Without these three cultural connections I don’t think we stand a chance of reaching young people effectively.

In kicking this post off then, here is a quote from Bishop Graham Cray,

Youth ministry involves entering young people’s world in order to plant the gospel and the church there – it is not a bridging strategy but a genuine commitment to new forms of church.  It is not a temporary way of holding them in church until they learn to worship properly like the rest of us

Graham Cray, Youth Congregations and the Emerging Church, 2002

Written 15 years ago the challenge to the church remains.  Lets actually do this!  There are a few notable exceptions that have sprung up since Graham penned this booklet, not least StreetSpace (a work that has developed from the excellent Frontier Youth Trust) but, in general, it seems this statement has been looked at, agreed with, has led to church leaders (and maybe youth leaders) sucking air in through their teeth and, whilst agreeing with the statement, not actually trying to do it.

In fact, we seem to focus instead on planting young people’s backsides on the pews or seats in our churches – expending time, money, energy, people on that – rather than to go out and plant the gospel (and by implication) the church right there.

The “there” being the young persons world, their space, their network, their place.

In fact, sometimes it is worse than this.

Even when we have young people in an actual physical church building this doesn’t seem good enough unless they are in our kind of worship service that pre-existed their arrival.

Messy Church?  No, we see that as a bridging strategy . . .

Cafe Church?  No, we see that as a bridging strategy . . .

Youth Service?  No, that is to mollify the youth leader and / or the young people (and sometimes, those adults we would like to keep who don’t like the usual church service diet)

. . . it isn’t REAL worship unless it fits with what the existing congregation “calls” worship or church or being part of the body (Does it have the right liturgy, an organ, a priest leading it, is it at the right time, is it in the sanctuary?).

This is bonkers.

What it betrays is a fear.  A fear that without our safe church environment (i.e. what we have been doing quite happily with fewer and fewer people, mostly upwards of 50, since the 1970s) that they won’t stay or last the course because they are not really in church.

Safe?

It might be safe for the few people left.  It isn’t safe if we care about the gospel being passed on effectively to the next generation (which, by the way now means people under 45, not just young people).  There are so few youngish adults left in the church that part of our task, whilst seeking to reach children and young people, is also to evangelise upwards of half the adult population in the country.

David Coffee, at the time, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of GB, commented in 2002 of the “double shock” some young people (most?) experience.  Firstly, when encountering Jesus and secondly when encountering the Church!

Our Church culture can be so different from contemporary culture that it is a bit like traveling to another country for someone new to faith or new to the church.  But, in our contemporary culture, is there a Kingdom presence?  Is there a Kingdom dynamic at work?  Is there stuff that God is already doing outside of what we would call church?  What are some of the things that are going on in contemporary culture that would resonate with the heart of God?  We are all made in God’s image and, however twisted or warped that may have become, His fingerprints can still be discerned.

Can we identify some of these things and, in so doing, find some common connections between us and those we are working with (whether that is detached work, a community group or an open youth club.  Wherever we might find ourselves working and the young people are un-churched).

In finding these connections, the purpose is not then to use them as “hooks” to drag young people in to church with us but maybe use them, right where those young people ARE.  As markers, or stakes in the ground.  Here is something solid, upon which we can build and encourage lives of hope and faith.  Without a building or establishing a service.

So, however far we think we have slipped or moved or got lost as a nation within contemporary culture there are some key things that continue to matter, and they also matter to us as believers.  They are spiritual things, theological things, the stuff of life and faith things.

If we just look and see, we don’t need to shoehorn in a reference to the gospel or Jesus that sounds bizarre or jarring.  Jesus fits.  Anywhere.  The eternal truth remains true and, as Paul did in Athens, when we find the right connections the gospel and our faith begins to make sense.

1.  The Significance of Relationship.

It is not our abilities that determine who we are . . . it is the choices we make

Dumbledore to Harry, JK Rowling, The Philosophers Stone, 1997

20 years of Harry Potter (can you believe that!)  Books, merchandise, and we only came to the end of the film franchise a couple of years ago – only for it all to start up again with “Fantastic Beasts!”  What was the churches initial reaction?  There were a number of high profile Christian writers and speakers who railed against a series of books which appear to encourage an interest in witchcraft and the occult.  Yet, just as “Lord of the Rings” has a focus at the centre of the film on the moral choices of Frodo the hobbit (with a mythical, magical backdrop) and his relationships, the books in the Harry Potter series focus on the relationships between Harry and Ron and Hermione – children, young people and adults alike have been drawn into the world of Harry Potter because they cared about these characters.  These relationships.

