Evaluation Of Three Uniting Church Programs For Young Adults

On the day of the 1996 National Church Life Survey, only 30 Victorian Uniting Church congregations registered more than 10 young adults, aged 15-30 present. As compared with all other Australian churches, the Uniting Church had proportionally the smallest numbers of people under 50. Integral to these findings was the discovery that of young UCA attenders, only half felt a sense of belonging.

On the other hand, the Uniting Church has had some very innovative programs for young people. Among them are:
About FACE – which has sought to offer young people the opportunity for intensive experiences for building faith and friendship cross-culturally;
National Youth Leadership Training Certificate (NYLTC) -which prepared young people for youth leadership; and
On the Margins (OTM) which was a practical course in social justice.

The Youth Adult Networking Project (YAN) has conducted a participant evaluation of these three courses through questionnaires and focus groups.

The Need for Faith Communities

The young participants entered the programs with high expectations, prepared to be challenged as they learnt about new theories and ideas. These expectations were met through About FACE. Participants generally described the program as providing a fantastic experience which had been of great benefit to them personally and which had re-affirmed their faith.

Participants in On the Margins also reported that they learnt much through the program, that the course had reaffirmed their faith, led them to new understanding of God, a greater appreciation for the Bible, and encouragement to strive for social justice.

Immediately following these courses, debriefing took place and participants indicated their satisfaction with that process. However, many participants said that would have appreciated greater opportunity to continue contact with peers who had had similar experiences and interests. They would have appreciated more assistance in integrating their experiences with every-day and local church life, and opportunities for continuing to work on the issues that had been brought to their attention.

The National Youth Leadership Training Certificate had some early problems which led to the development of a different structure to the course. Participants expressed strong support for the new structure. However, many participants expressed disappointment in the course, not because of its content or the methods of teaching, but because the course relied on its participants being involved in local churches through the period of the course. Most churches did not give the required support to the participants, and the participants found themselves isolated and some reported being burnt by the experience.

In all three courses, participants had hoped to bring their experiences back into the community. They also appreciated the sense of community experienced through About FACE and OTM and wished for opportunities to continue this. Following the program, participants anticipated congregational mission opportunities through which they would be involved in processes to facilitate change, such as in social justice campaigns or youth leadership.

Congregational Isolation

A key finding was the significance participants placed on belonging to a community actively expressing its faith, a need which was also identified in research on participation in the National Christian Youth Convention.

While all participants in the courses had been highly involved in congregational life prior to the courses, during and afterwards, many participants reported feeling isolated. Congregational awareness of the programs varied from some prayer and fundraising to little support, or a total lack of awareness. Many participants felt that there was a real need for mentors within their congregations.

Following involvement in About FACE and On the Margins, opportunities for participation through discipleship and social justice missions programs were absent. Individual churches and Presbyteries often lacked both participants and the resources in terms of leadership and finance, to offer such opportunities apart from opportunities for a short presentation. NYLTC participants suffered most as the program relied on in-church mentors, and yet such structures were often absent.

Participants who sought assistance or tried to facilitate change reported that they often felt patronised, or were hindered by their lack of knowledge of negotiating change through traditional church structures. Of About FACE participants, only one third remained at the same congregation and only 50% are still involved with the UCA. In addition to change of address, disillusionment with the UCA over issues and the lack of response to social justice issues were reasons for moving to other churches, other denominations or out of the church.

The researchers felt that opportunities should be provided to participants to share experiences and aspirations and collectively develop strategies to achieve those goals. Congregational isolation could be reduced through creating supportive youth networks or faith communities.

Sharon Bond

Reference:

Carl Harvey and Mark Hall, Mission in Action: The Young Adult Networking Project. Final Report, Jan 2000

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