The Hygiene Hypothesis

I came across this article recently and even though it is written for a youth group setting, the principles are excellent to consider in our family dynamics as well!

Youth groups aren’t dirty enough.

In medicine there is a theory known as the Hygiene Hypothesis. Simply stated, the hygiene hypothesis is that the lack of exposure to infectious agents as a child results in a sub-par immune system as they grow older. Basically, we protect kids from germs so much that they don’t build a defense against them.

What a cruel paradox, the great lengths to which parents go to Lysol and sanitize their homes in hopes of preventing their child from catching the sniffles is the very thing that increases the likelihood of medical problems later in life.

There is a temptation to do the same thing in student ministry. We want to create safe, unoffensive, sanitized settings for students to explore the story of a savior that entered into a dangerous, offensive, dirty world. Is it any wonder, then, that students’ spiritual health suffers when they graduate and leave the bubble? They weren’t given the chance to develop a healthy immune system for their soul.

Student ministry should be the workshop where students experience the Romans 5 progression of trials > endurance > character > hope. When we deny students the opportunity to experience true trials above the safety net of a committed spiritual community, we rob them of a chance to develop the character and hope that will protect them when they are on their own. We should encourage struggle, and failure, and risk-taking. Jesus let the disciples fight the storm on the sea for a while, he let them go up against demonic forces they weren’t prepared for, heck, he let Lazarus die! Meanwhile, most Sunday School teachers get uncomfortable if a kid reads Song of Solomon.

We do a disservice to teenagers and their families when we embrace the idea that youth group (or church) should be a safe and sanitized place. Student ministry is the perfect place to come into contact with “infectious” things, we are a mechanism of immunization for the next generation. Here are a few things you can do to help your students develop their spiritual immune system.

Cover tough topics

There are many subjects that should be talked about in churches but are never talked about in churches because we don’t talk about such things in churches (tip o’ the hat to Steve Case). Go ahead, do the lesson on the Good Samaritan or the Armor of God, but don’t neglect to cover things like pornography, cutting, anger, abuse, depression, sexuality, or family dynamics too. Dive into the hard stuff and let them wrestle with it while you’re there to help instead of struggling with it when they’ve graduated.

Go tough places

Just as it is unhealthy for a child to remain only in the confines of their home until adulthood, it’s unwise to keep students exclusively in the bubble of the youth room or church building. Make a regular practice of going into the community, especially the places that might feel a bit scary. Serve at the soup kitchen, but try and spend less time in the kitchen and more time hearing the stories of the people you’re serving.

Invite tough speakers

You can also burst the bubble from the inside. By inviting outside voices into your meetings, you can generate exposure to topics and ideas not usually covered in student ministry. Invite a refugee to talk about religious persecution, invite someone in the gay community to talk about their experience with Christians, invite a victim of bullying or a suicide survivor to discuss how those things impact their life, invite a former prostitue or drug user to explain the path their life took.

Your students need a healthy spiritual immune system. That’s best achieved by controlled exposure to the “germs” of life. Don’t run from the dirty or messy things, embrace them, and teach your teens that you can encounter the sickness of the world without getting infected.

Written by Luke Trouten


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