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:
- A beacon for the community – demonstrating people who are salt and light of the world
- The Sacraments – the altar, the bread, the wine, liturgy and hymns
- A refuge – shelter in the storm of change where like-minded people feel safe
- A heritage site – a place where historic and significant virtues of a past culture can be celebrated and preserved
- 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
- A nursing home – a place to which people turn to see out their days, or for respite in an atmosphere of love and care
- A place of education – to learn about God, the Gospel and how to live a life that Jesus would want
- A gathering of people – a fellowship of mutual care and encouragement: an open place that welcomes people of all ages, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.
- The means by which a group of people can meet the needs of communities near and far through fundraising and social action.
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.