We have some exciting stuff to share with you in the upcoming weeks as we finish writing up our Translating God research and in November we’re heading off to the National Youth Ministry Weekend with the rest of the Youthscape Team for ‘Into God Knows What!’ It will be of no surprise to those of us who work with young people to know that, much like us adults, they are swimming in a sea of uncertainty when it comes to thinking about the future. The media consistently remind us that we are in a state of economic instability, climate emergency, fragile global politics and in case you’d forgotten, AI has the potential to destroy us all! In many senses the future seems profoundly unsafe but what does it actually feel and look like to be a young person in the 2020s?
How do they feel about the future?
Well thankfully, there are still some young people who feel positive about their futures. A recent BBC Survey found that two-thirds of the 2000 13-18 year-olds surveyed said they felt positive about the future. i However, in contrast, according to a Prince’s Trust survey this year, 70’% of 16-24-year-olds were anxious about their futures. ii Nine in ten (89%) young people say ‘having enough money to cover basic needs’ is now an aspiration in life, over ‘achieving their dream job’ and ‘buying a house’ iii and research from 2021 suggests that whilst young people feel guilt and individual responsibility for tackling climate change they also feel a lack of agency which is leading to anxiety. iv 49% of young people in the UK were very or extremely worried about climate change with 28% reporting their anxiety negatively impacts on their daily life and functioning.
What about their day-to-day?
When we dig deeper into the safety of young people’s day-to-day lives we find some worrying statistics:
- In 2023 four in ten girls (44%) and one in four boys (24%) feel unsafe on the streets, and social media content is contributing to that sense of feeling threatened v
- 47% of 16-21-year-olds said they expected sex to involve physical aggression vi & 50% of young people who had seen pornography had first viewed by age 13 vii
- Sexual minority young people experienced lower levels of social support and were four times more likely to self-report poor health during the pandemic1 compared with their heterosexual peers. They were also more likely to report severe psychological distress (30% compared with 14% heterosexual) and clinically significant anxiety symptoms (36% compared with 22%).
- Overall crime rates for young people have decreased. However there has been a rise in knife crime, specifically. viii The vast majority of these offences are related to possession rather than threatening behaviour, which suggests young people are becoming more scared rather than more violent. This does appear to conflict with data showing that young people are generally becoming less worried about being a victim of crime. ix However, knife crime may be more localised to specific areas rather than being a widespread risk for young people across the UK.
- Compared to previous generations there is a fluidity experienced by young people with respect to identity, values and beliefs. However, this isn’t creating the tolerant culture we perhaps might expect and racist and sexist bullying has risen in recent years. x
Churches as safe spaces for young people
Sometimes, perhaps too often if we’re honest, our response to a decline in numbers of young people attending church, is to try to make our churches and youth groups more relevant. For those of us over a certain age and/or in small churches with ever decreasing or non-existent budgets that becomes an impossible task! But what if we think more about safety rather than relevance? The Church, at its core, is about relationships; fellowship, communion with Christ and with others, or to go back to the biblical Greek ‘koinonia’. Koinonia means to share in and to partner with Christ and each other; it’s intimate, it’s divine and it’s safe. We don’t choose meaningful relationships on the basis of their relevance; we choose them because they make us feel safe and able to thrive. Koinonia is the lifeboat in our sea of uncertainty.
In youth ministry we talk a lot about creating safe spaces and providing safe relationships for the young people in our care. We instinctively know our youth groups thrive when young people feel safe and thanks to all you wonderful youth workers there are countless young people experiencing this across the country. But what about in the wider church community? Sadly it’s not news that sometimes churches aren’t a safe space for young people. As they explore issues of gender identity, face mental health challenges or articulate their anxieties, it’s easy to see their thirst for justice and equality just as passionate youthful energy.
But maybe it’s really a cry for safety? What if when they lament the lack of institutional action on climate change young people are actually saying they want their future to feel safe? What assurance can we, the Church, give that we take them and their anxieties seriously enough for them to feel safe in our church communities? Maybe when we pay proper attention to what might help young people feel safer in our churches, not just in our youth groups, then the holy grail of relevance will become a natural by-product?