Jenny Baker introduces Breathe, a resource to engage teenagers with spiritual reflection.
Thirty teenagers jostle into the room, shedding bags and coats, grumbling at being asked to take off their shoes, mocking each other's socks. Some make up their minds that this is boring and a waste of time; some are intrigued and ready to engage; others have 'impress me' written clearly across their faces.
Fifteen minutes later a stillness has settled on the room and they sit engrossed, touching a plasma ball as they think about how they might connect with God, writing the names of significant people in their lives on leaves and adding them to a tree, playing with Mr Potato Head as they think about the labels that they use for other people.
This is Breathe, an installation that enables pupils to explore some of life's big questions. Its ingredients will be over familiar to anyone involved in alternative worship – iPods with words and music to listen to, stations with a focus that encourage questions and wondering, creative activities with an element of surprise that unlock their spirituality.
The difference, perhaps, is that this is not worship and it's taking place in a school, far from any church. And it's happening with young people who just don't normally do still and quiet. One teacher booked Breathe without knowing much about it and when it was set up hurriedly sent for the deputy head to come and help supervise. She expected her class to throw wooden bricks at each other instead of using them to measure out their carbon footprint; she imagined them starting a riot instead of engaging in spiritual reflection. We were all quietly amazed as they passed our expectations.
One boy who had been in trouble with the police and who was on the brink of exclusion wrote movingly afterwards about his mum's experience of faith and how perhaps there was something in it. Another time, at a conference for diocesan officers, we kept Breathe open late so a couple of staff members who worked in the venue and were intrigued by what they had seen could have a go. One wrote: 'Really very inspirational. Didn't ever really take time to think about things and in this relaxing environment really gives you the chance to.'
Resources like Breathe create a space – for questioning, reflection, wondering – and a sense of place – that this is what you do here. (Words coined by Bob Mayo in his work on the spirituality of young people.) It makes the most of the curriculum requirement to learn about and from religion, the potential for a thin place in the otherwise noisy school day; if young people have to do that, why not give them the best of what we have discovered that feeds our souls? The challenge for those of us who maybe take for granted the riches of creative spirituality is how we can create more opportunities like these for those outside the church to participate in.
Each month in Grace we invest time and energy in creating a space for people to encounter God. We've often asked ourselves how we can also do that in other contexts for people who will never come into our building. I'm not sure we've come up with many answers, but we've been inspired by groups like Beyond in Brighton and their beach hut advent calendar. Again, they have used the thin place that Christmas provides and invited people to consider what it's all about.
These stories remind us that God has set eternity in the hearts of people and perhaps all they need is a little nudge and a bit of space to connect with their creator.