The Education system has depressed young people (and their learning)- why should they succeed to make it look good?

My school is run like a business, and it sucks

So said the young person as they were talking to me a few weeks ago. So said the same young person who said that they told this to a teacher in the proceeding few weeks.

This one sentence and phrase has brought to light a number of questions regarding the state of young people in the UK today. These questions being;

  • What might it mean for young people to know that they are being educated in a system which primary motivation that isn’t actually about them?
  • What might it mean about the politics of education and how competition has turned schools into business and therefore young peoples within education to be nothing more than a consumption/ consumer relationship?
  • Do young people have to be doubly determined to succeed knowing that it will also benefit a system that they have no empathy or respect for?
  • Could the 900 youth workers lost from communities have made any difference..?

 

But first, I want to look back a short while.

When thinking about education being a system, I don’t think that isn’t new. I look back on my own education (I started primary school in 1982, was the first year of age 14/year 9 SATS in 1991/2, and in 1994, was the 6th year of GCSES- I think, and I vaguely remember the first and only time that my school had an Ofsted inspection) . There was an education system at place in the schools I was in, an increase in alternatives for A levels were being introduced (NVQ’s, GNVQ’s) , and I can honestly say, and maybe naively, that as far as I remember, the main reason that my teachers were wanting me to do well. So that I would do well, achieve and succeed, and even if that mean that at some level this was a funnelling of skills and subjects towards vocations and employment, at least, even selfishly, this was about me, and my future.

If i did think of myself in part of a system when I was at school, the scales were, i feel weighted in my favour. My school wasn’t at risk of being shut down. My school didn’t seem to be a place where there was a great deal of fear. My education wasn’t tempered by any notion on my part that what I did in school had an impact on the success or closure of the schools, and because of this, to those teachers I wanted to, I could connect with, as they, themselves would not only teach, but coach, encourage, listen and to a point give opportunity for developing ideas and expression. To a point, because of course there were exams, curriculum and grades to be sought.

But even I, by the point of 18 had had enough of it, even then, When 80% of my friends went onto university from the age of 18, I didn’t. Even when a system was stacked in my favour and I could do well academically in the future, I didn’t want to carry on. (NB i have completed BA and MA as a mature student). It was probably only at that later point when future destinations post 18 that I felt there was a system directing me into a particular direction, and only at the ‘leavers/graduation service’ that having a destination was something that the school was being proud about.

As I said, this was only 25 or so years ago. It wasn’t the 1960’s, or 70’s. It was the early 1990’s.

Thinking even further back, many of you who read my pieces regularly will know that I am an avid reader of Freire and his inspirational educative practices that have shaped Informal education and community practices, as well as others like Myles Horton, and Henry Giroux. So, in reading We make the Road by Walking in the last week or so, I was intrigued to compare the accounts of education of my own, with those of Freire and Horton, admittedly in South America and in the 1950’s stating that ;

I can remember, when I was in High school, how sad I was that my classmates didn’t like to read poems, stories, literature. I enjoyed it so much and they hated it. I thought it was the teachers that did that to them and I resented that. I could see this system, where teachers were killing off any possibility of students ever enjoying literature. To them it was something that you had to learn, memorise and you hated it because you had to do it. And i can remember very clearly how I took my resentment out on the teachers. I didn’t at that stage speak out and challenge them or try to organise a campaign against them, but I would read (my own books) in their classes and ignore them. That was my way of protesting (Myles Horton, 1990)

Whilst there might be some revisionist thinking in Horton and Freire as they remember their school life of over 40 years previously. What the were rejecting and protesting against was the rigidity of an education system that didn’t allow for the beauty and critical thinking that education should be about, and instead for only learning for memorisings sake to be the key function of education. What Horton and Freire in their conversation then talk about is how they began to realise how to try and think, then act in accordance with a different system, other than what they conceived to be the capitalist one. When Freire himself graduated from formal teaching college and started in his first role in a secondary school, and was told he was a good teacher by his teaching inspector, he said of teaching:

Teaching secondary school was then an adventure. It was a beautiful thing for me. At some point, I began to discover that one of the main reasons why the students could learn with me and liked my class was that I respected them, no matter their age (very young). I respected them and I respected their mistakes, their errors and their knowledge. (Freire, 1990)

I include these accounts, because of how they seem to present a stark contrast to how a number of young people perceive the system of their education today.

