What if young people are viewed as Theologians?

When it comes down to it, language is a powerful tool. How the church, amongst other organisations constructs practices and policies is often due to the implications caused by the descriptive language of people, from disabled people ( people with a disability, thus need ‘special help’ to be ‘able’), people deemed poor, or specifically Young people. In a previous post here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Np I critique the more common language descriptors that young people seem to have inherited in churches, these include ‘learners’, the ‘not there yet’ and the ‘deficit’ or ‘development’ theories. I conclude in that piece that young people should be considered as Saints in the present church, not only heroes and leaders for the future one.

What descriptors like ‘anti- social’ or ‘adolescent’ do is provide the church and youth ministry with a whole host of descriptors or views of young people. From Sociological, educational, psychological, social, economical, generational ( Gen x, that sort of thing- sigh), these seem to be common in trying to understand young people, or be common disciplines to draw from in the pursuit of trying to find the next best strategy, model or method for youth ministry and endless search to find the one way to keep or prevent young people leaving the church.

Much from a faith perspective is made of creation verses like Genesis 3, which describe the making of man in Gods image. But that seems to be regarded in substance and soul, rather that it inform the practices of youth ministry, which seem to use the above disciplines as the starting point. Within youth ministry also, there are a whole host of task orientated descriptors, when it comes to tasks that are expected of them, they are often to ‘evangelise’ to their friends, to go on ‘mission’ trips, to ‘attend’ groups, to ‘lead’ sessions, to ‘learn’, to be ‘disciples’. Yes often they are to be ‘disciples’. And this can be contentious. The discussion about the order of  salvation & discipleship is tiresome, but relevant, as it often just means that young people are subject to shallow messages to reaffirm a conversion, rather than experience something actually deeper. Discipleship is a complicated concept, one to leave for now. but one that can often appear absent in the drive to reach and connect with young people. Or even in the pursuit to enable them to conform in christian practices.

What i want to suggest is that a theological view of young people, might conclude that young people are theologians. 

Whoa, hang on a bit, am I serious?  Young people as Theologians? 

Theologians are the geek guys who do dull sermons, theyre the book writers and the academics. Image result for theologianThats who the theologians are, and we dont need them, ‘we just need a simple faith’ , the easy stuff, something relevant, attractive… and theres no way young people want to be theologians, no they want to be nurses, sports physios, teachers and artists, not theologians… 

the trouble is, young people are already theologians. Its too late. 

Thats the problem. Theology is deemed to be for the experts and the geeks or clegy and academics. Theology is in everything we do in churches in youth ministry, we operate as theologians, we speak theology, it is in the every day.

But not only from a creative point of view are young people made in the image of God, but those made in the image of God, as part of the human condition is a continual striving for searching, finding out and curiosity, this is borne out in Pauls speech in Antioch, in Acts 17;27, where Paul reiterates that there is a continual searcImage result for theologianh after God in the hope that he might be found.

A person is on a continual search. They might not study God, per se, but be consciously and unconsciously studying the world to find a source of meaning, a crumb of comfort. Or a way to make sense of the purpose in their life, to adopt a story that enables everything they know to fit together, and this might be a God story ( a sacred myth) or a different one. It is where sacred myths are helpful for young people. But what it means is that young people and all of us, are on the look out for something to believe in to help us make sense, or in a continual state of denial of the need for a story, and be possibly deeply troubled, confused and be struggling.

So what I want to suggest is that it might be more helpful to reflect on the possibility of young people, not as disciples, or converted or evangelists, but as theologians. 

If in working with young people in our churches and organisations we consider young people to be theologians, what might that mean to how resources, programmes and practices are for and with them? How might they be treated differently as a result? If nothing else it means that forms of youth ministry are a theological, and practical task.

It is worth breaking it down a little bit, when I suggest that young people are theologians, they could be one of or all of the following, and what I plan to do over the next few weeks, is to expand further on these concepts of young people as theologians, some I have mentioned above. They might be a combination of the following, rather than these in linear development.

Children as innocent theologians, for whilst age might be a social construct, there is undoubtedly an innocence to the curiosity and intuition of a child in their spiritual awareness, it is from their pure heart that often truths flow out of innocent connections with God.

