Faith Generation: Retaining young people and growing the Church
Church Times Bookshop £11.70
FAITH GENERATION looks at how the faith of young people actually happens — or is “generated”— and how that “faith formation” is or isn’t helped by the Church. The book’s strength is that the focus is clear and is carried out by means of analysis of, research into, and a vision for the same topic, with little divergence, repetition, or duplication.
It begins with a refreshing and stimulating — though not entirely new — critique of a whole stock of longstanding assumptions and presumptions about youth, youth culture(s), and the purposes of youth ministry. It provides an effective analysis of topics, including the drivers for youth ministry, and what happens when the church decides how to minister to youth.
A main premise is that faith is not “developed” or handed out to participants by church programmes, but, instead, that churches can provide a social context for an individual’s lived experience of his or her own faith in God. A church’s youth ministry is essential for providing a nurturing context. This requires a church to be agile in supporting youth faith formation, and to let go of an easily assumed security that youth work and church growth have a causal connection.
What is suggested, instead, is that youth ministry is at its best not by being used as a panacea for “institutional decline”, but when it develops an appreciation of “the shifting nature of belief, spirituality and faith as the conditions where faith generation are now required”.
What then follows is based on original research undertaken in two contrasting Christian youth faith-support settings. The first is a church youth group in which the majority of members are familiar with faith, even if they are new to shaping an independent faith identity. The second is a youth outreach project that nurtures people who are finding faith, in most instances from scratch.
Nick Shepherd offers insightful and creative interpretations of how these deeply contrasting settings reveal a collective challenge to the Church’s engagement with young people. He looks at the struggles that youth have in forming their belief identity within the dominant social structures of school, church, and family which they inhabit, when they find there is something problematic about the “plausibility of faith in a secular age”.
This difficulty can be addressed if a church’s youth ministry creates appropriate settings for the exploration of “identity”, “faith”, and “community”. This theme is central to the final third of the book. There is a particular emphasis on intentional community as an effective way of understanding the work that needs to be done.
A sequence of Venn diagrams and accompanying narrative seeks to pin down the complex set of inter-relationships between different aspects of the practice of faith and the purposes of youth ministry. That the fullest articulation of the author’s vision of “faith generation” is offered by tidying up complexity diagrammatically, may well satiate the thirst of some types of reader more than others. It certainly leaves a sense of precision in the ending.
It appears that, from start to finish, Shepherd’s purpose is to offer a new “why-how-to”, not a “how-to”, book; so any critique cannot complain about a lack of tangible suggestions for what will look different about a ministry informed by this book.
That may also mean that it will be significantly harder for a youth minister to apply this socio-theological theory confidently in distinguishing practically between the given dichotomies of “faith development” and “faith generation”; but it will be well worth the try.
The Revd Dr Jeremy Clines is the Anglican Chaplain at the University of Sheffield.