Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries has recently “been accused of deliberately excluding plus-size women from wearing its clothes by failing to make or sell womenswear in any size above Large.” According to Jeffries, “In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong [in our clothes], and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
As a woman and youth worker, I find this statement heartbreaking. Yet, each time I've heard it, I've wondered, “Could church youth ministries be accused of the same thing?” Do we ever “go after the cool kids,” perhaps even under the guise of reaching more kids? Do we ever inadvertently communicate to kids that they don't (or can't) belong?
I certainly hope not and yet...
I think about those students (and even their families) who drift away. If we sat down and talked with them, openly and honestly, what would we hear? Would we unearth messages of exclusion we've mistakingly sent?
I certainly hope not and yet...
I think about the many way in which active students in our ministries are similar. Many are the same ethnicity. Most share the same socioeconomic status. Most are in similar classes, with similar trajectories for their future. Given these similarities, is there space in our ministries for students who break these molds?
I certainly hope so.
After all, Jesus died for all people. We see this over and over again in the New Testament:
As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:11-13)
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Corinthians 12:13)
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
And perhaps my favorite, from Ephesians 2 in the Message:
The Messiah has made things up between us so that we’re now together on this, both non-Jewish outsiders and Jewish insiders. He tore down the wall we used to keep each other at a distance...Then he started over. Instead of continuing with two groups of people separated by centuries of animosity and suspicion, he created a new kind of human being, a fresh start for everybody. Christ brought us together through his death on the cross. The Cross got us to embrace, and that was the end of the hostility...You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone.
In a world where even retail stores have the power to erect exclusionary walls, when we as youth workers deliberately take steps to ensure that such walls are never built in our youth ministries or that when they inadvertently are, they're immediately torn down, we powerfully communicate the Gospel to students and their families. As youth workers, then, a critical component of our job is demolition. As youth workers, we must become experts at wall removal.
May we have the courage to tear down walls wherever and whenever we find them.
May our students know that even though there are cool and not-so-cool kids in their schools, in our youth ministries, all are loved.
May all students know that in the Kingdom of God, they belong.