I often think of a paraphrase of an African proverb that a friend once told me when I hear about youth workers who are in conflict with parents. The proverb says “The only thing that gets hurt when horses fight is the grass underneath.” Applied to youth ministry, I have to conclude that often the only thing that gets hurt when adults fight in the church is the next generation underneath. Now, I certainly believe that there are issues that are important enough to argue over but even in those disagreements my obligations, as given by Paul in Ephesians 4, to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling I have received” and to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” are still to inform the manner in which I disagree with someone.
A denominational leader asked me recently why I thought that so many parents act as if God’s covenant blessings to their children give them as parents license to sin against those who work with their children in the church. I wanted to tread lightly with my answer because I know that all too often youth workers secretly harbor the opinion that parents are the great road block to successful youth ministry. At the same time, his question describes a scenario that I have seen played out in youth ministries across the PCA, so I wanted to give him an answer. The scenario looks something like this:
(a) A set of parents do not agree with the particular approach to youth ministry that the youth pastor takes or perhaps they feel that only parents are to be the spiritual teachers of children so they do not believe that youth ministry is valid.
(b) Somewhere along the line the parents become verbally critical of what is happening in the youth program. If left unchecked the criticism is aired in gatherings of people and shifts from “concerns” about the program to gossip or slander towards the youth worker.
(c) The youth worker (who may or may not have been at fault initially) grows defensive and bitter toward those parents. This eventually leads to negative feelings about the children as well.
(d) As most Christians do at some point, parents begin to spiritualize their sinful behavior by believing that because it is their covenant responsibility to raise their children they have an obligation to protect their children from the youth program by telling the truth no matter how hurtful.
(e) The battle lines are drawn with those who support the program on one side and those who do not on the other and verbal grenades are lobbed back and forth until the unity of the Spirit is destroyed.
The frequency with which I hear similar stories leads me to believe that on some level there is a misguided notion that covenant blessing and responsibility attached to children does entitle a parent a certain amount of spiritual latitude when it comes to critiquing a youth program. Without a doubt, many youth programs and youth workers need to be held accountable for poor decisions. However, it seems to me that there has to be a better way to do it than what I see in many churches. Discarding what large portions of scripture say about unity, love, conflict, gossip, slander, malice and confronting sin in order to protect our “covenant” children runs afoul of a world and life view that emphasizes letting the whole counsel of God inform the course of our lives.
So, when asked that question by the denominational leader, I cleared my throat, knitted my brow, stared pensively at a spot on the wall and replied “I don’t know”. Perhaps it is the same reason that in spite of all that I know about scripture, I was verbally hurtful to my wife today or I loathed my neighbor this morning as I drove by him down the street…I am a sinful man who forgets to stop walking as “the Gentiles” (see Ephesians 4:17ff) and to live in the new life that Christ has given me. One certainty that came from the question that was asked of me is that when I think of the next generation, I do not want them looking up through the previous generations and seeing constant sinful behavior toward each other because I know the only thing being trampled will be those teenagers who are looking to us for the examples of how to follow Christ. e