Sarcasm Has No Place in Youth Ministry
By Joel Mayward
The middle school service trip was going smoothly. Our small group was spending a week at a local camp cleaning up their grounds for the summer after a winter windstorm had wreaked havoc. The boys were having a blast throwing fallen branches into wheelbarrows, laughing and joking around with one another as only middle school boys can.
But the spirit of fun and frivolity suddenly went sideways as the boys began to corner one young man in particular. He was a bit louder, and he always had a way of putting his foot in his mouth (he was in sixth grade, after all). But something shifted in the joking and laughter. The boys were no longer laughing with; they were laughing at. And this poor kid was getting the brunt of it.
The worst part: I had started it all.
A day before, I had become frustrated that he was pushing people’s buttons, mine included. I made a brief sarcastic comment, a quick-witted joke directed at this student. Instead of actually telling him how I felt, I used sarcasm to communicate my annoyance. It set a tone for the rest of our joking, until it spiraled into this moment the next day, where the other students’ jokes, dripping with sarcasm, left this poor boy in tears. I felt awful for my role in all of this.
Let me make a bold statement: sarcasm has no place in youth ministry. A healthy youth ministry is one absent of cynicism and mockery. The tone, the attitude, and the intent of sarcasm can lead to an unsafe and unloving group of people.
I have a love/hate relationship with sarcasm. On one hand, a quick wit and a bit of irony can be quite hilarious and revealing. Joking around and teasing one another can, in a strange way, create bonds, especially in a group of boys. When they’re willing to laugh with each other and poke fun, it may be due to a deeper level of trust.
On the other hand, sarcasm can often be used as a passive-aggressive way to insult and tear down others. In youth ministry, a tone of sarcasm can bring significant hurt to a community of young people.
The word sarcasm comes from the Greek word sarkasmos, meaning, “to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.” That tone doesn’t seem to fit with Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4 to “not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
“Instead of sarcasm, our youth ministries should be marked by sincerity.”
Also, many young people—especially the younger students in our youth groups—lack the relational and social filters to recognize when they’ve gone too far. While an adult may be able to handle a sarcastic quip, young people’s identities and emotions are more fragile. What might seem like a little joke to a youth worker can be devastating and painful for a teen. As James 3 points out, just as a small spark can ignite a destructive fire, so our words have the power for good or evil.
Instead of sarcasm, our youth ministries should be marked by sincerity. The word sincere means to be clean and pure, speaking with honesty and integrity, humility and consideration. After describing the destructive nature of the tongue, James goes on to describe its opposite: the nature of spiritual wisdom.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (Jamse 3:17, emphasis mine).
As youth workers, we need to check our own tongues and tones. Are we using sarcasm in order to make ourselves feel witty and smart? If we as leaders set the tone for our ministry environments, is our sarcasm helping or hurting? James exhorts us to practice wisdom from heaven, that our words and actions be marked by sincerity and consideration. Would this verse describe your ministry context: pure, peace-loving, considerate, full of mercy, and sincere?
Perhaps the first step towards that wise community is to replace sarcasm with sincere, genuine, uplifting words of grace and truth. We can still joke around. We can still be witty. We’ll just be safer and more approachable if we stop “tearing the flesh” of our students.
About the Author
The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry… Read More