Martin Saunders writes in the Guardian that faith-based youth work can give us hope in this challenging time …
Most teenagers don’t set fire to cars. Most teenagers don’t loot shops and treat their own communities with reckless, violent abandon. Most teenagers abhor these actions, and many of them believe they can be part of changing the world for the better.
Hope isn’t dead among young people. I know many, from a range of backgrounds, who believe they can make a better future for themselves than the apparent mess that their forefathers have delivered them. So this week my deepest fear as a parent and youth worker is that the actions of a minority of young people could stigmatise a whole generation. Those from a working-class or poor urban background will be denounced as feral, spoiled, bereft of morals. Despite the brave actions of many young people in standing against these crimes, and their wholesale presence on the cleanup frontline, too many of us want to believe that a generation has gone bad. It hasn’t.
The majority of young people are innocent in this. Yet I’d be blind not to acknowledge that there is a portion of this generation so angry, so apparently disaffected, they feel driven or able to commit unjustifiable acts of anarchy and, in most cases, straightforward crime.
So what do we “do” about them? Right now, many involved in statutory youth provision are pointing the finger at austerity-era budget cuts, such as the scything attack on local youth services and the ending of the education maintenance allowance. The removal of money is part of the problem, of course, but I believe there’s another side to that coin – that in this society we look to raise not young citizens, but young consumers. They’ve grown up on dreams fed to them by the marketing men (my three- and five-year-olds are proof that it starts early), yet as credit and funding have dried up, they now don’t have the resources to fund the dreams they’ve been sold.
Faith-based youth work has something special, something inherently different to offer them, because it offers something distinctive: transformation. And we in the faith community must not be ashamed of where that transformation comes from: an engagement with young people’s yearning sense of spirituality – something which promises rewards even greater than financial gain.
One of the greatest youth workers I know (and there are many), the sixtysomething Pip Wilson, has given his whole life to the inner-city teenagers we might term “hardest to reach”. Last week I saw a tweet from him. “You may not like this,” it read. “I love these kids #LondonRiots. I don’t love their behaviour but I LOVE THEM.” It was a wonderful illustration of the difference behind faith-based youth work. Pip sees these young people not as problems in need of a solution, but as people in need of identity, grace, love.
As the negative actions of many young people steal the headlines, I am with my church-based youth group at the Soul Survivor festival in Somerset. Over the course of three weeks, about 30,000 teenagers who are passionate about changing their country for the better will gather. The story never makes the papers, but they gather every year in increasing numbers: to share community, to learn, to pray together. For me they are a remarkable demonstration that we can still place our hope in their generation. These young people are by nature passionate, they are moral, they have a deep sense of what it means to build and live in community, and they desire a better future.