Also, that whilst Freire and Horton have become pillars of thought in community education, their backgrounds were in the very formal education, and formal education in deprived areas that many schools in the UK find themselves today. So, when Freire says ; ‘first of all, I think its interesting for us as educators to think again and again about the political atmosphere, the social atmosphere, cultural atmosphere in which we work as educators’  he isnt just speaking to the youth and community work fraternal, but to everyone involved in education. There is a social, political and cultural context. So, enough of the pre-amble. If I’m honest, some of that was so that it would be read before thinking through some of the questions above.

The current school leavers next summer, post 18, will have been born in 2000-2001, only 6 years or so after I finished school myself. The question therefore is; Is this the first full generation of young people who have grown up and completed schooling in the UK (those who have completed it) to have experienced fully and felt the ideology of competition and the ethics of the market in their education? When i say ‘feel’- I mean, know that their education has been intrinsically linked to and within a system? 

What i mean is, Are the current 18 year olds one of the first year groups to have experienced the following:

  1. Joy or despair at age 5 when the ‘right primary school’ was/wasnt granted
  2. Sats aged 7 and 11
  3. Primary schools that had at least 2-3 Ofsted inspections in the 6 years, and secondary schools the same
  4. Parents who poured over league tables to choose secondary schools or primary school league tables (published the same day as this post) 
  5. A school that proudly said that it was ‘Ofsted Outstanding’ in its documentation, assemblies or ‘banner’ outside the school gates. 
  6. A teacher in secondary school who said that the school was proud of the results of previous years and how this ‘made the school look good’
  7. A headteacher who was about trying to make his/her school the best in the area due to results
  8. A school in ‘special measures’ due to an inspection
  9. Predicted grades shown at every parents evening, because apparently this is what Parents want… as a consequence, testing and exams and assessments more than 2-3 times a year so ‘data’ can be distributed. 
  10. and the list goes on….

What is the impact on a young person of all of this?  do they feel pressure, responsibility, more motivated, or… when education doesnt seem to be about them, but the organisation, policies, data and outcomes, what might that do to how they feel within it..?

For any young person with half a brain, they must know that they are part of a larger system that isn’t about them at all.

It is a system that seems to be focused on the survival of the institution. A survival that is about outcomes, results and data. For young people this means that it is not about them at all. It is about the school, and the ideology of the system. Schooling has become a competition, and each school is fighting for survival and young people are pawns in the battle. As Giroux argues:

A euphemism for privatisation ‘choice’ relieves schools of the pretence of serving the public good. No longer institutions designed to benefit all the members of the community, they are refashioned in market terms designed to serve the narrow interests of individual consumers and national economic policies (2010)

 

And that is why its a business, a business that as a consequence is driven by the ethics of the market. Not neutral ethics, by the way, but ethics of the market, of competition, where its not the respect of young people, their education, choice, enjoyment or even capacity and opportunity to learn and flourish that drives, but grades, memorising and regurgitation. It has become a system that depresses young people into nothing more than an outcome, and reduces education to nothing more than a memory test and the pupils to the data they produce. What impact has this had on teaching and education itself… oh dear… Teachers fill in the blanks__________________________________________

What is the impact on young people who have now grown up knowing they are pawns in the system, not people who have been educated for their good? – well its not just because of debt that they might not go to uni, its that they fear the continuation of the same culture, and so it’ll take even more convincing of parents and others to encourage young people to go to a different institution for further education. They’ve become depressed by education, and for many they’ve given up and become fatalistic. This is what the culture of education has done. This is a tragedy, when so much of the world could be open to them in the future for learning. There may well be other impacts for young people that  knowing  that they are part of such a system will have.

Its is as no wonder that there’s queues for the Mental Health teams in many areas, could this be linked to how young people are educated in areas.. well it could be…

On a different note, when a culture of education has depressed young people – why should they reward the system by doing well within it? –

Might deliberately failing be an act of protest against it, and a way of hoping it might change for the next generation, failing deliberately becoming an altruistic/sacrificial act, to save others.

