This article is based on a presentation given to the FURY Assembly (United Reformed Youth Group) in January 2008 by Dave Wiles and is mostly extracted from Young People as Prophets by Bishop Roger Sainsbury, Richard Bromley and Dave Wiles (available from FYT on www.fyt.org.uk or 0121 687 3505.
This article argues that young people who are on the edge of church and society, when listened to, represent a significant element of what God is trying to say to us today. I explore the characteristics of prophetic voices from the edge in order to present a way of testing ‘prophecy’ as a way of helping us to discern how God may be speaking.
In the book, Young People as Prophets I provide ideas about how to remain open to prophetic voices at the edge, on the basis that I believe the voice of those who are marginalised is often the still small voice that would whisper the radical outlook of a Kingdom that can turn us, individually and institutionally, upside down!
Learning to listen to those at the edge
I was frantic, Hannah was only 3, but she had managed to lock the changing room door on the inside whilst I was outside at the lockers in our local swimming pool, she was now crying … loudly!
“Don’t bother me now Daniel, can’t you see that Hannah is locked in the changing rooms”!
Daniel, my 6-year-old, chose this moment to badger me. He was always an articulate youngster and now was just not the time for it! What was wrong with the swimming pool designer? Why on earth didn’t they install those locks that allowed you to open them from the outside with a coin? – not that I had one as I stood shivering in my swimming trunks with my trousers still locked inside! There was no one around and it seemed that I either faced the ultimate embarrassment of returning to the entrance lobby in my swimming trunks to explain my plight or I had to bash the door down. I had tried talking calmly through the door to Hannah to explain how the lock worked. However she couldn’t manage it and by now she had reached fever pitch – and still Daniel was tapping my leg to speak! In exasperation I turned to him,
“What on earth do you want now”!
My angry tone led to his somewhat hesitant reply,
“Dad, shall I squeeze under the door and let Hannah out”?
Very humbled, I asked him if he would mind doing that for me and he did so. In a matter of moments Hannah was free and I learned yet another lesson in the university of Life: listen to children and young people. They may just have the answer!
For the past 30 years I have tried to involve young people effectively in my life and my youth work practice. Initially I suspect that I did this out of a sense of patronising benevolence. However, with professional training and an increasingly elaborate theological repertoire, my motives were transformed to those of rights, good professional practice and liberation.
Now, though, I am not so sure. Like much of my professional and spiritual journey I continue to discover that I know a little, there’s a lot I don’t know, and there is much more that I don’t know that I don’t know! These days I rather suspect that I actually need young people’s views for my own good. I need their perspective, I need their opinions, and I need their ideas.
Of course this may not sound like they are to be given the status of ‘prophet’. However, in the absence of any clear sense of the voice of the prophet in today’s church (that I have discerned with any degree of confidence), perhaps their voice should be heeded?
First and foremost, I believe that, as a youth worker, I need their involvement in my life at a personal and professional level to prevent any radical edge that I may have from becoming the new orthodoxy. Richard Rohr articulates this need by exploring the phenomenon of ‘liminality’, which he describes as a kind of threshold in our experience, a time when we are in transition, when we are in active development, when control has gone and we are ready for the next chapter and he offers the salutary warning that,
“Nothing fresh or creative will normally happen when we are inside our self-constructed comfort zones, only more of the same. Nothing original emerges from business as usual. It seems we need some antistructure to give direction, depth, and purpose to our regular structure. Otherwise structure, which is needed in the first half of life, tends to become a prison as we grow older“[i] (p 135).
What I have discovered is that God is very often present in the voices of young people and especially those who are on the outside of the ‘success story’ of main stream society and church. This provides an example of one of the characteristics of the prophetic voice. It is a voice that challenges me to go beyond my comfort zone. It affirms that faith is spelt RISK and it tells me that I have not arrived but remain on a journey.
Secondly, we have a corporate need to listen to the voices of young people from the edge if we want our churches, projects and youth ministries to be inspired, directed, rooted and shaped by the will of God. Peter reminded the bystanders and the emerging church in Jerusalem that the prophet Joel had said,
“Your young men will see visions and your old men will have dreams” (Acts 2: 17)
This verse provides us with an excellent model for the development, governance and delivery of youth ministry, projects and indeed for the church itself – a system of decision-making that is rooted in the dreams of the old (the reflections on what has occurred in the past), and that is in dynamic tension/relationship with the vision of the young (what might be possible in the future). The challenge we face is to develop systems, processes and attitudes within our many differing manifestations of organisation that will share power and remain open to the vision that young people bring.
Key characteristics of the prophetic voice
The book expands on the following ideas about the characteristics of the prophetic voice of young people at the edge and offers them as sign posts in recognizing the voice of God.
Voices that says it like it is…
A characteristic of the prophetic voice is its immunity from dominant and compromised world view; it speaks the truth with admirable purity, simplicity and candour. One Frontier Youth Trust worker spoke to a group of young people about how God might address the church of today and this is what they said:
“…make it real, being there isn’t enough, get visible…
…more relevant, be confident, take risks…
…do action stuff, not just talking…
…show you care; don’t judge us; it’s hard, messy for us…
…stop pretending; be alive; show more grace; don’t be hypocrites…
…love everyone, cos I do…
…say hello to young people when they walk in…”[ii]
Voices that are counter-culture…
One of the unique perspectives that young people who are marginalised have is that of being oppressed, of suffering, of powerlessness and of being counter-culture. Very often this is by the very nature of their experience. Is it too much to suggest that perhaps the voice of God is more likely to be heard in these circumstances.
I hasten to add that this is no more an argument for keeping young people excluded than was Christ’s statement that we would always have the poor an argument for the maintenance of poverty! But what I do want to suggest is that when I am amongst young people who have been systematically let down and oppressed I seem to hear God more clearly.
Is it beyond reason to add to Matthew 25: 39 “…When, Lord, did we ever see you ignored and listen to you?…” Is it possible that echoes of God might be heard in the voices of New Age Travellers, in young refugees, in environmental protesters, through gay young people who have been shunned by so many people? What is it that God might want us to know from these groups? How do we go about engaging with them and listening?
Voices that are reticent, tentative, fragile and may not believe in themselves…
One of the characteristics of prophecy that I have observed in charismatic and evangelical circles is the fervour, intensity, certainty and powerfully vocal way in which they are often delivered. This provides a stark contrast to the voices of many of the marginalised young people that I meet.
Voices that are largely ignored
Perhaps one ‘quiet quote’ illustrates this well, “Why can’t the money spent on CCTV be used to give kids something to do?”[iii]
I hope this brief article has whet your appetite enough to buy the book – however more importantly I hope it has challenged you to listen to the voices of those that are too often ignored!
Dave Wiles is Chief Executive of the Frontier Youth Trust.
[i] Adam’s Return – The Five Promises of Male Initiation (2004), Rohr, Richard, The Crossroad Publishing Company
[ii] Chris White, Winter (2005), FYT Scotland, Frontier Youth Trust News
[iii] “The Kids Aren’t All Right”, young person quoted in Observer Mag. Dec 04