Could churches encourage young people to become a movement of local community activists?

When it comes to planning and developing a curriculum for a group of young people in a faith based setting – why is that creating opportunities for them to participate in some kind of local social community activism is more than often outside of a default mentality? its not for you? , well at least it felt like it was for me…

I remember when I was 20 odd and running a youth group, it was about to be a residential with the whole church, and I was responsible for planning and delivering a whole weekends worth of activities and sessions, for a group of children and young people, the offspring of the church parents and a mix of ages from 8 through to 16. I was a blank. I was used to planning group work for just the Sunday evening group of 8, 13-16 year olds, but this was a different issue. What to do with a larger group and one spread out over a wider age group. And with three sessions in 36 hours. I was stuck. I tried for weeks to look for suitable material, themes and topics. A real struggle.

That is until I discovered a whole load of material at the local diocese resource centre linked to thinking about social action, charity and compassion for a cause. It may well even have tied in with an appeal at the time, i think it was Christian Aid or Tear fund, it matters not which. But it was so long ago I cant remember. And, interspersed with a few other activities. It worked brilliantly. The young people over the course of the weekend learned about fair trade, justice, poverty and some of the causes, and then as part of the weekend undertook an activity to raise funding for that cause. I think the young people kidnapped the main speaker and begged for a ransom. Don’t judge them, they didn’t have many options on a church weekend away and no planning. However. The point is that this was the first time that as part of a youth programme we had done anything on social justice, charity, and encourage the young people to think about the global world. We didn’t think about the local world. The point also was, was that this subject still seemed ‘an extra’ to what might be considered core Bible teaching that had morality, spirituality or therapy overtones.

Fast forward 8 years, and I am leading another youth group. And the situation remains the same. Education through learning about morality and some Biblical content teaching is part of the youth group programme, however it is taught. Creating and planning for opportunities where these young people give, give generously of their time and make a local contribution to local charity groups, causes and campaigns is still minimal. In fact, the most likely group to do this, I have noticed, is the open youth group, the ‘non church going group’ . Now it may be that the profile of social justice and action in churches has been raised recently through the increase in foodbanks, CAP and other valuable initiatives, but does faithful discipleship for young people and programmes that do the week by week ministry with young people profile community activism in any higher way than they did?

 

Image result for volunteering

We might stop to ask whether the moral, therapeutic, entertainment, relevant orientated ministry with young people is actually working. Kenda Creasy Dean questions this, as even in the US context the decline is occurring. Her alternative – helping young people do social action, using the church as a resource for innovative local projects. An option that may be easier in larger churches, but even smaller churches have resources that could be used to cultivate young peoples ideas. Andrew Root writes that faith formation is more akin to deduction and giving up, and giving away than the insertion of education, and though doesn’t encourage social activism per se, does suggest that forming faith in people has leanings towards social generosity and action, and for young people to ‘do’ ministry. How might young people do ministry in local communities?

It is also worth contemplating about how Young people are participants in the Mission of God. For decades in youth ministry there has been a tendency to regard young people as the UK’s most under resourced and under engaged with mission field, and this is still largely true. But if young people are not just the receivers of the mission activity, but participants in it, participants because we are all part of Gods mission plan, as Vanhoozer (and many others) describes in a drama that requires participation of it on the stage of the world.  Then might we provide opportunities for young people to consider their own participation in ways that are more than being nice to their parents and encouraging a friend to come to youth group?

When it comes to learning, we might want to re think how young people learn, and so if there are opportunities for them to do and plan activity then this means that they are gaining in experiences, and learning through planning, ideas, collaborating, team work and also the act of volunteering, learning is happening through a process of doing. Is it true informal education, possibly. Will it enable young people to reflect on aspects of Gods character such as social justice, community and poverty, maybe. Is discipleship one shaped, where games and fun is a prelude to a talk, and the grand extension of this is the summer festival which, a few exceptions aside, is bigger activities, bigger talks and louder worship? Encouraging a doing discipleship, a faith that includes ‘not giving up good works’ – and even a faith that starts by doing good works as part of its culture, might be what young people believe in, as Nick Shepherd describes, if young people need faith to be plausible, then discovering where they and God might be at work in the community doing something together might be the most plausible thing of the discipleship.

Yes it takes risk, yes it might take a dynamic change in culture. But Christian ministry that focuses on developing morality over ministry, therapy over community transformation might need a seismic paradigm shift. Our role as youthworkers might be to empower young people to be the kind of community transforming and contributing people that we ourselves might be trying to be.

Image result for social actionHow difficult is it to think, and then help to create opportunities that enable, or empower, young people to make positive life decisions that not only help themselves but also their local community.

What might it require of us as youthworkers to have? Good connections in our local community, an awareness of needs, project and initiatives locally, relationships with those who are responsible for these initiatives. As youthworkers we might need to be selective,  but if we might only need to go so far to foster community engagement in young people, because they may already have the desire to get involved. A good resource for beginning a process of active discipleship is the ‘Experiments’ resource that FYT have produced. Using 8 phrases Jesus said to his disciples, they have put together 5 different activities for each which young people decide to do collectively or individual group, and for them to report and reflect afterwards on how they felt during the activity or action and how this might have put Jesus’ words into practice collectively and individually in their family, their school or with friends, it may be the beginning to helping them pursue thinking further about acting out what the Bible says in their local situation.

There are so many opportunities for young people to contribute, many national charities have programmes, curriculums for thinking globally, but finding local opportunities might take a bit more work, but it definately not impossible, such as foodbanks, soup kitchens could really be worthwhile. But if there isn’t something that seems suitable, why not create the space in their ongoing programme to develop their own local initiative? It may be as ‘simple’ as a local litter pick, or tidy of the river, a bullying campaign, or developing a resource or social business. They might want to meet a different local need in some way, something that affects them, in their day to day, so  how might young people doing local community activism change how local communities view young people. How might local activism create opportunities for young people to flourish through empowered decision making, planning and action and even more so, how might local community activism be part of, and integral to young peoples Christian faith? Might it actually be good for young people and be good for the community at the same time?

Does it mean making our role different as youth pastor/minister? from teacher and leader to community organiser..Image result for social action

One question that might be considered is why social activism has been so absent from youth group programmes over the years?

When trying to keep young people beyond Sunday schools – why did entertainment and relevancy become the default?

When trying to attract young people is a movement of change more attractive to some than the flashy lights of a music event, or other club or group work?

We might not know the answers to these questions, but what we might be able to do is take a risk and experiment, and see what happens when as Christian youthworkers we empower young people to change their world and contribute in their local space.  Maybe we need to focus on the real rather than the relevant, and encourage a movement of meaningful ministry that young people participate in. Its not an old old story that happened, but a drama happening now for young people to do ministry in.

 

References

Nick Shepherd – Faith Generation – 2016

Smith, C – Soul Searching – 2003

Root/Dean – The theological Turn in Youth Ministry – 2016

Andrew Root, Faith Formation, 2017

Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith, Speaking Understanding, 2014, also Samuel Wells, Improvisation, The drama of christian ethics, 2004

The experiments resource can be found at www.fyt.org

 

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