My most recent post highlighted the problem of developing practices of youth work due to the social or moral Anxiety about young people. The fear of young people being victims of crime, the fear of anti social behaviour, the fears of poor education or the less than specific ‘life outcomes’. These fears perpetuated by the media, create a narrative and cause policies and initiatives, often knee jerk and short term to be done ‘to’ young people and communities, the majority of which dont work.
In the piece I suggest an alternative.
A part of me hopes that the desire of faith groups and organisations to work with young people has a purer motive, for the good of young people, to develop their gifts and social capacity, to help them become contributors and participants in a local world that they are game changers… however, though knife crime, or poverty, or loneliness do not feature highly in the anxious attitude churches especially have about young people,
it is often the status anxiety of the church that causes them to regard working with young people as a necessity
It is not the anxiety of the young person that a church might develop working with a group of young people, it is more often the anxiety regarding the status of the church itself. Its very existence might be at stake if young people are not involved in it.
There is also another subtle anxiety that a church may develop.
If a church does not have young people in it, and neither does it act in a youthful way, then it begins to be regarded as inauthentic. This is the conclusion of Andrew Root, who suggests that one of the reasons that churches are embracing contemporaryness is that it stops them feeling old, and old is not a marker of authenticity in todays secular culture. I have written extensively on this on a previous post, and this is here: Have churches embraced youthfulness – but given up on young people? .
The danger of an anxiety ridden church, is that young people become the feel-good factor. It can often be the case that people comment ‘its nice just to have the young people’ churches. Understandably so, as it can help an older congregation feel as though the baton is being passed on. There is significant mourning of the closure of a youth ministry practice, or heightened memories of when ‘there were 50 kids in the sunday school’ – because thats when it seemed there was the energy and ‘feel good factor’ through the presence of young people.
Status anxiety is currently rife in the church, and young people can often be viewed as the solution to that anxiety. No doubt younger people can give energy to a faith community, vision and creativity. But status anxiety and using young people as the solution immediately casts a strain on the ethics and motives for developing working with young people.
If its Status anxiety of the institution that is one of the motivating factors for developing work with young people, then this is more selfish than being anxious about young peoples welfare themselves. It’s an internal worry, an existence worry. It’s trying to alleviate institutional pain through developing practices with young people, they are pawns in a strategy.
But anxiety cannot be the principle reason, and to be fair it isnt all the time. Yet it can often be.
It would be better if a church community did at least have social or emotional anxiety about young people and this spurs them on to work with them. The tragedy is that, as Naomi Thompson identified in ‘Young people and the church since 1900’ the church is guilty of farming out the work with young people to professionals and only gaining from it by chucking money at their own problem. There’s no doubt money is still needed in spades. But accompanying this is systematic change. And the deep stomach clenching compassion for young people across every community and town. Have this and make disciples first. Make this the primary worry and anxiety.
It’s status anxiety that affects the church’s performance (Vanhoozer, 2014 p186) a desire for success might cause marketing to be deployed and hope for creating an attractive church. An attractive church is one that is low in status, vulnerable and follows the way of the Cross. Subversive ministry with young people values and respects them in a world that markets and targets them.
Young people might not be the answer to the church’s status anxiety. In that way they become nothing better than an outcome or target and our objectives relay a selfishness. Young people deserve better.
Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age
Thompson, Naomi, Young people and the church since 1900, 2018
Vanhoozer Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding , 2014