6 common defaults when churches start working with young people (to try and avoid?)

It never really surprises me how often when churches, (and when i mean churches i mean, clergy & some interested congregation members) think about working with young people, that a number of fairly common defaults are evident. In this post I want to share some of these, not because they are wrong necessarily, but it might be that you if you’re reading this didn’t realise quite how much of a default it is, when there might be other alternatives to how working with young people in a faith setting might take place.

Default No 1. The best way to start any youth programme is when a whole load of adults sit in a room and have ideas about what to do and hope young people want to do them. 

How often is this repeated? There’s young people. There’s adults. Adults have a whole load of ideas, look up a whole load of resources from (insert UK wide faith based youth ministry provider) , who is trusted because (the leader used to work for them/leader used to receive them/the organisation is credible/its easier) . Then Adults use resource to shape a programme that young people maybe want , or don’t want, or are encouraged to do because they feel that the church is making an effort . But the only option for them is to opt in, or opt out. And opting out makes them look ungrateful.

Or the adults have a ‘big idea’ – now ‘big idea’ – could be a rock cafe, a worship event, a youth praise group, a choir, a football night, cheese on toast for Jesus, graffiti artist, Rap artist (yes its still the 1990’s in some churches). And its a great idea that the adults spend ages. I mean ages. shaping, promoting, deciding in meetings, risk assessing, getting an MP to praise it, organising prayer meetings for it, getting it blessed by the elders or PCC…. but yet when it happens… not a single young person is involved at any stage, and three turn up, the same three who already go to messy church, the same three who would have turned up if you have offered tea and a biscuit instead.

One of my most read pieces on this website is this one. Titled ‘what role do young people have in your church/youth group?’  The challenge in avoiding the default above, is to be brave and give young people a different role in the life of the church and youth group. One in which their role from the outset isn’t just as a consumer of an idea that is foisted on them, but that they are engaged in ongoing conversation, planning and creation. As i say often, usually 11 year old’s in primary schools have some say in small groups about spending school budgets on improving it, via a school council. Meanwhile the same young people in a different institution, church, are just given shapes of Daniel and the lions den to colour in. Or spaghetti towers to make to illustrate a moral point. Avoiding this default might require an approach taken in which space is created for conversation, and ideas from young people, and trusting in them to be able to shape and create something with adults. You never know…

Default 2. Young people who are bored in church don’t always want bigger,brighter entertainment to keep them interested and coming back.   They don’t always like it when their youth thing condescends, patronises and makes them feel like children, by just looking like a school disco. 

Avoiding boredom may well be the curse affecting most of youth ministry   so there’s constant re invention taking place, constant new song, constant new material, constant make something relevant. Making the programme more exciting might be the biggest long term turn off for young people in their ongoing faith development. Because, when the programme runs out, or they get too old for it, what then? even more boredom when the only option is real church. Sod that.

But if the signs of boredom are beginning to be seen in the groups you have, and 2 years of colouring Daniel, is going to start wearing thin, then it might not be ‘Daniel colouring plus’ that’s required. It might be to actually talk with, respect and give young people the space to contribute, to be involved, to have their say. This is linked to point one above. But its also more than that yes young people might, in many cases want to have their say and voice heard and participate. But it might also be that what they are being offered isn’t challenging enough, isn’t controversial enough (talk about ethical issues) , isn’t real enough (talk about health matters, cancer, periods, mental health, the environment) , maybe even… isn’t spiritual enough. When their friends are into meditation and mindfulness, and the church is offering a prayer spoken by an adult and a god slot- where might their spiritual awakening or curiosity likely to go?  Yes i said it…. youth groups might not be spiritual enough. Young people might be bored… but why might they be…?  Work that out with real conversations and then see… don’t resort to making it louder or bigger as a default. Deci and Ryan suggest that challenge, autonomy and relationship are key factors in personal motivation. Work out how these can be part of developing youth ministry, not just smoke machines and drum kits.

