Monday, November 23, 2009

Hanging out with Youth

There's a post over at Chaliceblog that resonated with me - I had noticed the comment in Peter Morales' piece in UU World this winter as well - and it irritated me just as much.

"I am convinced that we too often fail to recognize how much our children, youth, and young adults need to give. Hanging out is not a spiritual practice. Joining hands to work for something we care about is. Service is an essential part of faith development. We need to do so much more to engage the idealism and energy of our young people."

As I commented over at chaliceblog, I think it's a mistake to think that the only way to engage our church youth is through social action. In my work with RE, I have actually heard parents groan about this - their kids have mandated community service through school, and then that's often the bulk of their engagement with their church.

My church has been trying to integrate the messages of its sermons and small group ministries and RE so that congregants with families are having a unified experience and message through themes in worship and workshop rotation in RE. However, this often leaves out our youth who are done with RE curriculum or don't want to get up and come to class or worship on Sundays.

We have a vibrant and growing youth group (40+ kids this year, and they are bringing their non-UU friends!). They just organized a huge con and had 130 kids attend - they meet weekly, and we're offering a Coming of Age group this year too. However, as I've mentioned before, I was inspired to start a Teen Soul Matters group this year. The description is here.

We lose so many youth - and what is missing is hanging out with them. What is small group ministry about? It's about creating sacred space - about learning to listen to your own quiet inner voice or soul. When you are busy in youth group, or social action, you don't take time to just sit and listen to your peers, to other adults, to yourself. You don't have time to really engage yourself with the big questions. What is God? Where do science and religion intersect? Is there an afterlife? What does being a UU mean to me? How can I articulate it to my friends? Where do we come from? What does xyz in the Bible mean, if anything/everything? What is prayer? What are other spiritual practices? How can they bring meaning and clarity to my life? How can people believe in Creationism? What the heck happens when people have these near death experiences?

Seriously, people, all of these topics came from the kids in my group in only 4 hours of meetings. And that was even with structure imposed - it's a ministry group for kids, but it's also hanging out. But it's hanging out with purpose and light.

Youth engage their spirits as much as their hands and bodies by being with adults who are modeling spiritual practice and living into their faith internally, not just in the obvious external ways. Liberal theologians say that we need to hook people through their search for life's meaning, but we have to be aware of how kids do that - it's not necessarily how adults do it. And we have to give them opportunities to explore those questions in ways they will never get with their peers at school or their "regular" lives. Teens are going through a developmental crisis in much the same way that adults have a mid-life crisis. If we can engage them at church during this critical time, they won't have to search for that spiritual home when they're 40!

So my point is that hanging out can be a lot of different things (and can be subversive in a positive way!) and in all my work with youth both in human services and at church, those times where there is no agenda is when the best work happens. When I can just be with them. Doing dishes, driving in the car, watching a movie, listening to some tunes - that's when that shy soul peeks its head out and feels safe enough to ask the big questions. Let's not minimize the incredible power of creating sacred space that youth can identify with. It's not the way that adults do it - but approaching youth from our own social location is why we're losing them. We have to recognize their developmental needs and engage them where they're at. And that's hanging out.

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