Premier Youth and Children's Work editor Jamie Cutteridge reflects...
In an age where politics seems more divisive than ever, aren’t our youth and children’s ministries better off avoiding any kind of political action?
Nope. As Alex Taylor explains, getting children involved with politics could be crucial for their faith development
After the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, 2015’s general election and the EU referendum in 2016, the announcement of the June general election seemed to elicit groans across the country. And for those of us involved with youth and children’s work, after several bruising campaigns you may think that encouraging children and young people to get involved in political action is the last thing we need to do.
You might be of the opinion that we should try to protect children from politics, allowing them to grow up without being upset or worried by events that seem to be beyond their control. However, I would counter that this approach can hinder children’s development - emotional, cultural and spiritual. Like it it or not, children and young people are just as political as adults are - perhaps even more so.
Donald Trump and Blue Peter
If you’ve spent any time with children recently, you’ll have heard talk about Donald Trump. Trump has made an impact on the consciousness of children, much more so than Brexit or any other politician. Perhaps it’s the way he is easily ridiculed that has made such an impact; perhaps the concern shown by parents, teachers and other significant adults has seeped through to children. He’s rarely off the TV and stories about him, both positive and negative, flash across the internet every day.
There’s also the Blue Peter effect. Every year, this evergreen children’s TV programme launches an appeal to raise money for a cause at home or abroad and every year children get behind the appeal and collect old mobile phones or hold bring and buy sales to raise money for the year’s particular cause. What is it that draws thousands of children back to this fundraising event year after year?
Despite the media portrayal of young people as disinterested, self-obsessed and inward-looking, how many times have you sat with your youth or children’s group as they raged against what was for them a great injustice in the world? Be it over refugees, war, cuts or Europe, many of the recent marches and protests have been populated by young people.
Children and young people care deeply about fairness and justice. Yes, they can be quite black and white in their understanding of complex issues, wading in when older people might be more circumspect but this shouldn’t discourage us from helping those in our care - our own children and those with whom we work in our groups - from pursuing and supporting causes they’re passionate about.
But more important than this, helping children and young people get involved with social justice issues in their own community is a key element of faith development, and is vital in building a faith that lasts into adulthood. The Sticky Faith research, carried out by the Fuller Youth Institute, showed that local mission and social action were important parts of building a faith that sticks into adulthood. The research found that, more than short-term mission trips to other countries, ongoing, active involvement in a local community helps form faith, fosters understanding about the relevance of Christ to our world and opens up what ‘loving your neighbour’ can mean in day-to-day life.
If we preach that we should show others the love of Christ, but do nothing about it, then what does this say to children and young people in our church? Merely paying lip-service to political and social justice issues in our church displays a faith that doesn’t care, that doesn’t have to make any sacrifices, that doesn’t have to take itself seriously. Children and young people see this and find that their passions are devalued and their desire to bring about change is unsupported. So what can we do to fan the flames of those passions, rather than let the embers grow cold?
Xana Ridley has two daughters and she tries to nurture their active faith through everyday life. “We watch Newsround together and talk about what is happening in the world,” says Xana. “I’ve always made a point of being honest and not glossing over the difficult things of life. I think it’s important not to pretend that life is always fair or easy, the Bible makes it clear it won’t be!”
Xana feels it’s important to answer (or at least try to answer) whatever questions her daughters bring to her. “We talk about being homeless, being a refugee, climate change etc in age-appropriate ways. Then we pray about situations and we do something practical where we can. They pack their own Christmas Child shoeboxes each year and this year we also packed one for a local homeless project. They follow their own interests; my eldest takes her job as a steward of the Earth very seriously and is a keen recycler and saver of energy. I support this by encouraging her to get involved in fundraising for endangered animals and getting hands-on with local planting projects. My younger daughter is more of a people person and prefers to live out her faith by caring for those around her. I am constantly amazed by the capacity for compassion in such young hearts.”
Listening, reflecting, doing
Christians in Politics (CiPol) recently set up a youth engagement project to inspire young Christians to engage in politics in meaningful ways. This project is led by a group of young Christians from different political parties and church traditions - people who love to encourage and inspire others to flourish.
The project consists of three main stages. First, a period of listening. Young Christians across the country can have their concerns heard through surveys and discussion groups, about what is attractive, off-putting and exciting about engaging in politics. Through the second reflective stage, the CiPol youth team are seeking to diagnose what at present makes political engagement challenging. They will then think creatively about how these obstacles may be overcome. How, ultimately, can young Christians be empowered to impact politics? Third, and flowing from the above, comes the action stage. In collaboration with other organisations, CiPol hopes to organise several events, experiences and opportunities for young Christians to engage in politics.
Rather than measuring success on whether a young person joins a political party or votes, Nick Le Friec, who is involved with CiPol, tries to gauge success on how much a young person starts to care about political issues: “If a young person comes to me and says ‘I’m not voting’ because of some very clear and coherent reasons, then I’ve got far greater respect for that young person than for a young person who has joined a political party because that’s what their parent’s did. It’s a question of how can we encourage young people to be genuinely transformed and, from a Christian perspective, how their faith is encouraging them to initiate that transformative action in the public sphere.” Nick’s drive is to help young people think creatively about engaging with political issues, rather than just being compliant with the system - compliance is not working with young people, and this is shown in the low voter turn-out for older young people.
