Young Person Overboard

If you are a church goer, how would you describe the state of faith of young people in your church. For the purpose of this exercise think about people aged 12-25. How many are there in your fellowship? Over the past 5-10 years has the number of young people actively involved in your church declined? For those who remain how would you rate the vibrancy of their faith, 1 being alive, active, relevant; 10 being almost dead, going through the motions?

One of the metaphors to the describe the church is that of a boat, for many young people it seems the boat no longer provides safe navigation or is not heading where they want to go.

Rowan Lewis in his recent article in Equip, The State of Faith in Australian Youth: Haemorrhaging, Exodus or Exile, again sounds a warning gong that has been struck on and off for the last 40 years. Starting in the 70’s, research by Bodycomb commissioned by the Joint Council of South Australia showed marked decline in church involvement started from age 19. In many cases the report showed that the decline was due to a subconscious drift rather than conscious choice. Without seeing the report I’m presuming this means as work and family pressures increased keeping up attendance at church became a lower priority. In the 80’s and 90’s similar results were seen and analysed. In the 90’s there was a presumption that this was again due to life stage however the data showed this to be a mistake and in fact young people were leaving the church and not returning. It has become clear that over the decades there has been a progressive increase in the decline of young people from the church.

Cited in Lewis, researchers (Hughes and Mason, in separate works) in 2007 noted that there were dramatic losses of young members from various churches, at the same time there was an increase in ‘no-religious identification.’ They concluded that there was little doubt about the main destination of this exodus from the church. The bad news continues with Hughes noting that young Australians who in 2001 connected with a church, 500,000 of them decided that in the 2011 census they had no religion. For many the 2011 census was the first time they could assert their independence and show where their sense of connection lied or where it didn’t as the case may be. Goodwin in 2013 demonstrated that it was not only young adults who were leaving the church but in fact younger teens were leaving as they transitioned from childhood to youth.

Lewis concedes that young people are leaving the church in droves but they may not be leaving the faith, at least not in the first instance. He believes they are in an exile state caused by a church that is not engaged in the current cultural landscapes and portrays a black and white faith that doesn’t allow room for mystery, lament and doubt. Added to this I see a church that largely doesn’t know how to constructively raise its voice in the public debate around inequality, justice, poverty, public space and a plethora of other nuanced issues. Related to this inability and connected to an impoverished spirituality is an inadequate discipleship model that in many cases disciples people to an institution rather than the person of Christ.

I grew up in traditional Baptist churches and it was only as I moved from Sydney to Adelaide did I begin to see the inadequacy of our discipleship. I couldn’t have articulated it then, however there seemed to be a massive dichotomy between ‘Sunday’and ‘Monday.’ It seemed to me that we didn’t look any different to those outside the church. Young adults of my vintage were concerned with the cultural norms of education, earning money, buying a car, a house etc. For the most part I didn’t witness a grappling with faith, an asking the serious questions of what does my faith say to my everyday? How am I to be salt and light in the places and spaces that I occupy? Sure there were bible studies, but quite often serious questions would be skirted around and not addressed. The question of formation was one left to the colleges, which only a fraction of people attended.

So then as the research shows many people of my vintage left the church, now I haven’t tracked with them, but I suspect they have never returned and are perhaps now inoculated against faith. For the most part I suspect they don’t enjoy the benefits of an intimate walk with Jesus and receive his peace in the most surprising ways, despite the complexity of the situations faced. Perhaps they don’t get to experience the sense of walking into who they were created to be and seeing the joy in our Father’s eyes as he welcomes them home. I’m not going to speculate on whether they are saved or where they will spend eternity, that is up to God, however in the here and now the church of my generation has not served them well. They and the Church are the poorer for it.

At times as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve not been able to walk away from the Church. I believe God is at work in the world outside of His own people, however the Scriptures tell us that God is especially present with His people and that there is a grace conveyed in that presence and so our faith is a unified and sacramental one. Lets be clear though, walking away from any particular local expression of Church is not necessarily kissing all of that goodbye, however if people have not been equipped for a faith journey outside of a local church, then I fear they are in real trouble.

Lewis points to the need for this type of equipping, but localises it to youth ministry. I would go further and say that the basic orientation of how we equip people needs to shift. The Church once again needs to fix its gaze universally and recognise that God is so much bigger than any local expression or denomination. With this as a framework we can begin to walk the unity we have as the body and then we can recommit to our purpose for existence, being salt and light in the places and spaces where we are called to be. Letting the mystery of our faith, our doubts and laments as well as our joys and celebrations be the flavour and the light which permeates the world. If we can swallow our fear, trust in a big God and be big hearted enough to embrace ourselves and others, we may just find that those looking to jump overboard might reconsider.

