My first year of youth ministry was awesome for many reasons, one of which was that my students didn’t seem to realize they could date each other. We had less than a dozen teens, and while they were all very close, there didn’t seem to be any romantic intentions lingering in the group.
Then, two of them got wise and realized this close-knit group of people trying to follow Jesus was a good place to find “that special someone.” They started dating, and it’s as though curtain was pulled back for everyone else to see. “Hey! I can date people in youth group!” The following year was two steps removed from a bad soap opera, with relationships quickly springing up and dying out.
This brought many new challenges for a youth pastor who was “fresh on the job.” One of those challenges was how to deal with Public Displays of Affection (PDA), during youth group gatherings.
The Reality of PDA
The truth is, if you bring a group of teenagers together long enough, they’ll start to romantically connect. We’ve noticed that towards the end of week long trips (camps, mission trips, etc.) “romance” fills the air as the students are somehow duped into thinking their only romantic prospects lie within this 15 passenger van. It’s a time of life where they are biologically wired to mate and seek life long partnerships.
It is a fact of life, and thus a reality of youth ministry. PDA happens, and each youth worker has to decide how they will respond. Here are three approaches to dealing with PDA in your youth group.
Approach 1) Forbid it
This is the easiest approach, which usually means it is also the laziest. I’m not saying you’re wrong if you’ve adopted a No PDA rule, but I do think you might be missing a great opportunity to mentor teens.
Banning PDA is a very legalistic approach. It is saying some PDA is bad, so all PDA is banned. This all-or-nothing approach is rarely the best option, and is focused on behavior modification rather than life transformation. If you choose this approach, I implore you to explain the WHY behind the rule every time you enforce it. (Check out this post from Rachel Blom about why you need to explain the ‘why’ of rules.)
Approach 2) Ignore it
You might think this would actually be the laziest approach, but I promise you will spend far more energy trying to ignore PDA in your group.
You’ll spend energy every time you notice it during a talk, or while teens are hanging out, and you have to choose not to say anything and go about your business. You’ll spend energy in conversations with students (and most likely parents) who are concerned about “that” couple. You’ll spend energy in frustration, convinced some teens are there just to see their boyfriend/girlfriend and don’t really care about what you’re trying to do as a community.
I understand the temptation. Dealing with PDA doesn’t make you any friends, and you risk alienating the teens. But not dealing with it risks alienating other students, and it prevents the preoccupied couple from getting the most out of your time together. Your job is not just to gather the teens, it is to mentor and disciple them. If that’s not happening, why does it matter if they’re there?Your job is not just to gather the teens, it is to mentor and disciple themClick To Tweet
Approach 3) Address it
The best way to deal with PDA in your youth group is to address it directly on a case-by-case basis. This can take a lot of work, but it is the best way to develop a healthy culture of responsible affection (sounds romantic, right?).
Addressing PDA (instead of ignoring or forbidding it) creates a lot of learning opportunities, and allows you to teach about biblical standards for relationships directly to people who need to hear that message right now. It is striking while the iron is hot.
So how do you do that? Here are four suggestions:
Relationships are the key to nearly everything in youth ministry. When you have a relationship with a student, you’ve earned the right to speak into their lives. This is why building relationships should be your primary goal at all times. Not to enforce rules, but just for the sake of relationship. For a great explanation of how and why relationships matter in youth ministry, read Relationships Unfiltered by Andrew Root.
Have a side conversation
When you notice PDA taking place, try and address it with discretion in a way that is respectful. There are two PDA-centric conversations you might have.
If you have a good relationship with a student (and the PDA wasn’t egregious), you can catch up with them later to talk about PDA. Maybe you text them after youth group, or invite them out for coffee and make it one of (but not the only) topic.
If you feel you need to address something right away, look for an opportunity to pull the students aside and talk. This can be easy because couples engaged in PDA have often already found a more private area of your meeting space. I’ve found that a simple “Hey, can you guys maybe give each other a bit more space.” is often enough to correct the behavior. It is still important to explain the “why” behind the rule, but it is up to you if that should happen now or later.
Just be around
The ministry of presence can be helpful. By not allowing couples to find a private place you can dissuade a lot of… snuggling. It is simple enough to be close enough to indicate “Hey, I see you guys” without needing to cause a scene. This gives the opportunity to self-correct.
We had a couple that was a serial offender in the dark parking lot after youth group was out. They took a long time to wrap it up and get to their cars. They were both pretty new, and fairly brazen in their public physical interactions.Eventually, I just started going out each evening and talking with them (kind of more at them) while they nuzzled. “What was your favorite part of group tonight? Any big plans for the weekend?” I played dumb, but it was obvious to everyone I wasn’t. They were hoping I’d leave them be, but it was apparent I wouldn’t. Eventually, no matter how many hormones are racing, it’s hard to out-awkward a committed youth pastor.
Call it Out
Sometimes, especially if you’ve built a relationship and had earlier conversations, all you can do is call it out. I like this guy’s approach:
It’s lighthearted, but gets the point across. You could draw some parallels to Ephesians 5:13 and “exposing them to the light,” or maybe it’s just a guy on a subway having a good time. Either way, when a couple is so absorbed in each other they forget others around, there are loving ways to up the ante.
PDA is a reality, even if you forbid it in your meeting spaces teenagers are facing it everywhere else. Your youth ministry should be the best place to explore boundaries and make up their minds about biblical physical boundaries. I’ve sometimes thanked couples for demonstrating healthy PDA and group participation. The church should not be known as an anti-relationship space, it should be known as a healthy relationship space. The first humans God created were a couple! Help your students by giving them truth to consider and space to figure out the role of affection in their emerging relationships.The church should not be known as an anti-relationship space, it is a HEALTHY relationship space!Click To Tweet