Maybe in an outcomes focussed culture, it’s pioneering to visualise only the way.

I was out running the other day a combination of getting fit, and winter training. I have have a number of routes around the edge of Hartlepool, nearly all are loops of some kind. Apart from the first few runs, most of the time now I start by heading left out my house, up the main road and then I have several options which I decide when I get there what I do next.

The other day my mind as I was running took me back to cross country running when I was at high school, we sent all team of runners including me to a destination somewhere in Leicestershire, to compete with others in our age group. We’ d leave early to arrive early on a saturday morning to the venue, via a long coach ride which was probably less than 20 miles from south leicestershire to somewhere else south east or west leicestershire. The reason to arrive early was so our little 12 year old legs could walk around the course ( a feat in itself) before we then embarked on running the course.

From memory, Burbage common had the woods and stiles, Hinckley had the ditch – (did you jump it or step it and get one foot wet?) , either way it was at the beginning of the course and there was no waiting at the time, shepshed was embankments (i think) but i dont remember any of the others. I just remember that there was something to be gained about visualising a route. Even if it meant getting up at the crack of dawn to get there early. I hear that many tour de france riders do the routes by cars often. The same maybe for marathon runners, though there’s no advantage if everyone knows the route but a disadvantage if you don’t in those examples. It’s even more needed in rally car racing.

When the apostle Paul says to ‘run the race’ he doesn’t refer to the exact route, neither does it seem as though he visualises either the route, or the destination. Just the prize. Knowing an outcome is big business. Whats the point in having church or business vision or strategy if it isn’t accompanied by what it is meant to achieve? Outcomes orientated funding and strategusing took over youth work practice to one of its downfalls. Outcomes predetermined, rather than negatived practices through relationships shifted the power dynamics in youthwork.

Many of the time under the guise of organisation survival and effectiveness. But as Giroux would argue; reducing the education process within youthwork to one where a young person is merely a consumer. We need to know the outcome before we start. Then we need to justify why it didnt work out. Or lie and say otherwise. That’s not every practice of youthwork, and some youth ministry that has institutional outcomes might be the same.

Step forward the church. Step forward practices of faith. Leave behind trying to visualise the route and outcome and faithfully take cues and prompts from the context.

Goetschius and Tash said it was about strategising from the point of contact.

Freire says it’s about ‘making the road by walking’

Two disciples after Easter sunday could visualise their 7 mile walking route south of Jerusalem. What they didn’t plan for was Jesus interrupting and them choosing a new path. . And to run the route back. (Luke24) When Jesus told the disciples to go two by two, it was to a place and find and welcome. It’s what he showed them with the samaritan woman (John 4) , it’s what Paul does when he meets Dorcas. There is something unpredictable in both these scenarios.

Visualise the route? Maybe only Jesus could.

What if we cant visualise the route – whats the alternative? feeling it as we go? taking all thats required.

My Dad was a bit like that, his Van was full of tools whenever he turned up at a plumbing or heating job, he’d never know what he might need till he found it, that was until he would get some of his tools nicked from a full van. However, having plenty of tools ready, just in case, is no bad thing, putting tools in the box is what we talk about in Here be Dragons ( see above link), tools that might never get used.

Jesus talked about taking tools too, but not to overcrowd the van with equipment- travel light– the real tools are to spot the people who offer hospitality, who have gifts willing to give and share, and be a good guest in the house. Sometimes when I am tasked with a lecturing job, or training opportunity, I do the same visualisation process, Its something I learned from Training to Train courses, and something to do to that i used to need to overcome nerves and pre public speaking panicking. Not that i dont still get nerves. But Visualising what, where and how something might happen is a positive skill- especially in those moments.

When Pioneering, or in Youthwork (same difference at times) – is it possible to visualise the outcome? or better to visualise the way? The theological position that Vanhoozer urges is that theology is one of many prompts in the midst of the action, and God’s voice is another. We are still free agents to respond as it is an act of obedience in the moment.

We do visualise the way, it’s the way of hope, love and goodness and create pathways for young people to participate in the same. What we can’t do is visualise the route, that’s what faith is for… But its counter to outcome funding culture, counter to institution saving through strategy culture.

It’s why improvising the route might be pioneering in this culture.

References

Paulo Freire – we make the road by walking

Goetschius & Tash – working with the unattached

Vanhoozer , The drama of doctrine.

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Should Youth Discipleship be regarded as performative pedagogical practice?

