Why Youth Ministries Should Foster More Male-Female Friendships
Over the next few weeks we will take a look on both sides of the blog at how we — as both youth ministers and parents — might love and disciple our boys and girls well and with prayerful, thoughtful intention, within their God-given genders. This week, we will begin with a look at boys.
About a year and a half ago, one of my best friends invited me to a new small group Bible study. I was excited and, quite frankly, a bit nervous. Apart from a few close guy friends, the other regulars were girls I knew only marginally, and being vulnerable in front of young women I barely knew sounded like the last thing I wanted to do.
Miraculously, I survived that first encounter, and as soon as I left with my guy friends (we travel in packs for safety), we couldn’t stop talking about how restored, uplifted, and encouraged we all felt. This Bible study was unlike any other we’d been a part of, and as silly as it sounds, we soon realized the kicker: girls.
In the interest of transparency, I must confess that awkwardness – especially around girls – is and always has been a spiritual gift of mine. And while I am particularly challenged in the realm of male/female interactions, friendships with the opposite gender are hard for everyone; navigating male/female friendships in middle school, high school, and college is tricky to say the least.
Still, God used this new community of believers (and for once, it really did feel like a community) to challenge me, change me, and expose a gaping hole in my life: Christ-centered female friendships. Like me, the other guys in the group marveled week after week about how new and refreshing it was to regularly study the Word alongside our sisters in Christ.
Though the first few weeks were equal parts awkward and terrifying, the Lord revealed the beauty and necessity for this missing aspect of my life. Even though my friends and I grew up in church, our Sunday School and small group experiences had failed to prepare us for this aspect of God’s kingdom.
In the Church
Beyond marriage and platonically working side-by-side in the world, Christian men and women are called as brothers and sisters to be the Church, the Body of Christ here on earth. We share the Gospel, enact justice for the poor and oppressed, and wait expectantly on the Lord, and we do these things together.
Just as men and women bring different gifts, strengths, and weaknesses to their families, jobs, and communities, God’s Church is no different. The early Christians knew this, as men and women regularly took up important (but different) roles chronicled in Acts and some of Paul’s letters (Acts 1:12-14; 9:36-42; Rom. 16). The body of Christ has many members, and it needs men and women to function properly (1 Cor. 12).
From a young age, boys and girls are often separated in youth group, which means the life experience of forming Christ-centered friendships between guys and gals falls by the wayside. Despite growing up in church, my friends and I had never regularly prayed, worshipped, or studied the Word alongside our sisters in Christ. Building community among guys was hard enough, but we had never really been exposed to Christian fellowship with women. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a little bro time or a women’s study – these are good and necessary things as there are subjects that men can and should only discuss with other men, and vice versa. But if the only interactions between guys and girls happens in a classroom, at a party, or in a romantic context, the church is failing to teach these kids to be members of the same body, the body of Christ’s Church.
Of course, the youth group is not just about creating a friend group or providing grounds for friendships to form. But God created men and women to be compatible with one another, in marriages, in the Church, and as friends. As my friends and I witnessed, men’s and women’s Bible studies are often incredibly different, and when you combine the two, an entirely new dynamic arises.
For the most part, guys are terrible—terrible—at affirming and encouraging one another. Somewhere in our fallen DNA, we lost the emotional ability to affirm and build one another up naturally. The difference in being a part of a co-ed group was striking.
For example, in an all-guys study, you can say something unbelievably dumb (I have lots of experience) or beyond brilliant (only secondhand experience), and the other guys won’t say a word. Maybe someone will agree or disagree, but emotions are usually checked at the door and rarely revealed. The next person will speak, and conversation continues.
With girls, however, everything (and I mean everything) you say is supported, either explicitly or by subconscious “ahh’s” or “mmm’s” or “yes’s” or even just a head nod. It was weird at first. My initial reaction was confusion. But each week, my friends and I left rejuvenated and overflowing with support. Girls love to echo comments, even if you know you didn’t say something that great. The positive energy is palpable and contagious, and it’s way easier to open up when you know you will be supported well. For the first time, I felt the power of truly exhorting and encouraging each other (Heb. 3:12-14).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, men and women notice different things in Scripture. Take John 15 for example, where Jesus declares, “I am the True Vine.” I was familiar with the passage, but when we read and discussed it as a group, the women kept bringing up verse 5, which reads, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” They repeatedly dug into the imagery found in the vitality of a vine, the life of a garden, the taste of fresh fruit, and the beauty in a flower. The girls adeptly drew out the hope and joy present in any passage, and skillfully pointed us towards the Lord’s promises found in the language and details of the text that the guys routinely skimmed over.
At the same time, another guy and I each brought up verse 6: “if anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” The contrast was stark—the men were far more concerned with the practical application and the uncomfortable aspects of the Gospel, while occasionally forgetting to see the hope God also promised. While this is an overgeneralization for all men and women, we all need different perspectives to see the complete picture of any passage. We need the hopeful beauty and the stark honesty of the Gospel, and the guys and gals of the group needed each other to more robustly understand what Jesus was saying.
Another time, we read the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, but despite the guys’ valiant efforts, we hardly talked about the soils at all. I had always skimmed over verse 2, where Jesus “got into a boat and sat down” before he began to teach to the large crowd on the beach. But the girls wouldn’t let me off the hook this time. One girl after another continued to steer us back to this verse, noting the picture evoked by what I had always thought was a meaningless or irrelevant introduction to the parable. While I remained shocked that we were STILL talking about water, the Lord was challenging me through these women. By listening to what my sisters in Christ found important in a passage, I began to see Him speaking to them through repeated images like the boundless ocean, Living Water, or the wellspring of life. With more focus on the language, they could pinpoint repeated themes throughout the Bible and highlight different aspects of God’s character found in tiny details.
Studying the Bible alongside godly women for the first time sparked my spiritual growth in ways that I never expected. Understandably, every church, youth group, and Bible study is different. Particularly in middle and high school, maturity is lacking, hormones are raging, and “purpling” threatens to derail or distract from the central message of Jesus’s saving death and resurrection. But by the grace of God, my friends and I stumbled upon something missing in our horizontal relationship with women that ultimately enhanced our vertical relationship with God. Churches and youth groups alike can better prepare students for life as a part of Christ’s Church by encouraging male and female friendships between its younger members.