The prophets amongst us: young people and the church’s way forward
James Fawcett from the Children and Youth Ministry Support team shares some perspectives on how young people may have already been leading the way for the church to learn from.
This is a response to the GodPod podcast by Bishop Graham, Bishop Sarah, Jane Williams (listen here). By way of context, I am writing this from the perspective of a youth worker – and thinking about young people, as well as my experience of supporting youth workers through the Diocese of London and beyond.
I want to start with a quote from Mark Scanlan in his paper, “Equal Opportunities for Mission and Ministry” (Anvil: Journal of Mission and Ministry Vol 34, Issue 2, p6):
“In order to move towards this theology of equal opportunity in mission and ministry with young people, we need to take account of two distinct theological contexts…the ultimate context of youth; and…proximate context. The ultimate context claims that the period of life that young people are in offers something distinctive to reflecting the image of God…. In contrast, the proximate context refers to the specific circumstances of the young people that we are working with at a particular time and place. The ultimate context is key in remembering that youth is not a problem to be solved but a unique and precious part of the human experience; the proximate context alerts us to the way that the circumstances of young people have something specific to bring to conversation about God and the Christian faith.”
Scanlan’s point is young people have something distinctive to offer the church – in their understanding their experience of life, growing up, reflection on God, and therefore the world we live in, including our experience of church. This podcast raised a number of interesting points that young people have been saying to us for years, and in some cases, we have simply not been listening, perhaps until we have been jolted by this global pandemic. As Scanlan suggests, if we listen to young people this might shape our ministry, not just to young people but the whole church.
Right at the end of the podcast, Bishop Graham mentioned he has been reading the history of plagues (wow, there is an insight) and goes on to explain these crises historically have led us (society) to a call to repentance. This is where I would like to start; where have we gone wrong and where do we need to change?
What do we need to change?
These are three things that were talked about in the podcast that I think we could seek repentance over:
- How we are with one another? Who is the ‘other’? It’s a shame it took a global pandemic for Bishop Sarah to write to the Children and young people in her Diocese, this is not to belittle the letter; it was and is a really powerful thing to do. Also highlighted by how we now relate to our neighbours, whether this be a brief chat over our NHS clapping on a Thursday night. Or longer conversations (2 metres apart – obviously) with neighbours, or strangers in the Lidl queue.
- How we are with the world? We can see Singapore from space now? We beg for our parks to be open so we can get exercise. Pollution is down. We are not wasting food, we are making more food from home– less packaging. If I see another loaf of bread on social media!
- How we view church? Is this meeting online real? Does it count? Is it giving me what I need? What do I need from church? (We are asking these questions about purpose).
I think young people have been talking to us about these things for years, in one way or another. They have been leading the way, they have been prophetic, but we have not listened. So perhaps our final confession is “sorry”: for not listening to young people; for not considering your voice. This applies to me, as much as anyone else.
What have young people been saying?
1. How we are with others: life online and beyond
Young people have been showing us for years how to engage online with the ‘other’ and with those we know. Until now, the church was for the most part focusing on promotion; publicising events online that it was running in a separate, physical space: “come to our service/event at this place at this time, be there or miss out” – and if you don’t go, you literally miss it. Now it has moved its online focus to production; creating content that is consumed online – with much of it similar to what would have been happening physically. But it is also the beyond life online, young people mix and share experience in cultures, stories as they inhabit the world, in a much more respectful and gentle way that adults. I haven’t even talked about gender or human sexuality, but young people have been leading the way on how we embrace the other for years on that.
2. How we are with the world: young people and the environment
Jane Williams talks about a self-centred theology that we adopt in the most part which is accentuated with the loss of control we are currently facing (the global pandemic) and this has the effect of forcing us to ask the big questions of how does God move/work in the world when it affects us personally. It’s easier to say how God works when Africa is suffering plagues, but much harder when it is our relatives/friends struggling to breathe in isolation.
Young people in some ways have been countering this narrative for a few years with the more of an interest with how we (the human race) is impacting the world – environmentally, way beyond the call of Greta Thunberg and plastic in the sea of 2019 and the ensuing international movement of children to protest. There has been consistent interest in social action, amongst young people for as long as I have been working with them (20 years) asking me questions about how the poor live and what we might do about it.
