Working with young people might mean leaving the church. 

I was 18 at the time. Though this story has resonates to when I was 15. I’ve written about this before in a piece called ‘sorry young people, the church messed up’ from an apologetic perspective from being a young person.

However this is the tale from the perspective of being a youthworker. I wonder whether we have to admit that if we want to work with young people we have to face the reality of leaving the church.

So, I was 18. And just moved to an estate in a team of other enthusiastic christian young people. Ready to save and transform the world. Ready but innocent. Ready but in no way ready. But ready because had an open page and lots of time to start making contacts with young people. None of us knew about detached work , youth ministry was barely a theory and basically it was about meeting and connecting with young people. And we did. And it was chaos. But because it was chaos and open and unpredictable young people connected. We got to know many young people a little bit.  Got insights into their world a little bit. Worked with them a little bit.

However. The little bit wasn’t enough.

Working for a church which had originally said, ‘Go find and connect’ now said, ‘use the building’ , ‘invite’ ‘do more teaching’

We stopped working with young people. Instead we started to work in a way to entertain them. Before they were happy to have conversation, now we had to prepare sessions, plan games and make teaching stuff relevant.

On the positive side, the groups who attended then who flourished in that kind of space have become leaders and youth ministers themselves, some of them have.

Yet the young people who connected with us on the streets, in our home and in the chaos.  I dread to think.

Ok so that was over 20 years ago.

But the reflection remains. And it’s not new. The history of organisations like SU and Sunday schools tells us that the more formal the space, the least inclusive it is. It’s why ragged schools and detached work was needed to work with those outside.

I’ve been reading Goffman presentation of the self in every day life he talks about performance management. What he says is that performances of people who want to share information become highly managed so that the person can deliver that information. So, the youth leader that wants to deliver a highly scheduled programme might exclude certain young people so that the presentation can be made. In a way this brings insight, because whilst the church has ‘quite monochrome teaching methods’  (Danny Brierley, 2003) it then creates and manages the performance of them to suit. The more managed the performance the least open it is. Young people are deemed disruptive too easily.

On another point is validity.  Even if all the most disruptive, challenging , broken young people are being in contact by the mission team on a Friday night.  None of it is valid until the young people are present on a Sunday.  So, to work with young people and do so innovative (innovation is contextual) it either means also educating the church to think differently, that actually doing something good with young people might be enough  or realise that leaving the church is the only option. Even those in a more teaching orientated youth group still have sunday morning as an expectation.

I wrote a piece last week on why youthworkers leave the church. It’s on the front page of this website if you want a read, a link to it is here: . Mission drift was one of the reasons. But I’d like add that it was less about mission drift, or money or management for me. It was an overriding sense that churches struggle to accomodate a space to meet young peoples needs in a thought through unpredictable way, when the churchs own needs and expectations influence the working practices of the youthworker.

Once the taste of pain that I had of young people hurting and lost, wasmy understood by a church that saw itself in its practices as the only route to liberation and salvation (via sunday mornings) then it becomes difficult to stay. That taste of leaving too many people behind is difficult to get rid of. Something emotional that never leaves. Something that wasn’t the young persons fault either. It was the same pain i had felt as a 15 year old when other young people were excluded from the youth club i was part of.

What I’ve sadly discovered is that this story can be told all over the UK. 100’s of spaces are open to welcome young people in clubs, projects and conversations on the streets. These, when council run places are shutting by the 100 a week have to be retained to enable young people to facilitate a connection with youthworkers. Often these have stretched resources and obtaining funding can take up far too much time (if you want to donate to FYT who have 60 odd open project in the uk, please do so, a link to the FYT website is; here.

However the point being is that because the methods of practice and process of faiths discovery can be so implicitly managed and validated.  For the youthworker who wants to work with young people, in their own right, space and time. It might mean leaving the church. Which isnt a decision any youth worker who has been brought up in a church finds easy to make, and it shouldnt be, and it isnt always. But its not about following young people, its about a deep gut of compassion that sees that young people who are outside of the church deserve more, and should receive more. Its a gut of compassion that wants to embrace and welcome, and finds that this can happen further and further away from the structures of a church. Yet at the same time without the generosity of the church, alot of these spaces are not able to function.

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