Every generation has a story - a tapestry of societal factors and subtle cultural undertones influencing and shaping its thoughts, actions and beliefs. As youth workers, it’s critical that we explore the broad cultural brush strokes affecting the thoughts and feelings of the generation we seek to serve, and how the world they are growing up in is impacting their approach to life, faith and Church. In the second of our ‘Youth work in the age of…’ series, Premier Youthwork’s Jamie Cutteridge looks at individualism, and the age of the ‘selfie’.
There’s a fluid relationship between the Church and wider society. Over the course of history, they have impacted each other in a variety of ways, some obvious (the biblical basis for many of our laws, popular music affecting our styles of worship), and some subtler and more insidious. In part two of our exploration into the cultural trends impacting youth ministry, we’re going to examine individualism.
TO KICK OFF - A QUICK POLITICAL HISTORY LESSON
The 20th Century was dominated by two ideologies: capitalism and communism (often expressed as socialism). This was more than a clash of East (the USSR) and West (the USA), but a contrast of two ways of looking at the world. In their purest forms, communism and capitalism diverge over one issue: the communal against the individual. Irrespective of how it looks in practice, communism is (put very simply) the idea that society would be at its best, most cohesive and fairest when the work of all is shared by all. Capitalism is in essence the idea that competition and individualism lead to more productivity (a Darwinian way of looking at society) - that if people need to scrap to produce, thrive and live then more will be done at a lower cost. In essence, the Cold War was a test to see who would blink first: individuals or collectivists.
The end of the story is simple: capitalism won. Almost all major world economies operate with a free market. This isn’t just about economic systems (though they are symptomatic of the wider trend) but a prevailing attitude. We are living in the era of the individual. Just consider what the word attracting the most ‘buzz’ in the last year has been: selfie. The selfie, nothing more complicated than a photo of yourself, is a phenomenon which has dominated websites and newspapers over the last 12 months. Selfies are perfectly harmless, but neatly sum up this individualistic culture; we’ve got an entire world to marvel at, and yet we’re all too busy taking photos of our own pouting faces. If we aren’t too busy taking photos of ourselves, then we are being bombarded from all angles with messages of individualism – get your grades! Earn money! Look the best you can! Find your perfect partner! YOU, YOU, YOU! This generation has been saturated with messages of individualism.
Young people aren’t called to be Jesus, they’re called to be part of a body – it’s much easier to be a hand or foot than it is to be a Messiah
A COMMUNAL CHURCH
The Church was never designed to be a series of individuals: it was never about ‘me’ and always about ‘us’. The early Church, dare I say it, even looked a bit like communism.
Acts 2:44-45: All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
Acts 4:32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
The early Church realised that the best way to express the gospel story was through community, and that the best way to change the world was by sticking together, standing by each other and supporting each other. This wasn’t a new phenomenon; the Jewish faith was equally community-based, with the whole Old Testament being the story of one community, God’s word to this community and the community’s expression of faith. In fact, the God we worship is, in his very nature, community: three beings in one; separate, but together. It is in this community that we see a fuller picture of who God is, and it is through community that we, both as individuals and as a Church, can step into all that we are.
The Church, unfortunately, has fallen into the individualism trap along with the rest of society. Don’t believe me? One Bible verse can provide a quick case study. Ask yourself how many times, when you’ve been facing big decisions, people have quoted Jeremiah 29:11 at you. It’s an absolute classic. It’s the kind of verse you find on mugs, place mats and pasted over pictures of clouds on Instagram. It says this:
‘For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’
If you backtrack a few verses, the beginning of the passage says this: ‘This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.’ It continues: ‘When 70 years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place.’ Jeremiah 29:11, when read in context, is a promise to the people of Israel at a specific time and place (that’s not to say it doesn’t hold relevance to us today). To take that verse aimed at the community of God, and apply it to our individual lives, is to twist the meaning of scripture.
This is just one example – but indicative of a wider shift. If it was only the odd badly-contextualised Bible verse then we wouldn’t have a problem. Yet how many of our worships song have become me-centric? How often do you hear people complaining about a church service ‘not doing anything’ for them? How often do you make the same complaint? We’ve taken a public faith and internalised it, making it private. Christianity isn’t a private faith, it’s a public expression, seen through community.
