Make sure you leave well! 

You love your job. You’re a youth worker. You’ve worked in a youth club, with a group of young people, in a school, church or community centre. You built the group from scratch. You developed their interests, met needs, did residential,  helped them paticipate. You’ve given of yourself, your personal emotions, you’ve connected. You’ve developed a project, made it your own.  Maybe that’s your situation. Or part of it. 

But its going to end. 

All that deep satisfaction is ending, because of funding cuts. 

Or poor management

Or a personal grievance. 

Or management issue. 

Specifically it could be that you’ve acted with young people and enabled their voice to be heard, but no one wants to hear it, or that your approach jars with expectations, or that your theology does (so it causes challenges about young people & faith & worship and methods) or that the local community make police complaints about the youth centre. Or that the council want it to close. And so with all or some of this going on, the end of all that good work is pending. And you’re angry. Upset. Feeling lost. Even bereaved and broken because of having to end and say goodbye. (Even if we know not to build connections, giving of ourselves in good youthwork involves emotions).  Ending hurts. 

But then someone, often even the person who is making the decision to close. Ie your manager says those words

Make sure you leave well!

How does leaving well feel when leaving feels a shock or painful? 

There’s no doubt it’s important to do so. For the young peoples sake and especially as they don’t take on responsibility for a person leaving them. And there may be opportunities in the future in the organisation or with the young people. It also shows maturity and professionalism. 

But whether it’s the right thing to do, doesn’t take away how difficult and awkward it can feel and be to do. Of course leaving well is not just what youthworkers have to do or unique to them. What is unique is the nature of the relationship a youthworker has with young people. It is often between the structures and based on a negotiated contract, a personal conversation.  But when it comes to it ending it isn’t often negotiated. The project ends abruptly, or the youthworker is replaced (but that doesn’t matter..well get a new one).. no this is relational work. The relationship is the source of education, of trust and guidance. 

What the youthworker had to do is leave young people well, for they are their primary ‘client’. Not the institution. 

So leaving well, in the case of policy, governance,  funding, injustice, personality clash is hard to do. But that won’t stop people saying

Make sure you leave well

Grrrr… Even if you’re hurting and pained inside. It can feel trite, lacking and sadness that ending is what you have to do. Close up shop. Leave. Stop. 

Managing endings in youth work and ministry are hard to do. From personal and organisational perspectives. Are there 5 tips to help with this, nope. Just leave well. Whatever it takes. Young people will treasure the memories and the investments you made in them. That won’t end. Leave with another memory. That’s all. I’m not sure if longer or shorter notice periods are helpful in youth work. Dragging out endings can be worse. But too quick might be too quick. 

So with gritted teeth and a reminder that in most scenarios it isn’t the young peoples fault that you are leaving. However unjust it might be… 

Just make sure you leave well! 


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Trying not to lose personal faith in Ministry

I dont apologise for the questions this post might provoke. They are based upon the well meaning encouragement that has been directed my way at a few points over the last few years. The challenges in my current place of ministry are too numerous to mention, but they have led to its pending closure. However, generally in youth ministry, one of its benefits, and dangers is that its practitioners can have a strong sense of calling (Ord, 2012) and ongoing interwining of personal faith its practical outworking and also the ‘faith’ of the organisation, such as a church. Ordinarily that ‘faith’ is a key motivating factor (Ward, 1997). But what happens when things start to be challenging? difficult, damaging even? 

What i find strange is that over the last year or so, at least three people have said to me, when things have been particularly tough, in their eyes, a phrase, that has meant well, it has been;

“In all of whats going on, dont lose your faith”

or a similar one

“Try not to lose your faith”

There is no doubt that the people saying these things to me were well meaning. Some i know more personally than others, and so to a point I am not questioning the genuine nature of the sentiment. Writing about this subject, and writing at time when I have been involved for 3 years in a challenging ministry that is about to close, amongst other personal and professional challenges, in undoubtedly difficult. Because of the closing allignment of personal faith and professional vocation, then situations of professional challenge, could, can have a personal impact. And this clearly is noted in this statement. Full time ministry challenges, in some areas, lead to personal faith dilemmas.

But it is only when working within what might be considered one of the evangelical youth ministry organisations that the phrases of ‘not losing your faith’ have been uttered to me. And it is this that has caused me to reflect, on the phrase and its use.

