Surviving Youth Ministry – feeling like one of the lucky ones

I am beginning to think that i am one of the lucky ones. As I look around the church, and the stats concerning the churches that are growing, its demographics and the local experiences of churches. With a few exceptions id say i was one of the lucky ones.

I am a skew to the statistics that say that there arent many 30-50 year olds in the church in the UK. Theres plenty of over 60’s (and they are more over 70’s) – theres still quite a few children young people and young families. But not as many in their later thirties, forties or fifties.

Given that throughout my teenage years I was part of a local church, participated in its activities, for young people, its clubs, groups, enjoyed the services and teaching, and generally had a positive experience. I went to festivals, bought the music, adopted the experience as alternative culture, found acceptance and belonging and people to talk to about aspects of my growing up. All in all it was a largely positive experience for me. Through the experience I was given responsibilities, developed opportunities for leading services, sunday school, youth work and became a person in my own right in the church setting.

And here i am today. Ive just started an MA in theology, Im a centre director for DYFC, I still go to church, travelled through the ranks as it were, so the question is; If i had such a positive experience of growing up in the church community, the youth ministry of 1990’s with a new(ish) soul surivivor /Spring Harvest in its prime (which i went to) – why am i not an enthusiast for this type of Youth Ministry still today?

A couple of reasons;

  1. The second year of Soul Survivor i went to in 1997, was after id spent a year doing full time voluntary youth work /schools work in Hartlepool with young people in a couple of estates. What i realised then was that Soul Survivor was a gigantic chasm away from the challenges of these young people being accepted in a local church. let alone be accepted as part of a soul survivor congregation.
  2. I was invested in in my home church because id indicated that I wanted to pursue further Christian ministry, hence the responsibilities.
  3. At the age of 12 my parents left this particular church. I stayed. It became my space. Almost rebellion.
  4. At the age of 11 – there were 15 people in the youth club. On a wednesday night in the open sessions there were up to 60 young people turning up from the estate.  By the time I was 15 that number had reduced to 6. Six of us were invested in as leaders a few of us are still involved in churches. It might be that only those invested in as leaders actually survive. Those who became leaders a generation before me, are leaders in churches today.

So, id consider myself one of the lucky ones to have survived a form of youth ministry and still be in the church. Given that I had been brought up in a Christian home, and the personal vocation to become a leader- or singled out to be, and point 3 – i would say that these things contributed (as well as the supportive youth leaders/friends) to this occuring.

But what would I be advocating if I was suggesting that the type of youth ministry I was brought up in, and survived, is the one that I should be recommending to other young people? to my own children even, when i can identify at least 20-30 young people for whom it didnt work for, and a good number of them were also part of the christian families at that time. When i say work – I mean- that as they’re now in their 30-40’s that they are involved in the church community today.

So – why would i advocate a type of ministry that to my mind and experience, might only work for those who show leadership potential? and that only has a 6/60 – thus 10% chance of long term success. I should be advocating something that yes ‘did me good’ but taking a utilitarian perspective – didnt really do the greatest good for the majority of the young people, most of who were locally on the estate and whom the church never worked with again.

There are a couple of questions to be asked – do the proponents of the type of youth work that the church is engaged in think about those for whom it doesnt and hasnt worked for, both in the immediate and long term?

Would it make for good leadership to reflect on the experiences of our Christian youth and consider why it did or didnt succeed for us? and cause us to think differently about those whom it didnt work for – even if it did for us?

If responsibility and leadership are key factors in young people surviving youth ministry – what of young people who dont get these opportunities or feel like they want to- is something different going to ‘work’ for them?

If youth ministry hasnt worked for a large majority of people – in that they are not in the church 10,20, or 30 years later despite being involved in their teens do we argue that this is the fault of the church (of post teenage years) or that its university (that changes thinking) or individuals who make choices to fall away (blame the individual not the programme), thus ministry to teens remains aloof of the blame.  At what point does a critical eye on this work over the last 30-40 years (or longer) start to question its effectiveness for long term church. (yes its the only time im arguing for ‘bums on seats’ as an indicator, but im looking for 30-40 year old bums)

So, whilst i consider myself one of the lucky ones, i want to think about how a church, if it decides to start building relationships with young adults in a local area can maintain these using at least some kind of process, some kind of way that allows the young people to find some kind of faith and keep it. And for young people in church families, already embedded within the church, explore faith and discipleship with them, yes grow leaders, empower disciples, cultivate risky mission with them, and responsibility. It did work for me, but that was the bit that did.

Funny how being empowered is both a Gospel imperative, and a youthwork value. Whether the latter derived from the former is open to debate.  Jesus did say “You are the salt of the earth” and “go and make disciples’ ” – theres a process of now and becoming.  So it might be fair to say that any work with young people has to have their ongoing learning, ongoing process of becoming, flourishing, trying, risk attempting and change.

“Empowerment means the ministry of conscientization, of assisting people toward self-awareness of their own power, subjectivity, strengths and capabilities. To work in such a way that (young adults) discover their own voice and speak within their culture, their traditons and their humanity”  is a lengthy quotation from Bevans and Shroeder on the Missional purpose of the church in liberating from injustice.

Will this work?  It might do. Some of the other stuff can be left behind.







Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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