Martyn Payne, in his ‘listening’ role has written this excellent summary of our day with teenagers in Yate on Saturday 18 January.
Reflections on the ‘listening to teenagers’ day at St. Nix, Yate near Bristol
What an amazing group of young people St Nix has and what a great day they planned and led for us. Full marks to Miriam, who held it together, along with Hannah, Robin, George, Amy, Jasmine, Beth and Ben! Each one took responsibility for different aspects of this thought provoking day. It was a privilege to be ministered to by them and have a chance to hear what they wanted to say to Messy Church. We were about 40 people in total, literary half teenagers and half adults. This was a youthful Messy Meet-up focused on what young people had to say.
Miriam’s mum and dad, Alison and Paul, lead the Messy Church here at St. Nix and they are blessed with an amazing team of teenagers who have grown up into leadership here. We heard from each of them how they contributed to the planning and the running of each session and clearly they have a tremendous sense of ownership of what’s going on, as well as enjoyment in working together with the team. They have been entrusted with responsibility and it has helped them grow in their faith.
Most of the Messy Churches who came only had one or two teenagers and so it would be easy simply to feel envious of what was happening here in Yate! Most Messy Churches tend to have younger primary-aged children and pre-schoolers and at this stage they can only aspire to having teenagers in the all-age mix. So for most of us, the challenge of the day was, how can we plan for a future that looks like Yate? How can Messy Churches nurture similar leaders from among their existing 7, 8 and 9 year old children? How can we ensure that what we do together is still enjoyed and owned by our youngest ones now when they grow older within Messy Church? It was clues to some of these questions that we hoped the teenagers might give us during our day together and they certainly did.
Although there was some input from adults during the day – notably from Lucy who gave us a quick overview as to what most Messy Churches look like and the values that they try and hold to, and some input into the celebration – most of the day was in the hands of the St. Nix’s youth. They shared their stories; they led an icebreaker game; they sorted the interactive prayers; and they organised the games when everyone arrived. They also had a particular time just for themselves to address a whole group of questions which were designed to get all of us thinking about the place of teenagers in Messy Church.
As Lucy reminded us at the beginning, because Messy Church is something new, we don’t have a tradition to follow and this can be liberating. So when it comes to re-imagining youth work within Messy Church we don’t have to rely on the old paradigms and formulas of the past. That’s wonderful…. but also scary! ‘What about the teenagers?’ is the question we are asked continually when we visit Messy Churches and lead seminars. It goes straight to the heart of the all-age issue which is one of the key values of Messy Church. Can we really be all-age or do we just have to accept that we will need to plan to separate at some stage, particularly when it comes to young people. This is a suggestion made, for example, in the most recent Fresh Expressions report and it is an issue that we need to address. Do we have to default to separateness at some stage or can Messy Church offer a distinctive and successful model of all-ageness in among everything else that is going on to build the Kingdom of God?
The young people of St. Nix shared how they had grown up into leadership roles. Beth described how she hardly noticed when she had moved from being someone who came to Messy Church to receive, into someone who now has a lot to give. Ben hadn’t been keen on coming but as soon as he was given responsibility for a particular aspect, it changed his whole view of Messy Church. Others had found different ways of serving within the team including in the kitchen. Amy described how she had become a ‘chief taster’ as part of the catering team; Robin plays the piano for the celebration; and Hannah specializes in big open-ended crafts that involve lots of people making something memorable.
