By Joel Williamson
This week I saw a middle school boy angrily defy a youth minister. He jumped over a railing and then climbed down what could have been a 15-foot fall. He did it after he was told not to, and he did it with fire and passion in his eyes. He declared, “#@$! this place!”
Maybe that isn’t your normal experience, but I am certain that if you are in youth ministry at all, you have seen disturbing behavior in your teens. Perhaps it is defiance like I described, or maybe it is some sort of immorality, or just clear disrespect.
I come from a ministry that actively targets unchurched kids. I have often seen behavior that is unsafe, unruly, and sometimes truly out-of-control.
What do you do with that?
How do you handle “those” types of kids?
For me, it boils down to the question of why I am doing youth ministry in the first place.
At the end of the day, my goal with a teen is not to teach them respectful behavior, or good morality, or how to behave in public. Yes, those are good side effects and they help teens succeed at life.
But the heart of why I do youth ministry isn’t those things at all.
I do youth ministry because I want my teens to be in active relationship with Jesus.
Isn’t that what Jesus modeled for us? When he saw Zacchaeus, the cheating tax collector who climbed up in the tree, Jesus did not condemn him for his behavior. Not once. All He did was ask Zacchaeus if they could hang out and spend time together. It was out of their relationship that Zacchaeus decided to allow God to influence his morality. It was because he spent time with Jesus.
This may be a paradigm shift for some. If our goal isn’t to change a kids’ morality, how can they make it in life?
Please hear me…I care about a kid’s behavior. If they don’t learn respect, they can’t hold a job. If they can’t come unglued from their phones, they will never truly live in reality. If they can’t turn off the porn, or stop with the drugs, or whatever – their lives will be full of destruction and pain. I care about those things.
But I can’t stop them.
The only one who can is Jesus.
And while I want them to be free of those things, that is not my number one goal.
Unfortunately, you can’t train a teen into good behavior. They don’t stop when you say “stop” or go when you say “go.” Countless things have influenced who they are by the time they walk in your youth group. Though they may not understand it — they have beliefs, traumas, triggers, ethics, and morality philosophies already locked in as a part of who they are.
When it comes to morality and behavior, you can’t train a teen. But you can empower them.
Instead of a force-fed morality, I believe the way you impact a student’s behavior is through their relationship with Jesus.
As we show our teens who Jesus is, how He lived, and why He lived – this changes their hearts.
As they draw closer to Him, He changes how they act.
I do talk with kids about their behaviors, but it is not my emphasis. Our teens are given messages of how to live from everywhere and everyone. By the time they come in my group, they have heard the “don’t do drugs” message 100 times. And while I agree with that message, it isn’t that message that will change their heart.
It is Jesus.
I’m not afraid to discuss morality as it comes up. A teen faces a thousand decisions every day. At the right times, helping them to understand how to navigate these decisions and choose well is important. Empowering a teen to choose goodness is a great thing we can do in ministry. It is good to give them tools so that they can live their lives well.
Again, though, this is not first on my list. I’d rather make sure they know Jesus – for any tool I give them is empty and purposeless without Him.
This is hard – I don’t want my teens to screw up. I don’t want them to experience pregnancy as a 15-year-old. I don’t want them to have to live with the heartache that habitual lying causes.
But more than that, I don’t want them to live life without Jesus.
When we become the morality police of our teens, especially those who are not Christians, we push them away. We become like every other adult in their lives. We become about a performance-based relationship.
Jesus offers our teens unconditional relationship.
And so should we.
So when that kid jumped off that railing, our youth minister told him he couldn’t come back for a week. This was hard, and it is what caused the swearing and the freak out. You have to have a safe environment for all of the kids who come through your doors. Much had transpired up to this moment, and this was the appropriate response to ensure his safety.
Yet, that youth minister spoke to him in love. He gave the teen the benefit of the understanding that this kid has not been taught good ways to behave. And that youth minister is going to take him out for ice cream this week. He said to the student, “I want you here. I’m not mad at you.”
Ultimately, he is showing this teen, “Your behavior does not affect how I value you. And it won’t, ever.”
Because of that stance, I am confident this student will return. He might be mad for a couple of days, and he might do the same thing again. After all, this kid needs the Holy Spirit to empower his behavior.
When he comes back, our youth minister’s focus will not be on teaching him morality, but on showing him Jesus.
And I trust that Jesus will take care of the rest.
Joel Williamson has been working with young people for two decades leading a non-profit reaching at-risk youth. He loves youth workers and is passionate about equipping them for effective, transformational ministry. Joel currently works as the Chief Strategist and CFO for Youth Core Ministries, serves on his church's youth team, and lives with his wife and daughter in Noblesville, IN.