Young people; What would you like the church to do for you?

The original title of this piece was going to be ‘The Future of youth ministry..who decides?’  because it was what I was thinking about as I was reflecting on a number of conversations, conferences and meetings that I have been involved in the lot few months. They all seem to go like this:

We need to decide on our Aims and objectives and go from there

Young people aren’t attending churches, we need to ensure that there’s more faith taught at home

its great to gather a whole load of professionals into a room to decide how we might reach _______ people

Maybe our next step is to raise some funding for a role

We need to get back to the gospel

And however, worthy these conversations are, and they are many. Far too often, far too regular, the decisions about the future of any faith based ministry are conducted by the gatekeepers of the faith, rather than the participants and receivers of the provision themselves. The future of youth ministry is in the hands of those who benefit from it, survived it, became leaders within it, and are now invested in it maybe financially, or those who represent the agencies of faith – the church.

This occurs in the local and national levels. A charitable organisation, that delivered detached Youthwork in the north east of England only governed by church volunteers/clergy (organisation now closed btw) , a charity deciding on its future direction has only clergy making decisions, all influenced by other factors, and not the 1000’s of young people whom it has met with in the last 20 years. By the way, this isn’t new.

As Naomi Thompson illustrated in her expensive book, Young People and the church since 1900, churches made decisions on the future of Sunday schools based on a number of factors, but not one, was on the effect on the local community, or the long term of legacy of closing the door on swaths of the local community. Largely it was based on a retention statistic. If only 2% of attendees of Sunday school kept going to church, then Sunday school itself needed to be adapted. And, individual churches made a change. That statistic increased to 4% over the course of 30 years. Why? because Sunday schools stopped being available to everyone on a Sunday afternoon, and moved to Sunday mornings to be ‘creche’ for the church going families.  Churches didn’t change and adapt to accommodate the 2 million chidden in Sunday schools in 1900, Sunday schools changed to try and improve a statistic. And largely, this was achieved successfully, 🤔;

If an element of disharmony did exist between churches and Sunday schools, then the move to the ‘family church’ model provided a way for then church to seize power or even to sabotage or bury their affiliated Sunday schools. Cliff emphasises that Hamiltons observation that 80% of Sunday school members were from non church background were reversed when Hamilton died in 1977 to 80% from church backgrounds. This was not due to any growth and thus highlights the failure of there strategy to retain non-church young people. Cliff attributes this to the failure of the church members to become mentors (to non church families/young people) that Hamilton proposed. A church of England report (1991) report acknowledged, if viewed as an evangelistic tool, ‘family church’ was unsuccessful. However it argues that it helped to retain young people in churches longer (7 1/2 yrs from 6) and doubling the % of those children becoming church members 2.3% to 4.8%. Arguably these changes in figures were more likely due to the decline in numbers of non church scholars in Sunday schools, than any growth in actual numbers of young people attending church. (Thompson, N, 2018, p49)

A few things to note here. Family church was a reaction to a statistic and was catastrophic in changing the dynamic of Sunday schools, it was also strategically implemented by the church with no consultation to the Sunday school and… damningly, done to bury Sunday schools which churches wanted rid of. The Statistic was improved, but at what cost…. and did it focus the church on spending more time with the most likely young people… ? Though if in 1977 young people spend 7 years in Sunday schools… I wonder how long this is 43 years later…

The example is particularly telling in that for Sunday schools we could replace this with ‘faith based youth work activities’ that exist today. The gravitational pull can be exactly the same ; ‘how many of the 1000’s of young people do you see in school, ever come to church’ and if there are decisions to made about funding – what part might the same statistics play. Recent church attendance statistics have formed the basis of many a blog post and discussion recently.

Who decided the future of youth ministry /faith based youthwork in the UK?   – the reality is that the same culture of statistics and church attendance affects the decision making today – still 50 years or more on. The thing that has barely changed is the church. (there were guitars in churches 50 years ago- as if that makes a difference)

So – might we ask a different question – from who decides on the future of youth ministry – and leaders within holding the proverbial keys – might there be bravery and ask instead:

Young people ; what would you like the church to do for you?

For- the future of UK youth ministry is barely going to reside in the organisations and colleges, neither is on twitter on blog post clicks. If the church is actually serious about young people – it will bend over backwards to not only hear their voice but also make changes and receive young people as contributors. Maybe also the future of youth ministry is less about service to the organisation and its numbers – members – but about young people.

