The Evangelical Youth Ministry dream may be over, but is meeting needs innovative?

Every now and again, an article or blog post gets written in the social media world of youth ministry that needs to be both applauded for its honesty and at the same time have a few questions asked of it, or look slightly below the surface. Martin Saunders recent piece on Innovation in Youth Ministry; ‘Innovation: Starting before the idea’, from Youthscape is one such piece.  Though it is not that long a piece ( and certainly not as long as some of the ones here) its worth a read, ive included it below. But when you do read it, it is worth asking the question:

  1. What is implied about Evangelical Youth Ministry that only now its thinking innovatively about young peoples needs?
  2. Does this represent a real shift of focus and innovation?
  3. Why might focussing on young peoples needs not be that innovative anyway?

So, heres a link to the piece;

And here it is in full.

“So many Christian youth initiatives have started in the same way. Anyone who’s ever been on the end of a pitch for funds will be familiar with the terminology: “God has given me this amazing idea.”

I don’t want to downplay the possibility of the Creator of the Universe handing out templates for the next great youth resource in the middle of the night; I’m sure he can and does. But for most of us, the ideas we develop for programmes and projects usually have a more earthly genesis; a moment of inspiration while we’re in the shower or out walking the dog. What we can then tend to do is retro-fit the element of divine intervention. It reminds me of a story Matt Redman once told about a young man who played him a song, which he liked. The young songwriter was delighted and told Redman that “God gave it to me”, to which he apocryphally replied: “it’s not that good.”

In the majority of cases, we’ve just had a great idea. And it probably is great. But that doesn’t mean we should just go ahead and develop it. What I’ve learned from looking at some of the most innovative companies and organisations in the world over the past few years is that they don’t develop ideas in this slightly random, scattergun way. They don’t walk into funding pitches claiming that the ghost of Steve Jobs has just visited them with a great idea; in fact they don’t start with the idea at all. 

Good innovators start before the idea.

If we really want to develop new models, programmes and projects that meet the needs of today’s young people, then we need to start with those needs. At Youthscape, we call it the “opportunities” phase of development; the practice of listening intently to the culture and context that young people find themselves in, and the issues, needs and problems they’re dealing with. More positively, we also look to see the ways in which culture is creating new avenues for communication and change among young people.

Practically speaking, looking for opportunities means keeping your ear to the ground that you’re seeking to serve. Talking to teachers is one way to do this (and one that we’ve found particularly helpful), as is meeting with parents, and having formal and informal discussions with young people about their lives – even to the extent of focus groups. Keeping up-to-date with developments in youth culture as reported by the media is also crucially important, and of course, listening to and reading the latest relevant research is vital. By keeping all of these lines of communication open, you will naturally build up a picture of the opportunities and needs in your community – which are different and distinct in every location.

Once you understand the opportunities, your ideas will suddenly be a lot more relevant. In our experience, it means that the resources and programmes we’re developing don’t just fit with our imagined or gathered perception of what young people need, but with the reality of life in 2017. It’s not rocket science, but does mean a change of method for all of us. 

And to end where we began, part of your opportunity-listening should involve asking God for wisdom and discernment. What is he already doing in your community? What might he be calling you too? If we commit ourselves to listening both to our communities and our God, then maybe he might just decide to wake us in the night with that amazing idea…

I actually quite agree with almost all of what this article says, theres very little to actually disagree with it on one hand. I have worked for two youth ministry organisations whose dreams for a project were larger than their grasp of reality for the young people, local community, and also the resources offered from the churches to commit to a piece of work ( sometimes the culture and community of the church needs its own ‘needs assessment’) . And neither has gone well. I compare this to the piece of work that was build up from decent community research of an area, with young people and lasted for 5 years. It was embedded in a reality and had the resources to adapt to new opportunities as needs of young people changed. However, thats my story, back to the article. Therefore, what Martin is recommending is that the days of the evangelical dreaming are over in regard to pie in the sky youth ministry, even if that dream is accompanied by wads of money or powerful church leaders suggesting it because a church down the road is doing the same… At this point I am in full agreement, and from personal experience, bear the scars.

So, what Martin is advocating is ears and eyes on the ground. Do your homework, gather information. He says:

If we really want to develop new models, programmes and projects that meet the needs of today’s young people, then we need to start with those needs. At Youthscape, we call it the “opportunities” phase of development; the practice of listening intently to the culture and context that young people find themselves in, and the issues, needs and problems they’re dealing with.

