I am a parent of two children, one who is pre-teen. I am a volunteer church leader who is about to step down, a Sunday school teacher (on a monthly basis) and I am part of a small rural town church. I am like many parents, Sunday school leaders and volunteer church leaders, desperate for those children and young people in my care to know Jesus for themselves. Selfishly, that desire is most of all for my own children.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, and have found at times I am over-stretched and struggle to know how to best pass on our faith to the children and young people in the church I am part of. I hear the headlines of decline and ambivalence and it distresses me. I am not going to quote figures - if you want a reminder, check out recent work like Growing young, Faith generation or Losing heart. I have a backlog of volunteer safeguarding training to deliver. I don’t really have time to develop strategies for discipleship or growing the number of young people in our church, let alone the time to deliver them or resource my grand plans. I am frustrated I can’t do more and annoyed that some don’t or won’t do more. Perhaps some of this resonates with you?
Over the past 18 months I have had the privilege of many conversations with young people, parents and youth workers about what a church that disciples young people well does, and looks like. This research left me both encouraged and challenged. The nub of what I learnt is this: The discipleship of young people driven by and rooted in programmes, initiatives, strategies, ministries or approaches is
brittle and fragile; but discipleship of young people rooted in relationships is strong and flexible. And that is good news.
This might sound like quite a simple approach, but it’s one which comes with heaps of implications for our youth and children’s work. Here are some key questions to unpack our findings and what this might look like.
Would young people describe the church you are part of or lead in as welcoming, safe, inclusive, homely and like a family? What words would they use?
I recently presented my paper to a group of church leaders and before I spoke the group read from John 17 and 1 Corinthians 12. Both are about the importance and power of unity. It struck me during the meeting that when we consider unity or disunity we tend to consider theological matters, unity projects or church traditions. However what about unity across generations? In a time when older people are increasingly mistrusting of younger generations and where, following the EU referendum in the UK, some young people are angry with older generations, (who rightly or wrongly, they perceive as taking them out of something most wanted to be part of) what does it mean for the Church to outwork intergenerational unity, and what might be the impact?
Jesus prays: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one. Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” In other words when we
are one, across and within the generations (as well as other social and cultural divides) we witness to the oneness of God and others will believe Jesus is ‘the sent one’.
When relationships are the foundation of our discipleship of young people, we reflect the trinitarian oneness and so draw young people to Christ. Conversations with church leaders suggest that while we may ‘get ’ this truth, we struggle to shape a community to express it. Not because it is not desired but perhaps because it requires time, commitment and sacrifice; things that, for time poor people and already-stretched church leaders, are very tricky.
When I listened to young people and parents I was struck just how many times the importance of an older person was highlighted in the discipleship of young people: “I tell you who is good at discipleship… [remembers an older
couple]… Stella will always talk to me, prays for me even when I don’t know it. They don’t really do much but Stella will give me flowers at the end of the week or send me a card. They are a couple who are quite stable, I see them all the time; they are really committed.”
If a young person’s faith and sense of being part of church is based around programmes, they are more likely to vote with their feet, or prioritise another interest
One parent reflected on the father of another parent having an impact on her son and others said: “He gave him a Bible, he was older person sowing into them, showing interest in them, he liked them.”
When I asked young people what a church that discipled them well feels like, they said: “It feels good.” Not in a superficial sense but in that it is welcoming, safe like a family, homely and inclusive. Those feelings occur when relationships exist. Programmes, though they may provide space to get to know each other, cannot do that if they are the primary concern of a church. Perhaps take time to consider ministry you have been part of in the last few years and consider the quality of relationships and the discipling impact of what happened.
What would a church community that stopped all programmes (go on I dare you) and asked what they could do to make relationships the good soil in which we nurture faith, look like?
A couple of years ago I planned meticulously and with great excitement for an outdoor adventure for young people, bringing together Christian spirituality and the outdoors. It felt creative and experimental, fusing pilgrimage and outdoor challenge. I had a relationship with one of the group; the others had simply signed up to come along. Everyone enjoyed it but the reality is that I have
not remained connected in any way with three of the four lads I met through the programme. They told us they enjoyed it, but if you were to ask me about its discipleship efficacy, I would have to say at best I’m not sure. I could not just reconnect with the group as I have no relationship with most of them. I have no further opportunity to disciple them, in spite of three intimate days in a small group with them in the mountains of South Wales as part of an exciting new initiative.
