On 25 February, children’s, youth and family workers from across the Stepney Area gathered together at Christ Church Spitalfields for a day of inspiration, new learning and top-quality biscuits. The Bishop of Stepney, the Rt Revd Adrian Newman, opened proceedings and, if you missed the day, here’s his message.
One of my neighbours is the brains behind a print magazine called Deferred Gratification. It’s an attempt at slow journalism, or slow news. He wanted to offer an alternative to the world of instant, shallow news offered by the global communications industry and social media.
Deferred Gratification is only produced in print. It has no web presence and can’t be accessed online. It specialises in what it describes as medium- or long-term news. In other words, it follows a story through, it doesn’t abandon it as soon as the latest event sweeps away everything in its path.
What interested me, chatting to my neighbour about this, was his observation that while early adopters of Deferred Gratification were the sorts of people you might predict – fifty-somethings looking back nostalgically at a world that seemed slower, gentler, deeper and more considered – in the past few years, he has seen more and more young people become subscribers. These young people have become jaded with social media, demoralised by shallowness, anxious about the growing trend for fake news and eager for an alternative.
This is a reminder that, historically, it’s often been the younger generation who have done the counter-cultural thing. I wonder if we’ve considered this sufficiently in our approach to work with children and young people? Perhaps we have entered a phase of such conformity and convention that Christianity could once more represent for young people not the bland conformity of their parents’ generation, but a glorious rebellion.
Cris Rogers, the Vicar of All Hallows Bow, was approached by a digital TV channel (called TBN:UK) to make a series of programmes called The Rebel’s Guide. It’s an attempt to portray Christianity and the Jesus Movement as the only rebellion left for a young person these days.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we abandon all attempts to make our work with children and young people accessible and relevant, using all of the modern communication tools at our disposal. All I want to is raise a flag for offering children and young people something genuinely alternative, to be bold enough to recognise the radical nature of being a Christian in today’s world, and not be frightened of presenting the challenge of faith to those who might just respond better to an uncompromising challenge that bland attraction.
It’s easy to forget that Jesus himself was young, and his disciples may well have been younger still. He didn’t offer them a bland conformity, but a radical and often stark challenge to become disciples of an alternative society. And those young people rose to that challenge, and turned the world upside down. They were, as our reading [Matthew 12:1–14] makes plain, radical non-conformists, disruptive and disturbing to the established religion of the day.
That, of course, is the other side of the coin in the church’s work with children and young people. We don’t just need them to ensure the survival of tomorrow’s church – we need them because they bring us a perspective on the Christian faith which we need within the body of Christ now, without which we are diminished.
It is often the young who keep the flame of radical discipleship burning in the church. Think of Taizé and its influence within the Roman Catholic church. Think of the Confessing Church in Germany in the 1930s. These were, essentially, movements of young people.
Without this energy, without this radical edge, without this counter-cultural challenge, without this rebellious streak, the church ossifies and dies.
So, I want to encourage you. Your work is vital. Thank you for what you do. Please keep doing it!
But I also want to suggest that our evangelism among young people, our discipleship programmes with young people, need to have an emphasis on the radical and the rebellious. I don’t want young people’s churches to be a pale reflection of the adult church, I want them to have a prophetic voice, a disturbing and disruptive presence.
That, it seems to me, is what Jesus is calling young churches to be.
The Rt Rev Adrian Newman is the Bishop of Stepney.