Default number 3. The God bit is the God-slot

Oldest chestnut of a conversation this. Id reveal my bias here when i say I am encouraged that there are some fabulous interesting practices of youth work around that are starting to think differently about how young people learn, engage with, form, and become involved in faith – and have moved away from a God slot. In this piece i provide 6 alternatives. In a way it says something about how we as adults view education, and view discipleship if the only part that of a youth group regarded as ‘God’ bit is that God -slot moment.  Which is a shame… because that can often be the most challenging, boring, difficult part of the youth group evening and yet that’s the bit where young people receive instruction about God. Hmm… God explicitly is getting a raw deal there i think. Its also the bit in the group where young people can often have the least involvement – even if there is an attempt to give them options in other aspects like food or games – and its also the time when the power dynamics shift – and bluntly- it looks like school. Anyway. Old chestnut resurfaced, nothing new in this paragraph. But its a fairly common default. Disciopleship isnt one way and faith isnt formed by just listening. Check out the FYT experiments resource to flip that one on its head. There’s more on the God slot stuff in Here be Dragons. See link above.

Default number 4 : Young peoples faith will develop even more if we get them involved in christian youth culture.  

This is often a parental pressure thing. The default is that once involved in church, a young person must immediately only listen to christian music, wear tshirts, go to christian summer festivals (cheap holidays for parents to send kids away on, and their ‘safe’) , and become a leader in church, volunteer in sunday school. And basically show their christian faith and discipleship through countless attendances and involvement in christian titled things.  Nick Shepherd is onto something though, saying that these things do help with a young person creating a christian identity for themselves. But its part of something bigger in constructing faith… read his book.   Though I wonder… is this what adults do as well… well of course.. . I am not sure its as prevalent – and i also know I pretty much chose to go along to all the things i mentioned there in the 1990s.. however… what might have been ‘good’ in previous generations… might not be now.. but the default remains. Especially when young people more than any other group are bombarded with messages about being distinctive from the world, about almost avoiding the world, about only being ‘in the world’ to evangelise to friends, only having friends.. so they can be invited to youth group (I’m sure this doesn’t still happen) – but what do these messages do?  Create divide. And unhealthy them and us, and put young people in the most difficult positions in schools, communities and homes.  I am sure this isn’t the default it might well have been before, but worth watching out for it.

Default 5. Working with young people is for some one else

There is a magical human out there, who is so radically different from the humans in the church, who will be able to do something magical with young people that they don’t know, but you have known since they were 3 and been in messy church or Sunday school (and got bored colouring in Daniel), and this magical person is about to be transported in under the false pretenses of needing to be innovative, creative and experienced (with the reassurances of being underpaid, under supported and poorly managed) to round up the previously bored from messy church group, the alienated from church 12 year olds, the 15 yr old daughter of the vicar (chosen specifically because they had a young family 12 years ago, and they could be the previous magic person ) – but new magic person is now needed.

This default, creates a thought that magic external person is the best person to connect with young people. The reality is that if you know the young people, and have done since they were 3, then you are. You just need to re connect, maybe apologise (for too much Daniel colouring in) ask and listen and rebuild a relationship.  Young people value relationship, authenticity and long term integrity. You’ll get that if you take the time and listen. value them and re connect. A magic person is starting from scratch. If young people are important, you don’t value them by employing a magic person to rescue them, you value them by giving them space, time and opportunities. You value them by creating a culture in a church where they are important. from the leadership, organisation, planning and decision making down. Where they are welcomed and participate. Thats value.

Default 6. Young people are all______________ – they’re just a completely different generation to us, they so different. 