Tell Future Generations: “It was good for the economy”

Tell Future Generations: “It was good for the economy”

 I’ve lifted the title for this blog from a placard featuring the same words. The placard is being held by a teenage girl who is part of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC). The photo features in an article written for The Conversation by Philippa Collin. ( Collin is concerned about the lack of engagement of young people with policy making. Many might lament about the apathy of this generation, but Collin argues this isn’t the case. Stating in fact young people are very active politically however the mechanisms that allowed them a voice in policy making have been drastically reduced, mainly due to government discontinuing or defunding programs.

I was going to write this week’s blog about the alarming rate of incarceration in Australia and particularly in Victoria as we run headlong down the path America has blazed for us. And I will pick up on this in the near future. However reading the article this morning, it being youth week, me being a past youth worker and the father of an almost sixteen year old, I thought the opportunity too good to let go past without comment.

It was my forty-first birthday on Sunday. I don’t tell you that to get more happy birthdays or some kind of warped sympathy, but to say this period of my life has been one of reflection. Am I the person I dreamed I would be when I was young? Living the life I thought I would? Have I made the impact I wanted to make as I was inspired towards a picture of what the world could be in my twenties? Did I have goals as I went through school? Have I achieved those? What has been the result of achieving or not achieving those goals? As a collective what did my generation hope for the world? As we come into leadership positions how have we gone at implementing those hopes and dreams or have we simply succumbed to the status quo?

Some of those questions are hard to answer. I didn’t become a doctor, although I’m hoping to start work on a PhD in the near future? I’m not sure I had burning ambitions for the world at school, although I did in my twenties and thirties. I’ve never really had any financial goals, but life has been full of various communities, connections, long and short-term friends. When I caught up with a school friend a couple of years ago, she informed me that I was doing exactly what I said I would in school, helping people. Well that was nice of her to say, and I certainly hope I have. And maybe the world is a little different because of it. Now, apart from casual connections with neighbours my helping people is more about training, teaching, writing, consulting. It’s different but its good. And there still is a desire to change the world, although it doesn’t get airplay as often as it used to.

However, what of the aspirations of my son’s generation? When I was at school I remember talk of youth parliament and various other connections to policy bodies, but I was not aware enough to know if they were taken seriously and what the outcome of such conversations between young people and policy makers was. In her article, Collin quotes Stephen Coleman a communications scholar who says that young people are often treated like apprentice citizens, with a managed citizenship approach. Essentially initiatives are designed for them which tell them how they are to engage with government and on what issues.

Typically this sort of approach does not engender genuine engagement, where young people are encouraged to think through an issue close to them and work towards a genuinely held policy position. Last year my son got the opportunity to go away for a whole term to a leadership school. Part of the school was linked back to the various local communities of the young people. In teams they had to design and implement a project that was meaningful to them and addressed a need in their community. Whilst this activity may not have been linked with policy makers it was an opportunity for them to think through an issue and come up with some kind of intervention.

Likewise a couple of years ago the organization I was then heading up partnered with some other not-for-profits to run a series of conversations on youth suicide and the social environment for young people. The biggest conversation was a world café event that brought together sixty people including school teachers, youth workers, local councilors, social service workers, police, chaplains and young people. The playing field was leveled and the young people were the stars of the day as they kept the rest of us honest about what the issues really were and what would make a difference. Again the upper levels of government may not have been present but young people contributed and there was the opportunity for the thinking of many workers to be challenged and shifted.

Collin points out in her article that Australian young people have lots to say, with two of Australia’s largest membership based organisations (AYCC and Oaktree Foundation) being youth led. Other youth organisations such as, Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre and Foundation for Young Australians work with young people in a whole range of capacities from innovative policy solutions to social enterprises in areas such as mental health, education and sustainable futures.

As well as these informal approaches and countless other connections on social media, Collin suggests a broader based approach is needed. She points to the British Youth Council as a co-funded model that brings young people and policy makers together. I can see many benefits of this through intergenerational connections and the sense for young people that they can make a difference.

All of this requires an investment in young people on a number of levels. In training I do with local councils and service providers I point out that it is no surprise that young people are disenfranchised with the community and associated political process. They are bombarded almost everyday with messages that they are no good, they cause trouble, that they are lazy and so on. A number of years ago when I was working in Pakenham a group of us sort to bring a different message and engaged a small number of young people in some arts projects in the community. The local paper reported on this and the community began to see a different side to the young people so many regarded with disdain.

Asset Based Community development says that everyone in the community has something to offer, a perspective to bring, a skill to use or teach, something of value. This is akin to the ancient Hebrew concept of Shalom part of which encourages the valuing of young and old and the contribution each can make to the whole.

So as we come to Youth Week 2015 and as I think about my son’s aspirations for himself and the world around him, the challenge for me is will I take this opportunity to deeply listen, not only to him, but to his friends and other young people I come in contact with. To let them know that I value them, I love their dreams for a better world and that I will do all I can to empower them to see those dreams become a reality.