Listening is Loving

Back in the Mid Nineties, and it might even still be kicking around somewhere in the annals of basic youth ministry training mythology, there was a phrase that went like this:

Q:How do you spell Love?

A: T-I-M-E

The thought being at the time that ‘giving young people’ – giving anyone time was a way to ‘love’ them. What this seemed to say was that ‘by putting on’ a youth group, an activity for young people, and giving them time in your day, making time for them in the church schedules, creating time for them to be part of Sunday services – was a way to indicate that the young person, and as a group were loved.

In those, and every day, Young people have a high value on authenticity. Giving them ‘Time’ was a way to do this – or so it was meant to indicate.

Problem is that time was often about getting young people to be part of ‘doing what we (adults/the church) want them to do for us. It was a transactional relationship – we’ll give you time, if you do what we want – this is us showing that we love you. It was a transactional relationship in which young people in their masses have checked out the store and aren’t bothering to go back to, not even to claim a refund.

Maybe because Time wasn’t love after all.

Not in that way.

What if Listening is loving?

In Hector and the Search for Happiness, Hector recognises that Listening is Loving. Its key for happiness. Being listened to.

Listening is one of the core features of developing detached youthwortk on the streets and I public spaces. I would normally advocate for a good few weeks and months of sending out into the area teams of people to listen to the real sense of what is going on. Because listening occurs in a number of ways – before even conversations with young pope require listening to.

Listen to the Context – the sounds, the patterns, the behaviours, the interactions, the languages, the modes of speaking

Listen to the Context – what are its key messages to you – what’s the fight all about, whats getting people angry, upset, – whats the theme of the graffiti – who is writing it, whats noise is there at different times of the day, whats the chat about at bus stops, metro stops, buses or in the queues at the shops.

Listen to Ourselves – how are we making observations, can we accept and not make judgements? – what feelings to I have, do I acknowledge – what prejudices might I have, what favouritism might I have – what voices do I hear loudest – which are lessened?

It’s as if the precursor to community based work is listening…

But what kind of listening? It seems like listening has become the reaction to getting things wrong. Boris promises to ‘listen’ more after making a mistake – but how and how would have this been measured? Promising to listen, seems a political thing.

Of course tokenistic listening isn’t loving at all is it? Listening to only hear what we want for our means, seems like opportunist and strategic, and when I am only listening like this I miss the spaces in between..what isn’t being said

What if I’m listening to my children when they returned home from school a few years ago, and all I actually heard from them were the words ‘headmaster’ ‘trouble’ and ‘£10’, I was listening, but was also preparing food..what might I infer from the key words I heard? How might I react? Would I think they got into trouble stealing £10 and were sent to the headteacher? What if they were telling me their friend got into trouble? Or what if the headteacher said ‘if it’s no trouble can everyone pay £10 for the school trip?

Was I listening? Or was I listening and not being fully present? Was I listening and taking just the words I wanted to hear and trying to make conclusions from limited information? What ,maybe who, was more important, the task I was doing for them, or listening to them in the space?

Can listening in community work feel like the same? Listening for the important words so that we, organisations and charities and churches can fly into appropriate action? Is that love? Was it even listening?

If we’re interested in listening as loving, what kind of listening might that require? On a personal level, I didn’t know how to speak about difficulties in life…

Until I felt safe. A safe person, a safe relationship, safe. But even then it took time, alot of time. Listening so that I could act and change my reality. Not to have it done for me. But safety was what I needed.

Listening involves time. Listening involves patience

Listening involves listening to the gaps

Listening involves an open space for someone to talk, not a space to mine the information.

Listening involves ourselves…being willing and attentive

Listening involves noticing the emotions behind the words

Listening involves not interrupting

Listening

Is anyone listening?

Are we as good at listening as we might say we are?

Am I?

What does it take to be present to the person who is speaking to me?

What listening might be required?

What does it feel like to be listened to yourself?

Have you felt this? Have you?

What might it take to pass this on?

When I am anxious, I’m not listening, when Im afraid of silence, Im not listening, when Im trying to make something happen, and fear having too open a space in a one to one session with a young person – or in a supervisory context- am I listening? When the system, or the church, or the organisation is crumbling… is listening possible? What might the effects of not listening be? Usually assumptions, judgements, projections and quick fixes.

Listening is loving.

Non listening is something different.

I think the process of healing begins when we open our hearts and listen empathetically.

We can help people not because we know the solutions to their problems

but because we care enough to stay and lend our ears.

knowing that others have gone through similar difficulties

they become better equipped to cope with theirs

Haemin Sunim (Love for Imperfect things)

Will Robots really save the church?

After a successful trial in the Diocese of Northampton, the church of England , with SDSF funding, have procured a fleet of Automated Robots for Spiritual Exercises for its churches across England.

The Northampton trial was initially treated with suspicion in churches as parishioners felt that having a robot to perform the essential spiritual exercises would lack the human touch, but Diane from St Anne’s church in Corby is now a fan, and the parish have taken Richard their robot to their hearts saying ;’ If God can use all things for mission, why can’t he use robots?‘ Although his manufacturing name is Richard, they have nicknamed him ‘Robocom’ as one of the robots key tasks during the pandemic has been to hygenically transport the bread and wine through the church at the beginning of the service.