This is ‘Young people are alien syndrome’. All of a sudden there’s a default position taken that goes along the lines of ‘young people have just arrived from outer space, they’re weird, unruly, into things we have no idea of, unpredictable, different.. etc’ and then someone clever, will recite a piece of research, or the bloody guardian, that talks about ‘Meellenials’ and how in order to reach ‘meeelenials’ the church has to do X and Y and Z.  An invisible ‘them’ and ‘us’ is created. Young people are all of a sudden different, difficult, hard to reach, unique- and yet no one has even spoken to any of them. Just looked at generalised research to make an opinion. Then someone will say ‘its just helpful to do research’ well.. yes it is. But if you want to do research, ask the young people in the community you are working in, and build up knowledge from actions, from conversations, from reality. There is no one else in the world like the young person who plays football in your community park, or the young person who is bored in messy church, or is a bit lost in church, but comes along with his Dad. Research and thinking of young people as alien, really isn’t going to help with listening, learning, empathy, time.  As Carl Rogers said, we cannot empathise if we prejudge, and we prejudge all the time, so lets not add to it with extra lenses  from adopted sociological research (used mainly to justify programmes that we’ve already said… perpetuate a default) . There is no such thing as a millenial young person. Can we dump the universality research, and thinking of young people as aliens. They’re just people (Christian Smith, 2003) . Like you and me. Its children, ironically who are less like adults. Think about it.

Theres 6. I could of added a few others, and yet as i thought about it, they all nearly stem from the concept of participation, and lack of – and these are covered in the post i shared in the link above. its almost as though the key default in churches, is not to give young people any involvement in aspect of what goes on, for them, or for anything at all. Or that they wont be interested if its made too difficult, challenging. For the few young people left in churches…we have to do better. For starting work with young people, churches could start from a different place, and not go straight to these defaults. Expecting different results from the same actions.  I am sure you can think of others too. But these are the ones i see, and have also been guilty of doing myself too.

Some references and additional reading

Christian Smith, 2003, Soul Searching, his 15 recommendations for christian youth groups from research of 1500 church is well worth a look.

Nick Shepherd, 2016, Faith Generation. Still one of the best critical, thought provoking, books on youth ministry in the UK.

Carl Rogers, 1972, A way of Being. On person centred therapy.

Andrew Root, 2017 Faith formation in a secular age, isnt referenced directly, but some of the links do.

Chap Clark, 2018, Adoptive church. Chap suggests churches should be places of participation where young people flourish in the whole community. Id recommend this one.

 

 

Advertisements

10 things you’re unlikely to see in Christian youthwork.

This almost feels a bit like the endgame on mock the week, when ‘unlikely things you’ll see…or hear’ is the opening strapping for which then the comedians are then tasked with completing. Today I was chatting to a few youthworkers about a youth work project that had a very similar name to another, and had used a bible verse number as their name. You know the one. It’s the life to the full one. (10:10). It got me thinking, if 3:16, 10:10 are commonly used, and there are some other common things in Christian youthwork.

What might be things unlikely to see or hear in Christian youthwork?

1. A project that has the name ’23:20′ after the profound words of Ezekiel.

2. A large worship gathering admit that financial reasons, and the need for advance funding, or internal poor partnership working was the reason for its demise. Far easier to say that ‘ the Lord is calling us to something new’

3. An all female worship band.

4. A Christian youthworker stay long enough in a church based role to be eligible for a sabbatical. And then to get one.

5. A youth pastor not use an analogy from Star wars/Lord of the rings or a U2 lyric in a youth service.

6. Young people involved in creating their own youth provision. Especially any collective worship space that’s apparently for them.

7. A job application for a youth worker that asks for a quiet, reflective, critical theological youth worker.

8. A youth work not have expectations that the Sunday school will be as full is was in 1890, after they’ve been in post 4 weeks.

9. A youth worker without 9 different coffee shop loyalty cards in their purse or wallet.

10. A commissioning service for the arrival of a new youth worker in post.

Here are 10 of my ‘unlikely to see’ in Christian youthwork, what might yours be?

All youth ministry is local.

No matter what the denomination leaders say

No matter what the youth ministry specialists say

No matter what the seminar leaders at the latest conference says

No matter what the trainers at Christian ministries explain.

