Rules: Less Is More

October 6th, 2009

Zeetropolis (name changed) is an impressive, fun church youth facility. A converted movie theater, it has a big video arcade, a basketball court, a coffee bar, and a light and sound system to blow you away. But it also has framed around the place: the rules—rather harshly worded rules like no gum chewing.

One night a teenage band came to play for a youth rally. One of the Zeetropolis workers told two friends of the band to stop holding hands. Wow, holding hands is inappropriate there? Well, it turns out they were married. The husband was so angry that he had to walk out to the parking lot to cool off. Although leaders took pains to explain the rules to him, an apology was slow in coming. The band and their friends afterward dubbed the place “Nazitropolis.” Even though they loved the games and the rest, most never went there again.

In another place, nice but less impressive, there’s no rules on the walls. Nor is there a written code of conduct for students. Before the high school group starts, students are relaxing and talking. A guy and girl are being rather affectionate as they talk with friends. A leader with a good rapport with them notices and deems it a bit too affectionate. He walks over and says in mock-serious voice, “It’s getting mushy around here.”

The couple smiles and the girl replies, “You’re right.” And they separate a bit and continue talking with their friends.

These are two real situations. One group emphasized rules. But which group was more effective in guiding behavior in a positive way without alienating students?

When youth leaders decide what rules to have and how to enforce them, much thought is given to crowd control and behavior control as well as safety and avoiding litigation. But how much thought is given to what Jesus said about handling authority?

Jesus told his disciples, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you…” (Mark 10:42-43)

Yet we often let it be “so” in our youth ministries.

Youth are bombarded with rules every day, especially at school. They face dress codes and other rules that they (sometimes rightly) see as absurd. Even the best of students face detentions or worse for trivial or inadvertent violations. “Their rulers lord it over them.”

So they come to our youth groups, and what do they face? More rules. And, yes, students (too often rightly) see our rules as absurd. In some groups, the rules include dress codes and the like that make youth group too much like school. And if the rules are obnoxious enough, we lose them at the start. Students won’t hear a message of grace when they see a regime of legalism. (Having lots of rules doesn’t necessarily equal legalism, but that’s what students often perceive.)

Some may say they’re immature, that they need to grow up and get used to rules. After all, rules are part of life. But remember Jesus came down hardest on the rule-worshipping legalists of his day, the Pharisees. And Paul had some harsh things to say about the rule-obsessed as well and urged, “For Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) Teens’ aversion to excessive rules may be more Christ-like than we thought.

Jesus’ admonition not to “lord it over” those we minister to is doubly important in youth ministry. Teens are at a stage when they desire and need more independence and freedom. And they’re sensitive to perceived infringements on that desired freedom. They don’t consider themselves children anymore and don’t want to be treated as such with an array of rules.

Most youth leaders are aware of all this and are sensitive to it. But they don’t want anarchy either. So how do we handle authority and rules?

One way is to invite input from students in formulating our rules. We desire for students to take ownership of our groups so it’s not just a ministry to them, it’s their ministry. Part of that is to, as much as possible, make the rules their rules. Meet with core students to discuss the group and its direction, including the formation of rules.

Another way is to avoid micromanaging by making rules broad and overarching. For example (and this is just one example.), the word “respect” can cover almost every circumstance. Expand that one word to, say, three rules:

1. Respect God. 
2. Respect others, including the leaders.
3. Respect the property.

Are there any situations this doesn’t address?

When you have broad Biblical rules, you’ll find less is more. Such rules do much more than avoid annoying micromanagement. They give students an opportunity to learn to think Biblically about their own conduct. It’s much better for them to seek to conduct themselves in line with broad Biblical principles than to just stay within concrete rules. What’s better: students being quiet during a talk because we have an anti-talking rule and jump on them if they break it; or them being quiet because we have a rule of respect that reminds them why they’re quiet during talks? To put it another way, broad rules encourage the development of wisdom rather than mere rule following.

It’s oft said that kids need clear boundaries. And to a large extent, we all need boundaries. But in a society where standards can be close to nonexistent, kids need to learn to live wisely when few boundaries are imposed. Seven-year-olds can handle rules. By 17, our students should be making progress in handling freedom. Anyone who’s been around drunken frat boys knows how obnoxious it can be when students don’t graduate from rules to freedom and wisdom.

Another advantage of broad rules is that they help avoid painting yourself in a corner where you find enforcing a specific rule is unworkable. Zeetropolis enforced their rules. As they should—not enforcing rules is asking for them to be ignored. But their rules were so rigid that enforcing one blew their credibility with a whole group of people. Broader rules avoid such inflexibility.

If you worry that fewer but broader rules might not cover all circumstances, then…don’t. The youth group I help lead doesn’t have any rules about card playing. But one night during a meeting, I stumbled on two boys playing cards. I didn’t think, “Oh no, we don’t have a rule about that! What do I do?” I simply motioned for them to give me the cards and said, “Get them back from me after the meeting.” When they came to retrieve them later, I told them our focus during the meetings needs to be on Jesus—a much more important message than “Don’t play cards during meetings” or “You broke a rule.” They understood and politely said it wouldn’t happen again.

Another way to avoid lording it over students is to enforce rules with a light touch whenever possible. Leaders are called to be gentle. (e.g. 2 Timothy 2:24-25) I help run a church skate park. The main rule is everyone must wear a helmet when skating. Now the kids often take their helmets off when taking a break and forget to put them back on when they start skating again. But very rarely do I have to get on their case. All I have to do is get the skater’s attention and say, “Helmet.” Often, the other skaters will beat me to it.

Humor can be helpful in having a light touch. In the situation with the couple, I used humor to easily guide conduct without hard feelings. When a guy lets a cuss word slip out, I generally say, “I heard that” or the like in a lighthearted way. And that’s all that needs to be said. Usually, the guy smiles…and watches his language.

Of course, mutual appreciation and respect is vital when enforcing rules. If there’s little mutual respect, then there’s no set of rules, or programming for that matter, that’ll work well.

There are situations when concrete, inflexible rules are necessary, especially when safety is an issue. At the skate park, the rule isn’t “Protect your head from injury.” That would be nice, but for safety and liability reasons, the rule is “Wear a helmet.”

Also, different groups have kids at different maturity levels. Some groups may need more concrete, specific rules. And maybe a particular kid’s discipline issues may have to temporarily be addressed with added rules or stricter enforcement for him or her.

But even then, we should encourage students to live by broad Biblical principles, not just be rule-followers (or rule-breakers as the case may be). And in all cases, we should strive to avoid giving the impression that Christianity is about rules instead of relationships. Creativity and restraint with our rules play an important part in that.


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.