Its also the Jesus question. If the begging man, bartimaus is on his knees, and Jesus asks him this question out of respect – then maybe surely , if young people are cast at the powerless party in their provision- then maybe this is a better question, that trying to do something, and keeping doing the same something, or doing the same something but trying to be bigger than last weeks something. Without actually giving young people the same dignity and respect that Jesus actually would. Come to me he said.

What might young people want the church to do for them? 

And if they say to **** off, then fine. But why might they say that – what’s the hurt? 

And if they say – we want a safe space… then… create it with them?

And if they say – we want you to help us with changing the world – then develop this together

And if they say- can we just sit and chat – then bring out load of activities, games, talks and ……. no just sit and chat….

But what’s the point you say? will it preach the gospel? will it bring young people into church?  

Im just not sure numbers and statistics and strategy have the greatest of track records in their influence of youth ministry, and neither church as the destination or presiding decision maker in the process.  Maybe those that hold power need to give it away…

Dear Young people – there’s a few thousand empty church buildings in the UK, and a group of people in churches who have no idea that you even exist at times, and presume a whole load of things about you. But they do often mean well, and would love to begin listening, and have a building, and sometimes a heart and time – what would you like us to do for you?  Could you tell us what we could do, with you, to help your life be better, to develop your passions and gifts, to build a community where you and we feel safer, to respond to the things that you’re struggling with? 

We might be small – but could you trust us with your answer and be part of making it happen together? 

What if we treated young people (in the church) as Human?

What is it about young people that seems to be that they’re treated as something other that human?

And, before someone in the church responds to say that they have a healthy and positive respect for young people, it’s the church that whilst it generates and maintains a good number of youth work and ministry provision, might also be in danger of regarding young people as subhuman.

My recent case in point is Neil O Boyles book ‘Under construction’ which – if you read my most recent two pieces, details and shows examples of where young people are patronised (told that sex is for having babies), given simple answers to complex problems (you’ll not become a child killer, if you don’t watch video games) , restricting their view of sin, shame and maintaining a cultural view that the individual is responsible (whatever the horror situation is dealt with) and infantalising young people (something is interactive because it has ‘puzzles’ and join the dots). On one hand I had many issues with that book. Not least its view of God. But its view of young people is equally as odd.

And if this is endemic – what does this say about how the evangelical church – and the wider church view young people?

Its as if young people are less than human people…- a few examples:

Talking of Sub-human – There can also be a view that young people (for arguments sake the over 11s- the post primary schools) are somehow a weird, alien, arrived from space species – this was picked up by Christian Smith in 2003 (p259), when he urged US churches to not hold this view, seeing that those who are over 11 upwards are closer to the adults who read or write blogs like this, or run churches or are congregants, than the children in Sunday school and messy church that seem to be viewed as treasures and darlings. All of a sudden theres a collective defeatist disempowering thst ‘we don’t know what to do with them’ yet, ‘them’ has been known for 6 years already. The challenges is the attitude fuels the approach, and approaches are often lacking. Of course changed young people aren’t going to like what they had aged 9, but they’re not necessarily going to like high energy games or simple bible stories or moral talks either. But they’re not aliens, just changed…

What they might like – is being treated as a human – not an alien

Or maybe even – not a project, or a puzzle to solve and then boast about.

These pages, articles and theres blogs everywhere on how to reach, teach, keep, pass on the faith to young people. Young people (once the church has stopped putting its foot in its mouth about sex) is also on high alert for the quick win, model, method, way for arresting the decline of young people in churches, and now that project ‘employ a youthworker’ has changed to ‘employ a resource church faith enabler for millenials’ or ‘an outreach worker for the 25-40’s’ its as if the church, worry stats included this week, has given up on trying.

However. Whilst young people (the 11-25’s) in this case are mentioned. What about the over 65s or under 11;s – are churches bursting their seams with them? No- thought not…

Then, as Andrew Root suggests, the desire for young people in the church is not for their sake anyway, its so that everyone else can feel not only that the institution may survive, its also that Youthfulness=Authenticity in todays culture – so increasing young people can help those involved in it to feel as though its up to date, its real. Somehow. (Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular Age, 2016) Young people then, aren’t treated as Human, but as signifiers of institutional relevance.

