‘That doesnt sound like my church!’ Challenges in large church youth ministry

I was pulled up in my tracks today by someone who actually reads these articles. They told me that they like what they read about what I say about youthwork, young people and mission – ‘but when you talk about church thats not really my experience!’ – I have different problems to what you describe..!

And the person is right, of course, no two churches are the same, no two young people are the same, no two groups of young people are the same or are two volunteers the same. But in the main, there are popular threads of conversations in youth ministry. Or at least there seem to be. Usually regarding churches with limited resources and ideas, with young people who leave, or who are non existant beyond the age of 14, or are confirmed then conspicuous.

But thats not the situation everywhere!  

The view from where I am is that in the main there are only fairly small churches around, especially in the counties, and even in the few cities in the North East, there arent many. So in the main, its a common view of few youthworkers, few resources and generally overworked clergy. It has also been my experience in the main as a youthworker in churches, mostly small churches. But there are exceptions to this, and exceptions which might present young people and youthworkers with a whole host of different problems, challenges and opportunities.

About a month ago I went to one of those large contemporary city churches, its name will remain nameless. It was an impressive building, converted from a building near a hospital, with comfy seat, lighting rig, 4Khd cameras, and a soft rock band that was accompanied by the dulcet atmosphere of dry ice wafting around. A very different space to the usual three persons and a dog wailing along to the organ, or small church syndrome. This was big ambition church syndrome. I found out later that the building was converted to fill it, not the other way around, they didnt have a large congregation and needed the building. Wow, ambitious.Image result for mega church But that wasnt all. Because during the service there was a christening, and a childrens talk. During one of these ceremonies, dedicated to children and their families was the sentiment that the ‘church invested in their childrens work, because ‘we’ (or should i say God), gave us the £2million to give them some great classrooms and spaces to have activity’ – this was said during the service! 

So, what might this imply for young people? – or their maybe beleagured youthworkers and volunteers (which they said there was plenty) – Is this added pressure? possibly. Regardless of whether that amount of money should be spent on a church building, suggesting that it is ‘for the youth and children’ or because of them, seems to take under resourcing to a whole new level of depravity.

But what of the well-resourced church, full of young families, with many groups of children and young people at each age group, what of the church of a 1000 volunteers, of a myriad of activities to keep up? – What in that situation are the challenges? On one hand the kind of investment in activities, personal interest, faith and spiritual development, where this occurs, according to Christian Smith will be usually replicated with increased participation and attendance ( Soul Searching, 2005, p262), but what might be the pit falls?

Maybe you recognise your church as being a large one, you might be a youth minister in such a situation, and you know what this is like. Having many groups to run per week, lots of personalities as volunteers to manage, continued expectation on groups to grow in number, or for new ideas to be put into fruition. Or even, still, the same pressure in the small church – just keep the young people, or at least that ultimately is the expectation parents have. It might be that for the 100’s of young people it becomes very difficult for them to actively participate in the life of the church – as theres no 100 vacancies for roles, or gaps to be given leadership responsibility, when this might be the case in a smaller one.

If there are distinctions between mega church youth ministry and small church youth ministry, then I am not the person to know what they are, but please do share below and begin a conversation about it. In one way, the resources on youth ministry from the USA might be more applicable as these tend to be written in large church settings. There may be learning required from larger churches here in the UK to others in the same situation that might be worth sharing. Whilst there might be pros/cons about large/small churches and young peoples discipleship – ultimately young people dont really have a choice – that is until they can leave and go to a diametrically opposite type of church. The reality is that they are part of whatever church culture their parents encourage.

So, challenge accepted, gauntlet laid down. What are the opportunities and challenges in the UK’s large churches for young people?





Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust (www.fyt.org.uk) and Communities Together Durham (www.communitiestogetherdurham.org) and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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