Summery detached youthwork

So you’re a detached youthworker are you? you must be looking forward to the light evenings , or when the clocks go back? – for the amount of times in the last 6 years that ive heard that, and i have to say no, not really, i strangely look forward to the dark, the twilight, not necessarily the cold, but the damp, misty kind of evenings.

Dont get me wrong, summer is ok, so is late spring, and maybe September and October are the best months for detached work, or at least so ive experienced.  Yet, not unlike the weather, detached youthwork is seasonal, and i guess contextually variable against those seasons.

Over the past few months, in the heatwave, there have been slightly, and only slightly, more young people out and about in a small devon rural town compared to February, March and April, yet their reasons for being out and about are different to those earlier in the year, and in the main these are different young people. 

The summer, for me, brings out the tourist young people, you know, the ones that say that they’re out every week, but never are, the ones that only head out in the summer, when the schools are off, and they have a few evenings to kill before they go abroad on holiday. Yet also that brings me to something else, thats seasonal, certainly we found in Perth as a project that the 6 weekends of summer were some of the most quiet weekends for meeting young people in the parks than the rest of the year. why? – well for most it was because -There was no school  – and so when school itself is a reason for them to decide to meet up, or to escape the stress of school by going out and getting drunk, then when school isnt there – they arent as stressed, and have daytime time ( to go shopping, out for the day etc) and so by evening the congregating in the park doesnt really need to occur.

Is it easy to chat to the young people who are chilling out under the trees with a bottle of cider, when you know that this is just a summer activity for them ( given that you dont see them the rest of the year?) – maybe its more difficult if you dont know them and theyll only be there a short time..? 

However, by the end of summer, bored groups of young people appeared, and as they mourned the end of summer, and the return of school, they would be out, drinking and socialising in the park- hence why september and october would be my favourite months- and you guessed it, its just starting to get dark by 9, then 830 and then 8pm as the weeks tick by.

Maybe theres something about the adrenaline rush in me that likes that element of unpredictability and the darkness, maybe it actually changes the dynamic of the detached youthwork, when young people can see you from a distance can they not already make the decision to accept or reject ( i guess thats true in winter too)

However, i wonder whether the seasonal changes, weather changes, and school term changes have an effect on detached youthwork across the board? and how do we plan to react, change or adapt our practice accordingly?

What for instance do we do in a coastal tourist area during high summer? or an urban context in mid winter? What of school holidays in more or less affluent areas? If our focus is young people and alcohol misuse – are there more pertinent times of the year? What of the situation that ‘other youth work’ closes for the summer – should we be more readily available?

I guess when being involved in detached youthwork, year by year for 5-6 years now , but in two contexts, i am reflecting on the changes and expectations of how the seasons have an effect, and so as a result may the approach.

So – detached youthworkers out there… enjoy your summer holidays and the school holidays, and the warm evenings and light nights for a good few months… 215 2013-07-06 21.57.46



Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

Being a professional (!) youthworker, or how shall i say it, the increase in professionalism in youth work training across britain has undoubtedly been a good thing, for the development of practice, for reflection and ongoing learning. Training in christian youthwork too has seen the increase in projects, development of theological thinking about working with young people, as well as whole lot more.

Currently i live and work in the same place. As a Christian, this could be said to be ‘incarnational’  – a word for modelling the closeness of being and ministry in the same place aka Jesus. However, given that i have children in the local schools, where i also work, and that 5-600 young people pass by my front door on their way to and from school, and to the local skate park, have i taken this too far?


I guess one of the things that people have said to me is that i have to be aware of my boundaries, in that when would it be appropriate to meet young people at the end of my drive, and thus make it aware to them where i live, or how should i be when i walk past young people in the local park when i am on my way to the shops? – do i go in disguise, just so they dont recognise me? (I used to be able to go to tescos at 3am, but hey… i am now in rural england)

Its also what i should do when i am not working and encounter young people incidentally, as per above, its one thing walking the dog semi deliberately during the evening, but when  i am doing the food shopping in sainsburys? appropriately its best to wait for the young person to acknowledge me the worker, or not to, aka a counselling relationship, yet i am still putting myself in an awkward position.

