Researcher Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Why Gender Matters, says gender differences are hard-wired: “There do appear to be distinct differences that influence how boys and girls experience the typical school classroom; how they understand instructions to clean the room; and how they respond to emotionally arousing situations.”
“Duh,” we respond.
But is your “duh” masking how well you’re really accounting for gender differences in your ministry? I know from experience-bad experience-that I’ve hampered my ministry when I pay little attention to cross-gender dynamics. Because God has made guys and girls very different, shrewdness pushes us toward ministry approaches that acknowledge those differences.
Some (including me, in the past) argue that we’re actually more effective with kids of the opposite sex. I’d always put more energy into discipling girls. But after a few years of this trajectory I discovered:
- I’d greatly underestimated the power of same-sex mentoring,
- I’d fueled a damaging momentum in many girls who craved my attention more than God’s, and
• I’d missed numerous opportunities to serve teenage guys who were in desperate need of spiritual direction from an older male figure.
So, to “give from our good treasure,” my wife and I offer up some advice and guidelines for cross-gender ministry.
For Male Youth Leaders Who Work With Teenage Girls
If you’re a man, it’s likely hard to imagine just how deeply every girl desires to be noticed and affirmed. They long to be thought of as beautiful, sexy, intelligent, and special. From the moment she wakes up until her head hits the pillow at night, she’s looking for signs that someone is noticing her. Consider this journal entry from a teenage girl:
“As I got dressed today I couldn’t stop looking at myself from head to toe, and hating everything about my body. I felt like a total dork putting the extra padding in my bra, but I’ve made up my mind that all I want to do is look as hot as possible. I can’t get this question off my mind: ‘Am I the prettiest?’ It felt pretty good today when Sean told me, “Nice, real fine” today when I walked by. But then when I saw him at lunch flirting with some other girls I just thought to myself, ‘I guess I’m really nothing special.’ I get to youth group and think I’ll finally be around a guy who cares about the real me. The youth pastor notices my hair and tells me he likes when I straighten it. I make a mental note to straighten it again next week for youth group and ask God why He cursed me with curls. I wish I could just look pretty naturally. After the youth pastor’s mini-sermon I make sure to go up to him afterwards and tell him how good it was. He’s sure to look me in the eye and pray for me and maybe even put a hand on my shoulder. It’s such a rush! I wonder if he daydreams about me, but I also hope he’s different from the boys at school.”
How can you help girls like this one embrace their true beauty, not their fantasies?
1. Verbally communicate caring only in group settings.
I’m sure you realize that many girls in your group are starving for love and affection-they’re not experiencing love from a father figure. Probably, that makes you want to feed their hunger for love, respect, and admiration. And you can do that-as long as it happens in public, in front of others. Caring messages in one-on-one settings are likely to fuel a girl’s fantasy life. When you confine your appreciation to group settings you keep girls from feeling like you’re giving them special attention. Also communicating words of love and care in group settings will protect you from being accused of saying something you didn’t say.
2. Don’t flirt!
When you know that girls are craving someone to like them, it’s not hard to understand why they can interpret your personal interactions with them as something beyond what you may be intending. When you give girls a specific encouragement-a piggyback ride, a flirty comment, or even just a lingering look-they could be thinking about it all week. Some youth leaders think certain kinds of jokes or touching are harmless. But girls process things subjectively, and it’s not hard to send mixed signals because of that. Here’s our rule of thumb: If the behavior or words wouldn’t be appropriate for you to exchange with your pastor’s wife or an administrative assistant, it’s not appropriate with a teenage girl.
3. Talk often about your #1 girl.
If you’re married (or even engaged), you can help set the standard for what your youth-group girls value by talking, often, about what you value and love about your wife, beyond just her physical beauty.
4. Plan a fashion show.
Put together a night just for girls. Spend time focusing on scripture passages that reveal how God views girls as his daughters (Psalm 139:13; Isaiah 43:6-8; and Ephesians 2:10). Then ask a group of girls to put on a fashion show-how to dress hip but modest.
5. Get some back-up.
I recruited a middle-aged mother to lead a small team of women to help serve, encourage, and counsel the girls in our group. This took the pressure off of me (Nathan) to meet our girls’ needs on my own. It was easy for me to refer a girl to this mentor team.
For Female Youth Leaders Who Work With Teenage Guys
Every teenage guy must contend with the collateral damage puberty generates-struggles with lust and setting moral boundaries. These struggles don’t magically recede when guys walk through your youth room door. Many youth leaders address these realities by setting dress-code policies. But dress-code policies and pleas for modesty do little to get at the root issue. Real transformation happens when guys learn how to be disciplined in mind and heart-to think on things that are pure and lovely and honorable. Consider this journal entry from a teenage guy:
“Every day there seems to be so many different forces trying to get me to look in places where I know my eyes should not go. It starts in the morning when I get on the bus and the girl beside me has incredibly short shorts on-I think about her for the rest of the day. So many of the girls in school wear ‘low rise’ jeans so that their underwear is always sticking out. Mostly, I’m not even trying to look-but it’s everywhere…I was on the computer doing a project for school and Googled “Barbaric”-I couldn’t believe what popped up. Not to mention the provocative photos girls put on Facebook.”
How can you help guys like this one follow their hearts, not their hormones?
1. Build self-awareness.
As guys become more aware just how often they’re thinking lustful thoughts, the more they’ll begin to notice stuff they need to avoid. We have our guys keep a journal for one week-we ask them to write each time they struggle with a lustful thought. At the end of the week, they list the contexts that sparked their struggles (Facebook, playing video games, watching a certain TV show, and so on). Then I (Nathan) lead them in a small-group discussion on how they can avoid contact with these catalysts.
2. Encourage them to persevere.
Pepper your language with reality-check statements and hope: “I know that you guys are bombarded all day long with things that lure your mind astray-stay strong! Remember, God created you to think on things that are ‘holy and honorable’ (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).”
3. Be creatively proactive.
Develop projects for guys that help them remember what they’re about. Guys often are tempted by what they see online, so have them create mouse pads with the word “purity,” or verses that prod them to think on things that are true and pure (Philippians 4:8). And try rubber bracelets, temporary tattoos, and blog sites.
4. Reshape their view.
Many teenage guys view girls (especially in youth group) primarily as date-bait. Teaching on topics such as “The Family of God” and “The Church as a Body” will help your guys understand your group as a true family, not a dating service. I’ve emphasized this reality by asking kids to call each other “Brother (Ben)” or “Sister (Amy).” I know, it’s hard to believe, but they loved the idea and it caught on quickly.
5. Get some back-up.
Titus 2:1-10 says: “Older men mentor younger men, older women mentor younger women.” Yes, you can impact guys if you’re a female-but you’ll have a greater impact if you recruit male helpers. College-age guys are great at creating an open, safe environment for guys.
nathan and katie are long-time youth ministry partners in Pennsylvania.