5 Things I Learned from the Sunday Youth Experiment

by Zoe Phillips May 16, 2019 A

If you saw my last post, you’ll know that in January I decided to go programme free for my Sunday youth group. This decision was prompted by engaging theologically with a core value in youth work – equal opportunity. I wanted to make more space for the unexpected voices and enable the co-construction of faith through youth led dialogue; with the leaders taking a posture of listening and (gently) framing, rather than directing. It was a refreshing term for me, my team and the young people, and I’m pleased to share with you the top 5 things that stood out. 

From the get-go of the experiment, the young people came alive with the space to grapple with some big faith questions. They didn’t seem to mind that answers weren’t tied up in a neat bow for them at the end of the session. What seemed to captivate them was the back-forth of ideas, insights and experiences shared within the group. Their interest and questions were vast: God and Science, Creation debate, Christology, Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Bible, how Religious Education is taught at school, Confidence and Evangelism, Fluctuating Closeness to God, and many more smaller linking topics in between.

It was interesting how difficult it was – particularly as the weeks progressed – for the youth team to hold back on weighing in, correcting, and just generally seeking to wrap topics up with final answers. It reminded me how much anxiety we can feel to pass on faith properly. Obscure questions and off-hand comments can make us feel like we haven’t done our job; do they still not “get it!?”

We need to remember:

  • Just because we’ve covered the “basics” before, doesn’t mean they’ve landed or been understood
  • What we model is more important than our “right” answers
  • Questions are normal and important
  • By us not chipping in, it pushes the young people to find out for themselves… One young person spent a couple of minutes searching the bible to find a verse she knew in order to answer someone’s question.
  • It is not us that makes a seed of faith grow and be fruitful in a young person, it is God and God alone (see Mark 4:3-6). Sure, we can help, but there’s a lot less pressure on our Sunday morning youth group when we know the one who’s really in charge and doing the work.

I was encouraged by the huge amount of respect the young people showed to each other. You could feel it in the room; they listened well, challenged each other, laughed with each other, but not once did anyone belittle another based on their idea or question. This reflects the hugely tolerant culture they’re growing up in and the high value placed critical analysis that they’re trained in at school. They could all dissect comments and respectfully push back where the disagreed, but it would never be a personal attack. There’s a lot of good in this, but it can keep engagement with faith squarely in the cerebral realm of reason with personal opinion as the highest authority.

By doing this experiment over 7 weeks we created the space for young people to lead our conversation in a way that had never happened before. With the adults intentionally holding back, the young people filled the space. They brought fresh thoughts, unencumbered ideas, energy and enthusiasm that kept the conversation going for over 40 minutes each time.  Quieter and new young people to our group joined in when they realised there was genuine freedom for everyone to say what they thought. The most unexpected voice was the youngest member of the group, who wow-ed us with his breadth of knowledge on several topics. He also had the most outlandish questions, that took the conversation in surprising directions.

Young people are masters at cut and paste theology. According to a few of them, because Jesus is referred to as the Son of God, and born of Mary, he is best understood as a demi-god, like Thor or Maui from Moana. They are at ease with taking ideas from media and connecting it up with theology and their life. I think this comes back to what or who has authority. If the Bible is on the same level as a movies and myths, it creates a concoction of beliefs that explains who God is through what makes sense to us. In Pete Ward’s words: “Who God is, is seen through who I am.”

We really enjoyed doing the experiment and it will be something we draw on throughout the years to re-set when we’ve strayed too far from making Sunday youth a space where every voice has space to speak, question and lead. My team also commented that it was an eye-opening way to see what is at the forefront of young people’s minds – it undercuts our assumptions! And it can help direct what to explore as a group more fully in future sessions. With all that in mind, I hope you might feel inspired to try a Sunday youth experiment of your own.