A number of years ago I was given the task of trying to make Jesus interesting to a group of young people. The young people were all from what might be considered ‘challenging’ backgrounds, all had been referred onto the week long residential from social services, none knew each other much. And all were there to have a great time away from their home situations, that included high ropes, sailing, climbing, kayaking, gil-scrambling, gorge walking and a host of other fun activities that included the use of a gym hall to play 5-a-side when they still had energy.
But I had the task of making Jesus interesting to them in a series of 20 minute talks that were planned for each day just after tea. I wasnt alone, other leaders could help.
We used props, drama, flipcharts, quizzes, games, videos (in those days it was a DVD 😉 ) Actually at the time we probably played every trick in the book to make even a 20 minute session as lively, interactive and interesting as possible.
It didnt matter though. If it looks like a boring ‘God-slot’, smells like a boring God-slot – then it probably is a boring God slot.
Boring because everything else the young people did all week was edgy, brave and daring – the God slot they sat and listened
Boring because everything else was active – the ‘God-slot’ they had to restrain themselves
Boring because other activities gave them chance to lead and grow – the God-slot felt like an assembly
Boring because during the rest of the day they could contribute and interrupt – during the ‘God-slot’ they were ‘told off’ for the smallest of indiscretions.
Boring because – the God slot was the trade off, though it was never said, but could it have been that doing all the fun activities was a trade off for ‘sitting and listening to a talk about God’ for 20 minutes… well maybe.
So it didnt matter what I and the rest of the team said. Compared to high ropes sailing and the stories around the dinner table of all the adventures of bravery, courage, silliness and achievement of young people during their day. The stories of faith of courage, silliness, bravery and acheievement in the Bible were reduced to something to learn about, listen to.
When faced with a timetable of sailing, high ropes and climbing – sitting and listening is going to be boring.
When faced with 5-a-side, games of giant jenga, and even open conversations – the didactic God slot is going to be boring.
If the biggest crime, in youth ministry is that its abandoned the poor ( see this post: http://wp.me/p2Az40-12N ), then the second is that it has made Jesus boring.
But if ever there was an industry that has spent more time in trying unsuccessfully to make Jesus less boring then it is youth ministry itself. 1000’s of resources a year produced in order to give people ideas to make ‘God-slots’ less boring. The ready -to- use material, programmes, resources are by the bucket load all to give a new slant, a new game, a new activity that helps a young person understand about an aspect or perspective to do with faith.
It has been argued that a problem with Youth Ministry, is that it has emphasised morality over meaningfulness, therapeutic over transformative and Deity over Divinity. It has adopted an MTD that is about helping young people be good, have God that helps them, and God that watches, but isnt active. Its a boring faith, where God is just an add on and help in times of trouble.
It is barely the interactive God of the Bible, who disturbs and disrupts human planning, who calls and makes discipleship daring and dynamic, and is about transforming the world through performances of goodness.
The problem with ‘God-talks’ is that culturally they remind us of school assemblies. We’re programmed to switch off, programmed to disregard it as the headteachers moral tale. To see it as the headteacher using the opportunity to generally remind pupils of the rules, as one person has broken something recently. The problem with ‘god-talks’ is wrap them up as anything exciting, as they’re still more boring that the rest of the session – even maths is more interesting than the assembly..
I have some sympathy with those in youth ministry who only see young people for one week. The talks we had to give on camp, we had barely met the young people and had a fairly good idea that this might be the only opportunity to have a discussion with them about faith, however, it was also a rare holiday for them too. What can you do in that time..?
That is not the same situation in the week-by-week youth groups and clubs across the country. If Jesus is reduced to a fun but moral message, then its no wonder young people arent finding faith meaningful, and leaving churches in their droves.
I want to contrast the above situation with another. For the best part of 6 years, an after school club has been run by a youth organisation on a ‘housing estate’. Most of the time it has been an open space of doing crafts, having food and a drop in. Sometimes the conversations have been about faith, more often they’re about ‘who had done what to who’ in the daily gossip of the young peoples local community. As a few of these young people have developed trust with the leaders, the questions of faith have been more frequent, to the point where the young people were expressing the desire to have Bibles of their own. They hadnt heard a ‘god-slot’ in their lives, and as result they were more enthusiastic about having a bible and reading it for themselves (and being guided by a youth leaders through it) that ive seen in any ‘church based’ young people. And they were from ‘an estate’, and were often disregarded/abandoned by the church. A hunger for faith is seen when young people opt into something that has meaning for them. Too many of the 5% of young people in the UK in our churches face only the choice of opting out because Jesus has been made boring to them.
If youve got this far, then you’re probably wanting to know what the solution is.
- The first thing is to create spaces in youth ministry where the method/style of teaching is consistent. If Young people can voluntarily leave any session, disengage at any point. They also have the capacity, like an audience at a play, to emotionally, intellectually or physically connect at any point to, opting in. So, provide spaces where faith conversations happen but are opted into by young people. If its an opt in space, then faith conversations also need to reflect this.
- Enable faith to be preformative and transformational. Performance doesnt mean doing a drama to re enact the good Samaritan using celtic & rangers fans. or even performing in the ‘life of the church’ – the serving – because all these are performances in the safe space of rehearsals that help to form. Performative means helping young people become performers of it. Our role is to be acting coaches, helping young people act out the way of Jesus, the turn the other cheek, give up possessions to the poor, care about injustice sort of way of Jesus, the one that told mystical parables and confounded the rich and powerful sort of way of Jesus, its a way of life and faith within life sort of way of Jesus. That loved and is good in the world way of Jesus.
- Can you think of a performance that was ever not shown? was it ever actually a performance at all – just a storyline, a plot, pilot or concept. Young people being performers will also help their formation. Young people as performers also validates previous formation too. Without performance, formation is almost redundant. is that faith without works that the book of James also said..? Thats why performance in the church is still a different form of formation, it is still preparation for actual performing. If they dont perform, and if neither do we we’re just a living concept. Jesus didnt after all just teach his disciples through epilogues after games sessions, it took place in the world where arguments, discussions and interruptions occured.
- We need to view young people not just as learners, but creators and deciders. They create opportunities in their local community to help, resource and transform the world. They have the energy and passion to change things. They also have the vision enthusiasm and questions, hopefully, that cause interruptions in what they might want to know about faith.
If faith is boring, presented as boring and only about morality, then its no surprise young people are leaving in their droves. The problem is not only in its presentation, it is also in the theology of youth ministry that has more about entertaining, attracting and making faith fit into culture. That helping young people feel concerned about poverty, culture, and society and want to act in ways that do something about it, acting parables on the world stage. Taking risks and performing goodness. Young people might believe in something that meant wearing something provocative on their sleeve. So, what do we say to young people when weve got 20 minutes with them to do ‘a talk’ at the end of a session? we should be asking how what happens in the time we have with young people we help them become performers of goodness on the stage of the world. What can you do in a week.. show them what goodness is, so they experience it and want to discover the source of it.