My research into young people’s experiences of Christian youth work challenges the dominant assumption that it is the young that have rejected the church. It’s the churches which too often reject the young.
I encountered many stories of barriers faced by young people when engaging with a congregation. John, adopted from a Catholic orphanage in Africa, said: ‘I feel like an outcast because the church is more white… I didn’t feel accepted’. Tracey, who attended her local church and served on its regional youth work executive, was told she would be charged when she tried to book a room for young people to meet. More positive experiences of church tended to come from young people entering the newer denominations. Simon told me: ‘I like to think the older people are proud of us… Adults in the church do talk to us; they don’t shy away from us’.
Christian youth workers engage young people from church and non-church backgrounds. They are acutely aware of the problems they face integrating into churches. Yet churches often criticise youth work that does not directly translate into ‘bums on seats’ on Sunday mornings.
Most youth workers provide open access social activities. These are their most widely attended sessions and do not usually contain explicitly Christian teaching. This is the first domain of youth work and it centres on the building of social relationships.
The second domain is small group teaching. These sessions are attended by fewer young people and involve activities like Bible study and discussion, with time for informal social interaction.
The third domain is church services, where youth workers either provide an alternative session during the sermon, or support young people joining the wider congregation.
Young people travel either way through the model: from social activities to teaching, from Sunday services into the weekday activities, or they may remain in just one domain. Non-churchgoers usually engage first with Domain 1 whereas young people from church families start from Domain 3.
Matthew, aged 18, demonstrates how young people can move from Domain 1 through the model to engage with the wider church. He became involved with his youth group when he met the youth worker one night and she invited him along to one of the social evenings: ‘I went along and then she told me about Friday night… and then she eventually came on to the Wednesday group which is the Bible group. And basically, I said I was a bit apprehensive about coming… I was thinking “Well, I haven’t got a faith, so to go through, it would be weird because everybody will be talking about their faith and I won’t be able to talk about it”… But then there was an argument… “Go along, see what it’s like because what [the youth worker] had said to me is that it’s about …being a Christian, that kind of thing… in everyday life, and having debates about it… That kind of drew me in’.
Since making a Christian commitment within his youth group, Matthew now attends church services. However, he recognised a divide between the generations in his church: ‘It does seem as if it’s like you’ve got the young people and then you’ve got the adults… There’s always a divide’. Despite the bridge from youth work to church being weak, Matthew’s experience demonstrates that some young people explore faith through the youth work programmes rather than through church.
It’s important to realise that belief is rarely enough to draw people to church. Belonging is essential. Relationships and belonging were significant features in all my young people’s narratives. Acceptance into a social community in Domain 1 appears to be a significant factor in choosing to engage with a faith community in Domain 2. The fact that many young people do not find acceptance in their churches is the most significant indicator of why engagement with Domain 3 breaks down.
Churches that consider their youth work programmes redundant if young people are not accessing church, or who do not see value in the other domains, are short-sighted in their view of youth work and of the wider church’s responsibility for young people’s continued engagement with church. Youth workers view their role as one of meeting community needs as well as serving church interests. They can lead young people to church, but they can’t make church attractive – only people in churches can do that.
This is an extract from Naomi’s chapter ‘Christian Youth Work: teaching faith, filling churches or response to social need?’ in the new book Religion, Education and Society edited by Elisabeth Arweck and Robert Jackson (Routledge).
Naomi Stanton is a lecturer in Youth Work at YMCA George Williams College. She has research experience in Christian youth work, past and present. She has professional and voluntary youth work experience in local authority, voluntary sector and faith-based settings. She is on the editorial board for the open access journal, Youth and Policy (youthandpolicy.org).