Abandoning the poor isnt new, Youth Ministry has been doing it for 100 years.

The Bishop of Burnley, Rev Philip North has stirred up a few feathers this week. In a sermon at New wine he criticised the church for failing to invest in the poorer areas of the UK, and also highlighted the popular plight of ‘new churches’ to find a suitable place that God was calling them to be that conveniently is near trendy coffee shops and artisan deli’s. One of the many articles that refers to his sermon is here: https://www.christiantoday.com/article/bishops.anger.at.middle.class.church.the.poorer.you.are.the.less.we.value.you/111455.htm

One thing that this avoids is a different complex that the church can often be criticised of having. And that is the white saviour complex. But if the church is only planting somewhere trendy, and full of youthful vibrancy, then at least it is only attracting similar people. The similar people who can cope with courses, activities, groups, and also helping from these spaces to help others. And there are countless ministries who can help. I mean, there’s only so much that you can do in a church nowadays that doesnt require paying money to some ministry for the privilege of using their programme to do it – all of which requires a church to have a resource in the first place.  Of course white saviour syndrome is when a community is ‘targetted’ with well meaning initiatives and intentions without actually being listened to and given the space to create their own forms of community.

What is most surprising is that this seems to be a ‘new’ conversation. The shock being felt around the faith community that Rev North is perpetuating something new. Oh My. Rev North himself has preached this same sermon a number of times, was it only picked up because it was at New Wine? or a larger platform? or a tweeting audience. When preached in the north in his home diocese, it was known but barely raised a glimmer. Because its also where the ‘poor’ is most known.  I cannot imagine what kind of church or country we think we in that we have to be reminded that the church isnt connecting with is urban, or post industrial communities. Yet at the same time, every one of these communities will be part of a parish. Though the last time the CofE produced anything of note that regarded socio economic class with any urgency was the Church in the City Report, in 1987…

In a way though none of this is the point. The point is that this isnt new. It is that the ministry of the church has abandoned young people in ‘so-called’ poor areas for over a century.

I know this is a big claim. But it has to be said.

It is based on a number of factors. The principle one is that in the majority of scenarios faith has been equated with order, behaviour and attractional methods.

Part of my dissertation is on the writing of sociologist Irvine Goffman. What he argues is that as persons we present ourselves in a number of ways to other people in social interactions, on the basis that throughout these interactions we hope to gain or give information, often for our own or another persons gain. From a faith perspective we might reflect on whether in our interactions with others we embody christian values, but that is a different story. And theres a post on interactions waiting to happen. However, what Goffman also suggests is that performances can be managed by the performer. And critically for this piece, that the performances can undergo dramatic circumspection. What this means is that those who want to give a performance also take into account their audience, and shape the audience to ensure that a performance has the most effect.

In short what this means is that a youth minister who want to to share an eloquent story, or have a detailed programme down to the last minute is likely to select young people who can cope with this type of presentation, or remove young people from it who arent able to cope with this. Dramatic circumspection is rife within the church. It is why it seems inappropriate to to interrupt a sermon, as a culture of dialogue and critical questioning is deterred, for the sake of one person monologues, see any conference, festival or stage performance. Dramatic circumspection is about controlling the audience, the size of audience and the environment to ensure that the performance can be given.

My argument is that since youth ministry became a programmed activity, that dramatic circumspection has determined that young people who cannot cope, for a variety of reasons, have been pushed to the edges of youth ministry.

Anyone with a passing interest in youth work and ministry will know that the 1850-1890’s was a boom time for late victorian philanthropy. Yes it might be ‘white saviour complex’, but in those years philanthropic actions by many heralded the establishment of organisations like Barnados, YMCA and also Sunday schools which had started in the late 1700’s, with Robert Raikes (who made them fashionable and used publishing to spread their universal appeal, but they started with John Wesley (1737) and Rev Lindsey in 1763¹). Ragged schools and Detached work also began from this point, because those who pioneered them realised that the poor were being left behind. They, like Barnados started from meeting young people head on in their communities.

As interest in working with young people grew, especially from Sunday Schools, to colleges and universities, then so also did the more programmed activities and education. SCCU held beach missions, and discussions in the boardroom, and this became Scripture Union as we know today. Uniformed organisations helped with the war effort, including Boys brigades. The advent of publishing and resources enabled universal programmes and activities to be distributed, and SU obviously became influential.

There was no one moment where the church forgot the poor. Whilst it was in a position of strength it could legitimately argue for behaviour adherance. And reports from the methodist churches in the 1950’s suggest that they couldnt cope with broken windows and the trials of ‘open’ youth clubs were banished to the history books. Even in 1960’s statutory youth services were down to meeting 50% of young people, hence why people like Joan Tash went out and met young people on the streets. You can read more about this , in a book review here: a reflection of their work in light of ‘being innovative in youth ministry & meeting needs of young people is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-QK , 50% of young people were rejecting youth services then.

