Stopping Culture from eating youth ministry for breakfast

I have been very lucky to have grown up as part of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association (AMYA), which constantly engages its younger members to not only learn about their faith, but also to develop attitudes that help them to integrate with wider society through activities such as poppy appeals, charity collections and blood donations; furthermore, they get their youngsters to organise events and deliver speeches at local, regional and national levels, which grants them key experiences to better prepare them for the world of work

Not a day goes past without an article in the Guardian regarding the religiousness of Britain, in relation to the Christian faith. The above quote is from this article, however, the article with the most publicity last week is this One. Both of them give a call for the Christian faith, not just to evangelise better, but also to become more relevant for young people.

I dont agree.

For two reasons. One is from the long term history that links to the above example. The second is more recent.

When St Patrick in 500-odd AD left the shores of England (Angles) to go to Ireland to spread the good news of Jesus, along with the story of faith, he set up and arranged a type of civilisation, that worked, that become literate, that developed technology. The gospel became a new part of life. St Patrick also realised that the local religion, that of paganism had parallels to the Christian faith, and so he adopted signs, symbols and ceremonies of paganism to the new faith of Jesus. There have been several documentaries on what St Patrick did in regard to faith and civilisation in an alien culture, check them out on iplayer.

It could be argued that St Patrick made Christianity relevant. Or that he contextualised it. Yes he did, doing so he re-appropriating what was already in the culture, building upon what was already evident. But that is not what i was wanting to focus on. The thing with St Patrick, and the incident above from the Muslim faith, is that people became immediately involved in the life of the community, in St Patricks day they built buildings, taught, learned, farmed, they established community that was participative. Its the same for the community activism of the lady in the article above.  Relevancy is nothing without involvement.

In a recent article about the business world, the phrase was used ; ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ , it went on to explain how the culture of an organisation will usurp any strategic drive for new performance, action or delivery. If the culture isn’t changed the strategy doesnt get past 9am in a 24 hour time frame.

In a bid for relevancy, a turn to culture has been one of the dominant players in Youth Ministry since the 1960’s. YFC’s mantra which has something to do with anchored to a rock – geared to the times epitomises it. But this isnt a bash at YFC, its just an example of an organisation in youth ministry that prides itself in maintaining a relevant position in regard to young people, there are others.   For those in the loop of relevancy, the desire to keep up leads to adopting ministries that try to keep up in a variety of forms.

Unless anyone in the church has had its head in the sand for the last 50 years. Youth Ministry has tried to do the relevant thing. Adopt, create, provide new spaces for  young people to have a fun space, a learning space, worship spaces, mission spaces. From Guitars to powerpoints, Radio broadcasts, to festivals to online communion.  Successful youth ministry might pride itself in giving young people all of these things, and sometimes these occur in a parallel or alternative universe to the church on sunday morning. As long as young people explore faith in a relevant way that’s all that matters – or does it?

As long as youth ministry is maintaining relevance to the culture. Does that mean that it attracts- and who is it attracting? and the more critical question, if it is acting relevantly but in an alternative space of the church- and often narrated as a positive alternative to church – what kind of discipleship is happening beyond attendance? And does the kind of discipleship within the alternative youth ministry to the church equip young people for a long term experience of faith?

One of the issues of youth ministry in the UK is that it is so firmly embedded in a cultural relevancy model, that it is in danger of adopting the Bible to fit the culture, and not giving young people the tools to use the Bible to transform culture, to challenge culture, and also challenge the culture of youth ministry itself, when, perish the thought, it might not always stack up. Ive written before on giving young people tools to read the bible in different ways. Instead, culture leads. undoubtedly Culture has an effect on all that is done, the fact that this is a blog post is testament to cultural advances.

If you were to make a list of the common words found at Christian youth ministry conferences over the last few years, you wouldnt be surprised at the turn to culture in the language used. Though words that tend to be lacking include participation, complex, deep, long term, family, locality, theological, and even discipleship. It would be unfair of me to suggest that youth ministry is a mile wide and an inch deep, though a turn to alternative culture as youth ministry in the form of relevancy can set its own cultural norms of learning, of equality, of discipleship and involvement by young people, and it acts as the safe space for young people away from the world. – the question is are these enough and are they enabling long term discipleship?  – where are the 1000’s of young people who attended soul survivor now? especially those who never became a ‘leader’ of a ‘ministry’?  (again not to pick on soul survivor, but it does advertise its converts on a regular basis:

The safe space model follows the church that often talks up the same safe space, and to make God very apparent in the safe space, and not apparent in the non-church space. If Healy is right¹, then God is the  Director of the ongoing Drama of redemption, he is involved already and there is less of a church/world, secular/sacred wall that is often portrayed.

The task for the church, and youth ministry is not then a turn to relevancy. It is a turn to enable young people to be disciples. Disciples who are supported to act in the world to love the world through service, to perform in the service of the church. Not just do services in the church. To be given the tools to act faithfully in the world. It is not a call to relevancy as a call to active involvement.

Yes the culture of the church will eat a different youth ministry strategy for breakfast, in the same way that culture is eating away at the church. The call is not to adapt to the consuming force of culture but transform it from within. But if the church began discipling young people for active service to transform the world, began giving them opportunities to follow the way of Jesus, and not just worship him in a spectator form where that is the extent of their involvement in world transformation.

Aspects of the church have turned to relevancy to attract. Though itll only attract those already interested. Though it seems the interest wanes as young people find a new fad to join. And join one that invests in them more than they felt previously.

Relevancy will always be out of date, or created out of the context.

Young people desire people to be interested in them for who they, for people to understand them, to listen to them, and be authentic. Its not relevancy, it never has been, it is time. Relevancy is irrelevant compared to investing in young people and their families and communities for transformative lifelong discipleship.

¹Healy, Church, World and the Christian life ( 2000)






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