A (critical) response to losing heart – make homebrewed disciples

I cant imagine how difficult it must be to talk to young people about Sex. Especially young people in churches. Back in the early 1990’s Steve Chalke helped a load of youth leaders out with the ‘lessons in love’ videos. I know, i watched them. Fast forward 25 years since then and YouthScape have done some research in churches which revealed that one of the key struggles youth leaders in churches faced was how to talk to young people about challenging issues about faith, about sex, about relationships and a whole host of other things. The news report which accompanied the research is here: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/churches.report.dramatic.loss.in.confidence.over.youthwork/102741.htm

As soon as the report landed, a long line of resource orientated youth work organisations stepped up to the plate with what tantamounted to advertising of the resources they could provide. And i am sure Youthscape themselves will have some too to fill a void in which their research has highlighted.

The Question to ask however; is given that this is not a new situation, given that resources – yes even before the days of Steve Chalkes Video- have been distributed to churches across the UK to ‘help’ with youth ministry – From Youthwork Magazines ‘ready to use sections’ to Christian aid resources on World Poverty – none if it is unwelcome, most of it is incredibly useful, thoroughly researched and even put together by youthworkers in some cases.  But if this is not a new problem – does the problem reveal something that needs to be thought through further?

What if actually instead of filling the old winepress with the new wine that theres a winepress that needs envigorating with new wine making approaches first? And talking about wine, is it better in the long run to make your own rather than just keep buying from abroad?

A few questions:

a) If youth ministry is about teaching and telling young people things – do those teaching methods need to be changed?

b) What is youth Ministry for?  – yes the big one…

c) Has resource based youth ministry fulfilled the task of the above question? is it working?

Lets start with point b. What is Youth Ministry for?  Well if one observation of it claims that ‘youth ministry at its best attracts a few young people to church and temporarily keeps a few’ then this is damning. Given that especially no one quite knows ‘what youth ministry at its best looks like’ (clue: its not Soul Survivor or Youth Alpha)  But going back to the question.

what is youth ministry for?

I would hope that the answer to this for most youth leaders, volunteers and ministers is that ultimately it is to help young people in the community of the church become disciples of Jesus – one that, as Jesus did it, is a collective task involving groups, and an individual one, with attention to Peter,James and John  (not to mention the ‘special’ attention Jesus gave Judas at the last supper – a profound move of restoration for the betrayer… one to reflect on)

So, Youth Ministry is about Discipleship.

What did Jesus say about Disciples?

Disciples are made. – He said go and ‘make’ them.

He also told the whole church to be involved – all 11 disciples were given that instruction in Matt 28.

Ive written recently about Nick Shepherds book ‘Faith Generation‘ (2016) (see here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-HN) given that its for the Youth Ministry market in the UK, it is worth repeated here what he calls for. What he says is that effectively young people have been treated as learners throughout the predominant history and narrative of youth ministry & the church. Its fairly obvious then – but what are the implications on the methods of youth ministry that young people experience if they are viewed predominately as ‘learners’ ?

Does it mean that young peoples experiences of learning in youth ministry feels not that much different to the learning of somewhere like school?  More that they have no input into the curriculum, how things are taught, what is taught, who teaches it, of course there are no exams in churches… what i mean is;

Do young people have no input into the curriculum, how things are taught, what is taught, who teaches it, – because as long as there is a resource published on it somewhere the volunteers and leaders can grab it off the shelf and hey presto deliver!  They are receivers of information. They are vessels to be filled. They are only the glass for the wine. 

So if young people, because they are older versions of the same children in sunday school, if treated and viewed principally as learners, then resource instigated, or off the shelf teaching methods of youth ministry can fill a definite void. And when youth leaders, volunteers and Ministers are continually disempowered by research that indicates that confidence is lost in them, then there is a recipe for disaster. Maybe the resource for the youth ministry has to be more homegrown. Maybe like the deliciously syrupy elderflower wine we made this year, it comes from the homegrown wild.

What Nick Shepherd advocates is that, like i have intimated above, young people need not to be learners, but learners and deciders.

About 10 years ago now, I had done 15 months of being involved in a typical sunday night type of youth group as a volunteer/student leader in a small church with about 12 in the youth group (regular attenders 8). The culture was set before i had arrived, the leaders would meet every 6 months to decide the programme, the special activities, and effectively there would be games, tuck shop/food, some kind of discussion on a topic and then spIce for praying. I dont think anything particularly unique or distinctive. So i was tasked to come into this situation, as a student, to develop the programme and begin to run and organise the group. And for 14 months id like to think i put alot of effort into the programme, i had a bit of time to, we did sessions on Heaven and Hell , and in the main it was great, but i was putting in the wrong kind of effort!  

The Situation shifted when i physically couldnt carry on doing this anymore, no it wasnt burnout, it wasnt stress or the worry that my highly original ideas were running out, no its because my knee gave way and i was on crutches for 3 months. Physically i couldn’t do the same anymore. But i had to be there, because not working for 3 months would have meant not fulfilling time for college and having to retake the year.