  1. The first thing i reflect on, is that the phrase “try not to lose your faith” seems to be used at a time of suffering, of personal or even during a personal/professional challenge – ie when a persons vocation in ministry is under threat. Now call me an evangelical, or at least an evangelical that has read the Bible, but it does look like suffering is part and parcel of life, and ‘ministry’. It affected the church in Smyrna, Paul, and was mentioned in most of the letters, not to mention Jesus’ own suffering. There are countless examples in the Old testament too of those who suffer being given the specific attention of God, through it, from Naomi, to Moses, to Joseph, to Job. This isnt western Christian persecution syndrome being described, but the more Biblical reality is that suffering is an inevitability. The problem is that, as Kevin Vanhoozer suggests, Suffering doesnt make a great advertising slogan. Suffering as part of faith doesnt feature very much in the Moral Therapeutic Deism rife in western evangelical churches ( Christian Smith, 2005, Shepherd, 2016).  Yet it is Suffering that produces endurance and endurance hope – thats in the Bible. So – what is quite odd then, is that it seems like there is a trend in evangelical culture, that suffering and challenges might lead to a loss of faith. when the reality might be the opposite. It might strengthen it!  Yes it might cause deep anguish, prayerful reflection and a crying out of new purpose – but that isnt ‘losing faith’ – its being true in faith to God. (This isnt true for everyone, i realise, somethings are so damaging, the questions so raw, that faith is lost. I am aware.)
  2. On a similar point, but the opposite. But one that I wont experience in evangelical circles. Does the ‘dont lose your faith’  ever get said when things might be actually going well? . But of course, no one loses their faith when things go well do they. No they might, like Rob Bell, and others, get so successful, so busy, that they get burn out, and that then becomes a personal issue to deal with, but would anyone have the temerity to say to a success preacher, teacher, pastor, minister or youth minister, at the ‘height’ of when things might be going well ‘try not to lose your faith’  – it would seem ridiculous, wouldnt it. Faith is only feared to be lost, apparently when suffering is being endured. Not when things are thriving in a ministry. Because of course, that wouldnt happen would it. When someone is ‘so professionally successful’ that them actually having a crisis of faith at the same time is highly unlikely… – what is more likely is that it become significantly for other people to understand that a crisis of faith is happening ; “because your ministry is thriving” , behind the scenes.  Now i am in self-care, and accountability territory. And that is true, but so might a successful ministry not give someone the space to ask themselves the deep questions of ongoing meaning, of faith, destiny and purpose, because the successful activities of faith keep them at bay. No one would expect a crisis of faith during successful ministry, that would make it harder for others to deal with. During a period of suffering and challenge – oh yes. Those are the ‘dont lose your faith moments
  3. As I said I am speaking ‘in the middle’ of challenging situations. Not the first ones either, especially not in the world of christian ministry. It could easily be that other people might react differently. It would be easy to say that someone younger in the faith might react differently (and I have heard this said). What has been noted, that people have been quick to say ‘dont lose your faith’ – but to actually follow that up and do something to help has been less forthcoming. Its almost like giving someone an idea they hadnt thought of such as ‘dont run near the cliff’ and not take away their trainers and keep them on the low ground. Yes of course, that could just be the rebellious teenager speaking, – just doing the opposite to what someone says – but if in our pastoral or friendship moments to support others the question about their personal faith is questioned- shouldnt/couldnt we do more that just pronounce that they dont ‘lose it’?  As I said, I am convinced that it isnt a phrase said without genuine well meaning. But, it might become, in evangelical circles as cliched, as ‘Ill pray for you’.
  4. Because this has only been said in certain evangelical circles, does it imply that the evangelical tradition in youth ministry has a track record of not only losing youth ministers through professional ‘endings’ but also because they have ‘lost their evangelical faith’ – not their faith perhaps, but they have left questioning their once held faith, and found faith that doesnt fit the evangelical box – but from those within the box it might be seen to be ‘lost’. or worse – liberal. Or even worse – academic and critical. But if losing evangelical faith becomes the ‘norm’ within the practices of evangelical youth ministry – then theres good reason why pronouncing that ‘not losing faith’ has a vocalised norm about it within that culture. Its a fear, because its been seen before. Systems and cultures arent changed to prevent it happening again. No, its the individual that ‘loses their faith’. and maybe more.

So, that all being said.  Personal faith can take a pelting in a wide variety of situations, having it restored might need the support of those who have had similar experiences of losing evangelical faith, of falling off that denominational cliff edge, something i wrote on 6 months ago here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Kz. Maybe in a way, it can be helpful to separate to a point the personal faith, with the practiced faith of an organisation, but that its difficult and dangerous ground. As there are times the two are intertwined. Often in Christian youthwork we pride ourselves with being persons who are able to bring the values of God and our organisations to life, through our actions with young people. So, seperating the personal from the professional is an unlikely challenge.

But in the times ‘when organisations go wrong’ because of their culture, their history, or even the policies that they have they need to stick to for internal or external reasons, then it may be easier from a personal faith point of view to make a kind of separation. If only to protect yourself. Which I am sure is what we do in ministry from time to time anyway. Understand it, and our own human frailty even in the ‘christian organisations’ – and not take things personally, not easy. no ministry, no christian life in general is. In another way, being true to a calling might not equate to needing to stay true to the faith position of a proponent of that calling. A calling might be for life, not just a three, four, or two year contract.

I think if have lost faith, what i have lost is faith in the practices of those who might make such pronouncements, and the organisations they represent, and dont back it up. Losing faith in evangelical youth ministry. Which isnt a shame, as this isnt something ive had so its not something i feel i have lost anyway.

Why ‘what works’ shouldn’t be our motivation for mission with young people

“We need to do (insert ministry here) because that works with young people”

or the more precious statement: “Show me where this works”

The search for the silver bullet to solve the problem that young people cause adult society continues. Disruptive young people ‘are given interventions’ , young people who dont attend church are ‘engaged with’ . But more specifically, schemes, initiatives, projects and services are realised. What has become common, especially in Faith settings, working with young people, is that there has become a drive to focus on, or discover the things ‘that work’.  It is to this audience that i now write, though the drive to ‘do what works’ and can be seen as ‘working’ is universal in youth work & ministry.  And it is an exasperating task to find the perfect model to appeal to stakeholders, senior Pastors and funders – to do the proven. Image result for business models icon

It is the ‘finding things that work’ that needs to be questioned, and you guessed it, thats what I am about to do.

