Why young people aren’t making the jump from the tuck shop to the Eucharist

by Tim Leeson November 6, 2017 A

In a decade and a half of working with young people for Christian organisations, I’ve seen a lot of youth work strategies. So far, I’ve seen precious few which aren’t rooted in anxiety about getting young people to church and keeping them there.

Of course, we don’t really use the language of anxiety in our mission statements because the world of Romantic Capitalism we live in has told us that we need to portray an image of success and confidence. So, our posters show ethnically-diverse young people with gleaming white teeth jumping up in the air with arms raised, over words like Evangelism, Discipleship, Empowerment, and Welcome, while behind closed doors, we wring our hands about why we can’t quite get them across the threshold into our worship meetings.

I’d love to pretend this doesn’t apply to me, but it does of course. Like most Christian youth workers, I know that my job isn’t simply about putting bums on seats, but I invest a lot of time and energy in anxiously trying to fill our seats with more young bums (with apologies for the phrase young bums).

I’ve read all the great books which tell me not to worry so much, that pushing young people into church is not what this is about. I’ve read the Yaconellis, the Creasey-Deans, the Roots (not those The Roots), the Liefs. I know bribing young people into church with pizza is not the answer, but I guess I haven’t figured out quite what the answer is, so I keep on reverting to the default setting of running entertaining youth programmes and worrying about why young people aren’t making the jump from the tuck shop to the Eucharist.

I guess it could be said that the thinking about youth work has pulled the rug out from under the feet of the practice, but hasn’t yet replaced it with nice natural oak effect laminate flooring, so we’re walking on temporary carpet tiles, knowing that we could do better. I’m sorry, I’ve been thinking a lot about flooring recently.

If youth ministry isn’t simply about bringing young people into church, what is it about? This is the question that fuels Andrew Root’s Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, leading to the fictionalised youth pastor who steers the story to the following conclusion:

“I get to spend my life reflecting on and participating in the action of God. I get to be with a congregation and its young people, seeking along them to live into this altogether new reality, seeking to bend our lives toward this new reality, seeking to bend our lives toward this new reality where God takes all that is dead and makes it alive.”

“I’m free!” Nadia thought. “My job isn’t helping kids be good, assimilate a tradition, or be servants. My job is to seek for the God who inaugurated an all-new reality in God’s own action, bringing life out of all that is dead.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and she said aloud into her empty office, “I can give my life to that!”

Sorry Nadia, I was just coming in to ask if you wanted a cup of tea. I’ll come back.

Again, for all of Root’s genuinely excellent explanation of what youth ministry isn’t, the conclusion about what it is not tremendously practical. Of course, we’d all like to think we’re living out Nadia’s revelation, but what would that actually look like? The great thing about the Evangelism and Discipleship© model is that we know what we’re doing in it, even if what we’re doing isn’t very exciting: the path is well-worn and it might just be leading us in circles, but at least we can see it.

You’ll see by how far you’ve scrolled down the page at this point that I’m unlikely to offer any great pragmatic solutions now. The truth is, I don’t really have them. I suspect they’re something that we’re going to have to discover together, over time, if church funding for youth ministry doesn’t entirely run dry in the meantime.

But a good place to start might be this, from St Seraphim of Sarov:

Acquire the spirit of peace for yourself, and a thousand around you will be saved.

A youth ministry which isn’t anxious, but has faith in a God who is on our side, will give young people a much clearer image of that same God than any elaborate programmes. And any good psychologist will tell you that we don’t acquire peace by ignoring our anxieties. The road to peace involves recognising our fears, facing them, and possibly even befriending them.

So maybe the first step for a re-imagined youth ministry is to spend more time in prayer and meditation, naming and recognising our anxiety and doubts in God’s presence, and to let our programmes flow from that. That involves convincing our funders that contemplation is a valid use of our time, which seems like a battle worth fighting to me.

If the thinking/the worship/the prayer/the peace is good, the strategy will follow.