Detached youthwork- Starting conversations, building from the context

A common question in detached youth work training is ; ‘how do you start a conversation with a young person we meet on the streets?’

Now of course,  the conversation doesn’t happen without due preparation, or without having done some observation of the area and even the groups of young people, but when it comes to the crunch moment – what do you say?

It’s made a little more difficult as there isn’t an activity in a building to start conversation, or being in a school or youth club so then this could restrict what could be said. However in the space of the streets, and parks – young people are more likely to have actively chosen to be in this space, at their discretion and doing activities they want to do and have planned – rather that whats in a building. (and to be honest with the staff shortages in centre based work, having conversations with young people can be fleeting anyway)

The easiest way is to respect the context of the conversation and ask about what is in the space.

If I was being Biblical id say it was like Jesus walking with the disciples on the Emmaus road, he hears them talking and he asks them what theyre talking about ( Luke 24:17), or when Philip catches up with the Ethiopian in Acts 8, the man is reading aloud from a scroll, so Philip asks him about what he is reading. Both conversations happened in the public space, both seem to follow a pattern of inquisitive but respectful questioning based on what the receiver hears.

As Calvin argues ‘the church needs to become more accustomed to hearing’ (Calvin Commentaries, 1958, p7)

What is heard is in the space. So is what is seen. So taking the cue from Philip example, in which Philip respected and took his cue from the context, the detached youthworker who also interrupts the space of the young person is to do the same. or at least as I’ve found starting in this way is the most effective, as it shows that you are respecting the young person and being interesting in them in the moment.

Being in the space as an interruption means that we have to respect the context, what is already going on, find ways of interrupting respectfully to earn respect back, finding something to build on a conversation.

It can be common for the conversation to close up when something from outside of the context i brought in, and it risks the moment. For many young people thats the school question, but i have had fights on a high street when i mentioned football. It wasn’t something the young people wanted to talk about, and it proved to be something that they didn’t share in common.

The other thing is that the environment, of the two biblical incidents above, and most of the times on detached, is determined by those already in the space. It differs from an example of street preaching or street evangelism, as often the environment is dictated by the evangelist, with an activity, a stall or shouting from the text themselves, it is then for the passer by to react , reject or refuse (or ring the police, depending)- now it might be that a message is shared in these experiences, and thats fine – but it is much more provoked in terms of the environment – and can be uncomfortable.

Maybe in the context of a public park or community estate, the context of this space determines a difference than a more neutral communal space of a town centre, the space for the usual evangelists and other sales type people. In an activity space there is space for activity.  Only seeing people once might force the hand – this isnt the case on regular detached. So how you start is important – and respecting the context of the space that you’re joining the young people in is.

And so if it is a case of building what is already there- its a good idea to keep your senses open to take things in, to listen to the context, to witness the events, to enquire, to ask, to receive gifts that the community gives.

After the opening questions, then theres often the banter and testing, the challenges and sparring. There will also be further cues in those questions to talk about further things, again thats where the listening is, to build on the script being spoken and respond appropriately.  The important thing in starting out is to respect the space, respect it as that’s where the young people have grown up, where they play, where they find meaning, where they have

The important thing in starting out is to respect the space, respect it as that’s where the young people have grown up, where they play, where they find meaning, where they have identity. It’s not our role as detached youth workers to destroy that by judging it, it’s to be accepted within it.

Starting right is so important, and respecting the context is usually the best way to do so. Taking a lead from it and improvising the script as young people realise that you have respected them is the best way to go – then challenges can happen…






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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