Can youthworkers save the church? 

Its been a strange week for articles floating around the Christian social media sphere, there have been several, including one on this site that have all talked about the need for the church to question the notion of heroes trying to change or save the world, or to maintain an integrity to do everything virtuous in every aspect in their lives. Ive put the links to them at the bottom of this page, as i have learned something from every one of them, and though they come at the hero aspect each from a different angle, they have challenged within the same theme.

It is then on Thursday when leading Theologian Ian Paul in his blog writes; ‘Can Bishops save the church’ – you can read this here:, in the piece Ian discussed the role of the Bishop, historically , the call by those outside of the church for the Bishops to be ‘Bishop-Theologians’ – (a term loosely linked to Kevin Vanhoozers call for clergy to be Pastor-Theologians ( Vanhoozer, 2005) , for Bishops to be nuanced in the contemporary landscape , local culture and embedded in Missional practice – whilst also to be Theological. Albeit Ian is responding to a different article by Martin Percy, and his angle is on Bishops saving the church from an anglican, management and helping it to reconfigure financially and obviously this is over an entire diocese with all its complexity, contextuality, history and culture. Yet the article is a reminder of the Saviour and Hero status projected on to the leaders in a church and the expectations that they, one person can turn it around. In a way it is implied, if provoked in that same title, Can a Bishop save the church?  – For too long, and the time is changing, there has been a perception that a youth minister might have the same effect – so maybe we should ask the question:

Can a Youthworker save the church?

Image result for youth workers church

Instead of delving, like Ian Paul into the Westminister articles of faith, to make a convincing argument, (i guess thats what you need to do to discuss the role of bishops in the church of england), what ill do is consult the vault that is back blog articles from youthwork magazine. No reason other than they are current, and youthwork prides itself with contemporary relevency…:  In no particular order – other than alphabetically here are a few excerpts and then a response as to whether even youthworkers themselves think that Youthworkers can save the church.

In April 2016 Ali Campbell provocatively wrote: “I would argue that the main reason why youth ministry is in crisis is not because of what we are doing, but because of what the church isn’t doing. The wider church, adult congregations, and many church leaders are still waiting for young people to ‘worship properly like the rest of us.’

Thats one for the against – its a congregation problem.

But then in April 2015 he argues that Youth work is about developing critical disciples in the church: “Can we change our youth work? Can we re-discover a discipleship of young people where they discover their faith through watching our lives and we trust the Holy Spirit to be at work in their lives when they are not in the youth group?

So in a way thats a sort of 50/50 answer, because long term a young person as a disciple might desire to go to church and become part of a local faith community.

In May 2015; Nick Shepherd wrote the following: “Do I believe that there are approaches of engaging with young people in mission that need to be contextually appropriate and robust? You bet. Do I think that there should be people who make pastoral care of young people and young adults the focus of their work and responsibilities? Absolutely. Am I committed to developing adequate theologies that help shape the ways we interact with young people in their search for meaning and faith, or that help us better respond to their hopes, or experiences of damage? Of course. Do I reckon that we need to plan and provide great spaces and resources for young people to meet in, connect through and use? Most definitely. Am I fed up with these tasks being labelled as youth ministry? Yes.”

I think this is a call for the ‘No’ – for in the same article he argues that Youth Ministry itself is concept that doesnt actually exist ( something also argued on these pages), but what Nick suggests here, and also in Faith Generation (2016) is that A Youth worker will only be able to save and disciple young people and help them to generate a faith of their own, this is more successful for a youthworker than attempting to keep them in an institution.

Martin Saunders writes the following, after recounting the history of Youth Ministry over 25 years, suggesting that churches were piling over themselves to recruit youthworkers, the scene has now changed, and suggests that:

“As the flame has flickered over the last decade or so, we’ve sort-of recognised this, and put our energies into ‘initiatives’ to solve the problem. City-wide and even nation-wide missions; new programmes, resources and events. We’ve found one or two things that ‘work’ – like Soul Survivor and Alpha – and we’ve clung to them for comfort. They’re not enough. It’s not enough to sub-contract the responsibility for effective youth work to one or two well-resourced para-church groups. If it’s going to turn around, then it’s a job for all of us.

I’m not then going to suggest some grand solution to this near-apocalyptic picture. But I am going to ask you to join me in a few things.

First, we need a workforce committed to youth work, and to young people, for the long haul. People who are determined to keep going despite the challenges; women and men who will prioritise their own spiritual formation so that they’re equipped to lead and serve the young people in their communities. Who are prepared to invest, long-term, in a group of young people, even if that means turning down a dream job.

Second, we need dreamers, and not just one or two. All of us should be getting on our knees and asking God for a vision for the young people in our community. Stop holding up one or two leaders as visionaries; you’re one too. We need nothing less than an explosion of new ideas in youth ministry – well implemented – which catalyse a new sense of momentum within the local church.

