I bit down on the worm. Its writhing body crunched with each bite, despite feeling squishy and hard to hold in my hand just seconds before. After what felt like ten minutes, I swallowed the worm and received my prize: a hundred grand. The candy bar that is. Well, I received a pack of ten fun-sized 100 Grand Bars. I hastily opened the package, grabbed a bar and tore off the wrapper, hopeful the candy would mask the taste.
I ate the worm because I was at church camp. The teacher of the class had asked for a volunteer to eat a worm. In return, he would give them a hundred grand. I should have known it wasn’t actual cash—he was a youth minister after all—but after a long silence I raised my hand and accepted the challenge. I didn’t want to eat the worm. I just wanted the teacher to stop asking us to eat the worm. My volunteering seemed like the fastest way to get to that end. To this day, I cannot stand the sight of worms or the taste of 100 Grand Bars.
Youth Group Games
Some youth ministers led games that mask themselves as good-natured fun. I have seen many of them ask students to slap another student in the face with a fish that’s been sitting out for a few hours, or to take a carton of eggs and smash them on their head, and of course to eat a worm.
These games are being used in youth groups across America—despite the fact that most of them are really just hazing. But here is the problem: entertainment based on the humiliation of someone just so a few students can have a laugh exploits the vulnerability of students in a setting where they should be safe.
A Body We’re Comfortable In
As a teenager, I could not get the sweating under my armpits under control. For years I refused to wear shirts that were not sufficiently dark enough to mask the wet swamp that my armpits eventually became. I was self-conscious about this aspect of my body, and always on the lookout for a fan or car vent where I could dry them out before anyone noticed. Imagine if I had, as a friend of mine did, been instructed by a youth minister to put peanut butter in my armpits. An experience like that would have certainly preyed upon my already growing insecurity, leading me to feel less comfortable in the body of Christ than I already did in my own body.
Christians talk often about the church being a hospital for the sick and safe haven for the weary. But this mentality hasn’t taken root in some youth ministries across the country. As mature adults, we are responsible for creating an environment that shows students that the church can be a place where you can both have fun and be comfortable talking about your insecurities. The church is a body that offers comfort.
Creating this environment may sound like a difficult task. But as the body of Christ, we mirror what Christ himself did for us: offer love, sacrifice, and his very self. Jesus never made his disciples eat worms because he wanted to be closer with them. Students need to be surrounded by adults with Christlike attitudes as they navigate the chaotic, unstable teenage life. School, work, family expectations, sports, that boy or girl, a text, or a post on social media can expose any number of insecurities that then fester and make teenagers feel humiliated, gross, or uncomfortable.
But Christ offers comfort and an ever present help in times of need. If the church wants to be a safe haven for the weary, comfort and help must govern our youth ministries. Youth events should be a place where students can have fun and feel comforted in the truth that everyone has insecurities and humiliations, but Christ offers comfort that we cannot find anywhere else in the world.
Trying to Fix the Problem
My wife and I recently had the opportunity to redo the youth room at our church. We tore out old carpet and exposed hardwood flooring, the perk of a post-WWII church building. We painted walls, made couches from pallets and cushions, put in a coffee bar, and added decorations along the way. The aroma of coffee greets students as they enter the room, closely followed by the faint scent of vanilla from burning candles whose light give off a subtle transfixing glow.
The room whispers lounge here, study there, sip coffee with friends in this corner. There is no stage. Nothing separates the students from the teacher. On Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, all of us, adults and students alike, move to the side of the room with a chalkboard—the solitary signal that this isn’t just a lounge room—and we study together. We open our Bibles, drink our coffee, and engage in studying scripture and sharing our lives.
Our youth group still plays games and pokes fun at one another. But when we gather together to study the life of Christ and hear him talk of love, grace, peace, and comfort, the setting around us aligns with the words we read. It is because we study all together with each member of the body allowed to have a dignified part, that we can have a good time, poke fun at one another, and still experience comfort. All are seen and treated as equal because we all desire the same thing: to be more like Christ.
No matter our intentions, we communicate a message whether we like it or not. A youth ministry that gives in to the quick fixes of humiliation-based entertainment often sends the message that teenagers’ insecurities, bodies, and very selves exist to entertain others.
A youth ministry that welcomes, loves, and comforts its students in word and deed communicates the worth they have as children of God, eliminating the need to exploit them for a lesson example or a bonding experience. Such a ministry finds that Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light, embodying that truth by trading the glorification of shame for the solace of belonging. As student ministers and students alike exchange humiliation for hospitality, they will grow in unity with one another, and with the God of all comfort.
Cover image by Danilo Batista.