Five paradigm shifts of Christian youth ministry

A Paradigm is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field. (wikipedia)

Its a commonly used word in the world of Christian youthwork, because often there are shifts to be made, when new information about a culture is assessed in light of previous information. . So when there is a need to change approaches and patterns of work, a paradigm shift is often the rallying cry. A turn to culture may affect the need for these, a turn to full gospel might also too.  But what are the oft talked about paradigm shifts and can they happen without shifts in the church?

Here are some of the commonly talked about paradigm shifts, and a brief description:

  1. From an Attractional to a Missional mode, then from Missional to emerging (yes 2)

This shift goes like this –

It goes from an inside-out model (young people ask their friend to your event), to Outside-in (you work with young people outside to bring them in) to Outside-out (you work with young people to create church amongst them).

Its a tricky one to navigate, given that there are plenty of road map distractions along the way, and what seems gravitational pulls to previous models, there may even be gravitational pulls to the newer practices that might not be as relevant as first thought.  For more on this check out ‘Here be Dragons’ (see above).

2. From Youth Ministry to Youth work

I’m not sure youth ministry ever got its head around what youth work is all about. Especially given that at its heart its about a Christian educator, Paulo Freire trying to liberate a community in Brazil – why youth ministry doesnt seem to get it i’m not sure. Borrow from it yes, but get it truly for the sake of young people who are very much oppressed in society, nope not really. Thus it still feels like its a paradigm shift. Because to embody youth work as a philosophy in the context of churches and established youth ministry organisations is an ongoing educative process, another walk along a pathway with many pulls to embody the pre-existing, or dominant methods or practices that maintain often a banking teaching, or entertaining practice, rather than a holistic liberating one. Danny Brierely did a good job of arguing that youth ministry needed youth work to give it ethical and a young person centred methodology ( Brierely 2003) , paying lip service to actual youth work values, that include anti discrimination, equality, informal education doesnt do youth ministry any good.

3. From Ministry to one person to community flourishing.

A paradigm shift would be to encourage groups and communities to flourish and thus young people will do to, rather to try and change communities by going for the youngest first. If the community has a low view of its young people then how on earth will it all change through that one young person? Yet often this is the narrative of youth specific methods.

It doesnt work , especially when there are so many powerful structures at play to inhibit the desire for any change. Good youth work will only occur in good community work. Its the same in faith communities. The whole church needs to evolve around the discipleship of all from all ages, only then will adults and emerging adults thrive.

4. From Needs to Assets

This is one that requires theological and practical paradigm shift, though some of the others also require ecclesiological reflection too. Its easy to consider young people to be in deficit in one way, whether spiritual, social or emotional, and thus be the acting saviour to help them, through teaching, activity or programmes. Its a correct theological view of Humanity as well , isnt it? Even if it is, the being saviour to young people is one that puts them in deficit to us.

What if instead Christian youth ministry actively recognised the gifts, abilities, character and skills of young people in all its contexts and built from this. Its asset based work, build on what young people have and contribute, facilitated by, rather than rescued by the youth worker.

5. From attendance to discipleship.

If all young people do is occupy a space that we provide- what benefit is it to them ? Whether its the youth club, event or service. Framing youth ministry as a discipleship activity negates numerical assessment of it, and focusses on investing in young people along a process of faith exploration over a long period of time, where events, clubs and services are secondary or even optional marker points. Focussing on discipleship might mean that gathering young people to renew conversions or commitments at events is a thing of the past, instead young people are given spaces to be Christians, be discipled, learn, copy and develop at such events, discipleship becomes part of the culture for youth ministry, and shapes its direction, actions and performances.

The interesting thing is what prompts the need for paradigms, how do they become validated, and why are old paradigm patterns of work so difficult to move away from. It is sometimes as if Christian youthwork has been able to let loose some of its former paradigm ways, but yet had to become distant from the organised church- and thus resides more comfortably in non specific church, Christian organisations, such as FYT, the local centres of YFC (some of them) , and other independent Christian youthwork organisations. These are spaces to explore the road map of the world and take different tools to use depending on what is found, with more freedom to use them.  Learning from these organisations should be filtering back to the organised churches, to educate and shape thinking, in some places it does, the edge shaping the core, and hoping the core becomes the edge. (Brewin)

Whilst then Youth Ministry is required to undergo paradigm shifts and might manfully try to do so, the problem is that its been unable to do this whilst the local church stays in the world of some of these old cultural paradigms.  Until this changes there will always be paradigmatic tension in UK youth ministry, given that some of these paradigms have been talked about for 20 years or more.

For me, its frustrating to be involved in the world of young people, as a privilege, and know that it would take huge shifts in a local church to accept, or be hospitable with them in order for the exploring of discipleship to occur. Until this can happen, Christian youthwork to save itself will reinvent itself. Church will occur elsewhere where young people and their communities are situated, where they are liberated, and they are encouraged to use their assets and gifts. I see no better place to encourage community discipleship.


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