Reaching out to the Youth in Burkina Faso
© Elisée Ouoba, July ’07—Revised February ’09
(A summary version of this article was originally published at www.youthmesh.org)
I remember visiting a local church in my country in the mid-1990s. At the time I knew most of the young people in the community and I was in my mid-twenties, so I could relate almost naturally to the youths and their views and criticisms of the church. A common complaint was how boring church life had become for them. They reported to me that each Sunday they would hear the same superficial sermon about the death of Jesus for their sins and a set of rules they should follow. As a result some of these young people were no longer attending a local church on a regular basis. Their main criticism was that the church was no longer meeting their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural needs. Church attendance and participation in other Christian meetings were no longer fulfilling for them, and their deep questions and quest for renewal remained unaddressed by church leadership. Some of these young people started visiting other churches in their area, with the hope to experience a deeper level of spirituality. At times they would come back to their original local church to hear a visitor speak. They rarely had a fundamental disagreement with the teaching of the church—they were not, for instance, questioning any doctrines—but they felt a need to go deeper spiritually and discover the relevance of their faith for the challenges which faced them.
Nearly fifteen years have passed now since the visit I am referring to above, and over several years I have observed in other places in Burkina Faso the same disconnection between church leadership and the younger generation. On several occasions across the country and in different Christian denominations my role in the church has put me in contact with each group—church leaders and the youths, and I have had the opportunity to hear from both sides. My experience has confirmed my analysis that a gap exists between the Christian youth and their spiritual leaders. Thus, on the one hand I have heard some of the leaders of the church complain that the youth is losing its interest in the church and that vocations are getting rare. Many of these leaders have come to perceive (or still see) young people as disrespectful, uncommitted, and even rebellious. On the other hand I have heard the youth complain that the leaders of the church are not hearing their concerns, taking their ideas seriously, or honoring their desire to be trained for service in the church. Some have come to believe that church leaders pursue their own interests rather than those of the church. On reflecting on these views I have come to the conclusion that church leadership and its youth are having a dialogue of the deaf in many respects. The rapid cultural transformations of society seem to have sent them travel in completely different worlds, and the parting of the ways which has thus begun could become irreversible if nothing is done in the near future to correct the situation.
There are numerous reasons for this deepening rift between church leaders and the younger generation, and I can only suggest a few here. First, the leaders of the church tend to cling to their position of authority and rely on their power, which in the past was sufficient to lead church folks. Indeed such an understanding of authority as something that derives from social rank alone was dominant in the culture around and accepted by all. An elder was respected and obeyed primarily for the social position held; actual skills and performance were to follow. But today’s youths expect their spiritual authorities to show professionalism, rightness, and to be role models for others—not just to hold a position of power—before one can submit to their authority and follow their leadership. Because the youths perceive respect and authority as something one earns, they also have little tolerance for any sign of injustice, unfairness, and inequality on the part of the leaders. The youth today is acutely allergic to hypocrisy; on the other hand, transparency and consistency are primordial values for them, and they expect especially their spiritual leaders to have these qualities. Today’s youth tends to be very impatient with anyone who exhibits the attitude of the Pharisees as in the time of Jesus—that is, the hypocritical expectation of some Pharisees that people were to put into practice what they taught but not imitate what they did. Thus, I recall a report about what a leader of the church in my denomination experienced once as he was trying to settle a matter among a group of young people. They listened to him for about half an hour, stopped him, and had one of them simply read Romans 2:17-29. On hearing the reading the leader immediately left the group. His own life was far from being irreproachable. In a different church there was an issue of promiscuous life style among the youth, and the leadership of that church was planning to teach on sexuality from a Christian perspective. But before they had a chance to do anything, the youth sent them a note with the name of the only one leader who was morally eligible, according to these young people, to instruct them about their sexual behaviors. Of course, we should not expect that only a perfect leaders (if there are such leaders!) should be allowed to lead—which is the expectation of some young people in my country—but I do believe that the youth’s view of the authority is such that they are more inclined to challenge the leadership of anyone they deem reprehensible. The more exemplary a leader, the more likely the youth will accept his or her leadership. In this sense the youths have a great sense of what a leader is. They want to follow whoever knows the way, embodies their dream, and inspires them to reach their full potential—a set of expectations which contribute to not so bad a profile for what a good leader should look like.
