I’ve done a little asking around of people who are involved in churches who are in their 20s-40’s, and asked them the same question;
What kept you in church as a young person?
The things that people have told me are ‘I was involved in the choir’ or ‘I was invited to the adults house group’ or ‘I helped with OHP (in the days before powerpoint – or to the anglicans, the one day after the service sheet might be defunct) , or ‘I was given opportunities to talk about questions I had about faith, whilst I was thinking about faith’ . So far, not one of the people I have spoken to suggested that being ‘part of a youth group’ was the thing that helped or maintained their engagement in a local church. But the things that did were things that:
- Connected them with adults in the world of the adults- young people could be apprenticed in the church family
- Gave them age orientated tasks – and support for them
- Gave them space to ask questions
- Were treated as an adult.
- Were accepted as part of the church
- They identified that the church could become ‘theirs’
- Gave young people opportunities to opt into ‘up’ activities to challenge themselves
Its clearly not a scientific survey, and it reflects some of my own experience, in my blog ‘why I didnt leave the church’ http://wp.me/p2Az40-Ph, I reflected on the reasons I stayed in a church that involved connecting and being given space to have deep conversations, to have responsibility and to forge a personal identity in the faith community were key contributing factors. So what might this all mean?
Is the key to engaging young people to kill off youth groups?
Might it be to kill off the youthworker role?
Well, actually, yes. for these reasons, and only these.
- If a youth group prevents young people having opportunities such as above
- If a youth group doesnt provide support to the young people whilst they are doing the helping
- If a youth group is only a space where young people attend but dont participate
- If a youth group asks them to engage with things below them in age- rather than challenge them intellectually and spiritually and form them into adults – ie it keeps them ‘childlike’
- If a youth group maintains separation
- If a youth group has an unhealthy culture – bullying, competition, limited involvement for one gender, or full of cliques.
- If the youth group is seen as the reason for a young person to stay – ‘we have a youth group, thats a good reason to stay coming to the church’ – then its well intentioned but slightly misguided, a facade that indicates that a church is ‘doing something for young people’ by having one.
So, Clergy, the people that stayed in churches and have continued to stay, have in the main done so because the local church facilitated and had a culture where a young person was able to feel ok. Where they were able to feel part of the community in more than a ceremony, but all the time. They could contribute, able to connect with other people who they could spend time with – who weren’t trying to be ‘young’ or ‘trendy’ but just there, and who took them under their wing, so to speak. It was where they could use their gifts.
We might talk about ‘intergenerational work’ – but in one reality the church is about family and not playing the generational separation myth card. ‘ie only young people connect with young people’ or ‘im to old’. Young People as the research has shown in America- written about here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP, are engaged when the church is a healthy place and where they have a challenge. Going along to a youth group might only do that until theyre 12. Yes others might, and develop to keep young adults – though they often shift to ‘house group style’ anyway.
In a way it is about helping young people to be formed into performers in a local church, creating a culture a space for them to participate in appropriate ways that have meaning to them. It is about developing culture in the whole church that makes it a healthy space to be an apprentice Christian with ups, downs, questions, doubts and more doubts and that is ok. There’s a difference between young people opting into the church ( where open youth clubs or detached work amongst other methods are used) and those young people for whom the fearing that they ‘opt out’ has been the main concern of youth ministry and the church for a long while. The ironic thing is that answer to why a young person stays in the church isnt in youth ministry at all, it is in the culture of the church. Can a youth worker change this – of course- but its much bigger- and probably staring us in the face all along.