No matter what the latest generalised view in a book is

No matter what the latest research on a lost generation of young people says.

All youth ministry is local.

Youth ministry is only effective when it is in response to local needs guided by local convictions in the hands of young people. When community convictions and concerns, financial and leadership resources, theological and moral values when tied to ministry vision and passion, shape strategies for reaching young people.

All youth ministry is local.

I bet you thought I wrote this. That these are my words. I bet , probably aside from the reaching young people comment, that you thought that I have found another youth work book that fits a ground-up, community development approach to youth work, a community view of ministry.

But no.

These aren’t my words.

Well.. not quite..

These are written by an American youth ministry expert.

Really?..( I hear the 4 of you who will read this blog say…)

Yes.

When did they say this.. when did American youth ministry realise this..? … is it recent?

Well it is ‘new’… a ‘new’ direction in youth ministry.

A new direction… in 1998.

A voice of American youth ministry, going against the tide (Mark H Senter III) . Criticising the generalised view of youth ministry, cultural assumptions and may be the macdonaldisatuon of youth ministry programmes, resources and faith. Staying that. All youth ministry is local.

In 1998.

Shame books don’t get read much. Or affect the practice of youth ministry much. Shame this book didn’t even get chance to leave the RRC in 20 years.. (yes no one took it out)

So what happened in the last 20 years.. has UK youth ministry recognised this.. ? I wonder..

Of course 20 years later.

I’d go further. Beyond needs to gifts. Beyond programmes to participation. And what does local youth ministry look like… well it looks like conversations, group work and developing and emerging from what you have.

But that’s for another blog.

All youth ministry really is local. So look for the beauty, possibility and spirituality in the young people you have.

Reference.

New directions in youth ministry. 1998. Rice, Clark, eds

And I Would do anything for God..(but i wont get bored)

In his book ‘Faith Formation in a Secular Age’ (2017)  Andrew Root suggests that the biggest motivation in society, that has infected the church – especially in youth ministry , is what seems the influence of the avoidance of boredom. And in the church this looks like:

Must make this event exciting – or no one will come along

Our new youthworker must be excited and innovative (always thinking of the new)

What will make the programme lively and attractive?

We cant be doing the same songs, we must do new ones every now and then!

Young people wont be interested in coming to sunday church, they must have their own meetings

And, some of this also plays out in worship songs, using screens, countdowns and smoke machines, even in an avoidance of reading the bible or meetings (these are deemed boring).

Is Andrew Root right?

in Faith Formation he tells the following story:

‘ A famous bible scholar was meeting up with a young muscle bound man who expressed to him his deep deep love for Jesus. Judging from his passionate excitement, the professor believed the young mans commitment, so they talked about faith and the bible. When the topic of sunday worship came up, the young man explained that he rarely went, telling the professor that it had none of the adrenaline of the workouts, that ultimately Sunday worship was just too boring.

‘I thought you loved Jesus’ the professor asked

‘i do’ said the young man, and said with genuine authenticity, I really do!”

So, the professor asked, ‘do you think you would be willing to die for Jesus?’

Now more reserved, the young man said ” Yes…yes, I think i would, yes I would die for Jesus’

‘So let me get this straight, the professor continued, you are willing to die for Jesus, but not be bored for Jesus?’  (Root, A, 2017, p7)

The point that the scholar would try and make from this is that is the importance of co-orporate worship. The inconsistency of boredom vs commitment.

But Root seeks a different point in Faith Formation, because in an age where the authentic experience is sought… think not adrenaline junkies of the 1990s, but the authenticity of the farmers market/homebaked bread/real music – then in such an age, anything is deemed disingenuous if it lacked connection to the depth of subjective desires.

Therefore to be bored in an age of authenticity is not simply unfortunate or unpleasant it is to be oppressed and got rid of. if we have responsibility for our own individual journey of spiritual life then why would we consider anything boring to be worthy and part of it? if its boring our needs are unmet… arent they?

On one hand is Root right?