Second, today’s young people face new challenges related to education, employment, politics, marriage, family, and global culture, all things that the older generation hardly knew. This creates a cultural gap between two groups of people who happen to share the same milieu. To say that the rapid changes in the culture across Africa are unprecedented is to state the obvious, and yet many church leaders live culturally as in days gone by, and they continue to fulfill their ministry with the illusion that they share the same world, values, and hopes as the young people who are under their authority. To not realize the gap between the two groups is in itself a serious problem in the way of effective church leadership. In a sense (not in all respects, of course), it was easier a few decades ago in Burkina to be a Christian and to serve in the church. Back then a new Christian could have to face the opposition of the tribe, perhaps to flee from the extended family, take refuge in a Christian community, acquire a new piece of land for agricultural activities, and raise a family. A new life, in the true sense of the term, could begin this easily in a new social context in a short period of time. But it is a completely different story when the tribe, as in the experience of the youth today, has grown much bigger to be a world, a universe where people are inexorably interconnected without caring so much for one another, a disguised battle field where the acquisition of the new “piece of land” is hypothesized by a long educational journey that many will never finish. And for the lucky few who do graduate from college, obtaining one’s “piece of land” becomes further compromised by rampant corruption and relentless unemployment crisis. The challenges, obviously, are bigger and more complex today than they were yesterday. This is why more and more young people in Burkina Faso postpone starting a family and marry only at an age when, in the old days, the daughter of parents with the same age would have been pledged to marry a man of her father’s choice, and life would continue, undisturbed, as it had always. I am not, of course, giving support to arranged marriages nor trying to idealize the past, but back then things were stable, life was predictable for the most part, and there was a sense of belonging and security for each member of the community. Most young people in Burkina Faso today do not have these “luxuries.” In this sense I can say that today’s youths are not looking for something new; they seek to retrieve for their generation that which is missing, something lost in the wake of the clash of the cultures and which is emerging again, perhaps, in the form of a new, global culture. They cannot, and should not seek to return to the old days, but they must come to a new sense of order, a new experience of stability, and a new way of orientation in life; they must experience a new sense of wholeness and meaning of life in order to feel empowered to face their challenges with the same confidence as young people in the past.
Third, there is a need to teach young people from the Bible in a way that makes its message more relevant to them. To be growing in a globalizing culture while living daily under the social structures, customs, and values of a traditional society has the adverse effect of framing as outdated any teaching or preaching which simply repeats the official doctrines of the church with little relevance for today. Yet very often the form and content of the teaching of the church in Burkina Faso do not take into account the changing culture. As a result the concerns and quest for renewal of many young people, especially the urban youth, are ignored. It takes a leader who is able to relate to both worlds while drawing insights from the Scripture, to speak effectively to a growing population of global culture people. At times I have figured that some church leaders are aware that new trends in the culture are calling for adjustments in church ministry, but because they feel unqualified for the challenge, they end up adopting an attitude of denial, hoping that somehow things are going to work out nicely. The truth is that a growing number of young people are slipping away from the church, and thus their trust in the teaching of the Bible and their attachment to Christian values are also fading away. Through education, the media, and the internet many young Christians in Burkina Faso are exposed to modern and post-modern culture in a way that exceeds much more what the church has often acknowledged, and dogmatism alone will not deepen their relationship with Jesus and empower them to take up the challenges of their generation. There is a desperate need for a new generation of Bible expositors who are faithful to the Scripture, creative in their thinking, innovative in their methods, and relevant in their teaching. The need for relevance applies to our training institutions across the continent as well, especially in French-speaking Africa. At some point in their history these institutions have come to settle in a traditional way of running programs and applying methods of training that were for the most part imported from the West. Such curricula and practices have undoubtedly served in the past, yet even western institutions realize today the need to adjust and improve them. When the challenges are new the means to take them up must be re-examined and brought up to date.