THE WHOLE BODY
The problem of an individualised and privatised faith is that it requires each of us to be a fully perfected faith superhero - the answer to the world’s needs. Serious4God’s Tim Alford shared with me recently his own struggle with this approach, and how it can set young people up for failure:
‘When I was younger, I was part of a youth group and went along to the big events. I don’t know how many times I got told, “You can change the world for Jesus” or “You can be a history maker.” And because I was a really keen Christian, I believed it. I really believed it.
What’s interesting is that I’m nearly 30, and I haven’t changed the world yet. I don’t know how many of us who preached that message have. A couple of years ago I had to go through a process of realising that I’d actually been really damaged by that, because I felt like a failure. I believed what I was told. I thought I was going to be a history maker and change the world for Jesus. I gave myself to Jesus wholeheartedly, and don’t get me wrong, I made plenty of mistakes, but I was sold out for God, through school and through college. I called out to God in prayer for my friends and for the nations, and I still haven’t changed the world yet. We have to face the fact that as soon as we stand up on stage and say, ‘You can change the world’, to a group of 100 young people – we are creating 99/100 if not 100/100 failures. And I’ve done it, I’ve been the person on stage preaching, because it sounds great in a sermon.
I’d love to see that message change from “You can change the world” to “we can change the world”. God doesn’t call us to be a one-man-army or a one-man-history-maker, he calls us to be part of a movement called the Church that changes the world. When the whole body comes together and functions properly, and when each part knows its job and does it, that’s when history gets made.’
This approach doesn’t just shelter young people from disappointment – it frees them. Knowing you’re part of something bigger than yourself leads to the knowledge that you don’t have to do it all. Young people aren’t called to be Jesus, they’re called to be part of a body – it’s much easier to be a hand or foot than it is to be a Messiah. Perhaps we need to kill the image of the all-singing, all-dancing, all-doing-everything youth minister, who models a brand of ministry where one person is everything. How can we tell our young people about being part of a body, when our youth work doesn’t reflect that? Is your youth ministry dependent on you as an individual, or is it an expression of community? Does it look more like a one-man-band or the Trinity?
THE SELFIE GENERATION?
Youth ministry is in the influential and exciting position to offer something different. Even though our young people live in an age where individualism is king, they crave community and purpose. And youth ministry therefore has a huge opportunity: to meet these young people where they are at.
Community. The external gloss of individualism quickly fades to find that young people are desperate for community - they’re just looking for it in unusual places. It’s easy to look at teenagers staring at their smart phones and assume they are checking out of community - but what are they doing on their phones? Sharing photos with contacts, chatting with friends and sharing their views with the world. In other words, they’re building community. Whether it’s becoming a hardcore fan (such as a Whovian or Directioner), or taking part in the #IceBucketChallenge, teenagers naturally place themselves where other people are. It’s both ignorant and patronising to assume that young people would build community in the same way that people did 50 years ago. Our grandparents built community over a pint in the local, shouting opinions on the day’s events at each other, cracking jokes and setting the world to rights – but things have changed. Our young people are the most connected generation to have ever existed. Young people are building communities in new places.
Youth ministry opportunity: When youth ministry is at its best, it builds community, it con nects young people, and it provides an antidote to the ‘me, me, me’ society. Think about how much of our time is spent working on building relationships with young people, and how much time we devote to thinking about group dynamics and giving teenagers the chance to support each other. If the Church has begun to lose sight of this, youth ministry hasn’t. By putting young people in a room and getting them talking on a regular basis, we’re restoring a simpler, perhaps more authentic, type of community, that seldom happens anywhere else in society. By connecting them to a church we take this a step further by connecting them with different generations and building communities between people who wouldn’t already mix.
Purpose. Far more than just a need to ‘fit in’ – young people want to be part of a movement that changes the world. That’s why the feelings Tim Alford mentioned can be so damaging, but also potentially so powerful. Young people believe they can make a difference; we can invite them into a community that CAN be the difference. Teenagers don’t want to be remembered as part of the selfie generation, they want to be remembered as the ones who changed the world.
Youth ministry opportunity: we have the ability to take this group of connected young people, and point them in a direction to make a difference, to change the world. In the age of the individual, young people want to be part of a community that makes a difference. Fortunately, this is exactly what youth work has to offer.