We’ve struggled to make formulas of youth ministry work, because weve tried to make churches look like nightclubs or conference halls or entertain young people, when they should help young people feel at home. I think.
I was reflecting on the Old Testament story of Samuel, the boy who heard from God as he grew up in the temple with Eli the Priest. It was within the temple that Samuel heard Gods voice, and it was within the temple that he grew up, it was his actual home. It wasnt a comfy home necessarily, as clearly from it he was sent and passed on messages of challenge, but it was the place he could call home. (Read 1 Samuel 3)
Often one of the great joys in youth work is when young people say they feel at home. And not only that, its when you can tell they feel at home, its the little things like when they feel they can make a coffee, or when they feel like they have some respect and reciprocate, when they feel part of something and can contribute to it. For the youthworker, who can be adept at creating a space young person can call home in a variety of settings, it is about ensuring that their youth activity is more that a place, it is a homely space. The environment of learning and atmosphere of the place is significant.
Maybe on detached work, the tables are turned. Because, often the action of conversation occurs in places that young people might be more at ‘home’ in than the youth worker. It is their regular ‘home’ on the bench, under the slide, in the bus shelter. Young people find home in the streets – or at least they might do. The streets may be much more than this too, a challenge might be that young people actually dont find the streets or public places as much of a ‘home’ as they used to, so they’re not there as much any more. They find home elsewhere.
So, it pains me to ask the question;
Where do young people find a home in the church?
In the countless discussions there are about ‘keeping young people in the church’ (and most of them are on this blog page, see ‘the one question in churches that hasnt gone away’) there is the search for a hidden grail almost, the magic answer, the solution beyond all solutions, on how to keep young people in the church. The answer might not be in trendy programmes, in person centred education, in ‘youth churches’ or emerging churches. The answer might be, that young people, in a desire for both autonomy and connectedness, will opt into places that they can feel at home. Its also a place that they might choose to be, choose to be emotionally connected to.
Don’t you think its slightly weird that ‘home’ is a regularly used concept by Jesus, that is hardly spoken of? Jesus invites the first disciples to his home (John 1:39), in ‘my fathers house there are many rooms’ John 14. Yet Jesus ‘home’ at birth was not a usual dwelling, but a place Mary made into his home, and where they stayed for 2 years. He went to Zaccheus home, ie went to where Z felt comfortable, interesting. The environment matters.
In Nick Shepherds ‘Faith Generation’ he talks about young people generating a faith identity, this can be created in a number of ways, including ‘buying into the culture’, the actual t-shirts, the activities and festivals, but also that buildings, people and sacraments help to create identity. Id want to go further, and say that its more than an identity for young people – they need to feel at home in the church.
It may be that young people do not need to feel at home in the church, because they have other places to call home – but thats not doesnt mean to say that all of us who work with young people do not attempt to create the kind of spaces in churches where young people might ‘feel’ the same as what young people feel in the clubs, groups and projects ‘outside’ the church. We need in youth ministry to have more place making, and home making, than to have activity, attendance and attraction. If young people are not allowed to use the kitchen to make Tea/Coffee, then this has become less of a home than their own. If they dont feel they can relax. If they’re too used to someone not even trying to remember their name, or that they feel lost in a large number, or not offered hospitality, then they wont feel at home. The environment is important, and what is implied in all of these actions that exclude, belittle, annoy, patronise or over protect young people.
But home, is not just a place of comfort, its the context for challenge, (aka Samuel) , the bedrock, foundation or scaffold. Yes, relationships might be ‘key’ in youth ministry, but place where relationship happens is too, and a place to call home, rather than place to do a group, or place to have fun, might only be temporary, until the next place is. When i look back at my own teenage years, i found space of ‘home’ in the churches, but also spaces where i didnt fit. Also peoples homes were open.
It might be worth asking the young people in your group – where they feel at home, or what causes them to feel at home – would they – without prompting and the sense of ‘trying to appeal to the youthworker’ say that church is a place they call home? The more and more church is an organisation, the church is a place of teaching, a place where young people are a project to work on – the less they might feel at home in the space. Feel respected, feel listened to, feel at home. How many young people in your church youth groups would feel at home in the church that its connected to?
How might the church be home for young people?
We might crave the ‘deeper’ discipleship – but its likely this will only happen when young people feel at home.
I thank Alison Urie, Vox Liminis, Glasgow for sharing with me her insights into ‘Home’ that she wrote about a few years ago for an MA. In her thesis, she uses the following quotation: Eyles suggests that: To be attached to a place is seen as a fundamental human need and, particularly as home, as the foundations of our selves and our identities.
“Home is far more than a place of shelter. It is a concept charged with psychological and emotional importance,
the core place of belonging, of meaning-making and of memories.”
Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2015
Eyles, J.D. 1989 The Geography of Everyday Life, 102-117, in Gregory D. & Walford R.
Horizons in Human Geography, London: Macmillan