In few parts of these discussions – of church growth and young people , does the subject of actual young people, actual processes, mission, values, and human dignity appear. Its high reaction, responsive, soul searching and trying to do better. But what if the following…

Instead of trying to project, solve, judge , patronise or reach young people (no one talks about reaching the over 75’s…)

Because, as my most read piece, since it was published, suggests, young people are treated as human, when it has been established what role they have in it – just like everyone else – or more so.

Why not instead work on thinking about young people as humans? Fully human, fully who they are in the sight of God at this present moment- not in need of change, but as they are…

Think of them as not them – but us

Think of them as spiritual – and actually religious

Think of them as gifted – and our task to harness those

Think of them as having passions – and adding resource to enable these passions to be realised

Think of them not as without, not as deficit – but with character, with determionation – who already in the midst show a kind of resilience, resourcefulness that would put adults to shame

Think of them as not ‘the youth’ with a ‘youth’ room – but part of the church

Think of them not as tokens to be paraded, a group to have sympathy for – but like every other human – with a contribution to make within the places where contributions are made by everyone. Think of them as not done to, but those who create for themselves, and to be heard

Matt Haigs Book ‘Notes on a nervous planet’ says the following – in relation to all of us, and the state were in on the planet we currently occupy, what if we reminded young people, and we remind ourselves, of the collective humanity that we are all part.

‘Remind ourselves that we are an animal united as a species existing in this tender blue speck in space, the only planet we know containing life. Bathe in the sentimental miracle of that, define ourselves by the freakish luck of being alive, and being aware of being so. That we are all here on the the most beautiful planet we’ll ever know’

What if there was something about the very young people in your church and parish whose humanity imight be revealed to you? What if their place on this glorious planet was no more or less significant than yours – what if young people are aware of participating in something much bigger than they know yet – and they dont have those dreams and stories and actions quashed by the very adults who say that are working with them, because there’s a drive to be pure from sin all the time.

Maybe the first thing is not to talk about young people as if they’re not in the room. But they are. Not in the room about them…. and where their involvement is too purchase attendance tickets to the thing we think they might like. Hmm, some humanity there.

What if there isn’t a new model, method or idea – but what if theres just something to be said for listening, inviting, sharing space and enabling young people to belong, to do, and to be challenged, and have opportunities to flourish and make decisions.

Maybe if churches thought about young people as the humans that the other humans would like to be treated – then this might be a good first step.

Do I really need to make a theological case for treating young people as Humans, from the biblical material? No thought not, most of you youth workers recite it all anyway, and adults hear the same messages…; Created and made in the Image of God, Loved, gifted, persons who can be in conversation with God, in community, capable of feeling, emotion, intellect, generosity.. and participants in something God is calling them to – and that needs a conversation, respect and time – not a programme, a method or a model.

What if we began to reflect seriously about the humanity of ourselves, and the young people who are part of our communities, parishes, churches and groups?

And took what we might find seriously..?

Bryan suggests that ‘We understand who we are primarily through reflecting on the story of our lives. Every day we share stories about what happened to us and what we are anticipating or hoping for in our future, but each of these narratives is embedded in the broader stories of our family, the social groups we belong to , society, and beyond that to the unfolding history of the world’ (Bryan, 2016)

Locating and regarding young people as Human, and developing their true humanity is what we are to do – again, and as Bryan writes, and I conclude, with this to reflect on

‘An essential part of who we are is rooted in human beings as co-creators and participants in the unending story of God. It is the living story of God which defines who we are and who we become’  (Bryan 2016, p5)

How might young people be part of the stories of the church as they are?

How might church be part of the stories of the lives of young people?

How might church encourage the stories of young people as they participate in Gods call in the world?

And not just that, creative, quiet, loud, questioning, faithful, determined, thoughtful, considerate, loyal, you know – just like the rest of us…

 

References:

Christian Smith, 2003, Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Bryan, Jocelyn, 2016, Human Being

O Boyle, Neil, 2019 Under construction

Root, Andrew, 2016, Faith formation in a Secular Age

Haig, Matt, 2018, Notes on a nervous planet

 

 

Should discipleship be ‘action’ first?

Does anyone still use that phrase ;

its always the 20% of people in churches that seem to do 80% of all the work?

It got banded around for quite a while, though I’ve not heard it recently. It was, at best a passive aggressive way of encouraging people who only sat on pews every week to make more contributions in the life of churches. It neither rewarded those who did get involved, nor was much of an encouragement. However. We’ve moved on… haven’t we?

