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:
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.
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…
- 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?
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.