Clergy: To keep young people in churches we need to ban youth groups

I’ve done a little asking around of people who are involved in churches who are in their 20s-40’s, and asked them the same question;

What kept you in church as a young person?

The things that people have told me are ‘I was involved in the choir’ or ‘I was invited to the adults house group’ or ‘I helped with OHP (in the days before powerpoint – or to the anglicans, the one day after the service sheet might be defunct) , or ‘I was given opportunities to talk about questions I had about faith, whilst I was thinking about faith’ . So far, not one of the people I have spoken to suggested that being ‘part of a youth group’ was the thing that helped or maintained their engagement in a local church. But the things that did were things that:

  1. Connected them with adults in the world of the adults- young people could be apprenticed in the church family
  2. Gave them age orientated tasks – and support for them
  3. Gave them space to ask questions
  4. Were treated as an adult.
  5. Were accepted as part of the church
  6. They identified that the church could become ‘theirs’
  7. Gave young people opportunities to opt into ‘up’ activities to challenge themselves

Its clearly not a scientific survey, and it reflects some of my own experience, in my blog ‘why I didnt leave the church’, I reflected on the reasons I stayed in a church that involved connecting and being given space to have deep conversations, to have responsibility and to forge a personal identity in the faith community were key contributing factors. So what might this all mean?

Is the key to engaging young people to kill off youth groups?

Might it be to kill off the youthworker role?

Well, actually, yes. for these reasons, and only these.

  1. If a youth group prevents young people having opportunities such as above
  2. If a youth group doesnt provide support to the young people whilst they are doing the helping
  3. If a youth group is only a space where young people attend but dont participate
  4. If a youth group asks them to engage with things below them in age- rather than challenge them intellectually and spiritually and form them into adults – ie it keeps them ‘childlike’
  5. If a youth group maintains separation
  6. If a youth group has an unhealthy culture – bullying, competition, limited involvement for one gender, or full of cliques.
  7. If the youth group is seen as the reason for a young person to stay – ‘we have a youth group, thats a good reason to stay coming to the church’ – then its well intentioned but slightly misguided, a facade that indicates that a church is ‘doing something for young people’ by having one.

So, Clergy, the people that stayed in churches and have continued to stay, have in the main done so because the local church facilitated and had a culture where a young person was able to feel ok. Where they were able to feel part of the community in more than a ceremony, but all the time. They could contribute, able to connect with other people who they could spend time with – who weren’t trying to be ‘young’ or ‘trendy’ but just there, and who took them under their wing, so to speak. It was where they could use their gifts.

We might talk about ‘intergenerational work’ – but in one reality the church is about family and not playing the generational separation myth card. ‘ie only young people connect with young people’ or ‘im to old’. Young People as the research has shown in America- written about here:, are engaged when the church is a healthy place and where they have a challenge. Going along to a youth group might only do that until theyre 12. Yes others might, and develop to keep young adults – though they often shift to ‘house group style’ anyway.

In a way it is about helping young people to be formed into performers in a local church, creating a culture a space for them to participate in appropriate ways that have meaning to them. It is about developing culture in the whole church that makes it a healthy space to be an apprentice Christian with ups, downs, questions, doubts and more doubts and that is ok. There’s a difference between young people opting into the church ( where open youth clubs or detached work amongst other methods are used) and those young people for whom the fearing that they ‘opt out’ has been the main concern of youth ministry and the church for a long while. The ironic thing is that answer to why a young person stays in the church isnt in youth ministry at all, it is in the culture of the church. Can a youth worker change this – of course- but its much bigger- and probably staring us in the face all along.


Why I didnt leave the church

Last week you may have noticed that I posted an article that described what kind of churches in the USA were able to keep young people engaged, that post is here:, the research is from the Fuller institute in the USA, and worth reflecting on. In the last few years there has been a plethora of articles saying : why millenials leave the church? or why the church has lost a ‘generation’ – whatever a ‘generation’ is, none of them help, they just brow beat and demoralise further. Because there are some very good people in very challenging places spending time with young people. Since I posted it i have been thinking about what kind of things kept me engaged in the church I went to and stayed in as a young person between 1988 and 1996, and i thought they are worth sharing.

It might be that my experience was completely unique, and yes that is philosophically accurate, it was unique. The challenge that I think there is, is whether it is right to think that the same things that kept young people engaged 20 or more years ago, will be the same today. My hunch is not, but throwing out the baby completely with the bathwater might be a mistake.

So, Why didnt I leave my church in my teenage years?

I think there was a number of reasons:

1. It was my church. 

For, although it was a church I grew up in, and therefore by default my parents and sister also went to, for a number of reasons my parents left the church when I was about 12. After that point, though i was given the opportunity to leave, I continued to go, to be part of the youth groups and what then happened is that It became a safe place, a place away from my parents, almost a place where i felt at times as if it was slightly rebellious to go, rather than rebellious not to. But it became my church. I know of other young people who felt they had to find an identity of going to church which was a different one to their parents, especially those whose parents are in leadership or important, but that neednt be so. I realise this might not be a possible scenario for many young people, but this scenario for me, enabled me to have more of my own identity in the church.

2. I was given jobs to do

From the age of 11, ie just starting High school, i asked to and was given the opportunity to help with the Sunday school, I think it was the under 6’s group. And it was great. I learned so much, and had to think about doing games or crafts or reading or stories. I was, at age 11 trusted to help and make a contribution to help the younger age groups. Im not sure I attended the ‘meetings’ to discuss the sunday school, but that didnt matter, each Sunday i was a key helper in the particular group, and at the time, I think alot of other similar 11-12yr olds were given this opportunity. I would stake a claim that most of those who took on helping roles then, are more involved in churches now. I also remember the first time i had to ‘lead’ the group because the adult leader was away, yes i was terrified, and yes it probably didnt go that well, but again it showed a level of trust, and was an important part of being an apprentice. In a way, having this role, and then a few others during my teenage years ( learning to play the guitar, junior youth group leader from 16) all helped to give me responsibility, challenges, to grow up in a church and have quality time with adults, as much as quality time with other young people.

