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Culture Shift

The 25 years of Premier Youthwork haven’t taken place in a vacuum – there’s been a world going on outside of this magazine’s pages. Former editor Martin Saunders reflects on some of the cultural changes that have taken place, and what they haven meant for our young people and youth ministries.

Premier Youthwork has outlived a lot of things. The BBC’s exotic flagship soap opera Eldorado for instance, of which great things were expected; or the original line up of Take That. All three were launched around the same time, at the beginning of the 1990s, and yet today only one stands intact. It’s probably for the best, given that the world has changed so much over the last 25 years: Robbie’s ego was never going to last 25 years in Gary’s shadow, and I can’t even imagine how the cast of Eldorado would have survived the advent of Twitter.

It’s easy to say that the world has changed in 25 years, but that rather trite sentiment doesn’t come close to conveying the true scale of what has really happened in the last two and a half decades. It’s no exaggeration to say that the gargantuan cultural shift we’ve seen since the early 1990s is the biggest, fastest and widest-ranging since the Industrial Revolution: arguably it’s even bigger than that. The changes in culture, and specifically in youth culture, have been enormous; the world now is almost unrecognisable from the world then.

For an illustration, step with me into Sylvester McCoy’s TARDIS back to 1991 (pipe down nerds, technically he was still The Doctor even though the show was on hiatus). Unless you happen to work at Microsoft or Apple, it’s a world without the internet and email. Social media is when you all get together round Tim’s house to watch Noel’s House Party. The Sega MegaDrive is exhibiting world-changing special effects through Sonic the Hedgehog, while the grey-screened Nintendo GameBoy has inexplicably managed to put the power of a computer into your (massive) pocket. Although of course, your pocket is already completely filled to bursting with a Walkman.

School is a six and a half hour day with an hour for a lunch (sometimes you’d have CU), and ‘normal’ relationships involve a boy and a girl: the two available genders. Celebrities are generally the pop stars you see on Top of the Pops or the actors you see at the cinema or on (four-channel) television. And pornography is something you find in a magazine tucked in a hedge by a railway line. It’s 25 years ago, but it might as well be a millennium.

EVERYTHING CHANGES BUT YOU

Here’s the really terrifying thought: step into a meeting of the average Christian youth group however, and suddenly everything looks reassuringly familiar. Sure, the leaders are having a hard job keeping the kids from playing with their phones, but aside from that, the programmes, the format, even the decor of the room probably looks the same in 1991 as it does in 2016. That’s a caricature of course, but true for many. Times have changed; youth ministry hasn’t.

As I begin to cope with the devastating revelation that I may, at the dawn of my 40s, be becoming a ‘youth work veteran’ (who actually remembers 1991), my venerable former employers have asked me to take a look at a few of the areas in which this massive cultural shift has really taken effect. I’m going to focus on five broad categories, each of which contain a raft of other changes we simply can’t cover in a single article. Not only that, I’m going to finish each section by asking: ‘so what?’ Beyond just identifying the massive changes and perhaps getting a bit misty-eyed for a simpler time, I think we need to get better at thinking about how youth ministry might need to change and adapt in order to remain relevant.

SHIFT #1

THE INTERNET FLIPS THE WORLD

It is almost impossible to convey the scale of the impact of the internet in just a few words. Suffice to say, the introduction of the World Wide Web has brought two huge changes to human civilisation which, in turn, have had thousands of different implications for our culture. The first of those is the interconnectedness of everything – people, businesses, countries and everything in between. You can have a free video call (or play a video game) with your friend in Australia in high definition, while using your mobile phone to control the temperature of your fridge. Money can move from your bank in Rotherham to one in New York City in a split second (hopefully only when you intended it to!). You can track down all your old primary school friends, or you can share your general ponderings on the world with a potential online audience of billions, through blog posts, video messages or 140-character missives. Just one part of this is the world of social media – a barely known concept just a decade ago, which now dominates the life of the average teenager (and the average office worker too). And all of this stands in sharp contrast to the offline world that went before it, where address books were staple household items and the mistakes made on your stag night were never at risk of public broadcast.

The second major change heralded by the internet is the proliferation of information. The importance of public libraries, reference books and even physical newspapers have been hugely diminished (though not lost) because of the rise of online information, news and reference websites. Scarily, as articles like the famous ‘Google is making us stupid’ have pointed out, much of this content is user-generated and unreliable; students, journalists and even some academics can over-rely on the work of non-experts writing on sites such as Wikipedia. Young people, growing up as digital natives, instinctively Google for information instead of ever learning the discipline of looking something up; some would argue they also realise that they don’t really need to rote learn or remember anything (save for exams) because their phones will always rescue them if they find themselves in an information gap.

