'Youth enjoys no special privilege in the church-community. It is to serve the church-community by hearing, learning, and practicing the word. God’s spirit in the church has nothing to do with youthful criticism of the church, the radical nature of God’s claim on human beings nothing to do with youthful radicalism, and the commandment for sanctification nothing to do with youthful impulse to better the world.' Says the great Bonhoeffer adding to his statement:
'THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A CHRISTIAN YOUTH!'
Yes, I am seriously proposing that if you close your youth group the long term effects could save your church. Now I know this might seem a bit absurd to you, to be fair its a bit absurd to me. I am a youth worker and I am passionate about supporting, equipping and enabling those younger than me but I can't help but notice the patterns we have been outworking are not having the desired outcome.
Whilst we may (or may not) have thriving youth ministries, still young adults are leaving church in droves. I don't have any new stats to dazzle you with but if you type into google 'statistics on young adults...' it fills in the blanks with '...leaving church' that tells me I am not alone in spotting the issue!
In 2008 Jason Gardener wrote a brilliantly challenging call to the church entitled Mend The Gap a book that I believe hasn't ever received the accolade or attention it deserves. See Jason (I think of us as on first name terms) highlights that the gap between young people and the main congregation of most churches has simply become too large. In an attempt to 'fix' the issues thousands of youth workers, like me, have been employed over the last 10/15yrs with the direct call to be the bridge builders. What we have often done though is far from bridge the gap but rather to create youth ghettos, thus actually increasing the gap between the communities, rather than building it.
Now I know some of you will disagree with me that, I am sure some of you are doing great things to build the bridges but some of us aren't and we need to hold our hands up to that.
As Jason says 'So what have we done to children? Have we placed them within a perpetual playground environment and nannied them with leisure technology?'
The babysitting, entertaining approach however seems to of not been fulfilling the needs of the young people, or the church. We create short term ghettos for young people and then loose them when we expect them to transition into 'real church'. They don't know the way, the people or how to move forward. The people don't know them, don't chase them and in some cases don't notice them missing. And when a long term youth worker contract is 3 years we need to acknowledge that whist it is great for us to build rapport with young people we will and do move on so its useful to consider what are we leaving behind.
Jason's book offers the glimmer of something different. An approach which challenges the status quo and something I have been experimenting with for some time. I am suggesting that you close your mid week youth groups and re establish them as intergenerational groups, think youth groups with no age limits.
You can read about our experiment here and here but essentially we call all the church (and those outside of the church) to gather together once a week.
To the eye it looks like most usual youth groups, table tennis, craft, board games, food but look a little closer and you will see something quite different. On one table a 77year old is playing cards with a young man, on another table is a woman in her 80's instructing a table full of mixed ages how to create the perfect wool pom pom and over to the right is a doubles table tennis match between two young brothers and two single men in their 30's.
What this means is that people across the church have real connections with each other and not just with me.
They have natural opportunities to touch base with each other and over these very simple to reproduce activities they have the prime opportunity to ask each other how their weeks have been and whats hot (or whats not) in their lives. People who would have never come forward as youth volunteers have engaged, loved and cheered on young people and young people who would never have had access to these adults have learnt new skills, broadened their communication skills and dare I say it made friends. Oh and we have celebrated our fair share of birthdays too!
The payout for making this change....
- We get to outwork being the family of God in this place for this season
- It seemed very natural when this summer 'Nan' one of our older attendees invited some of the young women over for cake and craft afternoons but she wouldn't call herself a youth leader (she totally is though)
- We have a church that knows each other pretty well, we share deep moments over dinner week in, week out
- They are already in 'real' church
- When I leave my contract (and I will leave someday) those relationships will continue
We are 17 months into our intergenerational adventure, it might not be for everyone or every church but for us in this season its been life bringing and I thank God for that. I also thank God for people like Jason, people bold enough to envisage a new way of being church and for creating books that generate challenge to people like me into action.