What shape should our ministry with youth take? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently.
When I was in seminary at Andover Newton Theological School, I took a course on philosophy of religious education with Bob Pazmino. Bob contended then that if you really want to radicalize a church, you should work to get youth on every committee. I understood what he meant in two senses. First, by including youth on all committees, you’re brining new perspectives and you’re spreading power within the congregation in some radical ways (there are implications here for anti-racism work, by the way). Second, striving to become so inclusive that you manage to do away with the age segregation characteristic of contemporary society is in itself a radical act. On this second point, Bob, an evangelical Christian, would talk about recognizing that all persons are part of the body of Christ. I’m not an evanglical Christian, but I sure find resonance with my own theological notion that all persons, regardless of age, are worthy of dignity and respect.
As you might have gathered, I like Bob’s radical approach to our ministry with youth. I think youth should be fully integrated into our religious communities. I do have my doubts as to whether it’s possible. Sociologist Murray Milner, in his recent book Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids, points out that it is very convenient for adults to segregate teenagers out of adult life. As Milner points out, there’s no great incentive for adults voluntarily to deal with the sturm und drang of adolescence. Much easier to restrict them to youth groups or other age-segregated programs so we adults don’t have to deal with that sturm und drang. And much easier for youth to go with the flow of wider society, and not have to come face-to-face with adults.
But I’ve come to believe that kind of segregation is Not A Good Idea. It seems to me that one of the real strengths of Unitarian Universalist congregations is that they can be places where you can come into meaningful contact with persons of all ages.
I have seen two widespread models of youth programs. The personal growth model creates youth groups that look like support groups or group therapy sessions. The class model creates youth programs that look like a sixth day of classroom schooling. Each of these models serves a few youth very well. What I prefer is a model that recognizes that youth are individuals, that different youth will be best served by different ministries of the church — and most of all, a model that does not see youth as consumers of church, but rather that sees youth as co-creators of church.
Imagine that. Youth as co-creators of church. Wouldn’t it be fun to be a part of that church? I think so.