Like unwanted Ice Age sequels, Covid variants just keep on coming. We had all hoped – and probably imagined – that by now, the dreaded virus would finally be on its way out, leaving us in peace to enjoy Christmas and look forward to 2022. Yet the emergence of the Omicron variant is just one reason for a prevailing sense of concern about the continuation of the pandemic. So as youth leaders, exhausted from navigating almost two years of gear changes and restrictions, how worried should we be, and how on earth do we make plans for the year ahead? Here are just a few thoughts:
Calm down, it's just a Greek letter
Granted, it might sound like an intergalactic warlord who has come to fight the Avengers, but we actually still don't know too much about the Omicron variant. Journalists and social media influencers have unhelpfully speculated about its possible properties, leading to concerns that it might be more deadly, faster-spreading and crucially, vaccine-evading. In fact, nowhere near enough is known about the variant yet to substantiate any of these claims. All of the major vaccine manufacturers are already working to modify their jabs to counter-punch the mutation in the virus, and even if there's a slight reduction in the effectiveness of those we've already received, it's very unlikely that they won't work at all. Simply put: Omicron is concerning, but at the moment it's more a media scare than a dreaded new resurgence.
Immunity among young people is growing
Either because of vaccine uptake (more than a million 12-15-year-olds have now been jabbed), or because they've recently had the virus, we know that many more teenagers than ever are now carrying a degree of immunity. Restrictions are still important, but it's unlikely that Covid will continue to spread like wildfire in schools, as seemed to happen earlier this year. This should give us reason for hope.
Young people need places of stability and belonging
As they continue to process the disruption and tragedy of the last 21 months, young people – perhaps more than ever – need safe places in their lives where they're able to relax, be themselves, and feel loved, supported and listened to. It would be ideal if the family home provided this, yet sadly for many young people this just isn't the case. Churches and youth groups are probably the next best-placed to provide places of stability and belonging for teenagers, and alongside discipleship (see next point), creating a sense of community has to be our main focus as we emerge from pandemic. The NYA have recently issued updated guidance which suggests a slight increase in overall ‘readiness’, but includes a stipulation that face masks should be worn by all people aged 11+ involved in indoor youth activities. If – and it's still an if – Omicron leads to an increase in cases and restrictions, we must continue to prioritise community-building, in order that young people feel that they are known, cared about, and missed when they're not there.
Discipleship doesn't happen by accident
For me, one of the big lessons of the 'lockdown' period of youth work in 2020 was that, when left mainly to their own devices, young people don't seem to disciple themselves. Shocking, right? Yet at the same time – and perhaps even more now than before – young people seem to be hungry for a genuine connection with God. They actually need us to help them to build that, and so it's far more important that we prioritise time to connect with Jesus – through worship, prayer, relevant Bible teaching and more – than forced moments of fun. In fact 'fun' comes a long way down the list of things that young people need from us right now. So as much as we might want and need to prioritise rebuilding community (see previous point), we can't let that over-run or overrule the joint need to rebuild faith. The two work in tandem, and if restrictions were to increase substantially again, neither can be left behind.
Next summer is a vital moment for youth ministry
Of course he would say that, wouldn't he? Yes – full disclosure: I'm leading the team pulling together the Satellites youth event in August 2022. But if we didn't think that it was absolutely vital that large-scale events like this went ahead, we'd have given up on that endeavour a long time ago. Prioritising a residential or trip in the summer – whether that's to Satellites or any of the host of other great options – brings together the two previous threads in a profound way; spending several days as a group focussing on Jesus will both cultivate community and catalyse discipleship. It also gives your whole group something to plan and look forward to. We're now in danger of getting 'out of the habit' of the summer event rhythm, and given how transformational festivals like Soul Survivor have been for an entire generation, that's a very worrying thought indeed.
Omicron may create more complexities and hurdles for youth ministry to overcome. Yet we must not fear it; instead we have to trust God, and remain mindful of some of the big lessons of this troubled decade so far. Whatever we plan, and however much we might need to pivot, we have to make sure we're inviting young people to belong in communities that know them, love them, and place Jesus at the centre.