3. I was given opportunities to work things out. 

I think my youth leaders, and there is some massive credit heading their way, probably got sick of me asking things, I was curious, I asked about and was keen to learn about things like Creation, like Free will, like Suffering, at times i wasnt satisfied with simple answers, and Im not just saying that now, I remember having lengthy conversation with people in the church about these complex matters. I attended and at times enjoyed the lengthy sermons, because they caused me to think, and werent dumbed down- i was probably 15 or 16 by then. But i was able to work things out because most sunday evenings I would walk back to my youth leaders house and chat with them about the sermons, or something else ( their house was on the way back to mine), and I was given time. Sometimes the conversation would continue over a hot chocolate, or a longer walk with their dog – but time and space to be listened to and not have a stupid question belittled, or even to explore the answers together was granted to me. Deep credit to all those people who gave me time. They will remain nameless but you know who you are. Not only that, but they were there in the times of needing to chat, the life choice moments, and struggles.

4. I didn’t need the spiritual ‘special event’ because I  felt I had a Spiritual home. 

Dont get me wrong, as a church and youth group we went to some interesting special events. Nothing has changed that much. Some were dreadful. I remember once driving my car ( so I must have been 17) with a few others to a random hall in deepest darkest Leicestershire, to an event that had been ‘well promoted’ and told of a great band etc etc, only to find that out group of 8 who travelled 20 miles formed over 1/2 the ‘audience’ ( for me these experiences started to pose questions in my head even then of ‘event based’ youth ministry) , however, back to the point. And I think at least 5 times i went to Spring Harvest, which was the ‘grandaddy’ of all the events, all that Spring harvest did is put other events in the shadow. Because, looking back, the place that felt like a Spiritual home was my local church, thats where I was given opportunities to grow, be listened to and from 11 be gradually formed in a number of ways with adults, with time and with opportunities. What the events did was categorise me back into being ‘a youth’ and just with other young people – great for connecting a meeting others, but i could have been anyone in a sea of 500, or anyone in a small group of 20 and being just a receiver of what was being said.

5. I didnt leave because I didnt want to. 

I dont think that at any point between the ages of 13-18 I felt as though I wanted to leave the church. I had no need to because actually many needs and interests i had were being met by its community, and more than that, I was given responsibility and encouraged to think about developing being a leader, being helpful and contributing in a number of ways. Was there a youth group that i attended – yes. But I’m not sure a youth group alone would have kept me, though there was some fun and embarrassing moments, when someone thought that ‘four weddings and a funeral’ would be a good movie to show on a friday evening at the pastors house. Hmm, those 5 first words… In a way the group itself was a parallel to all the rest of the activity, people and support that was involved in the faith community and how i maintained involvement in it.  I wonder whether actually there are some young people who dont leave the church.

I realise the situation I grew up in was unique to me, I was probably very fortunate. Yet it is unique to everyone. In that place, in that time, I look back and think about what were the things that kept me in the local church. The question is – Can churches rely on the same things that kept young people as they did 20 years ago? 

Its kind of yes and no. It depends what it thinks those things are.

What the church needs to do is work with the young people it has today, right now, and give them responsibility from an early age, that will be different to each young person, the kind of support that gives them a culture of being able to talk, work things out, be heard and listened to and valued, deep. Provide opportunities for young people to become connected with many adults, doing adult things – ie music, or sports groups, so not just being kept with people of the same age. They also need to be challenged, or be given opportunities to find that challenge and thinking is good for them – i think this is different now – i think young people do want something easy, and easy is what they are given. Its that MTD thing (see ).

The research pointed to two things: Young people appreciated a healthy place, and also a challenge.  That hasnt changed. Most young people leave because it isnt a healthy place – they are judged, they are given high expectations, they feel inauthentic, it is not a place for them, it is emotionally unhealthy – they have to connect with more leaders than they do school teachers, unhealthy ‘when its all about building relationships..’  Equally young people leave if they are under-challenged – in responsibility, in being able to ask questions, theological and practical, in tasks of mission, of leadership and learning.

In what way might those who have responsibility of local churches enable young people to feel that the church is their church?


Are young people excluded from youth ministry?

Project 328 is to be commended. Over the past 3-4 years they have done some research into gender equality at Christian conferences, to discover that some are better than others at achieving a gender balance amongst the main speakers. What they have highlighted is a bias towards male speakers, conferences organised by males and what might be regular group of the same people spinning around the circuit. Once the issue has been highlighted people are more conscious of it, and things are beginning to change. So, let me ask you the following question:

When was the last conference, conversation or meeting about any aspect of youth ministry that involved young people themselves being an active and contributing part of the conversation?

actually a young person in the room?

Should there be a ‘Project 4:12’  (taken after 1 Timothy 4:12) that researches not only the lack of young people participating in the real life conversations about them (not just research about them presented).

It can also highlight the times in youth ministry when stories are shared that actually put down young people in order to show the greatness of someones ministry, those fly away comments like ‘you know what young people are like, always getting into into trouble and saying stupid things’ – or some other story to belittle young people to get a moment of laughter from the audience.  This seems shocking but it happens, and its uncomfortable, and its wrong.

However, the point is that this kind of thing can continue because young people arent even in the room. Not only that it suggests that its ok for them to be absent and at times poked fun of – to justify a ministry or approach and be held power over. This issue aside – and it should be called out- why are young people usually absent from the conversations about them?  What else might be said about young people in such meetings that wouldnt be said if they were actually there present? It might become evident that young people are more of a project to work on, than people in their own right,  to work with.

but thinking about the conferences every year, i can hear the reasons..:

Of course, young people have no right to be at a conference – or a gathering or a meeting. Thats true, but that right could be given to them.

They wouldnt be able to make it – they’re at school.  So make it accessible.

It is good for the youthworkers to have time away from young people – no- thats what ‘Holiday’ is. Most youthworkers will be claiming this time as ‘work’.

There might be difficult conversations or too theoretical – doesnt mean you dont give them the opportunity.

We want to talk about them when they arent present, or relax and drink alcohol. hmmm

It neednt be a conference or a big gathering. It could be the local strategy group, or planning group. If participation is defined as : Participation is when people who are in receipt of the decisions being made are present to be involved in the decisions themselves. For too long, not unlike the gender imbalance, young people in youth ministry, are absent from contributing to conversations in a meaningful way, both locally and nationally. Its not even that their voice isn’t heard, its that at times it is not even sought for.