Anyone notice anything familiar here? Remember, this on a blog titled ‘Innovation: Starting before the Idea’ – This is the innovation. Start with discovering young peoples needs, issues and problems.

Let me share with you this:

“Raikes was influenced by the lawless behaviour and the squalid life of the children engaged in the industry of Gloucester. He testified that “the farmers and other inhabitants of the towns and villages receive more injury in their property in the Sabbath than all the week besides, this in a great measure proceeds from the lawless state of the younger class who are allowed to run wild on that day free from restraint” (Taken from ‘An introductory History of English Education since 1800’ Curtis & Boultwood, 1960)

With this is mind Raikes opened the first Sunday School in 1780.  Now, Whether Raikes was looking at the needs of young people, or the needs of the community because of the effect of young peoples behaviour, and young peoples boredom after 6 days hard labour, is probably open to question. However, what is clear is that it was because of a combination of feeling and experiencing needs in the Image result for sunday schools in victorian timeslocal community that Sunday schools originated. (seems a far cry from the sunday schools of today :-))

But that was Sunday schools… that doesnt sound like Youth work? you might say.

Well, then there’s the pioneers of Christian youth work in the 1960s, George Goetchius and Joan Tash – never heard of them?’ – well because they suggested something innovative that didnt take on. So What did they do in 1958? this is on the first page of their 1967 book:

“During the pre-project period and the first year of reconnaisance, a good deal of the field work consisted of collecting information about the young people, from where we were able to build up a series of profiles about them as individuals and in groups. Following discussion of this information amongst ourselves, with the project committee and with colleagues we developed observations from the unattached young people in our coffee stall grouping, from where we made assumptions about the nature Image result for ywca 1950's joan tash( which soon changed and adapted) and content of the service needed, the kind of programme possible and the approach and method most likely to be useful in developing these” (Working with unattached youth, problem, approach, method, Goetschius, Tash 1967)

What this piece of Pioneer Christian youth work did in 1964 became highly influential in the wording of the Albemarle Report, Lady Albermarle writes a forward in the piece, and so, what Goetschius and Tash were able to do in practice, and have the resources to write up 3 years of field work, staff reflections, processes, outcomes, trials and celebrations, was shape the direction of the Youth Service. It meant that the social needs of young people, the values in communities and the process of ‘reconnaisance’ were on the agenda. Though by 2000, the reconnaissance period had been maligned to be a luxury only detached youthworkers could really justify, and by 2015 this in itself was reduced to a 1/2 day look at a local newspaper or census report.

If you’re reading this or my page for the first time, then you might not have heard of Goetschius and Tashs project. It was part of a YWCA in a suburb of London in 1958, at a time when only 50% of young people attended the local youth clubs. It was mostly delivered by evangelical christians, and not only did it become a key voice in the formation of statutory youth services, but attracted the attention of the church as a case study of practice back then too, Rev Hamilton writes:

“Young people are not openly rejecting either Christian institutions or organised youth work. They are simply not even accepting them as having any possible claim on them or anything to offer to them which they need…

then goes on to say:

“What we need to know about the strategy of action must be learned at the point of personal involvement, whether this is something we do ourselves do or something we inspire other groups to do”(This was in a paper to the World Christian Youth commission in May 1964)

Recognising individual, social and community needs is not new. So when I suggested that this type of work didn’t take on. I meant that it didn’t get taken on in what became the Evangelical Youth Ministry. If you spoke of ‘developing from young peoples needs’ or ‘doing a community profile’  – these were processes and practices that caused a christian worker to be categorised as a ‘community worker’ or ‘detached’ or ‘liberal’ or even the harshest of all ‘ Pioneer’  – Evangelical Youth Ministry took a different turn.

