Four views on Youth Ministry and ‘Sunday’ Church

We all know by now that the predominant reasons for setting up youth groups, youth ministry and other such activities in a local area, or church is that young people disrupt the service young people find church boring. It has been said that somehow it is not ‘for them’ – theres something ‘dark’ and ‘secret’ about ‘adult’ church, maybe its where adults talk about hidden things like sex and ‘relations’ that 12 year olds arent allowed to be in, they get scuttled off the back room to be entertained by the ‘yoof’ worker, and never to be seen again only to be seen running around the building when people have hot coffee in their hands. So all of a sudden, youth and children are separated, and the task of the youth and childrens leader is to find a way of getting those separates ‘back in’…

Joking aside, the relationship between ‘youth’ / ‘young people’ and the church is a fascinating one. Most church congregations have some investment in the expectations that a youth group/ youthworker may be able to enable young people to ‘come’ to church.  Recently I have been reading Erving Goffman The presentation of the self in everyday life  in which he talks about how the service industry tries to emphasis the ‘dramatic’ and visible in their workplace, because this is what people will expect to pay for, or fund. So for example, the connections between a nurse and patient in a hospital is what a patient values, because it is what they see, they dont see the connections between the nurse and other patients, neither do they see the nurse doing admin.It is this part of their role that a patient values.  The point being, is that ‘Sunday church’ can be the time of visibility and drama for the sunday congregation, and therefore, it is the time when the church is ‘family’ and together, so, thinking sociologically, not only theologically, young people being visible in the space is seen to be  of value to other congregants. Of course, theres no reason why being in church isnt good for young people – but it seems to be the expectations – it becomes difficult to question the notion that ‘ it was great to see the young folk in church today’.. its about young people being visible, not whether is was good for their discipleship for themselves, no its good for the rest of the church.  

Taking the thought that ‘church’ is important for young people, youth ministry and youth groups (whatever we want to define them as) – I wonder whether there are four main views of the relationship between youth ministry and the church.Image result for church

  1. The Youth group leads to alternative church perspective ; This is the work your butt off for 51 weeks in a year volunteering in your youth group and when the young people go to Spring Harvest, Soul Survivor, (*insert name here of a week in the summer festival, or local ‘youth worship event’ ) and it is here where ‘someone else’ manages to build on all your hard work, and the young people find an alternative style church to find faith. Of course, plenty of people are ready to give the young people in your youth group all manner of experiences to make their alternative church fun, lively, loud, ‘youth friendly’. Then theres the merchandise, t-shirts, band CDs, books and posters. Many youth leaders locally desperate that an alternative church is needed for young people. All to help young people fit into this alternative church. Often parents go along with ‘alternative church’ because, alot of parents of church young people discovered their own ‘alternative church’ themselves, is Spring Harvest into 3rd generations, and soul survivor 2..? So, youth group leading to ‘alternative church’  – what does that mean for ‘home’ church? or doesnt it matter.. Sometimes young people are actively encouraged not to go to the home church (because even the youth leader says its boring) and instead find alternative church – because the youth leader has spent hours planning ‘alternative church’ and so has vested interest in yoof going to it.  The alternative church creates faith of a kind, which is great, but that starts to look so different to the ‘sunday church’ that its hard for the young person to find connection or identity in their home church space, but not to worry, they can find identity in the alternative church. That is until theres only 4 young people going to it, and the youth leaders who run it have to cancel it due to costs, or it only attracts ‘christian young people’ – (who else was it going to attract>?? )  or it courts controversy by having candles/meditation/the holy spirit/a monk* and is then cancelled *delete where necessary.

    Image result for contemporary church
    An Alternative church
  2. The youth group is the holding space until home church develops ‘youth’ friendly service.  For however long the youth group functions, and every now and then theres a special service, special moment in the ‘home’ church, in which young people are needed. It could involve their musical or drama talent, or ‘Christmas’ but either way, youth group is the preparation for a moment where young people ‘take part in a special’ church service. Or they can take part in the church weekend away (its good to have the young people – but they still have their own ‘seperate’ meetings’ ) So, the youth group becomes essentially prep for church.  Especially if theres a ‘youth service’ in which the youth group do lots of preparation, and the congregation manage to find many excuses for not appearing that sunday. Its the only Sunday they miss, but they just do.
  3. The Youth Group ‘is’ now church for young people : OH YES!  So, all of a sudden, the youth group has stayed exactly the same, but someone picked up a book of new ideas in the church a few years ago, and so all of a sudden, people who go to sunday church now speak of ‘the youth group’ as being ‘church’ fImage result for youth group gameor young people’.  Its like when sunday school became ‘Junior’ church. Even though many of the adults in church have NO IDEA what goes on at youth group, they have no decided that it is appropriate enough that this is ‘church’ that young people have. So, on one hand it gets young people off scot free from having to go to sunday church ( hahahahahahahahaha.. right) , it also means that games of mafia, spoons and an unhealthy tuck shop , or in this case, solid death ball, and a 5 minute epilogue now constitutes church. Well if that adults say so…
  4. The youth group develops ‘youth church’ with young people. This is a bit like number 1, but the ‘alternative’ church isnt created by youth leaders or other adults for young people. It is developed with the youth leaders and the young people together as part of the existing group. It emerges from within. So, in effect, young people with support, are its creators, developers and shapers, as well help to create the curriculum, content, worship, service and mission (because of course a church is there to do mission- just like sunday church?)  Of course there are some obvious benefits to this type of arrangement, not least that the young people develop active discipleship, leading, planning and participating in church (as opposed to ‘attending alternative church’) It may also be that adults in ‘sunday’ church, decide that they might ‘attend’ youth church, so that it becomes visible to them. In a way that no adult ever attended ‘youth group’. Youth church becomes an ‘alternative congregation’ within the church, in a way that in reality youth group, despite the best intentions of option 3 never did. And, if they’re savvy, the adults who help create youth church with the young people, building from within, also know that the young people will now get more out their own church, than attending ‘alternative church’ down the road. Thats not to say that they wont enjoy it, or learn in it, but it doesnt need to be the space for their spiritual discipleship development anymore, they have it in their own faith community that they are being helped to create.

These are four views of ‘youth groups’ and the church, there might be a few others.  If i was to be pedantic, then often this can just depend on what we might view ‘church’ to be. Of course young people, finding faith and a community to express this in is much bigger than ‘just church on a sunday’ and the complexities of this happening in each context are varied. Because much depend on what view of church, view of young people and also the skill and capacity of the youth leader to create the possibility of young people actually shaping their own faith experiences. Especially when the youth group already has a set culture, method and identity. All of the options 1-4, seem preferable that there being no option for young people, and they either have to ‘do sunday church’ or ‘not do sunday church’. And yes of course there is overlap between some of them. The same youth group might be all of the above. And how confusing might that be. So theres something to be said about the ecclesiology of youth ministry, but practically, What about just not separating children and young people at all. And creating family friendly cultures of learning, discipleship and worship from the outset, now thats an idea… or just a pipedream..



Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust ( and Communities Together Durham ( and am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

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