Some Things I Wish I Had Known Part 3: The Principle of the Line

“Why?”

If I had a dollar for every time my 4-year-old asked me that, I’d be able to retire before she turned 5.

It’s an essential part of childhood. She’s talking in the world around her. Her little brain has not developed the ability to think analytically yet. When we get in the car to go grocery shopping and she asks, “Why?” she legitimately doesn’t know. Although it can be painful to try to explain to a preschooler the necessity of every daily routine, it’s important to the learning process. Later in life, she will be able to build on these concrete concepts. She’ll use them to process her world.

I will admit, though, sometimes after about the 729430857th “Why?” I snap. “Because that’s just the way it is!” I reply, exasperated. Often she accepts that, realizing she’s taken it just a little too far…but the fact remains that I’m not helping her when I do that.

Equally annoying, sometimes, is when a student asks, “Why?” Sometimes it seems as if they’re just grasping for a loophole to get away with something.

“Why can’t I watch movies with cursing? I don’t curse! Why is that different than hearing cursing in the mall? Why is it a big deal if it’s only one or two curse words? Why does Sis So-and-So do it, but I can’t?”

Or my favorite… “But my friend from Fill-in-the-Blank’s church is allowed to do it. Why aren’t we?”

I mentioned before I was raised in a military home. In the military, there is no time to question orders on the field of battle. To take the time to answer a question could result in the loss of your life, or the loss of other lives. My Dad, like most military officers, often took the same approach with his children. As a result, I was raised to do what was asked of me, even when I didn’t understand.

Without even realizing it, I brought that same mentality into my work with students. At times, they would come to me with sincere questions about their faith. This was especially true of traditions of separation that our church has maintained that are not necessarily Bible doctrines. They’re lines, and (in my opinion) they’re logical lines…but they’re not Bible lines.

Some of these standards were required for students to be used on the platform or attend certain trips. As the Youth Pastor, it was my responsibility to help make sure these guidelines were being followed; I was supposed to echo the voice of my Pastor.

I took the wrong approach.

When I saw a young person struggling with a standard, I made assumptions. Instead of teaching my students how to contextualize these standards and helping them understand the principle behind the line, I jumped to a conclusion.

“You have a rebellion issue. You wouldn’t be asking these questions or living this way if your heart was right.”

Ouch!

Although I have found that this is certainly true at times, I’ve learned that most of the time students just need to know! They are exploring their faith. They are coming to conclusions about why they believe what they believe. They are searching for answers. None of us would expect to be held to a standard we didn’t understand…so why do we ask that of our students? The unfortunate thing I learned with some of them is this: if I don’t help them process these questions, someone else with less positive intentions will. So here’s some things I’ve learned:

Teach principles, not lines. The pulpit or teaching podium is not the place to bully someone into following a list of rules. Certainly there are times when issues must be publicly addressed…but address the principle! Instead of “You shouldn’t be watching R-rated movies,” a better approach would be, “The Bible tells us not to put any wicked thing before our eyes; that means if we shouldn’t DO it, we shouldn’t WATCH it.”

Don’t turn a tradition into a doctrine. In an all-boys session at Youth Service, I was asked why we ask our young men to be clean-shaven. I was very candid, and stated, “The Bible never tells us we have to shave.” I explained that in our culture, facial hair in many settings is viewed negatively. I sited studies that noted that, in many situations, a person who is clean-shaven is viewed more favorably than a person with facial hair. Then I explained the blessings of obedience. The fact is, they’re not going to hell if they don’t shave their face! To treat them like they would, when there’s no Bible support for that, would be wrong.

Deal with lifestyle issues on an individual basis. Sometimes a student’s seeming disregard for a Christ-like lifestyle can become a distraction to the youth group and, in worst cases, can even result in others being led astray. I’ve reacted at times by addressing the issue to the entire youth group, thinking it would keep from singling someone out. What I found was all eyes immediately went to the person who was the “problem,” and that person felt even more singled out. I’ve learned it’s much better to pull that student aside and have a heart-to-heart. Approach it from a loving perspective. Don’t lecture; listen! Often we have no idea what the root of a student’s struggle is. I’ve learned that 90% of the time it’s NOT because they have no desire to live for God. We catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Listen with the intent to guide rather than lecturing with the intent to discipline. Because really…even if you bully them into following a rule, what have you gained?

WIll you encounter students who, despite your best efforts, are not willing to conform to a Christian lifestyle, who constantly battle Biblical and Pastoral guidelines? Absolutely. But we create a much better culture when we concentrate on the “Why?” instead of the “What?”

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