With a sharp reduction in volunteers during the lockdowns, Robocom has had alot of uses, says Gordon from the PCC, ‘ Robocom can voice activate the door key system, be pre programmed to read out the notices, and is obviously a mobile table for ensuring that people with access needs can receive tea and coffee after the services’ St Anne’s church was chosen also because though very practical, Robocom is unable to operate where there are steps.

‘Robocom’ just outside St Anne’s Corby, Northants

Adam Percy from SDSF explained the reasoning behind the national rollout of ARSE ministries, stating that ‘Its all about being intentionally missionally relevent in a post modern to a generation of digital natives’ .

The campaign group Churches Resistance to Automated Practices, have voiced concerns stating that ARSE is just a gateway to removing the need for Clergy completely, the Very Revd Thomas Smith, of Deeply Dipping, exclaimed that ‘Whilst I see the need for progress in the church of England, for inclusivity and embracing Digital communications and theology, especially during the pandemic, This is being rushed out, and rolled out with no consultation, Will there just be an army of Robocoms doing the liturgy and being pre programmed with a centralised sermon? Where will being relevent ever end? Surely this is just plugging a gap and not addressing the real problem?

But Dianne from Corby was more impressed, she described how Robocom had been a ‘hit’ , a novelty and that it’s begun to attract new people from the church, they have worked hard in their Living, love, levers , lithium and faith sessions to establish an inclusive Robot theology, drawing from Isaiah that the ‘Ion will one day lie with the lamb’ giving rise to some in the church developing an over robotised eschatology.

One of the key outcomes for ARSE in the original trial was to develop the youth and children’s work, in St Anne’s the children’s work has grown by 200% in 6 months, and because Robocom is pre programmed to include all the resources and ready to use material by SU, Urban Saints, YFC, Youthscape and Youthwork magazine, Robocom not only attracts the kids, but , with its adaptable voice system on ‘talking to kids setting’ it can run it too!

‘All in all Robocom has been a success’ (Dianne, Corby)

An Army of Robcoms waiting to feed the spiritually hungry across the UK

Churches across the country will soon be sent their own Robocom from ARSE ministries, each will have an eternal lifetime guarantee, each is made from plastic recycled from old digital projectors, and has a 3 hour running time before needing to be charged. They are fully waterproof for outdoor mission spiritual experiences. Parishioners are encouraged to participate in ARSE training so that they can operate Robocom efficiently, effectively and intentionally, for though Robocom does not pose a safeguarding concern, misuse or malfunction can be upsetting. ‘On one Sunday morning in St Anne’s, we got the children’s talk rather than the notices in the service, George on the back row was not amused’ said Dianne.

At the time of writing, ARSE ministries have recognised that airborne ministries have been long neglected, ‘Often the message we communicate is only to those 6ft over the ground’ says Dave from the innovative mission team, ‘To respond to this pressing need, our new initiative will develop the use of Drones In Communicating (the) Kingdom, these DiCKs will provide a valuable airborne ministry, especially where Robocoms are unable to climb the stairs.’

By the way, some of this article is actually true. Robots are being trialled in Northampton, but to deliver food. Here’s where you can one in action https://youtu.be/MufmNWGVUQw

Co-op expands its robot delivery scheme in Northampton

Might accessible church be good for all?

I was at a workshop today, in which the following list was created, can you guess what it was about?

  • Keep in Simple
  • Use multi sensory activities
  • Form a good relationship – connect
  • Make sure the length isn’t too long
  • Value quality over quantity
  • Ensure inclusivity
  • Share Gods love
  • Keep things familiar
  • Make it about heart and not just head knowledge
  • Value ceremony and sacred
  • Dont patronise
  • Give roles so that they are involved
  • Appreciate the interruptions, it might be Gods voice
  • Value understanding and listening
  • Have a clear structure
  • Create opportunities for serving and using gifts
  • In the Socialisation after ask open questions

and to make it easier for you..this one…

  • Ask the folks about hymns and subjects that they like

What do you think?

What might be this list about?

And maybe…what kind of workshop did I go on today?

Yes that’s right, you guessed it.

I went on a workshop about how to make church services accessible to young people, it was great, we talked about participation, giving responsibility and ownership, giving space for young people who might struggle with limited attention, behavioural issues like ADHD, about valuing their voice and interruptions, about the varied ways of learning, using bodies, using senses, not just minds, about being present and ensuring a good welcome.

It was just fabulous.

Only.

It wasn’t was it.

Sadly it wasnt about young people at all.

This list was about how to make worship accessible to older folks in care homes, led by the chaplains at Methodist homes association.

Oh.

It was about being accessible, inclusive, participatory, sensory, gentle, relational, challenging but not patronising, meaningful and respectful, responsive and also planned, with adults in a care home setting. How to respond to interruptions of their body functions, illness, about keeping things familiar , about encouraging it to be a space where they could have dignity and join in appropriately, it was about recognising the need for safety, for volunteers, for it to be about heart, and head.

What if this was what church was like….normally?

Why isnt it?

Why does the care home get all the good church services?

makes me think that I can’t wait to be old.

If church can be participative and accessible in the community setting of a care home (with all the inspection, guidance, social control, policies) – then why cant it be like this in its own setting? And yes sometimes it is…

If you were to ask young people about how they would want to make church more accessible to them – so many of these things would be said. In fact this is what research showed a few years ago.

In that piece I shared that from the research by Fuller , these were the headlines…in 2017..

When I look at the way in which the examples of church are described in ‘Here be Dragons; Youthwork and Mission off the map’ (2013) – they are all very similar – youth congregations in community settings with a space to worship that they have ownership, participation, serving, ceremony, sacredness, community and giving – also inclusive and open, with public facing and interruptions. Not unlike the care home.

I just found the similarities fascinating and revealing today, so I thought id share them with you.

Because…young people are just people after all….- and accessible church might be good for everyone…mightn’t it?

I needed Youthwork, to Save Me (and it did)

I had to face a painful reality recently.

If someone asked me the following question:

Why did you want to become a youth worker?

It would depend on who was asking me the question as to what I answer I would give.

But, as we know, it wasn’t for the money, neither was it for the job security, or the career prospects. It wasnt for the working conditions, the annual bonuses or the company holiday schemes, or pensions. It wasnt to be noticed, famous or be powerful.

I might have fumbled an answer ; ‘Im not really sure, it just happened’ or unconvincing said that ‘ I think God called me into it’ – but did I really believe that?

As soon as I could I took on responsibilities in my church growing up, and became a ‘leader’ (you can read more about my story here, on my other blog) , and even as a participant of groups and clubs – I gravitated to the adults, I wanted to help, to find out how things worked. Its as if I didn’t want to stay a child. (as I wrote here, I was typecast as an adult even in primary school plays)

I grew up wanting to escape being a child as soon as possible. Being a child wasnt safe for me.

I orientated myself around other adults very quickly, especially those who I needed to be safe, and for me to get positive attention and identity amongst.

Growing up evangelical, and what I heard to was to be self sacrificial, to give, to volunteer, to commit to ‘The Lord’ all that, and so I did, love and serve others – love and serve others…in the hope of finding some kind of satisfaction, some kind of identity, some kind of purpose. This was all part of it.

I thought if I became involved in church ministry – it might please my parents. Me the trophy older child doping the thing that might actually cause this to happen. Or, when this didnt happen, the me that was going to prove them wrong by doing well in it. That didnt end well. 20 or more years of need that being a youthworker was meant to fulfil.

But it didnt.

So I have to accept it.

Because the truth of the answer to the question I couldn’t and didnt want to answer is this.

I wanted to save young people, because I wanted them to save myself.

Its something I’ve known for well over a year, since I was in therapy over a year ago, and in ‘The Courage to be happy’ I read it this week:

I would have denied it, had you asked me anytime up until a few years ago. I was so in denial. In denial of everything.

Running not facing a reality.

But not anymore. So, this is not painful to write, and admit, how much I needed to be a youthworker.

I wanted it to make me happy – but I had no idea of how to be happy

I wanted it to make others see me – but that with emotionally immature parents – is impossible

I wanted to save others, and give other children and young people a safe, fun, educative childhood – that I didnt have – but the truth was that I had no reference point for that on an emotional level.

The difference now is acceptance.

I accept that this was me.

I accept that my worth came from other people.

And…. now… I can see it for what it is.

Theres no point in fighting or denying it any longer. It’s ok.

I may have become a youthworker – and a good, theologically, theoretically well thought and regarded youthworker for all those reasons – but who am I now? And what does it mean for the now?

What does it mean for me now – now that I’m different on the inside?

Maybe ill be able to enjoy it more for what it is, and have fun, live and be happy – as a youthworker – rather than hoping it will one day save me.

The best youthworker I could ever be, was the one who youthworked myself.

The one who spoke to me.

Give myself permission to be a child, be safe, be heard, to feel, to be valuable.

Starts from within.

So, can I now give to others, without needing in return?

Isn’t that a healthier place to be?

Safe Spirituality (Part 1)

As some of you may know I’ve been writing on emotional health and healing on my other blog ‘Healing for Men‘, the link is above, on that blog, I write about my journey of self awareness and healing from abuse. In this blog I have tended to write about youth work practice and how this is theological and spiritual and my own experiences as a practitioner.

Somewhere between the two, for me, sits the spiritual, and thats why , when ive had a number of things I wanted to write about, about faith and spirituality I didn’t know where I was going to ‘put them’, so ill try here.

The concept ive been pondering for a while combines spirituality with safety.

So, starting with ‘Safe’

How important is safety in our youthwork and mission practice?

To the policy makers and external stakeholders and public – safety brings to the attention safeguarding, child protection and risk assessment – ensuring that people are safe as they participate in the space.

But safety is something more than this isn’t it?

As Goffman, in ‘The Presentation of the Self in everyday life’ (1960) says, safety exists in the interaction of relationships.

And talking about safety. Theres Maslow.

And when Ive thought about Maslow in the past, I wasn’t thinking about myself. I was thinking only about how the young people in my groups, my projects and ministry are on this ladder, and how – beyond the physiologically necessary, safety wasn’t important.

But what didn’t I see. Myself.

Maybe youthwork academic training wasn’t the time or place to see these things, or myself. But what kind of faith or spirituality did I have – in a place where I had no emotional safety, awareness and in denial of myself? It was faith – it was academic faith. Ask me to write an essay about theology and I could. Just don’t ask me to feel anything. Church was a place of work, a place to be productive – it wasn’t a place to be. But I digress, the question remains – What kind of spirituality and faith could I have – when I was in denial and hiding deep trauma? When I wasn’t in a place of safety?

If I wasn’t safe to feel and express emotions – what kind of spirituality was I trying to have – defiantly not one that was healthy. It was from a false self, a codependent self, it was from an incomplete place.

This passage was shared with me today- at the end of Lukes Gospel:

Luke 24; 22-34- NLT taken from Bible Gateway.

Regular readers of my blog will know that this passage has featured before. Today I noticed something about safety.

The disciples are walking back from the terrors of Jerusalem, and the drama of the crucifixion weekend, and everything that has crashed, burned, fear of the Roman Empire, and soldiers all around. These two were walking home, and on the open road are met with a visitor they didn’t recognise. In trauma they couldn’t and didn’t see. Their mind so engrossed in the consequences of the events. Past plaguing present.

But what happens to them when they reach a place of safety – their home?

They not only see.

But they also feel.

Their hearts burn – they feel.

It is something new for them – to feel Jesus, to feel.

Faith wasn’t just a head exercise – it involved their whole body. But could only do so from and in a place of safety.

They didn’t just ‘not see’, or not know – until then they didn’t feel either. Until they were safe. Thats when they can express their feelings.

So – what kind of faith did they then have – through death and resurrection – beyond trauma- safety was what was required, for them to connect mind to heart and experience – and also faith.

They had a different faith – once it wasn’t just their head.

They had a different faith – when they were safe enough to feel.

When it was their whole body.

Where would these two disciples have been on Maslows scale? Basic needs – probably..safety..not quite… but what happened once they were in a place of safety? Something inside, feelings, emotions and faith changed.

And, back to me – what I have experienced in the last 3 years, that I didn’t know I needed before – and was living and doing faith in ‘survival mode’- safety, physical and emotional safety- and as a consequence… being able to feel, to be and to connect more closely and deeply with my body, and soul, emotions and feelings.

As a result – something has changed spiritually too.

Ill explore this with you in a few upcoming blogs, but I kind of wanted this one to be an introduction to my experiences and reflections on safe spirituality.

Thank you for reading, comments and thoughts welcome.

Confessions of a Young Youth Minister (4) History making worship events

I had already gone through ‘the pain’ of worship events even before I turned up on my Oasis Frontline gap year.

My home church had a band, it had a ‘cool’ youth pastor with ‘cool’ ish hair who did ‘cool’ assemblies, the thought arose to have a ‘Friday night’ worship event service thingy, we’ll call it something edgy like ‘Powerhouse’ , we’ll put posters up everywhere, ill tell friends in school, it’ll be the loudest, best, edgiest, worship service in town and hundreds of people will turn up.

It was great. It was fun, It was well put together, it was a lot of work, the music was amazing, and as a teenager I loved it. As did the 25 others who regularly came along to this ‘thing’.

And boy did they do some great songs, at the time, I mean, mostly ‘cutting edge’ (pre Delirious days) and Kevin Prosch stuff.. (look him up on you tube..)

‘Powerhouse’ lasted about 18 months, if that.

And I event went to ‘events’ in other church halls in villages around Leicestershire that were billed as ‘for young people’ and all the lights – and we were the only youth group that turned up, as visitors, alot of work for 8 ‘already going to a different youth group’ young people.

Yet I confess.

I confess to forgetting all of this, and thinking that If I did something similar in a different town as ‘An OASIS person’ – and with the very well known Steve Chalke, things would be very different.

By then even Delirious had popularised better songs, and I could play Capo 5 Em Chord and kick it all off with ‘History Maker’ , and we could all go deeper…

We were well advanced at trying to make the mountains tremble, oh no.. we were being history makers. That Capo on the 5th fret was going to make all the difference, especially on my nice sounded Takamine Guitar in a big venue with the band, a band that had at least one future member of YFRIDAY in it (not that we knew it then)

What venue will hold all the possible people in all the churches in the town – yes lets book that one

What amount of kit shall we take – and lets include pushing a sofa half way through the town as a publicity stunt so that ‘WE CAN INTERVIEW STEVE CHALK SITTING DOWN’ – because thats what will …will do something, and include having to carry a sofa up two flights of stairs, and this would take all afternoon to do, and then take it back that evening if I remember rightly… oh man.. why..

And lets make sure all the churches know about it

And Steve, yes Steve Chalke is off the telly and he’s a big name and people will want to hear him

And we were the Oasis team (s) and we have enthusiasm and passion and big smiles and people love us and we can play that Capo 5 Em chord from which the whole of history in the small town of Hartlepool will be so different as we do this thing and make things happen and it will be glorious and there’ll be revival and we need to train a prayer ministry team just in case and and and and…….

That first chord was amazing. Lights amazing. It was probably one of my most comfortable times on a stage, with a guitar.

And not just any guitar, it was my lovely Takamine Guitar, sounded amazing, and we did a great interview with Steve and it was a night which was a well put together event that was good experience for us all.

But it was what it was, and… we had to turn everything down, because that big hall (the FE college assembly room) for 400 people, had just about 40 in it at best.

It had alot of good things about it, but history making inducing it probably wasnt….

And I soon forgot this, only to try something again less than a year later, and that one was much much more painful. That one ended up being my last ever ‘on stage’ event thing, as a kind of ‘worship night’ style thing.

That second one was poorly organised, rehearsed and a shambles really, biting off far more than I could chew on my own, and included getting the fire brigade out as the cardboard that covered the stainless windows to make the church look even darker fell down in the night before , thus setting off the burglar alarm. There was no order, programme or practice. And I stood on the stage making things up as we went along, and people had ‘actually travelled’ and it bombed.

So, this confession is something about how I had got taken up by a false sense of possibility, a false sense of what a ‘trendy/contemporary/edgy even ‘ worship event could actually do, and the part I had in them, a part that kept trying to make them bigger, louder and more complicated. Yet I also see now how the push from many corners to be ‘the revival generation’ and use worship songs as mission was all around, it was part of the 1990’s evangelical subculture that I identified with, I mean why not have Soul Survivor in the north…. and there was one, it was called Harvest, and it ran for 20 odd years.

Confessions of a young youth minister number 4 is about not just those worship events, my attachment to them at the time, and also how I must have been a nightmare to be around in the preceding weeks. I know these things aren’t about ‘numbers’ – but I think I’d wrapped up a chuck of my identity in this way of doing things, and so maybe, actually, having that bubble burst early wasn’t a bad thing, but it was painful.

They were good for a number of things, but revival inducing? nah.

Were we history makers…. probably… but did we need a song sung loud with a capo on the fifth fret to know it… probably not. We ended up more like kinds of fools to be honest. But it was the 1990’s….

Confessions of a young youth minister (3) The Funky chicken assembly.

Have you ever heard the song ‘The Funky Chicken’?

Whats that you say?

I mean – Have you heard the song the funky chicken?

Well let me hear your funky chicken..

It may still be sung now, or variants of it, but back in 1996, this was one of the ‘songs’ that was part of the collective spirit of my Oasis Frontline gap year. It wasn’t an anthem, we didn’t take it that far, but, it was one of those fun songs that we all learned in the training and developed in a number of ways.

It goes like this… best sung in a circle in a group of about 20

Let me see your funky chicken, whats that you say?

Let me see your funky chicken, whats that you say?

I said let me see your funky chicken…

And cue a mass of bodies flapping pretend wings around, making appropriate chicken noises and until someone shouts

‘Let me see your_______’

And then other verses were added as created by participants – like ‘praying nun’ ‘jumping kangaroo’ ‘slow moving snail’ ‘energetic windmills’ – and the rest…

So, that was the funky chicken, and all would have been fine… All that is except that we as a team had the ONE opportunity to do a High school assembly in the entire year, to promote our upcoming christian union, and what did we decide to do, to try and be ‘cool’ and ‘fun’?

Yes, you guessed it.

In front of a group of 150 year 8-9’s.

We decided to go full weird and ‘do’ the funky chicken.

Getting them on their feet, singing it in front of them, trying to teach them the song, and pray they might join in, then find us funny, and cool..

I think it was only us doing funky chicken moves in the first verse… not going well

Throwing sweets at them in the third verse helped ‘let me see your boiled sweets’ – but we may have injured a few people as the boiled sweets landed

We could tell it was going badly half way through the second verse, but like good seasoned performers, weren’t giving up, we were committed, and trying desperately to get some audience participation and contributions by then.

There was a few shocked looks on the faces of the teachers.

And pupils in the back rows some falling over each other trying to take part and yes, it was carnage. For others it was met with stoic non moving and pupils who didnt know whether they had permission to even move.

Thankfully my memory protects me from remembering all the different verses we used. But we thought we were amazing. We thought that by making such an impression we could get loads of the pupils to the christian union the following lunchtime. By hoping that they thought we were cool, and that by default ‘God’ was cool, they would be interested in coming to a group like this.

How many people turned up? guess…

6.

And all of then were the kids we saw at church already. We’d managed to scare off a few of them too, as word of the crazy assembly spread.

We had the opportunity to ask some good questions, to try and give the impression to the pupils that we had something of value, and that it was a place where they could find out more about faith- instead we pranced around, and yes im gentle with myself about something that happened over 25 years ago, and Ive have done a few assemblies since,

but my first high school assembly was definitely one that fits in this confessions series… I dont think I could do the funky chicken ever again…..

Confessions of a young youth minister (2) – The Calamitous ‘Residential’

When we were young, a residential was just the thing to help us all bond together

Taking them out of their normal environment will do them and you good

Oh those words.

The more pertinent words are, however, from when I turned up early at church, having had no sleep and , even in the days before easy communication, the kindly members of the congregation said

So they ran you a bit ragged last night did they?

This is the second of my ‘Confessions of a young youth minister’ pieces, and it is about a calamitous residential.

On paper it was a great idea. No it wasnt.

On paper it was a terrible idea. It was an idea based upon ‘previous experience’ – and with no actual sensible thinking at all. One even beyond considering it a ‘learning experience’.

For about 4 months, my team and I, after arriving in Hartlepool (see part 1) had begun an open drop in type youth club, which included about 8-9 12-14 year old girls who were on the fringe of the church and their friends, and 8-10, maybe more, 12-15 year old boys from ‘the estate’. Not just ‘the estate’ either, but somewhat notorious on the estate.

We tried. To the best of an ability and experience that was sorely lacking at the time, silly games and icebreakers and ‘god-slot’ moral talks were all opportunities for continued disruption, attention and..after 2-3 months we were exasperated.

So – why not do a residential? – Was the suggestion put to us…this was the kind of thing we used to do in the 1970’s , take the kids on a minibus to somewhere away.

But this wasnt a minibus, or a trip.

This was to the house of one of the church elders, who had been ‘that youthworker’ in the 1970’s, 60’s and 50’s.

We received the consent forms, probably fraudulent, and probably grateful – a 3 line slip on the bottom of an A4 sheet.

We didnt know where we were going, aside from the address.

It wasnt a ‘fun’ place – just a house on another estate in the town – an equally notorious estate.

So we took 8 13-14 year olds, very aggressive, cunning, clever, manipulative, ‘already on the police radar’ boys on a walk from their estate, to a house we’d never been to, 2 miles through town, and getting there realised that any bit of planning was going straight out of the window.

And we did plan, because though I dont remember the journey to the house, I remember that we carried items for games and food, I think.

And it was predictable chaos.

For 4 hours the boys just run around the house.

And through windows, and breaking back in through windows, and down the street, and back again.

Unless the food was being served.

Then they’d lock themselves in rooms, in spaces and hide away.

For 7 hours solid, from around 8pm to 4am, this was the pattern.

It was a residential where it was like being in a prison. In someone else house, with young criminals tearing it apart.

Give them credit, they were enjoying themselves. Give them even more credit they knew how to work in a team far better than the three of us leaders. Team work where two would play up, distract and then others would join in. Where three would run around the house, whilst others stole items, or where they would open windows and doors for each other.

And ill not mention all the activities that went on in the toilets.

Far far too clever for us.

It was pointless trying to get any sleep. Utterly pointless.

So we cut our losses and rationalised, at 5am..

So in the end, I, on my own, walked maybe 4 of the most notorious ones back to their estate, not far from the team house, at around 5.30am, through the streets of hartlepool. Not before they’d ran off completely I think. Not before id considered my life choices at that time.

Not before id already began to realise that ‘what was good for me, or worked for other young people in days gone by, may not work right now’ – though im not sure many residential occur in other peoples houses, with this level of naivety.

I got back to the house at around 6am, slept a few hours then turned up for church.

So, in hindsight , what am I confessing here?

Partly its something about being able to not say ‘no’ at the time, when the ‘great idea’ of a residential was put forward. It really wasnt. Partly its a confession about not knowing what to do, but wanting to do something, and this was so off the mark. Yes, we did get to know the lads even more, but only really in ways that revealed their more destructive sides. Maybe its a confession too about still trying to have plans and programmes and try and entertain out educate young people, even try and have control in an environment, be a leader – when a different approach was required. But I really didn’t know that at the time.

Confessions of a Youth minister part 2, is about the time of the Calamitous residential. I know im not alone in this…

Confessions of a young youth minister (1) Community prayer walking

So , there I was, armed with 5 years of lived in youth ministry from a middle class, midlands based evangelical church, and a weeks worth of ‘training’ , with a group of three other gap year students, landed in a ‘tough’ estate in the north east of England for a year, the year 1996. A year to ‘do mission’ a year to ‘do youth ministry’ a year to ‘redeem Hartlepool’ , a year to support the local church.

Or so I thought.

So what did we do? What did I do as the ‘team leader’ ?

There are probably many more confessions of a young youth minister that could be just ‘confessions of an Oasis Frontliner’ but most of them created the rule changes internally, rather than cause too much angst and shame. There probably are other stories to tell, but this one is the first, and involves something known as prayer walking..

The first month, of an 8 month gap year that I was on, was shaped as being a time to ‘get to know’ the neighbourhood – it would be what I would suggest takes a year to do in a 3-5 year plan, but we had a month in a gap year of 8 months, and if I remember rightly we did have some kind of community profile task to do, which meant in the days before the internet, a trip to the library and looking at local history, and trying to talk to a few people.

One of the ways we thought we would do this was to do some ‘prayer walking’ around the community. So, as team, we figured out routes, maps and pairs, and armed with 4 versions of evangelical faith (from prophetic, to charismatic to anglican) we set out on a prayer walk, not just ‘a’ walk – but a prayer walk.

Our aims for it were complex and ambitious, they were either to get to know the estate/ remove the estate of demons/ pray for those who looked like they needed it/ lay hands on difficult areas/ and to publicly pray out loud in places so that people might just ‘see the love of God’ in action.

Yes we were going for all of these.

At least, those where all the rhetoric in the prayers before all the walking starting, as we energised ourselves by praying louder and more enthusiastic before we left the house. Not only that but probably add a small dose of revival, blessing and long term generational change by our obedient walking actions, were all reverently called down to the Lord above for.

So we walked.

And oh my, do I cringe now.

