Friday, January 23, 2009

    COMPETITIVE YOUTH MINISTRY?

    Have you seen this interesting story about the girls high school basketball game where one team shut the other out with a score of 100-0? The winning team was from the all-girls Christian Covenant School. The losers: another all girls school of 20, with only 8 girls on the basketball team, which specializes in working with students that have learning disabilities. Now the winners are having second thoughts:
    In the statement on the Covenant Web site, Queal [head of the school] said the game "does not reflect a Christ-like and honorable approach to competition. We humbly apologize for our actions and seek the forgiveness of Dallas Academy, TAPPS and our community."

    "On a personal note, I told the coach of the losing team how much I admire their girls [from the losing team] for continuing to compete against all odds," Burleson [director of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools]said. "They showed much more character than the coach that allowed that score to get out of hand. It's up to the coach to control the outcome."

    What smacks me upside the head is that phrase "Christlike and honorable approach to competition." I've written many times here on my thoughts about competition in youth ministry. To put it succinctly: I avoid it as much as possible. And I'm not talking here about your rivalry with the youth group down the road that has more members. I'm talking about designing programming, games, and activities that pit one part of your group against another, that result in winners and losers. I know it's hard to avoid activities like this. We swim in a culture that lives and breathes competition. Teens are fed the "losers and winners" mantra day in and day out. The gold medal is the only one that matters in the Olympics. Teens know they will be judged, not so much on the content of their character, but on how good a school they get into, how much money they make, how big their house is, how pricey their car, how many credentials they can put on their resume.

    But I hope we understand part of our call to ministry with youth is to show them another way, another possibility -- to give them a glimpse of the kingdom of God where all are welcome and where we are called to serve, not defeat, each other. A Kingdom shown to us by an itinerant peasant who had none of the things we look for today to determine whether or not someone is a "winner."

    Now, lest we think that a little healthy competition never hurt anyone, remember the golden rule of education: context teaches. Teens learn not just from our Bible studies and discussion programs. They learn about God and the Kingdom in the way they see us treating others, the jokes they hear us tell, the kind of community we create in our churches and youth ministry. Everything we do (or don't do) sends signals to our youth and are part of the way they create meaning in their world. So it's worth asking: Do we include competition in youth ministry because it is edifying to our teens and reflective of Christ, or because we have been socialized to enjoy competition? We all must answer that question for ourselves. At the very least, I would hope we are as thoughtful about what we are teaching in our game nights and church basketball leagues as we are in our moments of worship and study.

    UPDATE:
    I checked out the goals of the Covenant school's athletic program on their website. They sound pretty good. And all but one could be accomplished without the need for competition but rather by promoting community, teamwork, and cooperation. And see this article about the losing team. They have withdrawn from league play for the rest of the season but (see last paragraph of story) may have learned a real lesson about compassion.

    --Brian

    5 comments:

    Die2self said...

    I do think that is very disrespectful to dishonor a team like that. I'm not sure that I look at competition the same way. I love sports, and I can play them with a who cares about score attitude. When we are playing those games with our teens in our youth ministries they pick up on your attitude as far as winning and losing. What we don't want is kids who think they are supposed to win in everything they do like my 3 and a half year old daughter. We need to keep our head up and know that this stuff is meaningless compared to living and glorifying God, but it can be purposeful. I pound Rom 8:28 in my kids, and constantly teach there will be trouble, but anything in your life that happens, if you are folling Jesus, God allowed it to happen for the good, so it is all about the attitude of the heart. I'm not sure if competition's are what is corrupt... or it is the way society has shaped us, and our attitudes are corrupt... at times. I believe we are called, through and by God, to reshape our teens.

    Die2self said...

    I do think that is very disrespectful to dishonor a team like that. I'm not sure that I look at competition the same way. I love sports, and I can play them with a who cares about score attitude. When we are playing those games with our teens in our youth ministries they pick up on your attitude as far as winning and losing. What we don't want is kids who think they are supposed to win in everything they do like my 3 and a half year old daughter. We need to keep our head up and know that this stuff is meaningless compared to living and glorifying God, but it can be purposeful. I pound Rom 8:28 in my kids, and constantly teach there will be trouble, but anything in your life that happens, if you are folling Jesus, God allowed it to happen for the good, so it is all about the attitude of the heart. I'm not sure if competition's are what is corrupt... or it is the way society has shaped us, and our attitudes are corrupt... at times. We are called to reshape our teens.

    Brian and Jacob said...

    D2- Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I do agree that it is possible to play sports and other such activities with an "who cares" attitude about the score. The trick, as I see (and it is possible) is to instill this same attitude in teens. As you say, it's really about the attitude you have. Peace!

    sarah said...

    amen! I was just thinking about this same issue and I appreciate your articulation of my thoughts. We played a game a the youth group I volunteer in. team captains were picked and they ended up picking teams. of course the same kids who are picked last in gym class were picked last for youth group. It broke my heart and made me angry- youth group should be the one safe space for these kids, not a place to perpetuate the hardships of this world. thanks for your thoughts- they are well put.

    Brian said...

    Hi Sarah. Good to hear from you. I can't believe people are still doing that thing where team captains get to pick their teams. How many times does a kid have to be picked last before it has a life-long effect on his or her self-worth? That practice should definitely be on a top ten list of things you should never, never do in youth ministry. Thanks for pointing it out!