Of course, it is easy to write all this and not suggest how things could be changed. And, week long or weekend conferences will ask alot of young people, however it can be done. Make them accessible for the families of the youthworker for one, have evening sessions that young people close to the venue can attend- and technology might present other opportunities, surely its a possibility. Create forums locally, processes of including and participation.

In the way that some conferences have been called out to be ‘all male’ – there are some youth ministry conferences that ban under 18s from attending – could someone please explain that? what kind of work with young people is this approach trying to model in its gathering, when young people are actually banned?

There arent many weekends in a year where there isnt a youth ministry conference of some kind – and if youve read this far some will have come to mind. But how many that are directly about training, educating and gathering people involved in youth ministry actually encourage or permit young people to attend, participate and contribute? What would ‘Project 4:12’ reveal..?

Those that do – is it a token one young person?, or the 20 year old thats wheeled out onto the stage in front of 400 people and crumbles with nerves. In that case, the structure created is inaccessible and is only for one type of contribution.

So – if your conference has ‘youth’ in its title – does it include ‘youth’ in its contribution? what might it say about the value of young people by their absence? or by they way they are able to contribute? What power dynamic does it maintain about the ‘them and us’ of the relationship between youth ministry and the young people it is often saying it is working ‘with’. What does it suggest about how a practice believes in young peoples voice, participation, intelligence, capacity and decision making ability. In effect, if we say that in youth ministry we learn from the young people – why might that not be applied at the decision making meeting or conference – just during a session and in a low profile conversation.

what is worse is when a ministry about young people has inclusion and participation as part of its vision or objectives – and then constructs barriers so that this cant actually happen

Taking a more inclusive and participatory approach with young people might enable the kind of community and church transformation most people in youth ministry might dream of.  Collaborative approaches in youth ministry – now theres a thing? It might lead to more transparent practice, it might lead to more developed young people giving them more opportunities, it might raise glass ceilings, it might challenge current practices.

Maybe thats where youth ministry can reflect on the youth work values of empowerment, participation and inclusion. And yes ive been to many a ‘youth work’ conference where the same criticism could be levied – all about young people but not including them.

Anyone fancy a change in mindset for the next generations of young people…Project 4:12 anyone? 


Has Status anxiety in the church affected the success of Youth Ministry?

A simple enough question, dont you think. For, in some areas of youth work it can be easy to measure ‘success’ – a young person reduces their alcohol intake, or starts a job, or gets back into school. These are possibly more transformational or behavioural focuses of the youth work, some might say that these arent as ‘pure’ youthwork, but they exist and often help, pure or not. But what is Youth Ministry aiming for? – or more to the point why doesnt it always hit the mark?

As Jon Jolly describes, the church has been at the forefront of delivering youth work practice for a very long time, since the 1800’s. Since then, by and large there have been a range of motives for its practice; Jolly lists them as

  • Educational – Such as the ‘sunday schools’ of the 1800’s
  • Conversional – to pass on the beliefs of one group of people to others
  • Social Action – motivated to do good in society, to reduce injustice of young people
  • Safety – To provide an alternative to ‘the world’ (seen as dangerous) in order that ‘christian young people’ are protected (see also Pete Ward 1996:184, Brierley, 2003)

And in the main, various forms of youth ministry combine some of these aspects, or at least these motivations. There are times when there are extremes of approaches, flitting from ‘social action’ at one end to ‘proselytising’ at the other.

Status Anxiety

Before responding to the question ‘what is youth ministry aiming for?’ it is worth reflecting on the broader context of the question within the church. Jolly suggests that there is something of a generational half life occuring in churches. For every generation that passes, attendance halves ( Jolly, 2015, 30). While this could be a wake up call to change methods it also reinforces a protectionism to try and keep what weve got.  However, if Youth Ministry has some shoulder to carry in regard to Status Anxiety of its own practice, then the broader church and its culture has to acknowledge it is affected by its own status anxiety. The Status anxiety the church faces, in the UK is on a number of levels, firstly, it is reminded by statisticians and usually small scale surveys that it is shrinking. Secondly it faces competition from many competitors, not just a global-technological-consumerist worldview, but also other religions in the UK and thirdly, as a consequence the place of the church is society is no longer quite a dominant (ie post-christendom) though it is still quite amazing how interested the media is during synod, or other religious decision making.

So, because the church is reacting in its own state of status anxiety, or at least in local congregations it might be feeling defeated, under resourced, under pressure (to shrink clergy posts), churches at the same time are undergoing what i call ‘initiative-itis’. Trying the latest new idea to help ‘stop the rot’ whatever stopping the rot looks like. Its that generational half life stuff again. But the initiatives keep on coming, the latest event, the product, the promotion.

As Kevin Vanhoozer suggests : ” As in Philippi, so todays church struggles with status anxiety in the face of the new empire of popular culture, like status anxious individuals, some churches may be tempted to employ the tools of this empire, such as mass marketing (or social marketing), to achieve larger numbers and reckoned a success in the eyes of the world.” (Vanhoozer, 2014, 186)  How much of the activities of the church at the moment seem to be about solely numbers of people attending something? or getting people to ‘a thing’?  Or pressure to do ‘a thing’ so people turn up – even so it can then be celebrated on social media as a ‘thing’ that has been done. I might be too critical, but does it not emphasis what direction and effect status anxiety has had on the church – and it is this context that youth ministry finds itself.  The effect of status anxiety on the church can be frightening. Today Claudio Ranieri got sacked from Leicester city, acclaimed as the FIFA coach of the year, but threat of status anxiety created the environment for this decision. Is Anxiety the best place from which to even make decisions? 

Status Anxiety & Youth Ministry

The tragedy for the church, and for youth ministry, is that the practices that create the possibility of long lasting change, are the practices that are long term, and as the research this week suggested (see my blog (what do young people want from the church) – for young people they engage with healthy cultures, with depth of education and with challenge  – this is not a quick fix of ‘evangelism’ – but a seismic cultural shift of the church to be a healthy place, an educating place and also one where young people are challenged. I would imagine that these things would be the same for everyone not just young people- though it might depend who you surveyed.

