Detached youthwork: Having faith conversations on the streets.

Its one of the main criticisms levelled at detached youthwork from the ‘established’ christian community, or its youth worker contingency – ‘all that detached work is ‘good’ stuff, but when does it produce/become orientated around faith? ‘  and it is a valid question, it has to be a valid question as it gets asked often enough. Behind the question might be the drive that everything a ministry does is to communicate faith, or that every moment must have faith significance. It could be said that at times even in churches that people don’t talk about faith that often, they are talked to about faith, and in detached youthwork, young people are engaged with, in their space, so its rarely a talked to moment, in that classic adult/child psychological way (and if it was adult/child, the young person wouldn’t be listening) n – so in the moments of detached a different approach is probably required.  From the 1000’s of hours of detached youthork hours with/for faith based organisations, here are the most common examples that have arisen for me when faith becomes part of the conversation.

Young people may actually direct the conversation to something about faith when they ask ;

  1. Who do you work for? or Who do you represent?

The response you give might (though not always be) unavoidably – ______ Christian organisation/ group of churches/ YMCA/YFC – and then a description of what that means might be given. 

The young people might then make a comment, sing the YMCA song (as always) or ask a further question.

another one is:

2. Why are you here, you must be mad, paid alot or christians? 

Dont laugh at the back, i have had this very question thrown at me by a young person whilst on the streets. 

Again, a chance to say that probably all three are the case. ( I joke, but 2 out of 3 aint bad)- and then there’s a conversation about faith – one that technically they started…

From this kind of enquiry, I have had conversations where, when the young person has known that i am a Christian,  (which incidentally is a moment of honesty in the disclosure/power game of detached) then the young person may then have given away something of themselves – and these include:

I used to go to a Sunday school but i hated it as they locked me in a cupboard and made me sing songs

I was dragged on to a Jesus bus once with school and people plied us with sweets till we prayed a prayer. 

I dont ________ believe in God. 

My Gran goes to church. 

Because in the real space on the streets, and from a real space of genuine enquiry from a young person, being honest about having faith, is often enough to start a conversation. It may not be always the response you might want, but its to be taken if it is a disclosure of belief, or interest as a positive. Often RE lessons comes up – ie ‘In RE today my teacher said ______’ ;It is in that moment that they have been honest with you about faith. It is a starting point, and one to build on, in that moment – so ask a bit further – from what they’ve said.

I have written before about other questions young people may ask on detached, but the two above are the most common in relation directly to faith, and they can occur as you imagine fairly early on into the interaction when the young people are trying to suss out the workers. Actually, given the sussing out, they could ask the same kind of questions as a challenge:

3. I bet youre all christians just trying to tell us something to believe  or

4. I hope you’re not like those other Christians who made us do something or were ‘false’

These are trickier ones, because obviously the young people have made astute/incorrect/valid interpretations of the behaviour of other Christians, our brothers and sisters, and so, whilst it might be an opportunity to talk about faith, its starting from a point of being slighlty defensive, and apologetic on behalf of them. Its funny how astute young people are when they feel badly treated. The easiest thing is encourage them to talk about the scenario more, and empathise, as well as apologise if necessary.

These incidents above are when young people initiate the conversation, though in a way, it is our presence that has initiated it, as we arrive into their scene, they are merely asking our intention and trying to assess our authenticity in the space.

From the questions they ask- yes responses we can make can take the conversation back to them so we can hear about their faith. But in these initial moments usually only a few things are given away, but as the relationship between the worker and the group changes and develops, the opportunities might emerge. The cry for help from the young person might imply trust. acceptance is occurring, and if they’ve known about your faith from the outset then they have accepted you along with the faith that you have into the space of the group.

Once this does start to occur – what of faith then? 

If its not the response to the question as above – from the young people – then it involves a risk, a risk from us that the relationship is ready for it. Now this could happen in the course of one hour with a young person on an evening, or over a longer period of time drip drip drip feeding the relationship, nothing is the same with any young person. But the risk is to be the one to ask the question about faith, about thinking about faith, or doing something about a scenario that involves faith.

So, offering to pray for a young person and the scenario they describe, asking if a young person prays, or talks to a ‘higher power’ – or ask about them connecting with nature in the activity they are doing. Yes these might be vague spiritual concepts – but if there’s been no inclination of spiritual conversation thus far with them (ie they haven’t even asked one of the above questions) then you’ve got to start broad, or somewhere. Again, RE lessons in school, a ceremony in a church – ie a funeral/wedding, Christmas service are possible starting points, depending on whats been going on locally, faith of their parents, opinion about a faith news article (women bishops) are possible points of interaction.

In a way, faith emerges in the conversation , and involves a commitment to explore with young people their starting point, from a point of honesty that isnt preachy, but is responsive to questions. Remember you might be the only christian that young person has had the chance to ask questions to about faith, in their terms. Remember also the young person might also have experiences of faith, of church and memories that prevent them being of faith that they want to share. Remembering also that you might be a starting point, meeting them where they’re at. Faith from point zero.

There is faith on the streets, its faith that God is in the conversations, faith in leaving the building to go and spend time with young people in the open spaces. Faith in God ahead of us, and ahead in the lives of young people. Its for us to discover God in their lives already. If young people talk about their faith on the streets, or lack of it, its honest and real, no holds barred. Its real and dangerous, its risky for them. They deserve a way of being discipled further from that honesty, curiosity and risk. Where might God meet them as church – where they’re at ?, I wonder… – where, unless you journey with them, in that faithful, relationship you have started.

 

 

 

(For more information about the faith conversations in the process of detached – see ‘Here be dragons’ -details of which are above and you can purchase it fro FYT – thank you)

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