Sometimes when I’m speaking to church leaders in churches I wonder what or who they’re talking about at times.
Its as if theres a strange alien life form that cowers in their church, or they dont have in their church, or disrupts their church, its a thing that needs special treatment, special guidelines for talking with, a unique kind of person only a professional can speak to.
Its a Young Person.
Yet the way that some church leaders, and society, and actually youth workers talk regard them, it’s as if they’re a separate species.
Has Separate Species Syndrome afflicted the church?
Actually i wonder whether youthworkers are to blame!
after all havent we banged on about this strange species needing special treatment (only we can offer) for a while now?
So, we get hold of sociological theories of adolescence ( Stanley Hall), Theories of adolescecnce and faith development ( Fowler/ Westerhoff), we’ll try and educate churches to think about different images of young people not found in the daily newpapers, such as Biblical versions, or ones where young people show creativity, determination or character, all the while still sort of perpetuating the notion that despite being trying to create a different mindset about them, ‘they’ are still young people, ‘they’ are distinctive, still somehow theyre a separate species.
Christian Smith in ‘Soul Searching’ says that:
Adults typically frame adolescence in ways defining teenage life per se as itself a social problem and adolescents as alien creatures (i wasnt the first to think this!) , strange and menacing beings, perhaps even monsters with raving hormones, visiting from another planet, teenagers in this view are more dissimilar than like adults- and so ‘who could possibly relate to them??” (Christian Smith, 2005)
Maybe they are distinctive- you might say? We’ll, maybe it is a unique stage of life, but no young person is universally like any other young person, just like no adult is the same as any other adult – when it comes to development or faith, and some adults get a bad reputation in the media too… Possibly the only things that are distinctive is that young people are experiencing, and forming ideas and constructing stories, and other ‘lots of things’ for the first time.
However, there are times when ‘separate species syndrome’ seems to occur.
So theyll be programmes and activities just for youth- but no realisation that young people create faith in the context of their family.
There will be a reticence to volunteer to work with youth as they are seen as something different, odd, scary even.
And I am sure you have been in meetings where this species is absent, but people talk about them. And other occasions… they are done to as if they need taming, to find a special place for them, to hone their new distinctiveness.
But its not for children, oh no, children no.
They have Special Species Syndrome in the church. Cant get enough of them. Fill up the messy churches, open wide the primary schools, host those summer holiday clubs. Children, they’re special. Beyond children, nope. They’re weird, theyre ‘youth’ as a church – ‘we just dont know how to work with them’
Its as if the preceding years in childrens clubs and groups have meant nothing, as if there hasnt been any kind of positive relationships or connections made that might mean adults could have conversations with children who became not children anymore. As if it requires something different, as if it requires the Heroic youthworker to save the day, and rid the church of disruptive young people and try and keep the few that might conform to leadership stature.
When actually, investing in young people means giving them space, responsibility and create the environment where they see themselves being in the future. Treat them as an adult in the making, and build with them what they want to create in the faith community theyre in. If training in youth ministry for you as a volunteer or congregation is required – then send me an email- but the answer is to build capacity in you and build from the relationship you already have.
If you dont have young people in the local church – then yes they might feel a seperate species- as you dont know them as yet – but start out on the streets, meet them where theyre at – theres lots of people doing this, people from 18-65 all across the UK being involved in young peoples lives in the moments on the streets, as a starting point for meeting people – who happen to be 14-18 in age- who arent that different to you, not really.
Separate Species Syndrome needs to be challenged in the church, especially where it leads to referring the responsibility for working with young people to someone else.
Teenagers are not a people apart, an alien race about whom adults can only shake their heads and look forward to their growing up. Teenagers are part of us, fully members of our families, religious congregations, neighbourhoods, communities and nation (Christian Smith, 2005)
I started this afternoon thinking that Youth Ministry in the UK needed less conferences and more cash, there has been so many confereneces, conversations, consultations and calls for youth ministry. Actually the only thing that might shift it is money, money sent to parishes.
However, now, I’m not as sure. What youth ministry needs is for the church to conceptualise young people differently, and to build capacity and the courage to step out of the expected, as well to commit to young people as a valid ministry, not only that to build in context the kind of church with young people that enables flourishing community transformation and active discipleship.
Lets try and eradicate Separate Species Syndrome from our churches in regard to young people, as humans they deserve better.
Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 2005