MY GATEWAY to experiencing God’s love was Burlington Baptist Church, Ipswich. When I was a teenager, relationships built with caring, invested, and interested adults within this community enabled me to gain enough trust to take seriously and radically what they were teaching me about faith. This, in turn, led to conversation, transformation, and healing. They created space for me to make mistakes, practise skills, and flourish, in an arena that offered something different from the risk and scrutiny of peer groups and school.
While this golden experience was the foundation of my calling to youth ministry, I’ve since learnt that community isn’t always a walk in the park. Pain, compromise, and misunderstanding are givens, despite the joys. I have also learnt that, although young people will challenge, frustrate, and exhaust you, it is rarely they who cause youth workers to give up on church youth work, but frustration with congregations and the powers-that-be.
Youth ministers can inhabit a strange no man’s land where they are mediators between people groups, or translators of different cultural languages. They act as a bridge pulled across the gap between an institution and those who are leaving that institution in droves.
YOUTH workers employed by churches feel deeply the responsibility to address the Church’s anxiety about losing young people. They have the challenge of making the Church attractive enough to bring in young people, despite its being characteristically unwilling to change.
There are different possible responses to this chasm. Churches can outsource engagement with young people to youth workers, or youth-work movements can redefine themselves as separate emerging church communities in their own right. These are legitimate and pragmatic responses to generational divides and the problem that young people are leaving the church.
Unfortunately, they sidestep the messy question how — if possible — we reunite adult church communities with the young people who are either within or outside the community. Solving, or at least better understanding, this complex and messy dilemma is my Rubik’s Cube of choice, and the subject of my doctoral research. My deep-down hope and conviction is that the Church and the young have more to offer one another than either yet knows.
At its best, I see the Church as a potential adoptive family for young people who are desperately craving somewhere safe to belong. Through its welcome, it can represent and introduce God, who welcomes us without demanding any qualification for a place at the table. The gospel is still as potent as ever, and I don’t know if young people have ever needed a message of hope and grace more. I also believe that young people have their own prophetic messages of hope to bring into the Church.
FOR my doctoral research, I have explored dialogue as a means of drawing the two generational communities together, defining it as “mutual exchange”: learning and listening, so as to relate to the other better, as friend or partner, as described by theorists including Paulo Freire, David Bohm, and Martin Buber.
The idea is that, through dialogue, young and old(er) approach one another with the expectation that the other offers them something valuable. During my research, I worked with a parish church to conduct experiments enabling young people to participate more meaningfully in their church community.
I learned that significant symbols of welcome to young people were varied, and sometimes unexpected. They included how refreshments were managed, the visibility of young people in church positions, and being granted the space to ask adults meaningful questions about their faith.
These elements required more careful rethinking than you might imagine, as the status quo was generally that the adults “do”, and the young people are “done to”. In other words, the young people were expected to conform and assimilate.
I believe that this experience is likely to be common in churches. I also suspect that the cost of this attitude is the haemorrhaging from the Church of the disruptive and awkward gifts of insight and change which it needs if it is to retain young people and regenerate.
OUR theological understanding of children’s place is the subject of increasing study. In Entry Point (WTL, 2013), Haddon Willmer and Keith J. White unpack Jesus’s challenge to his disciples about becoming like children, in Matthew 18: “The challenge of the sign of the child to our conceptions of greatness remains uncomfortable and remarkably radical. It is clear that ministers, leaders, and congregation see numerical progress, wealth, and influence as signs of God’s blessing; and that many are attracted to global movements and initiatives that see themselves ordained by God to transform the world.
“Such thinking and assumptions are in a direct line from the prevailing view of the disciples at the time of Jesus.”
If children in the midst disrupt our theology, then young people do so even more. Young people are liminal beings, placed in the “now and not yet” of adulthood. They don’t need the structure and care that children do, but they do need some. They are changing, discovering, expanding, and learning: it is an age of experimentation. They are not yet settled in identities, and all is possible.
Young people live in a cultural climate that is increasingly incomprehensible to older generations, and thus to the Church, where the average age is 61. Society may tend to problematise them, but their insights and frustrations are gifts. To benefit from them, we must be brave enough to ask them to express them; and then we must listen unflinchingly with respect and consideration. Young people could be the prophets of today, whose stark observations make us deeply uncomfortable but also draw us closer to being the Church that God wants us to be.
LOOKING at our engagement with young people through the lens of dialogue should give rise to a welcome that goes far beyond providing them with something attractive to turn up to.
As long as young people’s meaningful presence in our church communities is limited, so is the degree to which they experience our welcome. If we do our job properly, our hospitality will mean accommodating young people and changing this welcome. This is a wholly appropriate embodiment of faith in God, who eternally disrupted the harmony of the Persons of the Trinity that we might commune with them.
Children and young people slow things down. My argument, that we engage with them dialogically, involves learning new relational skills. This is awkward and requires extra work. It takes us further into the realm of complexity and tension rather than helps us to escape from it. But without young people we are incomplete and bereft of vital gifts. The potential gain for the Church is exponentially worth the investment, and goes beyond refilling pews.
Becca Dean has been in church youth ministry in a variety of churches and is currently a doctoral student at Durham University, researching the part that young people play in church communities.