SO WHAT? In theory this should have all sorts of exciting implications, from the enablement of in-depth Bible study on your phone to through-the-week accountability and encouragement, to virtual youth group meetings and even the building of cross-cultural links. In practice though, for most youth groups the extent of their online engagement is a private Facebook group: a digital version of an old church noticeboard. When huge creativity is being exhibited by entrepreneurs, organisations and the media, I would suggest it’s high time Christian youth work thought much more innovatively around how the internet could reshape and revitalise the church’s engagement with young people.

SHIFT #2

SCRAMBLED SCHOOLS

Forgive the old man act, but when I was at school, things seemed so straightforward. You arrived just before 9am, you had an hour for lunch around 12.30pm and went home about 4pm. Teachers were relatively free to deliver the curriculum as they saw fit, and that meant there was plenty of time for subjects and activities beyond numbers and the written word. Waves of changes have hit the education system since then, as first the focus of educational priorities, and then the shape and nature of the school day were dramatically altered. As a result the educational journey young people experience has paradoxically become both intensely channelled and fragmented; they study a core group of subjects at the expense of periphery, yet they are also streamed and segmented, subject to multi-site schools and staggered lunchtimes. Throw into that mix the Academy and Free School movements, the advent of Extended Schools and the continual revision of targets and exams, and it’s not hard to see why so many teachers are toying with leaving the profession.

Christian schools’ work has also encountered some serious challenges as a result of all this flux: whole-school assemblies are now much rarer, Christian Unions are scuppered by complex lunchtime arrangements and some schools are so spooked by talk of radicalisation and proselytising that they no longer welcome Christian workers on site.

SO WHAT? In a continually evolving environment, Christian schools’ work (which should be a priority of every youth worker) needs to keep reinventing itself. Many organisations with such a focus (including my own, Youthscape) have concentrated on developing programmes which are more ‘holistic’ than traditional schools’ work: meeting young people in the context of mentoring, or in groups oriented around specific needs such as anger management or self-harm. These create great opportunities for relationship building, but they don’t replace the imperative in Christian schools’ work to share the gospel message. Through the development of initiatives such as Prayer Spaces in Schools, youth and schools workers need to find new places to appropriately bring a Christian distinctive into school.

 

Another, very different thought: a key value of youth work is informal education, but I wonder if many of us embrace it beyond our own take on religious instruction. With schools so focused on targets and a limited curriculum, could the Church become the place where young people have their horizons broadened, where they get to encounter new and interesting subject areas, try new skills and experience a breadth of perspectives? This is another area where Christian youth work has an opportunity to innovate.

SHIFT #3

A PORN EPIDEMIC

Baroness Kidron’s 2013 film In real life should be required viewing for every youth worker. It’s a documentary looking at how the internet has radically changed the lives of British teenagers, and while its findings are occasionally heavy-handed, the section on the impact of internet pornography rings devastatingly true. In it, two teenage boys sit together, laddishly analysing the porn on their iPads like Match of the day pundits, but when one of them, Ryan, stops to reflect, he admits that constant exposure to hardcore pornographic images is having a numbing effect on his brain. He confesses that he can no longer look at women without seeing them as sex objects, that he finds it harder and harder to become aroused without seeing ever more extreme images. ‘I’ve ruined the sense of love,’ he says at one point. He’s 15.

Ryan is not alone; he’s part of a generation of young people who suddenly find themselves growing up with free, 24/7 access to every conceivable kind of pornography. Teenagers aren’t just having their sensitivities eroded by repeated exposure to porn, they’re also imitating and even making it. The expectations many young people have for their first sexual experience are now defined not by word-of-mouth legends about fumbles behind the bike sheds, but by the sensibilities of hardcore sex videos. Girls particularly suffer because of the misogynistic and shaming nature of the pornographic model of sex, and as a result in an age of apparent increased female liberation, the numbers of girls subjected to some form of sexual abuse (from domestic violence to nude-photo sharing) has rocketed.

SO WHAT? Any youth workers still refusing to acknowledge or talk about the impact of pornography with their young people are now in total and dangerous denial. Teenagers need our help to navigate and understand the choices they are all presented with around pornography; they need to understand why this thing that is given to them so freely is also so toxic. Projects such as The Naked Truth and Romance Academy are working hard to equip youth workers for this task, but this is a conversation that should now be taking place in every church and youth group in the country. In addition, this is an issue which affects many youth workers and other Christian leaders too; some stats suggest as many as 40 per cent of us struggle with an online porn ‘addiction’. We can’t effectively help young people with this issue if we’re still struggling with it ourselves. Help is available online and through physical accountability: we have to take it.