Not necessarily off the back of Potter and JK Rowling’s success, but in the last decade there has been a mushrooming of Young Adult fiction (maybe to satisfy the appetite of the 1000s of children Rowling entertained who were looking for something else to read, but were now in their teens . . . )  We have had the “Hunger Games“, the “Divergent” series (books turned into film franchises) We have had James Dashner’s “Maze Runner” turned into a film franchise . . .  and, I hope (!) at some point we will see the “Chaos Walking Trilogy” (I believe Robert Zemeckis is at the helm to direct) from Patrick Ness.  Apart from broadly sitting under the genre of “dystopian YA fiction”, what ALL these titles have in common (along with Potter) is – right at the heart of plot and drama and character and action is relationship.

If you want relationship + teenage angst then you want some John Green.  (This is an aside, but – if you click the link you get an article in the New Yorker from a while ago that calls John Green the “teen whisperer” . . . HAVE we left it to writers of fiction to tackle the big stuff that young people are wrestling with?  Give the article a read . . . )

I am not saying they are all the same – but, essentially they ask the same kind of questions : Will this character still be friends with that character?  Will this relationship last?  Will they ever get together?  How will they survive without each other?  In all these books, as much as they are about fast paced action they are also about dialogue, often snappy and smart – but these books are built on conversation (characters with other characters and, cleverly if they are really good books, an ongoing conversation with the reader too).

Then take Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat . . . what is the attraction? Relationships, connecting with others, sharing yourself.  Being known, knowing others . . . often being connected by the most bizarre of associations . . . being drawn in to, taking part in conversations and building relationships.

When the first “Halo” game was released – I couldn’t wait (sadly, at the time, I was already in my late thirties!!) The Halo franchise continues and, it is now so much more than a first person shoot-em-up -, when you play on your own a game can be completed in 12 hours (with so much else going on in their lives, it is a bit of a surprise that young people can find a spare 12 hours, but – there you go).  The real draw of gaming now is that you can play online with and against your friends and people you have never met from all over the world – almost an infinite number of possible outcomes the point again is social, networking, relationship, discovery using a headset to talk to both opponents and comrades!

In our churches and youth work, how do we build relationships?

We need to remember that for many young people their relationships are not purely geographical in terms of where they live – they go to school somewhere else, they meet with people on the internet, friendships and shared passions are about the network you are in, not where you live.  Is our church a networked place?  Are we quite focused on the building and the church premises in terms of “church?” – in our youth groups and clubs is the geographical space we meet in the main constant?

Good youth work is 80% relationship and 20% everything else (that is a made up statistic to make my point!).  A wonderful programme of activities or bible teaching will not grow and develop your youth work if you neglect relationships – and, increasingly what matters to young people is not just relationships with the peers, but the kind of relationships they can develop with us, their youth leaders.  I still visit groups where I encounter leaders who do not know the names of the young people who turn up . . . and, with the people maybe mattering more than the place – surely, if our young people want (and have) a relationship with Jesus – do we need to be quite so hung up on their relationship with a building or a particular worship service at 10.30am on a Sunday morning?

Theology.  We do not need stacks of bible references to know that God is a relational God, from “It is not good for man to be alone” – the only thing that God said was “not good” before the fall.  To our theological understanding of the Trinity – 3 persons, 1 God – perfect relationship – being made in God’s image, “in OUR image” as God says, means we were made for relationship.

Make building relationships a priority – it will reap dividends with those in the church and those outside.  You might say “but I build relationships!”, yes, but are they potentially significant ones?  If you lead your group, and there are 20 young people, do you know them as a “crowd” or do you know individuals well within the group.  Jesus had a youth group, but drew aside just three of those to particularly invest in – what about you?  Maybe there are young people who would never come to “Church” but, you and others could build a meaningful community with them.  Right where they are.  Growing and investing in a little slice of the Kingdom on Earth.

2.  The Significance of Encounter.

When I was growing up, the approach to youth work (in fact, any kind of ministry with an evangelistic thrust) was to convince people of the truth.  From C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity” to Bruce Milne, “Know the Truth” . . . to present day “Alpha Courses” . . . I am not knocking any of this, it is all good stuff.

However, for many young people growing up without a Christian worldview (this is to do with the world we all live in, not whether they are actually Christians or not) in our “post-Christian” culture and society there is a lack of understanding of who God is, His claim on our lives, is Jesus the son of God etc.  We have to start where young people are at, not where we wish they were at – and, sometimes, they just aren’t asking the questions that we think we have the answers to!

I have sat in a classroom with some young people and had fired back at me “I don’t care if it is true”.  Convincing young people that the gospel is true is not enough.  We need to demonstrate that the Gospel also works.

In this sense, are we “telling” our young people the truth or “teaching” them?  There is a difference.  In telling we might be not give space for questions or discussion, because we have the answers – our role is to impart these answers, to fill our young people with knowledge of who God is – forgetting that the key is to introduce them to Him.

