If discipleship is about participation, then why is this an issue in churches?

To show just how much this church values young people – we’ve appointed a youthworker!’

‘to all young people of _____ area, the adults from ______ church/ministry are putting on an evening entertainment in a building you’ve never been before and involving people you’ve never heard of but we know them, and please if you can bring a friend too’

we had a successful evening when 3 young people turned up

‘We closed a ministry because there was only 14 young people’

It was great to have 100 youthworkers together at a conference to discuss young peoples issues’

This week I was in Cumbria talking with a group of youthworkers based in churches on the subject of participation, following on from my post last week on participation on this site; participation (part 1)

Image result for hart's ladder of youth participation

We looked in the session about what participation is, and also in what areas in youth ministry that were easier to encourage participation. Examples given included giving young people opportunities to shape and design the room, and the activities, others included the development of leaders. There were many examples of trying to encourage young people to be more than consumers of youth activities, one way around this was to change the starting point, especially if young people consuming youth activities felt like the default starting point. It was about creating participatory cultures.

But the question from one of the delegates was ‘why doesnt the church believe in participation?’ And defaults to consumer/attendance/telling mode?

And this was the question, that i could ony give a short response to at the time, that I have been pondering ever since. Why does it seem to be a paradigm shift for the church to consider participation as default within its practice, why is non-participation the default mode?

Obviously as the diagram above shows there are significant levels of participation. The question might as also be how might churches embody participation in everyone, and so this is the culture that young people discover, or young people grow up in. Yet, at times the church is about a form of participation, from rotas to meetings, volunteering to contributing, participation does occur in the church, to a point. In general however, none of these things are accounted for or valued when church growth is discussed (positively or negatively), it is all about attendance, rather than participation – unless a few people become trained or ordained. But though it believes in participation, it is not often that participation is part of how it values itself. But i wonder why this is and whether gradually, there are even less spaces in which young people can participate.

Power is undoubtedly one reason, and linked to this is control. Churches can become big beasts that require high levels of organisation, especially as the expectations of them in view of affiliations or the charity commission can weigh heavy. But this is only one aspect of it. Foucaults view of power is that it is not in the organisation, but in the spaces between, it is ‘everywhere’ and there is no finite amount. The organisation of churches and youth ministry can create spaces where power is at play, especially expert power, and legitimate power – where the youth minister or ministry can hold the keys of expertise, or be in a role from which power is deferred from. Looking back, it is difficult to ascertain where youth ministry in the UK has ever been anything other than an adult orientated movement. It was philanthropic adults who began sunday schools, the evangelists in the 60’s with a ‘reaching’ young people agenda, and the development of clubs and groups that have been adult, rather than young people run, including the many ministries, festivals and programmes. The default may have been set, and it keeps people in places of power and control where they can feel comfortable and create an identity of ‘being a leader’ in a church. In a situation where young people have limited participation, they become little more than consumers. Given a token role in the odd service. Essentially whilst churches believe in power and control over participation young peoples experiences within will only be consumerist, and that leads to boredom.

Im pretty sure, so far, this isnt rocket science, or new.

Fundamentally i think the problem is deeper that this. I think theologically there is a stream of thought that shapes an understanding of other people in the church that means that theyre not fully trusted.

As Christians we read stories of disciples who God used but had failings (though we dont often refer to Mary, Deborah or Esther in these lists, whose ‘failings’ dont appear in the Biblical narrative) – and we often sing about ‘trusting in God alone’ , and comparing ourselves as failing Humans to the unfailingness of God. We also hear that no one can serve two masters, usually referring to God and Money/wealth. I wonder tentatively, whether a combination of these thoughts, implied through preaching, singing and the biblical narrative mean that within churches, though we rely on people to do things, it becomes a risk, beyond the call of the culture within the church to fundamentally trust someone. Especially a young person. Its only a thought, but what might be the effect on the kind of participation possible in a church in which the sinfulness of persons is readily preached? Why might a church not believe in participation, because it doesnt trust people enough or create the right environment where participation is a possibility. Valuing the humanity, and encouraging the contribution of others according to gift, can be low down on the radar, especially if at the same time persons feel reduced by an overload of sinfulness. The opposite however, is true, as I wrote in part 1, is that God believes in our participation.

Thinking through further. The role of the church can often revolve around being the moral guardian, or the rescuer of persons. The pressure is on to ‘tell’ young people, to ‘protect’ young people, to ‘guide them’ , at the same time, the church might view its role as the saviour of young people, a place where they are found from being lost, a place of community when before they were alone, light instead of dark. These roles carry with them the same sense of power as above, and also the limited trust of persons, because they are regarded as in need of rescue, and also in need of guidance. That young people, especially, are participants in this seems alien. The churches role, it may have changed in the last few years, but has largely retained the language of serving the poor, or engaging with young people, or reaching them, and this has been accompanied by non biblical views of young people that emphasise the negative traits of them (lazy, ferel, in transition, etc) – rather than the participative roles that the Bible gives young people within the narrative, that call forth the kingdom, Mary, for one. David the young King, defeater of the philistines. Our cultural shift has delayed the ages of trust and responsibility, to the point where young people are delayed in growing up. The church may be complicit in the same process of delaying the age of young peoples responsibility and participation, to a point which is too late, a point beyond when young people feel invested and contributers within it.

When it comes to participation, the church might not believe in it for a number of reasons. What is needed to happen is that the language of consumer, attender and measuring the effectiveness of ministries by numbers is challenged. Discipleship is a participative activity, and so, it is not that 5 people put on an event that 50 people attend that is as important as 50 people being valued as creators, shapers and discipled through the process of the activity. Might we measure and create spaces of participation with young people, starting on hearing their views, voice and trusting them to create their own spaces, starting at rung 5 of the ladder already. And hoping that they get bored of the consumer approach when they are receivers of it, because they desire more involvement. Not to be told but to discover. It might be risky to trust young people, trust they might know actual useful information, trust that we might learn from them, and create cultures of participation in churches, in groups and ministries. God calls us to participate in his mission, might God be asking young people to be participants too?

not only is it risky, it is also the more difficult thing. The slower thing, but that because it involves processes of learning, processes of collaboration, listening and creating community frameworks. Collaboration and processes are slow and difficult, maybe even chaotic. But again, didnt Jesus give the opportunity for chaotic discipleship, Peter wasnt controlled, but given freedom to ask back, to criticise even as a disciple. Discipleship isnt about control, its about pledging a relationship that gives space for ongoing conversation, participation of tasks and learning.

As church we face the wrath if we cause a little one to stumble, and this might happen if we create cultures of power and control, of morality and rescue, that are log jams in the ongoing participation of the kingdom that young people can be part of. In the ongoing mission of Gods redemption in the whole world. For that to happen a shift is needed that churches believe in participation.

One day a church might value young people so that it provides the possibility that they can be deacons. One day a youth ministry conference will be held that young people are part of, not just talked about. One day, young people in churches will write the articles.

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