Fostering belonging

During my year spent on Oasis Frontline teams back in 96-97 in Hartlepool, i was awakened to the notion of ‘Belong/believing/behaving’ its probably one of the uncritically accepted and readily spouted phrases in youth ministry/work often as an indictment of the sense that to think of young people behaving in church before they belonged and believed, when often churches, in those days, seemed to expect behaviour first. The phrase, belong/believe/behave does still get banded around now and then, with almost the end game to be behaviour – as opposed to belief or even belonging.

The reason this has come back to my thinking recently is on the basis that often my work gives me the opportunity to speak to other youthworkers across county Durham, the odd Vicars or Ministers or groups of volunteer youthworkers at conferences, and during many of these conversations as a reflection, one thing that is recurring, that all of them, in one way or another create good welcoming spaces for young people to feel at home, they create a group dynamic that allows young people to essentially belong to the group, and a space where they often feel safe, and at ease to talk with them about the focus of that group, sometimes this may be a single issue group, a confirmation class, a drop in club, messy church – many many of these such spaces are being developed and created that seem on the face of it to give children, and young people a space to belong.

The problem is – what happens when the young person gets too old to be allowed to be in that space? or what happens when the ‘designated’  group time is over, or the ‘confirmation’ ceremony has occured?  what might it be like for the young person that once theyve got to a certain age, without their choice, the space they like is no longer the space of belonging anymore?

Usually we send them to a different group. at a different time, in a different space, with people who might be their age, or older than them – a place that’s better for them, but its not necessarily a place they belong, and if they dont ever fit or belong will they keep persevering if there’s other alternatives on offer?

This is often the case, its often the case when we start creating positive relationships with young people, but is there an alternative?  What if the relationships are formed between young people and adults and this was the same throughout ages say 7-17? and young people weren’t passed on to group by group?  yes there’s a 10 year commitment to one group – but think of how well connected, well established that group would be? Yet that’s not how it works is it, often its not how churches work ( aside from the housegroups that have done more that 3-4 years- but essentially its the same thing)

Think of the faith conversations and the sense of community that that kind of group based youth work could have- and the sense of discipleship and friendship and essentially belonging that would cultivate?

And in a youth club, or mentoring relationship – what if that group or relationship was cultivated over 5 years – not 5 weeks or months?

How many groups of young people across England have spent 10 hours in a group with a vicar during confirmation classes in 2014?  what kind of group dynamics, or the beginnings of belonging has been fostered in this occasions? – and what happens next to the young people?

What happens to the young people at the ‘top’ of Messy church? (for example)

What shape might ‘youthwork’ take with a generation of messy church graduates? (whove essentially been exposed to family/youth ministry already)- yet how might they belong to your youth ministry as the youngest – when theyve had potentially leadership as the eldest… (no different to primary/secondary school shift)

Fostering initial events, access points is what i think the church has got its head around – in theodrammatic terms, id say this was akin to the creativity and the belonging that was in Act 1 of the 5 acts of the Biblical Drama see here( Creation) – its almost as if we ply all our creative juices into attracting young people and their families to the club/activity/space.

The second act of the Theodrama is the covenant – that between Abraham and God – from that point on Israel the nation was hooked into the special relationship of belonging. It didnt happen by choice in terms of Gods Call on Abraham, and the same sense of belonging is not necessarily the choice of the young person, it kind of just happens – they start to fit, start to feel at home, start to live in the space, confident in the relationships that they have around them.  Is there a covenant moment for the young person- well there might be, but should we enable them to belong regardless? If they belong do they have to covenant?

The third act in the sending of Jesus, incarnate, to redeem Israel initially and the rest of the world, its almost the sense in a overall way that Jesus could only be identified and accepted in and amongst the embers of the covenant relationship of belonging that existed between God and Isreal. And, moving further forward the emerging of the church is the action of empowering a newly covenanted group of disciples to become other covenanted groups of belonging faith communities. And from those groups came more groups.

Yet what do we expect young people to do? because of a reliance on age bandings ( aligned to schools) or  time banded groups ( aligned to materials) – we create groups for them to begin being together, and in some cases they do belong – yet how might we allow faith to occur within these groups where they belong? and how might we keep good groups together once they have been formed. I mean if every year you have 10 10 year olds doing confirmation groups for 10 weeks, and during that time 7-8 of them really connect – what do you as a vicar do with those 7 or 8? what if this was repeated every year? – and after 5 years you had 5 groups, 7 in each, from 10yr olds, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15? – not passed on to an different group/club – but in this case who enjoyed the space with each other and that you created with and for them? – would that not look like long term discipleship?  maybe i’m doing away with ‘youth ministry’ in the anglican church – maybe thats not a bad thing if by 8 years that group of 18 year olds still like the small housegroup/discussion format and the space theyd shaped it with you to be.

is there such a thing as the ‘youth ministry’ dream or path that young people are expected to follow, yet for belonging that heralds small groups and discipleship within relationship – might already be going on…

So – maybe its not a matter of belonging, believing and behaving at all, but its to foster belonging so that young people can belong deeply, and that within this space they are transformed and the church – or for that matter the youth club, acts in a different way to the school. If young people belong – and thus they enjoy the space – why not develop and maintain this? – in the context of the dramatic reduction in young people in the church – shouldn’t we think of every way to keep them – especially if they like something?

On the same theodramatic basis, much of the youthwork i or Durham YFC does, uses creative approaches to provide a space where young people can form relationships and belong in the space. Whether that’s arts, drama, or the creative improvised acts of detached work, where young people already have a deep sense of belonging to the outside space. One young person asked us yesterday – “will there be a day when im too old for this group, when you’ll say im too old to be here” – to which we replied that it would only be when they felt they didnt want to be here any more, or where they were acting in a way that meant that others couldnt participate. Whilst they chose to belong, they can participate, and as we have discovered, in the space they have found belonging they are beginning to flourish. If they want to keep coming along to a space to paint wooden animals, or make craft at the age of 15, or 18 because thats where they find belonging then so be it. If in that space we are afforded the time to have conversation with them, once a week for another 5 years, then why not?






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