Let’s face it, as youth workers; we see a lot of hurt in the lives of those we serve. Our Lord has created a beautiful world to be sure, yet when we look around we often see pain, heartbreak, and the destructive effects of sin. We are living in a world that is also a spiritual battlefield. God would love to see all of His creation made whole and complete in Christ, yet there is another influence at work that would love to see humanity crumble under the pressure. As youth workers, we can know for certain that throughout our ministries, we are going to personally encounter youth who are hurting–and hurting so deeply that they express that pain in detrimental ways. The common examples of destructive behavior come to mind: eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, addictions of all kinds, and other “diseases of the heart.” However, there is another behavior that we must consider as an outward effect of a youthful heart that is hurting.
Many of us have come across youth who could be designated as “scoffers,” those youth who are attending church events and programs yet seem to be speaking loud and clear through their actions that they have no real desire to be there. They are distracting, rude, have little respect for the adult leaders, and may even be hostile toward God and anything the youth ministry attempts to do for them. These youth are probably the ones you wish you could run away from when you see them coming. They are likely the ones who you want someone else to deal with. They are labeled. They are the problem kids. They are the youth who belong somewhere else, right?
Their actions seem to be yelling out to everyone within earshot that they despise being at church, they want nothing to do with God, and they can’t wait to get out of this stupid Bible study. Wouldn’t it be easy to blow them off, disregard them, and focus on the “good kids”? What if we thought again, and realized that their actions are screaming something else for anyone who cares to hear? I have a rough home life. I am here because I don’t want to be at home. I’m not receiving love from my parents. I just wish someone would listen to me. I’m really struggling with my identity. I want to know what all of this Jesus stuff is about, but I’m embarrassed to ask more.
These youth could be struggling with any number of issues, and we’ve got to realize that their scoffing is more than likely a way of expressing outwardly the hurt that is crippling them inwardly. Remember that Jesus said, “Whatever is in your heart determines what you say.” (Luke 6:45b, NLT) At first listen; all we might hear are words of contempt and insolence. However, challenge yourself to take a second, more intensive listen to the words coming out of the scoffer’s mouth. Let’s press the “pause” button on our own frustration with a scoffing youth long enough to understand that their actions are a reflection of the condition of their hearts. Follow Jesus’ lead and look into the heart first, rather than focusing solely on the outward behaviors.
A question we likely find ourselves asking in this situation is, “Why is this youth at church, anyway?” Perhaps they have been invited by a friend, or maybe their parents are forcing them to come, hoping a youth group will “fix” them. You never know, they just might have a spark of curiosity about Christianity and are hoping to find answers to their questions about life and God. The bottom line is that these youth are at church. Let that sink in. They are at church! Think of all the other places they could be with their issues of the heart. Consider all of the things and people they could be turning to, in their desperation to find acceptance and a place to belong.
If we were working with youth only on a one-to-one basis, dealing with someone who is hurting and expressing it in damaging ways might be easier. However, we all know that a major part of youth ministry is community! At the same time we are seeking wisdom on how to interact with a scoffing youth, we are also trying to minister to the other youth in the program. How in the world are we supposed to balance all of this? How can we protect the other youth present while providing love and grace to someone who is struggling? The answers to these questions will largely depend on each unique ministry program and situation. Yet there are some common threads that can be applied no matter what.
First, and most importantly, pray, pray, and pray some more. Plead with God to work in the hearts of the other youth in your program. Ask Him to allow them to see the situation–and the hurting youth–from His perspective. Acceptance and persistent love from the adult leaders will mean a lot, yet think how much acceptance and persistent love from the other youth will mean! It will most likely take time and a tremendous amount of patience, but if a scoffing youth keeps coming, trust that God is powerful enough to help him or her see the unconditional love of Christ in action. They will see Jesus’ character and values discussed and lived out, which is an extremely compelling combination.
Even if you don’t have a scoffer in your group at this moment, begin equipping your youth now to extend Jesus’ kind of love. If you are hoping to see the youth in your sphere of influence develop into mature followers of Christ, then live a life of grace that will rub off on them. The next time your youth encounter someone who is struggling with deep issues, they just might re-consider their response. Realize as well that there is no teacher quite as effective as life experience. The youth in your program will learn about the heart of Jesus as they live out the passionate grace of God.
Do we ever get to the point where it is necessary to ask a scoffer to leave the youth program? Hopefully not. But if you are at the point where a struggling youth is a potential danger to the other youth, then it should be considered. However, if the scoffing youth is exhibiting “typical” behavior for someone in their situation, then my encouragement is to remember grace. Find opportunities to talk with them one-on-one, with appropriate boundaries, of course. Turning someone away who is most likely seeking love and some answers about life could only add to their pain. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can create faith in a heart, but we are also called to be ministers of reconciliation. God has seen the value in our hearts in spite of our sin. Look through His eyes into the heart of a hurting youth and let His love be the deciding factor.
Published December 2005