A high school sophomore said something to me at church the other day. (Never mind we were both using the bathroom – the last place guys are supposed to have a conversation.) He said, “I saw you eating carrots this morning. Is it because you think you’re fat? Because you’re not.” I mumbled something like, “No, I just like carrots” as I zipped, washed, and retreated for safer ground. The truth that I didn’t feel like explaining was that I was in the midst of a “cleanse” during which I abstained from all caffeine (including chocolate), sugar, sweeteners, refined or white carbs, wheat or other gluten-containing products, excess fat, mold (i.e. on fruit), and even OTC medications. On any other Sunday I would grab a couple of fun-size candy bars from the prize stash, although I have been pretty good about avoiding the frosted doughnuts.
Why do we in youth ministry claim to want what’s best for students, yet continually give them “food” of the worst possible kind? How can we care for souls, yet completely ignore physical health?
Now, lest I make needless enemies, let me backpedal just a bit. We have made a few tweaks over time that allow somewhat healthier choices than were once available – smaller bottle size for soda being one. And I don’t expect us to convert the entire operation to an all-organic, vegan snack bar. It’s OK to indulge in yummy, bad-for-you foods in moderation, every once in a while. And quite honestly, I tend to eat like the kids when I’m at youth group activities. Many engage in enough physical activity – both in sports and in our game times – that they don’t experience the proverbial “moment on the lips forever on the hips” consequences. At least for now. Case in point: This is me when I was in about 7th grade. And yes, that is snow on the lawn chairs by the pool. It was an indoor/outdoor hotel pool with a Plexiglas divider I could swim under. I used to be able to eat so much that my mom and grandma always accused me of having a hollow leg. But many of those unhealthy food and lifestyle habits I formed back then have been incredibly difficult to shake in adulthood. More and more, such choices hit kids with health problems once reserved for middle age.
A Gnostic heresy emphasizes the spiritual at the complete neglect of the physical.
I think it will take quite a shift in the youth ministry culture to accomplish real change. We have to work together with families and school systems to help kids live healthier lives. Some suggestions:
- Model and offer healthy options in food and fitness
- Think of another way to motivate group participation than constantly throwing out candy
- Offer free fruits or veggies alongside, if not instead of, the less healthy options that you charge for (if you charge the same for a banana as for a doughnut, what will they pick?)
- Educate yourself, and then your students, about what constitutes a well-balanced diet that maximizes nutrition – we basically take the “limit this” category (fats, oils, and sweets) from the Food Pyramid and base our entire menu on it
- Specifically address physical health when we talk about ways to worship
- What else would you do?
The 12-year-old boy Jesus grew in all areas – stature (physical), wisdom (intellectual), favor with God (spiritual) and men (social and emotional). I’m pretty sure He would have walked right past the array of junk food we offer our students week in and week out, and found something that would actually nourish Himself.