One very successful exercise we did together was to sit in mixed groups looking at the four elements of Messy Church in turn and just share our experiences with one another. This was a particular blessing to those who were just beginning to think about Messy Church and lots of new ideas were picked up here. But what was most important was what the teenagers thought about each of the aspects. For example, when it comes to the welcome, having some food there, having something to do and having other teenagers to meet, were all vital. After all it’s hard for most of us to go into something where there’s no one like us, even though in the end we might be very blessed by difference. And when it came to the activity time, the teenagers said things like: we enjoy being messy again but also having activities that have a practical outcome. They also wanted activities that were just talk-based which gave opportunity to hear stories together. There was also a short debate about whether there should be computer games available. Interestingly it was some of the teenagers themselves who said that this might not be the best thing as it would just separate and isolate rather than create togetherness, though perhaps there may be an argument for some games which have a multiplayer element to them. However, above and beyond all that was said – and this came out more than once – they felt that it was important that Messy Church became a safe space. And of course that is true for all of us, whatever age we are.
Lucy has posted on Facebook the set of questions that we looked at in separate groups after lunch and there are some great thought-provoking issues to explore here. Interestingly, the teenagers’ feedback on the questions was quite brief and to the point! It was important firstly that they as teenagers aren’t all treated as the same. They are as different as adults can be. They wanted to be included in every aspect of Messy Church and liked activities that were more open-ended and creative rather than closed and prescriptive. They enjoyed flexibility and particularly made a plea that even though they do want to lead, sometimes they also just want to be there and do. Can they not, for example, lead a table for some of the time and then be free just to go around and enjoy being part of it all?
Amongst the adults the conversation got more complex – and that’s why it was refreshing to have the teenagers’ voice reported on and not ours! We got caught up with debating whether all age is really just an impossible ideal and therefore we should allow segregation and diversity to happen because life and church is messy like that. Should we be counter-cultural and go for togetherness, bringing together differences?
My reflection on the attitude of some of the youth leaders there was that maybe professional youth workers are slightly puzzled and maybe even threatened that Messy Church seems to be ‘invading their territory’. Maybe that is what drew them to this day in the first place, wondering why something that in their eyes (probably) is a very children-based form of church should be engaging with youth, which is their professional sphere. Perhaps it would be good to have some informal discussions in a separate forum with some youth workers about this and other issues?
Messy Church offers a model of church with a huge inbuilt potential for being adaptable. Although faith nurturing is going on in Messy Church, its true starting place is mission and this surely should always be the default position whenever we think through issues linked to Messy Church. It helps us to remember to put discipleship, all-ageness, celebration, the meal….and teenagers in context. How can we encourage those families who don’t do Sunday church to keep coming to Messy Church when their 9 year olds turn into tweenagers? What will keep the family together in Messy Church when the prevailing culture pulls it apart? It is something about the eating together that is really special and counter-cultural and that we must not watered down? Is it something to do with having fun together around the stories of Jesus that makes Messy Church distinctive? Most Messy Churches do experiment with messy extras and to some extent that reflects the cultural pull towards doing things in like-minded groups rather than trying to meet all sorts of needs in one place. In our adults’ group, for example, people shared ideas about adult craft evenings, Messy Cafés and Messy Specials which are all part of the messy mix. After all, no one shape of church is arguably ‘proper church’ although we use that term sometimes to describe traditional Sunday church. And within this spectrum of church, the all-age church that is Messy Church offers a model among many that can do many things that the others cannot.
This consultation day should be the stimulus to lots more conversation. In our short debrief at the end of the day, the teenagers were generally really pleased with how it had gone, although their main comment was they would have liked to have more visual feedback rather than just talk, particularly in the afternoon when everyone was getting tired. They are going to write up what they discussed in their teenagers-only session, as well as their overall take on the day; that will be really interesting to read. Messy Church is about everyone having a part to play; it’s about giving everyone a voice and a ownership in creating a community together that celebrates Jesus and reaches out to include new people who have not heard our Christian story before. Today was a good example of Messy Church in action, giving a voice to a group who are often voiceless in many of our traditional church settings. It would be great to have more days like this and perhaps once we share widely what happened today, other churches will offer to host something similar. Messy Church isn’t just in the business of re-imagining church; nor of just re-imagining discipleship; it is also about re-imagining participation and what it means to allow everyone of any age to have a voice in growing the kingdom of God.