What does real youth participation look like?

Ladder of participation

This week, I found a terrific article on the levels of youth participation, related specifically to development and aid issues, that included this image (also on right). Looking further, I found another article that relates the levels to classroom with a helpful rubric about what each level looks like in practice. I think this is something we need to think about in our churches as well. What does each of these levels looks like in our churches? And how do we create systems that allow for genuine participation from youth?

Each Sunday on Twitter, I check to see what people are Tweeting about confirmation class. In general, it’s not pretty. Here are a couple of examples from last week:

Not. Good. Last week, someone asked why I retweet all these negative things; unfortunately, it’s because that’s what people are saying. I wonder if part of that is due to being kept on the lower rungs of the participation ladder.

It’s important to remember that this ladder is not labeled “worst” to “best,” but least participation to most participation. There are certainly times when being at level 5 may be a better choice than being at level 8! However, since we believe that all baptized members of our faith community are called to active ministry, I think that we need to do better at moving out of the non-participation levels at the very least.

Here’s how I see youth confirmation programs may match up on this 8-level scale.

Non-participation levels:

  1. Manipulation: Youth are required to attend confirmation classes and get confirmed, regardless of their own thoughts, beliefs, or desires.
  2. Decoration: The bishop is coming and youth are invited to be presented for confirmation, less for their own sake than because it looks good. Preparation is secondary to appearances.
  3. Tokenism: Youth are told what they are supposed to know or believe but have little or no opportunity to offer their response. What’s important is the “right” answer; their opinions or reflections are irrelevant.

Participation levels:

4. Assigned but informed: In other words, youth are kept in the loop. Rather than “show up on this day to be confirmed,” youth are told, “Here’s what you need to know about our confirmation process. Are there any questions?” Questions are answered, but they don’t change the order of things. The confirmation process is unaffected unless adults decide to make the changes.

5. Consulted and informed: Youth are asked before or at the outset of the confirmation program for their input on how to proceed. They may be asked what questions they want answered about their faith, or who they think would be good mentors, or what are some major conflicts in their schedule that would make it difficult to participate. These opinions are taken into account as adults establish a confirmation program. Youth may also be consulted throughout the confirmation program.

6. Adult-initiated shared decisions: Adults bring up the topic for discussion, but do not dominate the conversation, allowing youth opinions to hold just as much weight and merit as their own. Conclusions about issues or topics are drawn together, rather than presented by adult leaders. Adults ask youth if they wish to be confirmed or not and talk with youth about their response.

7. Youth-initiated and directed:  Youth teach on topics that are important to them. Youth make an active choice to be confirmed and adults accept that decision as informed, allowing youth to make that decision with complete independence.

8. Youth-initiated shared decisions with adults: In Confirm not Conform, the service project component is driven by the initiative and desires of the youth participants. The adult leadership is informed and asked to participate in the project created by youth. In confirmation in general, youth inform adults that they wish to be confirmed and instigate the process of preparation and confirmation. (I have actually had that happen!)

What does youth participation look like in your church? In general, where does it sit on this ladder of participation? And more importantly, what do your youth say about it? Maybe one way to start would be to have a discussion with youth about how they perceive your church and what they think you can do better to have youth be true participants in the life and witness of their faith in community.