Though there is still a really ethereal conversation about discipleship that still happens, its as if there is a magical way that discipleship happens, that seems to be in need of being continually redefined, rejuvenated and energised. A cynic in me (yes there is one) might think that these attempts are to ‘sell’ the latest fad, model or concept, and with it a whole load of resources and practices. (and yes i do have an inner cynic)  The grown up in me might pose the question about whether there really is anything that can be humanly done about discipleship through churches. This is most pertinent when there are countless research on the ‘state of discipleship’ in churches (LICC have recently done one) . What they discovered that a significant number of active people in churches also self identified that they didnt feel that discipleship was happening. Yet, they were busy.

Maybe theres a few things to say here.

The first might be that a definition of discipleship that looks like Bible reading/prayer/study on a personal level might be genuinely not happening when a person is also involved in so much of the church’s activities. Its more group discipleship, than individual. Potentially.

So there may be a Definition problem.

There is also an expectation problem. Not unlike conversations about ecclesiology and models of churches (Healy 2001)- an almost impossible view of discipleship can act as a hindrance rather than an encouragement, its as if a ‘perfect’ process of discipleship is out there (though still yet to be defined) and until that happens there’s a striving, with often other metaphors like ‘whole life discipleship’ – that rarely about the struggles of life that include poverty, suffering, health and family issues – these can feel at times ‘in the way’ of ‘perfect’ discipleship. Almost that these are to be put to one side – God isnt in these… discipleship is somewhere else… at least that can be the implication. Discipleship doesnt = attendance or involvement – so what is it?  And theres nothing against the continual search – but the human search is for God, not for process or concept (Acts 17)

The problem with discipleship is not that we cant define it from the Greek (Mathetes) , not that we don’t see this as some kind of apprenticeship, or follower of Rabbi status (and i’m referencing Jo Dolbys PhD here) , or looking at Gospel discipleship – because thats been the church for 2000 years effectively – how to follow Jesus model/practice of it – but do it in the institutions of the church created since 70AD. The packages and resources have been written with every new discipleship package being better than the one before. It feels as if maintaining the church as an institution – with all the voluntary giving of time to enable this – doesn’t necessarily equate to the definition of discipleship – yet church maintenance is still good right?

We are urged to be disciples and witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth – (Acts 1:8) – the Wednesday morning community project may have all the semblance of the ‘ends of the earth’ compared to Sunday morning. But theres only a call to stay in those places not move people. We may have to reflect on what discipleship in the ends of the earth may look like. It probably wont look like what Jerusalem discipleship did. So  what might that be.

I’d like to end this piece with three thoughts that hopefully add something to this discussion. Practice, Theory and Theology.

One significant thing comes from my practice.

A number of years ago i was the project coordinator of a detached youthwork project in Perth, Scotland. Because of the nature of the role expected of volunteers, they underwent training, on the nuts and bolts of detached work and also, we spent time looking at values, principles and thinking theologically through a practice of being out on the streets, being vulnerable, and how this might be mission. What i didn’t realise, or at least, what was a great joy, was that in the months and years that passed of walking and participating in the practice, how often each of the volunteer reflected on how being involved in the project was a place in which they were doing discipleship, doing mission was discipleship. It shouldn’t have blew my mind, but that it came from the participants and not me, sort of made it real. Did it help that I had framed the action as a missional/theological one.. yes. Did it continue to help that there were spaces for theological reflection ongoing in team time, session reviews and in the growing of this community, well, i guess so. But still, i wonder if there’s just something to be said with how ‘volunteering’ is made a discipleship activity. I think.

From Theory, I wonder where the discipleship conversation converges with the Faith Formation conversation. Are the two the same. Maybe. Its not often a conversation about discipleship from the platform of a UK conference also includes reference to faith or spiritual development (fowler/westerhoff etc) – but neither, does it look beyond a glimpse of the need, to the culture and a few biblical principles. What Andrew Root (in faith formation in a secular age)  does is look at how Spiritual and faith formation needs to take root in the culture that we are in. I cannot in this piece go into his detail, and I have written 5 pieces on his book Faith formation in a secular age (2017) already (links at the bottom of this piece) – but Roots suggestion is that Faith formation is a process of ministry, and ministering and participating in the tasks of God. Where he argues consuming church, spiritual experiences, and personal faith journey all meet culture that is looking for authenticity that is found wanting. Simply put, every one wants authenticity, and there’s nothing more authentic than a real church that transforms the world rather than creates enclaves and avoids it, equally, its not just a current age thing, or Generation Z thing, its everyone. Look at micro breweries, farmers markets and bake off, the desire for the authentic pint of ale, the real news is there, its not just an adrenaline experience… but a real one. A danger, Root argues is that Churches have embraced youthfulness in an attempt to be authentic, culture has won, they have stopped being actually authentic. Practical faith formation for Root is a process of ministering and ministry. Is practical faith formation discipleship? Its not far off… but forming is for performing, and performing is also forming…

