Ultimately this is the critical question in every local situation. But in a way before the church presumes it can offer something better or distinctive, maybe there’s learning to be done in the way other agencies ‘do’ youth work/discipleship.
In a conversation recently I heard of a parent who was astounded that their teenager would give up 10’s of weekends a year to fundraise and volunteer in the community whilst they were part of the cadets. And they have strict rules on tidying, marching and behaviour. Yet young people stay within such an almost archaic disciplinary community structure.. why? Because being an army/navy/air cadet gives them kudos, gives them future career prospects. And becomes their identity. Am I suggesting that churches adopt disciplinary stances? No, but how might being involved in church/faith youth work give young people as much a sense of identity in the community as cadets does. And what of the ‘career’ prospects in the church?
If identity is ‘in Christ’ , then does this having an identity outside of the organistion affect how much of an identity a young person can have inside it? What can the local church offer in the way of identity? for the young person in their own right?
Moving on; What of the sports clubs? What does the church learn from them?
For one, young people see their name in lights, to be the next Marcus Rashford, Gail Emms or Chris Hoy or Sarah Storey. And for each type of sport, there are health and social benefits of sport, and competition along the way. Parental pressure no doubt plays a part in the early days. But social glue with others and the power of competition and continual comparisive improvement are factors in the staying. Not to mention perks like captaincy, the adrenaline of winning goals/shots/matches, praise and reward from the coach, and attention to detail in personal performance. And teamwork, not letting others down by your own performance. All factors in enabling a young person to stay, to commit and to participate in the long term in sport. Itll help when the coach or teacher that believes in the young person, believes they can be better.
What of the church in comparison, how could it, if it didn’t already praise, encourage and provide identity for the young person? Does attending a group or a bigger group do this… where are the opportunities for young people to ‘change the world’ through the values of the christian faith in church groups, like the cadet who volunteers in old peoples homes or homeless shelters, because cadets believes in generosity and respect. How are young people coached in their discipleship? Where might be their goals? How can it become a ‘you can’ place, rather than a ‘you cant yet’ place? How is ‘the youth group’ a team game? what are they performing together- apart from the once a year ‘youth service’?
Maybe also an internalised belief adherance for young people in the church is limiting for young people when, as Paula Gooder suggests in her new book, an embodied spiritual /faith experience might be healthier if not more appropriate for the young person, ie one that involves the whole body, giving spiritualty physicalilty, when in comparison the physicality of sport or cadets or duke of Edinburgh challenges makes it attractive a pursuit. Spirituality could be more physical. The Cadet might have a more active prayer life whilst hiking through mud, or the christian athlete as they train, more than the youth group christian who sits and prays.
The church can possibly offer something different and distinctive, but in times where there’s a desperate desire to keep young people it’ll be worth at least learning from youth orientated organisations that are ahead of the game.
It’s not about forcing young people to stay it’s abut giving them such good reasons to stay that even if they leave they feel they’re missing out on something if they leave.