I confess to standing and laying hands on the graffiti on a toilet block in the recreation ground, and feeling a ‘spirit’ of oppression in the parks and football pitches and going full jugular, crying before the Lord in angst at the lack of Godliness in the place. As we walked, in mournful prayerful attitude I remember how we would look for all the signs of where God wasnt in the place, where there was so obvious needs, like half naked 6 yr old boys on bike with no shoes on, like the graffiti, and any item that we could interpret as being not godly. The tattoo shop was one, as was the betting shop, we made assertions about some houses, that were probably not merited.

Strange that the middle class, privately owned houses seemed to have less demons around them.

Then we discovered the loose cassette tape.

We started to find cassette tape around the estate, and equated this, after much careful research and ‘amateur demonic prayer insight’ that the cassette tape was laid down by local witches who were marking their evilness around by use of loose cassette tape. From then on, for the next 7 months , any walking around the estate involved picking up cassette tape, that we ‘knew’ had demonic music on it (it wasnt video tape), and then the more we picked up, the more that got left. We saw it everywhere.

We became cassette tape warriors for the estate.

As I look back, over 20 years, with a mixture of shame and embarrassment at being the first month into a voluntary gap year with a large evangelical organisation in the mid 1990’s, I confess that it wasnt the organisation that encouraged us to do this specific thing, it wasnt its values, it was us, it was me.

Saving others and fixing others was what I thought I had to do, and part of the prayer walking, I realise, was to identify all the areas in the community where I, we, or God could fix, solve or redeem. Also, that I, and our team were the called people to help God identify the right areas to start this.

I imagine God laughing at us going, ‘it was just a play park’ whilst I was praying the demons out of an abandoned slide or swings that had been broken. At the time, I thought I was seeing like God was seeing, brokenness, hurt and evil – what I ignored was how things could be seen as good, hopeful and already a place where God was at work. I was only seeing the community in a way that gave me more work to do to fix it.

Also I was, and as a team we were, doing our best to justify our existence in a place, and my word we must have looked so odd, so out of place, and despite a few young people we did get to know, because none of our high aims were met, it was easy to go about judging the estate as a hard one, a tough one, and one in which the witches with the cassette tape had claimed as their own. Better to do that than think that we might have been wrong.

So yeah, confessions of a very young ‘Oasis Frontliner’ or volunteer youth minister, a tale from the mid nineties, a tale of ‘community profiling’ that was all sorts of weird, coupled with a mess of mid nineties post ‘toronto blessing, midst of vineyard power evangelism’ state in the UK, and one fresh faced me, wanting to save the world.

There might be more to follow….actually…I think its fairly likely….

Growing, Sowing, Planting- But what we know about soil?

Planting, Sowing, Growing, Re-wilding, Seeds, Growth, Pruning, Fruit,

Doesnt it feel that many of the churches strategies have a farming metaphor complex about them at times, and yet, aside from the farmer, and the weather, all of them require something that is rarely talked about.

So let me ask you a question.

What do you know about soil?

Its essential for pretty, id say all of the growing of anything. So what do you know about it?

I dont know much. The tiny bit I knew I gleaned from you tube videos as I was building and creating a home allotment bed a few years ago

You mean to say that I shouldn’t be digging over my allotment every year?

Said a friend to me recently when he shared the back breaking work of maintaining a small raised bed.

So what do you know about soil?

The good soil is the one in which the seed when planted delves deep , its roots form and fruit is produced, good soil is also a place in which both wheat and weeds inhabit. It is required for growth, regardless of what is grown. (Matthew 15)

Over the past month I have been reading James Rebanks book ‘The English Pastoral’ which is all about farming in Cumbria. 3-4 generations of farming in Cumbria, and the 1000’s of years prior too. They stand on the stiles of stone walls.

You would think that a farmer, and a history of farming in a land, would know about soil, but, actually what surprised me was that they didnt.

Well, actually.. thats not quite true. They knew intuitively about soil. They just didnt know it as a technology.

Soil was the lifeblood of the farm. It was a part of the farm. A character.

It had been tended to, on rotation for centuries. Never allowed to be exhausted by one crop, or concentrated by the manure of animals for too long, or left barren and empty for too long either. It was given rest, recuperation, growth periods, nutrients in, space to breathe, and had crops rotated on it so that it didnt get drained.

And it was hard work. The Farmer didnt know about the soil, but knew the importance and value of the soil.

Farmers learned the hard way through endless experiments, trial and error, discovering that if we over exploited our soil, ecosystems would collapse, and our ability to live and prosper with it. Fields could not produce the same crops over and over again without becoming exhausted. This was because each crop took nutrients from the soil, emptying its bank of fertility eventually, and then crop diseases would build up in the tired ground and they become devastating. Nature would punish the farmer for his arrogance.

Whole civilisations disappeared because their farming methods degraded their soils, the solution was rotational farming…

James Rebanks, 2020, p 102

However, as James says..

It seemed kind of amazing to that I could have grown up on a farm and had eleven years of schooling and never once had anyone tell me why these things were done (talking of rotational farming)

What he noticed from his grandfather was that there was an ongoing cycle, and that barely a thing was wasted from the farm. So much was returned back to the soil eventually.

