A Pathway of Hope: From Puberty to Matrimony
The period of youth/young adulthood is a pathway 'from puberty to matrimony'. These two key events are the boundaries that normally define the period of youth, and as a community we should be able to ensure that every young person will experience it as a 'pathway of hope'.
Even for those who are called to a vocation other than marriage, that might only become apparent much later. And in any case they still need to grow in maturity as a man or woman.
The period of youth and young adulthood has a number of key tasks: (1) Education for life. (2) Discernment of vocation. (3) Finding a spouse. This is set within the overall task of 'coming to maturity as a man or woman'.
In most past societies these tasks were faced within a community with strong social bonds and a fairly homogeneous culture.
By contrast, contemporary western society is characterised by weaker social bonds and a pluralistic cultural setting. In short, we are now in a situation where most young people are left largely to their own devices in the task of finding a spouse, and indeed for much of what would be needed for an adequate preparation for the vocation of marriage.
These changes in society are not merely of a practical nature; they affect the extent to which a young person will experience youth as a time of hope, or not. How hopeful are young people today that they will find happiness and security in marriage?
Many young people are already beset by serious emotional disturbance or at least by a fairly low level of social and emotional development and confidence. Others are negotiating the pathways of education confidently but are somewhat lost in the search for someone to share their lives with.
All this points to the need for a serious effort on the part of adults, and of those young people capable of the relevant kind of leadership, to build this pathway of hope.
This requires intentional effort to build community.
It requires intentional effort to build a culture of complementarity. And it requires intentional effort to provide an educational path in relationship building.
This effort will need to take into account the extended period during which this is needed. And it will need to flow on to an adult version of similar things needed to support and sustain couples throughout their marriage.
All this points to the need for a more intentional and organised effort. Much of this won't take care of itself while we are doing other things. We can't leave it to the culture to provide the means. There is no 'they' out there who is going to turn this around.
The Pivotal Role of Churches
Church communities are the most obvious starting points, for a number of reasons:
- They already exist.
- They believe in marriage.
- They see their mission as including the building of community and the fostering of a true and beautiful culture.
- They can become coordinating centres for larger numbers of others to be involved, even if they are not church-goers themselves.
- They have facilities, and often close associations with schools.
- They can network with each other.
However, in the present situation the way churches conceive their mission needs some development.
We Need To Redefine 'Socialising'
Many church communities might need to rethink their mission to give a more central place to 'socialising'. What does this mean?
In strong communities bound together by close social ties and strong core beliefs 'socialising' will probably not seem to be something requiring intentional effort. It will seem to be something simply taken for granted, a kind of incidental effect of the fact that people already spend so much time together and have so much in common.
In situations like that a 'youth group' or a 'youth program' of some kind will put its intentional focus on things like Bible studies, involvement in worship, and doing charitable works. They are thought to be the serious things that probably won't take care of themselves, while socialising is something the young people can simply organise themselves as a natural consequence of the fact that they spend a lot of time together.
But what happens when such strong communities no longer exist, or are greatly diminished? People might nominally belong but they no longer spend much time together, and the beliefs that they once held in common have greatly diluted. There might be only a small number of them, yet they still have a sense of mission, to try and share what they value with others.
This is commonly the situation with young people in church communities. There is a small number, and in some places they still gather, and have much in common, and comprise each other's main social group. In other places there might not be enough even to form a small group.
Yet there is still the longing in young people to find connection with each other and with meaning for life. Most just no longer recognise the church as a place they are likely to find it.
But 'socialising' is the context, the setting within which the 'pathway of hope' has to exist. After all, very few are proposing a return to arranged marriages. In any case, the romantic aspiration is very strong, and rightly so. But if most of the other potential supporting structures and influences have disappeared, it is the field of 'socialising' that will provide the setting in which young people will need to learn about the other sex and find a spouse.
So what do we do then; just encourage more socialising? The trouble is, our society and culture do not provide a rich enough soil for marriage to flourish in. We need to cultivate the soil of culture to give it a greater richness. You can't expect to grow trees in sand, nor in toxic soil.
But what is commonly called 'social life' is the soil most relevant to the 'pathway of hope'. So we need a higher quality of socialising.
In fact we need to redefine 'socialising' as 'building community and culture'.
It is this that now requires intentional effort. It might have seemed that it looked after itself in times gone by, but it only appeared that way because society was more stable over longer periods. This meant that there was a more effective passing on of culture from one generation to the next. It still required intentional effort, but that wasn't so apparent, because the 'cultural capital' would not be depleted overnight, and usually negative circumstances would turn around again before it had been seriously depleted or lost.