Well hang on just a minute. He goes on:

Because if on one hand the church’s pursuit of youthfulness (see this post  ) has created churches that are having a juvenile tantrum (Roots words not mine), then what an age of authenticity also reveals is that churches are criticised not for too much spirituality and depth, but not enough. It is as if they have somehow lost what they are meant to be. The depth of experience (found in the gym, or found travelling the world to ‘find oneself’) is not found in the church.

There are two issues here, and Im not sure even I can do both justice in the remainder of this piece. So, i will focus on the first of the two.

Has the church, in regard to youth ministry played the ‘avoiding boredom’ card far too often?  and what has been its response..

  1. Make everything louder than everything else? Ie bigger and brighter music, churches, buildings, more attractive – keep up with the entertainment
  2. Work out what it might mean when people say that they are bored of church..?

Boredom might mean actually not being involved. Boredom might mean that it is too simple. Boredom might mean that it is not challenging enough. Not that it isnt loud enough. Boredom might mean that it isnt real, or authentic enough. And what might make church authentic… authentic relationships, authentic involvement, authentic respect and faith formation, authentic opportunity to make decisions. (see my post here on developing these) So often boredom has just caused a reaction of adopt technology, adopt fun, adopt noise.

Whats strangely interesting is that the churches that have fared better over the last 50 years are those which retained something of the youth movement of 50 years ago. Possessing the spirit of youthfulness is equated to authentic, because being and staying young is exactly that. In and amongst this is a pretty non existent space for what church is or isnt actually meant to be about. But is that to be the case today? im not too sure…

The possibility of divine action is somewhat minimised for the sake of authenticity, faith is not connected to divine action but meeting in an authentic way. In short, is God more present when im not bored..?

The challenge for those of us who are involved in ministry and youth ministry is not that we cave in to calls to make churches and meetings more youthful, not to cave in to the cries of ‘young people arent going to come to church, its boring’ . The task is not to cave into church being more entertaining, for this will, or has already caused significant problems, where faith formation has almost completely been abandoned for youthfulness.

The challenge is to try and develop opportunities for ministry and gifting, usefulness and meaningfulness, not just a bigger brighter, louder, more colourful experience. If young people want that, they can get it at a coldplay concert. And that might be more authentic. For a coldplay concert does exactly what it says on the tin.

It will take a huge amount of effort to stand up in a culture that prioritised youthfulness as authentic to say hang on, lets do something meaningful, real and faithful. That might take guts to do, yet the hamster wheel of continual youthfulness is only going to have one winner. And it not faith formation, or long term discipleship. It is not experience of God, not the kingdom experiences of generosity, giftedness, gratitude and rest that permeate in church and discipleship, and ministry of the kingdom (Root, p 202) .

Making church less boring again, may well be a legitimate question. The response to it is one that will shape church for the next 50 years. Yet strategy will kill essence (Mather) , so we might as well get on and do the work of the kingdom, that looks like the ministry of God in the world. Being authentically inauthentic in a world of youthfulness. Do the essence of God.

Oh… and making church meaningful, hopeful and dangerous. A sub cultural movement of justice seekers called by God towards peace and reconciliation, generosity and gratitude. Now – who might find that boring..?

‘To solve the church and society’s problems; we just need to get those feral young people into church’

Or at least, that’s what we want to pay a youth worker to do.

Harsh? Or deep down is this what churches are really thinking?

Twice in the last year I have heard the word ‘feral’ used to describe groups of young people.

As many times more have I heard that getting young people into church is the only answer to solving their problems.

Forgive me for just a little over sensitivity.

But WHAT THE ACTUAL F***?

Has brexit unleashed a whole new generation of intolerant uncompassionate baby boomer/late retireds who have a compassion and humanity chip missing?

Have church leaders forgotten what love and ‘people made in the image of God’ looks like?

Has personal blame, rather than community responsibility and societies ills been sidelined?

Or is church still set in Victorian ways.. still happy to feel colonial and superior and retain this by the use of Victorian language.

