Co-construction: A Sunday Youth Experiment
Zoe Phillips shares what she learned by allowing young people to talk about whatever they wanted for a few Sunday youth sessions.
After being inspired by a paper written by Mark Scanlan which advocates for a theology of equality, co-construction and interruption in youth ministry, I decided to try something different with my Sunday youth group.
Mark’s research took place in an outreach-focused youth group, that he noted created an ‘ambiguous space’ by allowing interruptions (and seeing these as valuable) … be it stopping mid-prayer to welcome a young person into the group or encouraging a conversation – that from another viewpoint could be seen derailing the session plan – to continue. Mark saw that this posture allowed for the co-construction of ministry and therefore embodied an explicit theological commitment of equal opportunity for young people.
I resonated with this because, of course we (youth workers) believe young people are amazing, made in the image of God, with something uniquely brilliant to contribute, but I was challenged that sometimes my model of ministry did not reflect that theological value.
Creating more space
My Sunday youth group (ages 11-14), is less of an ‘ambiguous space’ compared to the outreach youth group Mark observed, but I was keen to see what the same principles would offer an ecclesial youth group space. I wanted to make more space for the unexpected voices in my youth group and enable the co-construction of faith through youth led dialogue, with the leaders taking a posture of listening and (gently) framing, rather than directing.
So, the premise of my experiment was that for one term – instead of having a set series that I would lead/impart to my youth – there would be no plan; it would be a conversation between the young people, which we (my youth team and I) would be privileged to be a part of.
I don’t know about your young people, but if I told my younger ones that there is no plan, let’s talk about whatever you want, the blank canvas would make them clam up and feel a bit unsettled about what to do. This experiment would need a little framing. On the first Sunday, I simply explained the desire for it to be a conversation led by them. To get them thinking about what they wanted to discuss, I asked them to write down a question/topic/issue that they found interesting or challenging within the broad theme of the Christian faith. I gathered these up and we agreed that we would choose one each Sunday and see where the conversation took us from that point.
The first session
The first question was “what is the relationship between science and faith?” Quite a nitty-gritty one I thought. Maybe the conversation would dry up quickly? Surely, they’d need expertise in navigating this?
At first, there was a pause and then a few hands raised(!). I looked to the boy whose question it was and encouraged him (non-verbally) to take the lead in opening the discussion…
They tackled the question by getting specific. One young person said that they thought the Big Bang created the world not God. One person said maybe God made the Big Bang. Which sparked questions of who made God. Does God need to be made? Then they circled back ground to the Big Bang being a theory, just like evolution is a theory. One young person said they thought God made us through evolution, which another young person disagreed with. I asked where we would go in the bible to speak to this question. They all said Genesis. So, we read the Genesis 1. One young person said they thought it was a metaphor, another agreed because it doesn’t talk about dinosaurs. One young person liked that Genesis said the sea-creatures were created first as that lined up with evolution.
It was fascinating to watch. What I noticed was how most comments and questions were not abstract to them, they were pulling on specific/concrete/random details they knew, that may have felt tangential to me, but held meaning to them.
Some new young people who had not spoken much in Sunday youth yet were weighing in, which was exciting to see. The conversation danced around a bit, before landing in ‘back and forth’ debate between two boys. One aged 11 and the other 13.
Everyone was gripped by the ping-pong of questions and come-backs between the two of them. Far more gripped and engaged than if it was me teaching and asking someone a question, I think. It felt real, raw, certainly theologically clunky and couple of times I really wanted to butt in, but at the same time it felt good and right to let the conversation take place.
By this point the conversation had moved from creation, to how Jesus could be God if he was created in Mary’s womb, to what being God’s son meant. Comments like “he wasn’t God until he was born and then he inherited God’s power” and “How did Jesus get in there [the womb] was is like God had intercourse with Mary?” were a couple that stuck in my mind! The boys then jumped to how Jesus could die if he was God. God couldn’t die, could he? The dialogue between these two sparked lots of outbursts of “yeah, that’s true” from the others. At one point everyone began talking, which was the only time I stepped to call it back to be a conversation – but that showed how much them leading and steering the pace and content of the conversation ministered to their present needs, interests and understandings.
At points I found it hard to not “teach” and correct something when it was verging on “wrong” from my perspective (or simply heresy!). The anxiety I felt was “what if they come away think ‘x’ when I know ‘x’ is wrong”, “what will my vicar think about this!?” and the anxiety was also “how much good does it actually do them to just talk using their own wisdom, when the bible is sitting right there?” which was why my evangelical compass did direct them to open the Bible earlier.
I know that logically, my job isn’t to manufacture good little Christians who know all the right answers and can regurgitate everything I know. Instead, I’m here to journey with and push them in their own discipleship. Faith formation is unique, and I think a more processing-led format for Sunday youth, as opposed to a programme-led model, is good for us to engage in, for a time.
I can see the shadow side of this would be to let theory and discussion run wild without grounding. But at the same time, one of the most helpful things you can do as a teenager, is outwardly process and be sharpened by your peers in a safe environment. I think the powerful thing in all of this was the creation of space for a conversation like that to take place.
About Zoe Phillips
Zoe Phillips joined Christ Church W4 in 2016. She is passionate about discipling young people and seeing faith become real and relevant to their daily lives. She studied Theology and Youth Ministry at St. Mellitus and a Masters in Christian Leadership. She also is the Church Liason Officer for the Youth Minster and Youth Advocate for the Diocese of London.