Culture At Large

Why Penn State is an overdue wake-up call for youth ministry

Jeff Munroe

“Do you think that the unfolding horrors at Penn State make parents more or less willing to send their kids away to camp for a week?”

The question came from a leader in the field of Christian youth camping. In case you were not aware of it, youth camping is a struggling field. Almost everyone’s numbers are dropping. The poor economy certainly has taken its toll, but there is something else going on, too. Our culture has changed. Parents are reluctant to let their kids out of their sight or, at least, out of text-message range. The traditional camp selling point of isolation sounds increasingly discordant and dangerous in our world.

Isolated kids are vulnerable kids, and the sexual-abuse tragedy involving the Penn State football program is the latest in a long line of high-profile cases of predators attacking the most vulnerable members of society. The reluctance of parents to put their kids into potentially harmful situations has resulted in a phenomenon often disparagingly referred to as “helicopter parenting,” parents who hover over the lives of their kids in efforts to protect them. I have heard all sorts of people, from college professors to youth ministers, speak of helicopter parents with disdain. My feeling is they had better get used to it.

For example, I learned of a youth minister recently who was frustrated after the parents of his youth group told him firmly he could not take their kids away on a mission trip that lasted longer than six days. He’s taken kids around the world for two weeks at a time the past few years and feels that parents suddenly don’t trust him or value his ministry. His feelings are a microcosm of the feelings of those leading Christian youth camps. Don’t parents trust us? Don’t they realize how good being at camp is for their kids?

In a word, the answer to those questions is “no.” The scales have tipped and parents are having a hard time believing that the best thing for their kids is to place them in situations where they are exposed to risks from which they cannot rescue them. Those doing youth ministry need to see this from a parent’s point of view. Once a young life is damaged by the unthinkable there is no turning back the clock.

Youth leaders then are frustrated that parents are “meddling” too much. Better get used to that, too. We live in a culture where transparency is a very high value. If organizations or people are not perceived as being transparent, the assumption is that you have something to hide.

The tragedy at Penn State illustrates why this is true. Too often, as at Penn State, stories of abuse have unfolded on at least two levels. One level is the allegations of criminal behavior. The other level is the failure of various people in positions of authority - in this case including formerly revered and recently fired head football coach Joe Paterno - to report the crimes. The authorities acted out of a desire to protect their organizations, blind to their shameful complicity in the abuse and guilty of valuing the perpetuation of their institution more than the lives of those they are supposed to be serving.

Anyone doing ministry with young people needs to understand that they must let their organization become transparent. The church would do well to consider the case Paul referred to in I Corinthians 5:1 when he wrote of a report of sexual immorality among them “of a kind even the pagans do not tolerate.” When the church tolerates things the world does not tolerate, the church has failed. Of course cases of covering up sexual abuse come immediately to mind, but I am also thinking of churches that turn a blind eye and allow all sorts of questionable things to happen in their youth ministry programs. The need to save money and find help can result in bad scenarios, from untrained and unqualified volunteers having access to young people to travel happening in unsafe vehicles with drivers that don’t have proper licensing.

We do well to remember Jesus’ warning in Matthew 18:6, that it would be better to have a millstone tied around our necks and be plunged into the sea than to cause one of His little ones to stumble. It’s a new day in youth ministry, one that is going to demand higher and higher levels of professionalism, disclosure and transparency. Those working with youth must rise to this challenge.

(Photo of Penn State's Beaver Stadium courtesy of iStockphoto.)

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