Monday, 1 October 2012

Jesus and Life in the Hoodie

Young people and church
How often do we see young people in our rural churches?  Has anyone asked the question – where are our young people on a Sunday morning?  While we’re engaging with children in our family services, our adults and seniors in the standard Eucharist services, there is a very definite gap in our congregations that is left by the absence of teenagers.  This is probably an age-old conundrum but I’d like to raise the question again and perhaps make some suggestions (again – this may not be news to us but it’s always worth revisiting).  You may have seen a few of the youth group members during Eucharist services on previous occasions.  When we’re asked to help it normally involves us doing something that would ordinarily involve an adult such as a reading, leading the intercessions.  I would like to ask a question.  By including the young people in a traditional service whose structure and content many of them aren’t familiar with, singing hymns written a hundred years ago or more and generally conforming to a liturgy that is somewhat alien to the teenage newcomer, do we genuinely believe that we are actually catering to their spiritual needs?  The proof may be seen in the fact that, aside from the odd occasion when we are invited to participate in a service, teenagers are generally absent from our churches.

My leaders and I decided to address this at Youth one week.  We did an activity where they were asked how they perceive the church.  This involved having a list of 9 descriptions and a blank piece of paper where they could add to the list.  The following were the descriptors:
  1. A beacon for the community – demonstrating people who are salt and light of the world
  2. The Sacraments – the altar, the bread, the wine, liturgy and hymns
  3. A refuge – shelter in the storm of change where like-minded people feel safe
  4. A heritage site – a place where historic and significant virtues of a past culture can be celebrated and preserved
  5. A health centre – where people go to stay healthy and where they gain what they need to continue to live productive lives in the community
  6. A nursing home – a place to which people turn to see out their days, or for respite in an atmosphere of love and care
  7. A place of education – to learn about God, the Gospel and how to live a life that Jesus would want
  8. A gathering of people – a fellowship of mutual care and encouragement: an open place that welcomes people of all ages, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
  9. The means by which a group of people can meet the needs of communities near and far through fundraising and social action.
Next to each description was a saucer.  They were then given 10 marbles of the same colour and had to vote on which descriptions most accurately reflected their perception of the church as it is today.  They could put all marbles in one or distribute them around several, or put one in each saucer.  Most of them saw church as a refuge (3), a heritage site (4) and a place where you learn about God (7).  We asked if it appealed to them as it stands.  They indicated that they liked parts of it but not all of it.  So we asked them to suggest how they would like church to be – and using a different coloured set of marbles each had to vote with their 10 again.  At the end of the exercise the marbles were counted.  The overwhelming response was for it to be a gathering of people of all ages, backgrounds, gender, race and sexuality (8).  Furthermore they said they wanted a safe space where they could explore their doubts without fear, and a quiet place where they could reflect on the week (a combination of 3 and some of their own ideas).  The fact of the matter is that they do not perceive the church today to be a place they want to attend.  Many even stated that they believe that what we do at Youth is their “church” because it is their safe space where they can just ‘be’.  It was quite flattering for us leaders, but we were anxious for them to experience something a little closer to what they wanted church to be; for them to create it, lead it and participate in.

Youth vote using marbles on what church is

What we eventually did a couple of weeks later was create a church service where they had free reign over the content.  It became a sort of “open mic night”.   Members brought poems, readings, and songs.  Some had a Christian content while others were more about life and where that particular teen was in their journey.  We sat around in an informal style with drinks and snacks, discussed topics.  The leaders filled the gaps and used multimedia to make them think about life, God and their spirituality.  We watched a popular teaching video from a popular Bible teacher called Rob Bell.  The DVD lasted 10 minutes and had discussion questions afterward.  They could discuss them there in groups or take the questions home and ponder on them in their own time.  There were Bible verses to share and at the end we put on some meditative music and, with post-it notes and pens/crayons, posted our prayers on our tables and on a prayer wall, a bit like graffiti.  Parents were invited.  Most hung out at the back so as not to “cramp their kid’s style”, but the teens seemed to be quite comfortable with their presence.  It was their church on their terms with their stuff going on.  We were staggered by its success.  We were also inspired and encouraged by what we learned from the teens – and what they were willing to contribute.  One girl sat in the middle of the room with her guitar and sang a Mumford & Sons song called “Roll Away Your Stone”.  Her courage to do that still inspires me today, not to mention the brilliance of her voice.

