Youth Group as a Sacred Space

written on 14 June 2021 by Deli Macro-Nottage

Art by Benjamin Hollway

Trigger Warning: This piece talks about abuse and trauma. Although there is no graphic description of events, please read cautiously.

I have a friend who lived with complex trauma as a child, the trauma was caused by male violence towards women in her family. All her life she struggled to feel safe around men, her fight response was always on overdrive around them, and understandably so. We were once discussing how we were as teenagers and she told me about a Christian youth group she used to go to as a teenager. She said she would actively attend to cause problems for them, but was always surprised that she never got banned. Every week she would go and there was a sense that her trauma was not too much for them; she kept going for years despite being an atheist. The never giving up love and care she received in this time gave her the first experience that the narrative of her trauma was 1 not too much for an eternally loving Divine and 2 that her experience of God working through the youth workers gave her value beyond what she was able to place in herself. She told me that the youth group plus one other school teacher were the only environments she had been in where she felt safe around men.

When I hit adolescence I had deliberately distanced myself from all meaningful connections. I lived with a lot of uncertainty and therefore came to the conclusion that it’s better to detach, it hurt less, or I thought it did. My first experience of church youth work was one of purity culture: being a good Christian was how you became acceptable not just to God but to the church. It was a standard I obviously did not meet. My second experience of youth work I walked in and made an inappropriate joke within minutes. They smiled awkwardly but I was not told off, week after week they talked about grace. Their love and care towards me brought a counter to my previous experience. God was not waiting to tell me all the things about me that were wrong, but gave me a place of belonging.

Although only one of these experiences lead to crossing a line of Christian faith, both gave an experience of God, countered previous experiences, and changed the lives of the young people involved.

At the age of about 12-25 the brain starts to rewire itself, during this time what we call “internal working models” become more fixed, and our ability to process emotions re-develops. The input we have during this time is critical as it affects how we learn to access the safety of the world around us; often referred to as resilience. People are vulnerable to adversity at any time in their life. However, adversity during adolescence has a significant effect on a person's outcomes later in life. We know that young people who experience childhood adversity are more likely to have poor mental and physical health and suffer higher rates of poverty and other negative outcomes. Although we may not always be able to stop or prevent adversity we are able to provide protective factors. Protective factors have a countering effect on childhood adversity. The following are some examples of adversity and protective factors working alongside. A child who has had a parent pass away suddenly may have a protective factor in the stability and understanding of a teacher from school. A young person who has a parent who suffers from addiction may have a grandparent who plays an active role in encouraging and building up the young person. Although these examples do not eradicate all the negative effects of adversity, they positively influence a young person's internal working model and lessens the effects they may experience later in life.

Churches have an opportunity to be a protective factor for all young people. Just as knowing Jesus does not exempt us from trauma, knowing Jesus gives us hope and security, knowing we are loved and belong. It enables us to take our trauma narrative beyond despair and brings us into a loving community. When trauma hits, the first thing our brains do is cut the ability to verbally vocalise what is going on, what we think, feel, etc. A loving church community has an opportunity to be able to hold this and help people experiencing trauma voice and process what has happened and what happens next.

What could this look like in churches? Firstly it is allowing the young people to be known. Knowing it is not always about the full details; so and so has blue hair, listens to rock music, and likes anime. Being known is steeped in acceptance, it's a full sense of safety. In regards to trauma being known and safe means that the church does all it can to reduce the risk of re-traumatising people. God knows us, it’s a sense of I can say what I really feel here and my seat is secure. Secondly, its autonomy, when people are valued their voice is actively requested. The best leaders I’ve known have always asked people their opinions, before taking any actions. Purely in terms of engaging young people, it’s a lot easier if they maintain choice. Being known and having choice echoes what Jesus shows us in his ministry.

We must see our youth groups as sacred spaces. Healthy youth groups are not judged by the number of young people attending, rather the safety, affirmation, and encouragement of critical thinking. There is a tendency in evangelical youth groups to really focus on particular outcomes. Saying a prayer to accept Jesus, not having sex before marriage, aspiring to lead their own ministries. I am suggesting we put those things to one side, two young people with the ability to think critically about spirituality and the church is much better than 10 who are good at doing “the right things”. Those are the young people who will be equipped for the reality of the world, knowing Jesus in trauma and pain. To seek the deepest understanding and be able to revel in the mystery. Those skills have the ability to see the Kingdom.