Learning to improvise within Christian Youth work & Ministry.

One of the Key stereotypes of a youth worker is their underpreparedness. Turning up late for meetings, with no notes. Planning the youth group on the way there in the car, so that no one knows whats going on.  In the following video, there are a number of youth worker stereotypes, the ‘tardy’ youth worker is often the one that most people relate to.

On a good day the youthworker might be able to ‘get away with it’ and there are those who view this kind of approach as one that involves ‘where the Spirit leads’ – however, you dont need me to say quite how many issues there are with this. Yet, the stereotype exists because its still common. What an under-prepared youthworker might say is that they are improvising within their practice. I completely disagree. It is not improvisation to hope something happens just because you turn up into the space. Thats almost just lazy. Under-preparedness might lead to a form of spontaneity, but it does improvisation a disservice.

In thinking about Improvising in youth work & ministry, and its something I have written on before,

this post explores the churchs future as one that requires it: http://wp.me/p2Az40-B3 ,

and the following post talked about making the transition from scripted and programmed to improvised youthwork , and how this occurred for me in a personal way.

What I havent explored further is the notion of what improvisation is, what it isnt, and how this is helpful in developing work with young people. especially as it is something that it might be worth taking a short detour into the world of theatre, for this is obviously where Improvisation comes from. The following I am going to look at improvisation and what it reveals to think of it theatrically,theologically and sociologically, hopefully it will be of insight to you in youth ministry and working with young people. Some of this is from my dissertation which explored this theme in more detail, at least it looked at Performance as a metaphor for Youth Ministry.

Theatrical Improvisation

Theatrical improvisation recognises that maintained within every live performance, the actor is completely free in how they perform. For, despite knowledge of the script, directing by the actor and awareness of their cues of others- they can put the entire performance, from Shakespeare to Mamma Mia! in jeopardy should they in full freedom ignore all of these, make a rude gesture and storm off. Or if they do not make the proper preparations. And this is in a relatively tight performance – the actor will have cues from other actors, music cues, stage and lighting ones. They would need to be obedient to the director, and also raise their performance to accomodate the live audience.  Even with all of these, they are still free. Free that is within a relationship between themselves, the script and the director. One that they to maintain a performance adhere within, normally.

Jerzy Grotowski, amongst others, re-develops the notion of a poor theatre, not unlike the original interactive and community theatres. Saying that in a stripped back existance, theatre is just about an encounter between persons. He makes the claim that putting actors onto a stage with a scenario they have created, then their performance will be as good¹.  What Grotowski argues for is the development of skills for the actor so that they are able to improvise within this kind of open space of the stage. He uses the picture of the sculpture and the block of stone, saying that the rock already contains which is needed, it just need to be shaped. Rather than the artist and the empty easel. What improvisation is about is the revelation of the person within the situation. The real self. The actor in this type of ‘poor’ theatre who undergoes the processes of self discipline, sacrifice presentation and moulding throughout the improvisation process, and not afraid to take risks, attains a kind of moral authority and inner harmony and peace of mind, as opposed to the ‘rich’ theatre actor who maintains working through pretence.

For Augusto Boal “Improvisation is life” ², and though he does not reference Grotowski, he describes the interactive theatre as a space for the oppressed to protest, provoke and picture a new way of being. And suggests that there are series of games that can be played to enhance the skills of the actors as they improvise. He also recognises that interactive theatre breaks down the walls between stage and audience, all are potential performers, restricted only by personal choice, not social convention. (2008 edition , p111)

To improvise on the stage, there must still be a story, however it is created. Some kind of source material. And the persons involved must have some knowledge of it. The Audience may participate when they understand enough to also participate. If they have no idea of how to contribute, they remain passive. Often this is the young people bewildered by not knowing what is going on.

Theological Improvisation

As you might know (if youve been a follower of this blog for a while) the links between Theatre and Theology have become common, and a number of references to this are below. Both Samuel Wells, Wesley Van der Lugt and Kevin Vanhoozer make references to Improvisation in regard to the ongoing performance of Theology in the everyday. For Wells, Improvisation means to be on a continual process of accepting or rejecting the offers that are made by others within each interaction. For Vanhoozer, improvisation is what the church needs to do to be faithfully different and respond in each context. On an individual basis, to improvise is to use the cues and prompts in each context and faithfully act performances that are fitting to the context and the overall story of the Theodrama – that is the narrative of the Bible in 5 dramatic acts. These cues, include the  knowledge of God, the theodrama itself, the trinity, mission and ecclesiology – as well as the in the moment speaking and prompting of God – all given to the Human person in complete freedom to be obedient to the many cues. But what is also required is knowledge of the context, creation of a suitable stage/place in which audience participation is likely because trust is given.