If the system has depressed education to its technicality, then it has no room for creativity, critical learning and space for enjoyment. Each young person is the equivalent of the parts of a macdonalds big mac and the final outcome brought about by a process of efficiency, cost effectiveness and replicability, with someone pouring over data sheets and numbers to create strategy from. One is economic, technical and managerial, teaching however, should be an art form. The link between the managerial and education is not lost on Henry Giroux who again writes:

The first is to establish the mission of the school system in terms that are assessable and replicable. The second is to efficiently configure the resources of the system to accomplish the mission. The third is to use feedback obtained to make adjustments in order to keep the mission within agreed upon costs…In perspectives such as this, unfortunately pervasive in the curriculum field, manipulation takes the place of learning, and any attempt at inter-subjective understanding is substituted for a science of educational technology in which ‘choices exist only when they make the systems more rational, efficient and controllable. In a critical sense the Achilles heel of the culture of positivitism in public school pedagogy is its refusal to acknowledge its own ideology as well as the relationship between knowledge and social control ( Giroux, Schooling and the culture of positivism, in On Critical Pedagogy, 2011)

I guess the ideology of the school is not so hidden when teachers freely admit it. And pupils can readily see it. But that doesn’t mean to say that its acknowledged. More that this ‘have to be this way’ and ‘this is default’. Anything contrary is frowned upon, everything within it is ‘awesome’.

For Social control, see the recent pieces on behaviour management in schools on the BBC, and a previous post here, where a teacher describes their reflection of the situation.

What kind of relationship does this kind of culture create for education?

Is the role of the pupil in the school nothing more than reduced to someone who churns out data that can be analysed? Can there be teaching and learning relationships between teacher and pupil when there is such a culture?

In ‘The presentation of the self in everyday life (1960)’  Irving Goffman suggests that the closer we are to the ‘place of trade or goods’ the harder it is to present ourselves with authenticity. Can teaching occur when there is no respect? or empathy? or desire instilled to learn for the joy of the process – id argue, along with Freire not. It takes a considerable more amount of effort for a pupil to feel committed and empathetic towards their teachers, and thus respect them, when they themselves only feel and know that they are only part of such a system. Its funny that as the system as devalued young people learning, schools have tried to find more and more ways in which pupils have to show how their pride of the school – proms, celebration nights, etc etc, masking and possibly causing a conflict in the young people themselves, its almost false.

The psychologists Deci and Ryan suggest that there are three factors that are needed for humans to continue for motivation, these are; Autonomy, Connectivity and Competence . (Taken from Bryan, 2016, p117-120) Suggesting that we are motivated when we believe we have choice within decision making and agency in our self determination, and these relate to our basic human needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness.  One problem is see is that if ethics of the market is driving schools and the relationships therein, then what might be left of those three is merely competence. For young people do not feel in control or have decision making (often options are already chosen as these ‘might produce better results, because of the ‘data’) , neither do they feel any connection with a teacher who is possibly a puppet in the system ( though sympathy maybe),  and yet if all three are required, or the first two in order that the third can happen, then there’s something fundamentally lacking in the culture and young people naturally will reject it – for its not doing them any good, and possibly why teachers are also leaving in their droves.

But overall, it is the politics and the ethics of the market that is driving education, and that seems to be at odds with the process of teaching and education itself. It is the ethics of the market that are shaping the learning relationship between teacher and pupil, and for the first time, this current generation know it and can spot it a mile off? . Why would they invest back? well only for their own selfish ambition. Because if they are able to they have to try and achieve from within a system that has depressed them and treats them as humans with limited respect, agency or dignity. That takes real guts, but may also accompany a feeling amongst the generously minded that their success might only lead to the same system being replicated for others in the future, and the pain of others. It might be a doubly selfish act to do well for themselves and know that it inflicts the same pain on others. Though fail and the system might only try and get more rigid.

Young people aren’t stupid and I am sure this dilemma is played out across the UK. For the future; ask young people currently who would go into teaching – then its probably considerably less than the number 25 years ago. They have seen the pain and fear in the eyes of teachers. Its ironic, I might have gone into teaching, many of my contemporaries did, school was ok for the most part for many so why not keep within it. I’m not sure how many would say the same today.

You’ve got to laugh when schools inject resilience and character improving classes for some, when not thinking that its the system and ideology that is at fault, and whilst this isn’t challenged, then nothing will change. Its a culture of fear, a culture of closure, a culture of competition and all of this reduces the potential for what should be the beauty and creativity of education to occur.

The converse of the system awareness is also true. For not only now do young people who might be doing well have the pressure put on them by themselves and probably also their parents, they subconsciously (if they hadnt picked up by now) realise that they are also under pressure because the school relies on them to do well. This is an extra pressure, that again, I think I wasn’t exposed to 25 years ago, others might have been.