The setting for discipleship though, is not the church though is it. Church is the place for the faith formation, discipleship happens on the stage of the world, in which the church is also a part. And this is where the third thing, Theodrama, for me comes into play. Understanding the theological, physical and social context of discipleship might reveal that being in ministry in the world is closer to discipleship.  Theodrama provides a metaphoric platform to imagine/realise that the whole of the worlds timeframe is Gods, that the whole world is a stage in which all are participating in a Holy redemptive drama, just that not everyone is aware of it. From those drinking in the wetherspoons that i am sitting in,  to the drivers on the bus, and the market sellers in the shopping centre, the teachers in the schools and youthworkers on the streets. The framework  of theatre, and drama, takes the notion of connecting stories further, and to consider the artistic and dynamic view of participation (which is Biblical) in God drama, as the context of discipleship. So therefore the church is a principle actor, guided by spirit, to act on the stage of the world in accordance with a number of prompts past(trinity, kingdom, bible etc), and present (spirit) to act in the future. Personal discipleship, may well be a community venture. Personal discipleship is about be more fully aware to these prompts in the every day. It is not the amount of bible studies, prayer times, daily reading notes that have been completed, its being aware of these to act appropriately in the every day. To act in the world where there are competing values (Von Balthasar) where there are prompts to do so and goodness, truth, love and peace to be appropriated. Discipleship may well be a process of awareness and a new reality. Its being able to respond to the voice of God in the midst of the action. Not avoid the action and head to the nearest 5 evening  a week bible study and avoid the world.  (Theres more on Theodrama in other pieces on this blog, see the categories)

Coming back to the 80/20 thing – there is a new issue in town. Its that because of a lack of volunteers, and also the exponential growth in community work projects and ministries in churches – 100’s of volunteers for these things are being grown from within them, food kitchen receivers become servers in kitchens, young people in youth clubs become junior leaders – all in the name of good empowering community practices. The question could be said that these are good ‘social action’ and ‘not mission, or discipleship’ and it could feel as though the powers, and the 20% who’ve gone through the ranks properly and have a mission/discipleship resource to sell, cant conceive that there might be another way.  We might ask a question – how might people be already disciples through the ministry of serving in a community that they feel home in and welcome (and want to create for others) ?  and not that all this serving is only a step to a ‘real’ discipleship elsewhere, that can look like ‘going to a study group’ or ‘alpha’ – the real discipleship could already be happening – from a point of action.

A task of the church, might be to develop practical theological reflection and participation through these serving moments at the time – because im not sure any church has a luxury of increasing barriers to faith – when clearly there are many who want to participate in the good that a church can do.

I would hope there is a space, or a awareness that an action first discipleship can sit alongside a ‘traditional church attendance discipleship’ – because for one thing, people are joining in the action of the mission of God because it looks like something that heals, does good and is something to believe in – because it is making a difference. They are already participating in Gods mission before knowing full well who God is. Well, to be blunt, none of us know who God fully well is. For some people they might be closer to the actions and drama of God in their participation of it in a food kitchen than hearing about it and the stories of those before them.

The task might be to increase theological reflection – not import a model view and make discipleship  unachievable. Root may be right, thinking of discipleship as a faith formation process causes a shift to think of people as ministers and helping people to ministry, and this can start from the food kitchen, the holiday club or the social enterprise. Real discipleship is practical and takes place in the world, that where the tensions and drama takes place, the choices and prompts by the spirit occur. When we talk about discipleship otherwise its often more about faith formation and learning. Discipleship on the stage of the world might be less about doing more faith formation (something measurable by attendance and vocational calling) and more about becoming more attuned and aware of God in the midst of the whole world. Being aware that God might well be in wetherspoons right now, and asking me to have compassion on everyone drinking here at 10 in the morning. Can hearing God in the midst and acting on it in the improvised moments, in the participation of conversations of ministry be measured as discipleship?  I hope so. But discipleship is also volunteering, and starts with the provoke to be part of building Gods kingdom in a place. I cannot argue otherwise that this isn’t the person who has relied on a food bank, a youth club, who is now participating in making this goodness happen for others. God is active and on the move. And its risky and challenging.