Something I discussed during my Authorised Lay Ministry training was about noise and ‘visual’ noise and how this affects the way young people approach the world.  In this world we are surrounded by noise, images and ‘stuff’ all day, every day, and young people in particular experience this perhaps more than most.  They also live with a lot of expectation from school, peers, parents, and tv etc.  And so my question is: do we, as a church, also put on them expectations of conformity to a way of doing things and ‘being’ that may not appeal?  Is it any wonder that the kind of church that appeals to them is one that gives them the freedom to explore things on their terms without fear of rejection?  Is it any wonder that amid a busy, noisy world they crave a sacred space that gives them time to reflect?  The experiment was fascinating to observe, and was very thought-provoking for us as youth leaders, as was the open mic night that occurred as a result of the experiment.  I know that Church as a refuge already exists, and one clergy, in a sermon recently, used the metaphor of an oasis in the wilderness – but how much of what we do meets the needs of a select group of people rather than appealing to a generation whose need for a sacred space often takes them elsewhere rather than the one established place they should be able to find it – i.e. our Sunday morning services?

This is not to suggest that we ditch the old ways (and perhaps this is quite radical) but I believe in a church that opens its arms to everyone and a Gospel that actively looks for those on the periphery rather than stands and waits for them to come to us.  Furthermore, it isn’t a job simply for a select few people who are gifted at communicating with young people and have the time and energy to hold open mic nights.  It’s a responsibility we all have, as God’s beloved, to reach out to all people – and not just on Sundays but every single day of the week, meeting them where they are.  We need to leave our comfort zones, the way Christ did by spending time with prostitutes, the downtrodden and the despised.

Underneath the hoodie lurks a passionate, loving soul who wants to be loved and appreciated for who they are and where they’re at in the journey.  So stop trying to bring them into the framework of a traditional church setup that is often alien and uninviting to them and let them discover a loving God through building a bridge to them.  This may mean rethinking what we believe “church” is – when it happens, what it looks like, how we play a part in it.  Let’s start with reminding ourselves that Christ calls it His “Bride” and go from there.  It begins with love and compassion.

Inspire a Generation: Who inspires Who?

Inspire a generation.  We've all heard that phrase over and over again this summer, and in some ways it's all a bit cliche now.  Yes, I said it.  Cliche.  However, my question (as per the title) is who inspires who?  It's a powerful thing to behold the achievements of our athletes, especially those who have overcome so much.  And, yes, I have been inspired.  Especially by the Paralympics.  Channel 4's promo leading up to the commencement did it for me.  "Meet the Super-Humans".  Huzzah!!  They were super human alright.  Wow!  I was not alone. It seemed the country gathered momentum and optimism as they stood in support of Team GB.  Polls suggest that patriotism has soared in recent months as a result of both the Jubilee celebrations and the Olympics.  I must confess I was somewhat skeptical of the latter at first.  Then I watched the Opening Ceremony (on tv) and was completely blown away by the creativity, spectacle and general recognition of what Britain has given the world.  Hats off to Danny Boyle for converting me.  I mean, who couldn't be slightly proud of Britain having seen our Super-Thesp' and Director Extraordinaire, Kenneth Brannagh, playing Isambard Brunel and quoting The Bard's (it is thought) farewell to the stage, "The Tempest"?  Swoon, float, sigh, wipe a tear or two...

Up until this point, though, we'd really only heard about "libor" scandals (I had no idea that word existed until someone committed a boo-boo and the press went wild), austerity measures (if I had a pound for every time I heard that I'd be able to pay off my student loan so much quicker), and, sadly, controversy within the Church.  However, one thing I note from all this wonderful London 2012 raving is that there is a feeling that we need to inspire the 'younger generation'.  At least, that's where the emphasis seems to have been placed.  Really?  Inspire a younger generation?  Is it not this younger generation who have demonstrated to us that their resolve, motivation and focus has paid off to win Gold for the UK?  And is it not the older generation, perhaps scarred by the riots of 2011, who need to see what can be achieved by the same generation of young people?

Ah the 2011 riots.  A sad time for us youth workers.  A chorus of "down with the delinquents" could be heard across the nation.  The Daily Mail quoted Anthony Daniels, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, that British youths are "the most unpleasant and violent in the world" (DM 10/8/11).  The Benefice in which I work/serve/attend Sunday services may not be the "hood" exactly but I'd say that was a slightly harsh assumption.  Recent newspaper articles have reported that gang-related youth crime in city centres has soared over recent months.  Clearly the British public (and the world) needed London 2012 to remind us that young people perhaps aren't quite as unpleasant as some would have us believe and maybe just need a sense of belonging and/or a bigger thing to focus on. Don't we all.

