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Why youth work is like couples’ counselling

I’ve only been in this job for nine months, but I love it. I consider it a joyous privilege to work with congregations, presbyteries and the Synod in the areas of youth ministry and contextual theology.

This is a great gig, but if I’m honest, I feel most of my work resembles the role of couples’ counsellor.

Allow me to explain.

I meet people of all ages and stories, and often find myself in the midst of two parties who simply cannot understand the other. It’s seldom hostile, never malicious, yet there is a distinct generational disconnect. I attempt to translate and advocate for each party.

There’s a tension, and I think it’s time we named it for what it is.

Talking with young people in our congregations, most of them express a disconnect between the internal workings of our church and our calling to worship, witness and serve.

They are passionate, intelligent, organised and faithful, yet their exposure to church structures and meetings rarely inspires commitment. The Wizard behind the curtain remains disappointing.

Talking with elderly people in our churches, we confront the reality that “how we used to do it” doesn’t work (and perhaps it never did), and yet we are paralysed by the otherness of younger generations, who seem to act, shift and consume faster, and who aren’t seeking answers or community in our programs and services.

I suppose “young” is a tricky word for our church. Conversations within councils of our church about young people often trigger feelings of guilt or grief because, as we look around many of our congregations, we see only memories of former times.

Young feels untested and risky.

We need to ask how long will we deny the reality that many of our young people are not seeking to inherit our church structures and traditions?

Also we must examine our bias towards experience and reputation which can blind us to those who might have words of hope for us to hear.

Perhaps it is not lost people who need to return to the church, but a lost church who needs to return to young people.

It can be tough growing up within Uniting Church systems. Whilst our regulations create space for young voices, it often requires permission and support from elders to amplify those voices.

Many never step outside their congregation and, consequently, never discover our diversity as the gift and opportunity it is. I’ve also had talked with gifted (and experienced!) young adults who turn 30 and have those invitations disappear because they are no longer required to fill quotas. We are in danger of seeing young people merely as a resource, rather than the potential they present.

Of course, we can name exceptions from both sides – elders who have mentored and championed young people, and young adults who have served and led the church in various capacities, but it would be naïve to ignore the greater reality.

We can also be guilty of never moving beyond inspiring oratory about “future leaders”.

My experience with counsellors is they rarely offer answers, more often asking questions to clarify the problem.

Similarly I know there is no simple strategy to address the generational disconnect, but we must look to changing our culture. I passionately believe our church is capable of reimagining itself to be led by the emerging generations.

However, we must be willing to lay down parts of our inheritance to create space for new futures.

Bradon French

Bradon French is the Youth Ministry Coordinator within the Intergenerational team. He is a passionate advocate for young people and enjoys challenging the status quo.

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