Our young people need to know more than the facts of the faith – they need an encounter with the living God.

A recent Mori Poll conducted for the British Library looked at Faith in Britain today.  For those who said they had a religious faith, 92% of Muslims said it made a difference to their lives.  Only 45% of Christians could say the same.  For the Muslims they put into practice their faith – knowing Jesus should be a transforming experience.  We need to walk in Jesus footsteps and model that to our young people.

Going back to the double shock mentioned by David Coffee – the shock is that here is this amazing guy called Jesus, he performed miracles, lived an amazing life, taught some incredible things to his followers. . . and, er, here is the Church.

If we do not look even just a little bit like Jesus I think that presents an obstacle to this generation (and why we have a “safe in our church and we don’t want it disturbed” bunch of older adults).

In our churches and youth work, where do we experience God?  When did we last encounter Him in our worship? 

Do we seek to practice His presence?  Do we do more teaching about prayer than actual praying?  Do we speak of the gifts of the Holy Spirit rather than demonstrate them?

Good youth work involves giving young people space and opportunity to encounter God as well as telling young people about God.

Theology.  Building on God is a relational God then we also need to see this relationship is expressed throughout the bible by encounter : from the “burning bush”, to God made man and dwelling among us (in John’s gospel this literally means to “tabernacle” – just like in the desert in the Old Testament – something real, seen, tangible that moved with the people), to receiving the comforter, the Holy Spirit who will guide us into all truth – until the disciples had an encounter with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they could not go out and fulfill the Great Commission.  Today WE are this tabernacle, are we seen, are we real, are we tangibly lovers and followers of Jesus?

Make enabling encounter a priority – it will reap dividends with those outside the church (and might just spark renewal for those in it!)

3.  The Significance of the Individual.

The iPod / iPhone is the classic example of this.  Young people walk around with their own personalized sound track for their lives, ripping their favourite bits from albums and chucking it all together (since I first wrote this, Spotify has appeared so they don’t even need to buy an album anymore, and – since I added that comment Apple Music have joined the party).  Increasingly, everything is being tailored for the individual.  Food, clothing, music, your Tescos, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose – with a store card they know you and tailor stuff they send you by post or email accordingly.

In some of our churches, we have emphasized the need for “personal” salvation – but then, in terms of meeting together and doing “church” we have encouraged conformity to a set of norms.

What are the norms in your church?  By norms, I mean those things you do or don’t do when you gather that are not “core” essentials of the Christian faith : sit in rows?  Stand up sit down for stuff?  The organ always plays the hymns, the “worship band” plays the contemporary songs?  The default position for that contemporary worship is “soft rock”?

I am not talking about some “cult of the individual” where it is all about me.  We need to balance this with building community and needing one another.  But we are being built into living stones not living bricks.  This is not some uniformity thing, where everything has to line up, be cemented in to place, look the same, be the same . . . building with stones takes more effort and time – different sizes, weights, shapes, smooth, rough – you name it – an infinite number of possibilities in this kind of house.

Is there variety?  Is there the opportunity for personal expression?

“What we do in life – echoes in eternity”

Maximus, Gladiator, 2000

Every young person wants and needs to feel significant.  That they count and matter, that it makes a difference whether they are there or not, part of what we are doing or not.

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.  Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life – in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour for nothing.  But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.  So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.”

Philippians chapter 2 verses 12 – 18

This is the life that Paul calls us to.  We should be among those that invite young people to join us, to pursue a life not of success, but of significance – making a difference, for the sake of Christ, in those around us.

In our churches and youthwork, do we help young people to feel significant?  Are they involved in shaping our times together?  Are they active participants or consumers of our programme?  Good youth work involves participation from young people.

Theology.  Building on God is a relational God and this relationship being expressed through encounter – we are also invited to participate in the work of God by being part of His Church, everyone has a place, everyone has a gift, everyone can contribute in the body of Christ – this is the priesthood of all believers.

Young people are amazing – and incredibly resiliant – some will always “stay” whether we invest in them or not . . . but that is lazy on our part.

IF we are on the most exciting journey through life that is possible, with Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour and as our Friend . . . how is it that we often find it so hard to invite young people into that exciting adventure, but instead opt for lecturing them on what is righ or wrong, telling them to be quiet and, despite the fact we are in the 21st Century, still expecting them to be “seen and not heard” . . . as they get older and go through their teens they become a “problem” that needs dealing with . . . !

We need to seriously get a grip, get out of the church building, our old wineskins, our old thinking, our old patterns and – with the Holy Spirit’s help (who, let us never forget “blows where He will” John 3:8) get out, meet young people where they are at and lets see if we can plant the church and gospel there.

To return to where we started and that quote from Graham Cray, if we wait until “they learn to worship properly like the rest of us” we will have a very long wait and a smaller and smaller church.