Beyond Gender: We Are All One in Christ
“There is no longer…male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28). We're all one in Christ. Just saying it gives us a warm fuzzy feeling. We feel invincible, like we could leap in a single bound all the boundaries that stand between us through the love of Christ. But truthfully, for most of us it's not that easy. We're not spiritual supermen…or superwomen; we're human.
Paul's declaration in Galatians 3:28 wasn't intended to eliminate gender distinctions based on maleness and femaleness. It's a wonderfully liberating statement that points to our equal standing before God as both men and women. In Christ we are all God's children, possessing both distinctiveness because of our sex and commonalities because of our salvation. Still, those labels of male and female are hard to get around. And why not? Many of us grew up hearing phrases like “Battle of the Sexes” and “The Gender Wars.” Not only were we taught that there were male and female, but also that they apparently didn't like each other very much!
As a woman, I even hesitated on the threshold of youth ministry, held back by my own perception of the youth worker as a stereotypical male/extrovert/athlete. Yet somewhere inside me I knew that God wouldn't call me to something I wasn't suited for. Ultimately, I realized I was being called to utilize my own gifts to walk with and direct youth on their own journeys with Christ. But first I had to get beyond my own prejudices and assumptions.
So my question is, what can we do to focus on the common areas and help the youth we work with develop as young believers with the unique gifts God has given them whether they are male or female?
Discovering the Unwritten Rules
Every youth group has rules. Without them our lives would be ruled by chaos. In my youth group, the rules are posted as a permanent part of our ever-changing bulletin board. But there's another set of rules that never get written down or posted on any bulletin board. These are the separate rules we have for girls and boys, based on what we expect of them. In a national survey, 2,000 teens and preteens talked about what some of these unwritten rules were:
- Be a good girl.
- Girls don't roughhouse.
- It's okay to be weak.
- Act like a lady.
- Girls need protecting.
- If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.
- Boys will be boys.
- Boys don't cry.
- Be strong.
- Boys can take care of themselves.
- Don't start fights, but stick up for yourself if you have to.
- Don't show your feelings.
These unwritten rules have the potential to become downright dangerous to a youth group. Their dichotomy of encouraging vulnerability in girls and strength in boys can be damaging to the development of youth as they strive to figure out who they are and how they fit in their community. If boys are always encouraged to take the strong roles in a youth group, to be leaders and protectors, girls may not get the opportunity to show their strengths or to speak up and develop as leaders. On the other side, if boys aren't given permission to be vulnerable, show their emotions, cry, or ask for help, they may have trouble taking their spiritual lives to deeper levels or run the risk of burning out from giving too much without receiving in return. Being a Christian requires both strength and vulnerability. We need to be strong in our faith, commitment, and convictions, yet vulnerable enough to admit our sins and weaknesses and our dependence on God. Without this balance we falter, and so will our youth. Becoming aware of your own unwritten rules is the first step in getting away from them.
Remembering What's Important to Your Kids
Most of us have probably had the experience of the self-segregating free time when all the girls go off in a corner to braid each other's hair, while the boys head off to the gym for a little pick up basketball. This could lead you to believe that boys and girls live in different worlds with a different set of priorities. There may be some truth to this, although often those moments of self-segregation are a product of peer-pressure more than anything else. But beyond the stereotypes of clothes, make-up, and shopping, versus sports, cars, and trading cards, there's a core of things that are equally important to both sexes.
In my youth class one Sunday we did a priorities exercise. The kids wrote down ten things that were important to them, numbering them one to ten. Then they looked at number one and number two, chose which one had priority over the other, and put a check by it, continuing down the list until they had compared everything on the list. When they added up the checks they found out the things that showed up most often were spending time with God, friends, family, and doing well in school. Things like clothes and sports were on a lot of their lists, but for most people they didn't make the top three or even the top five. Sometimes we get so focused on how different girls and boys are that we forget all that they have in common. By focusing on these commonalities it's easier to reach all kids where they are.
Looking at Youth as Individuals Let's say I have someone in my youth group named Sam. Sam is kind of shy, is in the school orchestra, likes to play basketball and soccer, likes to read, is always doodling during the Sunday School lesson, and last week got suspended for being involved in a fight on school grounds. So is Sam male or female? Obviously there's no way to tell from that description.
Gender is a construct. Female and male are biological distinctions, but gender is all about what we as a society expect of people because of those biological distinctions. In 1974 psychologist Sandra Bem developed a survey, which is still widely used today (The Bem Sex Role Inventory or BSRI) consisting of 60 traits, 20 of which are culturally considered masculine, 20 feminine, and 20 neutral or filler. When people fill out this survey their answers are scored on two separate scales to show both how masculine and how feminine they are. Not surprisingly, regardless of their sex, people score all over the place with high and low combinations of both feminine and masculine traits. It would be next to impossible to guess the sex of someone filling out the survey based on the answers given in the survey.
All of these masculine and feminine traits are what make each one of us unique and are what make our youth unique too. Look at your youth. What traits do they possess? In what unique ways has God gifted them? Are there special talents or abilities you may not have noticed because of your own assumptions?
Getting Past Girl Stuff and Boy Stuff
Even if youth have a special talent or gift, sometimes it's hard for them to step outside the boundaries of what's expected of them. This can be especially true if you're looking outside the mold of what is considered to be “girl stuff” or “boy stuff.” In other words, it may be easier for the girl who likes to shop than for the girl who wants to take shop. Maybe there are things in your church that have always been considered a male or female realm. Think about the times your girls have been “volunteered” to help clean up in the kitchen, or the boys to help run audio-visual equipment. If you notice one of your boys is good with kids, encourage him to work in the nursery. If you have an athletic girl, encourage her to volunteer to help with games at your VBS or mid-week program.
Stepping outside these gender boundaries can be very scary, especially for boys. Possible ridicule is a major deterrent for a boy to do anything that might be considered girly or that might call his sexuality into question. Your encouragement and support are vital. Not only private but also public encouragement should be offered, including awareness and diffusion of any sort of harassment. People are happiest and do their best when they are doing things that they are good at, but that isn't possible in a hostile or disrespectful environment.
What God MadeEphesians 2:10 says that we are what God has made us. Young believers should be proud of who they are. Each of us has characteristics that are traditionally considered male or female. In each of us, these traits have been handed out in different proportions to make us unique. Both female and male traits have good things about them, and having some of each helps us to be more complete people. By noticing and applauding the positive traits of our students, we help them to be confident in the people they are and help them discover the people that God wants them to be.
Looking beyond gender isn't easy. We've all been trained to expect certain things from each sex. But when we can actually see that we're all one in Christ, each one of us with unique and special things to offer, we become closer to seeing each other as Christ sees us.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.