However, because of the status anxiety of the church – and youth ministry, in the main, being determined and serving the local church – it can often be caught in the same trap. It becomes influenced not by theology, motivated by the actions and intentions of God loving mission in the world – but by the pressures put on the local church to increase attendances or ‘numbers’ using initiatives to do so. Acting not in a way to love the local community – but to keep itself from disappearing. Or as in Leicester citys case, fear that its one recent glory will turn into relegation.

So – What does Youth Ministry aim for?  not just numbers and attendance at events surely? not just numbers of churches who take up a programmed ministry or franchised project? though there are plenty of people who see success through these lenses or take up for products.

The aim of youth ministry in the next generation is to see through and beyond its own status anxiety – to use what it has learned about community, about theology, culture and discipleship and start to affect the culture of the church, youth ministry has to affect church culture change.  If the leaders of 1970s youth ministry are church leaders now, hopefully the youth ministry leaders circa 2000-2010 will soon be enabling churches to reshape around community practices, creative education and discipleship that is intertwined with responsibility and performing mission.  All too sadly at the moment, youth ministry is in its own form of status anxiety, and what it is doing in some areas is retract to founding values, some of the ‘safe/alternative motives’ , which may or may not enable it to survive in those states, a turn to evangelism and alternative culture creating.

Status anxiety might prevent the church, and youth ministry doing the kind of work with young people and in local communities that would be akin to what might be what young people themselves want – healthy and deep- and be involved in loving communities in a way that invests, loves and is present in them redeeming new places that were once only spaces, going back to what the Rev Hamilton said in 1967, to start to work in way fundamentally different with young people and communities off the radar and so disengaged.  Youth Ministrys effectiveness is directly affected by the extent to which protectionism and status anxiety has gripped the church. Youth Ministry generally has adopted missional and where effective, also educational practices which often challenge the static-ness of the church as an organisation. Youth ministry is not and was not a good initiative to be tossed aside because it ‘didnt work’ – like other flashes in the pan, one of the reasons it didnt work, is that it couldnt affect the culture of local churches, at a time when church itself is in the midst of its own form of status anxiety. However, its easy to underfund the youth worker role, or the ecumenical project locally when preserving the status quo and maintenance is of higher importance.


Hamilton, Rev H, Appendix – The churchs response – in Getchius, Tash ‘Working with unattached youth’ 1967

Jolly, Jon, Christian Youthwork, Motive and Method, 2015, in Stanton et al (eds), Youth work and Faith, 2015

Vanhoozer, K, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014


Creating safe stages for Improvised youthwork

“Improvising seems dangerous because it requires participants to make use of their unconscious” (Samuel Wells)

In a recent study on the types of churches that engage and keep young people/adults, the Fuller Institute, discovered that the places where young people were most likely to stay were places of good emotional health. Their report is referred to here: , and in pre-empting a future article I do wonder ‘what constitutes an emotionally healthy youth ministry?’ – but that might be for another time. Regardless of anything else – creating a safe place is seemingly one of the key commonalities in youth work and Ministry, a space in which the boundaries are known, where leaders are trained, where a risk assessment is done, all those kind of things form the basis of the safe space, or at least create a structure where there is a safe space. In a way, these help those with the creation of the space – more than the young people who participate within it. They might not know if theres been a risk assessment, or if the leaders have had child protection training.

I wonder whether the ‘Safe’ ness of the space has to be felt by the young people. A few years ago now when I was involved in detached youthwork in Perth City Centre, we met 100’s of young people most of whom were in small groups around and about, in the busyness of the city centre that was also usually full of adults in groups drinking, walking and sometimes being threatening. It was all part of the environment. It wasnt a ‘dangerous’ place per se, but there were dangerous aspects to it. Usually the young people wouldn’t admit that they felt in danger, or worried about it – but when we asked them about what they liked about us being around the said: “you help us feel safe”. On detached also, there can be that slightly awkward moment in the midst of a conversation, because the young person might not know the intentions of the youthworker, or there hasnt been an introduction – ie they feel unsafe, unsure, so by describing the intention they can then have more confidence in the space and feel safe in a any personal contribution to a conversation.

Image result for improvisation

Those of you who have read my previous articles will know that I have mentioned improvisation before. Sam Wells describes improvisation as

Improvisation in the Theatre is a practice through which actors seek to develop trust in themselves and one another in order that they may conduct unscripted dramas without fear.

It requires both trust and imagination, knowledge of each other and also the overall direction of the play. The kind of trust, is not dissimilar that the notion of safety – but it is more than that. Safety might be the structure – trust is what people feel.

Improvising is about accepting and blocking offers. So the line from the actor accompanied by a gesture can either be accepted and incorporated because though it might be different, edgy or unpredicted it can be incorporated into the story, there is a risk, and a trust. The offer is blocked if it cant be done so or requires more than the skill of the receiver to be able to develop it as part of the play. But, crucially the offer might only be made deliberately if there is safety and trust to be able to do so, the predictable thing in the moment, is to stick to the script, so that the cues are well rehearsed and imagination lies dormant.

Image result for improvisation

Improvisation could feel like a responsive, reactive task.

But it isnt. Because improvisation requires the stage and set to be created in a way where improvisation can happen. It is about created a safe stage, a safe place for experimentation, a safe place where lines can be tried and tested, where others are open to be responsive to new lines and cues, or to have to rely on new lines. Improvisation is less about responding to the variety of cues and taking up offers, as with young people creating an environment where they want to suggest offers and imagination and believe that their offers have worth, will be listened to or might even be accepted. What it means that for youth workers it is not enough to create a physically safe space, but a space in which young people feel as though their contribution will be taken seriously, or where the offers they make in terms of questions, critique, ideas are accepted.


It might also be that when young people do contribute into the conversations, such as those on the streets, in the clubs or groups, that these are indications that they feel trusted and accepted in that particular setting, what they have to give is given. It is an indicator of what is hoped for. Image result for improvisationThere is more to a space than it being safe to be, as youthworkers creating a safe space is in order that young people can perform and flourish, contribute and make offers – that are followed up. When we as youthworkers follow the offers we cant help but be with young people, and with them in the space that they are wanting to create for themselves, they become the creators and deciders, because they have a stage in which they can use their imaginations.

