Jon Acuff told a fantastic story at the Simply Youth Ministry Conference about a boy who had bought an ice cream. He wanted to put sauce on it or sprinkles or something, I don’t quite remember, but he picked the wrong dispenser and put mustard on it. Instead of acknowledging this, he tried stirring in the mustard to ‘fix it’. He was even offered a new ice cream, but refused, insisting that he was okay.

I think this is a perfect illustration for how many of us, but also many of our students, deal with sin. Instead of owning up to our mistakes and asking for renewal (the new ice cream), we try to hide it and fix it, ending up with really bad tasting ice cream.

The safe sin phenomenon

There’s a mechanism Jon Acuff called the ‘safe sin’ phenomenon. It’s when people start confessing their sins and all stay on the safe sins, the ones that are technically sins but really not that bad. For a student, that could be disrespecting his parents, or not praying the whole week, or forgetting his sister’s birthday. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the ‘accepted sins’, the stuff that we all consider not too bad.

The problem is that when others come up with sins like that, the next in line isn’t gonna confess watching porn online, or being drunk at a party, or having sex with her boyfriend. The safe sin mechanism makes us hide our sins, because we don’t feel accepted and safe enough to bring them into the open.

The 'safe sin' phenomenon results in students only confessing to relatively small sins, not the ones that are really impacting their lives. 

Satan wants us to believe that our sins need to stay hidden, need to stay in the dark, because others will judge us or even condemn us. He wants us to believe no one is as sinful as we are, that we are beyond redemption. And staying in the darkness will make us believe this lie ever more and make us afraid to ever bring who we really are into the light. So we stay hidden and become ‘plastic fantastic Christians’.

True community in your small group

As a small group leader, it’s imperative that you create an atmosphere where there is room and safety for confessing real sins. I love how Jon Acuff put it in his talk, he said this:

Fear fears true community

That’s your answer to the safe sin problem right there: true community. If your student small group becomes a true community, your students will open up about their real sins.

In previous posts, I’ve talked about creating unity in your small group and about the question if creating unity in a youth group is even possible. It gives some practical to do’s that help foster a community. One of the things I mention is the necessity of being open yourself as a small group leader. This is of crucial importance when it comes to fighting the safe sin phenomenon.

I’m not saying you should confess all your sins to your small group, there may be sins that are not appropriate for your students to know or that would hurt or damage them (by the way: you do need to confess these somewhere else!). I am saying that you need to be honest about the sins and struggles in your life that they can relate to, that will help them see you as a ‘real Christian’ instead of a plastic fantastic one.

This is not as easy as it sound, many of us have a hard time being that vulnerable to our students. What is they lose trust in us, judge us, condemn us? What if they think we’re not cool anymore, what if they stop coming? I get these concerns, I truly do, but once again this is Satan at work, trying to make you stay in the dark.

Unless you confess to some pretty horrific sins (and by horrific I mean sins they can’t understand, relate to or that affect them on a personal level), my guess is that your students will only accept you more if you open up and show vulnerability. It will show them you are just like them, it will make you authentic and real. And it will create true community, a community in the light.

Now to be honest, my thoughts on creating true community in a student small group aren’t all crystallized yet. I’ve got some ideas based on my own experiences with a few small groups that has a deep level of community, but I haven’t all figured out what made the difference. When I do, I’ll let you know 🙂

In the meantime, please so chime in and let me know how you feel about community in your small group. Is it there and if so, how did you get there? And how safe are the sins in your small group, is this something you need to work on?