Dealing With Indecency in Student Ministry

sm-policies-censoredNearly two weeks ago we had a teen storm out of our Friday Night Flood program because she was asked to cover herself up. I shared a little background then about how it happened, and promised to share more details about why we hold to the policy that led to her departure.

At H20 Student Ministries we have adopted a policy in which we ask that teens model basic decency when at programs that we offer. This does not go so far as to measure the width of girls’ tank top straps, or monitoring just how far a guys’ pants might be sagging, but we do keep an eye out for how teens are dressing. While a large part of me would like to be able to say that we don’t look at clothing at all and accept teens how they are, I also have to remember that part of our responsibility as leaders is to keep our teens from temptation while they are under our supervision – and to keep our leaders from temptation as well.

So as part of our annual Medical Release Form (which not only gives us permission to treat should anything happen, but also gives us all pertinent contact information for teens involved in our ministry) there is a segment in which teens sign, agreeing to:

  • not possess alcohol, drugs, tobacco, fireworks, weapons, lighters or explosives while at H20 programming.
  • not wear offensive or immodest clothing – as determined by H20 leadership – at H20 programming.
  • to respect and comply with rules and standards set by H20 Leadership for H20 programming and events.

It is very simple. We ask teens to respect those around them while they are under our responsibility. We have asked a couple girls over the past two years to cover up. I have threatened (and followed through) to duct tape one guys’ pants up after he kept insisting on coming in showing off his jockey shorts. For the guys, usually it becomes more of a safety risk, allowing them to run around the building with their pants around their knees. (imagine explaining to the EMT why the guy has a broken nose – “Well sir, he was running down the hall, his pants slid down, and he face planted into the wall.”) But it is also a decency issue, keeping the attention away from what is under their pants.

For the girls, it is mostly a decency issue. Males are extremely visually-oriented. Many times over the years I have caught guys unintentionally captivated by a girl’s cleavage. We adopted this rule largely to help protect our guys from being tempted to lust after the girls around them, but also to help the girls protect themselves from the negative attention that such apparel can attract. We also have several male adult leaders, and we want to help them keep their minds pure when working with our teens.

Many of the teens coming on Friday night are coming from broken or dysfunctional homes where modesty and basic rules of civil human interaction are not valued. In fact, the girl I spoke with about the issue which triggered this post firmly believes there is nothing wrong with showing off what she has, and claims not to mind at all if guys are lusting after her. We hope that in adopting these standards that in subtle ways we can speak into teenage hearts and help them to turn from what the world sets as standards for being accepted. We keep several t-shirts on hand for girls who need a little more modesty. We keep duct tape on hand for guys who have no clue what a belt is. We have asked guys to turn offensive t-shirts inside out. This policy does not cover when we as individuals or a group meet teens outside of our programs, and I would never ask a teen on the street to change their clothes before talking to them. It only covers programs in which we invite teens to join us where we are at.

I know that a popular adage is that you can’t change what is on someone’s shirt until you change their heart (loosely paraphrased), and I do believe it to be largely true. But when we have a large group of teens gathering together, we also need to watch out for the hearts and minds of the rest of the group that is present. We do not kick people out because of a low-cut top or offensive slogan on their shirt. (The student in question chose to leave instead of putting on a t-shirt that was not “her style” without seeing it). We find ways to keep them involved. We want them to be involved and accepted into the fellowship. We also want to keep the rest of the crowd away from situations in which they are focusing on the wrong thing during that particular program.

How do you deal with percieved indecency in your ministry?