If you look at the teaching schedule for the last month of my high school ministry's program year, you'll see the following topics listed: War, gay marriage, and the question, “Who's a child of God?”
What each of these topics have in common is that they're controversial. Now, despite what you may initially think, these controversial subjects weren't chosen as a cheap way of getting students through our youth room doors. Instead, they were chosen because not only are they important, but they're also issues teens care deeply apart; They're issues teens want desperately to talk about. So when my student leaders suggested we talk about them, I said yes – despite their controversial nature.
For years, I've wholeheartedly believed that youth ministries should be safe places to discuss any topic. In fact, I frequently remind my student leaders of this and as a result, they know no topic is off limits for us to discuss, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it is.
My willingness (and even desire) to discuss controversial matters with teens is influenced by three factors:
1) In You Lost Me, the Barna Research Group suggests that 50% of 18 to 29-year-olds who have a Christian background feel as though, at least to a degree, they cannot ask their most pressing life questions in church. This suggests that because faith fails to address those issues they care most deeply about, it's largely irrelevant to them. In contrast, I want students to see and understand that faith is relevant; That it matters and has something to say about any issue.
2) No matter how much we might want to, we cannot actually shelter teens from difficult topics. Even if we choose not to discuss them with teens, rest assured they're discussing them elsewhere. And if they're not discussing them elsewhere, they're Googling them and forming their opinion and worldview based on what they find on the internet.
3) In Scripture, it seems that whenever someone asks Jesus a genuine question, rather than avoid answering it, he instead responds to it. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable the topic might be, Jesus engages question-askers in conversation and in so doing, gives them dignity while lovingly meeting them where they're at.
What I've seen time and time again is that when discussed in a loving, respectful way, in some mysterious way teens often powerfully encounter Christ while discussing controversial subjects. Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of this in the moment. At other times, I don't learn of this encounter until years later.
Take, for example, the message I received from one of my former students, now a college freshman. In it, she shared how she was attending a church that was discussing, “Love, Sex, and Romance.” One of the weeks of this series included a discussion on homosexuality. According to this student, “Everyone in the small group I'm in was freaking out and like 'I've never heard of a church just openly talking about homosexuality'. I was just thinking about the series we did when I was a sophomore and I was SO thankful that I came from a church/youth group where we talked about controversial stuff like that.”
I certainly cannot predict what the future holds for this student, or for that matter, for any of my students. Even so, I'm willing to bet that this student will never be among the nearly 50% of 18 to 29-year-olds who feel as though they cannot ask their most pressing life questions in church. Instead, I suspect this will always be a person for whom faith matters a great deal; For whom faith continues to profoundly influence all facets of her life – large and small.
My hope is that by continuing to discuss controversial issues with my students, the same will also prove true for others.