Often we hear that ‘young people are to play a role in the church’ – or the more than often suggested recommendation that ‘young people are the future of the church’ . But have we ever stopped to think about what kind of role young people currently play – and more to the point – what role they should play? It a simple question – but worth thinking through:
What role do young people play in your church?
Some might want them to have an active role, a quiet role, a passive role, even if one day it is a ‘future’ role. For the time being because its the present and not the future, it neednt in that case be an important role.
Two of the key values that underpin good youthwork practice are Empowerment and Participation, they help to distinguish youthwork practice from people just working with young people in other areas such as the police and schools. Empowerment is to create environments where young people can aspire, can better themselves individually and collectively and assume more power in a situation. The question to hand is whether young people in our churches an youth groups would be considered as participants?
Participation might be risky, it involves trusting young people. It involves empowering them. It involves creating spaces where young people can be involved in processes.
The easiest thing is to maintain a controlling or entertaining relationship with a group of young people. Programme, content, style, venue, time, activities all decided by adults dictated by the term ‘leader’ and young people largely passive in the experience of decision making. As Nick Shepherd suggests in Faith Generation (2016), in this scenario, the first decision a young person might make, is to leave. Like any customer, they have found a better place to be entertained, or sadly a better place to feel at home, valued and had their voice heard. In the meantime in the entertainer/consumer relationship the leaders get burn out trying to make activities bigger, better, larger, longer, funner, an ever increasing cycle which finds resonance in a materialism culture. And the young people play the role of consumer.
Alternatively young people might be viewed as users or clients of our service. Then our role is more to counsel or provide therapy with them. If im honest, thinking of young people in churches and youth groups the term ‘user’ or ‘client’ is barely used, but in other youthwork contexts it might be, and i know I have fallen back on using the term client or user from time to time, and especially in making funding bids. Although language helps, it is more important even if we dont know the language to make steps towards thinking of young people as not users, client, consumers (of our entertainment) or customers.
I guess the problem is that we create customers of our young people, because it would mean that they were treated better than some adults in churches to have more involvement. There has been plenty of resources abound that talk about getting congregations from audience to participants. Often a congregation is an audience in the party that the ministry and worship team are having. In a kind of culture where very few people are participants in churches and there is limited congregation input into style, preaching content, etc etc (the only choice is to leave and find somewhere less unpalatable at times), and i only say this because there is a danger of consumers of entertainment being the modus operandi in churches. Anyway, if this is the culture, then what hope of young people becoming more than consumers in them or in the youth groups which exist within them.
One of the issues that Naomi Thompson discovered was that although there was a shift in the theory of education practices to more child centred focus in the 1960s, when this was attempted to be brought into the church in the practices of Sunday Schools it was met with opposition, leaders were too ingrained in their roles, and shifting a balance of power was too much. The roles couldn’t be shifted. Education of young people maintained in one form, Sunday schools created in church culture within that framework of didactic teaching all started dying off one by one. (See Naomi Thompson; Young People and the church since 1900, a review is on this site if you search) .
Anyway, this shows how the role of children and young people in the church has been relatively constant. And what happens when young people get fed of being ‘in that role’ they leave. They left Sunday school from the age of 8-9 (when Sunday schools were popular nationally but locally struggling), they leave churches now after about 2 years, and when they’re only in the role of consumer and get bored of what is on offer, then again, they leave. 2 years isn’t a researched number by the way, its just what youthworkers around have said, that when young people have choice to attend a programme or leave, then without being involved as anything other than a consumer, then 2 years is about the average time that 52 weeks of sports will keep them. If young people are itching towards boredom, then involvement not bigger games might be a better response. Its their role that might need to shift.
Young people generally are not stupid. For self protection they will when given the choice avoid situations of fear, panic, pain and trauma, similarly, as Jocelyn Bryan writes in Human Being, they will gravitate towards spaces in which they are given self worth, challenge, meaning, value and attention. Now, I’m not saying that youth groups are places of trauma (but they could be), but neither, if young people aren’t regarded as being participants, might they be places of worth, value, meaningful challenge or attention? If adults attend churches despite these, it could be more to do with identity and duty, things that young people might not have- and even if they have we shouldn’t rely on it for attendance.
So, going back to the question – what role do young people play in the church – or the youth group? How might their involvement be flagged up on this scale?
What are your thoughts on this? How does your church or youth group measure up in regard to youth participation?
Where would you pin your youth group onto Harts participation ladder- and is there a gradual move upwards?
And, if you placed them on rungs 1-3 then Hart defines this as ‘non-participation’…
The question that we also need to ask, is that it might as easily be that the nature of the role that a young person has in their local church, might also be the very nature of their faith too. As i grew up in the church, i was told that ‘faith was a free gift’ and that I didnt need to do anything, and whilst this may be 1/2 true, it also relieves me of any expectation to do anything. Instead if young people participate in faith as free agents who accept and continue to act as participants of an ongoing redemptive drama, then there is expectation not just to bathe in a free gift, but also to be wholly participatory in it. (For more on this see my other posts on Theodrama) If we want young people to have a considerably more active faith, then it might be that participation needs to be at the heart and essence of the faith community. I say might, its just a thought, and one to ponder on…
Now, it might be easy to cause young people to have some participation in things like ‘activities’ or ‘food’ or ‘games’ – but how risky might it be to give young people participation and decision making when it comes to talks, programmes, styles, worship, or other aspects of the youth group. How risky would a fully participative ‘youth’ congregation look like? if its not working towards participation, then its ‘youth’ in only name. Yes its risky, yes it requires more effort. But it might be worth it, and the process of trusting young people might be surprising. If young people really are only going to be the church of tomorrow, then we have a duty to help them practice and rehearse a real form of participating in church today.
Its risky, it involves losing power, and being leaders that take on a different role. It might involve causing the youth group to be counter cultural to the whole church. It might involve a paradigm shift.
So: What role do young people play in churches and youth groups?
if they are going to be ‘more than conquerors’ they need to be more than consumers.
People should have not just the typical right to participate, they should also be educated in every aspect (of leadership & politics) in order to be able to participate (Castoriadis, 1996, The problem with democracy today)
It might also be worth thinking about the role do young people and those who represent them have in affiliations, dioceses and organisation planning? Does the DYO only have a token role…. (ill leave this here as an after thought)
A follow up to this piece, titled ;if discipleship is about participation – why is this an issue in churches? can be found by clicking the link
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Thompson, Naomi, Young People and the church since 1900, 2018
Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2016
Bryan, Jocelyn, Being Human, 2016
Brierley, Danny, Joined Up, 2003- (although he gets into knots about open theism, gives some theological understanding around participation and then links this to youthwork practice of it.)
Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2004
For more on Learning, see Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, in which banking education models are critiqued and in their place collaborative problem solving approaches are encouraged especially in community group settings.