Why is it that young people are often involved in committees at schools, as young as primary school, given responsibility in ‘anti-bullying’ campaigns, tasked with being peer mentors, and encouraged to have their view on school councils within school – and yet in churches they’re often just given a picture to colour in and an activity to do?
Thats a statement I say alot. And it is not completely true of course. Sometimes children and young people do have some responsibility in a local church. But it must be dis-orientating for them, and or the rest of us, that they are respected and given space to have participation in one space, and then a group of adults in their social gathering ( who aim to be even more righteous/holy) close the spaces down. It must feel weird. Thats just the introduction, and if you havent thrown your device against the wall so far, then great, the rest of this piece asks whether our view of participation in youth ministry is too small – or at least- there is a view of participation that encompasses something mysteriously large to fathom, that has been chosen to ignore.
The situation above one of the key moment in youth ministry where we might have a conversation about the role young people have in the faith community, I have written extensively on this before, (just search ‘participation’ in the categories) and the common framework for this theoretically is Harts Ladders of youth participation, (again not to be repeated here – see other posts), in which the sliding scale from token participation (or non participation) to ‘young people decide, adults follow’ is at point 9. But this is classic and basic to the practice of youth work, and so these other posts might be worth your time (theyre in the references below). Its when only token participation is repeated and young people find meaning they can participate in elsewhere, that they leave any form of non-participatory faith group/event for something more meaningful elsewhere.
But I wonder – is our view of participation too small?
For, its one thing thinking about the way in which a young person ‘participates in’ the culture, structures and process of an organisation, to the point in which they are influencers, creators and contributors (in no particular order)- but is this enough?
Andrew Root puts the nail on the head when writes this, in faith formation in a secular age (2017):
‘we seek strategies and practices that plug the drain in the sink, hoping that there are pragmatic actions we can use to keep young people from subtracting church participation from their lives’ (Root, 2017, p98-99)
In short, the dilemna faced in the church is to prevent the leakage by keeping young people involved, helping young people not subtract church, leaving it. For the church is that these strategies enable us to experience less loss. Yet in reality, the issue is not, as Root says, that people have a God-gap that needs filling. Participation has become the plug, the ultimate aim of all the faith forming programmes and activities – get them in, belonging and so they can be involved. Participation becomes the end game of a strategy, (if it exists). But as Root discusses, what does this say about Faith – and for us, here, has this made participation too small?
There used to be a book (its still around) titled is your God too small? – I wonder if this is the same with the use of and concept of participation.
From the very beginning, the human person was a participant in the actions of God. Tasked with naming the animal and tending to the land, creation pictures involvement in the divine action and a need that God had, or at least space within the action of God for human to be involved. This continues throughout – from conversations between Abraham and God, then Moses, David, Ruth, Mary (spoken to by an Angel no less), and then the ongoing participative requirements that Jesus gave the disciples. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the drama of the Biblical narrative is about the ongoing participation of humans in it, to the point in which they may be involved in as a fourth person in the trinity. But these thoughts are not new.
Both Pete Ward, and Danny Brierley pick them up in their work, Youthwork and the Gospel (1997), and participation in ;Joined up, (2003). An attempt to understand participation theologically is not new, but it might be worth reflecting on further if it is new for you reading this. What might be new is to think of faith as participation, and develop what this means for young people. (and us all)
A way of thinking about the ongoing narrative of the Christian story, is that of a drama, and as continual ongoing performances within the closing act (4) of a five act play that has the prophecies of revelation as the fifth act to be played out. Again I have written on this before, and the resources for this are in the ‘Theodrama’ category, but unlike story which only has tellers, drama has participative performers – who in word and deed perform interpretation and improvisations of the gospel in the every day, doing so along with God who participates in the ongoing act. Drama ‘just’ adds a encompassing level to the ongoing need to be involved and participating.
Roots view of Faith, is taken from emphasising Paul who emphasises not subtraction, but deduction of a personal nature to participate ‘in Christ’ – Faith is an act of deduction, of giving up. It is not just about participating ‘in’ the activities of a local church, (as these culturally have been negated, (p134-140) , faith is about being a participant in the ongoing story of God (Root, p145).
Participation then, is something far far bigger that institutional involvement.
Faith, true faith, for young people is not sufficient if it is about an add on to their lives (back to MTD) It is that they become deducted of their own life, giving up, to become performers and participants in the actions of God in the whole world.
In a way, this is no different to what Pete Ward was saying in 1997.
But what we’ve tended to focus on is how to keep young people in church through participating activities – and not think for a moment what faith is about, and how this has a larger view of being a participant in Gods ongoing actions.
So – what might all this mean? – If young people are given the keys to unlock the stage, and realise their role and ongoing performers, what might this look like for being faithful in those actions. For Root, this about helping people be ministers and be ministered to. And this then includes, for us, about how we might help young people be ministers in the kingdom, how we might help them ‘reduce’ their reliance on the stuff of daily life (and fasting/monasticism/meaningful faith is becoming more popular), giving up prophetically in a world of stocktaking and increasing – and ministering to others – all activities planned or spontaneous being prompted to by God in the midst. Faith formation and participation is about recognising the voice of God in the midst, who has the ongoing speaking part, and acts alongside. We participate in, as God participates in us.
Young peoples acts of social justice are not an aside to faith – they are faith.
Young peoples response to God in their context might mean risk taking and be dangerous and prophetic – and who knows what it might look like.
What would it be like to give this away – to help young people see themselves as meaningful performers in Gods drama, and that their participation in the world (and the church in the world) is the task of faithful meaningful performances of the gospel?
Its not enough that God loves young people, but that God might also think them worthy of participative parts in his play- and for many young people, they might not have had the opportunities in school to be ‘special’ or involved. Our task is as acting coaches to help young people find their parts, to find their location in the drama, and to recognise the voice of God prompting in the midst. Faith is about participation, and Gods drama is mysterious and massive, and young people, all of us, are invited into it as participants.
If our view of God is too small, then the stage needs to be expanded,
If our view of participation is too small, then young peoples faith suffers as a result.
Theres an expansion of Godly participation required in Youth Ministry.
For all my other posts on participation click here if you’re interested in Theodrama click the category above.
Root, Andrew, 2017 Faith Formation in a Secular Age
Shepherd, Nick, 2016, Faith Generation
Ward, Pete, 1997 Youthwork and the Mission of God
Brierley Danny, 2003 Joined up; Youth work and Ministry
Vanhoozer Kevin, 2005, The Drama of Doctrine, 2010 Remythologising theology, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding.