6 common defaults when churches start working with young people (to try and avoid?)

It never really surprises me how often when churches, (and when i mean churches i mean, clergy & some interested congregation members) think about working with young people, that a number of fairly common defaults are evident. In this post I want to share some of these, not because they are wrong necessarily, but it might be that you if you’re reading this didn’t realise quite how much of a default it is, when there might be other alternatives to how working with young people in a faith setting might take place.

Default No 1. The best way to start any youth programme is when a whole load of adults sit in a room and have ideas about what to do and hope young people want to do them. 

How often is this repeated? There’s young people. There’s adults. Adults have a whole load of ideas, look up a whole load of resources from (insert UK wide faith based youth ministry provider) , who is trusted because (the leader used to work for them/leader used to receive them/the organisation is credible/its easier) . Then Adults use resource to shape a programme that young people maybe want , or don’t want, or are encouraged to do because they feel that the church is making an effort . But the only option for them is to opt in, or opt out. And opting out makes them look ungrateful.

Or the adults have a ‘big idea’ – now ‘big idea’ – could be a rock cafe, a worship event, a youth praise group, a choir, a football night, cheese on toast for Jesus, graffiti artist, Rap artist (yes its still the 1990’s in some churches). And its a great idea that the adults spend ages. I mean ages. shaping, promoting, deciding in meetings, risk assessing, getting an MP to praise it, organising prayer meetings for it, getting it blessed by the elders or PCC…. but yet when it happens… not a single young person is involved at any stage, and three turn up, the same three who already go to messy church, the same three who would have turned up if you have offered tea and a biscuit instead.

One of my most read pieces on this website is this one. Titled ‘what role do young people have in your church/youth group?’  The challenge in avoiding the default above, is to be brave and give young people a different role in the life of the church and youth group. One in which their role from the outset isn’t just as a consumer of an idea that is foisted on them, but that they are engaged in ongoing conversation, planning and creation. As i say often, usually 11 year old’s in primary schools have some say in small groups about spending school budgets on improving it, via a school council. Meanwhile the same young people in a different institution, church, are just given shapes of Daniel and the lions den to colour in. Or spaghetti towers to make to illustrate a moral point. Avoiding this default might require an approach taken in which space is created for conversation, and ideas from young people, and trusting in them to be able to shape and create something with adults. You never know…

Default 2. Young people who are bored in church don’t always want bigger,brighter entertainment to keep them interested and coming back.   They don’t always like it when their youth thing condescends, patronises and makes them feel like children, by just looking like a school disco. 

Avoiding boredom may well be the curse affecting most of youth ministry   so there’s constant re invention taking place, constant new song, constant new material, constant make something relevant. Making the programme more exciting might be the biggest long term turn off for young people in their ongoing faith development. Because, when the programme runs out, or they get too old for it, what then? even more boredom when the only option is real church. Sod that.

But if the signs of boredom are beginning to be seen in the groups you have, and 2 years of colouring Daniel, is going to start wearing thin, then it might not be ‘Daniel colouring plus’ that’s required. It might be to actually talk with, respect and give young people the space to contribute, to be involved, to have their say. This is linked to point one above. But its also more than that yes young people might, in many cases want to have their say and voice heard and participate. But it might also be that what they are being offered isn’t challenging enough, isn’t controversial enough (talk about ethical issues) , isn’t real enough (talk about health matters, cancer, periods, mental health, the environment) , maybe even… isn’t spiritual enough. When their friends are into meditation and mindfulness, and the church is offering a prayer spoken by an adult and a god slot- where might their spiritual awakening or curiosity likely to go?  Yes i said it…. youth groups might not be spiritual enough. Young people might be bored… but why might they be…?  Work that out with real conversations and then see… don’t resort to making it louder or bigger as a default. Deci and Ryan suggest that challenge, autonomy and relationship are key factors in personal motivation. Work out how these can be part of developing youth ministry, not just smoke machines and drum kits.

Default number 3. The God bit is the God-slot

Oldest chestnut of a conversation this. Id reveal my bias here when i say I am encouraged that there are some fabulous interesting practices of youth work around that are starting to think differently about how young people learn, engage with, form, and become involved in faith – and have moved away from a God slot. In this piece i provide 6 alternatives. In a way it says something about how we as adults view education, and view discipleship if the only part that of a youth group regarded as ‘God’ bit is that God -slot moment.  Which is a shame… because that can often be the most challenging, boring, difficult part of the youth group evening and yet that’s the bit where young people receive instruction about God. Hmm… God explicitly is getting a raw deal there i think. Its also the bit in the group where young people can often have the least involvement – even if there is an attempt to give them options in other aspects like food or games – and its also the time when the power dynamics shift – and bluntly- it looks like school. Anyway. Old chestnut resurfaced, nothing new in this paragraph. But its a fairly common default. Disciopleship isnt one way and faith isnt formed by just listening. Check out the FYT experiments resource to flip that one on its head. There’s more on the God slot stuff in Here be Dragons. See link above.

Default number 4 : Young peoples faith will develop even more if we get them involved in christian youth culture.  

This is often a parental pressure thing. The default is that once involved in church, a young person must immediately only listen to christian music, wear tshirts, go to christian summer festivals (cheap holidays for parents to send kids away on, and their ‘safe’) , and become a leader in church, volunteer in sunday school. And basically show their christian faith and discipleship through countless attendances and involvement in christian titled things.  Nick Shepherd is onto something though, saying that these things do help with a young person creating a christian identity for themselves. But its part of something bigger in constructing faith… read his book.   Though I wonder… is this what adults do as well… well of course.. . I am not sure its as prevalent – and i also know I pretty much chose to go along to all the things i mentioned there in the 1990s.. however… what might have been ‘good’ in previous generations… might not be now.. but the default remains. Especially when young people more than any other group are bombarded with messages about being distinctive from the world, about almost avoiding the world, about only being ‘in the world’ to evangelise to friends, only having friends.. so they can be invited to youth group (I’m sure this doesn’t still happen) – but what do these messages do?  Create divide. And unhealthy them and us, and put young people in the most difficult positions in schools, communities and homes.  I am sure this isn’t the default it might well have been before, but worth watching out for it.

Default 5. Working with young people is for some one else

There is a magical human out there, who is so radically different from the humans in the church, who will be able to do something magical with young people that they don’t know, but you have known since they were 3 and been in messy church or Sunday school (and got bored colouring in Daniel), and this magical person is about to be transported in under the false pretenses of needing to be innovative, creative and experienced (with the reassurances of being underpaid, under supported and poorly managed) to round up the previously bored from messy church group, the alienated from church 12 year olds, the 15 yr old daughter of the vicar (chosen specifically because they had a young family 12 years ago, and they could be the previous magic person ) – but new magic person is now needed.

This default, creates a thought that magic external person is the best person to connect with young people. The reality is that if you know the young people, and have done since they were 3, then you are. You just need to re connect, maybe apologise (for too much Daniel colouring in) ask and listen and rebuild a relationship.  Young people value relationship, authenticity and long term integrity. You’ll get that if you take the time and listen. value them and re connect. A magic person is starting from scratch. If young people are important, you don’t value them by employing a magic person to rescue them, you value them by giving them space, time and opportunities. You value them by creating a culture in a church where they are important. from the leadership, organisation, planning and decision making down. Where they are welcomed and participate. Thats value.

Default 6. Young people are all______________ – they’re just a completely different generation to us, they so different. 

This is ‘Young people are alien syndrome’. All of a sudden there’s a default position taken that goes along the lines of ‘young people have just arrived from outer space, they’re weird, unruly, into things we have no idea of, unpredictable, different.. etc’ and then someone clever, will recite a piece of research, or the bloody guardian, that talks about ‘Meellenials’ and how in order to reach ‘meeelenials’ the church has to do X and Y and Z.  An invisible ‘them’ and ‘us’ is created. Young people are all of a sudden different, difficult, hard to reach, unique- and yet no one has even spoken to any of them. Just looked at generalised research to make an opinion. Then someone will say ‘its just helpful to do research’ well.. yes it is. But if you want to do research, ask the young people in the community you are working in, and build up knowledge from actions, from conversations, from reality. There is no one else in the world like the young person who plays football in your community park, or the young person who is bored in messy church, or is a bit lost in church, but comes along with his Dad. Research and thinking of young people as alien, really isn’t going to help with listening, learning, empathy, time.  As Carl Rogers said, we cannot empathise if we prejudge, and we prejudge all the time, so lets not add to it with extra lenses  from adopted sociological research (used mainly to justify programmes that we’ve already said… perpetuate a default) . There is no such thing as a millenial young person. Can we dump the universality research, and thinking of young people as aliens. They’re just people (Christian Smith, 2003) . Like you and me. Its children, ironically who are less like adults. Think about it.

Theres 6. I could of added a few others, and yet as i thought about it, they all nearly stem from the concept of participation, and lack of – and these are covered in the post i shared in the link above. its almost as though the key default in churches, is not to give young people any involvement in aspect of what goes on, for them, or for anything at all. Or that they wont be interested if its made too difficult, challenging. For the few young people left in churches…we have to do better. For starting work with young people, churches could start from a different place, and not go straight to these defaults. Expecting different results from the same actions.  I am sure you can think of others too. But these are the ones i see, and have also been guilty of doing myself too.

Some references and additional reading

Christian Smith, 2003, Soul Searching, his 15 recommendations for christian youth groups from research of 1500 church is well worth a look.

Nick Shepherd, 2016, Faith Generation. Still one of the best critical, thought provoking, books on youth ministry in the UK.

Carl Rogers, 1972, A way of Being. On person centred therapy.

Andrew Root, 2017 Faith formation in a secular age, isnt referenced directly, but some of the links do.

Chap Clark, 2018, Adoptive church. Chap suggests churches should be places of participation where young people flourish in the whole community. Id recommend this one.

 

 

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‘In an ideal world you could just get funding for building relationships with young people’

How many times have you said that in the last 40 years? (As a youth/community worker)

Not a relationship that had to make something else happen to justify the relationship, not a relationship where the young person ‘changed’, not a relationship in which entire decades of social harm, psychological damage caused by other relationship was solved in 4 months -type of relationship. Not a relationship in which the young person achieved something, said something, evaluated something like the relationship offered to them was worthwhile. Not a relationship that was needed so that the new 3m youth building wasnt closed.

‘in an ideal world we would get funding for building trusted relationships with young people’

Just a relationship.

Just being with someone for the sake of it

Just having someone to talk to

Just . a . conversation.

Just a moment to be valued

Just a moment in which time stood still, and there was an interruption to the norm

A moment where someone stopped and took an interest and for the young persons sake.

A relationship that may lead to action, a relationship that may be supportive, a relationship that could change the world of the young person – and the adult – but not a relationship that expects and targets that before its already happened.

I am reading ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey; within it he notes the reflections of a youth worker, Joe – reflections that have been echoed by the youth worker fraternal for decades. Its Joes boss that bemoans the lack of funding for relationships. Joe, goes on to say:

‘good youthwork can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector. There is funding out there for targets, outcomes and issues. However many are not relevant to the work we do’

(which is)

‘ we are working to combat the effects of inequality and poverty has on the lives of young people, the cycle of insecurity, mistrust, lack of resilience. low self esteem and confidence. It is holistic, long term and multi faceted work’

This may not be the space to critique all of the above. Certainly there is an element of youthworkers clinging to the darkness as their natural habitat, and not necessarily seeing all the opportunities and options for funding and developing their work, and working in a needs based, and meeting emotional needs might be already fitting of a funding or social policy agenda. However.

The point remains to be said.

None of any of these things, any of these approaches, will ever come to fruition without the basic need to develop relationships as a core focus, no not core focus, as a reason to exist. Anything else is a course, a program or a ministry.

It may only be the voluntary or faith sector that has the capacity to do this, but the culture of outcomes and targets is fully pervasive, whether that’s in funding bids to charitable trusts, outcome promises to consortiums, or even, the final result of good youth ministry, have kids turn up on a Sunday. Its outcome orientated- no its outcome defined relationships. Its fully pervasive, because the systems are crumbling and in need to justify existence. Its fully pervasive because the value for money neo-liberalism default has made anything other seem radical, seem ‘non real world’, too idealistic. And Funding, and outcomes always generate a implicit direction of travel to the lowest hanging fruit, so that funding can be justified. The nearly christian who might go to church, the nearly got a job or capable to do a course- an easy quick win. But no one (as McGarvey writes) dare say this.

Yet, as McGarvey writes. Young people can smell outcome orientated rats a mile off. Young people in poverty can attune to being projected. Being rescued for a moment by the short term saviour (p83). The parachuted in for a funding season organisation that makes promises and delivers nothing, and has no actual involvement in the real needs, real situation of the community its is meant to be there for. And no one in the community has any involvement in any of it – except to turn up, and be a number.

Things young people want; (According to McGarvey)

Value ; The adult ‘ was passionate about the work they did and made me feel valued’ (p69)

Place and space: ‘working class folks receive strange looks when their groups lofty objectives are to want a place for the elderly and a space to drink coffee’ (p49) – or – ask a group of young people what they want to do – just want somewhere to go thats safe to talk.

Participation and Autonomy: ‘Joe and his team are one of many small (and chronically underfunded – my words) organisations that are dealing with the social and cultural legacy of decades of poor planning and tokenistic consultation with local people’ (p82)

Good youthwork is more than what Joe says it is, but then youthwork is an ongoing conversation that creates new definitions in each context, what is important is that relationships where young people are valued, where there is safety, space and place, and where there is a genuine desire for participation, and young persons autonomy to be at the forefront of it. Where honest means that its not a relationship for an outcome. A relationship that’s reduced to a trade.

So, yeah, in an ideal world,

‘we would get funding for building trusting relationships with young people’

And we will have realised the inherent good that there is in every single one of these. Whilst there are some ways of writing these down – the desire that relationships have outcomes at all virtually destroys their honesty, and their goodness. The ethics of the market reigns, and as Goffman says, the closer we are the trade, the less authentic the performance we play in our interactions. (Goffman, 1960)

But we must not give up. We will keep on going. There will be a way. It may be asset based community development, it may be in re framing and using different language to describe youthwork, it may be something else. Whatever we do, its relationships with young people that matter. after all…

Youthwork is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context (Sercombe, p27)

References

Goffman, Irving , 1960, The presentation of the self in everyday life

McGarvey Darren, 2017, Poverty Safari

Sercombe, Howard, 2012, Youth work Ethics

If Taylor Swift met a boy from Teeside..

Just for a little fun, Twitter was going a bit reactive earlier after the Lyrics of Taylor Swifts London Boy went viral and the transport impossibilities, or realities were described. Here is my little attempt to describe what might happen if the lovely Taylor came to Teeside instead of London.

Its a bit niche for any non Teeside/Hartlepool/Middlesbrough people…

The original lyrics and rational are here

Continual Reconstruction

A few of my friends have recently asked me whether I would do a follow up to this piece that i wrote a few years ago: Trying to survive after falling off the evangelical cliff. I think looking back on this piece, and time, part of me was in a place of trying to survive even in the current situation of that time, yet placed significance in some of that as a fall away from aspects of evangelical church, life and culture, theology and boundaries. I was surviving myself.

The piece i think a number of my friends want me to write is on the reconstruction, and to share some of the resources, some of the aspects of my own reconstruction that may in turn help others, just may, because reconstruction will need and take a number of ways, specific to each one of us. A piece on reconstruction. Because, deconstructing does seem popular at the moment, or at least, maybe that’s because I am clocking it, noting it, my own echo chamber is full of it, because it seems its where i am, and have been. But I realised, whilst soaking in the bath last night, that reconstruction is continual. We don’t ever make it, but embrace the path of searching, with its stones, litter and obstacles. Yes there have been for me certain tools and people along the way. So, friends, this isn’t that piece on reconstruction. Yet.

But this, a poem on continual reconstruction. Some of my own, some of others who’ve been desert friends.

 

10 things you’re unlikely to see in Christian youthwork.

This almost feels a bit like the endgame on mock the week, when ‘unlikely things you’ll see…or hear’ is the opening strapping for which then the comedians are then tasked with completing. Today I was chatting to a few youthworkers about a youth work project that had a very similar name to another, and had used a bible verse number as their name. You know the one. It’s the life to the full one. (10:10). It got me thinking, if 3:16, 10:10 are commonly used, and there are some other common things in Christian youthwork.

What might be things unlikely to see or hear in Christian youthwork?

1. A project that has the name ’23:20′ after the profound words of Ezekiel.

2. A large worship gathering admit that financial reasons, and the need for advance funding, or internal poor partnership working was the reason for its demise. Far easier to say that ‘ the Lord is calling us to something new’

3. An all female worship band.

4. A Christian youthworker stay long enough in a church based role to be eligible for a sabbatical. And then to get one.

5. A youth pastor not use an analogy from Star wars/Lord of the rings or a U2 lyric in a youth service.

6. Young people involved in creating their own youth provision. Especially any collective worship space that’s apparently for them.

7. A job application for a youth worker that asks for a quiet, reflective, critical theological youth worker.

8. A youth work not have expectations that the Sunday school will be as full is was in 1890, after they’ve been in post 4 weeks.

9. A youth worker without 9 different coffee shop loyalty cards in their purse or wallet.

10. A commissioning service for the arrival of a new youth worker in post.

Here are 10 of my ‘unlikely to see’ in Christian youthwork, what might yours be?

