Over the last few weeks i have begun to think again about the initial processes in detached youthwork, as i have had to re work the training i used to deliver for The Sidewalk Project in Perth to my new role here in Ottery, and also have seen and heard from other practitioners locally here in the south west.
My thinking is thus… during the initial moments of encountering young people, ie in the cold contact stage, how intentional should you be? how honest should you be about your faith? and how respectful should you be to the power and context of the young people?
So, if you as a detached youthworker are intending in the long run to build relationships with the young people so that they find faith, shouldn’t you say this right at the beginning of forming the relationship? in the same way that its easy to knock the manipulation young people feel when they are attracted to church based events only to be given a ‘non- threatening- gospel- message’ , is this non disclosure of christian intentions at the outset of detached work the same thing?
However, on the other hand, by going into the context of young people, in their territory, the street, the park should we be mindful of using language and shaping conversation and taking the power and control away from the young people and directing it to ourselves? especially if we use words such as ‘christian’ , ‘faith’ or ‘church’, should we not seek to understand the context, gain acceptance, identify groups and build relationships?
It may be easier to have different motives and intentions than ‘just christian ones’, but even then by stating these the power has shifted in that moment. Maybe our very presence has already shifted the power in the context of the street or park and so by being there we already have permission, after all why would we go up to a group of young people unless we had something important that they might want to be involved in?
One of the frequent questions i hear from volunteers is ‘at what point is it preferable to say who and what you are to the young people’ and whilst every situation is different, stating it at the beginning changes the dynamic of the conversation, though it might be easier to get it out of the way. Stating it at the middle could interrupt the flow, unless there was the right moment to do so, and if i am honest the end of a conversation is difficult to predict so worth doing it soon. There are occasions where young people could trust you more because they know who you are and what you’re about, but that still doesn’t solve what is to be said.
In Perth it was easy, as we were on the streets to help support young people through alcohol misuse related issues, and so this provoked a discussion about alcohol or young people ignored it. On other occasions we could say we were youthworkers who were looking to help or support young people to make positive lifestyle choices, find jobs etc. None of this was in any way a challenge to the young people on the streets, as alcohol/jobs/employment are not contested or complicated concepts.
However, whilst these other factors are often by-products of the detached work that we do, what should we do when as christians we do detached work for churches, or christian agencies it with an intention to build church/kingdom in the community ( and yes this could take many forms..). ?
If we state from the outset that this is our intention then at least we could be considered to be ethically honest with the young people, yet there might be young people for whom hearing this is an immediate put off and at that moment a barrier has been put up and they never become part of it. In being up front and deliberate we present young people with an immediate choice, and know who is immediately with us or not with us. It also shapes the conversation we have with them to be about a topic that we intend, rather than they already had. Is this any different to the rudeness we feel when Jehovahs witnesses who knock on our door? after all they came to our territory and sought to dictate our thinking about religious beliefs that we weren’t interested in? Should we actively use ‘christian’ words to evoke a challenge? would this approach alienate those who might need us, but dont feel comfortable with such a direct choice?
However, in being mindful of the territory and selectively concealing our full intentions do we run the risk of being manipulative in our christian detached work? Only revealing this after a period of time, when we have established groups or relationships? Yes i realise that during the processes of conversation over a period of time the young people will ask us questions about our intentions, whether we go to church ( we must be christians, mad or paid alot to walk the streets in the cold/wet/snow, after all) or belief in God, and so there may almost be an expectation that we say something. But doing so at their discretion may be different from dictating the moment?
The question then may be whether as christians we use the methods of detached youthwork to grow the church, or as christians we embrace the youthwork aspect of detached youthwork and the intricacies of what being detached and in the territory of young people work is about? Often that choice is laiden with the complexities of funding, of agencies and organisation.
So what did Jesus do, i hear you cry? well to some he asked “what do you want me to do for you”, to others he said ” would you get me a drink” to those who asked him a question grounded in Scriptures, he gave a scriptural answer, to those who were wishing to trap him, he confounded them with his superior knowledge. And yet in all cases some accepted, and some rejected him.
There may be occasions, and this happened in Perth that young people are wanting to discuss spiritual matters very directly, and have a conversation with youthworkers who are prepared to listen and explore with these things with them, on other occasions they are asking about church or faith to test the boundaries. To have a laugh even.
Is there a right answer, probably not, and so maybe the context of urban or rural, of short term mission, or long term youthwork, of kingdom building or church planting may dictate these, though its not to say that either is any less appropriate than the other, given that what works is a matter for the worker, their agency and the types of relationships that you are looking to create.