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The talk shows were buzzing recently about a sex education class in a Maryland school that had students chew a stick of gum, then pass it around so that everyone in the class chewed it. This learning activity was supposed to make some kind of point, never specified, about sexually-transmitted diseases. It turns out, this gross-out exercise was not the brainchild of some left-wing progressive educational theorist. The communal gum-chewing was sponsored by a Christian “faith-based” group that was allowed to come into the classroom to teach about abstinence.
In fact, the “gum game” has its origins in evangelical church youth groups. Another is “Toothbrush Buffet” in which youth group leaders brush their teeth and spit into a cup. The cup is then passed along to the next person in line, who uses what is in the cup to brush his teeth. Everyone in the youth group gets a turn. The last one drinks down everyone’s spit. Then there is the “Human Vegematic” in which the youth leader chews up a mixture of dog food, sardines, potted meat, sauerkraut, cottage cheese, and salsa, topped off with holiday eggnog. He then spits out the mixture into a glass and encourages the members of the youth group to drink it.
It is not immediately clear what the purpose is of these “Sick and Twisted Games,” as they are described in youth resource web sites and publications. They are evidently designed to appeal to a particularly juvenile sense of humor, so if the purpose is only to make church seem like “fun,” perhaps — following church growth theory — they “work.”
But they are indeed effective teaching devices. They teach young people to suppress their inhibitions. They teach them to give in to peer pressure. They teach more thoughtful young people that church is utterly lame, embarrassing, and stupid. What they do not teach — and actually teach against — is integrity.
The young person with integrity would refuse to do something repulsive, no matter what the youth minister said and despite the pressure from all of his friends to conform to what the group is doing. The young person with integrity would walk out. If he did, that might give others the courage to show their own integrity and walk out with him. They might refuse to go to youth group and get together to do something really wild and crazy, like, I don’t know, study the Bible.
Having integrity requires the ability to refuse to conform. It means resisting cultural pressure. And, in our increasingly non-Christian culture, cultivating this kind of integrity is a spiritual survival skill.
Parents, churches, and schools rightly try to teach adolescents to resist peer pressure. Ironically, the methods they use often teach the opposite lesson. For some reason, resist-peer-pressure programs often employ touchy-feely team-building exercises borrowed from sensitivity training groups. You fall back and let the other members of your group catch you. You climb walls and jump off them secured with ropes, with your friends hanging on to keep you from getting hurt. You go on “trust walks,” going blindfolded, with your peers leading you along. These all teach you to trust your friends.
But how does that help you resist peer pressure? Resisting peer pressure entails the ability not to trust your friends.
Though teenagers are often presented as the victims of peer pressure, so are adults. We are all familiar with the conservative politicians who go to Washington full of conservative zeal, only to become more and more liberal, to the extent they find acceptance on the D.C. cocktail circuit. College professors may recognize the silliness of feminist scholarship and politically-correct speech codes, but they may never have the courage to say so in the faculty lounge. Ministers — and youth ministers — know very well they must preach against the ungodly culture, and yet they nevertheless cause their churches to conform to that culture in a usually futile effort to be popular.
We adults compromise our integrity at work, at play, and by ourselves. We do not speak up or act as we should, caring more for our co-workers’ — or total strangers’ — opinion of us than for what we ourselves know is right.
Since we fallen human beings are so easily influenced by the people around us, surrounding ourselves with godly people will help us on the path toward integrity. There is bad peer pressure, but there is also good peer pressure. Good friends can be an antidote to bad friends. Conservative caucuses and traditionalist, professional organizations can help members resist the leftward tide. And this is one reason Christians need the church, a community of believers whose fellowship, authority, and discipleship can keep its members in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
But even churches should not try to turn their members into conformists, exerting social pressure to make everyone the same. The goal should be instilling integrity, not conformity.
The biblical model for the church is a unity of diversity, a body consisting of radically distinct and different organs. Scripture speaks of feet, ears, and eyes, which, with all of their differences, cohere in one Spirit and one baptism into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–27). For the good of the body, the feet, ears, and eyes each must have integrity.