We are Satellites: why it's time to shift the centre of youth discipleship
Have young people been leaving the church not because we made discipleship too difficult, but because we made it too easy? That's the premise behind a new movement developed by Youthscape - Martin Saunders explains more
Even before Covid-19 changed everything, the UK church was having to embrace a harsh reality where young people are concerned. Youth ministry is in crisis. Although a faithful few remain engaged with our churches, the vast majority of teenagers know Jesus only as a mild swear word, and even those who grow up in our midst are as likely to leave as to remain. The pandemic, which has frustrated and limited our connection with those who have stayed faithful, has turned up the heat, but the fire was already raging. Something has to change.
I write this as someone who has been in senior positions of leadership and responsibility in the youth ministry community for much of the last 20 years. All of this has happened on 'my watch' - I certainly do not intend to disassociate myself from the problem. If our work has been ineffective, then I must bear some of the responsibility.
But in the last few years, both through my local practice as a youth worker, and in the context of the innovative organisation for which I work, a group of us have been developing an idea. It's based on the premise that young people have not been leaving the church because we made discipleship too difficult, but because we made it too easy. That we told them ours was a cause worth dying for, but then apologetically asked them to carve out an hour for it each week. It's the idea that God doesn't just want a small part of our lives - he wants it all.
I don't know if this rings true for you, but this is what many youth ministries that I have observed and participated in have looked like: we ask young people to give up a small portion of their 'free' time each week, just as they might allocate an hour to football practice, or a couple of hours to Scouts, or an evening to partying or gaming with their friends. Youth group is another lifestyle choice, but no more than that. The time we spend together is packed with fun to prevent boredom, and any time spent in the Bible is light, brief and easy.
I caricature of course, but there's a ring of truth there - the Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (where God is seen as a sort of Santa-figure, there to give us what we need as long as we've been good) described by researchers as characterising modern discipleship, comes from somewhere.
I came to faith as a teenager nearly 30 years ago, and then grew up in an amazing Baptist church in south-west London. We learned that Jesus was the key to life in all its fullness, and as a result we arranged our whole lives around him. We met twice a week as a group, had small gatherings in the evenings and prayer groups in our schools. Our leaders had a lot of nerve even then, calling us to such a high standard of discipleship, but in a world full of so much digitally-fuelled distraction and choice, I'm not sure I show the same courage in my own leading. I'm not sure I've believed - deep down - that Jesus truly is more exciting than sport, smartphone addiction and the entire contents of Disney+.
Here's the hard truth: when you give God a little bit of your time, here and there, then a relationship with him really isn't that compelling. It doesn't give you a cause to die - or even live - for. It's just another hobby or interest at that point, and almost as easy to box up and forget. Christian faith in an apologetic one-hour-a-week package is never going to change anyone's life, much less convince a young person to become passionate with love for God.
But... when we shift the centre, everything changes. Instead of pandering to a culture that gives every individual top billing in their own lives, we should be preaching a gospel that only works when we put God at the centre of everything. Because when we make God our first priority, everything else falls into place. He deserves top billing, and when we invest ourselves in building a relationship with him that is more important than anything else, amazing things can happen.
On a personal level, we develop a sense of wholeness; on a corporate level, we realise our place of belonging in a local and global family. We begin to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, and gain access to his incredible power. And we find a sense of purpose and adventure for our lives, as we help to build his kingdom together.
What's more - when we elevate God above all the other segments of our lives, we realise that he is interested in, and part of all those others. He's not just bigger than sport, scouts, Fortnite and double maths... he is present in, and has something profound to say about all of those things. Jesus is life in all its fullness, because he brings fullness to every element of our lives.
This is the essence behind Satellites, a new movement of young people living with God at the centre of their lives. Developed by the team at Youthscape, it will include a major Summer festival in the mould of Soul Survivor, plus a series of resources for young people and youth leaders. The first of these is We Are Satellites - an easy-to-read book for young people which explains practically what it looks like to put God at the centre of your life.
There is of course, no magic solution to the crisis facing youth ministry. Cultural pressures are great, and as with any age demographic, many young people will simply not want to hear about Jesus. But we have to try; we have to innovate and speak the language of this generation. Perhaps a starting point is to stop lacking confidence that our faith could be relevant to young people, and instead remember the power of the gospel to transform lives - when we take it seriously.
Martin Saunders is Director of Satellites, a new summer event for young people, and Deputy CEO of Youthscape. He’s married to Jo and they have four children. Martin became a Christian and grew up at New Malden Baptist church in Surrey
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