But lets start with the realisation that there is the premise, in youth ministry , things do actually work sometimes. Do we ever stop and think about ‘why’ something works, and what that ‘working’ is? At times, and in a social media savvy culture, often the thing that ‘works’ because it looks good, is photographable and tweetable for the website. ‘It looks good’ – but is even this a statement even of something ‘working’ even on that level. Might this show that the church is ‘about young people’ when the work is for and with young people?  Young people might smile on the photo, but what is working about that moment? That young people are happy to sign up to do a thing, and go to a thing with other young people doing the same thing, or to watch a thing happen, in the main those there doing the thing, might usually be the same young people doing the thing anyway. But it looks good, because they are there. They didnt enjoy it, they didnt come back next time, but it looked good. And it ‘worked’ – but did it? Forgive the slight cynicism, and its more the issue about the media frenzy about how the church presents itself as a working machine via social media.

Going back the ‘things that work’… I would like to tentatively suggest that any model of practice that ‘works’ is the result of many trials, reactions and improvisation to get there. Not to mention endurance, backs against the wall perseverance, and the long term trust of young people. Especially when working with young people ‘outside the church’ – where a ‘model’ works, it cannot be separated from the conditions for it to be successful in a particular context, and have strong believers in it, and for people to be valued to persevere with it – often despite having limited support from other churches. So – when something ‘works’  – is it the model, the people, the culture or the strategy that enabled it to do so? (not to mention that unpredictability – ‘faith’) 

For Chap Clark, writing in 2001, comments that, we need in youth ministry to be “theologically and sociologically committed to Gods unique movements in different places” and that we need to be people who look beyond what works, and learn how to think, act and live theologically and let go of a copy & duplicate tendency”. (Chap Clark, The myth of the perfect youth ministry model, 2001, Starting right, Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry) 

So i want to challenge the ‘doing what works’ culture: 

Why?

  1. It is not Biblical. When Jesus sends the 12 or 72, there is no model. It is just a way of being. Travel light, receive the gift of hospitality from others, stay in the village until rejected, find a person of peace. Be on your guard. Crucially also, Jesus says – “when you are arrested, do not worry about what to say or how to say it, at the time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking but the spirit of your father speaking through you” ( Matthew 10:19-20). Why is this crucial? – Because what it suggests is that there is no ‘right model’ – even in the way Jesus gives instructions, arrests and challenges are likely. It is also apparent that scripted mission work seems to be ‘not the Jesus way’ – far more appropriate is to act in an appropriate way, to seek a welcome from others, and improvise with the ongoing speaking God when challenges arise. It wasnt a ‘model’ , and it had ‘not working’ built in – but this was the Jesus way. It is a way of life. 
  2. One Problem with what ‘works’ is that this is based on our experience of the ‘thing’ and how it ‘worked’ in the past in a different situation, in a different moment in time, with completely different young people. As Heraclitus said “nobody can step into the same river twice” . The river has demonstrably changed since the first step. Water is in different place, the river bed disturbed, banks changed. It is only the same by name only. In a desire to do ‘what works’ – what weve missed is that where a raft was needed and built, the river has dried and only a pair of wellies is needed to cross it. The Greek term Phronesis causes us to think about practical wisdom – doing the right thing in the right current context- thats what Paul was talking about in 2 Corinthians 3 1-6.
  3. Another problem with ‘doing something that works’ is that scientific thinking has overtaken artistry. Without realising it, talk of the market has become the driver in the conversation. Usually if something works it is because it is efficient, calculable, measurable and repeatable. For something to ‘work’ it is usually because it entails that it meets on or more of these things. Again, this is far from a Biblical method of discipleship, or how the church spread. It experimented, then received direction. Of course, it would be easy at this point to align ‘doing something that works’ with the underlying principles of Macdonadisation, John Drane (2000) has already done this. At this juncture, though, the ‘doing of something that works’ has a business feel to it. It means that we’re thinking ‘ if we do this, and then do that, and get this, then something might happen- it might work’. The problem is that people, especially young people are more likely to be unpredictable and see through what be corporate inauthenticity. Young people are not like the raw materials in a technological model, they can and do opt out- especially when they feel as if they are being worked with strategically, rather than authentically. As Gilmore and Pine argue, “the more that we realise that experiences are staged, the more we require assurance of the real” and so even in a business world, it is perceptions that need to be managed, not people. Hence all the ‘authentic’ friendly branding, which is beginning to wear thin, and if young people are just to be marketed to, or ‘sold’ Jesus in a model… The language of Faith, is less about strategy, than it is about sacrifice. It is a way of life, not a package holiday with a itinerary down to the last minute.
  4.  If our ‘work’ with young people, is to do things that ‘work’. Then forgive me for saying this – but is that all young people are to us? Do they become pawns in our ministry of gatherings and activities? All the advertising might cause me to go to tescos to buy my groceries and so ‘it worked’ but if three local shops lose my custom and go out of business, has something that ‘worked’ actually been ‘good’? Doing something because it works, has got to be lower down in the pecking order than doing something because it is inherantly a good thing to do. It is conceived with purer intentions, it is created within a process of supporting people to thrive, it is the result of treating people with respect, in short – it is of value, and virtue. Young people simply deserve better in our communities, in our churches to be pawns in our ministry game. If God is good, then we need to perform and act in goodness with young people. Values, whether Christian values or even youthwork values ( often the same thing) must and should trump needing something to work. If something doesnt ‘work’ maybe its method wasnt good enough. Young people saw its fakery a mile off. Or those who attended needed coeercing to be there. And i dont care if your ministry needs early ticket sales to exist. If its that good for young people and is ‘for’ them – then it should be free.
  5. If something did work somewhere else – is this not a prelude to over expectation and then disappointment in a different time and place? After all its not the approach that is fallible is it? (it worked elsewhere)

