Youth and the Church: inclusion or exclusion?
By Abhi Solomon, Auckland Synod youth work enabler
As a youth work enabler for the Auckland Methodist Synod I am frequently invited to speak to congregations and the youth groups about the work I’m doing. While attending various youth groups I have had an opportunity to interview some of the young people (and young-adults) in the Auckland Synod area.
When I do, the questions I ask them are: How do you perceive church? and How do you participate in your church service? What can you tell me about your church life?
In their responses the vast majority says things like: ‘We feel excluded from the life of the church’; ‘We are not provided with much opportunity in the Sunday morning services’, ‘We feel detached’. Many went so far as to say that their church services are aimed at serving more elderly people of their congregation therefore they can’t relate to the current style of service. It is clear that most of our young people are unable to relate to the current life of the church.
In some ways it wasn’t alarming for me to hear the responses that I got from the young people. Being in youth ministry over the past few years has enabled me to observe a pattern that has been established. I call it a pattern of ‘inclusion and exclusion’.
The Church in general has already tried to provide a solution to the above problems by establishing youth groups and youth services on a regular basis, i.e., by being inclusive toward the young people. However this particular inclusion often leads to the establishment of another exclusive community of young people where the youth and the youth leaders are often left to do their own thing in their own little bubble.
Furthermore, this exclusive community of young people ends up being isolated, lacking emotional, spiritual, and pastoral support. This results in further detachment from Church life and ultimately, a fall out from the faith community.
This inclusion results in exclusion, and this moves our faith community from being ‘an intergenerational church’ to ‘a generational church’. The ‘generational church’ is self perpetuating. Once the pattern is established these exclusive groups continue to reflect this separatist ideology, fostering the separation that already exists.
I believe that this is one of the central challenges of our Church: How do we move away from ‘a generational church’ to ‘an intergenerational church’?
The problem is not solved by establishing youth groups or running youth services (although I see them as an important tool). Rather it’s about relationship, trust and education.
Firstly, we should learn to develop relationships with the young people in our congregation by making them feel welcomed and valued, and then providing them with pastoral care and support. A good relationship and friendship can provide a condition for ‘intentional mentoring’ of the youth leaders by the presbyter on a semi-formal basis. Furthermore we must learn to listen to what our young people are saying, and to acknowledge the talent and skills they have got to offer without them needing to prove anything. It is critical to provide a framework within which they are able to express these skills and to be nurtured in the broadest sense of that word.
Secondly, we should trust our young people more, involving them in the life of the church (the Sunday morning services as well as Synod). Providing them with opportunities and giving them some real responsibility within the church (with appropriate support and training) is also essential. At very least this may involve them being part of the welcome team, doing readings, playing music, singing, performing skits and organising the morning teas.
Finally young people need education with motivation. Youth leaders need to be motivated and equipped well in order to provide an appropriate education including both the fundamentals of the Christian faith including Methodist Church theology and its ethos, and the fundamentals of church life and tradition in general. For example many of our young people don’t know about the church calendar, liturgy, the reasons vestments are worn, or the core values of Methodism.
I understand that the ekklesia is the body of Christ, and within this body every part is equally important and has a significant role to play. Moreover the word ekklesia is impregnated with the sense of radical equality, inclusivity, and decision making power for all members of the Christian community.
It is on this basis I invite us all to reflect, to continue this dialogue, and to take meaningful actions in order to establish a community where all are accepted, valued, and the different generations are able to learn from each other.