Reaching young people with the method of the Gospel (beyond Generation Z)

I have read, and re-read YFC’s latest research based on the responses of 1001 young people in Scotland, England and Wales (no one from NI) that brings to the attention of those involved in youth ministry a number of insights into the behaviours, actions and beliefs that these 1001 young people have. As I have written previously, we’re in a hot bed of release of youth ministry research at the moment, Youthscape, CofE, SU and a number of other large organisations have produced research into young people, faith, life and church in the last 2 years. There is an element of saturation point. There is also an element where, having read most of the other research, including Soul Searching by Christian Smith (2005) on the faith of USA teenagers, and a few other historical pieces, then not much of what is in the Generation Z report is particularly surprising or new, especially if you’re a youth worker who is in a school, a community setting and sees most of what this report says on a day to day basis.

What the writers of this research ask is whether this research starts a conversation about the future of youth ministry and new paradigm shifts, and what Neil suggests on the back is that the report might be for the internal audience of YFC more-so than those outside in other youth ministry contexts arguing that :

our commitment (YFC) to taking the good news relevantly means we are prepared to make major changes to our methods (Neil O Boyle)

This is not a dig at Neil, at all, these are worthy questions from the point of view of trying to change the culture and practices of a 70 year old evangelistic youth ministry organisation. He is also keen to know what others think, and whether others experiences match the report. So here’s a first piece on it…

Over the past 24 hours I have reflected on the report, and shared it with a few others, and whilst there are significant questions that arise from its content, the main questions i have are with it as a process and tool and thinking theologically about youth ministry and the gospel that YFC seeks to be witnesses of.

In one way, I thought about the information that Jesus would have had for his Ministry, where it came from, how he decided which disciples to resource, which towns and cities, places and lakes were important, and who might be good resources for him. I have come to the understanding that what Jesus discovered in the locality he was in for about 30 years was enough. He knew about workplaces, roads, farms, fields, temples, ceremonies, rituals, family, commerce, trade, and importantly who fitted the roles that he was looking for.

What he knew of the Roman empire and culture was from the point of experience. What he knew of people was from the point of experience.

The phrase that comes to mind, or shall i say verse is John 3 16-17. We know the first bit. The second speaks of Jesus method; ‘for i have not come to judge the world but to save it’ – and we already know that God loves the world (John 3;16)

The method of the Gospel was local, at the point of human contact and in a specific place and time. If that was all Jesus needed then its using the same lenses and discernment in our local areas that is also required.

What this research, and all the other research before it into youth culture (such as Rick Bartletts in 1998 on Gen Y) and also the similar claims of what Gen x, Baby boomers and Millenials that often get banded about, are times when Missiology, and the Christian church has adopted sociological thinking for the purposes of mass market appeal and universal, simplified marketing and resourcing. In a way it is amusing that one of the differences between ‘youthwork’ and ‘youth ministry’ is that youth work has meeting the needs of local young people in their space/context as a priority, and doesnt adopts generalisations or generations, it doesnt need to, and i would suggest that because Jesus didnt do this either ( except to be critical to the generations of sinners/hypocrites), then maybe this is the shift that needs to be made in youth ministry. But its too late.

Its not that there might only be so much usefulness in surveys of 1001 young people and disseminating youth culture from this, it is whether trying to determine a universal youth culture or a generalisation of a generation is useful at all. At worst it makes easy judgements (not what Jesus would do) , make a youth worker be relevant ( hey guys ive heard that you all like being on the internet, to a group all playing tennis at the time) or at worst to think that the young people are in any way deficient to what theyre supposed to be. But what the research also does is reduce the desire to learn long term in a space, as armed with a bucket load of research, the fresh faced youth minister (often a gap year student) can turn up and not bother listening and learning.

I have not come to judge the world – but to love it  John 3:17

In 1964 Rev Hamilton said this: “what we need to know about the strategy of action must be learned at the point of personal involvement‘  This was on the back of a 4 year study and research into a detached youthwork project in London. A 4 year study written up by Goetchius and Tash.  His conclusion and appendix, a sermon to the world christian youth commission in 1964, was that to engage with young people, for whom 50% werent attending youth clubs and were ‘on the estates’ causing havoc, the point of engagement was the point of research.

Fast forward not that long and the desire for different methods took hold, when Youth ministry practices starting taking root in the UK. Cultural studies became important, Christian youth culture was the alternative to mainstream youth culture, and young people who were on the estates were part of neither, shaping their own, but all the while being the ‘underclass’. Culture and generation studies continued.

Yet The method of the gospel – was to love the world, and meet it head on at the point of contact.

Even writers of Youth Ministry in the 1990s were starting to realise this:

‘To be heard, The word must come into the world of young people, presence preceds preaching and listening precedes speaking’ (Dean Borgman 1999, p19)

none of listening and presence happens by looking at research. 

We are called to waste time with young people – to be in the boundaries (Pete Ward, 1997, p25-29)

In a way, then, the Generation Z research might not cause a Paradigm shift in the culture of youth ministry, because it is in existence in itself. What it is, determines culture and a way of doing ministry within the dying embers of organised evangelical youth ministry. It makes perceptions of only a few young people – where actually not one young person is average. As Liebau and Chisolm (1993) have suggested, universal concepts such as youth should be questioned, as ‘european youth’ or ‘british youth’ or even ‘northern youth’ or ‘generation z youth’ actually do not exist. Young people in specific contexts frame their story and lives around much more local activities, behaviours, and circumstances, as well as how they interpret these cultures, structures. So what young people ‘do’ might have less bearing on how they ‘construct’ their ongoing circumstances.  This leads to questions about the socio- demographics of the Gen z study , the mental health issues that the young people had experience of, the negative experiences in life, the perceptions that they have of family, school, friends, religion and social media – beyond that some of these things were unhelpful at times. All of these constructions are more locally realised. It is in the space of helping young people make those constructions that we need to be. in the boundaries.

The method of the Gospel is not to judge the world, it is to be involved in it, and learn from within it, and be part of helping young people construct their worldview, helping them reflect, and develop meaning about faith that resonates with them. I am 1/2 way through a piece on myth making and how this is important in developing faith, though my previous articles refer to how we might help young people find meaning in the space of church – this is also a theme picked up by Nick Shepherd in ‘Faith Generation’ (2016). 

If making an understanding of young people in our local contexts is done via extrapolations from samples and assessments of culture, then we have missed the point and method and process of the gospel. Telling good news happens after being present, learning, listening and creating safe space, rapport, and relationship.

We might need to meet the 32% of young people who meet their friends on the street where they’re at. on the streets. Back to detached work again… i wonder… maybe Goestchius and Tash in 1967 and their christian mission work with YWCA were on to something…. 😉

Getting in the midst of young people in the boundaries, might end us up where Pete Ward reflects we might be in a place where ‘we bleed for others, not for art’ It is costly sacrificial and long term, emotional and in the midst. The gospel is in the costly presence.


Working with Unattached Youth, 1967, Goetschius & Tash

Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997, Pete Ward

Rethinking Youth, 1999, Wyn & White

When Kumbaya is not enough, 1997, Dean Borgman

Faith Generation, 2016, Nick Shepherd

A copy of the report can be accessed, (or bought!) here:

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