Living and working in the same area is different for other professionals, as i was speaking to a chaplain/teacher today, he was able to articulate that it was the institution of the school that defined the relationship with the pupils, and so as such there was no use/validity of seeking to further these relationships out of school, and this may be the same type of arrangement for centre based youthworkers, social workers etc, however, as detached youthwork is all about informal, often unintentional encounters, (though obviously some are deliberately actioned in ‘sessions’), how does that work, when maybe idealistically and dualistically, work and leisure should be distinct, and all the moments when i could be visible to young people i am being observed, in terms of integrity.

What for example, should i do when my children invite their friends round for tea?   after all, at the age of 10-12, they are no less ‘young people’ than the young people i now work with, in fact they may be the same ones? – for one thing its hardly ‘time off’ is it? when these moments will have an effect on the so called ‘professional’ relationships outside of the home, on the streets or in schools.

Ultimately there will always be grey areas, especially in a role so informal, so relational, and so in the community. the dichotomy of work/leisure possibly doesnt exist in a vocational professional, unless i go away from the context – head out on the bike, or go away for the weekend. Travelling through the grey areas , the so called boundaries, or borders, may be an ongoing exercise in reflection, or working out a new reality of being incarnational in a community, yet seen as ‘detached’ from the church, and with  the young people.

So, as a professional youthworker, theres a chance that we will all have to think about boundaries, of profession, or personal, and what we find to be acceptable either professionally or personally, i wonder also how we communicate these boundaries to and with young people, or maybe they are intuitive – maybe they know when we are ‘off’ or when we are ‘working’ – is it as simple as wearing an ID?  or alternatively pushing a trolley in Tesco?  (not that that stopped young people talking to me in Perth, NB lucky i didnt have too much alcohol in my trolley!)

Not only are physical boundaries to be thought about, but also social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, and who should be visible to us, and what we should make visible to young people whom we work with, and how and when it is appropriate to be contacted. For some, and i take my hat off to them, they have young people contact them at all times, for others its office time only, and even then on ‘work’ phones.. does personality or profession or family dictate this, and what is reasonable of an employee?

Each of us in the variety of contexts, and cultures that we exist, work, live and play as youth workers will have to negotiate and compromise through the boundaries of these often seperate, but indistinct paradigms of community boundaries.

Jesus gave time to the crowds, the disciples, and the religious leaders, he also took time aside to think – but he still did this in the vicinity of the others, walking distance, but far enough away to be away.  To be incarnational, and i use this term loosely, i guess to be with and amongst  young people in the community means that compartmentalized lives are a way of life not to be wished for, and what we need is to realise a new way of being.

So is what you’re doing christian?

was a question i was asked by someone in church the other week, someone who was a visitor to the church and who had found out that i was a ‘christian youth worker’ and because of this wanted me to put some of their evangelistic mission posters up in a local school. It has taken me a little while to want to articulate a response to this, as even though i did make much of a response at the time ( didnt feel it appropriate in the context) i began to realise today, a week later how i might respond to this.

Use of language is an important factor here, and so when we think of something being ‘christian’ what does that mean? ie

Christian music, Christian book shop, Christian festival?

are the artefacts of these things inherantly holy? – ie the paper and ink of the books in the book shop, or is it that person is a christian?

is it that things accepted by the church to be within the church community can be labelled as Christian – without too much of an argument – and yet when something, somebody, a ministry is outside of such a framework – their so called christian credentials are questioned, and their belonging within the acceptable demography of ‘christian’ is doubted, yet in itself is a labelling, prejudgement phrase – not unlike ‘youth’, ‘generation X’ , said by those intent on preservation of the status quo, the cultural hegemony if you like.

Its the easiest thing to do, judge others by the stock phrase of what we have derived to be christian – from our own cultural landscape of what it means to be christian, however broad or narrow, broad, global, western or eastern that is.

Some of this, for me, reeks of a Platonic dualism, that still pervades, where something is derived as one thing or another,  a platonic view of the early christian world that stated that something was either one thing or another. an examples being what is seen/unseen, where what is seen is physical and temporal, and ‘bad’ and what is unseen is eternal, and thus Good, where Heaven is sky, and World is earth. Even now this is embedded in our language of work/home, and similarly in ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ , christian and ‘non’.