By taking part in local social action projects, children and young people see their faith as a living breathing thing
“There is so much energy among young people for change and for action, so how can we reinvigorate the notion of political engagement?” asks Nick. “For example, as part of the community I was involved with, we held a vigil outside Westminster, after the government said ‘no’ to the Dubs Amendment for child refugees [the scheme to allow a number of unaccompanied refugee children to enter the United Kingdom] and we sang Christmas carols that were reworded to fit our message. That was a really creative and different way of approaching it - it wasn’t aggressive or violent. It was a way that reflected the faith tradition, but also was a radical call to change something. I took along some of the young people from my church and through that they were able to realise there was an opportunity for change here. Tim Farron [the leader of the Lib Dems] came down to the vigil, Stella Creasy from the Labour Party came down and spoke, and got behind what we were asking for. The young people saw that 300 people were enough to attract the attention of the leader of one of the main parties and one of the leading Labour MPs. They realised how easy it was to step into that more creative and different form of political engagement.”
This kind of engagement helps young people to see what their faith means to them and whether that has any bearing on public life. We need to start that conversation. “It’s really important that young people aren’t coerced or manipulated,” adds Nick. “There needs to be a real freedom to explore together. Youth workers, parent and carers should be willing to learn and share ideas with young people, rather than saying ‘This is the truth’. In this way, there’s a lot more capacity for young people to discover something they believe, rather than being ‘taught’.”
So, as children’s and youth workers, where can we start in helping our groups get connected with social justice, politics and taking their faith out into the community? Here are three suggestion.
Make friends with your local elderly communities
Young and old get a lot out of spending time with each other. What communities in your local area can you link up with? These could be retirement villages, care homes, residential homes or groups for retired people in your church. Approach those responsible for running the home or group and see how you and your group can help out and make a difference. Maybe you could go and play games with the residents or sing for them. Perhaps you could share afternoon tea or create a memories project together.
Of course, you’ll have to risk assess the visits you make, get permission from parents and ensure that you have enough supervision, as well as working with the home or group to make sure you follow your church’s safeguarding policy. This might require some work, but is more than worth it in terms of the value of the experience for children and young people. As well as making a difference in people’s lives, broadening their life experience and learning about the issues facing older people, your group will discover more about faith from their new friends.
Collect for a food bank
It’s a sad reality that more and more people are relying on food banks in order to get by. The Church is heavily involved in helping those in need get access to emergency food, so it may be that there is someone in your congregation who can come and talk to your group about your local food bank and the work that it does. Otherwise, contacting the Trussell Trust is a good first step to finding your local food bank.
Work together with your local food bank to come up with ways that children and young people can get involved. Collecting food or raising money to buy food are the most obvious options; young people could take responsibility for appealing for and collecting food from the congregation. Alternatively, they could come up with some ways of raising money that could be used to buy food, or given directly to the food bank so that the right food can be purchased.
Care for your environment
Environmental issues are often paramount in the minds of children and young people, but it might seem difficult for them to feel as though they are making a difference to the global situation. However, caring for your local environment can bring a sense of achievement and can make God’s call to care for the planet a reality in young people and children’s minds.
Talk with your town or parish council to find out what you can do in the community, or find out if there is anyone in or linked to your congregation who needs help with their property. As with working with the elderly, risk assess your project and get parental permission. Then work together to decide what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it.
If we preach that we should show others the love of Christ, but do nothing about it, then what does this say to children and young people in our church?
There is so much more that you can do and, as Xana explained earlier with her daughters, much will depend on the interests and personalities of the children and young people in your group. Writing to MPs about important issues, campaigning for new local community facilities or helping those who struggle to get around are all great options.
Children and young people might not be able to vote yet, but engaging them in the political is a powerful tool to promote future interest and to help their faith to grow. By taking part in local social action projects, children and young people see their faith, not as an intellectual thing or something just for a Sunday, but as a living breathing thing that can have an impact on their own lives and on the lives of those around them.
What would you do if you were Prime Minister for the day?
“Eat all the chocolate I wanted to. Let children go off school and let the parents go in. The children teach the teachers and parents. Kick Donald Trump out for the day.”
Amy, 11, Cardiff
“I would push forward the idea of renewable energy and encourage people to recycle more.”
Florence, 10, Worcestershire
“If I was Prime Minister for the day I would ask everyone to look after one homeless person each.”
Beatrice, 7, Worcestershire
“I would help tidy up all the mess people threw on the ground.”
Jack, 5, Essex
“If I was Prime Minister for the day I would make it law that all cyclists should wear a helmet.”
Alex, 11, Lancashire
“If I was Prime Minister for the day I would ban homework and exams.”
Sammy, 13, Lancashire
What would make your country a better place to live?
“More dogs. Do whatever job you want for the day - your dream job! No wars. No bullying. Modern technology and an imagination area where there’s no technology allowed and it’s litter-free.”
Amy, 11, Cardiff
“I think the country would be a better place if everyone had homes and enough to eat.”
Florence, 10, Worcestershire
“I think the country would be better if there were more libraries because they are fun and you can learn a lot.”
Beatrice, 7, Worcestershire
“Our country would be a better place if cars did not use fossil fuels.”
Alex, 11, Lancashire
“The country would be a better place if there was no nuclear power, or weapons of any kind.”
Sammy, 13, Lancashire