Some things may work with young people. But do they because of a ‘model’ or the long term creation of an appropriate environment? If It takes 7 years to begin to do good community work in an area. That isnt a model, that requires a way of life. Reducing, for reducing is what it is, the ongoing faith of young people to a model, is to say that God can be simplified. This is same accusation of those who reduced the complexity of the christian message to ‘the four spiritual laws’ (just so that youthworkers in the 1960’s only needed to remember 4 sentences (Pete Ward seminar at Youth work summit)). Reducing the mission activity and ongoing process of unpredictable community gathering to a model, devoid of values, artistry and contextual thinking, is to do the Gospel of Jesus, one of incarnational good news a major disservice. It does matter how it is performed, and the intentions behind it. Improvised goodness might be more appropriate in every context, than prepared strategy.

Faith is a movement, not a model. It is a way. If it is a method it is an artistic one. Whats good might be what works. What works might become something good. But doing something just because ‘it works’?

Oh – and where, as the Black eyed peas once said, is the love?  Is doing what works about loving our communities and young people at all?

 

References:

Drane, John, The Macdonaldisation of the church

Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed (where the Heroclitis quote came from) 

Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014. (Gilmore and Pine) 

Rethinking learning styles in Youth Ministry; Helping young people have an active faith

In Youth Ministry – How might we use Learning styles? 

I know, there has been some talk recently about the validity of learning styles and whether they actually exist and are of value. there are some fascinating thoughts here: http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2017/5/25-1   But for the sake of what might be an interesting read, stick with me on this one. It not that kind of re-think that i am proposing. I am suggesting when it comes to faith- learning styles might be helpful.

Lets start from the beginning. When i was doing voluntary training in youth ministry and education back in 1996 and even work based training courses in the early 2000’s, the principle learning styles were the following, as it was said that people learned in one of these kind of ways:

Activist – they needed to ‘do’ something to learn it

Pragmatist – ‘it needs to be ‘useful’ applied to a real life situation

Reflector – ‘they need time to process the information and chew the cud of it’ 

Theorist – ‘ they need to know where it came from, that it is proved and validated’ 

(Of course, any theorist is switching off now, as none of what i have said is proven…. ) – and so, in Youth Ministry, especially in ready to use guides and in most session plans, there has become an implicit need to accomodate these learning styles.   Theres a game (with a reference), a piece of information, a way of reflecting on it (through prayer usually) and then ways of applying the learning to real life. The same might also be said of the anglican service, aspects of which are active, reflective, theory (the sermon?) and pragmatic- how it all applies.  For those of you that like to be known as millenials, which is none of you, these old fashioned learning styles have been updated, they are now VARK, and include:

Visual

Audial

Reading/reflective

Kinesthetic. 

though a look onto the worlds most popular search engine, and theres images like this;

Related image

So Learning styles are pretty complicated, because, by the looks of things, each of as humans are pretty complicated.

I am aware that Nick Shepherd, in his excellent faith generation (2016) suggests that young people need to be considered as more than learners, and i completely agree. What i am about to say backs this up. The question that I have pondered is;  might learning styles help in faith & discipleship more broadly?  And this is not just for young people. Nothing ever is.

If I could use the older learning styles for the purposes of what I am thinking. Just to save a bit of confusion. So for example, in the ongoing process of discipling people how might

  • faith be an active thing
  • faith be a pragmatic thing
  • faith be a reflective thing
  • faith be a theoretical thing

Because, what it can seem to be, and going on with what Nick Shepherd suggests, is that a large proportion of the activities of the church and for young people especially, they are regarded as learners, and so a huge amount of energy is spent on increasing their knowledge of the faith – through games, activities, sessions – and even for them, going to a worship event, is still to a point a learning experience that is largely cognitive, and thus reflective. If I used the newer learning styles, then I might be suggesting that young people need to ‘see’ faith, to ‘act’ it out, to ‘feel’ it , picture it and use their imaginations’ and so on.

As an addition, if we conceptualise what young people are as disciples as ‘actors’ who are on the stage of the world, needing to be trained to act in a myriad of situations the fullness of the gospel. Then as actors, we wouldnt expect Matt Damon, or Kiera Knightly to only learn their lines. That is only reading, not acting. An actor in most productions, especially theatre, needs to use their whole selves in the productions, to read the cues, to memorise, to improvise, mind, body, spirit.  Church might be a great place for young people to rehearse, but that shouldnt minimalise the encouragement that faith and discipleship might be a complex thing, encompassing action, reflection, usefulness and theory. All of which is key in how it is seen, heard, pictured, felt and imagined. Young people as performers of the christian faith – how how might the forming of them change as a result..?

Here might be a few examples for each

How might young people act out their faith? 