So, out of necessity, a new approach for the group was born.  It took a while, and a few activities prior in which the young people were given tasks and activities to share their opinions on life & faith – but fundamentally they went from learners to deciders; how? 

Their idea, because their leader was on crutches, was that they would split up the programme of every evening and in pairs they would work on each section.  So, two of them would run the tuck shop, two would do a prayer activity, two would organise, and lead the games, and a different two would be responsible for planning, leading and running the ‘teaching session’.  How, you may ask did they know what to teach? well that was one of the prep sessions, they had already put together a range of subjects they wanted to talk about – from ‘other faiths’ to ‘abortion’ to ‘creation’ . The subjects were theirs, the delivery was theirs.

All i would do each week would be ring one of each of the pairs each wednesday to see how they were getting on and suggest ideas if necessary. They created panels ‘for’ and ‘against’ abortion, and did research on other faiths (something that they spent 2 months on looking at different ones). We may have interjected every now and then during the evening, i honestly cant remember now. So, not only did they learn, they learned as they decided, and they learned as they decided and created. They also were able to share what they already knew, and the other young people learned so much more. They had to work out what one or many bible/christian perspectives might be…

We didnt force the young people to do every aspect, and for some pairs ‘doing the prayer’ section was a huge step, some wrote their own, some used pictures and objects ( this was before ‘prayer stations/prayer spaces’)

At the beginning of each few months we would then sit down and plan with the young people who was going to do each of the aspects. games, food, talk, prayer – but in your groups these could obviously be much different.

They found the resources that suited them, they were trusted and they were given an environment of support where they could try, think and work through their ideas. This is only one approach change, but one from experience. Yes it involved a bit of time planning, and a broken knee as a catalyst. But on one hand what is the rush with discipleship? – is it better to think and develop with young people in order that discipleship is the long term aim of their involvement in a local church – which may or may not include a youth group.

But i was an expert you might say? – no i wasnt at that point i had done one year of training and only ever exposed to a ‘teaching’ method of youth ministry. I know more about the theories of education (Friere, Dewey) now than i did then, so practice rather than theory was the driver.

Was it sucessful? No – it was different, and tried a different approach, did young people grow through the process, yes, did we learn – yes, did young people have more of a chance of becoming empowered disciples. its difficult to pinpoint any sucessful youth ministry though…

Was it hard work- yes– because doing something new requires time, buy in and cultural shift. But most of the young people got it, some opted out and we could give them the chance to during exam time when we took the flack up again as they requested it. The hardest point was not to take over, when young people had all the knowledge and resources, not to have the ‘final’ point,.

Did young people find the change too much? it took a while but because they worked in pairs (obs it depends how many people you have) as any young people joined they were involved at some level – games/prayer/food being the first and easier, but its often easy to say young people should have an easy ride with youth ministry – it shouldnt be like school – no but theres something in between to be negotiated  in conversation. Developing the curriculum, its subject, content and delivery could be a task of the young people themselves.

Asking young people to develop their own programme means that we start to use the greatest resource each of our youth groups have. The young people themselves. Why not use their passion, energy, critical edge and humour, spend time developing with them so even if teaching is one aspect of youth ministry – that it is teaching in order to make disciples, and emulate the first disciples who went from receivers of information, to eventually developing churches of their own.

I dont think that what happened above was particularly revolutionary or unique. But its the kind of thing that a youth ministry resourced by external resources of programmes, or even external resources of volunteers who often have ‘their ministry’ obligations to fulfil, might mean that those ministries shape youth ministry more than the local resources of the young people you might already have.

The winepress might also need re configuring even if homegrown wine is made instead of importing wine, and the call to rethink discipleship in the church has been made extensively elsewhere – even on this blog if you look at the ‘discipleship’ topic.

If young people go from being solely learners, to deciders, and then ultimately creators, then they will shape the resources, they will be the resource your church and the community needs. If external resources are then needed, then use them as the young people feel the need.

Developing local expressions of faith and discipleship with young people, developing work with them might be a start. Other people are more radical saying that youth groups need to be shut down, not necessary, but young people are the greatest resource, second only to you faithful volunteer, paid youthworker, curate or minister. Start making home brew.  Make the young people your key ingredient, forage from the local and the wild and discover what kind of resource they can be.




One thought on “A (critical) response to losing heart – make homebrewed disciples

  1. Not much to disagree with here. Sometimes it needs a bit of wrestling with God and a hip/knee out of joint (or worse) to turn any missional work around. I saw a huge change at Tulloch NET after my co-workers became ill and I had to change the way I worked. I`ve seen some dramatic changes due to small kaisen (sp?) moments in youth ministry practice where we moved more from a storyline to a question time based approach. My main concern is how these small changes over time are with just one group and “the church” still adopts the same practice almost willing itself to remain the same, frightened to change as “I don`t like … [x-y-z method of doing things]”.

    Liked by 1 person

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