How church youth groups are getting it wrong about gender

It was summer. The youth leaders sat the girls down during the youth group to insist that they needed to wear less revealing clothing. Their clothing was 'distracting' the adult male worship leaders. The girls looked like they might vomit. Why would an adult worship leader see them as sexual? Their clothing choices were an attempt to stay cool in the hot weather.

A teenage boy walked into the church youth club that was mainly attended by non-Christian young people. He was wearing a t-shirt adorned with a decapitated woman whose nipples were barely covered. The youth leaders didn't challenge him on his clothing choice. They didn't want to risk him being offended and withdrawing from the group.

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At the big Christian festival a group of young people huddled together after the main meeting. The talk had been about sex and being forgiven for making bad sexual choices. They didn't know how to help their friend who had attended the talk with them. She was 16 and had recently given birth to a baby after her ex-boyfriend had raped her.

The author of a popular book attempts to address the lack of men in the church. He suggests that a great activity for boys in Sunday School involves using fresh cow tongue. Apparently any time you send boys home 'with blood on their hands' you've succeeded in teaching them.

The male youth leader shares some anecdotes during his talk to the gathering of young people. They involve showing photos of his 'hot wife' and his 'hot sister'. He explicitly tells the boys in the room that they're both already taken and implicitly suggests to the girls that girls being 'hot' is clearly important.

These are not invented anecdotes. Each one I either witnessed or was told about by a youth worker or young person. They are just a few of the many stories of how gender based injustice is perpetuated in the lives of Christian young people. Alongside this they are living in a highly sexualised world, where almost every image they see (thousands every day) is digitally enhanced and pornified. Boys are quickly alienated from things that are seen as feminine; sparkly objects, the colour pink, crying, caring, weakness, vulnerability. While girls learn that their value is based on the 'likes' they get on Instagram.

It can seem counter-cultural in the Church to focus on modesty when the world is sexualising girls. In a world where certain aspects of gender are becoming more fluid, some Christians see it as a gospel imperative to reassert clearly defined roles for men and women. Yet both pornified culture and purity culture define women based on their sexuality. Both hold women responsible for men's sexual desire, either satiating it or containing it. And insisting male and female roles are strictly delineated ensures the gospel is irrelevant to large swathes of the population who don't fit into neat gender boxes.

Much of what young people are taught in church about gender is unintentional. It is the by-product of a wider Christian culture which uncritically assumes huge differences between women and men and trades in stereotypes to build rapport. If we want to truly bring life in all its fullness to the young people (and adults) in our churches we need to become aware of just how damaging a lack of gender awareness is. After years of working with young people inside and outside of the church, and in delivering training to youth practitioners through the DAY Programme, I concluded that more resources were needed to help people think intentionally about gender.

This month Grove Books has published a booklet I have written entitled Gender-Aware Youth Practice: Confronting Gender-based Injustice With Young People. It is short enough to be read in less than a couple of hours and it introduces youth practitioners and other interested people to the idea of gender awareness. Practical and theologically rooted, the booklet encourages those working with young people to consider the language they use, the assumptions they may make, what gender aware ethical actions may be, how to respond to abuse and how to grow in knowledge about the issues.

It has been said that the last thing a fish notices is the water it swims in. Similarly, our views on gender are often so deeply ingrained and culturally conditioned that we don't even realise that we're reinforcing norms that are far from the messages about humanity found in Scripture and in the lives of the saints (both living and dead!). Let's begin to question our long-held assumptions, praying for open hearts and minds to hear God's purposes for the young people in our churches and youth groups. And in doing so we may see future generations of women and men will more fully know the truth of God, and be set free by it.

'Gender-Aware Youth Practice' can be purchased for £3.95 here.

Natalie Collins is a Gender Justice Specialist. She is the Director of the DAY Programme and works to enable individuals and organisations to prevent and respond to male violence against women. She is on Twitter: @God_loves_women

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