  1. If the play is about goodness (not being good- Balthasar, 1980) – then they need to see that the goodness they do is part of their performance, and then this ultimately translates into acts of justice, reconciliation and hospitality to their friends & enemies
  2. They act out their faith when they speak up against the oppression of others
  3. They act out their faith when they use their ideas and initiative to solve a community problem – like litter, or food waste, or poverty,
  4. They act out their faith when they get chance to lead, decide and speak, being given the opportunity to how others their learning.
  5. They act out their faith when they are tuned to hear God prompting them in the everyday decisions and decide to follow.

In a way the reflective and Theorist aspects of faith are pretty well covered. From Prayer to bible studies. Reflection and theory takes up a large proportion.

What is interesting is that recent research shows that young people want faith, not to be ‘true’ but to be ‘useful’. Now, there are dangers with this, a faith that provides only usefulness for young people seems to stack faith solely as the problem solver for young people, and only an individual young person will know how ‘useful’ faith is for them. And Christian Smith in 2005 highlighted that a faith that ‘helped young people do what they wanted’ permeated in aspects of youth ministry. Leaving that aside, what might it mean for faith to be ‘useful’ for young people, and be something that on one hand might be ‘pragmatic’ .

It might be useful because it helps a young person conceive of a way of shaping their life story

It might be useful because it can help them answer some of lifes big questions, like personal purpose

It might be useful because it offers hope – the end of the drama, has an ending! 

It might be useful because God offers presence throughout all of lifes activities

On the other hand, useful discipleship might be like doing the things that Jesus asked of the disciples, like find out iif anyone has food, finding the donkey or preparing the upper room, or catching fish. In the every day usefulness, God is at work and needing things to be done. 

Practical young people might need a practical faith.

Yes, young people ‘act’ out their discipleship in the mid week – like the rest of us do (!). I am just wondering about whether re thinking learning styles for ‘faith’ not ‘just’ the content of a session might be appropriate. If we have child actors in the kingdom, what might be the methods of ongoing formation that encourage active performances of faith, of following the ‘way’ of God in the world. Of course, it will help, if in using the other learning styles, that they ‘see’ faith, ‘feel it’ and understand it logically. – Where do young people ‘see’ faith?  or be in a place where they see ‘God at work’? and join in.

What i dont have is the imagination to provide all of what might be creative ideas to develop this thought further, however, if i put the concept out there of young people as performers of the gospel, not just hearers, lets shape how the church might work with young people in a way that has action and usefulness as as much of a priority as reflection and theory. Image result for action

After all we want young people to have an ‘active’ faith. So – let them perform…

Young People Targeted

For many of us in Youth work we are used to young people being targetted. Young people might feel it too, they can be

Targeted to help get Jobs

Targeted to reach for a faith

Targeted to help stay in school

Targeted by government policies

Targeted by health initiatives

Targeted by the media and discriminated unjustifiably.

Targeted to rescue from poverty

Targeted on binge -drinking projects

Targeted and scapegoated for society’s broader ills.

 

Today they became the target of another agenda.

That of Terrorism. Of Murder, destruction and divisiveness. 

Young people targeted. In the heat of the fire. 

Never did we think young people would be targeted in this way. To be the pawns in someone elses game. 

To become the world media attention, to become the story. 

 

Innocence lost.

Shock.

A spear of hatred penetrated into a evening of life and fun. Dance became drama.

Drama became horror. Horror became Panic.

Manchester might be the story, but it wasnt the target, that was young people.

There are few words of condolence, of understand that seem right at this time.

Our nation is in grief. Families are in grief, young adults are in confusion, shock and are injured, or are no more.

Manchester. For young people, in one evening it has become the city of broken dreams.

Bruised reeds can be made strong. Communities, faith and hope can restore.

Lord, have mercy, have hope, heal our land.

 

Youth work: Focussing on the strength of the rope, not its knots.

A rope is 1/3 weaker when it has a knot in it. 

Or at least thats what I was told in Scouts many years ago. I havent googled it to confirm it. Image result for rope knots

A rope is only two thirds effective when it has a knot in it. It is less strong.

On Sunday I preached at Headland Baptist Church, Hartlepool, on the Subject of the churches in Revelation, The church in Smyrna. It is known as the suffering church, and it was also a church that thought of itself as poor. It was was a ‘not’ compared to others.

It caused me to think and reflect on young people. ‘Not’ just the 10% that might be deemed ‘hardest to reach’ but even more than that, and think of the ‘nots’ that they hear, from a range of people, parents, teachers, sometimes friends, from society at large, things like;

You’re Not allowed to play in there

You’re not allowed to take those two subjects

You’re not clever enough

You’re not tall enough

You’re not sporty enough

You’re not as good as your older brother

You’re not thin enough

You’re not pretty enough

You’re not going to get a job acting like that

You’re not capable

You’re not resilient

You’re not confident

You’re not calm

You’re not fulfilling your potential

You’re not able to control yourself

You’re not going to make it in life if you do this.. 

You’re not welcome here

You’re not important

You’re not………

 

Add to this the lists of the messages that appear in all the advertising and media that young people hear, like you’re not something unless you have this thing. This might make you attractive – but by default you’re not without it. Being not something is part of culture, part of growing up.

And for every ‘not’ the rope gets weaker and weaker. The young person has to prove the adult wrong, or give in. ‘But Im not tired’ ! says the child – knowing full well there isnt a right answer to that one. 

