Three Rs of investment are resource, risk and return. What happens if we consider a theology of investing in young people in these three areas?
All investment needs resource. You invest in your career through the time and effort of study, or in the stock market by buying shares. If the early Christian theologian Tertullian is right and Christians are made, not born, then they need investment. The Old Testament book of Proverbs encourages us to ‘start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.’
So, in a Christian context, are we expending sufficient resources on helping our young people grow in faith? Is Sunday School teaching (or its contemporary equivalent) given enough prominence? Is the national Church spending enough (on staff and other resources) to support children and young people’s developing in faith and life?
More broadly, are we investing enough in young people when we require them to take loans for their keep whilst studying, or – worse still – if we were to charge significant sums for tertiary education? That would seem to be asking young people to invest in themselves, while society refrains from investing all that much in them.
Not all investments work out well: the job you trained for may not appear (or may, too soon, disappear); the shares you bought may drop like a stone in value. A strategy to counter risk is spread: invest in lots of things to reduce your loss if any one of them performs poorly. Variety is the spice of a rich life. Why not spread faith work, and include those who are younger?
The Joseph story might help here. Joseph was probably fairly young when he was imprisoned and only a little older when his dream interpretations became known to Pharaoh. Yet the national famine prevention strategy (invest now and save for later) is spearheaded by this relative youth likely promoted beyond his years. Jesus was probably only around thirty when he commenced his public ministry.
Bernini, Martyrdom of St Lawrence
Are we, in church and society, too conservative in entrusting vision to young people? Bernini sculpted the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence when he was around fifteen years old; whilst he had prodigious talent, he also had a surrounding culture encouraging and enabling him. Michelangelo sculpted David when he was twenty-six. It’s hard to qualify as a professional in any field before one’s mid-twenties, yet Mark Zuckerberg was just shy of twenty when he, and college dorm mates, created Facebook.
Are we giving our sixteen year-olds at least a chance to preach? Are those in first year at high school leading prayers in services? Where are the teenage elders? It is legal to have them, you know. Are we expecting our young people to take up these sorts of roles, not as a token contribution but as part of the fabric of our congregations? That would shake things up.
Maybe that’s the thing: new technologies offer more opportunities to younger people; traditional ways demand time. And so, as a national and still traditional Church, we often form our young people into images of our older selves. The main church-focused gathering for young people is the National Youth Assembly – it bears some similarities to the seniors’ event.
The Gospel, variously understood, is disruptive: it is about energising life, liberating good news, turning things on their heads. Do we domesticate it, and hinder our young people, through failing to allow them to dream, experiment and live out a counter-cultural Christ-centred life?
No-one invests without anticipating a return. In church, we might have expected to see more young people than we do at least involved in service, or worship services, ‘involving and retaining young people in the congregational community, [and] helping them develop a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ.’ (Churches Growing Young Project, Fuller Seminary). Young people across Scotland are, though, doing this, in considerable numbers, and probably in ways quite different from those of previous generations. However, they’re doing it less in Church of Scotland congregations than we would wish.
A helpful theological approach might be to read the parable of the sower imaginatively. We don’t know what kind of seed the sower threw about; and it doesn’t matter. It’s the growth and the flowering and the fruitfulness which matter most. The type of fruit grown might not be your thing or mine; but if it’s fruit, then we need to rejoice at the harvest. We shouldn’t recognise spiritual return only in the terms set by previous generations. If we did that, we might be blind to the new things that are happening.
In society more broadly isn’t there a place for the type of greater creative freedom encouraged by, for example, Sir Ken Robinson. Maybe our returns seem small in part because we’re looking for the wrong things. What would the right ones be for you, for us, and for society at large? How might thinking along the lines of return help us to invest better in young people across a number of fronts?
If we trust in a God of new things we automatically challenge ourselves to be a people on the lookout for novelty, willing to embrace it and committed to help grow those things which lie beyond our direct experience. We will also need to call these new things to account for their truth and vitality: we are not saying that anything goes.
But a theological perspective on investing in young people surely suggests that some things need to go – the old, outdated and worn out ones, even if their familiarity makes them comfortable – to allow the new things of God’s present action in the world to emerge.
Those in the know, Jesus says, put new wine in new wineskins.