In a culture of such competition, and school outcomes is the possibility that schools will do everything to try and cause young people to make the grades, and focus all the attention on the final outcome. Pupils are traded with £100’s of pounds of free revision books, guides, paper, cards, pens and such like, the investment in the final outcome to overcome the deficiencies of the process..? But what if this spoon feeding isn’t helping in the long term – its barely preparing young people for taking responsibility, of discovering subjects themselves and problem solving. but it helps the system and the school in their drive for competitiveness.

This is in no way a dig at teachers, who will no doubt receive thanks from many pupils at the end of term. Teachers in a difficult position who many have known teaching in a more pure era, or dreamed of it – yet are now highly constricted and in constant fear. I’m with you honestly I am. This is about the system and the effect this has on young people who know that they are part of it.

As a final twist. The logistics of the market, and the policies and funding from the Coalition government (2010) on-wards, have reduced local funding budget allocations to the point where, as a recent report suggested, 900 Full time youthworkers have been reduced from communities in the UK since 2016 alone. Now, I’m not going to big up the role of the youth services too much, as often some of the relationships between youth workers and schools was tenuous at best, but what i will say is that isnt just 900 opportunities and more to help ‘support young people’ (as this is what youth workers will have been allowed to do in the school system) – but potentially also 900 voices in different schools who might have spoken up about a ‘better way’ of educating young people, challenged the system a little with teaching staff, even got alongside the teachers who were struggling to educate within it – possibly been a prophetic voice when their own salary wasn’t as dependant on it. As i said, I’m not going to big up the role of those potential 900 youth workers, and schools with such a tight regime may not even have allowed them on the premises. But 900 people on site who might place young people as the core of what they do and who they are might be a challenge to those for whom its the outcomes and data that young people produce that is. The fact that a philosophy of education that many youth workers believe in has a high regard for common good, participation, equality and relationship may have been something to challenge the ethics of the market. But its also why 900 youth workers are dispensable, they critique the neo-liberal ideology too much. They demand that something better be done for the sake of young people, and demand that this is accompanied through respecting, listening and human dignity.

Let me finish with something idealistic and dreamlike especially in the current climate, something that Freire describes;

It is not difficult to see ho one of my principle tasks as a teacher who is open minded (progressive) is to motivate student the student to over come his or her difficulties in comprehending the subject under scrutiny. Essential to this tasks is the teachers affirmation of the students curiosity, which in turn will generate a sense of satisfaction and reward in the student on achieving his or her goal. All this will ensure that the continuity of the process of discovery, which is integral to the act of knowing.  To teach is not to transfer the comprehension of the object to a student but to instigate the student, who is a knowing subject, to become capable of comprehending and communicating what has been comprehended (Freire, ‘Teaching is a human act’, p105 in Ethics, Democracy and civic courage, 2001)

Progressive teaching requires for it to be a human act. It seems a far cry from the competitive teaching and the ethics of the market. Young people know that they are part of this system, in many situations they have been blatantly told that they are. I do believe that there can be another change, there has to be, for the current one is putting both the successful, middle and lower achieving young people to breaking point. Teaching is a human act, what it has become is a trade. Young people are intelligent, they spot a phoney a mile off. And business bullshit rubs off pretty quick, they know when they’re not centre of attention, or being asked to have sympathy with a system that doesn’t return it implicitly. And this is all before they also know that the ideology of austerity has also ruined parts of their personal life . So its worth thinking twice about the ‘Ofsted blooming marvellous’ banners or what is being asked to ‘make a school proud’ – and the effect of this on young people. Oh and in regard to school funding – how much is spent on schools to keep up with the system, with data managers, publicity managers and competition/school improvements? – could that be spent on challenging the system or educating struggling young people?

And while were at it the same could be said for nursing and social work. The needs have increased at the same time as cultures of fear and a shift to market values driving practices.

