Was the golden era in Youth Ministry- ever that Golden?

Ahh, the good old days in youth ministry? remember them….

packed football stadiums..

delirious deepening their way to the UK charts..

ministries taking cities by storm…

when we used to ………

and people ran down their streets to come to church….

and the ‘sunday schools were full……. ‘

you name it, theres a golden era in church and youth ministry that we cling on to memories of..

For me, the 1990’s was when i was Christian young person fan boy. Whilst the world went Oasis or Blur Crazy, ‘The Cutting edge band’ or ‘DC Talk’ were on my radar. Thousands of young people like myself attended Soul Survivor, and its after hours parties, and its off shoots. By the end of the 1990’s gap year programmes were in their hey day, and the emerging scene of youth ministry academic training was about to take off. But growing up 1990s felt like a youth ministry hey day. And we were told that we would be a generation who would transform a nation. repeatedly. Other similar festivals were around, Harvest in the north east was attended by up to 1000 people, events at Newcastle city hall attracted more, and hosted Tony Campolo. So, for me these were a golden era. Because it was the era i was part of, and there was a positivity about them.

What about you- Was it the 1950’s? 60’s or 2000’s?

Theres often a ‘golden era’  about movements when they start.

The documentation about Sunday Schools in the 1770s and onwards is a case in point, as thousand upon thousand of children attended them in their first few decades and century.

The emergence of evangelistic rallies in the 1950s and 1960s also , again with large numbers, brings with it a rosy glow of an emerging movement from its outset. But even by then numbers in sunday schools had halved.

Various other organisations reached their peaks at different points. With many uniformed movements it was between the wars or just after. It was then that youth clubs were brimming too, with 50% of young people attending youth clubs in the 1950s, this was on the decline, so it was higher prior to this.

In detached youthwork, the peak time, at least it feels like it was in the 1970’s. This is when people developed it on estates and wrote about their stories. They had the stories to tell. Now mostly its only theory about detached work that is written, its lost its storied edge. Its not new.

Im not looking for bubbles only to burst them. However, the danger is that the golden eras can hold us back from enjoying the moments that we’re in. When actually they werent golden eras anyway. I remember being at some youth ministry event in the 1990s, it may have been soul survivor, and whilst people were talking about how great it was that 8,000 young people were there, some one said that there were 30,000 at a festival up the road for Muslim young people ( i think, but dont quote me it was a long time ago) .  It was a perspective check. Gathering 8,000 young people comprising of church youth groups, and their leaders, minibuses and cars is probably easy once the event is in the annual psyche. (though others sadly have tried and folded, Harvest in the North east being one of many)

But 8,000 young people. Or even the 130,000 who were attending sunday schools in the 1700’s and the rest, might feel like a golden era and large gathering. But theres more than 8,000 young people in one high schools of Hartlepool. And in a UK population of about 30 million in 1901, 130,000 attending sunday schools – may look large in each church setting, but its still not including an awful lot.

A few weeks ago, i though id write an insightful piece on how youth ministry has excluded the poor, if you didnt read it is here:  http://wp.me/p2Az40-12N  and followed it up with a piece that wasnt read at all, on the outcomes in youth ministry that also exclude,  http://wp.me/p2Az40-12Z     . On the second piece, someone responded to me saying that they had written a dissertation on this argument on youth ministry back in the 1980’s. It caused me to wonder, and realise that these similar conversations have been going on for a long time. But at the same time, there was that conversation about that statistic about young people leaving the church.  But its not even correct to think that youth ministry has excluded the poor. Its more that it created a bubble in which felt large, but were significantly fairly small. It wasnt ever about including many people, but making the few feel significant. So, were the golden days of youth ministry ever that golden? Movements may have risen and caught the imagination in a short period of time, and bubbles and pockets of youth ministry activity have fluctuated over the last 100 years or so.

Were the good old days ever that golden?  It depends who you ask… Ask anyone who isnt in the bubble about what effect youth ministry had on them, ask those in the working class estates, but it is not just them, ask the families in middle class estates who didnt do church, ask the wealthy families too. There may have been golden eras, but were they really that golden? we’re their practices really that impactful on the wider society?

Maybe if we do look back we dont regard the old days as golden eras quite so quickly. Maybe we dont get into a rush about replicating models and methods in the current day that might have felt like a golden era for us, but had little broader impact outside of the ‘us’. Maybe we keep the dream alive because we cant let go of the dream. And those in youth ministry keep perpetuating the same dreams, trying to bring the golden era back. It needs to dream of the faith spaces, faith congregations and faith that equips young people for the future, in 5 years time. And that means letting go of memories, and realising that new movements might actually be better anyway.

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust (www.fyt.org.uk) and Communities Together Durham (www.communitiestogetherdurham.org) 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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