Young people are the saints of the present, not the church of the future. 

There can be two perspectives, in regard to how young people are viewed in the church, actually scrap that, maybe theres three. All influence the way in which people in churches develop ministries and so they’re important to reflect on, some more common than others, all impact the ongoing way which young people are treated, and then this impacts upon how they are discipled.

The ‘not there yet’ perspective;

This has come about through a number of ways. The most obvious one being that young people are often viewed in transitional stages, ie ‘not quite children, but not yet adults’, Young people can be placed against transitional frameworks from human development, and are then thus ‘not there yet’ because they are the ones always developing, changing and trying to become something. What this does is develop a concept of young people as learners. Something Nick Shepherd alludes to in Faith Generation (2016) he is not alone. But it means that because young people are ‘not there’ yet they need to learn to know ‘how to be there’ , becoming recipients of teaching, and being only viewed as learners, because ‘they aren’t there yet’ .  The not there yet is also in the tool kit for the youth evangelist, the trick being that young people aren’t listened to or with to hear about their faith perspective, but that, stereo-typically, they are given a new plumbline to measure themselves against – to be told ‘they aren’t there yet’ if they haven’t prayed a prayer (but have been confirmed), they’re not there yet if they haven’t ‘recommitted’ or ‘been baptised in the spirit’ or something else new to measure themselves, thus creating a need that only the evangelist can fill. Its a ‘not there yet’ perspective that is the starting point. But its not just the evangelist, think about the processes needed for ceremonies in the church – how often is it inferred that young people ‘aren’t there yet’ – to participate? Then theres the old one of ‘young people as ‘tomorrow church’… but ive said enough….it’s also linked to the ‘potential’ perspective..

The ‘scary’ perspective

Also known in youth work terms as ‘The Daily Mail’ perspective. Think of all the media words and their connotations and then what does that do as an image of young people. Yes news is only news because it is bad news, and probably only in local papers do good news stories exist about young people ( which is great) but young people are unfairly generalised to be wary of for the actions of a few, in a way that all motorists aren’t thought of for a serious RTA or others.  Think it doesn’t matter? When churches start using the words ‘disengaging’ to describe how young people aren’t involved in church, then the proof of this is evident. Or other phrases like ‘young people outside society’ then its clear where this influence comes from. Its not a biblical view of young people, or society. Language shapes understanding, and so words like ‘Youth’ ‘Chav’ ‘Disengaged’ portray meaning, which can cause churches to close ranks, and avoid being involved, and creates distances.

The ‘precious’ perspective

‘We need to keep them safe’ is the cry! So because the world is pronounced as a scary place ( because it is full of other ‘youth’ who act Scary) – then Safety measures are brought in to keep young people in the church away from these horrible horrible things that might damage them. Tactics such as busyness ( be at 3 youth services a week), alternatives (lets go to Soul Survivor, instead of Reading & Leeds), Guilt ( Jesus wouldn’t want you to mix with those friends)  all very subtly are out-workings of the precious perspective. It fits a youth alternative culture form of youth ministry that Brierley attributes to Billy Graham (2003, All Joined up), when avoiding the youth scenes of the day (in the 1960’s-1970’s) was done through the development gradually of Christian youth subcultures and was continually fed. It is not that these things aren’t important, but if they stem from churches, church leaders and even Christian parents who themselves were part of the same scene- having a ‘precious perspective’ of young people then this has implications for the young person themselves.

So, whats the alternative?  Have I got the right answer waiting at the bottom of this article? not yet, ive got two examples.

When I was early into youth ministry 20 or so years ago, as a training team we had a question for someone, I cant remember who, who was talking about evangelism and youth ministry back then. We asked them “what do you do when you don’t know the faith position of the group, and you’re giving a talk? , when some have become Christians, others haven’t? (I’m embarrassed by the question now..) the response was – just treat them all as disciples and you wont go far wrong.

There was a discussion on Radio 5 the other day about Dev Patels new film, ‘Lion’ and why the younger Dev Patel (in the movie) and also Dev Patel when he was a child (playing the child character in Slumdog Millionaire, a few years ago) aren’t likely to feature in Oscar nominations. And there are other child actors that could easily be mentioned, such as those in ET. The response from one of the contributors, Danny Boyle, was that it is very difficult to distinguish with a child actor their performance and also what the director of the film is enabling to be seen in the shot. There is no doubt that a child has to perform, but the person who creates the right environment for that performance is given more of the credit. It also wants to protect young actors from the limelight too early. However, the view in the industry is that the acting of the child is the directors responsibility.  The director helps the young actor rehearse, to act accordingly in the scene, to feel their way through the props, context and environment and be guided by the other actors around them. how might this be translated as a metaphor for young people in the church.

What if young people are Saints called  and being directed by God?

Already. Now and in the present.

Being called by God is one aspect that makes a Human distinct from the animal world (amongst other things, Baltasar, Theodrama pt 2, Vanhoozer, 2005). And if young people are saints called by God, then the responsibility for the church and youth ministry is to create environments (direct scenes?) where rehearsal and performance of the saints in the church and the world can occur. Undoubtedly Biblically young people receive the vocal call of God.