Curious Theologians, This might be all of us, but maybe most notably in those who deliberately search, who ask questions, who find God in the process of the search, the depth of the soul. This ties in with the references above, but curiosity is part of being human, ongoing life long learning, ongoing life long theologising and being brought into new understandings and expansive understandings of God. Image result for curiosity

Intuitive Theologians;  This thought is common in youth ministry, and my next post will develop this further. So, in the mean time, it might be worth thinking about the creative spaces where young people are intuitive, make intuitions and interpretations, and have the desire for deep meaning, of sense made in the world, for something to believe that might be true. But also that it is in the ‘how’ of something being done that young people might discover the ‘why’.  Anyway, this is a teaser for a post on young people as intuitive theologians later in the week.

Practical Theologians. Young people not only want something to be true. It needs to be Useful. Faith mot just a crutch. But also a hope. Not a self help guide to doing anything ( MTD, Christian Smith, 2005) , but the daily encounter with God in the midst of the ordinary that directs, guides, prompts action and is in dialogue. Its not in the arguments over truth and apologetic where God might be found, but in the everyday spaces.

Performing Theologians. This is part of my subject for my dissertation, and ive written about this previously, follow this link: Helping young people perform, not just learn theology. But it might be worth exploring more, the concept that not only might young people be intuitive theologians and practical theologians, but that how might we enable them to perform theology. For what i am convinced we are good at in youth ministry is creating a whole load of christian practices, such as services, youth events, festivals and concerts, yet often these entertain, reach and make faith relevant. When it comes to performing the kind of life Jesus asked of us, and young people, what might that be like to perform, to perform acts of sacrificial love, mercy , justice – performing out of love for God and in the world to transform it. To be hope in communities, not hope in holy spaces. Young people as public performers of theology. Again, ill develop this further in the next few weeks. But safe to say, that performing theology is not the ‘end game’, performance enables intuition and formation and vice versa.

So, this might be teaser or a turn off. My concern is that even in Christian faith based youth ministry, a theological understanding of personhood, and young people is rarely talked about, or even the starting point for developing approaches to mission, church or youth ministry. Context often rightly does, cultural studies (less rightly), church growth ( less said the better) or ‘what we used to do, or have always done’ , and so the writing a few posts on these in more detail in the upcoming weeks will be to look at them from a range of angles, and consider their implications for working with young people. Thinking theologically about young people, might just enable them to be viewed as theologians. I think this is a better starting point. And lets develop language and ministry, mission and practice around the ongoing belief that young people are theologians first and foremost, and that spaces and practices are created to form them as theologians, who find, interpret and perform out of the faith in the everyday, in the practical and the prophetic. Young people as Theologians first and foremost in youth ministry, a starting point.

 

References

Von Balthasar, A Reader – (his reflection on Persons as searching)

Dean, Kenda (et al) Starting right, Thinking Theologically about youth ministry

Dean, Kenda, & Root A, The Theological turn in youth ministry

Shepherd, N, Faith Generation

Smith C , Soul Searching, 2005

Vanhoozer, K  The Drama of Doctrine (2005), Faith Speaking Understanding ( 2014) 

 

 

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The emotional reality of the exits in Youthwork and Ministry

Sometimes i wonder if the way in which young people are treated we think that they are some kind of alien species. Often it is because various institutions and maybe even youthworkers to justify their own existence and specialism, have created a narrative about young people that gives them special status, using terms like transition, or identity, or others to describe the age group. However, i wonder whether in the treating of young people as an alien species – we forget that their capacity or the effect of the actions or youth work & ministry on their emotions. Forgetting that they have them.

Why do i say this?

Well in the world of the street based youthwork, most people will talk about how it can be unpredicatable, and the connections superficial, irregular even. That the young people who are ‘most in need’ of detached youthwork might be said to be at risk, disadvantaged (and im only using these words as examples) , that they might act in certain ways, believe certain things – but what about the young person we meet on the street who might be a person with emotions?  (and im not ‘just’ talking about anger.)

But even these young people, a year or two later ask after previous workers, ones who ‘meant’ something to them. Ones they connected with, ones that left them after a year, or two. Even if there was only a few conversations a few shared memories, a few moments over a year – these meant something, two people connected in the public space. There was an emotional connection.

What of the youth group?

