I’m sure others are further on with their exploration of the decolonisation of youth ministry than I’m presently. Although I’ve journeyed with the young people of Mzansi for over twenty years, the idea of ‘decolonising youth ministry’ is a relatively new wrestle for me. I offer these reflections of my journey with the simple hope that they would add weight to the necessity for youth ministry practitioners to engage vigorously with this significant issue.
DECOLONISATION: WHAT’S GOING ON?
I first heard the cry to ‘decolonise’ with the #FeesMustFall student protest movement of 2015. It was clear that a large majority of South Africans still suffer from the legacy of colonialism. I must confess, that as the news worthiness of the #FeesMustFall story dissipated, so too did my energy and resolve to engage with the subject. It was after all, only about students and education.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The idea that decolonisation could (and does) have something to do with youth ministry took me somewhat by surprise. While doing some research for a course I’m writing, I came across an article by Shantell Webber with the intriguing title of “Decolonising youth ministry models? Challenges and opportunities in Africa”. As I read, a dialogue ensued. Here’s a sample.
THE START OF A CONVERSATION
As Weber stated an observation, I would respond in thought.
Weber: Youth ministry practice in Africa has relied heavily on research composed by American and English or German scholars and practitioners.
Xavier: So true. Most of the statistics about young people and youth ministry quoted, are from overseas. But young people are young people aren’t they? And haven’t I always adapted the material? Besides, What’s the alternative?
Weber: Youth ministry models employed in Africa need to stem from the contextual situations and readings of the biblical text in which it finds itself. It cannot merely be adopted based on the fact that it stems from favourable international examples…The cultural context of youth needs greater consideration if we aimed to raise young people who take ownership of their spiritual formation.
Xavier: Okay, I accept that I haven’t engaged critically with the research or resources from across the ocean, and I haven’t considered to what extent a young person’s culture influences the ownership of their faith.
Weber: There is a need for engagement with youth around issues related to their country’s histories; their familial or tribal positions within those histories and also social justice around issues that impact their faith daily.
Xavier: Wow, for someone who spent a lot of time preaching and teaching, sounds like I need to do a lot more listening.
Weber: Contextualisation isn’t decolonisation.
Xavier: Really? But what is it then?
CHANGING THE ROOM ALTOGETHER
Malory Nye provided a most helpful picture for me on the distinction between contextualisation and decolonisation in his article, ‘Decolonising the study of religion’. He comments that decolonizing is different from diversifying, in that diversifying is about making room at the table for alternate and different perspectives within a structure that remains largely unchanged.
Decolonization and diversification are different also from contextualisation. Contextualisation in youth ministry aims to localise models in such a way as to make them relevant to a context – making the table suit the room. Decolonization is not about finding room at the table, or making the table suit the room, it is about changing the whole room altogether.
So, decolonisation is about ‘changing the room altogether’. Me thinking out aloud…
So, if the room of youth ministry (built mostly on Western thinking) needs changing, then it must be built, sourced, developed from something, somewhere, someone else…it has to come from here…from Africa. The rooms origin, its root, its foundation must be from this continent. Whatever is used to build the room…an idea, a thought, an interpretation, a perspective…it must be birthed from here.
Or, what if the ‘other room’ already exists and I haven’t allowed those who know about it to speak?
WHERE TO BEGIN?
The idea that the ‘room has to change’ is a staggering thought, one I’m still working through. In truth, I’m not totally sure what is next, but I suspect it has to do with some of the following:
Youth Ministry doesn’t get a pass on decolonisation. Those involved with young people cannot keep the question at arms-length anymore. It is not only a political and social idea but a theological one. The room must change, or we are in danger of placing at risk those for whom our ministry exists.
Youth practitioners need to think more. Youth Ministry is intensely practical, however for the ministry to develop and serve the youth of Southern Africa with greater effectiveness, it needs those involved to get their heads out of the trenches and consider with greater determination what theology is informing their present practice. How indigenous are our local church youth models, approaches and programmes?
Our new mission should be to listen. Young people have a story to tell about the ‘new room’. They are part of a larger community with a story. God’s story is woven into the very fabric of these stories. We need to listen to the voice of young people, validating their searching questions, and together with them, seek out the presence of the living Christ in their culture. Young people are theologians.
We need to evaluate with greater scrutiny the programmes and materials we draw on and utilise. What thinking rest behind the programmes and materials we use? Is contextualising them enough? Surely Africa is rich with its own sons and daughters who can think, write and lead? One cannot discount the gift of the International body of Christ, but there is a gift for the world that has its origin in Africa.
THE PRAYER OF EXAMEN
So, how are you doing with all this? What’s going through your mind (and heart)? Can I encourage you to read and pray? Read the articles by Weber and Nye. Search for what others have written about decolonisation. Read what people are writing about youth ministry in Southern Africa.
And pray. Bring your involvement with young people before the Lord and make the words of the Psalmist your own:
Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.