I had a really fascinating conversation with a young person the other day. They were describing how they went to church and a youth group on a Sunday, and during the week were involved in doing RE at GCSE level in a pretty bog standard north-east secondary school. The young persons opening conversations were mostly about football, and the like, but then as the conversation progressed they realised that I was of faith and wanted to chat through what they had been doing during RE.
In the past I have been involved in schools work in secondary schools where the RE lessons can be related to philosophy and ethics, where young people aged 11 are dealing with Plato and Socrates. But in this instance the young person was telling me that they had been learning about Christian beliefs, about the Trinity, about Creation, and about Eschatology, for some youth ministry people, that’s the ‘end times’. It was a fascinating conversation. The young person described how the teacher had used a mars bar to describe the trinity (brings a new meaning to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good, boom boom) The young person was relaying to me about the different thought about all of these things, and also different perspectives on them, yes it came across a little simplified, ie ‘all conservative’ Christians believe x,y and z, whereas ‘liberal ones’ don’t, and yes – whilst I responded to the young person in terms of questions to reflect that there are spectrums and a scale, that wasn’t the point. What I asked the young person then, was – so, given that you are learning about these things – How does knowing this help you with Church on Sundays and youth group?
Their response was that they hadn’t necessarily made a connection, or couldn’t articulate it. But what they did say that was they seemed to do on a Sunday was to think about how to behave, or how to believe, but the rest of the time was about having social space in church, about space to have fun and it be a good club. And theres nothing wrong with that. When I asked them about the learning on a sunday they described it as someone telling them something to think about, but with little interaction. What they couldn’t do was correlate their learning of the faith in RE to the table of their youth group. School was awakening their interest in something deep and thoughtful, about the knowledge of the faith, about doctrine, and giving tools to explore it further, yet church was about morality and fun. Not that much different to Moral Therapeutic deism, something I describe here: Does Youth Ministry suffer from MTD?
In the 1970’s Larry Norman wrote the song ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?’ – I’m not going to propose that Christian music has improved since then, the point being that whats the alternative to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the rest, what this paved the way for was the alternative Christian music scene.
But should the question be today…, ‘why should the school teach all the good Christian doctrine?’ This wasnt some progressive or well resourced faith school, it was an ordinary secondary. Neither was it a particularly well resourced or progressive church that the young person attended. The point is that some aspects of youth ministry are trying on one hand to improve RE teaching ( Ie YFC’s ‘RE:quest, resource) – but at the same time resources that equip Christian young people to explore deep faith, deep doctrine – ‘going beyond the god slot’ are hard to find. The school has to teach Christian beliefs as part of its curriculum, and also forms of belief, and give spaces for questions, for discussion and also exploring. But doesnt the church too have an obligation to help young people explore, question and develop opinion and belief of God too? I am not going to judge every youth group experience on the basis of the one that was described to me, that really wouldn’t be fair, but from some churches it is seen that what is taught in RE might be ‘liberal’ or ‘not real Christianity’ ( hence the desire to give schools a ready made resource) – but actually what schools might be doing is awakening the curiosity of young people to think about the faith, to know God further, to not be afraid of asking the question.
Whilst young people are curious and questioning their minds need feeding. When it comes to doctrine – youth ministry and even the Sunday church might be catching up with the school. We wonder why hundreds of young people leave the church, when their intelligence is ignored, or their capacity to learn is sidelined its probably not surprising.
What about thinking that each year the group of young people will consider and develop a deeper knowledge of one doctrine? so doctrine of grace, of incarnation, of the Trinity, of salvation or something else. Then if young people become followers of Jesus, they do so with knowledge of Jesus, knowledge of their place in the story, of how the pieces fit together. Its not just a bible verse to justify a theme.
Be brave with our young people, take a risk. In a recent survey only 22% of churches are talking with young people about basic Christian beliefs. (See ‘Losing heart’ stats, link is via here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-JK ) or That’s 78% of churches who have young people aren’t. Statistics can prove anything, and they can be a stick to batter the church with, or justify youth ministry practices or resources. What the conversation revealed to me is that even secular schools are potentially doing a better job of this than the church.