Likewise the rest, the young person fulfils the prophecy, or kicks against it (and is then rebellious) – nay angry.

The nots keep adding up, weakening the rope, and denying the young person to fulfil their purpose.

The Message given to that Church in 120AD, was that ‘They were rich’  They were not to think of themselves as ‘not’ something. Their perspective needed to change of themselves. They had riches.

This could have been an article on how churches compare and think of themselves as ‘nots’ against other churches, in the competitive market place of church growth and the numbers game. But it isnt. This is about how a church, how we as youth-workers provide the kind of opportunities for young people to enable some of the tight ‘nots’ to be begun to be undone. In the metaphor of the rope, it would take two hands, one at each end to begin the process of undoing the knot.

Itll take a community of people to undo the knots that young people store as part of them. 

In the metaphor of the rope , a bit like the headphones cable in the pocket which automatically knots when not in use, it is less likely to become reknotted whilst it is being used for its purpose. 

So in thinking about developing the assets of young people – the sooner they are being used for the purposes, gifts and abilities that they have and in the right supportive environment, they might be more able to withstand the ‘nots’. With many young people, it is that so many are being used in society at so less than what they have to potential to be. In the restrictions of the education system (you’re not welcome here, the talent you have is not valid here)

If it true that churches are only working with 5% of young people (and i would suggest that with these 5% there is still significant wastage with the talents/skills and gifts of young people not being used), this is according to Scripture Unions recent research. Then it is worth reflecting on what kind of approach a church or youth ministry practice could take – when it engages with young people who are tired of being ‘nots’ in the world. It is one thing working out what a ‘generation z’ young person might look like, believe and be influenced by to make the gospel relevant. It is more significant to provide churches, groups and youth work projects with the tools and approaches to begin the process of undoing the ‘nots’ that hold them back. To not give them confidence by telling them so. But to gradually, painfully undo the nots. It is doing that heartfelt ministry, that painful searing physical mental acceptance in love of young people (Hamilton, 1964). It is also identifying the gifts and abilities in a young person that thus far had been hidden deep, that needs a little excavation, and tender nurturing. It is telling a young person that they are human, that they are of worth, and that they have richness.

As youthworkers, we may not ever be able to undo the knots, some will be tight, but even a 2/3 effective young person can be given the opportunity to flourish, to use their gifts and contribute, participate in society, and in our faith communities. It was said of Jesus, a bruised reed he will not break. We might be able to prevent the nots from being there, though we might try, focussing on what makes that person strong, even if hindered might be what is required.

By way of an epilogue: Many of you will have listened to Ken Robinsons TED talk on education, 11 million of you would have done. In it he describes the story of Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of ‘Cats’, here is that story: Thinking of education and talents; It’s really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who maybe most people have never heard of; she’s called Gillian Lynne — have you heard of her? Some have. She’s a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

It was asked of Gillian, how did you get to be a dancer?

And she said it was interesting; when she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the ’30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate; she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. People weren’t aware they could have that.

Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat son this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people; her homework was always late; and so on, little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me, and I need to speak to her privately.” He said, “Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her.

But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

“What happened?” She said, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me.

People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet; they did tap; they did jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary.

She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

Youth Ministry; training young people to perform theology (not just learn it)

I was on my way back from the diocesan youth officers (DYO) conference last Wednesday, and I realised I had made a mistake. If I am being kind to myself, it was because I was given 30 minutes to talk about one particular subject ; Evangelism, and in my train of thought I developed thinking on the theological reasoning for contextual ministry with young people, of creating spaces for young people to opt into the christian belief.

I also talked about how as youth ministers we need to change the metaphor – to reflect on the performance of our knowledge of God with young people, and how we as youth ministers create spaces of welcome, of conversation and healthy spaces. Reflecting Theologically about the delivery of youth ministry has occurred for a while. From Pete Wards (youthwork and the mission of God, 1997), Paul Nash ( What Theology for youth work, Grove, 2007) , and from the US, Dean Borgman (When Kumbaya is not enough, 1997) and titles by Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean. What we’ve become good at is theologically justifying the practice of youth ministry, locating it withing Mission, cross cultural mission, education, discipleship, theology and practical theology. When i say ‘good’ i mean that people have done it, it can still be the unheard of, ignored ministry within the church. However thats not for now. Whilst the practice of youth ministry has been theologically defined and justified, the question of this article, and the reason for admitting my error at the diocesan youth advisers gathering is the following; What we need in youth ministry to reflect not on what theology to underpin our practise – but instead ‘what theology for young people themselves’?

At the DYO conference, Alex Batts from Youthscape, Presented research on what they had discovered about young peoples faith. For anyone involved in open youth work for a long while, it wasnt hugely surprising, but what she said was that for young people faith wasnt about trying to understand whether something was true enough to win an argument. (one to reflect on if trying to ‘apologetics’ in youth ministry) But instead, young peoples faith was practical, it was personal, it was formed in their experience. In short, faith was something that was useful. 

