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: 


  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?



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) 

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