I dread to think how many then were also rejecting the church. I dread to think, but whilst the churches might have had full sunday schools in the 1960s (of baby boomer children) then it didnt matter. But that wasnt to say it wasnt happening. The church could reject being in the poor areas and develop ways of helping people encounter faith in less circumspect ways, because they had people. And today, ‘having people’ and number of people attending a church service/festival/gathering/ecumenical meeting is all that matters. There is no value in a number, or even any problem that all the people are christians, and all from the ‘costa coffee’ end of the socio economic class, rather than the instant coffee in a polystyrene cup. In a culture of church survival and status decline, there is no point trying to waste resources on the ‘hard to reach’ – efficiency, control and quick wins to get a pioneer church, or fresh expression full and ‘twitterable’ is the key. Doesnt matter who comes to it.

Anyway back to Youth Ministry … when it really took off (Billy Graham im looking at you). It became even more regimented, resourced, controlled and with echelons of efficiency. If messages of the gospel were reduced to 4 statements, then participation was reduced to attendance, and regular ongoing attendance. There was no sense of ensuring that young people from working class background could participate in the christian faith, it was about how to make christianity attractive to those who can cope with the resources and structures of it, and to keep those in it from harm. Hence the christian faith sub culture and its festivals and events that charge people for an encounter with Jesus. It is about managing the conditions of faith.

Yes, but we put on all of these activities for young people surely that means they have to behave… its their fault, they are self excluding.’ If they cant see what we’re trying to do for them….. 

In a way it is not that there needs to be resources within youth ministry in order that it can be present and active in poorer areas, it is that to be able to do ministry in those areas is to abandon resources altogether. It is about being present to develop faith community in the space. Any attempt to shape what that might look like, to make it ‘valid’ or people to adhere, is either disrespectful, or white saviour complex. If our only strategy is to connect with people in working class estates and help them to do ‘our ways’ of church, then this restricts the performance to those who can access it.

Resources are not to blame, because they fit within a culture of programmes, events and teaching that has developed a non formal framework. They also fit within a church and schooling system that dominates the methods of learning, access and inclusion. What is fascinating currently is that whilst SU are hosting conversations about how to work with 90% of the population of young people that the church isnt working with, it is asking churches for whom have only their own programmes and experiences of working with the 10%. People in churches dont know how to connect with the 10% because in the main they havent been able to, or deliberately, or (or less deliberately) unintentionally used resources that have caused exclusion. The formation of disciples in working class estates, now that needs proper resourcing, structure and long term investment. If it is not volunteers with the right guidance and support (from people like FYT) or youthworkers with a 10 year contract, then anything hit and run, will crash and burn.

So, what i am saying is that forms of youth ministry deliberately advocate managing the delivery of youth ministry into those who can cope with structures and programmes and those who dont. By almost definition, those who dont will be rejected from the space, never to be seen again, and what that might leave through a process of elimination is a small group who might be able to cope within a group setting. To eventually become leaders and involved even further. Of course it is far more efficient to work with young people this way. Work with brightest and best. Those who became leaders of 1960/70’s youth ministry are still leaders in churches now.  Dramatical circumspection clearly worked. It is efficient, it controls the performance. It creates leaders in youth ministry.

Tell me again, the method that Jesus used to interact with those who ‘were lesser in society’?  It was availability, willingness to be interrupted, (Zaccheus/ woman bleeding/ Bartimeus) and being present in the space. Yes they may have followed, but they found him interruptable, they found him accessible. It was the disciples that sought to maintain control of the performance ( ‘tell them to go away’) . There is no other solution but availability, listening making faith something people can opt into on their terms.

Performance management leaves others behind. Cast aside. If that happened in one generation, then that legacy continues. In our churches we might moan that these estates have big families, they also have long memories. As church we might need to repair what might be the cause of why that family dont attend, due to an injustice when a young person (now the patriarch) was kicked out the youth club in the 1960s.

Thats why, aside from the pioneers who maintain a presence on the housing estates, and develop church from within (not from outside) we are in the situation Philip North described. But in youth ministry its been going on since the dawn of education, resources and programmes, in stages, stadiums and developing leaders. Accessing Faith becomes to intrinsically linked to being able to behave.

A follow up to this post is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-12Z and is much shorter, and describes how the outcomes in youth ministry reveal an exclusion of the poor. 


¹An introductory History of English Education since 1800, Curtis, Boultwood, University tutorial press, (1960)

Irving Goffman: The presentation of the Self in everyday life, 1960, penguin press

Goetchius & Tash: Working with the unattached, 1967

Brierley, Danny, All joined up, 2003, Scripture union

for more details of FYT, click here: http://www.fyt.org ,

As i pressed publish, i realise that most of the themes of this are in an earlier post ; Sorry young people, church we messed up: which is Here, it is a post which also includes research by Naomi Thompson on how the church abandoned young people: http://wp.me/p2Az40-44


3 thoughts on “Abandoning the poor isnt new, Youth Ministry has been doing it for 100 years.

  1. There ever was a golden age of packed Sunday Schools. Peter Briely pointed out that at irs pe ak it probably attracted less than 50% of school age children. The dramatic fall off was in the 1870s not the 1970s. It was when state education became obligatory.
    I could say much more. Good article James

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thats true, the history of education 1850-1920, gave some pretty startling figures of attendees of sunday schools/ragged schools, and you’re right the drop of was further back. Ill adjust the piece.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.