Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Of course, you should love all young people unconditionally as Jesus taught us(!!!); however, that is assuming we all mean the same thing by the word ‘love’.
Love is unconditional, but that doesn’t make it inexcusable. Love is tolerant, but that doesn’t make it unaccountable. Love is forgiving, but that doesn’t make it negligent.
There are times when how we express love for young people could actually create an unloving environment for others. At worst, misapplying love can create a dangerous, disbalanced, and even hostile environment where the community of God just cannot be grown.
Love is love, but sometimes we need to dial back what that means exactly in a practical way for our projects. For instance…
1. When it poses a safeguarding risk
Unconditional love still needs safe boundaries. Love doesn’t mean we can keep secrets, ignore risks, or waive boundaries.
Loving a young person doesn’t mean that they can come on camp without a parent’s consent for instance. Loving a young person doesn’t mean you won’t tell anybody what they disclosed. Loving a young person doesn’t mean you won’t keep them in line with the rules or open yourself up to a ministry-ending accusation.
2. When it creates a dangerous environment
Loving a young person in some instances could mean tolerating their behaviour without posing discipline or creating boundaries for fear that it may come across as ‘unloving.’ But what if this young person is prone to aggression and violence? What if they create a safety risk for your team, yourself, or your young people?
As God disciplines those He loves (Heb. 12:6), we need to provide consistent consequences, correction, and challenge to those who become violent or aggressive. (link)
3. When it is enabling
Sometimes it’s easy to love a young person by just agreeing with or accepting everything they say without challenge. However, many young people that I have worked with have had a problem with self-esteem and so regularly make up stories or fabricate adventures to make themselves look more impressive. Not challenging this enables these habits and actually unhelpfully allows them to keep building shallow value in their lives.
There are plenty of other ways we can enable bad habits, poor theology, inappropriate behavior, or even dangerous relationships by ‘lovingly’ not challenging them. Enabling is not love, but sometimes it’s just easier!
4. When it becomes dependent
It’s easy for young people to get too overly attached to a leader. Loving a young person is creating boundaries where they can exercise their independence and grow in wisdom without needing you.
Counsellors all plan an exit strategy where the client does not become overly dependent on them. This often includes protecting family time, turning off your phone and not giving out your home address. The popular ‘incarnational’ model of youth work has a lot to answer for here.
5. When you’re trying to be God
One of the top reasons good youth workers burn out is that they’re trying to be God. It’s great to exercise Christ-likeness in our ministries – but we are not God and cannot do the work of the Holy Spirit.
Having an unconditional openness, sacrificial approach, and constant care and attention approach to every single young person who crosses our paths without healthy boundaries is trying to be God. We’re not – and it’s God the young people actually need, not us.