The Saint, according to Wells (2005) is someone who knows their place in the drama, in the sidelines but also with purpose (what purpose in the Kingdom are young people acting towards?) , a saint gathers community (is not alone- essential for young people, and us all), a saint is faithful instead of violent, a saint is aware of failings and these give God glory, a saint is in the world where its tense to show an alternative, loving way.

What if young people are treated, not just as disciples but also as saints, directed by God?

Maybe the view of young people as ‘not there’ ‘feared’ or ‘precious’ have clouded a view of discipleship and sainthood available for young people in local churches across the UK, a safe religion is not an attractive one, neither is one that is only about avoiding the good things that exist in the world. What those of us responsible for young people in churches have the responsibility for is not equipping young people for saint hood, but realising that they are already saints, already being directed by God and so our responsibility is to create environments where their acting as saints can take place, and their role of saints, often prophetic saints in the church, is welcomed and encouraged.

Young People as people called as saints currently under the directorship of God.

As CS Lewis said : ‘Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbour, act as if you did. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him’ . We need to act in churches as if young people are called as saints of God.

References

Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation,  2016

Wells S , Improvisation, 2005

Vanhoozer, K Drama of Doctrine, 2005, Faith Speaking and Understanding 2014

 

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Youthwork: the importance of developing young peoples narrative identities

Johanna Wyn and Rob White say something, i think, quite profound about the views of adolescent development; one that certainly youthworkers in faith based settings, and schools should reflect on, they propose that:

Product Detailsa relational concept of youth offers an approach to understanding the social meaning of growing up that can take into account the diverse ways in which young people are constructed through social institutions, and the ways in which they negotiate their transitions (Wyn and White, 1997)

What they compare their approach to is many of the psychological, and physiological theories of youth development which can objectify this period of time for a person as a stand alone moment, and more significantly can imply that there are correct, uniform ways of completing this phase of life, and by not being ‘correct’ a young person can quickly be deemed at risk, deviant of different.

So, what Wyn and White are suggesting is that instead of  ‘youth’ being a period of transition, instead it is a time of construction.

Some of you might have more likely come across David Elkinds book, All grown up and no place to go (1998), in it, following work by Piaget, Elkind suggests that at some point during adolescence a young person will begin to create personal fables of themselves, doing so with a concept of past, present and future experience. It might only be when the person has the capacity, mentally, to do this that it occurs, but at this point something shifts in a young persons thinking. But they can start to go beyond the here and now, they might be able to describe themselves differently and play around with word play, however, it is the fable construction that i think is interesting, especially as it ties in with Wyn and White above, that youth is a time for construction and negotiation of social institutions, because at the same time, this negotiation involves a young person being able to narrate their own fable for coping/surviving/flourishing within it.

We are heading towards thinking about narrative identity.

A Narrative is another way for saying story. Bruner says that as humans we either reflect on our lives pragmatically (the facts and figures) or we understand the world through stories (human wants, desires, goals, motivations). It is part of ourselves to tell ourselves stories during every day to help us through incidents and experiences, it is a story of a memory that is positive that might help us through something unpredicted, it might be that we survived something previously that means we can do it again. Some of these stories have themes, such as agency ( i survived with purpose and confidence), Redemption ( it was tough but i made it through, or something happened to rescue me), Communion (i was helped and we got through the ‘love’ of someone motivated me) and without probably realising it, we tell ourselves these stories, as adults all the time. However, when it comes to difficult or trauma situations, we can find ourselves only being able to tell half a story  (as we are still living it in the moment) or a contaminated one – (all was going fine, then this happened, and i lost it, got angry and i am never going to go and see that person/dentist/doctor again- for example).

However, the stories we tell, that shape our narrative have a huge impact. For if we can tell ourselves positive redemptive stories of past experiences, then we are likely to be courageous or confident about a situation. (after all it didnt go too bad last time, or the pain was worth it..) The narrative identity provides us as with a unity of the horizons of our past, and our future in order that we can make sense of actions in the present. McAdams and Mclean state that; ‘Narrative Identity is a persons internalised and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to  provide life with some degree of unity and purpose’

If any of you have seen the film Inside Out (2015) by Disney,  you will have seen an example of how a traumatic event brought chaos to the narrative identity of a young person, all the thoughts about their life that were in positive joyful stories became affected by one event. The trauma became the lens, and the young person struggle to renegotiate and reconstruct new stories, redemptive, agency stories about how she could cope in the future. What you might have noticed was that it was not the events per se that cause the negative emotions, and what might (if it wasnt a Disney film) have resulted in depression or mental health concerns, but it was the narrative created by the young person towards the event. They had disunity of themselves and couldnt cope, and no experience of a similar situation to overcome.

So, Youth is a time of construction. Constructing narratives about 1000’s of interactions, about 5-10 institutions, about friends, about heroes, about hobbies, about skills.