Might we stop to think about the emotional connections that young people make in their groups, clubs and churches with peers, workers and leaders?  Yet, when we think about young people as having emotional connections – how does this affect the styles of youth ministry that they experience?  So, not unlike above – does the church give young people temporoary connections with year on year workers? Or does the education structure of a church mean that young people are asked to move up to different classes and not maintain a long term connection with the same person for a long term ( in effect copying school) – so that one or two people develop deep connections – rather than young people making connections group by group.

Of course then there are situations where the youthworker is only around for 2-3 years. Again – does the church think about the emotional connections that could be built up – then affected when the 3 years is up..?

In Jocelyn Bryans book Human Being (2016)  she describes how that emotions are an important source of information and communication, and in addition the emotion displayed is linked to the cognitive appraisal of the situation. So for example, two different young people will react differently to the same mark in an essay paper because for one person it is evaluated against a need to have got a higher mark, the other by a personal desire to have passed. Their evaluation of a situation, in line with goals ( ie to achieve) or thoughts affects the emotions that are displayed. Then as obviously as our evaluations of situations change the way we react to the situations emotionally does too.

The problem occurs when the result of the actions we have taken in youth work and ministry has created hardened fearful and untrusting young people. There is much talk about resilience in regard to young people – the key factor in resilience isnt being able to cope – it is having connections and support structures that are meaningful in order that decisions can be supported or endorsed. Someone doesnt have resilience because they have it, it is a community factor.

So what kind of community does the world of youth ministry/youth work present to young people if it acts in a way that prevents depth, stability and inconsistency? If young people become hardened – because they once emotionally gave and trusted, and were let down – then has the person who was meant to be for them let them down even further – after all the teacher/social worker even Parent might be subject to their own agenda – but the ‘youth’ worker…

When our practices and Ministries promote the gaining of experience by the participants, gap years, college placements, short term projects, rather than thinking ‘this is about young people and they have emotions… how will this affect them, how will this help them.. how am i taking care of them..?’

There is lots of research done on youth Mentoring projects – whereby most of the data suggests that in a one to one mentoring relationship there needs to be a minimum of one year for real benefits to start to take place! A year – thats often 3 times longer than most student term placements! But there are even more benefits when this time is extended. At Durham Youth for Christ, I am so proud that we have been able to mentor young people for anything up to four or five years, with consistent staff in part, and even students who have volunteered for 3-4 years, and the effect on the young people – who now want to become mentors themselves is quite amazing. The young people have been treated in way that their whole persons, not just ‘attending school’ or ‘behaviour’ transformation, but that they are people with emotions who need to be tended to, respected, understood and to a point taken care of. Most young people leave being mentored with us in their own choice, again when they are ready, not when a programme ends, it is when they feel confident, independant. Sometimes, we as youthworkers find it harder to let go, and thats not an emotional crutch thing, but that we also feel emotional, and have invested in young people, giving of ourselves in the process, often giving and giving again. For neither should we be robots either.

It would be odd for people to not care when someone leaves the scene of their lives. In a Biblical context – the Easter story contains many occasions where the Disciples were full of grief, or wept at the death of Jesus, or theres the desperation of Peter – where will I go Lord? – when the pending leaving of Jesus was announced. There are entrances and exits in the ongoing drama of redemption (Vanhoozer 2005; 39). Yet when some of the methods of youth work and ministry exacerbate the leaving, then what might that say about how young people are thought of – just for someones experience? just a step on a professional ladder? a person whose emotions dont matter – theyll get over it… but thats just the point – should the institutions and organisations expect that of young people?

Maybe the best leaders arent the ones that are paid. The best are those that stayed. Who stick with young people. And that is where i know i have failed. Knowing that being paid in youth ministry is so temporary it becomes hard as a worker to give, for their sake or my own. Fear or self protection. But if i feel it, what of the young people themselves when they experience may workers, projects, volunteers – why would they invest again – except to show anger against the systems and structures.

I hope its not a patronising thing to suggest that working with young people has got to recognise that it is an emotional experience, it connects people, it involves them, and in active choice young people will choose experiences, like we all do, that would seek to create the best emotional experience for them. If a young person knows that they might get hurt again – why would they bother? – unless of course they are forced to participate.