Young people will go elsewhere for rebellion and danger- if faith in our youth groups is tame and safe

Young People need to be more than just participants in institutional faith -(Andrew Root (2017))

Faith Generation needs to enable young people to explore identity and meaning, and engage in acts of faith that generate experience and engagement with God’ (Nick Shepherd, Faith Generation, 2016, p170)

By Being creative faith activists and taking liturgy to the streets, the prophetic church today can re-imagine space and time through the liturgy, baptizing the community into festival time, and gathering the community to create spaces of Hope in the City  (Peter Heltzel, the church as the theatre of the Oppressed, the promise of a youth-led Urban revolution, in Theatrical Theology, 2014, Hart/Vander Lugt)

I think I have lost count trying to help churches to try and connect with young people in their local community, only for them to find young people and not really know what to offer. I have equally lost count the number of churches who ask about ‘trying to keep’ young people within the church. Its a question that hasnt gone away since Sunday Schools kept 4 million for a few years before 1900.

One of the situations churches find themself saying, and also perpetuated by the relevancy narrative within youth ministry, is that they are boring or irrelevant for much of the last 60 years (or more) the trying to be relevant in practice has been one of the key games within youth ministry, games and themes, or even that a fear of irrelevancy might set in (its one reason why youth ministry orgs re brand themselves, and repackage the often very similar teaching and formational material). Criticisms theologically of this, are well known and not to be repeated here.


I think, for the sake of young people, and the gospel, we need to change the metaphor, and the starting point.

We need to view the Gospel as an ongoing Drama, and Discipleship about being a performing actor following the directions of Christ (also acting) on the stage of the World. 

In slightly shorter – we need to be training young people for the task of performing the Gospel – and to be attentive to the ongoing voice of God in their everyday midst. Image result for drama

It would be easy to be critical, rather than constructive at this point, when I have the expansive metaphor of theatre to hand it is within this that I should write, however, for a small second it is worth mentioning here, that for the most part the things that we are getting hung up on in the church regarding young people and discipleship (and Andrew Root confirms this in the US also) is on the aspect of discipleship that is principally about formation.

Many of the programmes are essentially about making the formation aspect of faith ‘really exciting’ , yet for many young people it is still a glorified Bible study, or a non participatory God slot at the end of a series of games or activities that are the ‘fun bit’. Making formation ok enough so young people dont leave the youth group is about the maximum success, even better is to turn them into a leader. One indicator of this is that articles here that are about ‘keeping young people in the church’ are some of the most popular. However, in the metaphor of Drama, formation is not enough. The Drama student needs productions to hone their skills, the playscript needs to be seen, the action needs to happen. Acting is risk and dangerous. Rehearsals behind closed doors are safe.

In a way, its not that the youth group needs to be exciting – its that the Radical Gospel of Jesus needs to be given its full credibility status as a transforming direction that challenges and provokes humanity into a radical way of being in the world, and that discipleship is a task of performing it. 

What young people need is a way of living, and a way of believing that is believable, that is credible and that shapes their whole being (Shepherd, 2017).  The problem is that the Gospel is seen as boring as the church is thinking it is, and the answer is not to make youth groups more youthful, and authentically youth feeling – but to make the Gospel something that young people want to perform on the broadest of world stages. It is to make discipleship meaningful again.

It may also be to make discipleship collective again. It is far easier to perform as a troop that an individual. Monologues of performance are difficult to do, but often we task young people to stand alone and ‘be christian’ on their own.

As an addition, performances are also key to formation.

As every actor knows, they are learning new things about every performance as they perform it, and learning each time, about new audiences, about nuances and cues. Thats before we mention improvisation. (Im trying to keep this article short), and so 5 quick things to think about- if we view youth discipleship as performing the gospel:

  1. The Gospel becomes action orientated – how young people read it is as a script and guide to shape them, it is more than history, or morality – but cues to current action
  2. The world, and everything within in, becomes a stage on which they have the opportunities to enact, in the new situations
  3. Our role as the church is to facilitate good performances, through liturgy, through connecting young people in the story/drama, and helping them know their part (s)
  4. We have the responsibility to help them discern Gods ongoing voice – not just praying, but listening in the everyday
  5. We might avoid ‘fat’ or ‘festival’ christian syndrome, where high formation and attendance is at the price of performances and action. 
  6. Collective social action might be good to put in the youth group programme (it might be the programme)
  7. Participation as an ongoing principle within youth work (which i hope it is- see prev posts) also has a theological premise – the two way participation in which God indwells in us, for the disciple to also participate in the ongoing story
  8. We have an opportunity to make youth groups action and risk taking orientated. Being safe for Jesus doesnt seem to be much of an option.

The above example, from Heltzl is of a youth movement in the USA who acted out of peace and reconciliation within the city of New York, they in effect took their desire for peace, for equality and for the goodness of the local community and made a peaceful protest against the building of a road that would destroy a community in their area. The same might be said today of the young people protesting against Gun crime in the same nation. These are collective protests for the common good being made by collections of young people. What performing the gospel might mean in your context might look very different to these, but what it might help to do is give young people not only a local cause to believe in, but also a faith that is to believe.As Jesus said, it is when we are put in front of the magistrate is the moment where ‘the spirit will give you the words to say’ (Matthew 10:19).

Lets make the youth group and the church the training ground for dynamic local gospel performances, not just a culture of conformity and an ongoing repetition of being part of the christian club going to events. We may not want to neglect meeting together (Hebrews 10; 25) but as the previous verse indicates, lets meet to inspire each other to do good and love each other (verse 24)- to perform the gospel in the context… 

We shouldnt worry about trying to keep young people – if the place of faith is also a place of planning to do good and to love each other. We neednt worry about keeping young people if discipleship was encouraged to be a dangerous performance of goodness, that challenged the norms of the world, and gave young people opportunities to have acting parts within the Holy Drama.

There is considerably more on this, the Theodrama, on these pages elsewhere (see the categories/tags tab). FYT have a resource on ‘Experiments’ which gives actions for young people to perform (first) before reflecting (second) on the activity. Its a change from the formation first stuff. It changes the order, and so for individuals and groups it gets them doing stuff first – and 100’s of groups are really being challenged by it: its here:


Root, Andrew Faith Formation in a secular world, 2017

Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2016

Hart, Lugt, Theatrical Theology, 2014

Boal, A Theatre of the Oppressed, 2005


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