Intuitively a farmer had known about the soil. Intuitively, after years and decades of trial and error.

But as James explains, in detail. The need for cheaper food, the pull of the market, and the expanded use of chemicals, both to fertilise and to reduce pests, changed farming, and changed the soil.

Farms became machines in themselves. Just a means to an end.

Farmers were enslaved by economists.

It became a new normal but it wasnt normal at all.

The way animals were now housed meant that they got more disease which meant more drugs and then solutions to alleviate the pests that were caused by a situation that was deemed progress, and as a result,

Farmers trying to persue intensive methods of animal production were prone to suffer catastrophic losses

Rebanks 2020, p130

Traditional pastoral systems tended to mimic what worked in the wild; grazing cattle or sheep were healthiest when they were herded around a range of habitats or by a shepherd or a cowherd, or left to their own devices across landscapes. new intensive farming placed animals in surroundings that made them distressed, diseased, dirty and stressed. The more of progress we saw, the less we liked it.

Revelation arrived about the damage of progress, was beginning. By sight the once varied landscape was now a monotonous colour of artificially fertilised evergreen crop, the same every year. Old buildings torn down and replaced by metallic monochrome structures, Tractors got bigger and bigger, fences knocked down and hedgerows destroyed to make their access and productivity increase. Rather than admire these, the traditional farmer saw these as ghastly.

But some of those bigger farms went bankrupt. There was no pleasure in seeing friends lose farms.

Revelation also happened in the soil.

As James Rebooks dad had began to discover, the truth was discovered in the soil.

There were no birds chasing the tractor in a factory farm. The soil was dead. No worms for the birds, no food for the nesting birds to find. The high volume grass for the cows created a toxic slurry, that when excreted didnt furnish the land with nutrients it had before. The Cycles of life had been broken. New farming had taken two mutually beneficial things, grazing animals and fertilising fields and separated them to create two massive industrial scale problems in two places. Farms with muck had too much, and farms with crop had not enough, and then had to rely on chemicals. Livestock bred on chemical feed was producing toxins, everywhere life was being killed off… for the sake of progress.

Outcomes – cheap food

Technology – to make life easier, bigger and more effective

Nothing was valued, and machines and technology was worshipped. (p186)

We didnt think it was our job to to know, or care, we were too busy doing other things, if large corporations gave us things we wanted, we let them. But it was an illusion, an industrial arrogance, a future that didnt work, a dystopia. What we do know in our hearts – even the most optimistic of us- is that finding our way back will take time and faith, and a radical structural changes in our relationship with food and farming

Rabanks p187

Had a devastating effect, though very gradual at the time on the soil. It was a change that took only 40 years to do, to affect the 1000’s of years before it.

One effect of the many changes in that soil and the landscape was that it was so uniformed and straightened, that when water hit it in tumultuous amount, Carlisle and much of the Lake District was flooded.

Farmers realised that they had been listening to economists for too long.

In the last chapter of the book James describes the future, not nostalgia or progress but the future.

One in which the reversal of uncritiqued progress had started to take place.

One in which the soil is treated as it should be. One in which the land is seen, as the ecosystem of vibrancy and beauty, and not just a technology, a means to an end.

Our land is like a poem, in a patchwork, landscape of other poems, written by hundreds of people, both these here and now and many hundreds that came before us, with each generation adding new layers of meaning and experience. And the poem, if you can read it, tells a complex truth. It has both moments of great beauty and of heartbreak. It tells of human triumph and failing, of what is good in people and what is flawed and what we need, and how in greed we can destroy precious things. It tells of what stays the same and what changes; and of honest hard working folk, clinging on over countless generations, to avoid being swept away by the giant waves of a storm as the world changes. It is also the story of this who lost their grip and were swept away from the land, but who still care, and are now trying to find their way home

Rebanks, p 197

So I wonder, and ask, What might I learn about soil, from one mans experience of three generations of farming, and maybe also, what do I notice about the changes in one industry that resonate with me, as I work in a faith based context. How are we as youth workers, ministers, churches creating the possibility of good, long lasting soil, in which beauty is returning and people can make their way back home? What resistance might there be to ‘soil destruction’ for the sake of outcomes?

Has the church listened to economists too long already and their view of the world seen as default?

So- what do you know about soil? I know a little bit more, just a bit, and ive been awoken to the challenges and experiences of how devaluing the soil has been disastrous for it. Soil itself is so complex that we dont technically know all about it even now, a weave of nutrients, bacteria, organisms that provide an environment for growth.

What is stopped being noticed and a sign that the soil is starting to die, what might be deliberately destroying it?

Maybe the soil isn’t ‘the church’ its also ‘you and me’ (and we are the church) – so what do I do? How do I become, or be healthy soil? What is rotational balance, and what doing I need to do to be the kind of person in which growth occurs without destroying my nature?

I have come that you may have life, life in all its fullness….

After 40 years of absence, James’ farm reverberates with the sounds of the curlews, the colour of the wild flowers, the noise of sheep and cattle in small numbers, the trickle of the winding becks and irregular ponds that scatter the farm. Life has returned. It will not make a profit, but it will live, and be a legacy of life and beauty for his children.

James Rebanks, The English Pastoral. I highly recommend it.