Fourth, today’s youth tends to appreciate comfort and material possessions in ways that seem unacceptable for older leaders in the church. For a long time the message of the church has shunned what was once perceived as the comforts of the world, and many pastors and evangelists have lived in precariousness, perhaps more by choice than by necessity, convinced as they were that they needed little to serve the Lord. Indeed they needed very little for church ministry in comparison to the needs of most people in the modern culture. But the fact is that the transformations in the culture, the impact of western education and more engagement with the Scripture have led people to realize not only that a better life in this world resonates with their faith, but also that the challenges of today require a more structured and predictable economic situation than a few decades ago. As a result, some church leaders and the youth relate very differently to notions of contentment and sacrifice in church ministry, and problems arise when it comes to serving the church, hiring and paying church workers, or planning a career. It is true that sometimes the youth might lack realism and seek to live beyond its means. This is often the result of their familiarity with, and sense of belonging to, a globalizing culture in which a wealthy West sets the pace. But most of the time they want a reliable administrative structure, a minimum of employment stability, and the ability to plan and follow a vision with a certain degree of predictability. I would suggest that for the youth today, the spiritual vocations of yesterday have taken more the look of church and church-related jobs, with all that this view implies. It is not impossible that church ministries in Burkina Faso will have to take in the near future the look of businesses with regard to their compliance with state laws, policies of employment, administrative structures, and management. I am not discussing whether this will be a desirable move to take, or what would be the best way to do it, but it could become a survival mode for Christian ministries. In fact church-related ministries have already embraced this approach.
Fifth, in many respects the youth in Burkina Faso lacks opportunities to grow and play a role in the church. It is one thing to tell young people what a Christian should and should not be or do; it is quite a different thing to create healthy opportunities for them to be young people like other youths, full of energy, ambitious, and even adventurous. Christian youths need opportunities to properly bond with each other, dream together, and strive to achieve goals higher than themselves. It is nearly impossible to exaggerate the potential of young people who have fully grown in confidence in the Lord and who trust in the power of the gospel to face the challenges of today. The creation of opportunities for the youth is perhaps the next open door for the mission of the church, not only for building up Christian young people but also for reaching out to the youth outside the church. Again this will take creativity, innovation, and a significant investment in time, energy, and resources. But there is nothing more strategic and rewarding as formative programs and activities that shape a new generation of Christians and empower them to live boldly for their Lord. It is always depressing to be unable to reasonably hope for something greater than oneself, to not have a chance to envision the future with a certain degree of excitement; it is particularly depressing for a young person, full with energy and eager to pursue noble dreams, to feel like there is only a monkish life style on the horizon. When that happens, the youthful excitement dies and rebellion—which could be simply a wrong way to start a quest for renewal—settles in.
This brings us, finally, to the last point I want to mention. The attitude of the Christian youths in Burkina Faso shows signs that they are in search of a renewed meaning to life. It usually begins with a feeling of dissatisfaction with traditional church leadership (coupled at times with a rejection of the authority at home), followed by doubts concerning the teaching of the church, and in the face of youthful struggles, continues with the rationalization of improper behaviors and a growing belief that the Bible might be out-of-date. Some young people may not go completely astray and may manage to live an unfulfilling and ambivalent life in the church. They may come to see the Christian community as a mere club for socialization and so continue to be involved in the church. But other young apostate do join worldly social clubs, get into a licentious life style, and fall into the trap of cults and other erroneous and lifeless teachings of crafty predators. But more often, beyond their licentious and suicidal life styles, many young people are in search of new meaning to life. This is why at times one may see apostate young people who have wandered away from the church but who have also managed to stay not too far from the Christian community. They know deep in their hearts the truthfulness of Christianity. Yet because they still have difficulty to relate their faith to their challenges they do not return “home” either. Having grown firm in their belief that there is no significance in church life any more than in the world, they have given way to sinful dispositions to evil, with the secret hope that a better day might come when they will discover the true meaning of their lives and live for a truer and greater purpose. It might be surprising to some readers, but individualism and materialism are rampant among a young generation of struggling Christians not because they have come to a rational decision for these vices, but because they are reacting to traditionalism and the inability of the church to offer alternative forms of community life and opportunities for a life of significance.
Obviously, one does not resolve these challenges overnight, and the current situation is even expected to worsen. This is simply because of the nature of the task ahead—it takes time to redress a situation like the one I have described. So in order to address the situation many initiatives must be taken, many more than what I can say here. But in addition to the proposals I have provided here and there in my analysis I want to suggest, on the practical level, a few thoughts. First, a conversation with church leaders must start, with the humble goal to raise awareness and open doors for further work. It is critical that church leaders do not feel threatened by a young generation of Christians who seek to overthrow them. The lack of education for many older leaders in the church prompts fear in them whenever they engage a dialogue with the youth. But after all, this older generation has experience even when it lacks critical skills. The very existence of a growing church in Burkina Faso is to be put largely to their credit, and they have been instrumental in the development of the youth as well. To reckon with the past is always the point of departure for assessing the present fairly and envisioning the future wisely.
