Young People and Urban Theology

The ramifications of urbanisation and the growth of the city are still being felt today. To attempt to give an ordered and definitive account of all of the effects would be impossible.  So, as a youth worker, I want to discuss two areas of urban theology that I feel are significant for my working practice with the young people I meet with: the loss of the ‘sacred’ and the impact of adult media on them.

The village of Mauchline is currently believed to have a population of 4176 and is a textbook example of the effects urbanisation can have on a small village.  There is a real sense that the young people I work with are desperate to escape the village and never return.  They have dreams of attending colleges and universities far away from the sleepy village.  Some of them are drawn to the image they have of city life: vibrant, exciting and bustling.  However, not all of the young people feel that way.  Amongst the dreamers and the high achievers are the group who have no dreams or any real ambitions.  They are happy to live the life they see their parent(s) living:  a life on the dole with the only goal of being ‘wasted’ on a Friday and Saturday night.  These are the effects of urbanization that I see amongst the young people in Mauchline.

Joel Kotkin recommends that for a city to be sustainable it must be a safe place, a profitable place and a sacred place.  It is the third factor that seems to be missing from many cities today and the one that is most important.  These are the beliefs and practices that culminate in a shared identity.  These can be physical places but the idea is not limited to just that.  It is where people in the city share a connection with one another.  They are not just individual people: they are a collective. A community. A family.  The problem is that urbanization has fragmented that sacred place to the point where people do not feel connected to one another anymore.  The appetite for goods replaced the appetite for community.

But people, both young and old, are still looking for that sense of community.  But whereas the old and young previously found community together through family, now they find that togetherness in different places.  Some of the young people find this shared identity by hanging out in the park on a Friday and Saturday night getting drunk whilst others find it through joining social networking sites just as bebo or facebook.  The older generations in the village choose to join the bowls club or the Burns club and so the generations never meet interact in an informal way.  This creates an alienation between them.  In Mauchline there is very little interaction between teenagers and older people.  What is worse is a growing distrust and suspicion amongst them also.  The older people are scared on the groups of young people that hang around the streets and the younger people have no interest in getting to know the older people because they see them as irrelevant.

In the youth clubs that I help run at Mauchline Church, we are trying to combat that by having older leaders help out.  This creates dialogue between the different ages and both groups of people get to see what each other is really like.  As a church, we also publicize the positive things that the young people are doing in the community as this also helps to combat the negative view many older people have of young people.

I said earlier that many young people are now going online to find communities that they can join and this is one of the aspects of the internet.  But there are obviously negative aspects to that as well.  Because of globalisation, brought on partly by the web, young people have easy access to content that is unsuitable for their age and maturity.  In a recent channel four survey, 58% of all 14-17 year olds had viewed pornography.  I am aware that most of the eleven and twelve year old boys who attended our younger weekly youth club had porn on their mobiles and all of them had watched a number of 18 rated films that contained scenes of sex, violent and torture.

The debate between violent movies and young people is not new.  And as someone who watched many violent films as a child and played many violent games I can see both sides of the argument.  In the gospel of Mark, Jesus confronts a man who has been possessed by a demon(s) known as legion.  Recent scholarship of this gospel has suggested that the purpose of Mark’s writing is to bring a subversive message against the Roman Empire.  The theologian Richard Horsley goes even further and suggests that the gospel has nothing to do with theology or religion but is focused entirely on economics and politics.

By reading the gospel in this light, the name given to the demons, legion, has a significant purpose.  Palestine was an occupied country and Roman regiments of around six thousand men were known as a legion.  The atrocities and crimes that the legions committed were horrific.  It is likely this man would have witnessed their barbaric crimes first hand and this left him in a state of fear and shock, which led to his possession.

Now it is important to stress that not all young people who view context with scenes of strong violence or sex are affected to the degrees that this man was.  The main effect it had on me was to desensitize me to scenes of violence.  But for some it can spark a transformation.  And what urbanization and globalisation have done is made that potential spark more accessible than ever.  For the possessed man in the story, it left him fearful and isolated.  It made it impossible for him to connect with anyone on any level and the power of ‘death’ was literally all around him.

In a similar way, I have encountered young people who have also experienced a death through witnessing this type of content but that is a death of innocence.  An essence of their childhood has been lost because they have viewed images that they were not mature enough to process in a positive way and consequently, their views on certain issues have been distorted and corrupted.  As youth workers, we have a number of opportunities to help young people who have experienced or are currently experiencing this type of content and I will outline three of those opportunities below.

In the story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus spent time with the possessed man.  He reached out to him where others had ignored him or were afraid of him just like many older generations are of young people.  We cannot seek to understand and help young people if we do not get involved with them.  For young people, adolescence is defined as a period of “acute identity crisis and turmoil” because of the images and messages they are receiving and they need to feel that they are being listened to just like the possessed man with Jesus.  But whereas Jesus cured the man by exorcising the demons from him, Christian youth workers need to help young people through counsel, prayer and empowerment.

This is an area that if often difficult when working in the normal context of a youth club.  Because what we predominantly run in Mauchline is programme based work, we do not always give adequate time to enter into discussions with the young people to a level where we can explore the variety of issues that they are dealing with.  This is an area that definitely needs further investigation.

The second opportunity we have is based around the idea of the death of innocence that I alluded to earlier.  I believe that play and creativity are essential elements of what makes us human and are vital to the imago dei and that as Christian youth workers we should be creating space where young people get to act like young people.  In Mauchline I have introduced drama, dance and film workshops into our youth clubs so that young people can have that sense of play again.  We created a space where they do not have to deal with complex issues but are instead allowed to create.  Jesus brings life back to the possessed man and we too can resurrect what has been put to death.

In one commentary the possessed man is described as “deranged, unemployed, uncivilized, useless”, and this brings me on to the final opportunity we have as youth workers that I want to explore.  Although more of a consequence to globalisation than adult media, it is still true to say that adolescents have little or no place in western society.  By the world’s standards they are useless because they are not seen to be mature enough to have sex or hold down a proper job.  They are also given minimal amounts of responsibility and power and this is what we are trying to combat with our youth work by giving them as much ownership of the youth club that we can.  This is their club and with that privilege comes rights and responsibilities.  Through this we hope to demonstrate that as a church, we think they are important and have immense worth.

Urbanisation will continue to develop, as will globalisation, and as Christian youth workers we have the opportunity to speak against the corrupt and unjust structures of this new ‘empire’ that we find ourselves in the shadow of and partner with the young people to create a brighter future.

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