Simon was a teenager in the youth group that I got my ‘youth worker stripes’ in. I saw him choose to follow Jesus, I baptised him and played a part in discipling him. I moved away when Simon was 17. Since that time my contact with him has been minimal and occasional and his life has not always been easy; he has questioned his vocation and faced personal and professional challenges. Over the last year I have started to connect with Simon again and then more recently, Simon asked me to mentor him. I was a little hesitant because of how much time had passed. But here’s the thing - I am discipling him and it’s perfectly natural because it is based on a relationship.
Programmes are more tangible - they make it easier to demonstrate outcomes and can be used to make us feel like we are doing ‘something’. However a great experience, initiative or programme is not discipleship. Discipleship only happens in a relationship. Programmes have their place but only when rooted in a genuine and meaningful relationship.
In churches where resources are increasingly stretched, starting with relationships not programmes may actually be liberating
My experiences above remind me of the brittle and fragile nature of discipleship founded in programmes. What happens when the children grow out of the Sunday school? Recently a church leader was telling me about young people who no longer came on a Sunday morning, sharing his sadness that they were no longer part of the church. Discipleship rooted in relationships means the burden of passing on faith is not precariously balanced on the back of Sunday attendance. There are challenges around how we help young people see the importance of being part of a wider community, but here again, what I heard is that patient and intentional relationships will bear fruit.
Have you ever stopped to ask why we are really running these programmes? My initial answer to such a question is generally something to do with the need for them, related to passing on faith. All well and good, but actually what is the long-term impact on discipleship of young people? If a young person’s faith and sense of being part of church is based around programmes, however exciting, then they are more likely to vote with their feet, or prioritise another interest because the youth group becomes just another activity competing against exam pressures and sports clubs.
However, if there are strong relationships then discipleship can continue in other ways if a young person chooses Sunday football over Sunday services. If there are strong relationships the discipleship journey can exist outside of the context of a programme or service, perhaps through a mentoring programme or a hot chocolate in a local café. Perhaps even that adult could go and watch them play football on Sunday, sacrificing their own desire to be at church.
How connected would young people in your church say they feel to the wider church family and to their peers?
Too often I have heard people say they have nothing to offer the youth group, because in their thinking, they are too old, don’t understand young people or fear them and their expectations of a dynamic programme! What I heard doing this research taught me that while great programmes have a place, fundamentally it is a sense of connection, being valued and welcomed that young people are looking for. In churches where resources are increasingly stretched, starting with relationships not programmes may actually be liberating.
Relationships require a sacrificial commitment to young people, even when they may not reciprocate the commitment. It was notable that young people noticed and perceived those who gave time to connect with them and serve them. While the young person may say nothing at the time, when asked during the research they recognised the commitment others had made to them.
Young people acknowledged that they do not always want to come to church; they go through periods of doubt and walk away from their faith. What they are looking for are people who will stick with them whatever is happening in their lives. One girl talked about the value she put on hearing that, even though she was not going to church, people would ask her mum about how she was doing.
Let me be clear, I am not saying there is no place for programmes. They are an important part of discipleship. Relationships should not be used for coercion and I am also not saying that relationships guarantee the making of disciples. However, what I am saying is that relationships are by far and away the most important thing a church can encourage, and discipleship rooted in relationships is far stronger and better able to cope with the ups and downs of the teenage years and therefore more likely to be truly fruitful. How could a church demonstrate it really values the children and young people? What one thing could the people in the church you are part of do to start building or strengthen relationships with a young person?
After being challenged by by what I heard, one of the reasons I am stepping down from being a church leader is to intentionally give my time to one or two young people in our church, beyond my own children. I’m just going to start with one young person, one hot chocolate and try to trust that God uses the developing relationship to affect transformation in his life. What one thing could you do?