A few years ago I had a conversation where I caused a Vicar to cry. I’m not proud of it. It wasnt clever of me, neither did i think i was being provocative, neither insensitive, or insightful.
The vicar was recalling the progress that they had in their local school and describing the process of advertising, ‘selecting’ and developing the confirmation group in a local cofe school, they were a few weeks into the course and getting ready for the ceremony itself, or it had happened a few weeks previous, i cant remember exactly, but you get the picture.
The church also had a youth group, which met on a weekday evening. A kind of open club, with largely social games, activities and some faith content or activity, nothing ‘heavy’.
The Vicar was talking about how the hope was that the young people who had been confirmed would start going to the youth group. for no other reason that he would let them know about it, and some of their friends in higher school years go to it.
What i said was ‘well, _________, the problem with that is that you have built the relationship up with them, created a group space for them as a group where they feel safe, and comfortable discussing possibly deeper spiritual things and after being confirmed, this group is dispanded and they dont have the opportunity, in this group to continue being discipled by you’ – The youth group isnt the place for the kind of discipleship, effectively, that the Vicar in this situation had actually started. Yet they had begun to create a group where young people trusted them and a space opened up to discuss things of faith. The most intentional faith group for mostly ‘unchurched’ young people in the diocese. It’s then that they gulped, took breath and were on the brink of tears.
I didnt think this was a particularly rocket scientist thing to say. But it revealed something of a ministry and activity first culture in the church and relationship second. As long as young people attend ministries, doesnt matter which ones, or how, then this is the requirement. Or a failure to recognise what was being created in the form of group discipleship, and relational connection with the member of the clergy, and no real desire to maintain this, or see discipleship through beyond a ceremony.
Practically; What if every confirmation group is started at a time – near the beginning of year 6 so that there can be a whole year of establishing a group dynamic before they head to secondary school. Can clergy dictate this with the school?
What if it occured outside of the school and in a local church/community centre – so that this space becomes familiar to the group and part of its identity – (when confirmation groups in schools become harder to maintain. )
What if the young people know from the outset that part of the confirmation is a continued process of learning and developing after confirmation ceremony and that they have to think of activities and discussions they want to discuss further once the formal confirmation group is finished. Just so its not just to be thought about at the end..
What then, if every confirmation group (say there is 10 in the group) continues to meet with the clergy & volunteer once a month or fortnightly after the confirmation ceremony for 6-12 months – what kind of group work is developed, what opportunities for discipleship would this bring, what training for formational leadership could this spurn in them? (or alternatively they could ‘go’ to a youth group)
What if this group continued to develop spiritual curriculum, relationship and faith throughout the next 7 years- building on what they started – yes a few might ‘drop off’ but it might be the best way of ensuring some kind of small group for young people of a certain age as they progress through the ages?
How do you go about helping the group continue? ask them, plan with them, pose scenarios and options. (dont buy a resource, every group will be different to the previous)
Then another group starts the next year.
And the next.
Until every year group has one group in it of 6-10 young people – all are different because of different interests, issues, choice of topics, learning methods. 1 group per year band. Yes they might mix and do socials together, but they have key group identity as the confirmation cohort of the year 20__. They neednt invite their friends to the group, in one way – that is what the open youth club is for, to a degree. (and inviting new people to this type of group rarely works)
Currently the church only keeps 1/3 of its young people. If 6 year groups of 10 young people are confirmed at 11 (60) and say 2 of each group drop out, and only 8 of the 10 start. Then 6/10 in a group might just stay until they are 18. Especially if they are trained and discipled well, given opportunities to serve in the church (and change the world), develop skills and find their identity in the local church. I think from 1/3 to 6/10 might represent a 100% increase, and yes i know this is hypothetical. But if the scenario above is replicated then currently barely any who are confirmed are involved past 12.
Yes i know itll involve man/woman power and resources. But it might need 6 people (+ stand bys) to work with the clergy in each group, if they each meet once a month then this shouldnt be too much of a challenge. And if the oldest group – the ‘first’ ones once they get to 15-6, part of their discipleship is to mentor and help with the new ones… then theres a ready made cycle and further training ground for disciples. What if this was core volunteering for the church, discipling young people. Not youthwork, not scary young people – but giving young people the opportunity to be discipled.
It might involve a change in culture. It might involve a re prioritisation of tasks, or a training of clergy in relational group work, education and some youthwork skills, or it might involve realising that the future of the church and young people into its future calling is staring at them in the face, but it means a shift to continually invest and build on the mechanisms in place, effectively building and using the young people who are effectively sent to us in the confirmation group and making the best of this gift. Honing and encouraging long term relational group work discipleship. The clergy cant be consumed with discipling young people , can they? Well i guess this might have to be another culture shift, one like all the other ministries will yield long term results. And have more impact than a considerable amount of meetings and emails that clergy have to also deal with. Is it adding pressure to the clergy to do more, yes, well if people are concerned then they need to fill other gaps, to help out in this work.
It can work, ive seen it, it takes time, and desire and patience. Youth ministry isnt working, but confirmation as a ceremony and an opt in for young people to explore faith – might be an opportunity to develop, to reconise the gift horse that might be starring us in the mouth.