Sociological Improvisation

Erving Goffman³, in thinking about persons in their interactions as akin to Theatre suggested that in the presentation of ones self in situations that ‘persons act better than they know how’ – that people because they have complexity have the capacity to act into a situation even if they have no knowledge of being in the same situation. Improvisation is possible, and needed. What is interesting about all of this, is that in 1967, youthworkers were saying something similar. For what George Goetchius and Joan Tash discovered is that they had to develop strategies of working with young people from the point of interaction, they improvised youthwork within the conversation. And so, this brings again to the fore the skill of the youthworker, to be aware of possibilities, questions, space and for the environment to be created in which, in interactions improvisation occurs.Image result for improvisation

No doubt it necessitates great skill to be able to improvise in the moment – but this is possible if in the space there is capacity for genuine conversations. Wesley Van der Lugt uses the term ‘Disponibility’, it means to be formed at the same time as performance, its not too dissimilar to ‘experiential learning’, and be attentive and ready in each moment to receive new information to make an action. It is a call to be ‘fresh’ in every situation. But it means that in the moment of improvisational acting that learning is occurring through the process. We might in youthwork say that we are disponible in the moments of interactions as we learn ‘in action’ reflection and act accordingly, but beyond this, in faith we might also act guided by a faith story that might be constructive, provocative and challenging as it suggest not just reactionary responses but ones that challenge societal status quo and other stories, and help young people become participants in a whole other drama, one of the way and movement of Jesus.

In the example above, in the clip, it all looks hurried as the teaching style is one of formality, one unrecognisable to the maybe more conversational/open style of many youth clubs, in that situation being unprepared is shown at its worst. Though an open session still needs preparation, maybe theres a theme, or opinions to be sought, maybe there’s something put in the environment to draw attention, a picture, notice or artwork. Items in the scene can affect the performance, as they act as stimulus for the improvisation, might as well make the most of them.

So, improvising in youth work and ministry – its distinctly better than under preparedness. It involves being formed to hone in on the cues and being obedient in the midst of the interaction, to ask questions, take risks and explore with young people in the space. Being courageous to go to a new place where they might lead in conversation to where neither have been before. The young people become the key actors in the scene we may have created, and we take a step back to watch and learn, listen and guide them to be attentive to the same cues.

There may be some offers we reject, some we accept, it depends on what kind of performance each session of improvised youth work might take. We need to be skilled and prepared to improvise, being led by young people, directed by the Spirit and the Story and free to be obedient to the voices of God prompting in the midst.

Instead of under-preparedness, an improvising youth worker might need the following ‘skills’ in the toolkit for performing youth work in this way.

  1. Creating the right kind of space – think like jazz- a space where young people can ‘riff’ themselves in conversations, and where interjections by us are acceptable
  2. Having a bank of questions, and tools for conversations, that allow for tangents and flow
  3. Being able to pick up cues, being discerning, and aware than there are competing motives.
  4. Have thought ahead to creating possibilities that questions often ask of young people – so if we ask ‘if 4 of you were in a group to do something to change the local area’  its worth thinking ahead with a ‘bank’ of resources that might help the process, or space for young people to lead it,  resources that may or may not be needed. Its like having a full picnic of goodies, but not necessarily needing them all.
  5. It is building the discernment to be able to accommodate offers of young peoples interruptions into the overall ‘play’ (of Gods redemption and reconciliation- not just ‘this youth group’) – and having the skill to be accommodating and use it as a marker along the way. This takes skill. Not every interruption by a young person is meant to be disruptive, often its a misguided cue of someone who might want to join in the action. Think audience to actor.
  6. Trust in conversation – but as informal educators we should know this already – believe that young people are shapes fully created that need moulding, not empty vessels to be filled.
  7. Go to each conversation fresh with possibility, each moment with a young person has meaning, and life.

As Vander Lugt affirms, Improvisation is a culture making endeavour, culture making is an ongoing process of implicit and explicit actions, of crafting and enacting a script for the drama of existence, it is what we all participate in in daily life. We create culture with the space of youth work, in every interaction, session and moment, and this requires us to be disponible, and ready to improvise.


¹Grotowski, Jerzy, Towards a poor Theatre, 1968

²Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed, 1974

³Goffman, Erving, The presentation of the self in everyday life, 1970

George Goetchius, Joan Tash ; Working with the unnttached youth; 1967.

Wesley Van der Lugt – Living Theodrama, 2014,

Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Samuel Wells Improvisation , 2004

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