If a young person has given up on offering – what does that say? They dont trust the response? they don’t feel safe?  There is no space to even make an offer – that doesn’t feel like an interruption or a challenge to control? If young people need a healthy place to thrive and engage, according to the research, then a healthy place might be the kind of place where they are able to creatively contribute and make and have offers accepted. But it also requires that our desire in youthwork is to enable improvisation, its far easier to restrict, control and decide. The french word for youthworker is Animator, one who creates and allows the animation to occur.  Being a youthworker is to create safe stages and to response to the offers and creativity of the young people that we have given license to happen.



Samuel Wells, Improvisation, 2005

Credit also to Steve G Blower of the Sidewalk Project, Scarborough who prompted me to reflect on improvisation further during a conversation yesterday.


Questions and response to: “what young people want in a church?”

Finally – someone has bothered to do some actual research!

The Fuller Institute have just published some initial findings from a 4 year study into what goes on in churches that young people, young adults, like to go to, and which ones have engaged them.

I have copied the whole summary from the webpage, as it is isnt long- as it is worth reading in full, I’ve also copied the link at the bottom of this article:

In our recent posts we’ve shared the bad news about young people and the church and introduced you to some churches young people love. You might be wondering, “So what’s the secret of churches that are bucking the trend and engaging young people well?”

We wondered the same thing, which is what kicked off this four-year study in the first place. Like us, you might be surprised not only by what these churches do, but even more by what they don’t do.

The myths about what young people want

Surely churches that draw young people today must have a super-cool vibe, young pastor with skinny jeans, a laser light kit in a new multimillion-dollar facility, or some other hype. Right?


Yes, we discovered some churches that are flashy and hip, and as a result they draw lots of young people. But this was certainly not the case for all of the congregations in our study—not even most.

One thriving church actually prided itself on not being hip.

The pastor wanted to drive the point home and emphasized to our team, “Our church is nothing flashy; just a great healthy place.” Tweet that

After conducting nearly 1,500 hour-long interviews and analyzing over 10,000 pages of research data, we’ve discovered that much of what we often think we need to engage teenagers and young adults perhaps isn’t so essential after all.

In our latest book Growing Young, we counter several of these myths with the reality of what we’ve learned helps young people discover and love their churches. But there’s one BIG myth we want to do away with right now.

Myth: Young people want a shallow or watered-down teaching style.

You’ve likely heard plenty of discouraging news about young people’s faith habits, such as reading the Bible less, praying less, volunteering less, and attending church less than older Christians. Given some of the teenagers and young adults you know, maybe you’ve concluded that they just want feel-good messages that are easy, uncontroversial, and don’t require anything of them.

This means that if we want young people to show up to our churches, we should make the messages shallow and easy to swallow, right?

That’s not what we found. Engaging today’s young people doesn’t mean we refrain from talking about Jesus too much, or the very real cost of following him.

What young people say they want

Don’t just take our word for it. Reflecting on the “secret” to his church’s success, one young person explained, “Yeah, I think the goal for our church is not really effectiveness with young people but serving and following Jesus. And young people like me are attracted to churches that want to do that.

During the Growing Young project’s interviews, 40 percent of young people specifically mentioned “challenge” when they talked about why their church is so effective with their age group. They appreciate challenging teaching in their churches, even when it makes them feel uncomfortable and invites them to make changes based on scriptural principals.

40 percent of young people specifically mention wanting to be challenged by their church. Tweet that

Contrary to popular thinking that young people today want it easy, many told us they love their churches because their churches inspire them to act. This inspiration flows from leaders who model authenticity and humility and extend the challenge of following Jesus not from a place of superiority or power, but out of an invitation to pursue the way of Jesus together.

In short, teenagers and emerging adults in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them. They are running toward it.

Still not convinced?

We get it – the myth that young people want a church that is shallow and easy runs deep. But our team kept hearing from young people who convinced us otherwise.

One twenty-something explained it this way: “I think many churches have fallen into a consumer mindset as a default mode. Churches have tried to appeal to people’s desire to feel good. But the problem is, if you’re just trying to make people feel good, church isn’t going to measure up to that.”

Another college student made it clear: “There is never a time, even in just catching a meal with someone from our church, that the gospel doesn’t come into the conversation. The quality of the conversation with people from my church is consistently Christ-centered. The gospel comes up everywhere.”

Let’s go deeper together

These shifts toward deeper teaching and ministry that appropriately challenge young people require time, and they are anything but easy. Additionally, there’s always the chance that some young people won’t like it. We want to equip you for this journey with all the information and strategy you’ll need, and you’ll discover a great starting point in our new book that is now available.

For now, we hope you’re encouraged that in churches growing young, it is the authentic teaching of Jesus’ message that meets young people’s desire for life-giving direction. Proclaiming Jesus as the centerpiece of the story of God, and seeking to live out his instruction in everyday relationships, the churches we’ve studied are reclaiming the very heart of the good news.

Your church can too.

Don’t buy in to the myths about what young people want in a church. Join us and we will journey together toward deeper, truer, more faithful ministry that engages young people and all generations well.


So – what do you think? – is this applicable to the UK context and the young people and adults you know in a church?

From the article – what are the headlines?

  1. Young people can identify a healthy place – thats where they learn, ask questions and survive risk taking.
  2. Young people dont want watered down, ‘relevantised’ or ‘simplifyed’ – they can do that themselves. Give them theology raw, deep and spirituality a challenge.
  3. Yes, a Challenge. Make it difficult and meaningful.
  4. They desire authenticity. (I think this has been on every ‘how to do effective youth ministry’ manual since 1980)
  5. They hope for community and space connected with the church not separate, all generations together.

There is much to think on.

a) What are the alternative assumptions that UK youth ministry has promoted since well, 1980?  – relevancy, simplicity and attraction, over challenge, changing cultures and authenticity?

b) No one is asking, aside from Peter Scuzzero, what an emotionally, spiritually, mentally, socially or even physically healthy church might look like. The task of youth ministry from now on is not to help disciple young people, but help clergy and faith communities create cultures of discipleship. A youth worker cannot do it alone.

c) The context is important, im assuming the research was done with american students in churches. What about young people in the UK who are no where near a church- what kind of culture, challenge and deep faith is an attractive thing for them. The watered down high energy youth event has been dead as an evangelism to discipleship method for a long time. Albeit not for any young people involved in it. Itll make them better leaders than any attender a future disciple. However, whats the alternative. Deep faith in conversations and relationship, improvising from the context, exploring faith in the margins and building church from the edges.