References

Bryan, Jocelyn, Human Being, 2016

Freire, P,  Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Freire, P,  Pedagogy of Freedom, Ethics, Democracy and Civic Courage, 1998

Friere, Horton, We make the Road by walking, 1990

Giroux, Henry A,  On Critical Pedagogy, 2011

Goffman, The Presentation of the Self in Everyday life, 1960

In such a high expectancy culture – young people are in deficit of empathy more than ever

Think about all the expectations thrust upon a child or a young person:

youll grow up to be like your mum

work hard and youll get good results

what will you do when you grow up

you need to get to university

you need to just cope

you must fit in

you must be different

you must conform

you must look a certain way

you must be busy every night doing something, at a club

you will be deficient without this (the advertisers message)

We expect you in this school to do well (so our league tables look good)

We expect you to behave in this youth club

We expect……………………..(fill in the blanks)

We expect you not to have sex, we expect you to have sex

we want you to fit our agenda, our expectation of this club, this group, this church

Youll make a mess if you do this…

 

And then theres the generational stuff

Millenials ‘X’ and Generation Z ‘Y’ – expectations of the guava shaped cheese straws thatll be ruining snack time for everyone. Or something else. Expectations that as a millenial  you will be like this or that or the other.

Expectations that technology is ruining your life,  and on that technology stuff

do something photo worthy

compare yourself

be likeable

be popular

be successful

sound interesting

achieve

Pressure to expect, expectations of pressure.  I wonder in youthwork and ministry whether theres been the same tendency of expectation

‘come on this trip, you must attend this, ‘weve done something amazing – we think youll like it’

‘what did you think of the mega exciting thing we spend doing for you?’ – expectation to conform, to please. To keep the work or ministry going.

If Shakespeare did say this and it isnt an internet meme, he wasnt far wrong:

Image result for expectation

Hang on for a moment – whatever happened to empathy, respect, listening, compassion? When was the last time we heard or used those words when thinking about working with young people, when starting ‘a project’ or a piece of work. 

Is anyone taking the actual time, to actually listen to young people at all. Take them seriously. Take them respectfully. Be empathetic. Realise that there is a real person inside.

One of my greatest pleasures of being a youthworker was to have time for young people, in a busy organisation with sessions and programmes, I could be the person in between, the one to play pool with or share a coffee, the one who wasnt about expectation or pressure, about programmes, but was about the deep stuff of struggle, of questions, of help. But theres no money in being a youthworker in between anymore. Theres also no money in the mental health provision young people need, because theres no money in being someone who might be able to listen to young people anymore. It does significantly feel as though talk of empathy in youth work and ministry has gone. Replaced by ‘active listening’ but listening that might not go deep enough. But has even professional youthwork got time for empathy? probably, just.

Of course all of this could just be me, and my reflection on where I am at, having managed, supervised and trained a whole load of people to be youth work/volunteers over the last 2-3 years, It also feels like its been a while for me to have sat down, listened and genuinely felt that kind of connection to empathise with a young person. So it could be me out of touch.

But it could also be me, looking at the many 100’s of job losses in youth work. It could be me looking at the 100’s of job losses in teaching and schools struggling as organisations to cope. It could be me looking at youth ministry vacancies, it could be me hearing of 6-12 month waiting lists in mental health queues, it could be me knowing that only communities with high crimes get any attention from statutory youth provision, it could be me in seeing various youth ministry organisations make sweeping generalisations of young people, it could be me when Theresa may says ‘nice try’ when theres a question about cuts to youth provision and its effect on young people. I have written before about how young people have stopped being cared for in the UK, and having no compassion – at least from policy makers and the government. Closer to the ground, do they get any empathy either?

The oft quoted Carl Rogers suggests that empathy requires a number of factors, and non judgementalism is the first thing, stating that it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of anothers inner world if we have formed an evaluative opinion of them (Rogers 1960: 154), because in that judgement we will fail to be accurate of another, understand the other and listen to the feelings, body language and responses by another.

I think we get this, but even a non judgemental approach seems thinly veiled nowadays. Almost old school. And not really said because we want to empathise, more that we dont want to lose out on funding. But what would empathy look like anew in youth work and ministry? What would an empathetic government policy on young people look like? What does non judgement look like when data is used to predict not only class sizes but also educational achievement and ‘predicted grades’ even before a primary school offer is accepted. Where is the empathy then? Where is the opportunity and chance?

Rogers also suggests that students might find themselves in a more appropriate climate for learning when they are in the presence of an understanding teacher.

Being empathetic involves being sensitive, moment by moment to changing felt meanings which flow from the person, from rage, or fear or both. It means temporarily living in anothers life without making judgements, sensing feelings they might not be aware of, communicating senses and pausing to check for accuracy. It involves time, and involves laying aside own views or judgements and values to enter their world without prejudice. (Rogers)

Empathy of this level undoubtedly requires significant effort, significant time, is complex and demanding. It maybe a direction where a shift need to start in, and I know empathy isnt everything, and Rogers is a bit of a dreamer, but maybe we have to dream at least in a compassionate direction. Image result for empathy

And there are many occasions where culture is driving empathy lacking policies, processes and practices in the direction of young people. Empathy isnt everything in the relationship we might have with young people, as youthworkers, teachers or health care, but its pretty clear that the ideology of neo liberalism that places value for money and competitiveness over human dignity and creativity, squeezing time to ensure only the efficient matters, does not stack in the favour of empathy. Neither does the media, generally.

