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I’ve Got Friends in Safe Spaces: Student Ministry and Gospel Community

I’ve Got Friends in Safe Spaces: Student Ministry and Gospel Community

Committed Attending

It is confusing to live in the world today. Short attention spans dominate the culture, especially when it comes to junior and senior high youth. They learned it from us, though, so they come by it naturally. Some of you remember the anticipation of Sunday evening network TV. Some of you remember the anticipation of the Thursday night comedy block on NBC or TGIF on ABC. Few of you have a TikToc or even know what one is. Hint: I am not talking about a clock.

The short attention span critique of today’s students, now referred to as Generation Z, is usually absent of some critical nuance. This generation is/was raised by parents who were more physically present than any generation prior, yet those parents were half as available. With faces buried in smart devices, parents generally oversee what is going on as they catch up on social media, shop, or catch up on their favorite show. Covert and overt information pummels parents with every swipe and tap. They become enculturated in ways that they will never know, and they raise their kids to do the same.

One of the key identifiers of this culture is the idea of safety. Not safety from violent crime or safety from natural disasters, but safety from words and ideas. In the matter of a generation, we have managed to gather information from everyone in western society and create an understood set of rules based upon the distilled fears and dislikes of the group. Rather than being individuals who live and work and think differently, we are pressured to be unique, just like everyone else. This is a terrifying existence for our students. They have to be present online, but they cannot rock the boat. They have to have conversations, but they cannot say anything. That is hard work. That hard work needs frequent, indulgent vacations. Vacations to Snapchat, YouTube, and TikToc.

Let me be clear: Technology is not the culprit. Jeremiah reminds us that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (17:9). The collective hearts of the world have been pooled, and we have created a deceitful reality for ourselves. The way in which safety is now defined protects the collective under the guise of protecting the individual. The problem with this is that we were created as individuals to participate in the collective. Our reality, our culture, and our rules were already established by a loving God seeking relationship with his creation.

Love is committed attending. It is not presence without availability. Our God loves us enough to chase us down through space and time and bring us back to himself. He saves us from our created reality and brings us in line with his. He changes our hearts and our minds. He saves his people to be a people, blessing the earth. He is committed to attending to all of that. He loves his creation.

I love student ministry. I love it for some of the same reasons I love being a pastor and counselor. There is nothing quite like the feeling of witnessing someone experience reality for the first time. Sometimes that reality comes in the form of a student finding out that their parents really did not kill them for telling the truth about a difficult situation. Sometimes that reality comes when a piece of head knowledge about the Bible entrenches itself into a student’s heart. Sometimes it comes when a deep secret is revealed and understood allowing the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to shine into the darkness. These moments are sweet and precious but require safety and nurturing.

What does safety look like?

There is a difference between “safety” and “safe-ism.” “Safe-ism” is when any idea, any lifestyle, any thought, any anything is approved of, supported, and encouraged in a given environment. In fact, the only ideas, thoughts, etc. that are not okay are ones that are contrary to everything being okay. This serves to elevate ideas above people. The worth of a person is not found in anything other than their ability to approve of and sanction “safe-ism” perspectives. “Safety,” on the other hand, finds its roots in the reality of humans being created as image bearers of the Eternal Creator.

Genesis 1:26-27 holds the key to safety for all of humanity. All men are created in the image of God. History is the reality of God chasing man down through time and space to show us his love, make our relationship with Him right, and enable us to live as true image bearers now and for eternity. Safety is the lap of our Heavenly Father. Safety is the Son dying for us while we were yet sinners. Safety is the Holy Spirit revealing himself to us in spite of ourselves. Safety is being dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom.

Why do we need safe spaces?

My parents’ generation were desperate to find absolute truth in the midst of the cultural changes of the 1960’s and 70’s. My generation was desperate to turn this into an authentic truth that could resonate with people as something more than head knowledge. The generation after me wanted to take those things and turn them into working truth, something to help them get elbow deep in doing things that matter. The current generation has a different battle on their hands altogether.

This generation is more connected, more technologically advanced, more educated, and more interactive than any generation in history. Yet, they are the most lonely people I’ve ever met. Social media has made it nearly impossible to be an individual. Connectivity and technology put pressure on them academically that I never had to experience. High school and college degrees are worth less and less every day. Bullying is real and is prevalent. Marriage is optional, sex is expected, and pregnancies are non-issues. “Find your truth, my guy” is more likely to be said to your son or daughter than even the question, “That’s interesting, why would you say that?”

So what do you do about it?

I often remind students and those who work with them about the stupid things that roll around in our heads. These things seem reasonable and rational until they come out of our mouths. Some of the most interesting times with students happen when you witness them say something ridiculous and get to watch them process the ridiculousness in real time. I encourage students not to jump each other in these moments and leaders not to rush to correction. Dwight didn’t need to tell Michael Scott not to drive into the lake after they were sitting in the water. 

High-Life, Cookie Tuesday, High-Life Connects, and our other programs are all chances to have these moments with students. We want students to feel free and valued because they exist. We do not have unreasonable expectations of them or irrational desires for their lives. We simply want to know them for who they are and what their lives are about. It is in those places that you meet real people. These are real people who lead real lives and need to be surrounded by love and experience from mature believers. 

The pressing reality most people miss about student ministry is that these people are no more than 6 years away from adulthood. They are real people going through real life. They don’t need to be spoken to in any sort of manner other than a truthful one. Speak to them about the Gospel of Jesus Christ transforming you from the person you were to the person you are. Speak to them about the Gospel sustaining you in impossible circumstances. Speak to them about the Gospel finding you and strengthening you in your most doubtful moments. Speak to them about the Heavenly Father who can wrestle you through the most difficult issues and still rock you to sleep at night. Speak to them.