An Interweaving Ecclesiology: the church, mission and young people
by Mark Scanlan
Scanlan starts from the observation that contemporary ecclesiological questions arising from the Fresh Expressions (FXC) movement and the wider ‘mixed economy / ecology’ have long been posed by the existence of Christian youth groups. Yet youth work has developed with little reference to these wider theological debates.
Scanlan aims to apply theological rigour to youth work, as well as asking what the church might learn from its tacit or ‘operant’ ecclesiology. He approaches the question by looking at Urban Saints (formerly Crusaders) and in particular at two case studies.
Scanlan prepares the ground with a sociologically informed evaluation of ‘Generation Z’. Challenging the concept of a separate ‘youth culture’, he suggests the church should respect young people as ‘cultural interpreters’, with their own experience of the world we all live in, and a strong sense of social justice. He particularly highlights the importance of subjective meaning and personal authenticity as sources of credibility for younger generations.
For me this was the strongest part of the book and the most relevant to a preacher. It rings true to my experience in student ministry; the preacher cannot rely on the authority of scripture, tradition, or their own status, but earns the right to be heard by speaking from personal experience. At the same time, what young people most value is the opportunity to ask questions and to discuss. This is a challenge for all conventional preaching!
The book moves on to summarise the history of youth work in the UK. This is an interesting section, highlighting how youth work has its own culture and tradition, informed initially by overseas missionary work, and developing outside denominational boundaries.
The case studies give rise to some intriguing observations. For instance, the youth groups tended to self-define adamantly as ‘not church’, yet the same activities with some of the same people counted as ‘church’ if they took place on Sunday morning! Overall though I found this the weakest part, offering little new. For instance, a key observation is that these activities may function as ‘church’ for some members but have a different value for others. It occurred to me that the same can be said of Choral Evensong!
Scanlan presents his ‘interweaving’ ecclesiology as being in contrast to that of FXC because the latter seeks the status of ‘mature’ church for all its congregations. The youth group by contrast may be said to have ‘ecclesiality’ or be an ‘ecclesial space’ without claiming to be fully ‘church’. Coming from a very different theological background, I was sometimes surprised by the nuances of what comes across as an intra-evangelical debate. Most strikingly, the sacraments don’t make an appearance until more than two hundred pages in, and even then are treated in a somewhat metaphorical way. Church seems to be defined more as a type of activity than as a community.
While there is little here concerning the content of preaching, some significant questions are raised about its form and style - not only the importance of speaking from experience particularly where there are young people, but how we imagine those to whom we will be preaching as we prepare.
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