References

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Hans urs von Baltasare – Theodrama Vols 1-5 – 1980

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Wesley Van der lugt – Living Theodrama, 2016

Nicholas Healy, The church, the world and the Christian life , 2001

Can church be developed and defined from its action?

Regular readers will know that this is something that i have teased at this quite a a while ago, amongst a variety of other pieces. I just thought it might be good to give it a rethink. I’m realising more and more that the broader church had a habit of wanting to redefine and re- strategise it purpose, often adopting marketing and business methodologies, or hankering after a new testament church model, that appeared in a bygone context, or develop a version of its nature (ecclesiology) so aloof from reality. One example being church as a holy separate people or a bride.. metaphors so alien, and not reflect the often reality of the present, the broken and the infiltrated by culture, yes sin, that church often is.

The danger too, that a kind of aspirational ecclesiology doesn’t nothing but frustrate and point out the inherent current frustration and failings, rather than acknowledge the good of what currently church is or does.

Nicholas Healy makes an interesting point, in that thinking about the church theologically, in the grand narrative, the theodrama, causes church to consider its present in light of both past and future. To recognise its role now, its link to past and the remembering of, but also how its future it’s to be, in dramatic terms rehearsed and to be looked forward to. Signposts and markers. Grief and hope. Past and future.. in the present.

And so, as a collective church, we are not as business leaders would have us do, try and imagine a blank page.. because. The church is part of an already bigger story. It’s a participant in something with already guidelines, it has a direction and a history, a director and a principle actor, a guiding spirit in the action. So it is no fresh start, but an imagining of authentic purpose that fits the task of participation in something, that a church has agency and will in, and is similarly guided and prompted.

Simply put, Nicholas Healy writes that a church in its participation in Gods Theodramatic missional story is one that is both practical and prophetic.

Whilst this might be most relevant if the temptation to separate the churchs mission from its ministry, the closer reality is that both mission and ministry occur within the same theodrama, and therefore ministry reflects the same practical a prophetic emphasis. For.. isn’t prayer both, and might praise and worship?

But thinking of Mission for one moment.

There could be a temptation to separate the prophetic activities from those that ard practical, when it is more realistic to consider both along a sliding scale or graph, where some activities might have higher or lower of each.

A solely practical activity might show love, but no voice to challenge the status quo..

Yet a solely prophetic activity might create change but lose touch with being loving and listening to those for who are affected, taking away agency from those in suffering. Potentially.

So there are scales. And I wonder too whether many actions by churches are implicitly more prophetic than they realise. But maybe not explicit in this.

Something prophetic need not necessarily be politically directly prophetic, but theres a difference between treating a young person as merely a token or consumer of an activity, than being a contributor and having choice within it, therefore a prophetic act in a society or even church culture that might not regard young people highly in terms of participation. The same might be for recipients of food, of freebies and handouts. Yes, all practical. But might prophetic action increase, for the individual, within community and also in the broader political structure also.

There may well be default lobbyists (prophetical) and default helpers and responders (practical).

But i am thinking that it may well be in the intersection of both where the church might find it’s true identith and purpose, theologically, socially and missionary, as it fcussed on having an identity orientated around its ongoing action, rather than an ideal, and keep on a cerebral study of redefinition. Rather, build an church from the place of its action.

References.

Nicholas Healy, 2000, The church, world and Christian life

Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2005 The drama of doctrine, 2012, Faith speaking and understanding.

Avery Dulles, Models of the church.

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.

 

 

‘In an ideal world you could just get funding for building relationships with young people’

How many times have you said that in the last 40 years? (As a youth/community worker)

Not a relationship that had to make something else happen to justify the relationship, not a relationship where the young person ‘changed’, not a relationship in which entire decades of social harm, psychological damage caused by other relationship was solved in 4 months -type of relationship. Not a relationship in which the young person achieved something, said something, evaluated something like the relationship offered to them was worthwhile. Not a relationship that was needed so that the new 3m youth building wasnt closed.