This is why a dialogue must also begin, at the same time, with the youths in order to help them appreciate what is already available for them in the church, that which has brought them thus far and without which they would not be what they are. It is striking that a church of more than one and a half million members and about one century old would be the fruit of the work of men and women who have had no, or very little, formal education and training. Over ninety five percent of those who have built the evangelical church in Burkina Faso (all denominations included) have had access to no elementary education, so there are reasons to rejoice and be grateful, and the youth in particular should always be grateful for that. Sooner or later this rich heritage will be theirs to carry on, both in the sense of proud ownership and serious responsibility.
But we need to press on as we rejoice and train leaders with a heart for the youth, leaders who would be its voice, provide vision, and take initiatives for the cause of young men and women whose youth represents hope for the future of the church. In addition to youth leaders we need to train pastors particularly equipped for urban ministries. The situation of urban pastoral leadership as it is today does not help anyone. Every time we have allowed a significant educational gap between church members and their leaders we have also demonstrated a lack of fairness both toward the leaders and those we put under their leadership. Yet this is a common reality in Burkina Faso. It has been my conviction since more than a decade now that every local church in every city and town must have a pastor and other leaders who are trained for urban ministries. With so many changes in the society and the increasing globalization of culture, it is paramount that the Christian leadership stays in tune with the new trends to assess their impact on church ministry. Church workers particularly qualified to serve in the city not only will be a response to the need of the youth but also an answer to the task of reaching out to the larger, fast growing urban population.
Trained leaders for the youth could work toward the creation of multipurpose centers for young people in the church, centers that will facilitate academic learning, provide orientation to life, deliver guidance on the job market, and give opportunities for lasting friendships and healthy entertainment. In a culture where corruption is rampant and leadership nationwide is for the most part wanting, I expect church-related initiatives, properly run, to become pace-setting businesses for professionalism and work ethics. Some of these ideas are not entirely new, a few have even been tried, but they all need to be thought again with regard to the way they have been understood and implemented in the past. Another way the church can help the youths is to accompany them in their exposure to other cultures. There will be more and more cultural encounters through various media, and it will be a wise move for youth ministries to step in and provide guidance by holding seminars and publishing material that provide a balance assessment of new cultural trends and guidelines about how to live in a global culture. It is imperative that the church does not show itself merely critical of youth culture but that it engages in more constructive ways to help young people navigate through the emergent culture in a responsible manner. Indeed, repression alone in any form will not deliver change in the attitude of the youth, and it is only necessary as a last, desperate resort to contain reprehensible behaviors. So we need to anticipate problems before they happen. We might want to consider, for instance, facilitating formative cultural encounters through travel—whether for tourism or business, people exchange programs with other Christian organizations, study abroad opportunities, and initiatives of temporary exchange of professionals. I am not suggesting, of course, that we turn our ministries into immigration agencies, but youths from all over the earth more and more seek to discover new horizons, explore the world, and find their place in the global reality. They are going to continue to travel more and more, whether we initiate it or not, so why not facilitate constructive networks of friendship and people exchange programs between Christians around the world? Competent professionals appointed by the church could, for instance, take responsibility for the overall oversight of such initiatives. Not only young people from the church in Burkina Faso can benefit from such programs but many others from churches in other parts of the world will come to appreciate our diversity and grow in their understanding of Christianity. The globalization of the culture, economy, education, job market, and communication will continue to make victims around the world, especially in the poorest regions of the earth, but this does not mean that we cannot do anything to minimize its negative impact. By preparing our youth to appropriately face the new global realities we will be ensuring that they grow in confidence in the relevance of their faith for the challenges of today; we will be building their ability to live out their faith and to hold out the message of the gospel in their generation; we will be preparing them to build stable families and communities in an instable world; we will be empowering them to set the pace for millions of other young people who might thus come to know the only one who perfectly loves and leads the youth—Jesus Christ the Lord.