However, contemporary society has endured a long period of decline of community, social ties have stretched, often to breaking point, and culture has 'thinned out' alarmingly, so that there has been a serious loss of common beliefs and values. This is combined with much more rapid change so that it is difficult for any positive advance to be consolidated before it too comes under serious pressure.
It is not as though nothing has improved, but such improvements are more vulnerable now to being undermined since everything is subject to being opposed by other strong forces before it puts down deep enough roots.
Leadership for a Richer Culture
Interestingly, this loss of community and culture usually leads also to a lower quality of 'socialising'.
Community requires leadership – to draw people together, to give a lead, and to set boundaries. When leadership diminishes, community breaks down into an aggregate of individuals.
Culture requires creativity and form, but if people resign themselves to being consumers of mass culture, local creativity is devalued and cultural forms decline to the lowest common denominator.
We can see both these factors working strongly in 'youth culture'. Although 'social life' is of great importance to young people there is a great deficit of leadership by youth themselves in creating a rich social life. Similarly, local cultural leadership by youth tends to be lacking or devalued.
This situation is not essentially young people's fault. They haven't had time yet to contribute much to the problem but are struggling to work out what to do with the situation they are inheriting.
It is primarily the role of the adult community to hand on a living culture and functioning society. But several generations now have similarly grown up in a socially and culturally impoverished environment. There is no point now trying to cast blame. It is time to build.
Given the situation, leadership by young people themselves takes on a heightened importance. Recent decades show some signs of this rebuilding.
Signs of Rebuilding
In some church circles effort has been put into things like youth festivals. Although such events are comparatively infrequent they allow a concentration of effort, and importantly, one that depends on, and fosters, youth leadership. All the work required beforehand is a great training ground, and such festivals are usually followed by attempts to maintain connection. The hope is that the kind of experience young people have at the festivals can be prolonged and deepened, until it all becomes 'joined up'.
It is instructive that such youth festivals, as well as being religious events, are also exercises in community building and cultural enrichment.
These aspects are not left to look after themselves. They become the focus of a great deal of intentional effort. Music and various expressive arts are always a key focus. So too is the organisation of people into various groups and activities that foster community building.
What does this have to do with building a pathway of hope for young people towards marriage? Youth festivals and similar activities create opportunities for connection, and a positive environment for meeting and mixing with the other sex. Good behaviour is modelled and expected. There will also usually be talks and workshops on some of the issues related to sex and relationships. It might be the first time that many have heard a truly positive and uplifting vision of sexuality and quality friendship between the sexes.
I can see a number of ways that such festivals could develop and extend to address issues of complementarity more overtly.
There is scope for including dances as part of the festival program. This would not be done as if having a 'night off' from the serious discussion, or as a diversion from the 'real business' of the festival.
It would be prepared in a highly intentional way to introduce the young people to what a truly communal dance can be. It would not be an aggregate of individuals just bopping around, but a structured event with the purpose of modelling a number of important things. It would be preceded by some practice and some explanation of customs and etiquette, and some introduction to a vision of complementarity. It would be followed the next day by some debriefing about the experience, what people felt, and what they might learn from it.
Although only a small amount can be done on any one occasion, it could model something that people could take back home and implement in their own town.
This would be made more effective if there was a manual available to help leaders plan their own such events.
It can be difficult for local groups to know how to sustain the experience and vision of a festival, and without some common project it will soon peter out. If the only options seem to be overtly religious events it will be hard for them to attract many of their peers. But if they picked up a vision of how the relations between the sexes are integral to the Christian mission, they could begin organising a series of events such as dances. They would prepare these very intentionally and lead them in such a way as to create a richly enjoyable communal experience modelling positive relations between the sexes, and being able to explain this vision.
With suitable resources at their disposal they could then invite other young people to group discussions that throw light on complementarity. This can help them grow through the often difficult process of developing their 'romantic identity'. Not only would it be helpful but it is also likely to be interesting to many who would otherwise think a 'church' type group would not have anything they wanted.
Developing a truly adequate 'pathway of hope' will take a lot of work, and might seem too daunting. So it is important to identify the existing signs of hope and to develop concrete ideas for implementation. Youth festivals are one of these signs of hope. What others can you think of?
You might also like to read "Dance Your Way to Maturity".