Many of our students lack the ability to exhibit or understand subtlety, and when we, as leaders, model disconnected cynicism we train our students not to care, or at the very least present an aura of disconnection.
The role of sarcasm in youth ministry may not be a topic we discuss much (it seems to rarely come up at our roundtable discussions), but must be one that we acknowledge from time to time. Sarcasm appears to be a mainstay in our youth ministries and there is some necessity for this. Many of our students have little choice in how they see the world. Fed a steady diet of cynicism, emotional detachment, and smirks, they strive to emulate a persona of indifference. And like our students, the image of a cool, aloof character holds a special allure as we navigate a minefield of emotions and cutting criticisms. And so, enters sarcasm from stage right. This is not to say that sarcasm should be jettisoned from our ministries entirely (we, youth workers, need our coping mechanisms as much as anyone). But it can be helpful to us, our families, our students, and our church communities to examine our sarcasm, becoming more self aware as to when our flippant attitude is appropriate and when it can cause harm.
Understanding Real Concern
One place where we tend to provide quick sarcasm is in response to criticism. This can be a parent’s concern about last week’s event or a church member bringing a complaint about students. In these moments, I try to rely on the advice of an experienced pastor (floating in my mind like a disembodied voice of wisdom). “Don’t be flip.” Even if the criticism seems vague or ridiculous, there is something important at play in the conversation. While our sarcasm may be intended to lighten the tension of conflict, it more often conveys the sense that we are not taking their concern seriously. Relational pastors are masters of affirmation, and rather than undermine criticism, they steer conversation through layers of emotion and concern to arrive at the motivations of the person. This type of response is time consuming and, at times, uncomfortable. Yet the benefits from spending this time and energy, saves us time and energy in the future as it keeps lines of communications with parents, church members, and church leadership open.
Just for Fun
The times I find myself most sarcastic are the periods before and after youth services or events, when our students and leaders hang out in the parking lot. This “impromptu fellowship time” is one we have worked to create that allows for levels of silliness we couldn’t hope to achieve in our structured times. Here, sarcasm becomes the primary language as quick quips get bandied about the group. While this time is built around a hangout atmosphere, I find that I still need to keep a close watch on my sarcasm. Light sarcasm is fun, but should we drop into biting sarcasm then we risk alienating students (a shift that can happen rapidly and without warning). Even in these hangout times, my words need to build up students, rather than encourage an environment that welcomes and fosters destructive comments.
The way we speak about leaders or public figures can also provide a significant impact in our students. Within our own church, students are encouraged to do their homework and hangout at the church after school. Besides providing students with a helpful and safe environment for our students, it also provides us with extra face time with the students outside of planned youth activities. One such afternoon, one of our students sat in my office working on his homework. Another ministry friend had sent me the link to an article discussing a large church leader who had found themselves in the news. While can’t I don’t recall who the leader was or what was happening, I voiced aloud some sarcastic comment about the whole situation. The teen across the room lifted an eyebrow before asking me if I was in a snarky mood. We laughed about the comment and his response, but I found myself struck by the gravity of the situation. I was offering this student a potential picture of how to respond to large events. My comment lacked all the grace I encourage my students to offer to others and, instead, presented a picture of detachment and carelessness.
When my students spend time within our ministry I want them to find a place where everyone is not only welcomed, but engaged. However, if sarcasm is my go to response I fail to model what it means to be a grace filled human being. Many of our students lack the ability to exhibit or understand subtlety, and when we, as leaders, model disconnected cynicism we train our students to not care, or at the very least present an aura of disconnection. I want my students to care. By knowing where and why I apply sarcasm, I can better know when it is appropriate to make use of sarcasm and model caring for my students.