youth ministry safe? It starts with you.
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