IT CAN be challenging to talk about what the Church is at the best of times, but right now, with an emphasis on pioneer ministry, the possibility of lay-led churches, and the Save the Parish movement all vying for our attention, we need to be asking ourselves the questions posed by Mark Scanlan’s book. What is church? What spaces does church occupy? And — crucially, I think — can ecclesiastical space exist beyond the boundaries of the church?
Having worked in youth and children’s ministry for 35 years, I see all too often the inclination to operate from a silo: youth ministry becomes a vacuum-packed space in which we engage with young people on behalf of the church — not because they are the church.
At the start of Scanlan’s book, we are introduced to a framework that might help us to rethink our practice and our engagement with young people and, indeed, with the life of the Church in the world, which affects and shapes all of us. This approach is called “an interweaving ecclesiology”: “unlike most other attempts to talk about the Church in youth ministry, this approach develops an ecclesiology of youth ministry, rather than for youth ministry.”
The book is open and imaginative as we are invited to consider the potential ecclesial spaces that invite young people to engage in Christian practices and create community. The assertion that Scanlan makes is that young people can experience life in Christ through relationship and practices without being part of institutional and established church structures. Whether they move on from there, or not, has been a bone of contention with youth-ministry practice for years.
In support of an interweaving ecclesiology, Scanlan turns to the work of Urban Saints (formerly Crusaders). An ethnographic case study was undertaken to explore the practice of some Crusader groups and what Scanlan identifies as the inherent ecclesial imagination. The question that I am forced to ask, repeatedly, as I have engaged with the book is this: if something (an activity, movement, happening with young people involved) has Christian practices, and if it builds community centred around Jesus Christ, then isn’t it church?
What I particularly like about the case studies is how normal and average the groups are: these aren’t flash and enormous groups at for forefront of some youth-ministry vanguard. This could be my youth group; it could be yours.
The challenge presented is to invite others to join the conversation to see what is possible and — as the book articulates so well — that the church continues to develop and grow. “Church” isn’t static; nor does it fit neatly within our institutional shapes. To steal a line from Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way.”
If you want your vision of the Church — not just youth ministry — enriched and enlarged, then I encourage you to get this book. There is a national strategy for the Church of England for the 2020s. One of the priorities is to be a Church that is younger and more diverse — and, while a “mixed ecology” is the language most often used to describe the way we need to be, we need, I think, to consider it more as an interweaving ecclesiology — as we seek to embrace all that God is doing, not just in the Church with and through young people, but in the world.
Ali Campbell runs The Resource, a youth and children’s ministry consultancy.
An Interweaving Ecclesiology: The Church, mission and young people
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20