Youth ministry offers many churches their best—and perhaps only—opportunity to reach middle- and high-school students and teach them about the love of Christ. It's a critical effort that deserves our full attention as we watch an increasingly changing landscape of beliefs, attitudes, and morals unfold in American culture. Connecting with these students requires the full commitment of church leaders to properly staff and resource their youth ministries, and to make certain the work done speaks deeply to these students in contexts they know and understand.
This is hard work. It often requires creativity and flexibility, ranging from socially minded service projects to pick-ups and drop-offs of students to ongoing exchanges of texts with students to remind them of upcoming events.
This creativity and flexibility may be essential. It also may introduce potential risk and legal liabilities that the church must be prepared to address.
Unfortunately, many do not prepare as well as they should. Daily headlines only confirm this. Consider these from the past few years:
In Washington, a youth pastor sent sexually explicit e-mails to a girl in the youth group. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
In Florida last year, a 15-passenger van carrying a church youth group rolled over, killing 1 person and injuring 19 others.
In Oregon, a 15-year-old boy and an adult camp counselor fell into a pool at the base of a waterfall during a youth retreat involving multiple churches. Both drowned. The family of the boy is now suing the camp organizer and churches for $13 million.
In Illinois, an 18-year-old man stands accused of raping two 15-year-old girls on separate occasions last year, allegedly using car rides home from church events as his way to isolate and victimize them.
In Colorado, a youth pastor stands accused of having a 7-year relationship with a girl in his group that started when she was 15. To make matters worse, pastors and elders acted on erroneous advice from legal counsel and didn't report her accusation when she came forward late last year. All were charged with misdemeanors for failing to report. The woman and her family have now filed a civil lawsuit against the church.
These situations are tragic and heartbreaking, especially because most were likely preventable. These situations also hit close to home: How many of these events could happen at your church?
Unfortunately for many, the answer is at least one—and possibly more. We know this because Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax Group (publisher of Church Law & Tax Report) collaborated late last year with Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company to conduct the "Youth Ministry in America" survey. The purpose of the survey was "to gain a better understanding of the activities and practices of youth ministries in America to help create meaningful content to assist churches in ministering safely and effectively to the young people in their churches."
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