How to solve a problem like when the ‘estate kids’ turn up at the ‘church kids’ youth group

We want to reach out to our local community – the church said

We already have a youth group on a sunday night – the elders said

lets publicise the group in the local area and hope ‘more kids attend’ – the congregation said

The group needs more ‘numbers’ – the PCC said

Question: did anyone ask the young people – who attend the group what they feel about this? 

or are their opinions surplus to the requirements of the diocese, pcc, leaders and congregation?

So, Its Sunday night, the usual 9 young people are at the youth group, 3 children from one family, the 2 kids from the other end of town whose parents fell out with the parish vicar there, the younger brother of the worship leader, and 2 whove got long service medals having survived sunday school. And these young people have formed a group. It is their space.

Thats what theyve been told. They have done a few years, got to know each other, they go to different schools and so this is their social time. Its like the moments after the service in the morning over coffee. Same on the evening, apart from they all are in the same whats app group.

But there is only 9 of them. Only 9.

All the best youth groups have, well more than 9.

Dont they, they have well, they have more, whats the ‘right number’ for a youth group, whatever that number is its always more that the number of the people who already attend, because its not about them, its about getting a few more than them. Its about mission in the evangelism sort of mission sort of thing, and that means trying to make 9 young people more than 9.

The 9 are happy being 9.

But the church think that 9 needs to be more, after all their sunday services have been increasing numbers by -30% the last few years, so the youth group is expected to be the bastion of church growth. So, because all young people are the same, and the youth group is obvuously the right place for young people to go. Then strategies are hatched to try and get other young people to attend. The estate kids are sought after and welcomed in…

it is quite frankly a one way ticket to disaster. Well intention but a disaster. why? well 8 reasons

  1. Young people are not all the same, for some reasons usually ‘church’ kids are bullied at school by ‘estate kids’ and so youth group can be a time of safely, communality. At worse it can also fuel attitudes that estate kids ‘are chavs’ and degrading language has been known to be used judgementally within the church kids youth group – they, them, out there,  this needs obviously nipping in the bud, but its a sign of fear.
  2. Young people represent two different groups, ages, stages, communities and cultures. Mixing is like putting chillis in a hot chocolate – it might work, but the possibility is small, and both might be ruined.
  3. Estate kids dont know that the group has 100’s of implicit social rules, barriers, conventions developed over a long period of time.
  4. Estate kids probably have no relationship with the leaders, and so there is nothing to go on to help create positive environments when there is conflict looming.
  5. The parents of the 9 will soon be on the phone. and taking their Johnathon out of the group, because they dont want him to mix with ‘those sorts of young people’.
  6. The needs of each group are different. Their reason for being there is different. They are different groups, and mixing them blind like this, especially in the space where one group is established causes issues of power, threat and competitiveness.
  7. The teaching, with the 9 that included all 15 theologies of the trinity, now has to resemble a 2 minute epilogue at the end of an hours run around. Youth ministry seems to revert to ‘lowest’ or easiest common denominator. It may make it accessible, but those 9 didnt need accessibility… they wanted deep. They will be bored and leave- unless they are encouraged to lead and mentor, tricky but possible.
  8. Behaviour. The 9 know that swearing makes baby Jesus cry, and they know when to laugh during veggie tales. The estate kids swear all the time, and half the time all the leaders do now is clamp down on swearing.

In the past 3 weeks, This exact scenario has been presented to me as being an issue that a local youth worker has had to deal with, the estate young people turn up at the ‘youth fellowship’ and all hell breaks loose. Yet on paper this is what growing and developing youth ministry is meant to be all about, but actually it usually only leads to disaster, unless very well handled, increased volunteers and a readiness to adapt. I did think that because it wasnt something i had heard of for a while that it had died out, maybe the church had given up on estate kids and only focussed on its own. Is it only for resource reasons that churches think two distinct groups of young people should mix? is there a thinking that ‘we have a great youth group’ so other young people will immediately also love it too part of the equation? a legitimate preferential bias to our own practices. Itis worth saying also that it is great that a church would want to start being involved in the lives of young people, and young people it doesnt know much yet so this needs encouraging, nurturing and thought through further, to make it meaningful and appropriate for all involved.

Ideas and solution.

  1. Dont mix until the relationships are built up with young people especially a large already distinct group. The odd one or two young people might be ok.
  2. work with groups and progress groups, not activities, groups change, adapt and develop differently, there may be reason to combine, but working with 20 young people solidly for 2 years in 2 seperate groups, will be easier than trying to keep 9 and 11 happy when they are so different.
  3. Prepare and educate parents and young people about mission, community, about equality, inclusivity and taking risks, and explore the concerns.
  4. develop leadership skills with the young people
  5. Dont just consult. ask and have conversation. Losing the 9 in this case is as much a tragedy as trying to gain 11. Have a broader conversation with the young poeple about how mission/evangelism fits within the life of the group.
  6. develop new practices of community and youth work and find new spaces for estate young people (and i apologise for this term, its just makes sense in this context) to create belonging and acceptance.
  7. Dont moan at the 9 young people, they have been brought up in the culture of the church that has created their group so it has acted in this way for years. Change for them is as uncomfortable as it would be for you, if all of a sudden the pub crawlers turned up on masse on a sunday and sat in your seats. and swore. and wiped their muddy prints on your carpet.
  8. Parents will naturally want their young people to be safe, risk averse and be in  places where their children learn, and learn to behave. When these are challenged… Quite what they have in mind that discipleship is about is another question.

There are ways it can work, but it does need thinking through. Apologies for using terms like ‘estate kids’ and ‘church kids’ but its the easiest to convey in this context. If you have any ideas of how this can work put them below. If you want a conversation about ‘how does the church work in a community based way with young people – then contact me on the details above, id be only too happy to help, do training and provide support.

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