Young people as learners and deciders

‘The first area we might consider (in youth ministry) is the way in which young people move from being learners to deciders’  Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation , 2016

As soon as I read this on Sunday afternoon, the phrase – from learners to deciders resonated.

It started me thinking about a variety of models and values in youth work practice such as Harts participation ladder, a picture of which is here.

Image result for harts participation ladder

I thought about some of the experiences of youthwork that i have been involved in, at the acoustic cafe in Perth where a continual group of 16-22 year olds were integral to the running of an open youth club/music venue, completing voluntary award schemes and developing ideas in the programme. There are others and I can also recollect times when young people involved in youth activities were less involved in the decision making of a club, group or activity – such as mentoring in a school, which can be voluntary but at other times might not be, or detached as, although young people can exercise their right to engage and walk away -they dont often decide about having detached youth workers in the first place. Most of this to the youth worker is pretty standard stuff, at least its been kicking around for quite a while, especially as participation has been such a key value and principle of youth work (Brierley 2000, Jeffs & Smith 2005, 2010)

Theres something about the phrase ‘ from learners to deciders’ that plays into this progression theme however, which might be emphasised by the ladder and stages. In thinking about faith based youth ministry, for this is the context that Nick is writing, i wonder whether the phrase – ‘from learners to deciders’ is helpful, much though i like it. What Nick is referring to is the thought that young people learn of the faith, and then decide to leave the place of that faith – almost as if it is the first decision they have been able to make in the pathway of their faith identity – is to leave.

I am thinking then, if the phrase from ‘learner to decider’ is used, it maintains some of the power dynamics and adolescent development phases that need to be challenged in practice and in the narratives of young people evident in youth ministry. My comment in my review of ‘Faith Generation’ here:  was that people need to be in a culture in a church where they are deciders from the earliest point possible.

If people have waited until they have learned, whether this is learning the ‘ropes’ of the culture, learned how to do something, learned to behave, learned all about the Trinity, learned and participated in a ceremony (baptism/confirmation), then the temptation is to wait until a person has learned, before they get to make decisions.

Its funny that, because that’s not what happens in a school. Children from a fairly early age, at least the ones in Scotland, are given opportunities to participate in decision making, whether its school projects, musical performances, community action, gardening and other schemes, a long time before they know everything there is to know about Maths, or Science or horticulture. Schools have given young people opportunities to work in groups to make decisions. Important ones in the life of a school. Now it might be that this is to tick various personal and social development and well being targets for a school. That doesn’t matter, young people are being given moments to make either individual or collective decision-making opportunities in schools. Young people cant opt out of school easily – so its not as if schools are doing this to create belonging necessarily and attendance.

learners and deciders

Does a church or youth ministry have a young persons ‘personal and social development’ in mind? no not necessarily. Can young people leave the church voluntarily – well sadly yes and thankfully yes also. But that neednt matter. I would urge churches who create the culture for youth ministry to think of children as learners and deciders, yes young people and children are in spaces to learn, have fun and understand their place in the world and in addition at the same time this should include opportunities for appropriate decision making. It is great when i see young people involved in the choosing of a youth leader, but even then this could have been the first time they have been involved in an important decision  that affects their future.

So, can children who attend Sunday school or messy church be given opportunities to decide games, or food or movies or activities? Can they even be given opportunities to contribute in ‘leaders meetings’ ? what about older ones – what can they do and decide in the life of messy churches (not just as a helper), or youth groups, activities – but broader still – as Nick urges, what about the culture of a local church might encourage young people to be disruptive, challenging and questioning and have this in the ‘corridors’ of decision making in a church. If the church is ageing, then structures need to be changed so that younger people can contribute and have decision making as part of their participation and learning. Holding it is a power thing, not changing structures to allow it is a protection thing. Churches that don’t help young people be decision makers in them now will probably have disappeared in 15 years time, but thats not a reason to do it, the better reason is that it is a good model of discipleship, of belonging and of a faith community, one that is practical , with young people and encouraging their gifts and strengths from an early age, and one that is prophetic – but still catching up with schools!

This isn’t about young people as leaders. That’s a different story. This is just about helping them be learners and deciders in the faith community and culture of empowerment and participation that a church could be.

The same challenge is in community settings, faith based organisations and those seeking to adopt asset based work – or should that be that asset based work is reflective of encouraging cultures of learning and deciding. How this occurs when it is easy to maintain power, and protect self interests in decision making and not open this up, or create alternative cultures is a challenge facing all of us in community approaches.



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