Here’s the thing about drinking before you’re twenty-one in America: it’s illegal. There’s no two ways about it. We all know the effects alcohol can have on your system- and it’s incredibly concerning to think that teenagers use it the way they do. However, their use of it is no different than the rest of the world’s. They too use it as an escape, as medication, as a way to fit in or ‘just something to do.’ In addressing underage drinking in youth ministry, I think we’ve first got to remember that while it isn’t ok, we need to be cautious not to elevate it’s ‘badness’ above other things which are wrong, and we need to realize that we also make poor and wrong decisions pretty regularly.
I think it is essential to create an atmosphere in our youth ministries where kids feel free to talk about the issues they are facing in their lives–which are likely to include drinking or pressure to drink (or ‘party’). That atmosphere comes through Jesus’ presence, through grace, and through sharing about the reality of our sin and the power of God’s forgiveness through Jesus on the cross. As leaders in these kids’ lives, our honesty and vulnerability are absolutely essential. Obviously, the ‘just say no’ campaign isn’t quite cutting it. There isn’t power behind that (although identifying underage drinking as being wrong is a good thing). There is power in love, and in Jesus’ work through our relationships with these kids. Come along side them, listen to them, and share with them.
For me, one of the things I am likely to share with kids relates to my experience of not drinking in college. I came into college resolved not to drink until I was 21 so as to ‘set myself apart’ as a Christian. In my head, I wanted for people to see that there was something different about me; but really, I’m sure that my incredible stubbornness and pride were dual motivators. I didn’t avoid parties or condemn others for drinking, but unbeknownst to me, my identity as a Christian was becoming very wrapped up in what I was or wasn’t doing. We often lose sight of Jesus or of loving others when this becomes our reality. This is a serious risk for the way we approach ‘not drinking’ or ‘abstaining from sex ‘til marriage’ in our youth ministries.
Our identity as Christians is based on a God who came smack dab into the middle of our mess- our underage drinking, our misuse of alcohol, and our failure to love one another. It is based on His forgiveness, His atonement, and His resurrection. Why do we try to base it on ourselves so often?! We follow Him. He gives us life, the power to ‘say no’ when we really should, and the gift of repentance when we make mistakes. These mistakes have real consequences, yes – but we should not live in fear of our kids making them (and therefore preach simply ‘just say no!’). They will make mistakes, and so will you and I. We need Jesus. Preach Him. And do everything that you can to help your kids feel open to talk and pray with you about their struggles, questions, and mistakes.