Losing Hope in Youth Ministry

Since I gave up hope I feel alot better!

This was a lyric in one of Steve Taylors songs back in the 1980’s. It was christian satire set to music, and performed with flamboyance. More details of his can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Taylor.

The Song itself pokes at the academic education system within the USA, and a humanist belief that a person can achieve and have knowledge of everything, and by doing so is able to feel alot better. The irony is not difficult to find. But this is not a post about irony, neither is it a post about humanism or the education system. I mentioned in my previous article on Drama, that an understanding of the whole christian narrative is important. not just for a young person, the story from creation to eschaton,. Not that each is needed to be explored in depth, but hey why not ( making the gospel meaningful, now theres a slogan to believe in) .  What is important within the drama is that as persons we know our place.  And that place is in the 4th act, heading towards the 5th. In the age of the church, before, and always looking before the final act.

However. What happens when we have or transmit, or dont even teach on the future, or the end times?

The temptation is that there is too much focus on the here and now. The present is wallowed in, and we become our own heroes at the end of the story. The present age is not the end. I rarely hear anything about eschatology in youth ministry, except for the cliche about starting the Bible by reading how the story ends. What i mean is that it rarely informs the resources, the conversations, or becomes key to an understanding of young people, destiny, humanity and above all hope. it barely informs our strategies for ministry if we are concerned about meeting the expectations of funders or marketers. If we give up on eschatology, we have given up on hope.

Kenda Creasy Dean says that Youth Ministry is suffering from ADD, Ascension deficit disorder. Which is a horrific play on words for a diagnosis rife amongst people, but if that kind of wording sells in youth ministry academia.. , regardless of this, the point she makes is that anxiety is rife in churches, in youth groups and in the wider world. This is backed up in the UK even by YFC’s own research recently which i reluctantly reference. Worry is everywhere, and its why helping young people theologise in the crisis moments is significant. However, what Dean also suggests is that young people have an over realised sense of Hope (Dean is writing in pre-trump context in the USA- worth remembering). Some of them are extraordinarily hopeful, despite also being in a culture of anxiety. But their hope is found on ‘God seeing them through exams’ or ‘God wont let me down’ – it might be God helping through circumstances at best – most of which is cheerful optimism, that might not last high school, let alone university.

In the same way young people get anxious, so do systems. Most research pieces on Church attendance in the west permeate a narrative that leads to status anxiety. Missiologists in describing the ‘Posts’ or secularism, modernism and christendom permeate a view that there is a new world out there, the times may be a-changing – but anxiety is systematically rife. What happens when systems are anxious? they retract. Investment on risk taking pioneer youthwork is down, investment in the young is reduced, taking risks within the church has been sidelined to ‘proving the worth of the church’.  When survival mechanisms take over, there is reduced capacity for empathy. thus it becomes harder to listen to the voices of the world, less do what isnt risk averse and protectionism, and this at the moment is rife. From fearing the EU, to immigrants, to the world ‘outside’, to fearing the future, fearing change, fearing failure, or embarrassment, or fearing closure.

Giving up talk of the future, is a rallying cry to give up the possibility of long term hope that (young) people might innocently already have, but pressures and fears created by the immediacy of the culture they are in drain it quickly away.  Kenda Dean turns to the construct of age to illustrate how youthfulness and hope and uses Jurgen Moltmans description of future hope to make the point that : ‘It is not that the future belongs to the young.. the future makes us young’. What might make us young is not age but hope. This is what Paulo Freire said:

“The main criterion for evaluating age, youth, and old age cannot be that of the calendar. No one is old just because he or she was born a long time ago or young just because he or she was born a short time ago. People are young much more as a function of how they think of the world, the availability they have for curiously giving themselves to knowledge. The search for knowledge should never make us tired, and the acquisition of it should never make us immobile and satisfied. People are young or old much more as a function of the energy and the hope that they can readily put into starting over, especially if what they have done continues to embody their dream, an ethically valid and politically necessary dream. We are young or old to the extent that we tend to accept change or not as a sign of life, rather than embrace the standstill as a sign of death.

People are young to the extent that they fight to overcome prejudice. A person would be old, even in spite of being only twenty-two, if he or she arrogantly dismissed others and the world. We gradually become old as we unconsciously begin to refuse novelty, with the argument that “in our day things were better”. The best time for the young person of twenty-two or seventy is always that he or she lives in. Only by living time as best as possible can one live it young.

Deeply living the plots presented to us by social experiences and accepting the dramatic nature of reinventing the world and pathways to youth. we grow old if we believe, as we realise the importance of what we have gained in our environment, that it is of our own merit” (Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the heart, p33-34)

Being Youthful is not about age, then its is about not clinging on to past glories and achievements. Being hopeful isnt not a distant dream, or having the attitude that ‘one day, someone else will rescue us‘. Neither is hopefulness found in knowing  the information about how the story will end. If I understand what performing the doctrine of eschatology might be about, then our task in church ministry and youth ministry is to perform hope. As youthworkers we might , and i hope, see signs of innocent hope in the young people we spend time with,  a church in anxiety needs to become as youthful again. But it is more than that performing hope, as Pope Benedict said:

The christian message was not only informative, but performative. That means: The Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known – it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. the one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of new life

No automatic alt text available.
An example of the recent knit-work from the Hartlepool Yarners.

What enacting hope also means, is a call to improvisation. It is also in the unbridled desire to bring about change by enacting a reality that doesnt exist in the present world. Hartlepool is blessed with its hope enacting subversive knitters who parade their work along fences around the harbour and headland areas. They interject into the present world, colour, humour and bring life.

The knitters have a message of hope, and enact it out. And there are others who are doing the same in other small ways. Young people i know are performing hope in the way they volunteer and raise money for charities as they themselves want to change the world for better for others. The enacters of hope, it seems are not the church, and the church might learn from them. The church is trapped in its own anxiety loop.

Improvisation means to enter the present situation assuming there is a different game to be played in human time than the one being scripted. It is playful, it is hopeful. It is plot changing. Image may contain: outdoor

Since I gave up Hope i feel alot better, of course is ironic. Nothing can be more desperate than a loss of hope. If the transcendant beliefs of old are reducing in their half lives, and people have to make up their own or find their own stories to live by (McAdams, 1997). Finding someone to believe in is rife, the religiosity that now befells political leaders, from Farage to Trump and notably to Corbyn. From left or right, saviours are promising Hope.

To find the resources within the world to cope with the world, in short resilience. Meaning will be found in personal gains, personal goods, the present, in work and busyness, and a whole host of things that might not provide enough to be hopeful when these things start to fade away. Old age is a time when self esteem plummets. Its not just in those who are young. But if the stories that provide meaning are less accepted and told, less enacted and performed in real time. To not be the Hero of the story, should make us less anxious, it is not our job to save the world. Hope is found when we realise our place in the broader story, and that there is an end game that isnt the present game. As Youth Ministers, as church, it is our job to perform acts of hope in it, and to catch on to the hopefulness that young people themselves innocently perform as theologians in their own right. For the rest of us improvising hope might need to be deliberate.

Has youth ministry (and the church) given up on Hope? – and does it feel alot better..?


Kenda Creasy Dean Ascension deficit disorder, in The theological turn in youth Ministry, 2011

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Heart, 1997

Wells, Sam , Improvisation, 2005


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