Empathy, isnt just about the soft stuff. In 1972 Carl Rogers also wrote the following:

‘Will the school psychologist be content with the attempt to diagnose and remedy the individual ills created by an obsolete education system with an irrelevant curriculum; or will he insist on having a part in designing an opportunity for learning in which the student’s curiosity can be unleashed and in which the joy of learning replaces the assigned tasks of the prisons we now know as schools?’

It feels as though when young people need it the most, empathy has been sucked out of society like an particularly tarte lemon. Replaced by higher and higher levels of expectation. Replaced by less and less avenues of support, replaced by greater levels of competition, replaces by being the pawns in competitive organisations. Compassion fatigue yes, empathy removal almost certainly. No wonder those who know what youthworkers did in schools found them valuable (but not always valuable enough to pay them to be youthworkers) because, between the gaps there was a space for conversation, reflection, time and listening, and sometimes even empathy.

What steps might be needed to make an empathetic culture that young people grow up in? Am I dreamer… yes, but we’ve got to start a new from somewhere. How can we expect young people to thrive when expectation and pressure is the driver?

 

Rogers Carl, A way of Being, 1980

The Carl Rogers Reader, Kirschenbaum/Henderson

The biggest crime in youth ministry? making Jesus boring.

A number of years ago I was given the task of trying to make Jesus interesting to a group of young people. The young people were all from what might be considered ‘challenging’ backgrounds, all had been referred onto the week long residential from social services, none knew each other much. And all were there to have a great time away from their home situations, that included high ropes, sailing, climbing, kayaking, gil-scrambling, gorge walking and a host of other fun activities that included the use of a gym hall to play 5-a-side when they still had energy. Image result for high ropes

But I had the task of making Jesus interesting to them in a series of 20 minute talks that were planned for each day just after tea. I wasnt alone, other leaders could help.

We used props, drama, flipcharts, quizzes, games, videos (in those days it was a DVD 😉 ) Actually at the time we probably played every trick in the book to make even a 20 minute session as lively, interactive and interesting as possible.

It didnt matter though. If it looks like a boring ‘God-slot’, smells like a boring God-slot – then it probably is a boring God slot.

Boring because everything else the young people did all week was edgy, brave and daring – the God slot they sat and listened

Boring because everything else was active – the ‘God-slot’ they had to restrain themselves

Boring because other activities gave them chance to lead and grow – the God-slot felt like an assembly

Boring because during the rest of the day they could contribute and interrupt – during the ‘God-slot’ they were ‘told off’ for the smallest of indiscretions.

Boring because – the God slot was the trade off, though it was never said, but could it have been that doing all the fun activities was a trade off for ‘sitting and listening to a talk about God’ for 20 minutes… well maybe.

So it didnt matter what I and the rest of the team said. Compared to high ropes sailing and the stories around the dinner table of all the adventures of bravery, courage, silliness and achievement of young people during their day. The stories of faith of courage, silliness, bravery and acheievement in the Bible were reduced to something to learn about, listen to.

When faced with a timetable of sailing, high ropes and climbing – sitting and listening is going to be boring.

When faced with 5-a-side, games of giant jenga, and even open conversations – the didactic God slot is going to be boring.

If the biggest crime, in youth ministry is that its abandoned the poor ( see this post: http://wp.me/p2Az40-12N ), then the second is that it has made Jesus boring

But if ever there was an industry that has spent more time in trying unsuccessfully to make Jesus less boring then it is youth ministry itself. 1000’s of resources a year produced in order to give people ideas to make ‘God-slots’ less boring. The ready -to- use material, programmes, resources are by the bucket load all to give a new slant, a new game, a new activity that helps a young person understand about an aspect or perspective to do with faith.

It has been argued that a problem with Youth Ministry, is that it has emphasised morality over meaningfulness, therapeutic over transformative and Deity over Divinity. It has adopted an MTD that is about helping young people be good, have God that helps them, and God that watches, but isnt active. Its a boring faith, where God is just an add on and help in times of trouble.

