In "The Faith of Generation Y", the authors draw on in-depth qualitative research with teenagers, both those with a church background and those whose only contact with any kind of church is a youth club happening in a church.
From this, they draw conclusions about what faith, if any, young people today actually have, and also what effect the youth work is having on them.
Finally, there are chapters which draw on the research to think ecclesiologically: what is a church; in what sense is the Wednesday youth group part of the church; what can be done to create a real meaningful engagement with the body of Christ amongst youth reached through youth work?
It seems to me there are two big ideas at work here: the first is this: young people today view Christianity with "benign indifference". This is crucially important because those in leadership roles are more often fixated on issues of: if I teach a Christian lesson, will I be brainwashing them? How can I impart my views without imposing?
The answer seems to be: "Don't worry: the greater risk is that whatever you say, will be water off a duck's back."
The youth in the survey if anything wanted more conventional Christian teaching in their youth groups, and didn't feel that they would be being brainwashed if it happened. It would be tend to be regarded with a benign curiosity, at best.
To get to the book's full thesis, you need to start by viewing Christian youth work as divided into two different strands. One is there to present young people with the claims of Jesus Christ and they take it (or leave it). Evangelistic, old school: Scripture Union camps etc.
The second is there to meet young people where they are, hear the issues they have, and gently challenge them, showing such love that it may lead to a potential faith, once they hear what Christ has to say about the issues they are facing.
This second "informally educative" approach is what's brought into question here (though by people who are fundamentally sympathetic to this style of youth work). Basically, the authors say that Christian youth workers have been so effective at 'getting down to the kids' issues' and not patronising them, that the young people have just felt validated in believing whatever they believed in the first place. The idea that eventually the young people would ask, "Well, what motivates this person to give up their time voluntarily/ for a really low wage, just to spend time with me?" (and this lead on to a question of faith) has proved misguided. They just don't get that far.
What comes through is that young people can go through many years of engaging with a youth club without ever thinking that Jesus Christ has something directly to do with them. And why should they, given that youth workers have generally shied away from pushing the big questions towards them? (Perhaps we have lost our confidence to do so: certainly, this rang a bell with me.) In this way, Christian youth work has not been sufficiently distinctively Christian, if that makes sense.
The result of not telling the Christian story enough is that young people have their own pick and mix faith. Perhaps they pray a bit when they're alone and they need help; perhaps they have a view of karma: you get what you deserve; perhaps they have an idea of a guardian angel... there's no real coherent Christian story.
The second big idea is that the one area in which they really do engage is when it comes to ethics. How should they live a good life, in all its forms? This is a question which genuinely lights a fire.
There is a suggestion that we've been chasing up a wrong alley with the whole "spirituality rather than religion" thesis, on which for example "Mission Shaped Church" draws heavily. They aren't interested in being spiritual. So all the soft, fluffy spirituality stuff doesn't really fly with them.
But they DO want to think about whether they should fight back if someone starts on them: that kind of thing. The authors ask, 'Is ethics the new spirituality?'
Again, this rang a lot of bells with me.
Finally, the authors reflect theologically.
What they come up with is that the young people need to be given a greater share in the great, Christian story. They need to be understand death and resurrection through the lens of Jesus' life on earth, and what it might mean to them. A traditionalist might interpret this as meaning, "what they need is some proper church," and feel that they had been saying this all along. To some extent, the authors would go along with it.
It seems to me that this conclusion, drawing on Hauerwas, leads them back into quite an old-fashioned vision of the crucial connection with mainstream parish church life. i.e. contra Mission Shaped Church, a youth group that meets on Wednesday and has no connection with what happens on Sunday is not a church at all, or rather is a desperately pallid version of it, that won't stand up to the vicissitudes of real life.
This is perhaps what leads Chris Cocksworth into a rather eccentric "Theological epilogue" which ends up as a hymn to the eucharist. (The eucharist being the sign of authentic church.) That's all very well, but begs a whole lot of questions, such as: if the eucharist is where it's at, then why does that never feature in youth clubs? And even with youth in 'traditional' churches, there's the "have they been confirmed or not?" question, which leads to the "have they been admitted to communion" or not question? Should we be placing more emphasis on bringing young people into literal communion with the Church? How can we do this with integrity unless the young people believe in it?
(Arguably, which leads you back to old-style evangelistic camps? But can these be done without Scripture Union style conservatism? Yes, but it only happens rarely.)
All in all, a strong and worthwhile piece of work, definitely for anyone in Christian ministry with an element of youth work in it, but coming off the back of it, there's no clear blueprint for success. We just keep soldiering on, I guess.