Knife Angel

Written at the foot of this today, the knife angel is currently being displayed next to MIMA in Middlesbrough.

Knife angel.

Hands pained,

Open.
Eyes vacant,
Tearful.
Shoulder broad,
Holding.
Wings rusted,
Shielding.
Heart hidden,
Hurting.
Head bowed,
Grieving.
Fingers encouraging,
Hoping.
Wrists poised,
Arrested.
Knife angel,
Standing.
Knife angel,
Hoping.
Knife angel,
Lifing.
Knife angel,
Feeling.
Knife angel,

Redeeming.

Is youth ministry just about survival?

I put a ‘thing’ out on twitter a week or so ago, amongst the youth and community work fraternal, ‘ share your top tips on how to survive in youth ministry’ and waited for the responses. I got a few, and i will share them below. But in the course of asking for the feedback, and writing this, I started to think about the reality that usually there is only talk of surviving in youth ministry – surviving with your calling intact, surviving with your mental health intact, surviving with your family intact, surviving so that you might be able to be in a church for longer than 3 years.

Maybe the talk is of survival because the boulevard of youth ministry is littered with broken dreams, lives and people that have been hurt. But could ministry – in particular youth ministry be a space to thrive or flourish in at all, when talk is of survival and the myriad of issues that cause it to feel like that.

And yes i am as guilty, repeatedly in these pages sharing pieces about ‘why youthworkers leave churches‘ and my own journey that felt like surviving youth ministry, its as if surviving is the only game in town.

I was almost going to write a pessimistic piece on why its impossible to thrive in youth ministry – given the fairly usual suspects of short term contract, generally grossly under paid, employed in false pretences, high expectations, not to mention stuff like mission/ministry contradictions between parents, youth workers and young people, and most of them are featured at length in the piece above. But, ill not do that. No. Because there are examples of thriving. There are youth workers who are thriving in churches. Though i imagine there will be a number of key factors as to why this might be. And their testimony might suggest that being in a role long term, having influence in decision making about young people, maybe not being too unrealistic, having personal values that are closer to the organisational values (rather than a purist youth worker), maybe thriving happens when there is a genuine regard for young people in a church as participants and contributors, so a youthworker, can be a youthworker (not just an entertainer) . Maybe thriving happens where there are volunteers, or where there’s good management – or maybe where a youthworker has the fucking determination to do a bloody good job in a space for the sake of young people- despite all these things not being in place.

Rant over.

So, if thriving is going to happen in youth ministry – what might need to happen for it to?

These are some of the thoughts of the youth work and ministry fraternal:

As with any job, have an understanding and exciting/motivating line manager. Most church leaders have no training or significant experience in managing staff, yet most churches are packed with people with those skills. That knowledge needs to be utilised

Having an amazing youth worker friend to pray, share the load with you, who understands, who is willing to be on the other end of the phone when things are tough, or when you just don’t know what to do.   (avoiding being on your own – yet how many churches appoint 2 youthworkers? – notice that ‘not feeling alone features in a few others comments below)

Separate work and personal phone. Learn how to say No. Ensure line management is effective. Embrace ecumenism – sharing is better! Spread the load, develop your team. 

Do not answer emails when you should be off/working with young people. Make sure everyone knows you are away. Also a good idea to have a nighttime curfew on contact.

Find/develop close friend/s for support. i.e. can give them a call and speak openly and freely without worrying about what they will think of you when you hang up.

Seek out mentor/coach/director

Read fiction regularly
Use all annual leave each year
Learn how to organise yourself – work and life. i.e. calendars, to do list, project management, note taking processes, life administration etc.
Slightly different slant – but realise that you are sort of a team, likely to not be there forever, and supporting someone else’s dream &vision. Advocate for yp but also be a team player and build the wider vision.
(Thank you to all who contributed to these)
Of course, thriving doesn’t happen without often the need to survive the first few years, and whilst it has a few points, Doug Fields context of the mega church doesn’t always equate and his ‘first two years in youth ministry’ though sometimes, any advice on how to make it past what can be a fraught first two years is welcome. Often without realising it, we need to manage those above us, and manage people into managing us in a way we find most effective. But there is more to it than just management (and there’s a series on management on this site)
So- What will it take to thrive in youth ministry – or are many of those involved in it clinging on by their fingernails and just waiting for the next crisis to hit. And if that’s the case, forget thriving.