But in context – what would ‘church going’ young people in the UK – say they wanted and what kind of church engages them?  A small church where they are welcomed, encouraged and given responsibility might ‘win’ over a large church where they have a fight for a place. Might. not always.

What kind of church will keep young people? is still one where the culture of it is far more important than any new personnel like a youth worker. What kind of church do young people ‘want’ is still somewhat of a misleading question. Though it promotes a materialism – I can hear a few people say, it’s not what they want that’s important, its what God wants’ and theres a truth in that – but ‘what God wants’ isnt young people to be mistreated, ignored, belittled or infantilised by the church, in the way that no one should be. So – if a church is willing to improvise and accept the offers of suggestions from young people, develop deep learning and challenge, create culture of health and of respect then it might continue to engage young people, after all, research is now beginning to prove what youthworkers have thought for a while.

To click the link and find the article yourself- and the further resources you can do so here:

40 daily self-care tips for youthworkers & ministers during Lent. 

Just before Christmas I was reflecting on youth workers and self- care. I was doing this because at the time I was and continue to do a days lecturing for a small group of new youthwork students on the EQUIP course in the north east on preparing them for vocational work with young people in the faith sector. Next week is the start of lent, a period of 40 days of time symbolising Jesus’ time in wilderness, before, but also an integral part of his ministry. There’s no harm in reflecting on the need in the work we do as youthworkers to be more disciplined or give something up, equally it can be argued that the physically and emotional giving required in such a role might also determine that receiving could be as important as giving.

Already during lent there can be great resources for young people, or for churches. But I wondered about the workers in the fields, paid and unpaid, full and part time, and suggesting for 40 days of lent, 40 suggestions for improving self care during, in order to renew, recharge and be ready for the challenges of youthwork in the year ahead.

Above all, the challenge might not be just to do these things, but to love ourselves, be kind to ourselves and in doing so then look after ourselves, so by no means are these conclusive or things that I do myself they might even be things I need to do, its the sentiment that in the work that we do, self care, self love even, might be something to prioritise over Lent.

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Steven Covey in ‘ 7 Habits of effective people describes the human person as having 4 aspects, physical, spiritual, emotional and mental, these four are a good baseline to start from in terms of looking after ourselves.

Physical – i sense the biggest groan.. do i have to..? 

1. Choose the form of travel or route that requires more exercise. Ie walk instead of bus or tube. Plan the day accordingly

2. Replace a few unhealthy chocolatey snacks with something healthier, especially in an office environment.

3. On your day off, that you will take (!), do some exercise,  and it neednt be expensive, park runs are free, so it walking in the country or an hours swim at the local pool won’t cost too much.

4. Take that day off. and if possible take the night off the night before, so you can start to relax from 5pm, and have nearly 30 hours off in total.

5. Plan ahead with food a bit, it is so easy with work that is odd hours, long days, working lunches and youth group on the hop to forget to eat properly, or plan to eat decent food. Being physically well is going to help. So plan meals and food ahead of the game, in the week ahead. Even microwaved soup, or last nights left over casserole is better than a microwave meal itself!

6. Oh and if you’re due a weekend off (if you work weekends) – then take it! – and your annual leave – dont overwork your hours if you help it!

7. Combining physical and emotional/social – start going to an excercise class! – meet new people which also tending to your own physical condition.

8. Reduce unhealthy coping mechanisms, like alcohol, over eating, non sleeping, late night video games, drugs, addictions, aggression or what ever it might be.

1. On a day off visit a place of worship, cathedral, a monastery,  a mosque or temple, somewhere to contemplate in your own chosen time your place in the world.

2. It might be a spiritual exercise to be in the present moment, so take a walk in the countryside, near a beach, or in a park without your phone. Then stand a listen to whats going on around you, take some deep breaths, and let your mind unwind itself, and your eyes be open to whats going on.

3. As well as a physical activity, tending to a garden or an open space, growing fruit or vegetables might be a good spiritual experience to connect with something growing, at the pace that it is growing. Slow down.

4.  If you believe in a Holy Book, then spend time reading it, and if you dont believe in it or have one, then maybe start to read one. Either way it might be spiritual or educational.

5. Read some poetry, or great literature, appreciate an art form as a God given talent of someone, and listen to what it might be challenging you to think about and reflect on in your person, and in your practice.

6. The Bible talks about meditating ‘day and night’ on good things, meditating is nothing other than slowing down, and reducing what is being focussed on and it being something of purity and goodness, of Godliness even. Even a ‘prayer’ time might not be meditative – just another rushed activity. So, slow down, and be active in meditating on something, verses from the Bible, a poem, an art form, something natural.

7. Pray. To the known or unknown God you believe in, give away in conversation with God your deepest needs, desires, fears and frustrations, and if this for you is cathartic self talk (to an unknown God) then so be it, but in that conversation leave some stuff behind in it, and listen and be attuned to what the next steps are in response to the how your mind and spirit has received in terms of ideas, new plans, decisions or directives.

8. Read up on the Spiritual saints from before, the actual saints – such as Mother Theresa, or Saint Francis, William Wilberforce or those whos faith inspired justice and reconciliation, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, , their stories are well known and told through books, or film, connect spiritually and be renewed and inspired by their struggle and the trust they had in God during it.

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Emotional/ Social

1. Value a coffee or pint with a supportive listening friend. Do this once a week during lent!

2. Protect yourself from comparisons whether the resource than tries to help you create the perfect youth group or the statuses on social media of someone else’s great ministry or practice. Be pleased for them, encourage them, and avoid the comparison trap.

3. Give time to people who are outside of work and ministry, like your family.

4. Forgive yourself for the daft thing or mistake pretty quickly – especially if it was done in all innocence!  – we need not beat ourselves up – especially if we were brave to take a risk, or develop an idea.

5. Use Social media in a positive way, use it to connect with people and have a conversation with a ministry colleague wherever they are in the world, at least once a week. They might need the support as much as you do.

6. Get some kind of supervision, personal supervision someone who will ask you the difficult questions, but also support you through tough stuff, you neednt feel alone, there are plenty of people who can support you.

