“Shut up back there, I’m trying to tell you that God loves you”, 6 alternatives to the ‘God-slot’

Its been such a great evening. A good group of young people have come along to the youth club, they’ve played games, chatted nicely, made a pizza, and had a great time, theyre buoyant, nothing has been broken, and theres no shards of wet toilet paper on the toilet walls. But its 20 minutes before the end of the session, and theres a tension in the air. Its that time. The time when the fun stops, the time when the atmosphere shifts, when the bubble of energy in the room is changed. Sean goes and hides in the toilets. Shannon leaves for a fag, the boys start a play fight. why? Because they know its God-slot time.

The workers can feel it too. Its the time where they have to do a talk ‘in front’ of the young people, up to now they’ve been involved with them, chatting, making pizza, playing football, but now they have to be separate, powerful, teachery even. But its the deal isn’t it, the young people get to have fun, play games, make pizza – often for free, so that the payoff is that they listen. isn’t that the deal?

I wonder if theres a difference between what is communicated during God-slot time, and what is said. The obvious example above, is that whilst young people are shouted at they are also told that God loves them. Whilst being told a moral story, they are being controlled and disempowered, often, this bit is the important bit for the workers, but the least important bit for the young people. Often its the most parent/child dynamic moment – and it as this point where faith/spirituality/morality/ is inserted – and so God can become only associated with being told something. There is some evidence to suggest that young people leave this kind of youth ministry practice with a view of God different to what is said about God, because of the way that God is presented – so it might be at best something listened to, but its content isn’t heard. At worst it might propagate an MTD type faith, where God is perceived as only interested in a young persons moral behaviour.

Ive heard it said that ‘without the moment of the epilogue then the club would be nothing different to the youth centre up the road’, or ‘the young people should expect it, we do it every week’ or ‘ without me telling them about God, how will they know about God’ or ‘its the only opportunity they might have to hear, and they must be told’  If there is a desire to do something spiritual, but the ‘God-slot’ isn’t the thing that’s – So, on the premise that young people are in the space that has been created and its in some kind of religious building, ie a church, and something of faith is what is deemed a requirement- what might be the alternatives?

  1. Create opportunities for young people to opt in to Spiritual activities through the evening. So, on a table near to where they normally chat, theres an object and piece of paper with ‘prayer requests’ on it. Its there and young people could find it, and opt in as they choose. Somewhere else theres a Bible for them to pick and read for themselves. Theres plenty of resources for prayer, (see prayer spaces), but just leave them around now and then and see if young people opt in. What about an area with some natural items like shells or stones, or tree bark, and a few printed bible verses, again, not to teach, but for them to explore and ask questions, to provoke.
  2. Let the young people have knowledge of the theme the week before, so they can think about it and be ready to ask questions throughout the evening. its disempowering to teach them ‘blank’ – even if that is what church is like.. then from the beginning of the next week there can be discussion about it in the conversations, there might not be need to talk from the front, because the education has been done in the conversations and moments. alternatively have aspects of the theme around, again for the young people to engage with it, such as a bible verse with a question to stimulate conversation, or a magazine or other ‘prop’ .
  3. Create a culture where the young people make decisions about their ‘spiritual curriculum’ – so do they want prayer, teaching on themes, questions, dilemas, stories, or to participate in mission, in community work, or worship – this may take time, if theyre not used to having the opportunity to make decisions about this, but its time worth investing, as then they are active in their discipleship, or their spiritual exploring (same thing), they needn’t do it alone, they could work in small groups to plan a theme, or a months worth of sessions – and the earlier they do this – ie from 11-13, the more its part of the culture of taking responsibility. As Nick Shepherd says in Faith Generation, Young people need to not be only learners, but deciders, and in this way also creators, creators of the environment in which their spiritual discipleship occurs.
  4. Trust in conversations. If the culture of the session is one that is thriving with many conversations between young people and also between volunteers and workers, then focus on allowing these conversations to be informal moments of sharing, of connections, and where in which the volunteers take risks in the conversation to suggest praying for the young people, or prompting with a question about faith, or where the young person reflects on something of their week, or their thinking about faith from the previous week. Why have 1 ‘telling’ moment at the end, when 15 conversations have occurred during in which faith is active, and real, in the moment and connected to and with the ongoing relationships. If the culture of the session is informal, conversational and about relationships, then it stands to reason this can be the right space that faith can be explored within. Faith becomes connected with integrity to the context.
  5. Encourage sharing times. From pit and peaks, or ‘where has God been in your life this week?’ to ‘what can you be thankful for’ or whats been the struggle? creating an open sharing space or a place in which the young people can be honest with each other, then allow them to help by sharing advice to each other, and praying for each other, or praying in silence ( so they might hear God) – create a routine of care, or friendship that enhances the group, and so that then they are happy to share or lead each other and together in spiritual direction. Traditions are good, but the right one might be to share and chat and pray during the food time, and not at the end, or that every now and then theres participation in a form of a reflection, liturgy or communion as part of the session
  6. Ask the young people. Nothing will happen overnight, plan to make shifts gradually, in conversations with young people and develop their decision making. maybe even say ‘we’ve decided to stop the ‘god-slot’ what would you like to do instead to explore faith?’ That’s going to be the best thing to do. and see what ideas they have…and develop their ideas with them, or just let them take over this aspect. a risk worth taking. let them do so, being supported and guided and allowed to fail, but let them…

If none of these are how ‘church’ is modelled on a sunday. Then theres a possibility that the work with young people will become prophetic in the life of the church, if youth ministry starts producing better disciples over the next 20 years, then the sometimes ‘pew fillers’ that church might have created, then so be it.

There is plenty of ready to use material out there, and use the odd idea as a compliment to the culture of the group, an illustration to provoke thinking during the ‘open time’, a form of prayer, the danger is when an entire group shifts to a programme formula, like ‘play this game, then use it to say this verse, then ask the kids about being loved’ – it has its place – and if the group was set up with that programme in mind, then so be it, but shifting what might be a really good open group where young people have good conversations (and a god slot) to something formulaic – is doomed, especially without actual consultation and decision making from the young people. An opt in space – needs opt in, informal creative spaces to explore faith through a variety of means, and yes it requires effort and a shift, but its a shift worth making and investing in the long term, and investing in the long term in developing relationships. Anyone can turn up and tell young people something for 10 minutes, but ask the young people what they actually get out of it, and itll be realised that its a waste of time. God is for being explored by young people, not just presented to them.

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