I remember sitting in my Psychology 101 class in college and my professor starting to talk about healthy relationships. This is something that I was taking particular interest in that day because I considered myself to be in an unhealthy relationship without truly understanding why it was unhealthy. The whole relationship felt tainted, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then my professor drew a simple diagram with one circle and another diagram with two circles touching. Inside the single circle he wrote ‘codependency’. As he explained the concept of codependency he spoke of how individuals in relationships will often try to find their own identity in a relationship without being able to stand on their own. Each person in the relationship is dependent on the other in the relationship to maintain his or her own sense of identity.
I was suddenly hit with a ton of bricks I like to call ‘clarity’. At that moment I made a two-task list in my head:
1. ____ break up with my girlfriend
2. ____ establish my identity.
Professor Moulds – I thank you that I’m not still working on the first task. I’ll be honest–I think I’m still working on the second task.
In working with youth, we’re constantly the audience of unhealthy relationships. We have students who are on late night phone calls every night of the week that go into the wee hours. We hear of the direction-less moments when a student is unable to get a hold of their significant other during a personal ‘crisis’. More often than we like to recognize, our students are pushed to go beyond their emotional and physical boundaries.
Why does it seem that all our youth are in unhealthy relationships in some way, shape, or form? Well, because they are. And the problem is sin and the way it separates all things. Lets start from the beginning.
When we look at the start of the first human relationship we see something profound:
“The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Genesis 2:25 (NIV)
This first relationship was void of shame and coercion. How wonderful would that be? No first date posturing. No meticulous editing of every form of communication to make sure we don’t sound too “eager” or too “confident”. No unhealthy dependency. No emotional or physical abuse. Too bad we know what happens next with the Fall.
“Shame entered first with sin…exciting tendencies and lusts which warred against the soul, and turning the sacred ordinance of God into sensual impulses and the lust of the flesh.” (Delitzsch & Keil, 1981).
As sin messed up the first marriage, sin messes up every relationship. Adam and Eve had to deal with shame, lust, and coercion. Cain killed his brother because of jealousy. Abram lied about his wife out of fear.
So what does this have to do with youth ministry?
Like it or not, we model relationships for our students. Like it or not, we model relationships with our students. Here are some ways I think we can actually be modeling unhealthy relationships without even thinking about it:
In an attempt to truly ‘connect’ with our youth, I dare to say that sometimes we take a step into the world of unhealthy relationships. We might tell the youth to ‘call us any time’ because we want them to know that they can talk to us about anything and that we’ll always be available. Do you really mean that? Do you really want a student to feel like it’s appropriate to call you at two in the morning because he failed a test or because she didn’t get into the class she wanted? Our need to connect to youth as part of our job can make us excited when our students ‘need’ us. It means that we’re doing something right, right? We might even revel in the fact that we received a text at two in the morning. “This student really trusts me!” Yet, what are we teaching our youth about boundaries in relationships?
What about the student who can’t deal with a personal crisis such as leaving a notebook at home without contacting his or her significant other to ’emotionally recover’? Do we want to teach this student to turn every friend or boyfriend into a counselor?
In Andrew Root’s book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, Root digs into Bonhoeffer’s theology of ‘place-sharing’. Place-sharing is the idea that when we minister to youth we actually walk with them in their struggles. Instead of divvying out spiritual comfort to our students, place-sharing is all about being there in the midst of struggles with the students we minister to. We share the place of the youth by actually experiencing the environment in which the student is feeling oppressed.
No matter what your youth ministry program looks like, I have to believe that we all see the value of this ministry philosophy. As much as ‘relational’ and ‘incarnational’ ministry are being turned into fads, it’s hard to deny that a focus on relationships instead of programs is a good thing. I also believe there are a couple of dangers with the above philosophy.
The first is that we might fall into the trap of thinking we are either the only one suited to do this ministry or that we are the only one obligated to do this ministry. Neither are true. Small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, (and first and foremost) parents can all be equipped (and probably are already more equipped than we think) to be place-sharers.
The second danger is that we might fall under the disillusion that because we are completely for others in our ministry of place-sharing we shouldn’t have any boundaries because it might hinder our ministry. This is where our identity is so important. We are open to others in the fact that Christ calls us to minister to His people. We sacrifice our will for His in our ministries. At the same time we are closed in the fact that we are ourselves others. We don’t lose our unique identity in Christ when we minister to our youth. That means that we have the ability and the obligation to sometimes say ‘no’. When our family, faith, or humanity is about to be compromised, we can and should say ‘no’.