SHIFT #4

MENTAL HEALTH UNDER PRESSURE

Young people have always suffered challenges around their mental health. The tragedy of teenage suicide is not new, and depression, anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders were certainly all around in 1991. What has changed however is our understanding of these issues, and broadly that’s been a positive shift. There is some evidence however that some of these are on the rise, and this is usually connected to the rising sense of pressure upon teenage life, both from education and cultural influences. A 2016 survey by the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) reported that 79 per cent of UK schools have seen an increase in young people self-harming or displaying suicidal thoughts, while government figures on national hospital admissions around self-injury report a five-year high.

This shift is intrinsically connected to the first three – the changes and increased pressure around social interaction, education and sexuality combine to make teenage life more complex, and for many, more anxious. Cyber bullying means that those people you dread bumping into can reach you even as you lie in bed checking your smartphone at night, while recent changes in the school system mean that many children and young people feel as if they’ve been set back a year or more by an ever shifting curriculum. Young people are feeling the pressure, and often it’s their mental wellbeing that suffers.

SO WHAT? Mental health awareness is on the rise thanks to organisations such as YoungMinds and Childline, and Christian projects such as SelfharmUK and ThinkTwice: these in turn enable youth workers to gain insight into the issues involved and how to respond. In the NCB survey mentioned above, 65 per cent of schools said that it was becoming more difficult to access professional mental health services. This creates a clear opportunity for Christian youth work to step into the gap, to act as ‘first responders’ who help young people process their thoughts and feelings and to create safe spaces where young people can gain some kind of refuge from their pressurised everyday lives.

SHIFT #5

FAME AS THE GOAL

In 1991, most celebrities were famous for a reason. It was a time before The X Factor had proliferated averagely talented singers, and before Big Brother had turned grotesque personality defects into semi-heroic virtues. Fast forward to the present, and while reality and talent TV shows are no longer quite in their prime, they already have left a couple of major legacies. The first is that our culture is now littered with half-famous, semi-recognisable names who have somehow managed to slightly elongate their 15 minutes of fame. The Only Way is Essex has delivered us a few of them, Big Brother, Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor a number more. Almost none of these people would have been famous under the old system, but now their faces populate gossip magazines, chat shows and ironically, further reality TV programmes.

The more important and dangerous result of the reality TV phenomenon however is its effect on young people’s aspirations. Teenagers now grow up with the idea that appearing on a ‘scripted reality’ show is somehow a valid and worthwhile career path. Singing has shifted from a communal activity enjoyed for its own sake to a competitive pursuit which could make all of your dreams come true. At the same time, young people’s aspirations around traditional careers have radically diminished: many no longer believe they are capable of any kind of social mobility unless they manage to catch the lottery win of fame.

SO WHAT? Youth workers have a crucial role to play in helping to raise young people’s aspirations, and to help them believe in themselves to the point that an easy, but unrealistic, option such as fame no longer feels like the only way out. This can partly be achieved through a focus on developing self-esteem, but also through mentoring, and even skills training. At the same time, I think we should be careful about how much ‘airtime’ we give to the idea of celebrity (which has of course seriously invaded the church) when we’re talking to teenagers, lest we simply reinforce one of the main messages of their culture.

There are so many other extraordinary changes that I haven’t had time to mention or address in detail. Gender fluidity was an alien concept to most people two decades ago; now young people will grow up in a world of gender-neutral bathrooms. And while we’re by no means there yet, we’ve seen huge advances in the area of gender equality and justice, with young people feeling less of a pressure than ever in this generation to conform to set stereotypes around their sex. Everyone watches Netflix, Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer now; in 1991 those things couldn’t even have been imagined. The spectre of rising tuition fees have replaced the welcoming culture of university grants. And as I write, with Britain having voted to leave the EU and political careers lying scattered all over the resulting no man’s land, the present and the future seem more uncertain than ever. Who knows what a similar article might tell us in 2041?

Our role as youth workers has always been to help young people navigate their lives, and to understand how a faith in Jesus complements and makes sense of life, rather than getting in the way. In a constantly changing culture, that’s arguably more difficult now than it ever has been; that’s why we have to constantly assume William Booth’s famous position – a Bible in one hand, a smartphone in the other.

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