Helping Young People Develop a Faith that Endures
I grew up in a town called Bexhill. It’s in East Sussex, between Hastings and Eastbourne. Bexhill is a green town – lots of tree-lined avenues, parks and, just next to the school, a large wooded area called the Downs. Then, in 1987 a storm flattened many of the trees, and more were cut down to limit the spread of Dutch Elm Disease. Fortunately, the response was to plant new ones; and saplings sprang up all over the place, each supported by a stake.
What was odd was the length of these stakes. The saplings were usually four or five feet tall; the stakes, less than three, with the binding just a couple of feet above the ground. It left me wondering what the point was – if you want to support something tall, you hold it near the top, right? No-one supports a ladder by lying on the floor and gripping the bottom rung. So why fit such short supports to all those trees?
It turns out that the answer is about looking to the future. Support a tree high up and you keep it safe for as long as the support is in place. But when you eventually take the support away, you’re left with a tree that’s never had to stand up for itself. It has no strength and no capacity to bend without breaking. It might look good, but it’s fragile and likely to fall.
On the other hand, a low support gives the tree enough protection to establish its roots, but also allows it to bend in the wind, and then to bounce back of its own accord. In facing such challenges, the tree grows stronger. When the support is finally removed, it will endure.
Why does this matter to us? Ultimately we can’t make anyone grow in their faith. Nor can we ensure that their faith will endure. But we can give them the best possible opportunity to become strong, well rooted in God and equipped to overcome the challenges life will throw at them.
A while ago, one of my young people came to me for a chat. Joe had become a Christian through Alpha, two years previously. Now, in the midst of preparing for his final A level exams, he was having a crisis of faith. Like a trail of toppling dominoes, a doubt that the resurrection was a real event had led to the conclusion that his faith had been built on very insecure foundations.
As he explained this to me across the table, I was gearing up into full apologetic mode: ready to take him point by point through why his doubts were wrong and how the evidence stacked up in Jesus’ favour. And then, surprisingly, I didn’t. Instead, I asked Joe to do it. I sent him off to write an essay explaining why the resurrection wasn’t true. The only condition was that it had to be properly researched and referenced, with arguments from both sides.
It’s important to point out here that I know Joe pretty well – he was part of a group that met in my home every week to study the Bible. This particular group had a real thing for full on-study – we’d be breaking open commentaries, tracing words back through the Bible and making connections to other passages. We really wanted to understand what God had to say, and why he said it in the way he did. Knowing that gave me confidence Joe would take this task seriously.
In the end, he never wrote the essay. Reading the books, working through the arguments and studying the theories was enough for him to reach the conclusion that there was no better explanation for the facts than the one given in the Bible: Jesus really had risen from the dead.
Did Joe discover anything that I couldn’t have told him three weeks previously? I don’t think so. But if I’d simply told him the answer then and there, it would have been me doing the work, rather than him. It would have been my faith journey, not his. If Joe’s understanding of the resurrection was built on memorising my theology and recycling it under pressure, then it’s merely the equivalent of reciting the times tables or the alphabet – a useful tool, but not the basis of a secure faith. One day, Joe will get challenged on his belief that Jesus rose from the dead. If he can answer from his own knowledge, giving a considered and tested belief that it really is true, then he has an answer worth giving.
As youth workers, we are called to support the young people in our care. Sometimes that means teaching them (or finding others that can). Sometimes it means correcting them. Sometimes it means encouraging them, both in their successes and when they fall short. But it always means giving them space to grow: presenting them with challenges and stretching them a little further than they thought they could go. Because if we don’t, we’ll end up with young people whose faith is as brittle as an over-protected tree: good-looking on the surface, but with weak roots and likely to topple the moment it’s left without support.
But if we get it right, supporting our young people as they grow into everything they are capable of, we might find ourselves nurturing a generation whose faith runs deeper, reaches further and stretches higher than our own. And that would be brilliant.
– Dave Poulson
Dave grew up in Sussex, but has lived in the south west for more than 20 years, and has been a youth worker for even longer than that. He’s currently on the team at Credition Congregational Church, lectures for SWYM and teaches at Queen Elizabeth’s School. Dave is married to Abbey, and they share the ambition to eventually stand on top of every tor on Dartmoor.