This also means that when we teach our youth to care for others we shouldn’t stop with our encouragement to get into the lives of others. Let’s also help by giving them tools to develop their own identity and to say a strong ‘no’ when needed.
Eric Erikson is one of the greats when it comes to adolescent development and identity. His belief was that adolescents shouldn’t be involved in relationships until they establish a healthy identity. Erikson describes three levels of relationships: the self-focused level, the role-focused level, and the individuated-connected level (Erikson as sited in Santrock, 2001).
In the self-focused level, the person in the relationship is in the relationship to get what he or she wants. When the relationship ceases to be beneficial to the individual, the relationship ceases to be valid. This level is especially dangerous when one person in the relationship might be seeking something such as nurture and the other sexual exploration.
I like to think of the role-focused level as if two adolescents were playing house. They know that relationships consist of conversations about the future so that’s what they do. The danger here is that the focus is not yet on the other person. Many youth today think that sex is a part of every “real” relationship, so they have sex, never thinking about how it might damage the other.
You have probably guessed that we want to move our youth to the individuated-connected level. At this level, there is a give and take. There is sacrifice because the focus is put on the other person. At the same time, the identity of each person is not lost within the relationship. This could also be considered inter-dependency (the two circle diagram I learned about in Psych 101).
Influencing people through relationships is only pleasant if you are the influencer, and even then I would argue that you could end up being pretty miserable. There’s no sacrifice in influence. There’s nothing to give of yourself other than your time and energy. As ones who want to guide youth, a temptation is to actually stay at the self-focused level ourselves. We want youth to show up to youth group, so we give them a call periodically. We want youth to show us respect during lessons, so we learn their names. It’s easy to turn a relationship into a system of rewards so that we can have a more effective ministry. In this way we actually model a relationship that’s void of sacrifice.
Below are some suggestions for how to help youth at different stages of relationships.
Talk to students about what the Bible says about broken people and broken relationships. Go over some developmental theory with your students. Talk about how it’s good to learn about ourselves through friendships. Explain the dangers of the different levels of relationships when they consider dating. Encourage parents to give their children opportunities to participate in a number of different activities and to seek healthy relationships in order to develop a strong, healthy identity.
Have a conversation with your students about what it means that Christ should be in the center of all our relationships. Figure out what that means for you and your relationships. Discuss the need for boundaries emotional and physical. Have students consider their actions with their boyfriends and girlfriends. Are they trying to exert influence through their relationships? Ask your students to consider if they have a healthy identity without their significant others? Are they ‘playing house’ by the standards of this world through their relationships? Teach them how and when to say “no”.
Youth are going to feel lonely after a relationship ends. This applies to boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, friendships, and social groups. Recognize that we all need time to mourn when relationships change. Encourage the student to think about how they grew through and what they learned from the relationship. Try to get the youth connected to something he or she might enjoy (a ministry opportunity, a hobby, a sport) so that there’s not a rush into a potentially unhealthy relationship. Model a healthy relationship by being there for the student while maintaining your professional and personal boundaries. If needed, encourage the parents to seek counseling for their child. Most importantly, point to the value we have in Christ opposed to the value we feel in a relationship.
Its sometimes easy to dismiss the relationship issues our youth struggle with because we all have gone through unhealthy relationships and have come out the other side. At the same time, relationships don’t need to be unhealthy. And if we are going to war against unhealthy relationships, let us recognize that we need a Savior to repair what has been broken. It is only through God’s work of reconciliation–of repairing relationships–through His Son, that brokenness is made whole.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
If relationships are ever to be repaired, if we are ever going to stop trying to wield dominion and influence as a tool for our own agendas, it’s only going to happen in Christ and through His work of reconciliation on our behalf. What we recognize as unhealthy in relationships, God is already at work fixing through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our identity, who we are, is not a reflection of our sin, but of our Savior. Through our baptisms we bear the image of Christ and that is an identity to be proud of.
F. Delitzsch, C.F. Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament: The Pentateuch (Eerdmans, 1981)
Andrew Root, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a strategy of influence to a theology of incarnation (InterVarsity Press, 2007).
John Santrock, Adolescence (McGraw-Hill, 2001).
Published April 2009