So I’m bloody mad.

But if this is actually what we’re thinking as churches when it comes to working with young people, then churches and the congregations in them have got to own this.

Own that this is how they actually feel about young people. Own that working with young people is only code for ‘bringing them into church’. Own that they are scared and frightened of young people, and where these feeling originate. Often from the media, and when powerful leaders in churches use negative stories of the world outside and young people’s actions. Own it and be honest. Own it and challenge i. Own it and be collectively self aware.

I just don’t think the problem is with young people.

It’s with us.

It’s with the us who know better

It’s with the us who still believe

It’s with the us who hope that change is possible

It’s with us if we have any desire to realise that God’s love is inclusive.

It’s our problem. It’s our problem as church if this is our starting point. Or what we actually mean, but try and hide it.

It’s our problem if we believe some young people are worth more in the kingdom of God than others.

It’s our problem if the culture of church favours the behaved. Or people only like us.

It’s these expectations that cause challenges with employing youthworkers. But if it’s out in the open. We have to own it.

I may be critical and angry. But this is also heartfelt passion.

‘Sorry and We have got it wrong’ have to be the starting point. We will not provide reconciling spaces if we’ve already judged.

Whole communities do need restoring, encouraging, loving, understanding and being present in.

Those feral young people might be the key.

Those feral young people have had their life opportunities restricted by austerity policies that weren’t their fault.

Those feral young people are angry. Those feral young people need compassion not criticism.

Those feral young people are creative, determined, passionate and resourceful, and God is provoking us through them. They are the visionaries a dying church needs.

Those feral young people, and not other, they are not scum.

Those feral young people… are not other, they are us.

Maybe we do need to understand before were understood.

Maybe hearts need breaking first. Ours.

Maybe anger is a good thing.

God, please one day might there be a church where ‘those’ young people are welcome, understood, loved and cherished. And I hope it is in my lifetime and I am able to play a part in it happening.

And I haven’t started on the ‘getting them into church bit..’…

In church attendance statistics; should there be an ‘away goals count double rule? ‘

Not for the first time I find myself pondering a football and faith crossover piece. In the past I have written about a youth worker transfer deadline day, and also thinking about the theatre of football as a performance.

This time I’m heading to the slightly sensitive area of church attendance and growth statistics.

But first, a reminder, for those of you who aren’t sport inclined, what the ‘away goals count double rule’ actually is. It’s particularly relevant today on the day of the UEFA champions league quarter final draw.

The logic of the rule (And I’m not going to give you the official line) is that in some football competitions, mostly games where teams play other teams from a different country, there has always been and will be a home advantage. The home team don’t have to travel, they play in their own stadium on a pitch with dimensions they know, with all their home fans, their dressing room etc etc. It has long been recognised then that an away team (especially after long distance travel) is at a disadvantage.

Further details of this can be found here BBC article

For this reason, where a two game the is level on goals, any away goals scored by either team count as double. Their value is worth more. 1 goal counts as 2.

An additional meaning is attached to the number.

It crosses my mind that a similar weighting or value might be useful in thinking about church attendance, growth and mission statistics and success.

Put it this way,

The middle class already Christian family who move into the area and start going to the church might be recorded as ‘5’ on the figures.

And almost no effort might be made to find, work with or accommodate them, except being welcoming and hospitable. (Yet there are many churches/parishes where this is an unlikely reality)

The same 5 might be said for the family who start attending who have become known to the church via the foodbank. And whilst the same hospitality is recognised and evident, the effort and investment required might be more intensive.

If young people are really anti church and a youth worker has been employed- do the 5 young people who start attending chug h, also going as 5?

We may have real incentive as churches to do mission, youth work and community work in our churches, parishes and deaneries. But it might be as equally said that results by numbers might only implicitly cause churches to go for the ‘easier’ groups.

‘If we can get 1 of our friends to come along’

‘If we can attract a few Christians to come along by changing our service’

And that’s not to in any way suggest that this is easy. Not at all.

