Relationship building youthwork?

Several different conversations over the last few weeks, and a little bit of reading has prompted me to start to think about the purposes of youthwork, no seriously I mean it, what do we do youthwork for? in the grand scheme of things?  what is it that we are trying to affect in the moments that we have with young people, young adults.. people in fact?

Kevin Vanhoozer in the Drama of Doctrine discusses that we are in the midst of a redemptive drama, in which to be a participant it to be participating in the pursuit of human flourishing – “Following Jesus way promotes human flourishing (shalom) and leads to the summum bonum; life, eternal and abundant” he goes on to say, “Christian theology (and i would add the mission of God)  seeks to continue the way of truth and life, not admiring it from afar, but by following and embodying it” (Vanhoozer 2005)

Should youthwork pursue a Human flourishing intention? we may already think so but if so, does this lead to other questions like:

What might human happiness/contentment involve? what might it mean to be distinctively human? what constitutes flourishing?

And so, what would it mean, after all, its not that the John 10:10 (life and all its fullness) verse isnt often a mantra for the youthworker, but what would it actually mean for youthwork to have within it a sense that its greater purpose is for Human flourishing?

Of course, there are facets to what would be perceived as Human Flourishing, but what if every encounter we had with a young person was for their sake, their growth, their moment of change, an awakening of new perception to be someone different- what would it mean to (as a youthworker) enable  a young person as a social being to flourish in the relationships they already have? with parents, schools, and others.

Maybe theres something there too: back in 1969: The much overlooked community based christian youthworkers, Goetschius & Tash wrote this:

“The role of the worker, and the agency, is that of an outside resource person who helps to create a situation in which learning can take place, and who can pass on skills and help them to take effect in the life and work of those who are learning to use them. This kind of social education can take place in any circumstances, at any time….In all the examples the common factor is the attempt to help individuals, groups and social institutions understand, accept or reject, use and affect, their social environment.”(Goetschius 1969: 184-5, taken from

Whilst the times may have changed, yet young people, and us all are involved in many ways and exist as social beings in communities, a variety of, many of which are transitory, set by geography etc etc -yet we are generally inherently social, both phychologically and theologically.

At the same time, if our role is to be a resource to enable, endorse, encourage the possibility that the relationships that a young person has socially are changed for the better. How is the youthworker helping flourishing to occur in the existing relationships that a young person has – the ones between themselves and their parents ( who after all are still the biggest influence and go to for a YP- despite narrative fears to the contrary), or the school teacher, or the church leader. Its not as Goetschius and Tash would argue to replace the existing, but to be a mirror to allow reflection of, or a facilitator, or sign poster to those existing things, and allow these to be more flourished, positive, constructive…

How often have we as a youthworker stood in the gap between the young person and the establishment ( be it school, parents, church etc), and tried to endorse our position by keeping that link far too integral? Have we over emphasised the position of youthworker, for our own ego’s sake? and got in the way?

Recent criticism in USA has focussed on the place of the youth ministry who has effectively put their ministry/activities/support as an accepted substitute for the parents of the young people. Instead of chatting with mum or dad, they ring the youth leader… tension in the home caused by the youth leaders high influence, or desire to have the young people attend their groups, and endorse their ministry… is this a healthy thing? The ministry of the youthworker vs the family life perhaps… maybe a criticism too far… but a sobering thought…

Yet, even outside of the US, i am left with the question and convicted by the thought that if the overall purpose of youthwork is for Human flourishing, surely then the youthworker/minister should one one hand be aware of their own transitory influence, and  also be encouraging , endorsing and restoring the existing relationships that a young person has with family, with friends with the community. Healing those and facilitating community might be better for Human flourishing, rather than the youth worker becoming dangerously co dependent, for the sake of their own work or ministry.

I wonder – when will it be from the pulpit, the conference or the book that a youthworker would identify that they have helped in the flourishing of the social relationships of a young person, that helped with other factors, such as resilience, cohesion and confidence, and have improved family life, or hours of time in the school, rather than how many young people attended our events, or groups or projects. Is that because we don’t see the family as valid? or the young person as anything other than ‘ours’ in ‘our’ ministry. what have we given to enable flourishing, not what have they become to us?

How many less hours do young people spend because we need them to attend our groups, events and if they attend church – even then do they spend it with parents, is this still a separate thing? for whats sake? – how much ‘seperation’ of child/young person with parents is a good thing at all?  How much time is spent by families participating in the church life together?

With the intention of developing Human flourishing, and promoting human flourishing in the lives of young people, how might restoration and reconciliation be integral tools- or just we become less of in some situations, so that young people spend more time in family- and have to work out conflict, tension and feelings, and also given the tools so that families enable spiritual/faith development of the young person…

To do something good amongst families in our communities- is that not about Human flourishing in a communal way? Is this about following the way of abundance and building kingdom?  I imagine, that there are other factors in the way of Human flourishing for youth and community work- ie what of emotional, or spiritual flourishing, or does human flourishing negate this distinction/separation,  yet being ‘relationally’ minded – might cause us to consider how we support existing relationships in the communities we are called to serve.




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