Look, I’ve written enough of these columns over the years, this isn’t a dig at those of cultural critique; former editors of this publication still have to make a living! Normal service will resume next month. But the truth is that these culture columns are becoming trickier and trickier to write. Trends are becoming more and more specific and youth culture is further compartmentalised and siloed.
The news is bleak. The US President is, for want of a better word, a warmongering sociopath. The biggest story in the world of ‘culture’ over the past month has been about a predatory film producer. And that’s before we even get to the world of children and young people.
The heaps of useful research over the last 18 months have painted quite the bleak picture: most young people are unhappy by the time they leave school; a quarter of young people will self-harm (52 per cent of LGBT young people); 80 per cent of 18-21 year-olds have either self-harmed or know someone who has; 46 per cent of young people say sexting is a part of everyday life; 27 per cent of girls sent explicit images because they felt pressurised to do so; 28 per cent of young people do not feel in control of their lives; 94 per cent of young people check social media daily despite 43 per cent of them knowing it’s not authentic and 67 per cent saying it’s one of the things that makes them feel worse about themselves.
The Church should amplify children’s voices and give them the chance to change the world. The reality is that we’re falling woefully short of this calling
Bigger than all of that, there’s a deficit of hope and influence among our young people. Even when I was a teenager a decade ago, there was a (fair) assumption that if you worked hard, got results and qualifications, you’d probably end up with a job and be OK for a bit. Ten years earlier, with that job you’d have been able to buy a house in your 20s and be set up for a life. Go back another generation and you’d see solid family lives and relationships that lasted a lifetime; a social contract where hard work saw you rewarded with a job, a house and a family. Now for many young people, you’re lucky to get a job, you’ll never be able to afford a house and you don’t see long-term familial stability as something worth striving for. You’re expecting to contribute to a society that offers you very little in return.
The same society has no real respect for the voices or influence of our young people. Over the last 20 years, we’ve sung: “I’m going to be a history maker in this land.” We’ve told young people they were going to change the world. I’m 29. I haven’t changed the world. I’ve barely changed a light bulb. We’ve seen in recent elections that the things young people want and vote for are rarely backed up by the rest of the population. Their voices aren’t heard and they don’t feel they can make a difference. In this culture, the Church should be standing out as a place that amplifies young people’s voices and gives them the chance to influence the community and change the world. The reality is that we’re falling woefully short of this calling.
We talk a lot about hope in church circles, but we need to nail down exactly what we mean by that in relation to young people. While we can cling onto the eternal hope of salvation, the message of Jesus has to have an impact in the here and now of children and young people’s lives. But what is it? For children and young people who can’t envision a future, what’s our message of hope? For a voiceless generation, how can we elevate their voices beyond tokenistic gestures? For young people desperate to fight injustice in a meaningful way, how can we engage on a local, pragmatic level?
I genuinely believe that the Church, both globally and locally, is the hope for the world. I believe that the message of Jesus matters today, not just when we die. And if I take those two sentiments together, I have to believe that we have hope - practical, life-changing hope - to offer into young people’s existences today. Right now. I can’t tell you what the message of hope to the young people should be, but I know that you’re the perfect people to unearth and share that message. So let me end with three quick challenges: firstly, unearth your message of hope to young people, envision a future with them, give them hope and meaning to live for in the here and now. Secondly, work to make your church the place where young people’s voices are most listened to and valued. Move beyond tokenism to genuine participation, not just in your youth and children’s ministries, but in the life of the wider Church. Thirdly, create opportunities for children and young people to change the world around them. Their sense of right and wrong, of injustice, hasn’t been ground down by adult life yet. Give them the chance to channel that. Or, failing that, at least stop making them sing about changing the world.