‘But we ‘only’ have a few young people..’ – is youth discipleship better done small?

Only this, Only that, Only the other, If we ‘only’… 

It is one of my pet hates, got to admit it. As I travel around and have conversations with church leaders, ministers and volunteers. When describing their project, their groups, their young people, there is a tendency to use the word ‘only’.a painted marking on a roadway "only"

It can occur in ‘ we ‘only’ have a few young people in our church , or ‘we’ve only been going a few years’ or ‘we ‘only’ run a few sessions a week’ . And in Ministry more generally ‘only’ is something of a self imposed curse. I think, and it extends to ‘we only have _____ coming to church’ . It especially extends to when people in the same ministry get together. And have a weekend conference where each defines their group as ‘only’ compared to someone else, or that the amazing, mega large youth group is the default ministry size.

Its not about the only. Its about the who. But on the ‘only’- Is ‘only’ a symptom of both a comparative culture – where we assume that everyone else is doing far better than they really are or say that they are, and also a symptom of the dream and desire for something different or more than what is existing. Talk of ‘only’ sort of devalues the actual young people who do attend, the actual families who have taken the effort to make it to the activity, talk of only indicates that numbers not people seem to be the markers of success.  It also means that we stop looking at what is, what good, and the precious that is present. I think we do need to be careful that a desire for more, might cause young people to think that they are only valuable if they have friends and bring them.

Does the use of the word ‘only’ already mean that we have succumbed ourselves to the perils of a numbers game? If so, sadly, our ministries will undoubtedly suffer for it. And so will we, facing personal trial of our ministry by numerical indicators alone.

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Might there be something more with wanting more ?

Of course there is a problem with only having a few young people in a church, the resources dont seem to fit very well. Well guess what, thats the problem with the how of what were trying to do. Maybe because of a few young people there are questions to be asked about materials based youth ministry provision, and finally there needs to be a shift to something else instead. And thats not easy, none of this is, especially with a church only having 1 12 year old, 1 8 year old and three under 5’s. What to do then? good point. But the answer wont be found without a change in attitude and probably a change in approach. First we stop with the ‘onlys’ and probably second we developed practices of higher participation, less teaching, more conversation. Less input, more involvement. Yes a small group might be difficult, so discipleship might need a different form, mentoring, participation in faith practices, training/apprenticeship.

I asked a number of youthworkers around the country to share their experiences of what might considered ‘small’ youth group experiences (under 6 ppl) , in small churches (under 40) – and dont mishear me, I am desperately trying to resist using the word small there. These sound large compared to other churches. So, again, apologies for falling into the same comparison/descriptor trap. In such a culture of comparison, stories of the ‘small’ can be ignored, when ‘ministries’ that have large numbers can dominate and create a gravitational pull towards, and sometimes thats an actual pull. The actual pull of the small youth group thats doing something beautiful, that has to be disrupted so that they attend en masse as the audience in a large gathering which causes them to feel anonymous – just to support the ‘large’ – and the large can influence the small.

Can the small be beautiful – well of course it can be, why am i even asking the question?

Here are some of the benefits of ‘only’ having a ‘few’ young people- as said by those involved in making these beautiful things happen:

They get to know adults well, who aren’t their parents, and therefore explore a different understanding of faith. They get to know a small group of peers better. They can do social activities to form strong bonds and can do life alongside each other.  (Laura P)

They become full active participants in the life of the church. Involved in everything inc. the “not youth” elements normally reserved for adults. Which in turn adds to a sense of belonging (pet topic is small church youth work ) (James Y)

Deeper relationships, learning to rely on one another, hearing true stories of faith, loss and redemption. Intimacy that fosters trust (Kat)

It certainly means you get to know them better as individuals rather than ‘the young people’. And it’s easier therefore for their individual gifts to be used in the church. Labour intensive though!    (why is ‘having an easy situation’ preferable?) 

Interestingly when we asked our young people at __________ if they wouldn’t rather join the Deanery youth group they said no, they liked being in a small group of 4-5. It felt safe and cosy. (Miranda)

The key for me is connection. A small church provides opportunity for connections that is hard in a big church. (Aaron)

They are known and as leaders we can be more responsive. I’ve never led big youth groups as a regular part of my ministry   (Alice)

you’ve got a lot of room for growth? 🙂 i’d say if 15-25% of the church is youth (as above), getting them involved in the life of the church will have huge impact (Andy)

Our church is this size and intergenerational community feels easier. 2 of our teens pick up an old lady each week and wheel her to church. 1 says it’s the highlight of his week and he just loves being with her even if they don’t chat much. Brings my heart joy thinking about it! They always want to pray for her in youth group. (Pheobe)

commenting on the above.. I love this. This sort of community is lost in larger churches, but replaced with a community where most yp only know their peers (Sean)

we’re a small church with great youth, but only after years of perseverance and encouraging the older members of the church to believe in them. Definitely find that yp build great friendships and therefore work much better as a team and are fired up for mission! (Mhairi) 

these are beautiful, significant moments – dont you agree..?

Convinced? Can we quit with the ‘only’ talk?  It is about the who. 

On the other side of the coin, I know of large group church leaders who would swap for something smaller. So, the comparison trap is on both sides, and reading the above from a larger church might enhance the same view.

One of the key values in youthwork, is that we ‘value the individual’ – its noticeable that when we talk about ‘only’ we stop valuing the individuals, their gifts, abilities, and contributions – and place more value in the unknown young person who is absent. Small is beautiful only goes some way. Small as a word is too patronising and still emphasises size.

Having a few young people does not mean they all need to be clumped together in a large group – as the example above showed, young people themselves expressed their own desire for something homely, cosy and comfortable – and whilst I am one for making discipleship more dangerous and risk taking – it might be risk taking enough to have asked the young people for their opinion, and also to decline the strategic approach for ‘larger mixed up groups across a deanery’ . This also emphasises a participative conversation being important, and giving young people more choice, autonomy and respect for who they are  (really?…;-)). Extending this a little – culture and fear are so evident, and young people arent all extroverts – so discipleship for the introvert, thinking, reflective young people might be deeply appropriate (who knew).

What other opportunities might there be with ‘only’ a few young people?

The above examples wouldn’t work if a church wasn’t giving its young people spaces to participative , but clearly where this is happening (and I think we need to challenge the barriers where this doesn’t happen – like young people not allowed in kitchens, or near to PA equipment) . Recent;y i heard of stories of young people joining in ‘church days out’ and getting involved in local mission/volunteering practices. All far easier than trying to get a group of 40 to help at the soup kitchen on a friday night – easier when its 4…

If Sunday school, groups and activities that require large effort is the default – then we might need to change approaches to accommodate the young people and who we have – not the young people we once had (but then moan that they didn’t stay anyway). Living in the present might mean valuing the young people for who they are, what they can contribute, what they might create and the community of faith where they are part of. After all, all young people can be participants in the ongoing drama of Gods mission – does it matter the size of the production they are involved in?

Can we ban the term ‘only’ – not just stop comparing? but stop comparing in what seems an upward direction to the increased number activity?  Talking of building bigger barns was something Jesus rejected, instead being present, and valuing the faith of the woman who gave little, the picture of the mustard seed. If ministry has become a numbers game, a money game and an attraction game – then has it lost all sight of the gospel? If we need to ask the question about How did Jesus do discipleship with just a few people? – the answer is that he just did discipleship with a few people.  But he ‘only’ had 12 in his youth group, and one of them was loud mouth Peter…. 

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