Rethinking learning styles in Youth Ministry; Helping young people have an active faith

In Youth Ministry – How might we use Learning styles? 

I know, there has been some talk recently about the validity of learning styles and whether they actually exist and are of value. there are some fascinating thoughts here:   But for the sake of what might be an interesting read, stick with me on this one. It not that kind of re-think that i am proposing. I am suggesting when it comes to faith- learning styles might be helpful.

Lets start from the beginning. When i was doing voluntary training in youth ministry and education back in 1996 and even work based training courses in the early 2000’s, the principle learning styles were the following, as it was said that people learned in one of these kind of ways:

Activist – they needed to ‘do’ something to learn it

Pragmatist – ‘it needs to be ‘useful’ applied to a real life situation

Reflector – ‘they need time to process the information and chew the cud of it’ 

Theorist – ‘ they need to know where it came from, that it is proved and validated’ 

(Of course, any theorist is switching off now, as none of what i have said is proven…. ) – and so, in Youth Ministry, especially in ready to use guides and in most session plans, there has become an implicit need to accomodate these learning styles.   Theres a game (with a reference), a piece of information, a way of reflecting on it (through prayer usually) and then ways of applying the learning to real life. The same might also be said of the anglican service, aspects of which are active, reflective, theory (the sermon?) and pragmatic- how it all applies.  For those of you that like to be known as millenials, which is none of you, these old fashioned learning styles have been updated, they are now VARK, and include:





though a look onto the worlds most popular search engine, and theres images like this;

Related image

So Learning styles are pretty complicated, because, by the looks of things, each of as humans are pretty complicated.

I am aware that Nick Shepherd, in his excellent faith generation (2016) suggests that young people need to be considered as more than learners, and i completely agree. What i am about to say backs this up. The question that I have pondered is;  might learning styles help in faith & discipleship more broadly?  And this is not just for young people. Nothing ever is.

If I could use the older learning styles for the purposes of what I am thinking. Just to save a bit of confusion. So for example, in the ongoing process of discipling people how might

  • faith be an active thing
  • faith be a pragmatic thing
  • faith be a reflective thing
  • faith be a theoretical thing

Because, what it can seem to be, and going on with what Nick Shepherd suggests, is that a large proportion of the activities of the church and for young people especially, they are regarded as learners, and so a huge amount of energy is spent on increasing their knowledge of the faith – through games, activities, sessions – and even for them, going to a worship event, is still to a point a learning experience that is largely cognitive, and thus reflective. If I used the newer learning styles, then I might be suggesting that young people need to ‘see’ faith, to ‘act’ it out, to ‘feel’ it , picture it and use their imaginations’ and so on.

As an addition, if we conceptualise what young people are as disciples as ‘actors’ who are on the stage of the world, needing to be trained to act in a myriad of situations the fullness of the gospel. Then as actors, we wouldnt expect Matt Damon, or Kiera Knightly to only learn their lines. That is only reading, not acting. An actor in most productions, especially theatre, needs to use their whole selves in the productions, to read the cues, to memorise, to improvise, mind, body, spirit.  Church might be a great place for young people to rehearse, but that shouldnt minimalise the encouragement that faith and discipleship might be a complex thing, encompassing action, reflection, usefulness and theory. All of which is key in how it is seen, heard, pictured, felt and imagined. Young people as performers of the christian faith – how how might the forming of them change as a result..?

Here might be a few examples for each

How might young people act out their faith? 

  1. If the play is about goodness (not being good- Balthasar, 1980) – then they need to see that the goodness they do is part of their performance, and then this ultimately translates into acts of justice, reconciliation and hospitality to their friends & enemies
  2. They act out their faith when they speak up against the oppression of others
  3. They act out their faith when they use their ideas and initiative to solve a community problem – like litter, or food waste, or poverty,
  4. They act out their faith when they get chance to lead, decide and speak, being given the opportunity to how others their learning.
  5. They act out their faith when they are tuned to hear God prompting them in the everyday decisions and decide to follow.

In a way the reflective and Theorist aspects of faith are pretty well covered. From Prayer to bible studies. Reflection and theory takes up a large proportion.

What is interesting is that recent research shows that young people want faith, not to be ‘true’ but to be ‘useful’. Now, there are dangers with this, a faith that provides only usefulness for young people seems to stack faith solely as the problem solver for young people, and only an individual young person will know how ‘useful’ faith is for them. And Christian Smith in 2005 highlighted that a faith that ‘helped young people do what they wanted’ permeated in aspects of youth ministry. Leaving that aside, what might it mean for faith to be ‘useful’ for young people, and be something that on one hand might be ‘pragmatic’ .

It might be useful because it helps a young person conceive of a way of shaping their life story

It might be useful because it can help them answer some of lifes big questions, like personal purpose

It might be useful because it offers hope – the end of the drama, has an ending! 

It might be useful because God offers presence throughout all of lifes activities

On the other hand, useful discipleship might be like doing the things that Jesus asked of the disciples, like find out iif anyone has food, finding the donkey or preparing the upper room, or catching fish. In the every day usefulness, God is at work and needing things to be done. 

Practical young people might need a practical faith.

Yes, young people ‘act’ out their discipleship in the mid week – like the rest of us do (!). I am just wondering about whether re thinking learning styles for ‘faith’ not ‘just’ the content of a session might be appropriate. If we have child actors in the kingdom, what might be the methods of ongoing formation that encourage active performances of faith, of following the ‘way’ of God in the world. Of course, it will help, if in using the other learning styles, that they ‘see’ faith, ‘feel it’ and understand it logically. – Where do young people ‘see’ faith?  or be in a place where they see ‘God at work’? and join in.

What i dont have is the imagination to provide all of what might be creative ideas to develop this thought further, however, if i put the concept out there of young people as performers of the gospel, not just hearers, lets shape how the church might work with young people in a way that has action and usefulness as as much of a priority as reflection and theory. Image result for action

After all we want young people to have an ‘active’ faith. So – let them perform…