On developing courageous Mission work with young people


I tend to use this quotation whenever I am giving a talk or training on detached or Mission youth work practice, on Monday I was in Middlesbrough with a group, and their project coordinator turned it into the above picture. I also used it at the DYO national conference in May, more ‘as a reminder’- but sometimes it is good to be reminded of things that might have got forgotten.

Vincent Donovan, was a missionary who went to the Masai Tribe, and realised that imperialist methods for ‘converting’ people werent working, and they felt disrespectful to the local setting. It was then when he began to realise the effect of culture on faith (in his own) and also the realisation that the future destination of faith conversations might be more open. I paraphrase extensively, but you can buy a copy of Christianity Rediscovered here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Christianity-Rediscovered-Classics-Vincent-Donovan/dp/0334028558/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1499846422&sr=8-1&keywords=vincent+donovan

So 5 Questions that arise from this quote that might be good to reflect on further in your youthwork practice:

  1. How open are you to the possibility that the future project/activity/destination is something you currently dont know, and you develop with young people in negotiation with them?
  2. What much do your beautiful places determine the nature, method of working with young people? How much influence to other peoples (not yours or the young people) beautiful places have on your work?  (‘we have a great project/activity/service, why dont you get your young people to come to it’?) 
  3. When Donovan talks about courage – who might you need to be courageous with?  yourself? volunteers? the young people? your line manager? the church congregation? the senior youth leader? Is there more bravery needed, when justification by numbers, even in church groups, is prevalent..?
  4. How open might we be to learning about young people, about their culture and community from the point of contact and work with them in that space?, whether that is the streets (which ‘we’ might perceive to be dangerous)  or somewhere else, and it neednt be a physical space, it might be that we have the bravery to talk to a group in a club whom we often leave to ‘play games by themselves’.
  5. As i said, this quote is often used when thinking about ‘mission’ work or detached youthwork, but what about the work with young people we already know, and who are already ‘acclimatised’ in our groups, clubs, activities?  Does not educating them , discipling them, and helping them explore their place in the world require the same ‘brave’ attitude?   Is it possible to go to unknown places with young people we know? (when what we know is what we think we want young people to know too)  what kind of spaces, questions, situations might this cause us to create? , (even in the opennest of groups – or even the groups that have curriculum and programmes).   As i wrote in a previous post, one danger of the contemporary worship scene, is that young people used to create it as their own, now its the youth leaders/youth ministry beautiful place and young people are turning to liturgy instead, which is still someone else beautiful place, but one that offer meaningfulness to them. (that piece is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-10H)   However,  the question remains, how brave might youth ministry be with young people – when its destinations, in the form of resources, activities, festivals, culture – seem to guide its path?

It might cause us to question how institutionalised our beliefs are. Whether it is beliefs about young people and their attendance at youth clubs, or employment groups, or churches and worship activities. What Donovan, and Freire, and Ken Robinson and others have said, there is knowledge within every one -but institutions shape what kind of knowledge is valid. There is also faith, and spirituality within everyone – but again institutions and doctrines might validate faith more than others. A question for us is what would it take for youth workers, youth ministers to really work with, to listen, and develop from the point of young people. What it might take is a grassroots, maverick approach, and being vulnerable.  What might it take for an institution to be brave and meet young people where theyre at, recognising its own position, dreams, desires and beliefs for young people?

When Goetschius and Tash wrote ‘Working with the unattached, in 1965; – 50% of young people in the UK didnt attend open youth clubs. Detached youthwork was an answer in local contexts. When Scripture Union did a recent survey, they realised that churches in the UK only work with 5% of young people. And most of the mission work with the  5% , is the 5% ‘bring a friend to an event’ ministry. And the focus on youth ministry, and all of its programmes and resources is to keep these young people , from one event, resource, camp or programme to another. In working with the 5%, there is a danger of repetition, and every new revolution is the old revolution with new paint, youth ministry might become like the phone book, or woolworths, as this US commentator suggested https://youthspecialties.com/blog/youth-ministry-danger-becoming-phone-book/?platform=hootsuite.   I applaud the London Diocese for putting young people first, and setting the target to do youth ministry in every one of its parishes, i only hope that there is capacity to start from the streets, from the local context and work with young people, whom the church doesnt currently know, in each place. And that how a church or club works with its existing groups doesnt shape how young people are worked with whom are outside the institution – bravery is needed.

Maybe Youth Ministry needs to be brave. Youth Ministry, and Programme based work with young people might already hold the keys to the beautiful places, but truly working with young people in their context might mean that those keys arent ever needed, and that new beautiful places are made.  

Every conversation with a young person, in the right context and space can be full of possibility, it might take a brave youthworker, a brave club, a brave church, to build from that space of interaction something new, something truly with young people and not just meet them where they’re at, but construct the beautiful place of faith, creativity, community and hope with them. It is not just gift based, or needs based practice, but open practice that always for shared animation.


As I am now self employed I hope you dont might me pointing you to the above menus on training, for if you would like me to do some detached training with you, your group or church, please do contact me on the details in the pages. If developing from young peoples spaces is where you need to go, please do get in touch. Thank you

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