The church should counter the narrative of youth as a problem

Youth taking a selfie. Young people must protest against being ignored and demand to be noticed and centred. [iStockphoto]

Youth in Kenya and Africa are a force by their sheer numbers. With youth as majority it follows that the bulk of the needs of the community will be youth-related. The main actors will also be young people.

Institutions in the public and private sectors are awakening to this scenario and a shift is taking place to a youth-centeredness. This is reflected in the consistently increasing budget allocation to youth-based programmes by governments as well as a focus on the youth as the leading market for the goods and services of the private sector.

However, the church in Kenya is yet to make the shift to youth-centeredness. From an adult-centred perspective the parenting model is one that regards youth as not-yet-adult. At best young people are represented in church leadership but not entrusted with leadership.

The institutional marginalisation of young people in the church contradicts who they are in God. In a context where young people comprise the majority of the population, the church should boldly prioritise youth in its contemporary mission and future vision. This is not to mean that other church ministries are less important, but rather aims at a meaningful integration of ministries.

Numerous appeals by the Kenyan government asking the church to lead the way in resolving challenges such as tribalism, the values shortage, corruption and religious radicalisation of young people is an indication that there is space for the church to speak and act prophetically and make a contribution.

A solid response should go beyond rhetoric to design a workable strategy that provides practical and effective solutions while maintaining a prophetic distance.

The time has come to expand the missionary model that pivoted on health and education to a dynamic contemporary model that includes national cohesion, technology, entrepreneurship, environmentalism and the family as key pillars of the church's mission. Given the youth population force, the church's response can only be effective if it is youth focused.

The challenges faced by the bulging youth population such as unemployment and crime accumulate to a situation described as a "time-bomb." The social discourse designating youth as a problem has a negative impact on their identity. Youth who embrace the discourse of "youth as a problem" proceed to house their lives in illicit premises.

Stereotyping them as epicentres of chaos predisposed assigns them a perpetrator identity and codes them red for risk. Those who reject the "youth as a problem" rhetoric are challenged to initiate new narratives of youth as constructive and resourceful citizens who take responsibility not only for their own lives but also in support of solutions for the larger citizenry.

Institutions have a key responsibility in countering the problem narrative. The three most influential institutions that can do so are family, education and religious organisations. The Kenyan church, whether inadvertently or from a deliberate ideology, is at the present time propagating the problem narrative.

The implication is that young people who come into contact with the church often feel inadequate and even undesirable. Since the youth constitute the largest portion of the population the church is contributing to maiming the identity of the majority. This has material consequences for national development.

Some sectors, however, have understood the opportunity that the large numbers of youth presents and have adopted appropriate strategies. While some of the sectors focus on the youth in order to stay abreast of changing times, others exploit the large numbers of youth for their own ends.

Many companies in Kenya have developed product lines that are focused on young people. Social media platforms - the home of young people - are now mainstreamed channels of information, threatening the traditional media forms. This growing youth-interest points to a contemporary reality that profitability is closely related to the ability to capture the youth market.

Radicalisation is a youth phenomenon in Kenya. Extremism in Africa is found largely among dissatisfied youth. The large youth population can therefore easily fall prey to religious and cultural extremism. Poverty and unemployment, a growing gulf between the rich and the poor, inadequate government resources, political corruption and perceived government subservience to Western demands are some of the key factors that precipitate anti-government sentiments and subsequent radicalisation.

The young people who are recruited into forms of extremism are convinced that fighting a system that has neglected them is justified action. The religious extremists consider the course as holy. Their commitment to the course is marked by oaths - it is something to die for. The fact that young people commit themselves deeply to fighting an unjust and weak system negates the rhetoric of their being undeveloped and incapable.

While some do get involved with extremism out of coercion and desperation, there are others whose involvement is deliberate and intentional. This is true of rising radicalisation in Kenyan universities. Involvement in extremism demonstrates that young people are capable of deep convictions and commitments.

A community that perceives them as a problem is likely to not prioritise young people's needs. This would render them outsiders. Given their numbers, this has definite consequences for the country. The combination of the large proportion of youth in the country's population and a culture that perceives them as a problem creates a disgruntled majority and will exacerbate the problem of underdevelopment. Therefore, reversing this problem narrative is essential for the progress of society.

Young people must protest against being ignored and demand to be noticed and centred.