It is barely the interactive God of the Bible, who disturbs and disrupts human planning, who calls and makes discipleship daring and dynamic, and is about transforming the world through performances of goodness.

The problem with ‘God-talks’ is that culturally they remind us of school assemblies.Related image We’re programmed to switch off, programmed to disregard it as the headteachers moral tale. To see it as the headteacher using the opportunity to generally remind pupils of the rules, as one person has broken something recently.  The problem with ‘god-talks’ is wrap them up as anything exciting, as they’re still more boring that the rest of the session – even maths is more interesting than the assembly..

I have some sympathy with those in youth ministry who only see young people for one week. The talks we had to give on camp, we had barely met the young people and had a fairly good idea that this might be the only opportunity to have a discussion with them about faith, however, it was also a rare holiday for them too. What can you do in that time..?

That is not the same situation in the week-by-week youth groups and clubs across the country. If Jesus is reduced to a fun but moral message, then its no wonder young people arent finding faith meaningful, and leaving churches in their droves.

I want to contrast the above situation with another. For the best part of 6 years, an after school club has been run by a youth organisation on a ‘housing estate’. Most of the time it has been an open space of doing crafts, having food and a drop in. Sometimes the conversations have been about faith, more often they’re about ‘who had done what to who’ in the daily gossip of the young peoples local community. As a few of these young people have developed trust with the leaders, the questions of faith have been more frequent, to the point where the young people were expressing the desire to have Bibles of their own. They hadnt heard a ‘god-slot’ in their lives, and as result they were more enthusiastic about having a bible and reading it for themselves (and being guided by a youth leaders through it) that ive seen in any ‘church based’ young people. And they were from ‘an estate’, and were often disregarded/abandoned by the church. A hunger for faith is seen when young people opt into something that has meaning for them. Too many of the 5% of young people in the UK in our churches face only the choice of opting out because Jesus has been made boring to them.

If youve got this far, then you’re probably wanting to know what the solution is.

  1. The first thing is to create spaces in youth ministry where the method/style of teaching is consistent. If Young people can voluntarily leave any session, disengage at any point. They also have the capacity, like an audience at a play, to emotionally, intellectually or physically connect at any point to, opting in. So, provide spaces where faith conversations happen but are opted into by young people. If its an opt in space, then faith conversations also need to reflect this.
  2. Enable faith to be preformative and transformational. Performance doesnt mean doing a drama to re enact the good Samaritan using celtic & rangers fans. or even performing in the ‘life of the church’ – the serving – because all these are performances in the safe space of rehearsals that help to form. Performative means helping young people become performers of it. Our role is to be acting coaches, helping young people act out the way of Jesus, the turn the other cheek, give up possessions to the poor, care about injustice sort of way of Jesus, the one that told mystical parables and confounded the rich and powerful sort of way of Jesus, its a way of life and faith within life sort of way of Jesus. That loved and is good in the world way of Jesus.
  3. Can you think of a performance that was ever not shown? was it ever actually a performance at all – just a storyline, a plot, pilot or concept. Young people being performers will also help their formation. Young people as performers also validates previous formation too. Without performance, formation is almost redundant. is that faith without works that the book of James also said..? Thats why performance in the church is still a different form of formation, it is still preparation for actual performing. If they dont perform, and if neither do we we’re just a living concept. Jesus didnt after all just teach his disciples through epilogues after games sessions, it took place in the world where arguments, discussions and interruptions occured.
  4. We need to view young people not just as learners, but creators and deciders. They create opportunities in their local community to help, resource and transform the world. They have the energy and passion to change things. They also have the vision enthusiasm and questions, hopefully, that cause interruptions in what they might want to know about faith.

If faith is boring, presented as boring and only about morality, then its no surprise young people are leaving in their droves. The problem is not only in its presentation, it is also in the theology of youth ministry that has more about entertaining, attracting and making faith fit into culture. That helping young people feel concerned about poverty, culture, and society and want to act in ways that do something about it, acting parables on the world stage. Taking risks and performing goodness. Young people might believe in something that meant wearing something provocative on their sleeve. So, what do we say to young people when weve got 20 minutes with them to do ‘a talk’ at the end of a session? we should be asking how what happens in the time we have with young people we help them become performers of goodness on the stage of the world. What can you do in a week.. show them what goodness is, so they experience it and want to discover the source of it.