This does tie in to some other thinking i have done recently on faith and myth making, and how young people construct a story and adopt an ideological story that helps them make sense in their lives , a story that provides coherency, validation, efficacy, self worth. This is based on work by Bryan (2016) who is influenced by Baumeister, and McAdam and their psychology which includes narrative identity and myth making and these processes. On a slight tangent, it is fascinating to compare what Alex said, with the research by Christian Smith, for, whilst he ascertained that young people in the states have adopted a Moral, therapeutic deism faith. There are some resonances, for the faith that he found young people to have was one that was useful for young people, ie it gave them confidence and helped them ‘do what they want‘. Faith does have to provide usefulness for the individual. What that usefulness entails is different for each person. God isnt in existence to be useful for us, that point it to be made, but participating in the rituals, community, rites and discipleship might include elements of personal or community usefulness; hopefully beyond ‘God giving me confidence, or a self help manual. Image result for moral

Thinking about MTD again. What it brings to the attention is that faith is something that is learned about, but what matters is ‘being morally good’ as a response to faith, or alternatively, its that faith in action is one that emphasises moral actions. This is done through the ongoing learning of the faith through what can often be formal teaching methods ( Brierley, 2003). From the God-slot, to the Bible study, the sermon to the conference, the teaching method can be one way, and what is implied -so goes the research is that young people are ‘just learners’ and that enacting the faith is about morality. Young People as learners is something that Nick Shepherd identifies in Faith Generation (2016) – its as if thats where young people – and dare I say it adults – get stuck in the church. They are on an ongoing journey of being talked to as a learning process, and continual learning.Image result for performers

What this can then imply is that the Christian faith is just one to be learned. God is to know about, an abstract. 

Theology – ie knowledge of God – as far as young people are concerned becomes merely a cognitive task. Whilst it is important to build within young people a set of doctrines and beliefs for them to live by, and I assume this is what is going on in our youth groups, discipleship courses and programmes, these doctrines are not just to form young people – they are to equip them for performance. Theology for young people needs to be active and performative, to use a phrase I often do, it needs to be dramatic.

We need a shift from youth ministers to be educators of young people, helping them learn. But to be acting coaches, forming them through learning in the performance. For in youth ministry our task is not to teach, it is to make disciples. Not only that, to form young people as theologians, or ‘practical theologians’ (Kenda Creasy dean, 2011) But beyond this, practical theologians that act. Equipping young people to be performers of theology, ongoing actors who perform the gospel in 10,000 ways every day, week and month. Performing the love of God with their friends, performing the justice of God, the mercy of God, the faithfulness of God, the mystery of God in the everyday moments, and they perform not alone, but to learn the promtping of the Spirit in the everyday moments, the cues and clues in every context that call wisdoms voice.  It is so much more than ‘being good’ and doing a bit of evangelism with their friends to invite them to a group.

A performative Theology will also help young people to understand their role and purpose, for if they are participants and players of the drama, then they join the company of others in Gods ongoing drama of redemption that is the fourth of five acts ( Vanhoozer, 2014) . It provides not only usefulness in the everyday, calling and purpose, but gives young people meaningfulness in the everyday, and significant control of their actions, the autonomy that a young person and we all want, but as well act in ongoing obedience and faithfulness. A performative faith, within the long term plot of the drama, also gives young people a coherant life story, calling and purpose, one that might be easier for them to adopt as a personal narrative.

A performative Theology for young people and their ongoing discipleship appeals to their imagination. Even Paul was after newly attuned imaginations; Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in christ Jesus’  The word that Paul uses is Phronenin, The same that Aristotle uses for Phronesis, meaning, practical wisdom. Paul isnt asking the Phillipian church to do the same thing and be robots, but to understand the situation rightly and act accordingly – to act as Jesus Christ, in the nature of the kingdom – one that turns the other cheek, blesses the peacemakers and offers a coat to enemy. it isnt moral behaviour, its the essence of the kingdom that is of the superabundance of the love of God (Ricoeur, 1995). Can we aspire and inspire young people to be performers of the kingdom? 

Young people love films and movies – conceptualising their role in the world as ongoing actors of Gods play might not be difficult. They need not know where to find God in the plays and dramas of Hollywood, but that others might see God in their everyday productions. See God not because he appears in the script, but also the acting and non speaking. God appears through their acting.

What young people dont need is another rule book, moral code or dictum. They get enough of this in their schools. One step out of line in these institutions is detention wielding. They need faith to be a guide, a compass, an ongoing cognitive attuning to the voice of God that prompts in the every day performance. What we dont need, and what young people are switched off from is a meaningless moral faith. Helping young people view themselves as performers may also ultimately be realised when the whole church realises its duty to perform love and justice in their local community, hosting spaces of welcome and acceptance in towns and cities. But thats for another day, helping young people to theological performance might in their passion ignite a church to community action. Our task in youth ministry is to form performing young people, disciples who work for the kingdom. Not just spectators of our performances, after all there are no armchair disciples, we might do well to awaken young peoples acting imaginations in order to bring about performance.

I leave the end of this piece to Kevin Vanhoozer who says:

“The church exists to form and train grateful disciples to understand the Theodrama (Gods Drama) and their roles in it so that they can communicate and continue Gods wonderful works for the sake of the world. There is theater whenever a person meets another. Every encounter with another person constitutes a small scene, and whether disciples will say and do the right thing is what makes for drama” (Vanhoozer, 2014, p233)

References

Borgman, 1997, When Kumbaya is not enough

Brierley, D, 2003, All Joined up

Ricoeur, P – 1995, Figuring the Sacred

Root, A, Dean, Kenda The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 2011

Smith, C, 2005, Soul Searching

Shepherd, N- 2016 Faith Generation

Vanhoozer, 2014, Faith Speaking and Understanding

Ward, P 1997 Youth work and the mission of God

Wesley Van der lugt – Theatrical Theology, 2014

 

How evaluating youth work & ministry might be about performance

It’s a perennial question in youth work and ministry – how can it be evaluated? Measured or even- shudder – what are it’s measurable outcomes?

