Church engagement with mid to upper adolescence

OK, this is my attempt to write up the discussion day on Church engagement with adolescents and give a flavour of where we went. The normal text is the framework that I wrote, the italics being the comments recorded on the flip chart.
1. The Objective: To see if there are trends emerging in terms of church involvement with teenagers. Then looking therefore at what this means for the church we serve … and for the work we (and the parishes) do in terms of engagement and methodologies.
2. What were the questions the delegates brought to the discussion and thinking:
i. How do we (the church) repsonse to the alienation of adolescents by society
ii What might a counter cultural model of fully integrating young people look like?
iii How could Youth Ministry better connect with the whole church?
iv How do you help the middle ground churches when they perceive that the success stories are only in large evangelical churches?
v How do we change attitudes?
vi What might an imagined future feel and look like?
vii What does/should it measn to be a member of the church (for adults and young people)?
viii How can churches celebrate the distinctiveness of adolesense?

3. The Youthblog Keynote speech:

My thinking is this: Although there are great things happening in Youth Ministry there are real problems for the ‘run of the mill churches’ who are in my opinion losing touch with young people in the mid to upper adolescence bracket.
I think a lot of the work in these churches relies on an attractional model that requires a critical (but uncritical) mass of teenagers to make a group. Well meaning willing or coerced volunteers who want to share faith and provide a space for young people.
I think what I’m seeing is that this methodology is clung to and gradually the group has fewer and fewer members until it is a couple of conforming teenage girls and a couple of young boys who are allowed to join early in order to beef up the numbers.
The group eventually collapsing.
The problem is wider than this
I believe that the issues that effect churches relationship with teenagers are:
Fear of teenagers (The Daily Mail effect)
Lack of adult discipleship (a struggle to engage with faith)
A model of functional atheism (lots of telling, activity and busyness, rather than spirituality, discussion and engagement)
Reliance on an attractional model
Lack of volunteers
An inability to explore spirituality and faith in a Post Christendom matrix
There has then been A RESULTANT emphasis on work with tweens and children which is easier to feel successful in. I am also reflecting on the implications about Dioceses such as Canterbury and Southwark lumping all work with young people together rather than continuing to have Youth Adviser and a Childrens Adviser)
I further believe that the employment of full time youth workers and successful volunteer led programmes in large evangelical churches is masking the problem. Let me explain that: The churches with an active programme for teens attracts teens from surrounding churches, thus undermining the chance of something happening in the smaller churches AND looking like work with teens is still very succesful which masks the very real disengagement that is happening.
One of the reasons for this gathering today is to robustly critique this thesis which I admit is quite anecdotal although we can look at drops in attendance and confirmation statistics.

4. Reactions

The reaction of the delegates was general agreement with the thesis

5. Trends noted by childrens workers

Here I was interested in what children’s workers/volunteers were identifying as trends:
i Children’s workers are expected to work with Tweens
ii There is a mentality that thinks, childrens work can be done by volununteers but youth work requires ‘professionals’
iii Family approaches to services/events etc seems to subconsciously conclude that ‘family’ does not include adolescents
iv Intentional nurture of spirituality is too often not part of thinking
v Hoilday clubs are a significant piece of work that is being done but they are too ‘hit and run’
vi Childrens work is too attached to doing rather than being
vii Prevelance of cloning type approach
viii Children’s work is low status

6. What are the key factors of successful work with young people?

i Longevity
ii Relational
iii Real openess and honesty
iv modelling of discipleship life
v churches that like young people
vi vulnerability
vii opportunity to lead/get involve

7. THREE key questions

i How therefore do we support existing volunteer work to prevent it failing?
ii How do we help Churches with children/tweens to manage transistion into teen groups?
iii How do we help churches re-engage?
8. Point of intervention

i Tackling fear / educating about adolescence
ii Mentoring leaders
iii Advocacy
iv Training that helps people un-learn as well as learn
v Children’s society toolkit
vi Dialogue
vii Attempt to get some of these skills/issues into ministerial training

This is mainly a write up of the sheets and I hope the delegates will add further comments.
Having found broad agreement with the trends I was seeing, I am now keen to glean stories of successful help to churches; examples of churches who have built successful volunteer led work from scratch etc

One Reply to “Church engagement with mid to upper adolescence”

  1. Thanks, Ian for doing this summary. A couple of thoughts from my notes:
    Key to our thinking is how we do mission to young people rather than just respond top the decline. What is their/our motivation?
    Youth work is seen as an optional extra rather than a strategic, integrated part of the whole.
    A key question someone asked on the day was “What is our intention?”
    Another comment made was about the need to change the language that bishops and others in the church use, so that we more clearly express what we believe about young people and our ministry to and with them.
    A final brief reflection is that we talk about relational but often engage with people from a distance. Most people respond most to personal contact, to feeling they are important enough for you to go and sit with them and engage with them. If we are trying to model something of the relational that we believe is a core element of our work with young people then maybe I need to consider how I target to do less but do it with people in that growing relationship, rather than doing the mass sweep.

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