Monday, January 17, 2011

Underaged Drinking: Just Say YES! (Sort Of)

This is the final installment of our series, Grace, Law, and Underage Drinking.  Find the other articles here and here.

One of the most surprising revelations to me in my early youth ministry days relates to the real reason why teens drink. I remember in my legalist days as an adolescent, determining whether or not a girl was a “solid” enough Christian for me to date, based on whether she drank or not. If a girl abstained, then she measured up. If she partook of Miller High Life or vodka and cranberry juice, then she was cut. (I’m sure this sorely disappointed many a young lady. Hold your laughter.)
Very few of my friends drank, and I proudly abstained until the minute I turned twenty-one. My mentality, as is the thought pattern of many teen Christians, was that the reason people drank was because they were not serious enough about their commitment to Christ. Increasing the intensity of one’s commitment resulted in no underaged drinking.
I am embarrassed to say that I never gave deeper thought to underaged drinking until I started youth ministry. I became incredibly surprised to learn the real reason many underaged students drink had little or nothing to do with enjoying alcohol or getting drunk.
A refreshingly honest, recent conversation with a college student told a story on why students drink underaged. She said candidly to me, “In high school I did not have many friends, and nobody really noticed me. Now that I drink, I have a built in group of friends, who I have something to do with every weekend. It’s worth it for me to have some friends and to drink than to be so alone like I was in high school.”
Conversations about underaged drinking serve as an excellent place to teach students the second use of the Law. What I mean by “second use of the Law” is that the Law serves, not simply as a standard to live up to, but as a mirror by which we see how far we fall short of God and by which we discover our sinfulness. As Romans 3:20 says, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The hymn, Salvation Has Come to Us, illustrates this concept well, in these lines:

The Law is but a mirror bright To bring the inbred sin to light That lurks within our nature.
This knowledge of sin goes deeper than just realizing we are sinners: it also helps us get to the heart level of why we sin and to see what deep needs we are seeking to meet via sin.
Booze provides a gateway for friendship and community for many underaged kids. It’s something exciting to do. It’s something to look forward to. It’s guaranteed plans and inclusion on Friday night. Underneath their decision to drink is a need which must be filled. Telling students to “Just Say No” accomplishes nothing in meeting their need.
Consequently, youth ministers and parents need to help kids understand why they drink and point them to a “YES!” which meets their needs. The ultimate “YES!” is Jesus himself, from whom I life, companionship, and transcendence flows. Other “YES!”’s can be simple and practical, like friendships, hobbies, or counseling, if drinking is about maladaptive coping.
To leave students with a message of “Just Say No” abandons them and leaves their needs unmet.


  1. I like your point that we need to help kids understand their desire to drink underage/in excess at the heart level - really, we need to help them see all their sin at the heart level. In our youth group, we sometimes have a hard time convincing kids (or parents!) that drinking underage is sinful, especially if the student is in college but still underage. I think that exposing the idols of acceptance, independence, etc. behind their drinking habits is helpful here. It helps us show students that drinking underage is not just bad because there's an arbitrary age line and they're not there yet, but because at the core, they are looking to alcohol to fulfill them in a way that only God can.

  2. Something you didn't really cover in your [very excellent] article, was the fact that many young people --and I was one of them-- are thrilled to discover that alcohol makes them less shy, more cool, extremely brave and funny, and these are the reasons that so many teens drink. It's not just the camaraderie of drinking with friends on a Friday night, (since many teens are content to drink before meeting their friends out on a Friday night, just so they have the courage to do so) it's the fact that they drink to feel differently than they normally do--- i.e. insecure, uncool, unwanted, unfunny. Furthermore, it is my belief (and that of AA) that many teens drink because they are alcoholics, and can't not drink. Alcoholism in some people is revealed very early in life. That may be a discussion for another day, but it is definitely one of the facets of underage drinking that needs to be part of the discussion.