Young people need autonomy and connectedness, can Christian youthwork provide it?

I Saw this on social media the other day:

A great tension for young people is their desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves while making their own rules. Impossible. (Michael Wear)

Think about it for a moment, then think about what being a young person was like for you in regard to these two things. At the point of wondering about an individuals place in the world, comes a desire to also be in control and make their own rules.

It might be fair to say, the more privileged a young person is, the more opportunity they have to make their own rules, or at least have more autonomy about their own future. But that doesn’t take away their desire to be a rule maker, or have autonomy in situations

It might also be fair to say, that the less day to day responsibilities, stress and turbulence a young person encounters in daily life, the more opportunities that they might have to contemplate the ‘bigger story’.  But again, that doesnt mean to say that it is absent. Neither does it mean that it isnt speculated – just often might not be given the opportunity. Thats the Maslow hierarchy, its only when basic needs are met that actualisation can occur – well thats not quite accurate.

Maybe the question for young people might be how they place themselves in the great Universe, do they consider themselves free – to do what they want – or controlled – as if God already knows therefore humanity is merely puppetry. What if these questions are the ones young people are contemplating in their deep recesses of their soul – beyond or during the distractions from technology?

There might be an argument, that there is a lack of coherent stories in the western world that young people can metaphorically attribute to their own existence. Young People  (as they grow, psychologists tell us) form a narrative identity (probably) to piece together all the parts of their life as a story – yet the most common stories about their existence dont hold water, even if they want them too, such as Disney or materialism. For each generation of people, the founding stories and sacred myths lose their half life. The problem here is that once the story collapses, and there is confusion amongst the personal identity, as well as reduced autonomy and connection, then there are higher levels of mental health problems. Young people dont have a story to live by (McAdams, 1997), just a day to day existence in which accumulation of stuff, of popularity or personal display of images is what derives meaning. Its not a story to live by, but a station on the journey that might be full of mirrors., that gets adopted as a story.  Even via technology young people are not setting the rules, its adults who shape the apps, create the platforms, sell the games and keep young people attracted/addicted/manipulated by them. Young peoples autonomy is temporarily met, as might be their connection. If Studies show that getting a ‘like’ or a ‘follow’ is equivalent to a drug hit, then its no wonder alcohol sales have reduced amongst young people. (To be honest, I’m just the same when a person reads one of my articles -its nowt to do with young people.) Its temporary connection repeated often. Everything louder than everything else.

In their narrative identity, should they be able to adapt one that suits their being, the best one that young people choose is likely to allow for them to have autonomy, and probably also give them purpose, its also likely to provide self worth, confidence and also meaning, and it orientates the person into society in a way that enables them to connect, to function and to be purposeful in their history and that they can have consistency in their previous, current and future recognition of self (Bryan, 2016, p95). What is significantly interesting is that areas of stronger folk religion, of tribes and of community history have lower, almost invisible, incidents of mental health issues. (see: Ie they have a story that they can live by that is not subject to constant challenge, crisis or breakage.

This was published today (21st December.) An existential crisis is impacting mental health. 

In a much acclaimed study that discovered that MTD was the faith position of many american young people. What Christian Smith also discovered was that belonging to youth groups and believing in a sacred story that gave young people meaning was a ‘good’ thing in terms of their social, mental and physical health. (Smith, C, 2005) I have sidetracked somewhat. Believing in something sacred might be better than believing in nothing.

The question from the outset was whether young people can have both autonomy and connection. I wonder whether young people leave churches and groups because they feel that neither of these things are met. At a time they want connection, they get passed from group to group, at a time they want autonomy they dont have choice. But that could of course all change. Change because we might begin to realise in working with young people that these two factors, in tension, are at play all the time.

When young people challenge me on the streets, asking ‘why are you here?’ what they actually mean is can I trust you. 

They are searching for connection, a connection they can believe in. When young people give up on church, is it because theres nothing for them, or nothing for them. They spot a rat from a mile off and will protect themselves accordingly. Why invest in something not worth investing in. If playing football gives more value and provides more meaning. Or homework does, because the ‘story’ of school and achievement within education has ‘higher’ meaning. But often no more rule making or connected ness, just a rung to place that might lead to this. ‘Having a job, Having a house’ the promise of future autonomy.

So, what about faith. No Sacred story conveys all the human being might require at least not to what psychologists suggest. If the story does, then often the community that practices it might not do. We have to take seriously that young people, especially young women might not have any autonomy in a church, often ignored for the ‘leader’ privileges within youth ministry.. -so why stay? even if the Bible can be read in a way that values women (because it does) – a limited interpretation and power dynamics might say otherwise in a local congregation. So it is stay and believe it and accept submission, or challenge (which many young people do) not find a ‘home’ where challenge is possible, then leave. Leaving as an exercise of autonomy.

It might be more key that young people, do not just hear stories of the gospel, but believe that they are part of the story, performers of its drama. Narratives go so far. Young people can be connected to the story of the past, and yet also have agency in the drama in the future to act in response to God in the midst. Being connected and autonomous at the same time.

Considering the Christian story as a drama to perform, might provide the Connnectedness and Autonomy that a young person is looking for and needing. Youth Ministry, as i suggested in my previous post, would do well to reflect on the possibility that it has the task of the formation of performers who need to know their part, their location in the drama and to be attuned to hearing the ongoing voice of God who prompts in the midst. If young people feel that they are only a number

or one of many in a queue in the church, then they’ll search elsewhere for the autonomy and connection that being a young person is all about for them. Its what many gangs provide. Can Youth Ministry appeal to young people tense need for connection and autonomy? – it could. Why doesnt it?

Its our role to be witnesses of the Story, and maintain not its believing and telling, but its participation and performing. What might Theodrama offer youth ministry? A whole story to participate in and view the world through, and a task of human flourishing, the reconciliation to perform along with the principle actor Christ in the midst. I see no better way of a young person finding connection and autonomy than that. So how might our practices do the same?

Maybe values of empowerment and participation are psychologically important after all.




Bryan, Jocelyn, Human Being, 2016

McAdams Dan, The stories we live by, 1997

Smith Christian, Soul searching, The rise and fall of faith of American Teenagers, 2005

Vanhoozer Edification, Volume 4 Issue 1, 2010, The transdisciplinary journal of Christian Psychology. Vanhoozer.

Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2010.

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