A couple of questions to start off with:
Why do young people attend youth provision?
What keeps them there?
In all the afterschool, weekend or evening youth provision that occurs outside of the remit of the education or justice system, these are crucial critical questions to ask about young people and why they attend the youth group, the club, the football team, the music or dance group, the theatre or drama group or faith or environmental group. Understand why young people attend, and why they continue to attend are crucial for us all to reflect on. Because as those who create these spaces to happen, we face the ultimate reality that young people do make a voluntary choice to attend.
On one hand it makes it all a bit of a perilous adventure knowing that at any time a young person could leave, on the other its still an adventure, but that when a young person does respond to something and participate they do so because they want to. Now of course, there are occasions when the young person has stopped wanting to attend something but does so for reasons like their parents want them to, drive them to it, or to be compliant with their parents, but in the main they actually dont want to stop going – and so blurring the lines as to what participation is, yet on other occasions they might be being rebellious of their parents by attending.
Thinking further about the reasons why young people keep going to activities, beyond their attendance in the first place, and they might, and do, say:
- Its where I meet with friends
- Its a place to learn new skills
- Its a place where i get experience
- Its what i want to do when I’m older ( cadets, drama, music- it has career potential)
- Its challenging
- Its where I feel safe
- Its a place to be myself
- Its a place where I can talk to adults
- Its a place where I am respected
- Its a place where I can contribute and have my voice heard
In a way, then these might be some of the incentives for all of us involved in youth work provision of any kind. For any of us in youth ministry we should continually reflect on the reasons why young people continue to attend the provision, as if some of these things arent met, then it is likely that young people begin to leave. Actually, I ran this exercise with a group of older teenagers a few weeks ago, and the reasons that they left youth provision were as follows:
Their friends left, They got too old and there was nothing for them, it got expensive, they got bullied, they got ignored, it got boring, there was an injustice and not just the opposite of the things in the above list, but being unsafe, non participatory, non challenging, no long term purpose – but some of these things too.
Parents also get the benefit of the young person attending something, whether its an evenings free time, a hope that the youth group will do the sex talk, or help with socialisation, or hope that that young person will be safe, and become an upright moral citizen, just by attending a faith group. The parents of a young person may get more out of it that a young person themselves do… (might) .
All of this kind of means that there is a perilous path of voluntary participation that a youthworker/minister has to travel.
Yes there are a number of tactics that are used to keep young people – the carrot of rewards in the future, ongoing payment and subscriptions, rewards through attendance, and even trying to give young people roles, ownership and leadership can be strategies to help young people stay part of something. However, all fall flat if a young person feels unsafe, ignored or bored.
Which becomes doubly perilous in a culture in which outcomes and value for money are key drivers for funding both externally, and internally in groups, clubs, charities community groups and churches. We may have always prided ourselves with creating voluntary groups and spaces, but its a perilous path of maintaining an interest beyond this. Value for money seems to be about attendance, not the glorious treasure that could be unveiled when young people become participants, creators and contributors within. Measuring for participation, rather that attendance might help create the kind of staying environments, means that we have to work doubly hard to create these opportunities, challenges, and raise young peoples. And celebrating that young people participate and that they choose to is rarely done.
It is genuinely the case that young people like to be challenged. To have their game raised, and to be given an opportunity to have their opinion and voice heard and to participate. These arent just great sayings and ideals. But yet, when it comes to thinking about longevity and discipleship or programmes in youth ministry provision – relevancy is more often connected to attraction and entertainment – rather than relevancy because it is meaningful, challenging, and involves cost.
That young people are free to leave the youth provision could scare the living daylights out of us, but yet again that they continue to attend and participate is also a deep joy and privilege, it is a fine line, a tightrope, and one that we must acknowledge and be thinking ahead all the time, to how might the group or activity be maintained in such a way that young people want to stay. Or alternatively, how might the young people within the group or activity be able to create the environment themselves in a way so that they dont want to leave. When young people do participate, when they do contribute or develop conversation and relationship then its almost as though this should count as double, because we take into account that this is something they want to do. Its like the conversation with us on the streets, they could easily walk away or tell us to F off, though they rarely do, and so through choice they converse.
Voluntary participation and engagement causes us as youth workers and ministers to be continually walking a perilous pathway. Im constantly amazed by the amount of churches who say that young people dont attend, but as children they did, well often thats because they now have a choice, and we havent made being a young person in a
church a meaningful experience for them, just an extension of Sunday school. And attending Sunday school, cant feel anything like school can it… (though by this poster there was some strong tactics used to keep children)- its no wonder that young people when faced with the choice didnt.
There are no magic answers, just a realisation, that thinking about why young people attend groups, clubs and organisations is a much shorter list than the many reasons why they stop going. That thinking through reasons why young people stay in groups, some reasons get elevated and thought about more than others (entertainment vs meaningfulness though both would be good), and trying to pre-empt ‘boredom’ by thinking ahead to create new opportunities, new places of participation and develop young peoples voices, creativity and contributions in a way that takes some suitable risks, is within a safe and trusted relationship space might be helpful ways of helping young people along the tightrope.
Have I missed out faith? well, yes. But strangely, when even asking christian young people what kept them or what caused them to leave a group, even a church group – faith wasnt even mentioned. Reflect on that as you will.