For Youth Workers Post


Will Penner

Edifying or Destroying?

“In the Habit” session for use with devozine meditations for April 11–17, 2016.


“The old sticks and stones rhyme is meant to make kids feel better when other kids tease them, but it’s simply not true. Our words can bless and curse, build up or tear down, and they do as much—positive and negative—to our own souls as they do to others’. Our tongues are like a ship’s rudder, turning the entire vessel in a particular direction, affecting everyone on board and in its wake.” —Will


Will PennerWill Penner has been in ministry with young people for more than two decades in Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, public and private schools, and as a popular speaker at youth retreats, camps, and conferences. He has served as the editor of both leading professional journals of youth ministry and has authored or edited numerous youth ministry curricula and books, the latest of which is It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry. But most important, he is the husband of his amazing wife, Christine, and the father of five fantastic children, ranging in age from seven to twenty-four.


  • Jenga game, building blocks, or other elements that can be used to construct something as a group—ideally several activities so that everyone can participate in some way rather than being a spectator.
  • Print-Friendly Version of this session


  • Amanda Todd was a fifteen-year-old girl who killed herself in October 2012. Before her death, she posted this video on YouTube. After her suicide, her video went viral; and millions of young people said that they have felt exactly the same way.


In Jenga and other wood-stacking games, players take pieces out of a structure one at a time in a way that keeps the structure from falling. Generally, the stacking happens quickly, and the removing of pieces takes time; but have the youth build the structure one piece at a time, choosing a nice word or phrase every time a block is placed on the table to demonstrate “building up.” The nice words don’t need to be aimed at anyone in particular. The point is to think about many nice words and phrases that build people up.

Then, as they take turns removing the blocks, one at a time, have them say words that would be mean or cruel. Ideally, at least some of those comments would be ones they have actually said or that have been said to them. As they say the negative words and phrases, they will see the structure become more fragile.


Scripture: Ephesians 4:29–32

We can imagine what might have been happening among church members in Ephesus, to whom this letter was addressed. It’s likely that some prime middle school drama was taking hold among the people who were supposed to be worshiping God, serving others, and spreading the gospel. We can infer that infighting centered around issues of who should be allowed into the fellowship and who should be in charge. People were probably saying lots of mean things to one another, among a host of other ridiculous activity. Sounds a lot like a school lunchroom, doesn’t it?

Encourage group members to read this passage, particularly verse 29, from several different versions of the Bible. Most contemporary versions use the phrase building up, but some use the term edifying or edification to describe the type of language believers are supposed to use with one another. The term is also a derivative of the word edifice, which refers to a building or another structure that is built.

So many of the TV shows and YouTube shorts we watch feature people who cut down other people. They say things that are mean; and if their comments are also clever, most of us laugh. Most of us have had the opportunity to say something funny, yet mean, to another person, which creates an interesting conflict within us. On one hand, assuming we mean to be funny, it’s great when people laugh at what we say. On the other hand, it’s not OK to get a laugh at someone else’s expense. Besides, most of us have also been on the receiving end of such comments, and it’s not fun. In fact, many stand-up comedians learned how to be funny in order to counteract the verbal abuse imposed on them by others.

Despite the way our popular culture elevates negative behavior, scripture is clear that we are meant to use our language to build up. We don’t need to be rocket scientists to figure out whether our words are building up or tearing down other people. But because it’s simple to understand doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Of course, no one ever said being a disciple would be easy.

Invite discussion:
       When are you most tempted to use humor to build yourself up while tearing others down?
       When do you feel most on guard because of others’ words directed at you?
       What are the triggers that make you go off on other people out of anger?


Conclude by saying this prayer:

Lord, please make the words of our mouths and the thoughts that precede them a reflection of your ever-growing character in our lives. We want to be useful for the building up of your kingdom, which occurs as we build up the people around us. Help us be builders and not destroyers—in our thoughts, actions, and words. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.


  • Invite group members to create a “sticks and stones” journal, in which they jot down times each day when they were intentional about building up other people through their words, as well as when they verbally berated others. Ask them to try to capture the reason for their behavior.
  • Invite group members to become investigative journalists or action researchers, noting those times when they saw others being intentionally edifying or destructive. When they notice others being destructive, ask them to write down some theories to help them understand what motives were behind the behavior.

—from devozine In the Habit (March/April 2016). Copyright © 2016 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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