7. Spend some time examining your personal motives, dreams and goals, whilst walking or reflecting, once your youth work practice is in some alignment then there will be some kind of inside and outside integrity, when its out of sync its obvious to yourself.

8. Spend time away from the rushing around to deeply connect with another person, a colleague, friend or young person – in all the activities, stop and be present with them and attune yourself to listening, give of real emotions – not just active organising ones.
Mindful and creative

1. Take up a skill that involves a tangible end product and enjoy it, so cooking recipes, bread, wine, cake, making for example, needle work or sewing, diy or gardening.

2. Read up on a youthwork hero, get reacquainted with a person’s theory and practice since yours might have changed since you read them last. So Friere, Jeffs and Smith, Pete Ward or Kerry Young. There are others…

3. Start a journal of practice, renew a practice of reflection that might be been long gone since college days. Reflect on what you’re learning, and question why you might not be.

4. Watch the kind of movie that disturbs, challenges or invokes the senses and thoughts in a different way to your usual. Something different might be mind stirring.

5. Read a paper that’s different to your normal worldview. It may disturb,  irritate or annoy. But engage with it creatively, protest accordingly but at least be engaging in a different view of the world.

6. Read a few texts from an area of practice linked to youthwork but not an area you might know so much about, so a political leader, a philosopher, a uniformed organisation, social work, might be mine but what might be an area you might reflect on. might be a good place to start.

7. Commit to learning something new every day – whether its a skill, a piece of knowledge, a piece of history, or something from a young person, or something else, and be deliberating in looking for it.

8. Develop your own learning programmes with and for your young people, take time gathering resources for the programmes, and be creative – enjoying the thinking and learning through them.

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So, using Coveys four aspects, there are 32 ideas to help you as a youthworker/minister with self care during the upcoming Lent. You will have noticed that it is impossible to separate the four areas, simply because it is impossible to consider ourelves as sperate parts, all are connected, are interchangeable, and in another way it is why looking after ourselves is going to be positive for our work lives, and vice versa. So, here are 8 further self care tips and maxims that might be helpful:

  1. Do one thing a week just for you. And stick to it, and make sure its healthy/good for you too
  2. Take more of the credit when something goes well, God has given you gifts to use, use them and recognise that you have these gifts – dont give God all the glory for achievement, but only blame yourself for when things go wrong – this is a ministry condemnation/self image downward spiral.
  3. Visit someone elses practice, not to revel in what they’re good at but to spend time learning and appreciating what they’re doing, to be inspired,  and also how your practice is distinctive.
  4. Be realistic about what you can achieve every day. The phone will ring, the do list might be endless, but set realistic goals and try and focus on the not so urgent but more important things every day.
  5. If you feel like you’re continually fire fighting. Then you will burn out. Balance reacting with strategising and preventing. That’s not just you personally but also maybe the organisation/church you’re working for….
  6. Make a decision not to compare yourself with others, and challenge a comparative culture. Its your mission, your call, your context, find a culture of support and understanding for your ministry and person, not a place of comparisons or achievements
  7. Avoid the numbers game, and if others are playing it dont join in – value quality.
  8. Find a good way of being on top of the game in regard to personal organisation. I still use a paper filofax, it works for me like google calendar just doesnt. But thats just me. It you’re an organisational mess, then building team is very difficult.

So, for 40 days of lent – here are 40 hopefully realistic suggestions for you, busy, stressed out, youthworker than might enable you to renew yourself, care for yourself and create in yourself a measure of good practice. We might be good at supervising others, or managing them, but we have to do the same for ourselves too. If things need to be ‘got rid’ like the discipline of lent might awaken us to then great, but most of all, how we love and look after ourselves is crucial.


Aiming for anxiety-free practices of evangelicalism. 

One of the questions i received in January, after i had written, and quite a few people read my previous post ‘ Trying to survive after falling off the evangelical cliff’ (a link is here: ,  in it i posed the question that it was possible to maintain an evangelical faith, but reject the practices of evangelicalism. Theres no doubt that so many people i have spoken to since that article went viral, have said that they too cling on to a faith that looks very similar to an evangelical one, but its the practices of it that seem to be at odds with the essence of that faith.

I think its the kind of evangelical practices where these kind of sentiments become common:

You know that didnt work – because we didnt pray enough


By praying this prayer you’ll be avoiding certain death. 


Its part of your discipleship to make sure you come along to this meeting

If i was cruel i might suggest it was some kind of Evangelical guilt trip. But its worse than that, it is more of an Evangelical Anxiety. And it is this evangelical anxiety that is what i mean in the evangelical practices that are not only a turn off but also a reason for them to be called out and left behind. 

The reason it is worse is that it encourages an ongoing angst and anxiety about the status of a person in their relationship to God. Encourages and also endorses that anxiety can become a key driving force for the actions of church, or the actions the way in which evangelism is conducted.  I wonder how common this is, or peoples experience is.

 As an extreme I remember being quite shocked at the Spiritual abuse that was handed out in the name of ‘evangelical/deliverance’ ministry in the fictional account in ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ – a book i studied at A level. And, i wonder if the ‘hell fire and brimstone’ type of evangelism, as one aspect of evangelical anxiety, has shifted somewhat. That was the 70’s wasn’t it, but does youth evangelism still play on these fears amongst impressionable young people? 

 But how often or frequent have you heard or even vocalised or dare i say it ‘manipulated’ a reaction in others, especially young people, that played on feelings of anxiety? At some point the person at the front creates a situation to be fearful of, and a person hearing this because of self esteem has a pre requisite to want to avoid fearful situations is likely to sign up to what is offered. It’s the ‘if you don’t buy a new car, the old one might break next week, scenario’ it’s fear and anxiety. Most of the time it’s well intentioned, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. Or changed.  In reality the free car is ready to be picked up as a gift.

Whats the good news. A gift. A gift of the love if God given to the world to save it. A gift that is to be accepted freely and in freedom a relationship to participate in.  

The ironic thing is that the organisation and practices of the church can be good for people, from prayer as a calming moment, to groups as social connections, liturgies to help orientate a person to a higher goal and purpose. But the effect on mental health caused by evangelical anxiety might negate all of these positive effects. We have to question whether perpetuating anxiety is the appropriate motivator for participation and conformity in a church. Where it is used & what does it show? Lack of love? Poor image of God? Off key theology? Status anxiety and desperation to attract/keep people?  Misuse of power? 