Actually it dawned on me during the Olympics when most athletes were considered "old" or "nearing sporting retirement" as they reached their late twenties, that I am not necessarily classified as a "young person" any more (what?!?!)  So perhaps it is people of my generation (people in their early thirties, before you ask, who are too old to be considered for Rio in 2016..sigh..) who were in dire need of this "inspiration".  I confess I've been jaded by life a little of late. I've seen parents struggle to make ends meet, trying to pay the mortgage and feed their family while food costs rise and fuel prices shoot through the roof.  Meanwhile the banks rig libor to increase their profits and when they're caught the bosses, who are already earning considerably more that your average Joe, get a nice little sum to depart from the company.  You bad boy.  Here's your reward for allowing dishonesty, now go away and don't do it again.  I'm sorry, but is it any wonder that young people feel ever so slightly frustrated by this and take to the streets to show their disillusionment?  Not that I condone the violence and the vandalism of 2011, but when Dr Daniels writes that Britain's young have a "sense of entitlement" and were unwilling to change their ways for anyone else (Smith/Moran, DM 10/8/11) I feel the urge to raise my hand and say, with all due respect, they haven't had the best example shown to them by the leaders of finance and, dare I say it, the government (expenses scandal, etc, etc)

So when I see young people achieving more than they could have imagined either on the sporting stage or in their own daily struggle, I, the old-enough-to-retire-from-professional-sport generation am absolutely inspired.  Beyond that, and this is probably why I do what I do, every week at my youth group, G7Teen, I never ceased to be inspired by the young people.  A couple of Sundays ago we asked them "what do you stand for?"  Each was given a piece of A4 paper and a pen to ponder this on and then some A4 card to write out, like a placard, their thoughts.  Here's a selection of what they stand for:

Gay rights
Being kind to one another
Animal rights

And so on.  They didn't just write these things.  They explained why each means a lot to them. These aren't just what I call "Sunday School answers".  Amid the hormones, the homework, the craziness of life as a teenager, the things they hold on to, stand for, argue and attest to are some of the biggest values in life; some of the things that those of us with some life experience under our belts can sometimes become skeptical about.  So I applaud this generation for reminding me not to give up on the big things.  The youth of today can show us the best way to 'do life': with big dreams, goals, open arms, creativity, steadfast values (that go beyond platitudes) and an unceasing optimism and energy.  And what can we do for them in return?  Make space for them, create a sense of belonging, believe in them, encourage them, create challenges and open doors for them.  Inspire a generation?  They did.  Mine.

Sunday, 4 April 2010


I met with God the other night. It was a planned, official church event and thus I wondered how many of my youth group would actually show up (well, the older, increasingly cynical bunch) since it seems the idea of attending organised church events is somewhat repulsive to many. In fact I had ranted in my journal the night before how we seem to find ourselves increasingly busy every year to the extent that time has become (or I've become more aware of it) a hugely precious commodity not to be given away lightly. Most of the time when I suggest to my older teens how they might like to do something that involves Sunday services they either brush me off (well, one works every Sunday so that's always a non-starter) or they shrug and say "I normally go out Saturday night so Sunday mornings I'm in bed or at my mate's house" (hung over, I might add). I was never sure what to suggest since the postmodern reflection on giving of one's time does suggest that Sundays are no longer the institution they once were and the giving of one's time to God can and should occur any day of the week. But yesterday's Prayer Vigil and today's Easter Morning service made me realise it IS important to not give up the official church functions because that is often how we grow together as a community.

There is an undeniable bond between those of us who participated in the Prayer Vigil the other night. It is a shared experience. We all met with God and through that have been greatly blessed and are seeing things in a new light. I cannot describe what it is that went on in that church. All I know is that we have been changed for the better. The way I see it is this - we gave of our time, not knowing what to expect but wanting to communicate with God and wanting others to join in also. We gave of our time for 5 hours on Good Friday night and a few hours early the next morning. The time flew by. I had told the younger teens about the vigil and said the time would fly by and it did. I was stunned to see how many of them showed up, and literally leaping for joy when they wanted to stay longer than they originally planned.

Time. The one thing we spend a lot of, craving more of and yet it's the one thing we often don't give to the one who gave it to us. Are we really that busy? Are we really any busier than we were 5, 10, 20, 100 years ago? What do we do with our time? I've always been a bit resistant to the Protestant Work Ethic, not because I'm lazy (although I recognise a tendency in me to be so) but because it is a built in mechanism that seems to make us feel guilty when we're not doing anything or are not being 'productive' with our time. I mean, sure, it's important we don't become slothful but it's also equally important that we value the down times and embrace the peace of doing nothing. We need to restore the balance and I believe an ideal way of doing that is by making one day our "Sabbath". Since the majority of Christians choose Sunday for that day and Church is organised around that day, why reinvent the wheel?

