Harry Potter and all that…
As I sit down to write this article The Prisoner of Azkaban is showing at the local cinema and yet again the nation is caught up in Potter-mania. By the time you read these words I expect the tension is mounting as millions prepare them for the release of the sixth book or the third DVD, or whatever else is next to hit the market care of the nation's favourite magician.
I’m afraid, at this point, I must confess that though I have had my photo taken at platform nine and three quarters, I haven’t actually read any of the books and I’ve only seen one of the movies… and I call myself a Youth Worker! Nevertheless I am intrigued by this reoccurring phenomenon within our culture; along with Buffy, Angel, Nero (the chap out of Matrix - not the first century Roman Emperor) and others, little Harry appears to be loved by young people across the western world. How does he do it?
Having studied the success of J.K. Rowling I think there is a formula to her success; so to regain popularity amongst young people I suggest that the church should write a book, an amazing adventurous book, with an unlikely and mysterious superhero who gives his all to save his people. The superhero should be deeply spiritual and should tell stories (young people like stories) and, like Harry, an odd and eclectic bunch should follow him, so that my youth group have someone to relate to.
Of course we not only have the Book, but we also have the real and unbelievably relevant superhero (who would even give Harry a run for his money). So why are a thousand young people said to be leaving the British church each week?
Today, I went for lunch with a friend of mine who was once, a long time ago now, a member of one of the local churches here in Darlington. Over my chicken curry I asked why he is no longer involved, and unsurprisingly it was because of a bad encounter - not with Christ, but with the church (too many arguments about pews, chairs, curtains and carpets, and not enough about peace and justice). And so it is with so many young people today: all they see of the ‘Protestant’ church is when we ‘Protest’, and when they do grace our doorstep what they encounter is often distinctly less spiritual than Mr Potter.
This anti-church sentiment certainly presents the Methodist Church with a problem, but the current fascination with the supernatural is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. Perhaps even using little Harry, God is going before the church; preparing the way; opening the hearts of young people to the spiritual realm, and giving us the perfect environment to proclaim the Kingdom. If only we knew how!
At Elm Ridge, where I serve as Youth Worker, and at St Thomas’ (my previous church in Sheffield), much attention has been paid to 1 Chronicles 12. Here the scribe records the number of troops from each tribe who came to David to help him overthrow Saul. About the men of Issachar it is written they 'understood the times and knew what Israel should do' (verse 32). Today not many within the church (especially the evangelical church, which has been in retreat for so long) understand the times, and of those of us that do, not many know what we should do in response.
As a Youth Worker, 'understanding the times' is crucial (hence why I feel so guilty about my distinct lack of knowledge regarding all things Potter), but often this is a relatively easy task involving watching Big Brother twice a week, occasionally picking up a girly magazine at the dentist and listening to Radio 1 - even though I’m increasingly drawn to Radio 4. The difficulty is knowing what to do in response.
At a Scripture Union training event held earlier this year I met a Youth Worker from Newcastle who had this gifting. He recognised that within his youth group there was an obsession with the flicks and so every month he organises what he calls an 'M&M night' - Movie and a Message… genius! Similarly in the Darlington circuit where I serve there is a married couple who identified individuals within their youth group who are ‘fitness-freaks’, so once a week these Youth Leaders go to the gym to work on the physical health of the young people, and while jogging 10km, they have the opportunity to chat about their spiritual health.
Two specifics that are perhaps more about youth sub-cultures than youth culture, but nevertheless they illustrate the wider point that young people are not anti-Christianity: they just don’t like the church. To borrow Paul’s metaphor, it’s not the wine they have a problem with, it’s the old wineskins - ‘the eighteenth century hymns, the nineteenth century buildings and the twentieth century model of mission’ (to quote my minister).
New wineskins are needed. New ways of doing church that respect our old customs, but equally recognise our new context, which looks, thinks, sounds and acts very different from that of 1954.
I don’t know whether Potter would have been as popular when my parents were growing up as he is now. Maybe he would have been. But to those of us who are surrounded by the emerging generations, it’s clear that something has changed. God is at work in the world, preceding the church, working in the hearts of young people making them less cynical and more spiritual than their parents. And so the harvest is plentiful; all that is needed now is men and women like those of Issachar, who not only understand the situation, but who also listen to God and respond appropriately.
Phil Smith is Chair of Headway Youth and a Youth Worker in Darlington.
Headline, Autumn 2004 pp 3-4,