3. How we experience church
Bishop Graham goes on to say, the current digital experience of church is not the fullness of church, but then follows that with ‘neither is the parish church the fullness of church’. Interesting. What are our prophetic young people teaching us here? We have known this for years, young people move between these spaces, parish boundaries are only something priests get excited about. Young people cross these boundaries all the time and they have been experiencing something of the church more broadly for years, as they dip in and out of different churches, and participate in cross-church youth meetings, as they meet in schools or online, or attend another evening service in another church with friends.
How we can respond
All this points to young people making a way, at least already asking the questions in part, pre-pandemic. Also prophetically living out their experiences, thoughts and faith right under our noses. What does this mean moving forward? These are some a few points that I’m considering as a response to this:
Listen to young people
At least pay attention. I don’t think this needs to be a national survey (although I think they help) but perhaps if you know some young people speak to them, with an inquiring mind rather than a judging one. Perhaps if you know a Christian that works with young people speak to them. I would offer a note of caution here. Don’t assume, don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t assume, don’t jump to conclusions. Live with the questions, God is OK with it! With Scanlan ringing in your ears:
“Youth is not a problem to be solved but a unique and precious part of the human experience.”
I love the listening to young people. I’m a youth worker, this is in the DNA, but it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference if you don’t do anything about it. The amount of ‘listening’ to young people by the church almost feels self-indulgent. They have in the main stopped talking to us. It is therefore incumbent on us to go to young people with purpose to listen and act on them. This is not new news.
Ask yourself, “am I hearing young people correctly?”
Firstly; ‘I participate online, let me participate with you’. Move from content consumers/producers online to co-creation and participation. This leads us to ask questions of how we build community online? How do we share online? How are we vulnerable online?
Secondly; think about the other. What is your impact in the world? What are the consequences of your actions, on the poor, on the other, on the environment?
Thirdly; what is limiting your imagination for church? Jane Williams in the podcast discusses hope. She says the cross is the end of all human possibility, but the resurrection is the imagination of God beyond human possibility. I love this. I wonder if young people are offering some insights, some imagination for the future of the church – some resurrection, the hope for the church which is currently bigger and more imaginative than our current limitations or possibilities! I think they are and I want be there to watch and join in.
Finally, what does this mean for us as Christians that work with young people? I think Bishop Sarah’s thoughts on Christian reasoning – picked up by Bishop Graham – were very interesting in relation to how we support, help, work with young people. Bishop Sarah was talking about Christian reasoning in relation to making ‘big’ or moral decisions, but this stuff is perfectly applicable to regular life decisions and therefore to our work with young people. These are the components listed by +Graham, Jane and +Sarah:
- Community – church
With these components, we create a framework in order to make decisions. This is part of youth ministry should do, help young people to create their own frameworks to ask questions. This is part of the responsibility of the church back to young people that we aid them to make these frameworks, because through these frameworks they can speak with power and authority into the church. This is our role as church to disciple these young people that they can prophetically lead and teach us in return – back to a co-construction, to end with Scanlan:
“Once again, mission and ministry is consequently a co-construction, and this is an ongoing process of openness to the other, their experience and what they bring. If we are to be faithful to the work of God, the values of youth work and the lives of the young people with whom we work we need to be diligent in attending to the terroir of those young people. By doing so we will move again towards a theology of equal opportunity, humble and open-handed with what we bring, knowing that it is only part of the story; and we will be willing to allow the lives and places of young people, in their ultimate and proximate contexts, to interrupt our expectations and our plans.” (Page 8)
As Scanlan hints, this will be uncomfortable, to say the least. This is not a separate ‘youth event’, where we let the young people tinker with something over there – like a youth service or that they read out the prayers we have written, or we allow them to carry the gospel. I’m reminded of what Rev Dr Sam Wells reminds us in his book The Nazareth Manifesto, of the story of the good Samaritan:
“And yet, this parable brings the good news. The answer to our problems is, miraculously, ambling down the road toward us. But, shocking to discover, this person is the very last person we could imagine being any help to us. This person is a stranger. This person is an enemy. This person is more offensive to us than the robbers who have just stripped us and left us half dead. This is a person we assume is out to get us. This is a person we look down upon. This is a person we have never in our lives eaten a meal with, let alone touched. This is a person we would not dream of living next to. This is a person who claims to worship the same God but whose religion we despise and whose race we regard as inferior. This is a man whose identity, Samaritan, is one we cannot say without spitting. This is the victim of every single one of our sins.” (Page 94)
“Do not assume others will see Jesus’ face in you: go and expect to see Jesus’ face in them.” (Page 95)
This is my call, I think this is our call.