When religious communities do not invest in their youth, unsurprisingly their youth are less likely to invest in their religious faith (Christian Smith, 2005)
That investment, is not just financial, though it helps. There was no paid youthworker in my church growing up, but If you read my story about how I grew up and stayed in the church (it is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Ph ) you will have noticed that from the age of 12 I was given responsibilities in the church community, these included teaching young children in the Sunday school, helping with the music on the overhead projector slides, the PA and sound recording onto ‘tape’ – I was given responsibilities.
One of the recommendations from ‘Soul Searching, by Christian Smith (2005) is that he suggests that attention needs to be given to help young people away from a strong inclination to an individualism of their faith, one way I suggest might be is to give them responsibilities within a faith community/church in order that they play a collective part in the practice of the community. However, as Nick Shepherd writes in Faith Generation (2016), young people can be perceived primarily as learners in churches, as opposed to participants, deciders or creators. Now, it might be that these two publications have described a world alien to you in your church, significantly alien if there are no young people, or one where young people are key contributors and participants, and that would be great. But I wonder whether what the key reasons are why young people arent given responsibilities in churches. When, as a comparison, in schools, another learning community, they have many opportunities in committees and group work to have responsibilities.
So, what might be the reasons for not giving young people responsibility in churches?
- There arent many jobs to do, and the best people are already doing them. This may be the case, and thinking about it, the technology might have changed, from OHP and Tape to digital, but its fairly difficult to make a case that a young person cant master the current technology. Other jobs, well im sure there’s gaps on coffee rotas, sunday school teaching, collection, welcome team, interviewing the new youthworker, a forum for young people in the church to suggest ideas. Young people might just need to be asked, or alternatively have conversations with adults to discover their gifts and how they might contribute. Having spoken to a few young people recently, they were enjoying having management responsibility in a task at school – how might they ‘manage’ a situation/task in a church at 15?
- We’re scared the young person might fall flat on their faces and fail – Im all for not giving young people the kind of responsibility where their ‘failure’ is public, so public speaking for example. Whatever the task is then manage, guide, show, let them shadow, follow, copy and learn, and so that they arent exposed or alienated to fail, by giving them opportunities to fail and help them through this will actually develop resilience and character, far more than them being fearful and avoiding the task or the adults being fearful of the consequence…. the alternative to this is;
- We dont want them to be successful either , then they might get prideful – , like above this is a projected fear that hinders creativity in the young person, if a young person is good at something, then treat it as a gift they have been given, and help them to develop it further, for the glory of God, and also recognise their ability or character in a positive way. If the church is afraid of a person being successful because of a gifting honed in the church then this needs to be reflected on. A young person may need that opportunity to show responsibility in your faith community and gain personal confidence through it, its not the ‘end game’ but it might really help them. If there are signs of pride, over confidence then fine, have a conversation and continue to ‘supervise’ guide and coach, but that shouldnt stop it. For both 2 and 3 – a culture of ‘preventing participation’ needs to be challenged.
- They shouldnt do jobs here, we have to make church an easy place for them, life is complicated enough for them. In a way this is a creditable reason. Some young people may 100’s of things to do in their lives especially after school, and sunday might be their day off. But that may not apply to all the young people, and it might be that even in those groups they dont get the opportunities of responsibility that you as a church can give. Yes they might play for a football team, but only one gets to be captain, you can give them responsibilty, and as per 3 this might give them a type of confidence or enhance a skill that lay dormant.
- Why have young people do things, that’s what we pay a youth worker to do. Most youthworkers would, i think, rather help young people participate than have to ‘do it’ themselves. They could do themselves out of a job, but youthworkers have plenty to do Mon-Sat usually.
- They’re just kids. Yup thats right. They are just kids. Just precious persons to be kept safe. See my previous post on young people as a separate species, Nick Shepherd highlights this when he says that young people are principally regarded as learners. A similar point is made by Christian Smith when he argues that young people are often treated as an alien species, when in reality as he says they are pretty similar to most adults, though most adults wouldnt dare to admit it. They are more like adults that children given their mental, physical, emotional and conceptual awareness, so this is how to treat them.
- Because of needing a DBS they cant help out until theyre 16. Nope, because of needing a DBS they dont need to be checked for criminal actions until they are 16, if you’re happy that they dont pose a danger, and they are supervised throughout then they can be given responsibility. It would be Health and Safety gone mad to not let an 11 year old help with the creche – though yes let them be trusted gradually.
- We’ve always had adults do that job. And as a result adults continue to participate in the church, maybe that baton needs to be passed on!
- The Place for the young people is in the youth group – In the same way the place for the adults is just the pews perhaps?
- They dont know enough yet to be able to do that! – Teaching takes a number of forms, but thats rocket science, I learned as much about stories I had to teach others in Sunday school as what id remembered myself, it gave me a reason to learn more and ask questions. How much do young people need to ‘know’ before helping on the powerpoint, or music group for example?
- Why would young people contribute, their parents don’t? – All the more reason to provide different expectations and new formation possibilities for a younger generation.
- We don’t know what they’re good at? – Maybe the young people dont either and so provide a number of opportunities to let them try and discover, without it having to be the ‘one’ thing, in the process they might discover the thing that they’re good at. Alternatively, work with the young people to discover their gifts as part of the youth groups and find ways of building these skills into the wider faith community, create their shaped hole, and not just for them to fit into something pre-existing.
I am sure these are not the only reasons that young people arent given responsibilities in churches, you could probably add more below in the comments, it may be that the easy life is plumped for, it would take time to help and guide young people, but equally it might not either. It is for those who see young people as gifted individuals who can contribute (and that neednt be a youthworker), but supportive adults and parents, to create opportunities and shape a culture in a church where young people are key contributors and participants.
Not all young people want to take on responsibilities in local churches, sometimes ‘being a leader’ is not what they want to do, and for the love of asking might be worth asking alternative questions to giving young people tasks that seem less responsible (they might fear making mistakes) – or that they have bigger dreams and want to contribute in wider society to do something for them that might have even more meaning, ie to make the world a better place – if this is what a young person wants to do instead than ‘help in sunday school’ then as church in the business of creation restoration we might and should find ways to facilitate this.