‘in an ideal world we would get funding for building trusted relationships with young people’

Just a relationship.

Just being with someone for the sake of it

Just having someone to talk to

Just . a . conversation.

Just a moment to be valued

Just a moment in which time stood still, and there was an interruption to the norm

A moment where someone stopped and took an interest and for the young persons sake.

A relationship that may lead to action, a relationship that may be supportive, a relationship that could change the world of the young person – and the adult – but not a relationship that expects and targets that before its already happened.

I am reading ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey; within it he notes the reflections of a youth worker, Joe – reflections that have been echoed by the youth worker fraternal for decades. Its Joes boss that bemoans the lack of funding for relationships. Joe, goes on to say:

‘good youthwork can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector. There is funding out there for targets, outcomes and issues. However many are not relevant to the work we do’

(which is)

‘ we are working to combat the effects of inequality and poverty has on the lives of young people, the cycle of insecurity, mistrust, lack of resilience. low self esteem and confidence. It is holistic, long term and multi faceted work’

This may not be the space to critique all of the above. Certainly there is an element of youthworkers clinging to the darkness as their natural habitat, and not necessarily seeing all the opportunities and options for funding and developing their work, and working in a needs based, and meeting emotional needs might be already fitting of a funding or social policy agenda. However.

The point remains to be said.

None of any of these things, any of these approaches, will ever come to fruition without the basic need to develop relationships as a core focus, no not core focus, as a reason to exist. Anything else is a course, a program or a ministry.

It may only be the voluntary or faith sector that has the capacity to do this, but the culture of outcomes and targets is fully pervasive, whether that’s in funding bids to charitable trusts, outcome promises to consortiums, or even, the final result of good youth ministry, have kids turn up on a Sunday. Its outcome orientated- no its outcome defined relationships. Its fully pervasive, because the systems are crumbling and in need to justify existence. Its fully pervasive because the value for money neo-liberalism default has made anything other seem radical, seem ‘non real world’, too idealistic. And Funding, and outcomes always generate a implicit direction of travel to the lowest hanging fruit, so that funding can be justified. The nearly christian who might go to church, the nearly got a job or capable to do a course- an easy quick win. But no one (as McGarvey writes) dare say this.

Yet, as McGarvey writes. Young people can smell outcome orientated rats a mile off. Young people in poverty can attune to being projected. Being rescued for a moment by the short term saviour (p83). The parachuted in for a funding season organisation that makes promises and delivers nothing, and has no actual involvement in the real needs, real situation of the community its is meant to be there for. And no one in the community has any involvement in any of it – except to turn up, and be a number.

Things young people want; (According to McGarvey)

Value ; The adult ‘ was passionate about the work they did and made me feel valued’ (p69)

Place and space: ‘working class folks receive strange looks when their groups lofty objectives are to want a place for the elderly and a space to drink coffee’ (p49) – or – ask a group of young people what they want to do – just want somewhere to go thats safe to talk.

Participation and Autonomy: ‘Joe and his team are one of many small (and chronically underfunded – my words) organisations that are dealing with the social and cultural legacy of decades of poor planning and tokenistic consultation with local people’ (p82)

Good youthwork is more than what Joe says it is, but then youthwork is an ongoing conversation that creates new definitions in each context, what is important is that relationships where young people are valued, where there is safety, space and place, and where there is a genuine desire for participation, and young persons autonomy to be at the forefront of it. Where honest means that its not a relationship for an outcome. A relationship that’s reduced to a trade.

So, yeah, in an ideal world,

‘we would get funding for building trusting relationships with young people’

And we will have realised the inherent good that there is in every single one of these. Whilst there are some ways of writing these down – the desire that relationships have outcomes at all virtually destroys their honesty, and their goodness. The ethics of the market reigns, and as Goffman says, the closer we are the trade, the less authentic the performance we play in our interactions. (Goffman, 1960)

But we must not give up. We will keep on going. There will be a way. It may be asset based community development, it may be in re framing and using different language to describe youthwork, it may be something else. Whatever we do, its relationships with young people that matter. after all…

Youthwork is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context (Sercombe, p27)

References

Goffman, Irving , 1960, The presentation of the self in everyday life

McGarvey Darren, 2017, Poverty Safari

Sercombe, Howard, 2012, Youth work Ethics

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.