But if homeless people from hartlepool are made to feel welcome and attend because of years of effort changing a culture in a church to be more inclusive.. Then that ‘5’ of them has to represent and mean something more..

It might take 10 fold extra effort to encourage hard to reach groups (to be welcome in a church that often implicitly excluded) , and yet they’re counted as just 1.

It’s far easier if there’s a numbers game to go for the assessed easiest. It would almost be change in culture to intentionally advocate mission to and with the leastest in society.

So could ‘away goals count double?’ Or triple, or even ten fold?

I don’t mean to sound trite, or to try to dismiss the value of persons as numbers, the reality is that this already happens. I’m just highlighting the inadequacy of a numbers orientated system for measuring growth and attendance.

If there was church plant in Hendon, or Burbank, or moss side or fairfields, tulloch or the east end, shouldn’t a church plant of 10 people who became indigenous leaders have higher meaning and value than a church plant where 20 already Christians turned up because they liked the new worship style?

Just a thought.. what would church planting amongst the least communities and areas shafted by successive governnents be measured and justified ? If at all? But maybe not on the same measures of middle class suburbia who shape policy and expectation..

What might a good church look like, rather than a successful one, of a faithfully loving one in such a community. Why would that one need to be measured by numbers at all? And if so, could they count double?

Every new persons or families attending churches takes effort, agreed, but shouldt the extra resources required for the least likely, unchurched, abandoned by churcv/society, but warranted extra value..?

Just a thought…

What Role do you want young people to have in church?

For the majority of churches, the idea of having any young people being part of the church is a bit of a luxury. The task for many is to find them, attract them, and often this task has seemed to have fallen to the ‘christian organisation’ such as YFC, YMCA or FYT – the challenge where this happens is how the integration from organisation to church occurs.

But thats not the subject of this piece. I raised the question about the role that young people play in the church in a piece last year (here is this piece) , a piece that since April has been read by at least 10 people worldwide per day since. The role of young people in church is clearly crucial and something widely needing a discussion on.

So, what about progressing the conversation on a bit:

If its one thing to state ‘What current role do young people play?’ – and consider how passive, consuming, entertained they might be – the progressing question is :

What Role do you want young people to have in the church?

Because there is no point just assessing what kind of role they currently have, its what kind of role those who work with them want them to have, and how this might happen is key. So, this is yet another piece on young peoples participation. So, it might be worth thinking through why participation is important, and what might need to change, from the point of view of the cultural norms of church, of youth leadership and the perception of young people in the church which proceeds the development of their role. I have written before (and so have others) about the various historical perceptions of young people in churches, that needs to be changed in order that participation is increased. From the social rescue of the 1800’s, to the ‘protection and safety’ and creation of alternative culture youth ministry subsequent to the 1960’s. Throughout it all, there remains a high expectation of young people being involved in church to ‘learn’. Nick Shepherd in ‘Faith Generation (2016) suggests that shifting culture from learning to deciding is key. And I agree.

But why is increasing participation required?

On one hand, Theologically, participation is core to faith and the gospel itself. But I dont think I need to expand this here. Just look up ‘Bible Gateway’ and search participate or participation. And where there are no references, think about how God involves humans in the task of his mission, or loving and caring for the world, and developing the work of the church. Participation, and increasing it is core.

I want to look at this from a psychological basis as well. The psychologists Deci and Ryan have suggested that all of us are motivated by, and seek out continued spaces in which they feel they have:

  • Connection/Belonging
  • Competence
  • Autonomy

And, to be reasonable, developing relationships has been one of the key principles of youth ministry over the last 30 years. It may be something that still needs work, but ask a whole load of young people who have had the same leaders for more than 3-4 years, and they will remark on the depth of friendship and the value of them. Developing connections and relationships is undoubtedly key. From a young persons point of view – they will also be seeking out opportunities to create and have these connections – its worth bearing this in mind.

