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? 


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