The Church, Mission and Youth by Mark Scanlan

IT CAN be hard to talk about what the Church is at the best of times, but right now with a focus on pioneer ministry, the possibility of lay-led churches and the Save the Parish movement vying for our attention, we need to ask ourselves the questions posed by Mark Scanlan’s book. What is the Church? What spaces does the church occupy? And – crucially, I think – can ecclesiastical space exist beyond church boundaries?

Having worked in youth and children’s ministry for 35 years, I too often see the tendency to operate from a silo: youth ministry becomes an empty space in which we engage with young people on behalf of the church — not because they are the church.

At the beginning of Scanlan’s book, we are presented with a framework that could help us rethink our practice and engagement with young people and, indeed, with the life of the Church in the world, which affects and shapes us all. This approach is called “an interwoven ecclesiology”: “unlike most other attempts to speak of the Church in youth ministry, this approach develops an ecclesiology of youth ministry, rather than for youth ministry.

The book is open and imaginative as we are invited to consider potential church spaces that invite young people to engage in Christian practices and create community. Scanlan’s assertion is that young people can experience life in Christ through relationships and practices without being part of the institutional and established structures of the church. Whether they start there or not has been a bone of contention with the practice of youth ministry for years.

In support of an interwoven ecclesiology, Scanlan turns to the work of urban (formerly Crusader) saints. An ethnographic case study was undertaken to explore the practice of certain Crusader groups and what Scanlan identifies as the inherent ecclesial imagination. The question I am compelled to ask, repeatedly, as I engage with the book is this: if something (an activity, a movement, an event with young people involved) has Christian practices, and if it builds a community centered on Jesus Christ, so isn’t it the church?

What I particularly like about the case studies is how normal and average the bands are: they’re not flashy, huge bands at the forefront of a Ministry of youth. It could be my youth group; it could be yours.

The challenge presented is to invite others to join the conversation to see what is possible and – as the book puts it so well – that the church continues to develop and grow. “Church” is not static; nor does it fit perfectly into our institutional forms. To steal a line from jurassic park“Life finds a way.”

If you want your view of the Church – not just youth ministry – to be enriched and expanded, then I encourage you to get this book. There is a national strategy for the Church of England for the 2020s. One of the priorities is to be a younger and more diverse church — and, while a “mixed ecology” is the language most often used to describe the way we are to be, I think we need to see it more as an interlocking ecclesiology – as we seek to embrace all that God is doing, not just in the Church with and through young people, but in the world.

Ali Campbell runs The Resource, a consultancy for young people and children.

An Intertwined Ecclesiology: Church, Mission and Youth
Marc Scanlan
SCM Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £20

Charles K. Eckert