That's Not Fair!

Every Monday night, my high school students run a program for refugee kids called Kids Club. Each week, what the kids look most forward to is snacks.

When it comes to Kids Club snacks, we have one rule: Everyone gets exactly the same thing.

That's why, on Monday, I counted out four frosted animal crackers for each kid, carefully ensuring everyone had two pink ones and two white ones.

Failure to do this results in an immediate cry of outrage, “That's not fair!”

In so many ways, that's an age appropriate behavior for tiny children for whom life has been entirely unfair.

What's not necessarily an age appropriate response is how often I hear that same outcry from my high school students.

Just last night, my teens hosted our 8th grade orientation, an event designed to give our 8th graders a “taste” of our high school ministry. During it, one of my teens led a game called Birdie on a Perch. It's a classic mingler where teens are paired off, separated, and then forced to reunite and do something goofy. The teen leading the game did a fantastic job. The only thing I would have changed was how long it took her to declare a team out.

I think this student leader took forever because she wanted to be a fair and impartial judge. She didn't ever want a team to be able to say, “That's not fair!” about her leadership.

Trust me. I know that struggle.

I, too, want to be a fair leader, with no appearance of inconsistencies.

If I'm honest, I'll even admit there are times when this is my governing value. 

And that, at least to me, is problematic.

Our obsession with fairness focuses our teens' attention inward, making them acutely aware of how what they have compares to what everyone else has.

By turning our attention inward, fairness fosters narcissism. It makes me what's most important. In so doing, it destroys our sense of community. 

Perhaps most unfortunate, since fairness is about equality – if things are fair, everyone has the same – it actually steals the focus from justice.

And don't be fooled. Fairness and justice are not necessarily the same.

Case in point?

God.

When I look at Scripture, I see a God who is always just, but not always fair.

Take, for example, Jesus' parable of the workers in the vineyard. This story stars the feisty landowner who dares to pay his workers the same – regardless of how long they worked. No doubt at the end of the day, the workers hired earliest in the day cried, “That's not fair!”

Yet, in this parable, Jesus seems to suggest fairness isn't the point.

And maybe, fairness shouldn't be our point either.

Rather than obsess over fairness, let's obsess over justice... And teach our teens to do the same.

After all, being unfairly called out during Birdie on a Perch or not being given exactly four frosted animal crackers aren't matters of life and death.

But there are injustices that are.

Let's get outraged about those.

Jen Bradbury on Youth Ministry

Jen serves as the Minister of Youth and Family at Atonement Lutheran Church in Barrington, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. Jen is the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe about Jesus (The Youth Cartel), The Real Jesus (The Youth Cartel), Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders (Abingdon), and A Mission That Matters (Abingdon). Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal, Immerse, and The Christian Century. Jen is also the Assistant Director of Arbor Research Group where she has led many national studies. When not doing ministry or research, she and her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope, can be found traveling and enjoying life together.

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A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm

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Unleashing the Hidden Potential of your Student Leaders

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The Real Jesus

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The Jesus Gap

What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus

Based on National Research

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