It’s a question that has been asked of me in a couple of settings recently. Not going to give away the details of where. But behind the question is a frustration that the wider culture of practice makes determinations of outcomes & success that make what seems good practice to be sidelined. It’s often a numbers game, or an improvement of the individual game, a rush to ensure a young persons CV is full up. All of which fuel a sense of conformity of those cultures, whether the church and attendance or the neo liberal agenda of funding.

But what is the alternative- how else can youth work & ministry be evaluated?

Shall we start with our beliefs about young people? Or even in faith based work- our beliefs about God and what dangerous discipleship is? 

I want to argue that we might evaluate youth work and ministry practice- by how young people perform it. 

Let start with youthwork practice. If theres an agreement about its core values then these include, anti-oppression, developing young peoples interests and gifts, Empowerment,  participation and informal education. 

If we’re brutally honest,   youthwork has been measured on how individuals find support within conversation and measurable outcomes like CV building certificates and activities.  But that ignores the bigger picture and also other values like anti oppressive practice,  challenging inequality, the common good. 

What might it look like to evaluate youthwork practice that encourages young people to participate in challenging issues, oppression and inequality that either they or or they see in others?

 Or evaluate according to the use of young peoples thus far wasted gifts and talents to create projects, activities, or  services for others (and countless other things) . 

It becomes about how values of youthwork are performed by young people.

Indulge me just a bit; but to the faith motivated workers, might we want to think about evaluating faith based youth ministry in terms of how young people ‘perform theology’ .  I contrast this to youth ministry in which attendance and morality is emphasised (being moral ties in with Christian Smiths, MTD). Which is also only about ‘knowing’ stuff. What if we can asked young people less with ‘growing the group’ by solely evangelism, but performing the complexity of Gods character in the world and evaluating accordingly?

The strange thing is that even young people who don’t know God yet, might be performing aspects of Gods nature without realising. The open youth group that does a homeless project,  helps with food bank or sets up a social enterprise for the good of the local community. May be acting Godly, unintentionally.  May be performing the love and justice of God.

If I was being controversial it might be to contrast the young people performing the character of God in the world and how performing theology occurs at the youth worship fun festival. (Insert name here). In a way though, that’s less the point. What the role of the worship gathering or group gathering is is to embed young people in worship , and increase knowledge of God for performance.

It may mean we need to agree on what it might mean for young people to perform values, or perform theology, either way, if these things motivate us to our youth work and ministry practice, then helping young people performing them and evaluating accordingly might be what’s needed. Otherwise we’ll still be in a situation where job readiness or numerical attendance drive practice. Or where young people just ‘know’ things. Or they are self improved by how much they know things.

Young people as performing learners? And practice that evaluates the ongoing possibilities of young peoples actions to love, liberate, challenge and create in their local communities.

Just going to youth group got a whole lot interesting…


Performing Evangelism at the Anglican Diocesan Youth Adviser Conference. (Slides included)

Today I have had the privilege of being able to make a contribution at the Annual conference for all the Church of England Diocesan Youth Advisers, on the subject of Evangelism.

I was part of a four header, in which 3 others also contributed to the discussion. All shared of their experiences, their projects, their trials and how they related what they did theologically. It was fascinating.

What was fascinating was that all of the pieces of practice emphasised working in the specific context. as a contrast, none spoke of culture. All spoke of how faith with young people became something organic, and occured when the environment was right for young people to take a risk. Very few talked about evangelism that is outside of the ongoing process of facilitating spaces for young people to opt into faith, often in a very everyday manner.  Its as if discipleship & evangelism & church all sort of combine, and thats ok if young people are contributing, participating and becoming of faith.

The sessions didnt include many of the buzzwords like ‘lost generation’ , intentional, or ‘reaching’ – the practice of contextual youth work provision, of developing conversation, groups and the slow generation of faith in a specific place seemed to be at the core. Long term presence accompanied by meeting needs, showing interest, faithfulness and acting in love with young people, and along the way taking the odd risk with spirituality or waiting for the moment.

It was also great to have conversations with some of the diocesan youth advisers and be inspired by the work of others in the projects.

On my drive home I started to ponder a number of questions from the day, some prompted by the sessions given, and also the questions directed to the panel of the four of us, keep an eye on my next few articles over the next week to see whether my train of thoughts on working with young people in a faith context might be useful. The theme of performance is interesting as this was something raised twice, as are concerns about Faith, the kind of faith that young people have, and also how to evaluate success. They may all feature in further discussions here. (you can click the follow button to receive these)

However, in the meantime, and at the end of a long day of travel and talking I here is a link to the powerpoint slides for anyone interested: click this link: Diocesan Youth Adviser Conference presentation 2017 – not sure anyone who wasnt there could make sense of them. Theres a good conversation of the themes and discussions via twitter on #dyo17 if thats something you want to engage with too.

Anyway, thats all for now. Thank you to all in the room for the inspiration, conversations and stories.

 

 

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