A friend of mine said to me over the last few weeks ; ” James, I get what you say, in your writing and thoughts on youth ministry – but as a volunteer – how am I expected to put it into practice?”
The old saying goes ; ‘Be the change you want to be’ The other saying goes ; If it aint broke, dont fix it!
Making Changes within established patterns of youth ministry is one of the most difficult things to do, change requires a whole load of effort, and often is a prime source of conflict. When you try and change something in youth ministry, the change might affect a persons routine, practice, thinking and theology about how they do ‘youth ministry’ – and often the culture – which is the combination of actions, artefacts and beliefs – is already set. The sociologist Erving Goffman says that a new person being put into an existing role, in an existing culture is going to find it very difficult to do anything other than become moulded by the existing and work in accordance with it, being reactive, rather than challenging. In a previous situation i attempted to change the way young people took part in their youth group, from me doing it as their leader, to them participating in developing the programme, leading games, prayers, discussions and tuck shop, and after 6-12 months of this, and seeing how they grew in faith, you’d think it was established. Actually when i left, the adults as leaders took back over, and control again. And thats just one example, though i thought i had developed a practice, the broader culture of the particular situation defaulted back to what they knew once i had left. If you are only in a place for a year, ie a gap year student, there is stuff you can do ‘new’ but making significant change…?
Sometimes it is easier going somewhere new. But no where is completely new. Not really. There might be a new role on the table, but it exists with a church or organisation culture, within a local community culture and practices and habits.
When it comes to Managing changes, Fishers Diagram is helpful, as it tracks how people react to changes, and the change develops and situation goes on. How managing changes is about recognising anxiety, fear, threat and potential depression, guilt or/and gradual acceptance. And this can be in all manner of things in youth ministry, from how the young people cope with change in routine, the leaders, or changes in churches (*insert joke here about changes in churches)
In a way though, recognising that changes need managing is only half the scenario. The other is how do you actually make them?
The why fix the non-broken youth ministry is one reaction to change, especially if we evaluate something by young people enjoyment, rather than their participation in faith, or long term discipleship. The other, be the change you want to be is first recognising your own role in the upcoming change. It is worth trying to work out what that change is, putting it down in some kind of detail, working out who is affected, and what the risks might be. It might be that changing the age bands in youth group makes perfect sense to the leaders, but splits up all the peer groups, upsetting young people and causing them to leave, or finding a reason to leave. Other times you might not know what the risks are.
Lets say for an example that the young people in the group every summer go to Soul survivor. For the sake of argument it costs £175 per young person including tickets, travel and food.
And you decide that because there are some young people now attending the group for whom £175 is a price too high to pay for this kind of event that you decide that it isnt something that these new young people are ‘ready for’ or can afford, and so decide that this year the trip isnt happening. It may not seem it, but this might be a big change.
Big for some parents as they have been used to a week without their kids for a dead cheap amount
Big for some of the leaders who have also been doing soul survivor since they were teens
Big for some of the young people who have enjoyed it previously.
Big theologically, because part of the church culture has been annual christian festivals, like spring harvest and others, so by not going this has implications. As a leader making this sort of decision, you could be accused of denying some young people ‘their annual Jesus top-up’ by parents. (says something about the quality of discipleship the rest of the year… ;-)) It becomes a challenge to the way in which church is for them. Church as the warm up to festival Jesus, and back again.
This isnt in any way a dig at soul survivor. It is just an example of the effects of making changes about youth ministry, and from what angles the challenges may come.
So – how might you make changes in Youth Ministry?
Firstly, know what the change is. You may have read some new stuff about youth ministry, even here (!) and thought thats interesting information, i wonder what ‘asset based youth work’ or ‘treating young people as theologians’ might look like. What you are doing, even by reading this, is starting to reflect on your practice, and develop lifelong learning. Which is crucial. Otherwise, the ‘dont break what isnt fixed’ takes over. Or you’re ignorant of the options, because the hamster wheel of doing the same thing, over and over again, with different young people is what you’re on. With the result of young people still leaving the church, and many not being given an opt in to participate in it.
Secondly, from dipping your toe in the water, develop the ideas, by reading further, talking it through with a supervisor, colleague or line manager and see how the idea takes root. Reflect further but not alone. Line manager is important, you need people on your side.
Thirdly, Consult. Genuine consult. Pose it with the youth group as a question ; ‘ so, what if we didnt do Soul Survivor this year’ what are your thoughts (based on the example above) – yes you might consult the young people before their parents. Have a conversation in a way with young people, and/or volunteers that gives all parties opportunities to ask, critique and disagree, doing so healthily.
Even after this, the enacting of the change might still need to be done, which takes effort, no shortage of bravery and the desire to take a risk and be vulnerable. there could be alot at stake.
Think of the changes that could be more or less risky?
And there is more to it than just these things. Theres things like creating a vision, emphasising the benefits, planning and strategising. It is also worth remembering that change is a process and journey, which these graphs sort of help with.
Remember also, that you might be trying to make changes in a youth ministry setting which is in a context, like a church, which is like an elephant, it has a long memory, and resistant to making abrupt changes or doing them quickly. They say actions only take 7 occurrences to become habits, and then difficult to shift. Well think about how many sessions of youth groups or church meetings that your local church volunteers have been participating in. Any change might be gradual, so even try and work it out in steps. One of the best ways is through evaluation sheets/reviews, in some places it just a challenge to sit a review a session…
To make a change in youth ministry practice, id say is becoming very difficult. There are large players in the youth ministry game in the UK, that cause a gravitational pull into the type of faith and discipleship that young people in churches are implicitly drawn towards. Its charismatic, concert styled and linked very closely with entertainment. Its the pull of the large events and organisations, and the festivals and ‘youth services’. And whilst its popularity is fading, too many current church goers grew up in its culture to completely let go, and think – maybe something radically different is whats appropriate for young people today. It might be that the change you have to make in youth ministry is to resist this gravitational pull, and doing so reasons that might be both practical and theological, might even be putting the needs and gifts of young people first – or by instead taking the young people on a mission trip to ‘perform’ their faith – rather than keeping them be ‘learners’ of it… its not that you have to resist, but if and when you try to you might realise how strong it is. Being radical for Jesus might mean going against the gravitational pull of evangelical youth ministry.
Making and Managing change in Youth Ministry is never an easy thing, for the reasons above. Sometimes, you have just got to go for it, and make it happen. In the main it is better to be collaborative. People might resist change for a number of reasons. People might, once the change has happened realise that it is better this way and they should have changed all along. On other occasions people dont even know why they do things in a certain way, they just do. Its the way it was done to them, its the way they thought was best, and it might still be the case, other times it might be you who has to have the conversation and help them rethink and do something differently, and volunteers and young people need to be re educated, trained and also experience the change and adopt it.
But – from ideas to making changes in youth ministry practice – im sure theres 100’s of positive and also horror stories out there…
If you’re into pioneering youth ministry, then you’re on the lookout for the new thing, then shifting local culture, organisation or church is part and parcel of that change, managing change is never too far away, when the new approach in a new context is required.