Steve Collins: Small Fire

May 2002
Alternative worship is not about youth
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ALTERNATIVE WORSHIP IS NOT about youth. This needs to be said, out loud and often until the message sinks in. Alternative worship is made, almost everywhere, for adults and by adults. Can it be for teenagers? Of course. But that's not the point of the exercise.

Alternative worship is not yet another variation of "youth church", and it is not about making Christianity attractive to teens until they grow into "real" church. As the church wakes up to cultural change, as more and more youth leaders visit our services for ideas, this fact needs stating, over and over again.

The church's understanding of what's happening is confused by the way we all talk about "youth culture". The usual forms of alternative worship clearly use many aspects of youth culture. But the thing we still call youth culture is no longer just for the young.

It was a youth culture when it began with the first teenagers back in the 1950s. Now it is the culture of the middle-aged. Everyone under 45 has grown up entirely inside it. It is not a thing you grow out of anymore. There is nowhere to grow out to, even if you wanted to.

What is really going on was first understood by style journalists and youth culture commentators in the early 1980s in Britain, at a time when economic change had laid bare the processes at work. This was a time of high unemployment, and high youth unemployment, and it became clear that those who were participants in youth culture were those with the money to consume.

Furthermore, it was clear that the cultural energy was with the people in the money, i.e. people in their 20s and 30s at that time, rather than with teenagers who were not a prosperous group any more. Youth culture had also fragmented into many scenes, and belonging to each scene meant wearing its clothes and buying its records – it was not enough simply to be in the age bracket.

The confinement of youth culture to young people in the 1960s had to some degree hidden its true nature. As it spread across society, it was increasingly revealed as a culture of identity through consumption, which would eventually extend to all ages and groups of Western society. As style pundit Robert Elms wrote in The Face in 1985, "nobody is a teenager anymore, because everybody is."

Meaning, everybody constructs their identity or lifestyle like a teenager these days. Ironically teenagers themselves – people in their teens – are fairly peripheral to the process. Their part of the culture is manufactured for them by their elders.

WHILE I'M ON THE SUBJECT, it's time to have a go at the idea of Generation X and all the generational analysis that flows from this flawed concept. The parts of the church connected with youth work, in particular, seem to have swallowed it hook line and sinker, as the definitive guide to society and mission. But the analysis is American. It doesn't necessarily hold in Britain, let alone other countries.

American accounts of cultural history assume a continuity from the 1960s into the 1980s, as the baby boomers grow up, settle down and turn right-wing. Then, in the early 1990s, the children of the boomers, the so-called Generation X, react against their too-complacent elders. And this story makes real sense, in North America.

However, in Britain the cultural and political break with the 60s came in the late 1970s, embodied in punk and the rise of Thatcherism. The 80s proceeded in conscious and antagonistic discontinuity, propelled by an alliance of politicians some 15 years older than the boomers, and young adults some 15 years younger.

And then a second discontinuity occurs in the late 1980s, as the emergent rave culture returned in many ways to the forms and concerns of the 60s. Britain had psychedelia while the States had grunge.

If cultural output tells us anything about a generation, then clearly people of the same age in Britain and America spent the 90s on different planets. A case could be made that British popular culture and politics have a 15-year "generation", so Britain has two "generations" to America's one: i.e. 1963-1977-1989-?2005 while America has 1963-1989-?2020.

SO WHY DOES THE AMERICAN generational analysis have such a hold on the British church, especially in youth work and evangelical circles? I can think of a few reasons. There is the evangelical pragmatism. Give me a neat explanation that'll help me fix my church so people come again. There is the volume and influence of American publications on the subject.

And there is the simple fact that the analysis is couched in terms of generations. This fits in perfectly with the tendency of many evangelicals towards biblically-derived talk of generations: "the Lord will raise up a generation", "this generation will return to the Lord", etc. An analysis based on generations fits their worldview and language.

And it's damaging, because it encourages fixation with the next generation at the expense of the current one. If Generation X proves intractable in adulthood, let's concentrate on Generation Y instead. Maybe they'll be the generation that returns to the Lord. So the church's need for cultural engagement is seen in terms of youth.

This also serves to keep cultural disturbances out of adult church. Certainly in Britain, the age profile of most churches is such that liturgies and music, however new, are geared towards acceptability to the elderly. And the elderly, right now, are those who were formed before "youth culture".

So, returning to where this started, it's not just youth who need new forms. Alternative worship is indeed about youth culture. But youth culture isn't about the young.

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