Implications of Young People Opting in or Opting out of faith

In Youth Ministry, there have been 3 main schools of thought in regard to the approach taken, and these have centred on the nature of the role of the youth minister or ministry. Pete Ward in ‘Youthwork and the Mission of God’ (1997) describes them as ‘Inside-out’ and ‘Outside-in’ – and so depending on the starting point of the place of being ‘in’ – ie the church or faith – this determines which approach is taken. Both views have ‘church’ as the central point of it, so either the worker and young people start from the inside and connect with other young people ‘outside’ or start on the outside ( ie in a school) with the hope of gradually causing young people to become closer to the ‘inside’. A development to this has been in the last 10 years or so, as detached youthwork and fresh expression/pioneer practices have become more common, and also the realisation that faith, discipleship and even forms of church can occur ‘outside’ the walls of existing church – and so ‘outside-out’ has been added to the mix. Though it is a minority, it challenges to much of the establishment and centrality of church within the walls.  The Introduction chapters in ‘Here be dragons’ discuss these in more detail, follow this link to buy a copy http://wp.me/P2Az40-4t, However, in the main – these wordings and phrases, inside – out etc, are more about the nature of the approach – rather than what is going on in for young people.

In regard to Faith – what are all young people doing all the time?

One of the key things that Wyn and White (1997) suggest is that ‘youth’ is a time of constructing. It is a time where people make assessments of, shape opinions of, and as Bryan (2016) , Macadams (1997) suggest from a psychological point of view – construct stories of – the world around them, including all the structures and people that represent those structures- so teachers, parents, schools, and ‘the home’. What Macadam also suggests is that young people want to, and start to adopt an ideology which best fits the story of their existence so far, and it needs to be a story that makes sense. This is interesting in a world where stories are told through films, through day to day vlogging, and through facebook timelines. Stories are being told. But this isnt about story per se. This is about the process of choosing story.

Are Young people making a series of choices in regard to Faith, Beliefs & Spirituality?

Of course they are. That point is fairly obvious. But I wonder how regular connections to faith shape this.

What about Young people who are ‘Reluctant Opt-outers’? 

So for example; Ben is 14 he has ‘christian parents’ who have encouraged him to go to church since birth, via sunday school programmes, youth groups and special residentials. All of a sudden, Ben starts asking questions, thinking about the faith story he had been told and accepted, and still does, but wants to know more. Ben has been ‘In’ the church – is he trying to find ways of ‘opting out’ – or is he trying to have a deeper more thought of faith that makes more sense to him from what he has heard and begin to tie together other stories in the world, maybe equality and wrestle with this in a church that doesnt allow women to be in leadership (for example) .  It could be feared that because Ben is ‘in’ – he could ‘opt out’. But this isnt usually what Ben’s want to do, but if they arent able to explore questions like this in a respectful manner, then they are likely to. (amongst maybe other reasons other young people might have for opting out) The sad thing is that, as according to Christian Smith, many young people who opt out dont want to, they just havent found enough reasons to stay. They have been socialised within a church setting and have formed an identity within it, and a story, they also know that this will annoy their parents, which isnt what every young person wants to do.

Therefore a large amount of energy is spent in youth ministry to prevent young people ‘opting out’. But what engages young people as the recent ‘Rooted in the church’ and ‘fuller instutute’ research indicates, is not relevant youthworkers who are taking photos on snapchat, but spiritually healthy places and opportunities for challenge. The links to this research is below.  Young people in the church want to make it their story, but it has to make sense when there are other stories in the world that vie for attention.

But do young people opt in too? 

Yes. And this is where the other main spending in youth ministry resides. It is in doing things that make faith attractive to people outside the faith. Anything from ‘youth events’ with flashy lights, to schools assemblies, to lunchtime clubs with faith content, church based open youth clubs. These will generally help young people to ;opt-in’ especially if they have a few good reasons to, ie they know a friend in the church, they are already inquisitive, they are asking questions of themselves in the world and want to adopt a ‘story’, or for the ‘less thinking ones’ it feels cool, energetic and exciting this church band youth event malarkey…

I know this is a simplistic portrayal, young people are more complex, and they are opting in and out probably all the time. There is a third category. But even with these ‘two’ categories in mind – what challenges might this pose for youth ministry?

For example: How does ‘group work’ work when there are ‘opting in’ and (potential) ‘opting out’ young people in the same club or event being treated the same? Yet the young people are needing something different from the experience.

Opting in young people and preventing Opting out young people has been where the lions share of investment has been in Christian Youth Ministry in the last 40 years. Big statement, but it is true. The focus has been on discipleship and evangelism, and not too long term hard graft evangelism at that – so friends or friends, those who might be interested after a one week rock school, or who would become interested after a school project. If they can be attracted by something interesting….

There is a third group of young people.

3. The Unknown ‘Opting ins’. These are the young people who have almost no familial connection with a faith community. So no friend, no family member, no neighbour, and no connection to physical church building in the vicinity – aside from the odd funeral or school carol service. The stereotype might be that these young people are on the ‘challenging estates’ but that neednt be the case. There are many many young people who are distant from opting in to faith. This week Scripture Union are holding a conference to think about the 95% of young people they dont connect with. Not all these 95% of young people live in areas of high deprivation. However, what is more likely is that there can be routes of engagement in such estates – such as detached work, or community based clubs and groups, as an example. But these young people are more distant from opting in, requiring significant time, significant resources creativity and flexibility. Yet at the same time, they are no less of a spiritual young person than anyone else. What tends to happen is that theres a presumption that because of factors which might include poverty, or family situation, young people who might be distant from opting into faith, do not want to, or are unable to, – when this is so not the case – it is more that the opportunities that they have to be able to have been prevented from occuring, because of circumstances, because faith has been shown in structures that they have been unable to cope with, or that the church has abandoned them, their estate and focussed on ‘other’ young people.  In an age of efficiency, calculability and effectiveness, that the church has also done so, working with the distant , the currently unknown young people who could opt in – in what might need to be pioneering, contextual spaces and communities as part of established peer groups seems a risk, a challenge and one not worth taking. Yet at the same time, it is where the Saints of the past would have wandered, and when a church with a bias to the poor might situate itself. If it serious about community transformation.

So, when there are conversations about Youth Ministry – or Young People and Ministry – who exactly do we mean? and what might be appropriate approaches to take depending on whether young people might be keen to stay but could opt out, are loosely connected and could opt in, and for the many young people who are unknown to the church at all, the unknowns. I guess the best thing with every young person, is to create spaces to have meaningful conversation, and let them guide us as youth workers to the places of faith, the questions of existence and opportunities of spirituality they want to go, and when we can we take a risk to push them further.

Oh and by the way, young people, can also mean people.

References

Bryan, J , Human Being, 2016

Macadams, The Stories we live by, 1999

Passmore, R, Meet them Where theyre at, 2003 & Off the Beaton Track, 2006

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2005

Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997

Wyn & White, Rethinking Youth, 1997

A link to the Fuller Institute research is Here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP

 

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