What we realise when we read Jonah, is that God is not escapable, not set to places that we think, not only in one thing or another. That he is already in the city – before he manages to get Jonah to get there too. There is no sacred, secular divide with God.

So, my response. If you want to derive the ‘christian’ of the ‘christian’ detached youthwork that i do to the artefacts that somehow are accepted as christian – such as assemblies, God talks, taking young people to soul survivor (other festivals are also available- but even they may not be ‘as christian ie Greenbelt!), RE lessons, doing the monthly worship event in a church , then that makes me and the youthwork that i do not christian, as i dont do any of these.

However, if by listening to young people in their territory, if by being there, with them in the dark spaces of their lives, if by enabling them to see hope, faith and dare to dream through the conversation that i have on the streets with them. If in these moments with the young person, as a human person they explore faith, their humanity and they flourish and encounter a new vision of God, a God who is already with them, for them and wanting not for them to perish – then this to me is what i do. It has no labels, it may not be derived as christian to some, its about expanding the stage of the Gods ongoing drama to include the streets and parks and in those spaces rehearsing the Kingdom (Vanhoozer 2005). Maybe its not christian, maybe its Kingdom.

Thoughts on Compassion

Recently, along with thinking about culture, values and interpreting, ive been thinking on a number of levels about the subject of compassion – or more pertinently its been a subject that without deliberate intention has been hitting on me.

A few weeks ago i was asked to help out at the local high school at their philosophy day, during which i was working with one of the RE teachers and a group of 12 Year 12 pupils, the subject of the discussion, and subsequent presentation was on Compassion and in particular the . It was a lengthy discussion with some very articulate pupils in which we tried to define compassion, and understand how appropriate it would be to be intentionally  compassionate, and how signing a charter would make being compassionate any more likely.                            

The Latin word compassion means to feel deep sympathy for someone, and accompany this by action to change their circumstances.  And so it is an both a feeling/emotion, and an action, motivated by that feeling.  The situation causes an effect on us, on which causes us to want to affect the other.

One thing required to have compassion is a requirement to have less pre-judgment of the social group, (and critique how this is being fed to us) “it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of another’s inner world if you have formed an evaluative opinion of that person” (Carl Rogers 1980), so by judging someone to be different to ourselves in often a negative way, we make it more difficult to have understanding of their concerns, from their perspective. It is thus important that we use language in ways that do not judge, condemn or objectify (challenge those that do), and thus where labels, stereotypes, or prejudices disable or divide.

For example, to say something like ‘American Youth’ is an objectifying statement, as there is no such thing as an ‘American Youth’ at least not in a perjorative, collective sense, as all young people in America are by definition different, there is not one but many, and they are multi-faceted. And so to use terms like ‘at risk’ , ‘Youth’ ‘Youth Culture’ may cover generalizations, but only objectify, not specify. Each young person, in every situation, context, family and community is different.

Yet as we engage with young people in the public spaces, we do so as outsiders seeking to understand, listen, accept and validate their life experiences for what they are– often defying our stereotyping, labeling or objectifying, and in doing so show both empathy, and in action, compassion.

We go to be with young people replicating the compassion God showed the world through his communicative action; “Divine compassion is an enabling power by which the triune God shares-communicates his own life, it effects what he communicates; the saving grace and goodness of God. Gods compassion is his active affection” (Vanhoozer 2010)

As we work with young people on the streets, in the parks we create new opportunities to see them for who they really are, to meet them  where they are at, meeting them head on, in their world, as they are naturally, as individuals, individuals part of groups, and using the situation of that context and developing relationship to listen and discover a person, whole, thinking, frustrated, sensitive, creative, determined.

Being compassionate, causes us to be there in the first place, compassion to see beyond the perceived need, but to put ourselves in that moment, and yet compassion/empathy are heightened as we learn more about the shit and injustice that may have befallen a young person.  It means that we also seek to alleviate, fight wrongs and feel their pain.

As an addition, in planning a sermon for the weekend i re read the Story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, being one of the clear moments where Jesus is said to have compassion for the people, the lost sheep of Isreal, yet though it was Jesus who had compassion, it was the disciples whom he asked to feed them – encouraging apostles to feed those who were lost in the lonely places.