The following article is adapted (with permission) from an article written by Mark Tittley, director of Sonlife Ministries in Africa.
The Rushville Community Bible Church, our congregation in Rushville, New York, pastored by Robert and Deanna Gnage, routinely ministers to as many as 70 mostly non-Christian teens at their Friday night Teen Hang. Several of these youths also come to a small group at the pastor’s house and to church on Sunday morning. At the Spiritual Enrichment Program (SEP) camps we’re seeing a rapid increase in the number of non-churched campers.
What’s going on? I believe that the Holy Spirit is moving dynamically to draw unchurched youths to our ministries. And that’s wonderful. But it presents a challenge: as these unchurched youths come, they bring their problems along with them.
How should we as adult leaders respond? How can we work appropriately to integrate non-Christian youths into our congregations, camps and youth groups?
Robert and Deanna and other adult leaders who partner with them are facing this problem head-on at Teen Hang. Some of the teens there are heavy smokers and want to smoke at the event. Do you ask them to leave to protect the name of the church or to protect the other kids from a bad influence? Do you read the smoking teens the riot act—letting them know that the group has a non-smoking rule that they are violating? Or, do you welcome them in; ignore their misbehavior with the hope that they will hear the gospel, come to know Christ, and through the influence and power of the Holy Spirit stop smoking?
There are no easy answers to these questions. What might work in one instance might not work in another. But to help us think it through, consider the following alternative approaches:
1. Allow the misbehavior. The leader might take the approach that because these are pre-Christian young people who need to be drawn into the group so they can hear the gospel, the leader should tolerate their non-Christian behavior.
However, this approach may backfire, leading to a loss of control and to giving the impression that the leader is condoning and even encouraging the misbehavior. This approach may also aid in negatively influencing other members of the group.
2. Enforce group rules. The leaders may feel that they should strictly enforce the group’s rules about non-Christian behavior no matter what. But this approach may lead the misbehaving youths (and others) to leave the group while giving all the youths present a negative view of the church. This approach may also lead to unfortunate (and unwanted) confrontations when young people refuse to comply.
These two options are at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Many positions are in between. In choosing an appropriate (and balanced) response, it is helpful to keep the following goals in mind:
Seek to maintain a relationship with the non-Christian young person.
Treat the young person with respect and decency.
If you need to ask the youth to stop a certain behavior, ask politely.
Look for a reasonable compromise. I support what Robert and Deanna worked out at Teen Hang. Rather than forbidding youths who smoke from attending, they allow smoking (for those old enough to make it legal) on the front porch of the building. The inside of the building is then a smoke-free zone. The youths are then supervised (and loved) on the steps and inside. I might add that this approach has helped some of the teens quit smoking. And many of them have come to Christ.
Ask the misbehaving youth not to influence other members of the group with the misbehavior. This might be approached from a human rights perspective, that is, please do not violate the rights of other people to breathe clean air. While there are often no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all ways to approach these matters, considering the following principles will help.
1. Beliefs vs. behavior: Can we honestly expect non-Christian youths to adopt Christian behavior before they have had a heart-change through the gospel of Christ? Is the misbehavior really a danger to the Christian youths in the group? Aren’t they already exposed to such behavior in their homes, schools and malls?
2. Barriers to conversion. By our approach, are we creating the false impression that in order to be accepted by God, youths must be perfect in their obedience to the youth group’s rules? It is certainly appropriate (and even necessary) to have basic rules of behavior for the group, but we have to be careful about making these rules more important than the message of salvation through grace apart from human works.
3. Conditional vs. unconditional love. How do we apply unconditional love in the sphere of non-Christian behavior? Could we create an environment in which youths are loved unconditionally, an environment in which they can find Christ and then through the convicting work of the Holy Spirit grow into Christlikeness?
4. Identifying serious behavior. Should youth leaders stop and think through whether the behaviors are indeed serious issues that demand attention? Sometimes people in the church focus on secondary issues that even the Bible is not clear about—sometimes they are merely socially conditioned to speak out against certain issues.
It would probably be necessary to take action where behaviors are forbidden by law, but even then the way in which it is handled must be thought through carefully to ensure that the relationship with the person is not destroyed. We certainly must take swift action when the misbehavior threatens harm to anyone else, but even then we act carefully and in love.
5. Consequences vs. morality. It might help to address a misbehaving youth with logic rather than with moralism. We need to remember that it is not reasonable or helpful to expect non-Christian youths to embrace Christian morality before they have embraced Christ. Furthermore, in our culture, people are usually more open to reasons than to mere rules. Rather than quoting a rule, it’s usually better (particularly with teens) to explore with them the consequences of their behavior.
May God give us wisdom as adult youth workers and leaders in knowing how to handle difficult issues in our ministry among youths. May God use us to exemplify his perfect balance of justice and mercy.