The second of these things is competence. It can take a number of facets, but essentially, being good at something, being confident in it and then also receiving the feedback for it. So think about it – in what ways do young people ‘do’ something in the church, that they can be praised for – that is quite meaningful? Colouring in a picture and showing it, really isnt competence inducing for a 12yr old. (especially when they’ve been in a committee in primary school)

The third is Autonomy. Which on the face of it might infer that they want to be independent, and this is partly correct, but it is a sense that they have responsibility and possibility to make decisions on aspects of things that directly affect them, having influence in the important. So – what about the youth group, or the church that young people might be important that young people could or should have influence over? Well if theyre an integral part of the church, then i might suggest almost everything. Only having a say in whether to play table tennis or indoor football may be a start, but its barely an important one. Chap Clark (Adoptive church, 2018) suggest that young people could have a say in the content or subject matter of the sermons in church. Maybe with that level of participation, young people might invest in church further. With a direct line to my youth pastor as a tennager, the youth group would make some suggestions to him, back in the 1990’s. It was great to hear on a sunday what he knew we thought was important. And not be patronised or ignored.

Think about all the aspects of the youth group, or the aspect of church – what role do you want each of the young people to play?

What might you need to do to open up the space so they can? challenge barriers? challenge assumptions? create spaces where young peoples voice can be heard? (and this not be a one off) If any church is serious about young people being more than token, more than passive consumers, then as adults, youth leaders and volunteers our role is to create the space, it is also to provide the support for developing the risk taking.

As a reminder, here is Roger Harts ladder of youth participation, which helps to give the rungs and grades of participation for young people.

Image result for youth participation

It might be said then, that increasing young people’s participation isnt just a nice to do – its actually what they need. Beyond connection, competence and autonomy are shot through the participation ladders higher rungs, decision making, doing stuff, creating things, taking risks – all deeply connected to a young persons needs (whether they know it or not).

Naturally, there are some areas in a youth group in which young people can have more participation than others (the games rather than the faith content..often) – it can also be said that some young people are more likely to be given roles than others – its usually the:

  • ones with the leadership potential
  • Right gender, race or ability…
  • extroverts
  • the oldest
  • the loudest
  • those known the longest
  • the most well behaved.

But what about the others? might a church be setting itself up to be accused of favouring the strongest (rather than the less visible) for participation, – is this theological ? After all – who did Jesus prefer. The irony is that ones who are likely to have participation opportunities in church, are as likely to be those who have them in school. So – the least get left out twice. The opportunities for participation might need to be adapted to the persons in the group. fancy that.

So – what kind of role do you want young people to have in their local church? or their youth group?

You might be content with them only having a token role in the life of the whole church, then dont be surprised if they only seem to have a token faith, or a token investment back. ‘The more we invest in young people the more they are likely to invest in their faith’ is a paraphrase from Christian Smith seminal 2003 book. Do you, does the church have increased and full participation as a main aim – but what kind of participation is actually possible for the 11 year old or 14yr old?

If you want young people to stay, and children beyond messy church and sunday school – then increasing participation in the local church is crucial. Its almost the only way. Its why when they have experienced it, ‘just going’ to a ‘event or festival’ might seem boring in comparison. Its participation free.

Without participation young people might get bored. And thats not because they need greater entertainment, its that they need greater respect and involvement. Relationship, Competance and Autonomy – might churches, and youth groups be places where these deep needs of young people are met? They might only be met through increasing participation. So – what role do you want them to play in the faith community? – what role do they want?

References:

Joined up – Danny Brierley, 2003 ( a chapter on participation)

Human Being, Bryan, Jocelyn, 2016 – On personal motivation/goals and a consideration of Deci and Ryan.

Adoptive Church, Chap Clark, 2018

Faith Generation, Nick Shepherd, 2016

Soul Searching, 2003, Christian Smith/ Denton

The following Anvil Journal has pieces on Participation and Empowerment – might be worth a read.