Have you ever felt left out, forgotten or unwanted? Maybe when you were in primary school, someone in your class had a party and didn’t invite you. In adulthood, anxieties about social inclusion and belonging endure. Perhaps because of relational distance or breakdown you’re not as close to your family anymore. Finding yourself excluded or alone, your heart sinks and you think: “why not me?” Sometimes we can feel like we just don’t belong anywhere. That’s when it’s important to remember this awesome truth: we all belong to God’s family, and our heavenly Father will never forget us! That’s a profound promise whatever stage of life you’re at.
With the vulnerable young people that we all work with, they particularly yearn for a place that they know their identity and they know that they belong somewhere. A lot of young people do look for a place to belong on online, frequently social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. While these provide great opportunity for connection, they also brings with them risks for young people. They can open up involvement with gangs or unhealthy relationships, while even healthy friendships on social media can be made fragile or impersonal through increasingly non-physical interaction.
To help young people explore these themes of belonging and identity, we created Unfiltered: a 6-week photography project which guides young people to explore the themes around Identity and Belonging. The course is part of our local team work in Luton. Each week the young people will get tips, advice, and hands-on experience with different elements of photography, such as lighting, background, and focus.
They learn how to use a camera well, what makes a quality shot, how to frame the environment etc. Each of these components correspond to a different reflective theme explored in a ‘snapshot’ session, where they move from studying the technical to exploring the personal, thinking in-depth about themes like courage, communication and identity.
Our snapshot sessions cover, for example: On & Off Stage (Own your own Story), Focus (What do you want to share?) and Capture (Relationships and Connecting). A young person who joined us for Unfiltered fed back saying: “Ever since the course I have felt more confident about myself, like don’t be scared to hide things from others that I need to say out loud. Being more careful with what I say online.” This is why we do youth work right? To help young people gain knowledge in areas to help them love themselves as they are.
During our last week, we present the photos they have taken during a gallery evening. This allows the young people to show others their creativity and share with them the journey they have been on. We created the course to be aimed at but not exclusive to vulnerable young people. That could mean those in care, or those who are refugees. It might also mean those at risk of CSE (Child Sexual Exploitation), or involvement in gangs.
I’m reminded that the Bible says that all the people in the world who love Jesus make up one big family called the Body of Christ. But many young people feel that they don’t have a place they belong. They might seek that belonging from a healthy environment, or from somewhere that causes risky behaviours and puts them in danger. What are the chances they find the Church as their place of belonging? Sometimes for young people, poorly expressed teachings about, for example, sex and relationships, can create a culture of shame that encourages exclusion. Young people may feel that, because of their past, they could never be welcome in a church. Are you creating places in your youth work setting where people from all backgrounds feel like they belong?
It’s clear that Christians can offer a profound hope in a culture of loneliness, but it’s one that many young people still know nothing about. It’s vital that young people are able to find communities where they can flourish and belong; the current climate gives youth workers a great challenge, but a great opportunity too.