And though I am not qualified to discuss this turn, it became concerned with Evangelism and Discipleship, some of the story is picked up by Danny Brierley in ‘Joined up’ ( 2003)
stating that ‘The ‘Evangelical wing of the church was actively looking for revival to sweep away the corrosive effects of popular culture, one man attributed to this more than any other, his name, Billy Graham’. Using a methodology from the Business world, of efficiency and calcubility. It was large groups, music, prayer, and an ending which consisted of leading the audience through a formulaic prayer, the four spiritual laws, that reduced the complexity of the Gospel to easy sentences that produced intended results. (Brierely, 2003)

If this form of youth ministry, and it by no means was the only form of youth work and ministry by Christians since 1970 became dominant as a form of practice, then it is obvious to see why developing from a needs based practice is innovative in 2017. The Evangelical turn in youth ministry was influenced not only by the style, look and feel of big event, resource heavy ‘anti – cultural’ practice, but also efficiency, numbers and product – a model more closely likened to the building of Ford motor cars, or the fast food chain. Standing on the street corners for a year to chat with young people and gather evidence would be an anathema. It didnt produce results, it ‘seems a waste of time’ , its not about the needs of young people – but the need of the church for revival, for its own growth. Needs of young people has been second best, at best.

But in Christian detached work it has carried on, by those deemed ‘too liberal’ , ‘too pioneering’ – those who followed the Goetschius and Tash trajectory ( or did so without realising) – For most detached projects, observation is key, and before it community profiling. (see, Meet them where theyre at, Richard Passmore, 2003, or ‘Here be Dragons’ 2013 above, or any writing on detached youthwork since 1960, FYT have been using this formula since 1970’s, be incarnational, live in and understand young people in a local context, learn, listen and meet needs. See work by Bob Holman, Dave Wiles, Michael Eastman, Richard Passmore, Nigel Pimlott).

So ‘Innovation’ might just look like ‘forgetting historical’ or ‘other practice has always existed’ blindspots.

But catching up with meeting young peoples needs isnt that innovative either. What meeting needs does, and what the Ministry world has become good at, is finding the needs of young people that require the use of pre-structured projects.  Young people might need counselling on relationships and sex, for example, but is ‘Romance Academy’ the right process for this?  – Im not knocking RA – but just of the process that this can be often used. Something like romance academy isnt used because of the deep felt needs of young people – more than its a gap and an area of panic amongst youth leaders to ‘do something’ about sex & relationships with young people. Its often not needs met, but perceived and pre judged needs met – without even a conversation with young people, or to have first hand evidence of young peoples thoughts on relationships, culture, identity, belonging, family and love. It is one evidence of a good programme, but another programme.

Meeting needs isnt that innovative, and it actually doesnt work. It keeps the giver of the service as the power, and dehumanises the young person and by default their community as a project to be fixed. Most young people dont need someone else to tell them that they need something. They need to be given opportunities to develop what theyre good at, what their gifts are, and they have them. This article is long enough without an explanation of ‘asset based community development’ – but what ABCD fundamentally does is ask different questions of and with young people, and it takes time. It doesnt have projects or programmes to sell, and therefore might not keep the franchises and projects of youth ministry going because many maintain a needs focus. More on ABCD on their blog there is much on youth & community work, is here: – (and theres a few articles on abcd on this site, as there is on observation within youthwork.) ABCD is a challenge to the saviour complex.

For evangelical youth ministry, innovation isnt to develop needs based work – though I am all for leaving behind ‘dream based work’ – it shouldnt be innovative to develop working with young people through consultation and participation, these have been the hall marks of youthwork practice for a very long time. what it shows is that meeting the needs of young people hasnt been at the forefront of youth ministry. As Howard Sercombe suggests:

“ Youth work is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context” Sercombe, H 2010 “Ethics of Youthwork” p26

Then young people havent been the primary client of youth ministry. And Danny Brierley argued, Youth Ministry needs youthwork to have young people centred ethical practice.

What Evangelical youth ministry is thinking of as Innovative, has been Youth work all along. The Dream is over. If the church has a concern for young people it has to do so emerging from a painful, searing, physical and mental acceptance, in love of a generation which is painfully different. Painful acceptance isn’t an off the shelf programme or a quick win. If you think this is innovative, then these words were said in 1964. Problem is that the evangelical youth ministry has chosen, up till now, to ignore the youth workers in their midst.


Brierley, D ‘ All Joined Up, 2003

Drane, J The Macdonaldisation of the Church, 2000

Geotschius, Tash, Working with the unnattached, 1967

Passmore, Meet them where theyre at, 2003, & Here Be dragons, 2013 ( a link to this is above)

Sercombe H, Ethics of Youthwork, 2010


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