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.