But where do they get the tools to create stories, well, easy, for many young people it is from their childhood, the stories they hear, the archetypes of characters, the arc of storylines from Mr Men books to Harry Potter, to watching films. Crucially a young person may conceived of many narrative types and assimilated their own to it, before that have the mental capacity in adolesence to construct their own stories.

At this point it is worth reflecting on the roles of the people then to support young people. If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions,

If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions, care givers, friends and the like – what might be the best role for a youthworker to take in this? especially when a young persons mental health ( and incidents of mental health issues amongst young people are rocketing) is at stake?  There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church

There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church sunday school – it could have the same institutional feel. Quite interestingly if a young person doesnt have power or autonomy in a situation then they are more likely to construct a negative narrative about, one that demotivates- and to a point we all know what that is like. So, even though it might be a personal narrative, socio and economic factors are in play, for not only might less opportunities for a young person be available if they are from a ‘poorer’ background, but the ability for them to have choice about their destiny is reduced, as is their autonomy, agency or power. What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it

What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it isnt that there is a scheme for disadvantaged young people and they are labelled as such, it is that they might have no choice but to go on it… or be sanctioned by the job centre, or be forced to leave a care home. Even if something deemed positive is presented – are they as likely to have choice in the matter..? its so important..

The key ways in which a young person is given affirmative tools for narrative construction are, yes the stories from an early age, but also the space to reflect and talk, someone who will listen and affirm them, and some one who will help them to understand their experiences and reappropriate them in their own story.

It like being what Coburn and Wallace say youthwork should be – a ‘border pedagogy’ (2010)- someone who is  between the institutions, in the gaps, to help learning across it all. Someone who helps a young person by asking them reflective questions and helps them make sense of the world. The tragedy is that those who want to fund youthwork want to put youthworkers in institutional roles, in delivery agencies- rather than in the gaps where they can be most helpful and helping a young person form constructive, and reappropriate negative- narrative identities.

What is additionally interesting, is that young people assimilate their narrative identity, like we all do, with an emerging larger story about their place in the world, of life purpose or goal – or ideology, meta narrative (dont tell me they dont exist)

If you’re not that interested in faith based youthwork/ministry – then maybe look away now – but the ideology could equally apply as something like socialism, marxism or agnosticism.

During the period of narrative construction, the young person is also trying to discover how their life story includes, resonates with and is part of the bigger life stories in the world, such as religion, ideologies, beliefs or values. The mind of the young person is trying to make sense of the world and therefore is asking questions about faiths as they see contradictions, or inauthenticity – but also because they want it to make sense, and be true enough to adopt, and form their narrative identity around the ideologies that they are part of.

So, let me ask these questions –

  • For the young person who has been brought up a faith – and leaves the ‘church’ before the age of 12 – are they likely to incorporate the ideology of that faith into their life narrative?  maybe – maybe if they find an alternative, or had a bad experience of ‘leaving’ .
  • Alternatively how might a young person adopt a faith as a life narrative if they only join it at 14-15?
  • What damage is done to a young persons narrative if a church rejects them, but they wanted and needed the ideology of faith to motivate and guide them? –
  • How might the young person narrate the church as an institution, verses its story of faith as an ideology..?

These arent easy questions – but have we ever considered them in youth ministry in relation to a young persons narrative identity, and what it might mean that their identity becomes wrapped up in the story or stories of the faith?

For a young persons narrative identity in youth ministry – what kind of story do they feel part of when they join, or as they have been part? – is it a story at all – or moral propositions? what purpose does having faith have in the long term and how might that create motivational goals for a young persons identity and behaviour? It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith

It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith institution, or an ideology. I remember at school, lots of people became vegetarian aged 15, because a teacher could show a video of cows being inhumanely slaughtered and animal welfare being shoddy, it sickened enough of my friends not to eat meat for a few weeks, but it wore off. But a very simple ideology and message had a two week effect for most, and one or stuck with it and became green party activists. Is that the same effect of simple presentations of other faiths? Or do young people maybe want something they can believe in and find purpose and meaning in for their life story, purpose and future. I guess that’s what costly discipleship of any faith might look like.

As youthworkers, maybe our role on the streets and in the schools, is that helping young people make sense of the world, but it is also to help them to reflect on their life’s experiences to form positive unifying stories that enable themselves to have confidence, agency, purpose and determination, and that often used word resilience ( but i think i am using it right) . If we’re working with young people who have less opportunities and choice, then this will affect their life narrative – and so regardless of the scenario we need to promote autonomy and choice as much as is possible, as a way of helping their mental health. And then, as an addition, the philosophical questions of life may be significant to a vast number of young people, how might faith become coherent as part of their story, so that they play a role in whole community and human flourishing through it.

Youthworkers in the spaces, all the more reasons why its good to have conversations with young people.

References:

Coburn Annette, Wallace, David, Youthwork in schools and communities, 2012

Elkind, David, All grown up and no place to go, 1998

McAdams, Dan, The stories we live by, 1993

McAdams Dan, Kate McLean Narrative Identity, Current Directions is psychological science Vol 22 issue 3, pp 233-238, 2013

Wyn J and White, D, Rethinking Youth, 1999

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