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


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