I've had a lot of time to think about this. I spent the first year after returning from my stint in Canada fighting the fact that I was home, raging against my new, quieter, un/semi-employed existence when I should have been embracing the change, resting in the quiet and waiting on God to bring around the next adventure when I was ready. It's now been almost 2 years since I was officially home from Canada (although I spent a good 3 months last summer back there, sorting out my belongings and preparing to return to the UK more permanently) and even now I've been wrestling with the notion that I should be right here, wondering if I'd just settled for second best because I've become too disillusioned with dreaming big. I kept dredging up the past and mourning the loss of one dream, lingering in the melancholy of an existence that was no more and while it was important to go through the grieving process I wasted valuable resting and restorative time. I hadn't factored God into things much, or spent any time praying and communicating with Him about it. 5 hours in a prayer vigil went by like 20 minutes and throughout it all I sensed a deep craving for more time with God because there seemed to be so much to pray for and seek His heart about. I can totally see why people set up Boiler Rooms where prayer goes on 24/7/365... (maybe I should find my nearest one.. or maybe set one up locally??)

Time. Precious commodity. Owned by God (who is beyond time). Dare we spend time with Him, even if it means getting up earlier on Sunday mornings? What can happen if we do? We're all feeling lighter and also share a sense of anticipation of something bigger going on around us. It's indescribable, which is why we all need to give more time to God. I can show you the path, but you have to walk it.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Iraqi Oil

Iraqi oil development rights awarded to non-Iraqi companies:

Anti-war protesters must be howling right now with the news that 2 non-Iraqi oil companies have been awarded the contracts for some of Iraq's biggest oil fields (BBC News). For years people have been complaining that the Iraq war was more about oil than about a threat to global security and while I tend to disagree - Saddam Hussein needed to be dealt with - I am a little outraged to see the 'spoils' being given to outside agencies rather than establishing a new Iraqi corporation that could potentially rebuild the shattered economy and bring some financial stability to the war-torn nation. From a practical view point it would make more sense to have external agencies act as consultants for this, who can advise on the development and infrastructure. Ultimately, the oil fields are the property of Iraq and should be managed by the Iraqi people.

I understand that it is a lucrative deal that will boost the Iraq economy regardless of who manages the oil fields but from an ethical perspective it looks like Iraq's oil is being 'prostituted' to the highest bidder. If we in the western world can perceive it in this way then who knows how insurgents will see it and what they will try to do. The country is already in much turmoil and this will likely fuel the fire of rage against the 'western world'.

The world waits with baited breath...

Sunday, 15 November 2009

A word on the blog address...

The title of this blog is A Social Commentary at the interesting address of 'rabadashtheridiculous' quite simply because in my other blog 'mimseyesonthesky' I was starting to rant a little about the world and society and realised that it wasn't really in keeping with the original aim of the blog. I originally used my first blog as a means of conveying my journeys either to actual places or just in life, but somewhere along the line I began to make some social commentary that didn't seem appropriate. Thus Rabadash the Ridiculous was formed.

It is named thus from the C S Lewis book 'The Horse and His Boy'. Rabadash is a character from the story who foolishly tries to attack Archenland, a neighbouring country to Narnia, without provocation (aside from having his marriage proposal declined by Queen Susan). He ultimately becomes a symbol of an uninspiring era in the history of his native country Calormen because of his early folly, which has, unbeknownst to his countrymen, made him captive in his own city (thanks to Aslan). It is because of his apparent lack of native pride / ambitions of conquest that he earns the posthumous title "Rabadash the Ridiculous"

I felt it was an apt address to use for my blog on social commentary, albeit slightly random, because I feel we are in an interesting era where everything is sort of upside down. I may use the phrase "Donkey Award" and this is another reference to Rabadash, who was turned into a donkey before returning to Calormen. I shall probably nominate various people for this award. For example, last week it would have gone to The Sun newspaper whose campaign against Gordon Brown for misspelling a fallen soldier's name in a handwritten letter to his grieving mother backfired when they misspelled his mother's name in their editorial. Sweet irony and poetic justice.

So here it is. I present you the new blog for social commentary. Enjoy, comment, criticise if you need to.