An Example and a Warning for Youth Ministers From the Film ‘CODA’

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Like all coming-of-age stories, the recent film CODA” reminds us of the painful, awkward, and beautiful moments of adolescence. In particular, it paints a picture of a home life that, while largely warm and loving, leaves a young girl on the fringes both socially and academically. Youth ministers in particular can learn from the movie as we think about how to care for hurting teenagers.

“CODA” chronicles the senior year of a child of deaf parents (CODA), Ruby, and her unlikely pursuit of singing. In captivating, subtitled dialogue—which is often irreverent, sometimes vulgar—the drama depicts her struggle as the only hearing person in her family. Ruby and her family are part of the legacy of proud Gloucester fishermen, and her father and brother are totally dependent on her hearing to survive at sea.

As the film unfolds, we are quickly moved by Rubys dedication to her family at significant cost to her social and academic life. She rises at 3:00 a.m. to join her father and brother on their fishing boat in waders, bringing in nets and packing fish for sale before rushing off to school without so much as a shower. As she goes about her work, she sings—unheard by her family.

Watching Ruby arrive late to classes and take a bold risk by signing up for a chorus elective, I lamented to my husband, this girl needs a teacher to see what shes up against and get involved!” (to which he reminded me it was only a movie). Fortunately for Ruby and for the viewer, one kind but exacting teacher does take an interest in her.

An Example for Youth Ministers

When Ruby sings in front of the chorus class for the first time, her teacher Mr. V. takes notice, asking her to do a duet with another standout vocalist, a boy on whom Ruby has already been crushing. Later he encourages her to audition for a spot at Bostons competitive Berklee College of Music. He pledges to help her prepare—but only if she will make the necessary sacrifice of time, prioritizing their meetings just as he does.

We could certainly critique Mr. V’s high expectations for Ruby’s performance, but ultimately his intervention is a saving grace. It’s Mr. V. who encourages Ruby one last time, in the presence of her parents, to attend the Berklee audition. It’s Mr. V. who turns up at just the right moment to advocate when she forgets the music for the accompanist. And it’s Mr. V. who accompanies her, giving her the confidence she needs to sing her heart out.

As youth ministers, we can learn from Mr. V’s example of caring for a vulnerable teenager. In our world, this committed care might look like spending more time in discipleship conversations or Bible study with a couple of students whom we notice are spiritually hungry. It might mean working with others to line up rides to youth group for students of single-parent families or those who come from unchurched homes. We likely will have seasons in which students struggling with physical or mental health need additional contact. In each of these scenarios, we can pray that God will show us just how he is inviting us to be involved.

As needs among the teenagers in our sphere of influence come at us, we can often feel the sense of overwhelm. We won’t be able to be a Mr. V. for every student in our groups, but we are certainly called to notice the needs around us, following the Holy Spirit’s prompting on where we ought to invest more. Jesus had three of these deeper friendships in Peter, James, and John, and perhaps we will have just one or two at a time. We have the opportunity to also empower other “Mr. Vs” on our youth leadership teams, helping to make connections between teenagers and adults with similar life stories or interests.

A Warning for Youth Ministers

As much as I cheered for Mr. Vs compassionate interest in Ruby, I also cringed as he invited her to his house on evenings and weekends—alone. Scenes of teacher and student interacting so personally, unaccompanied by another adult, felt out of touch with the realities of 2022 and the lopsided power dynamic between a young woman and a teacher she admires. While mercifully the relationship was depicted as otherwise healthy, the story could have unfolded in a much different way. Sadly, these stories often do.

Nearly every month there is a new story of the sexual abuse of students by a schoolteacher or youth minister somewhere around the country. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the devastating reports of these abuses, it’s a.) that none of us are immune from sinning in these ways, and b.) that the damage done affects the victims’ reception of the gospel for years to come.

It is therefore woefully unwise for an adult, however well-intentioned, to spend one-on-one time with a student in a private setting. The risk of stumbling is too high and the cost for our students is far too great. I can only pray that youth ministers watching this film will see the unspoken cautionary tale in Mr. Vs well-meaning but ultimately misguided approach to caring for Ruby.

Youth ministers, we cannot afford to fail our students in keeping them physically and emotionally safe. We must find ways to care for kids without putting them (and ourselves) in potentially compromising situations. The credibility of the gospel message we preach is at stake. Perhaps this was partly what Jesus had in mind when he cautioned the disciples saying, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). Jesus prioritized spiritual and emotional nurture and safety for the most vulnerable, as should we.

Protecting the teenagers in our care often means exercising creativity in order to find appropriate ways to spend time together. Mr. V. might have reserved space at the high school to meet after the school day, with the door open and other teachers in earshot. Or he could have incorporated the singing lessons into family time with his wife and child, including them in a group dynamic that would have had many benefits for Ruby and for his own family. Whichever of these options Mr. V. chose, he should have also made an effort to meet and communicate with Ruby’s parents about their arrangement.

Still, we needn’t shy away from inviting students into our homes in order to practice hospitality and life together. As a teenager, I spent significant time at the homes of my single youth pastors—always in a group setting with multiple adults and students. Those relationships were truly godly and modeled appropriate boundaries that helped me walk more closely with Jesus. They are some of my fondest high school memories. The young men who were discipling my friends and me were ahead of their time. They avoided compromising scenarios by doing ministry together, discipling us in real-life contexts, always as a team.

Of course we all wish we could “simply” care for teenagers in whichever environment seems most convenient. But here again, Jesus words ring true: In 2022, we must seek to be “as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), understanding the disease of sin in our world and in our own hearts. Knowing ourselves this way actually frees us to more innocently care for teenagers. By God’s grace, may we be disciple-makers who invest deeply in the lives of teenagers, always doing so with an eye to their highest good.

Please use discretion in viewing; you will want to exercise discernment before watching with teenagers. 

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