If anxiety is the only way to attract or keep people in to faith, then something is seriously wrong somewhere.  If God is love. Even a church of fallen people might act with love as it’s intent to itself and to others, making well meaning mistakes, in a culture of  and intent to show the same love. 

So, rejecting the practices of the evangelical faith, is less the goodness that the practices of them but how cultures of anxiety often surround them, creating distortions of grace, of love and the character of God. Developing from covenant, conviction and choice. 

Can evangelicals do ‘guilt-free’ Jesus? 

Rethinking young people and ‘low self esteem’

These Young People have just such low self esteem!  

This week I have been attending a 3-day block of lectures on Psychology and Christianity as part of my MA course at Durham University. It has been absolutely fascinating. During the three days each of the 17 of us in the room have been given the chance to present to the others a 20 minute presentation on a recent paper in psychology and relate it to ministry, again, fascinating the variety, and even if many of my colleagues applied their papers to other work and ministry, what was insightful was being able to reflect on what it might mean for working with young people.

One paper, and an accompanying lecture on Self Esteem was i thought worth reflecting on further.

Firstly, a few points about Self-esteem. Self-esteem is contested. However, Self-esteem and the Self have been part of the ongoing conversations in Psychology from almost the dawning of Psychology itself.  For James (1890) Self-esteem can be linked to our nature, can rise and fall as a function of achievement and set-backs and notably, not all successes and failures have the same effect on self-esteem. There can be a ‘State’ Self-esteem (one that fluctuates as a person ‘feels’ about themselves) and also a ‘Trait’ self-esteem – almost like a ‘resting pulse’ its the normative state, but how such a resting state of self-esteem exists is open to debate.  There is an element of cognition required for self-esteem, for it depends on the person in their ‘mind’ to interpret themselves in light of the events to then make assessments of themselves, against the situations. One of the functions of self-esteem which is valuable to youth workers is how self-esteem helps a person to achieve their goals, to indicate self-determination and also maybe realise dominance over others. Self-esteem that fluctuates is highly linked to contingencies of self-worth  (CSW) – which have been researched, albeit in America by student samples, to include things like appearance, others approval, competitiveness, academic competency, love and support of family, virtues and also relationship with God (again, American students) – this study was done in 2001, and was with a predominately white student population. But Some of these CSW are important to reflect on as these can be filters to look through ‘life goals’ through, as well as be motivations in themselves.

So, enough with the definitions, the thing that caught my eye was from one of the presentations by a colleague…

In an academic paper which had brought together a large number of data regarding the changes of Self esteem along the lifespan, Robins and Trzesenski in 2002 produced the following graph that makes a stab at trying to bring a uniformity to the conversations about self esteem as it changes through the ages.

I have taken a photo of it, and so the quality isnt great, and im aware that you might not be able to access the paper without permissions, but here it is.

From left to right is the age of people from 9-12, 13-17, 18-22 and right the way through to 80-90. The scale is based on an accumulation of data sets from a large range of previous papers. The data sets are the shapes, and a trend line is plotted through them.

Yes there are caveats with taking data from a cumulation of other samples.

But as a youthworkers, this is interesting isnt it?  How the level of self esteem changes through the ages.  There are reasons why it changes, and changes dramatically at certain points, they’re sort of obvious (linked to the description above)

We need to recognise a ‘change’ in self-esteem – but is it actually a ‘low one’? 

Of course, because everyone is different, making comparisons between young people might cause us, teachers or others to compare levels of self-esteem. But what is noticeable (aside from the distinction between males and females) , is not that young people have ‘low’ self-esteem – it is that there is such as significant change  in self esteem, for virtually all young people.

What we need to do, as youthworkers is to be aware of a ‘change’ in self-esteem levels with young people, that might feel like ‘low’ self-esteem. 

Actually – by telling a young person they ‘have low self-esteem’ is hardly going to make them feel better about themselves anyway is it?  The only thing this might do, is increase the propensity that our work as a youthworker or programme might have to be heroic to increase it. The reality is that it is far more complicated.

Maybe as youthworkers and youth practitioners it is more helpful to talk about a drop, or a change in a young persons self esteem -caused by the cognitive capacity increasing to consider themselves in respect to the CSW’s above ( ie “am i good looking, am i successful, am i important”) and do against their goals of being important, successful or attractive.

The graph is interesting though on a number of levels.

Yes there is a drop at 13-17- but it is hardly low. And the lowest point for many young people isnt 13-17, its 19 – when they leave home, and go to university. Especially indicated and ‘support or love of family’ is important, as recognised in the student surveys. In what way then, might youth workers who work with 15-year-olds help them to prepare for being 19 and this shift. And, as student life kicks in in regard to alcohol, socialising and being away from home, what strategies might there be to help them to cope in that time, learned from when they were 13…?

The reality is, then that may 15 year olds, probably have on average about the same level of self-esteem as many youthworkers- aged between 25-40. And its probably higher if that youth worker is worried about job security, is away from home, is overworked and stressed or their goals arent being realised.  There is a case for 50-60 year old youthworkers, those who have high self esteem and might have better capacity and confidence to help others. When 30 year olds are still ‘trying to make it…’

Maybe we should forget ‘low self-esteem’ and reflect on ‘changing’ self-esteem in people, not just young people, though young people often get tarnished as having ‘low self-esteem’ the easiest. It might not be the case… and either way its not helpful.

Just a few thoughts on Young people and self-esteem i thought were quite useful and worth sharing, it is such an important aspect of a young person and how they construct a view of themselves, and us, their parents and others, so reflecting further on self-esteem might be important in that changing positive relationship we have with them.

Id love to know your thought – and please let me know if this is helpful, especially in work relating to young people and mental health, in terms of young people as leaders, school achievement, alternative provision or mentoring type situations.


Self-Esteem Development across the Lifespan Author(s): Richard W. Robins and Kali H. Trzesniewski Source: Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Jun., 2005), pp. 158-162 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of Association for Psychological Science Stable URL: Accessed: 15-02-2017 18:52 UTC

James (1890) The Principles of Psychology

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