Third, we need the local church to be re-envisioned. Youth ministry can’t just become a phase that the Church went through. Young people are its future and its present, and it needs people to pastor, attract, keep and care for them. Every church leader should have youth work at the top of their agenda again; every denominational and para-church head must bang the drum as they did in the 1980s and 90s.

All of which could make a real, sustained difference.All is not lost, but it’s high time we recognised the state we’ve got ourselves into. Youth ministry needs a revolution. More importantly, the young people of the UK need and deserve that from us. So what are you going to do about it? ”

I am thinking this is also in the No section – youthwork has almost been condemned in this piece as not being the saviour of the church that the church wanted it to be, and whilst Martin is completely right, young people require the church to act in a way that might be supportive of them, it is not unlike what Nick says above, the church has in a way been given an open goal to act in a way that it once did with young people, for it is the church who once filled the gaps in society that a welfare – and youth service gap- then took over- and has now vacated. The Church, Martin argues might not need youthworkers to save it, but young people might need youthworkers to save them holistically. The church could provide them. 

So, if contributors to, and former editors of, Youthwork magazine are in some kind of reticence to suggest that youthwork is the answer to save the church – does anyone have a more positive answer?

Well step forward the usually ever positive Phil Knox from YFC a parachurch with the aim to serve the local church, again writing on the youthwork magazine blog; stating, that youth ministry isnt in a crisis but that there is a need to: “Innovate and imagine Here’s some new bathwater… in a Google world, the gospel is less ‘four points’ linear and more encapsulated in a story. If a youth work job is ‘deleted’ (or even if it is not) we need to envision an army of volunteers of all ages. Youth ministry is too important and the job too big to be done by professionals (when a full timer moved on from our church, 25 of us stood up the front to fill the gap). We need to do more out-reach, not just in-drag. In a post-Christendom world, the building has to be less and less important”

So a positive voice for Youth Ministry is beginning to recognise that the gravitational pull for youth ministry is less the building, less the Sunday, but being out in the community – reaching out. Whilst i dont think Phil goes innovative enough, what he is he saying in regard to ‘will youthworkers save the church?’ – well its a no from him too by the looks of things. The church by the seems is being sidelined in the contact and interaction of young people with youth workers. Though if youth ministry is to save the church it will only be with an army of volunteers.

So far, only male voices that have feet in the almost no camp.  What are the female writers saying, for one they are less strategic. A person who is a friend, Becca Dean says this: “For me, the headline for youth ministry’s headline in the UK is all about Church. My worry, or concern, is that we’re not engaging the Church and young people well together. Conversely, I have strong conviction that there is more hope for young people in the Church than we are currently offering them, and more hope for the Church in young people than we are currently taking note of.

My encounter with the church as a young person was that of extreme welcome, inclusion and love. This experience was a tangible invitation on behalf of a God that was wholly relevant to the complexity of all challenges and heartaches, potential and passion, that I experienced within adolescence. Through community, God revealed him and herself again and again in the many faces that embodied time, interest, care, fun, safety and belonging. It was literally life changing as here I found a place that I could flourish in ways I had not yet discovered I could. In my church community I came alive, found a voice, loved others with meaning and purpose, and began to live out the Christian story way before I could articulate this deeply meaningful process theologically.” again you can read this here:
Becca is in the yes category, not because a youth worker will save the church, but that they can create an atmosphere in one local church to foster faith, failings and flourishing in a few young people and this in a way is where a youthwork that might save the church start – in fostering the development of a faith community that enables young people to flourish. Youth work as a part of community development might save the church…
In summary, Youthwork doesn’t have a series of 98 articles written in stone somewhere in the vaults. Its history takes it back to social action and philanthropy of the 1800’s, and i am not suggesting that blogs from youthwork magazine are the best it can offer, i mean there is at least 10 books on youth ministry that have been published that don’t include ‘ready to use material’ or ‘how to guides’ ( yes, 10.. see if you can name them). The Problem with the church is that it is looking for a hero to save it, whether it is a Bishop or a youth worker. And it appears that youth workers have decided that the world outside the church is where the majority of young people are ( and this should be obvious), so innovation and improvisation in those new contexts is key, and educating the church to see this as a possibility and reality is as important.  The churchs responsibility is to support, facilitate and enable every possibility for young people to be welcome, respected and heard in its community, in its language of them, structures and decision making. That requires more than just the youth worker. Will a youth worker save the church?  No more than a Bishop will – it requires congregations to be equipped in mission, and active in transforming local communities. Without community transformation out and inside the church will Heros have any effect? Will heros be needed other to equip churches for community mission..?

Those Hero articles are here:

Mim Skinners is excellent:

and one on the Hero status in gap years:


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