One of the dangers, writes Giroux, of modern educational practice set within a global economy that has economic growth as its driving force is that it has involves even more so a

‘narrow pedagogy, memorization, high stakes testing and helping students to find a good fit within a market -orientated culture of commodification, standardization and conformity’

Giroux wasnt writing this that long ago. As a result; Young people, writes Giroux further, ‘are treated as customers and clients rather than a civic resource, whilst many poor young people are simply excluded from the benefits of a decent education through the implementation of zero tolerance  policies that treat them as criminals to be contained, punished or placed under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system’. (Giroux, On critical Pedagogy, 2011)

Over the last few weeks I have written a number of pieces on young people and participation within the church, and I am thankful to the few of you who have read and shared them widely. Quite expectantly, one of the key tools to think about participation has been Harts Ladder of youth participation, which i have now shared twice, and i do so without apology again here.

Image result for hart's ladder of youth participation

However, whilst participation is a key aspects to how young people interact with agencies and establishments, from Giroux, critically young people can be little more than consumers in their role in the school, and probably barely on rung 2-3 at all. Developing a culture of youth participation in schools can only be achieved if it is part of what drives to actions of a school towards its funding expectations, including its Ofsted reports and league tables, none of which barely mention young people as participants in the overall ‘Good/Outstanding scale’ – So if its not measured and idealised as an outcome, it will barely feature as significant, in the rigorous testing and managerial culture of the school. Being run as a business within the global economy and with spending targets to boot. However, this is a sidetrack to a question about young people and participation, and more so about discipleship as a pedagogy.

I wonder, when reading the quotation from Giroux above, did you think about how young people are discipled in church and youth ministry?

Last year, I heard a seminar by Jo Dolby who had done an academic piece of work on Discipleship. Within it she referred to the definition of discipleship that arrived from the greek word ‘Mathetes’ , which literally means, to be involved in the process of ones own learning. Discipleship seems to involve an ongoing process that involved the learner and teacher as an ongoing process. Jo pointed to a number of aspects of discipleship based from the culture of discipleship in Jesus’ time that were provocative and counter cultural. She shared these things at last years Streetspace national gathering, a write up for which and the flipcharts on discipleship are here: Streetspace Gathering 2017

But Mathetes and discipleship as an ongoing process of learning. Interesting…

One definition of Pedagogy is :  The method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept. (From The online Oxford dictionary) , Pedagogy is often used in educational practice as seen above. It is less well used in Faith Based discipleship conversations. Discipleship is less seen as educational, and more formational. At least that is the common language within churches in regard to discipleship, formation and authentic practices.

 Though forming, as Root goes on to say, has been thought of in not a neo-liberal vacuum (Root doesnt talk about this at all) but in a secular age, which values Authenticity. Formation has become another buzzword for educational group work that hopes desperately to keep young people within an institution (pages i-xiv).

Churches have become no better or different than schools. Where the schools curriculum is bent towards the market. Churches have been hoodwinked into reductionist programmes of survival. Reductionist in that they hope to keep young people, having only avoiding worst case scenario to hand. If Root is to be believed, though i think the British context is different, churches have turned to youth to keep their own authenticity intact, for being youthful is a sign of authenticity in todays western culture. What Root lacks in his prognosis is the effect of neo-liberalism, power, control and education within his analysis, though what he strives for is a rethink of formation, doing so without a huge mention of discipleship, though with one that calls for increased awareness of divine action, and young people as participants beyond just the institution (p191-194)

Will an understanding of Discipleship as Pedagogy help? Again, Root will probably say no, i think. Though in an age where youth participation is lessening in schools, then at least the church might offer something distinctive if discipleship was a process of ongoing collaborative learning. Discipleship as ongoing learning that also including aspects of divine action, and also performance might be closer to what is required. A quick aside, when Vanhoozer diagnosed American Youth Ministry and the church as a whole with the MTD disease that Smith Identified, his cure was to uphold Theology and also the Drama of doctrine in the ongoing actions of Human performance ( Vanhoozer, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding) for him, limited doctrinal knowledge was the pre-curser to the God that makes me feel good attitude prevalent in MTD. How might a performative pedagogy that enabled the ongoing learning of Christian doctrine help within Youth Ministry?

Wesley Vander lugt suggests that Formation and Performance are intrinsically linked. There is limited use for one without the other, performance reveals formation, and vice versa. (Vander lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014). The process of learning, of formation within youth discipleship might benefit from how its ongoing pedagogical practice is performative and in doing so reveals, and helps young people embody theology in the world, being more that participants within faith institutions.

In the same way, Giroux and Root have at their heart the sense that pedagogy and discipleship are for the same ends, the flourishing of humans within the flourishing of local communities, Root suggest that the church is the only collective society that is for personhood itself ( p207), and as Giroux above indicates pedagogy of persons is, at its most ambitious :

‘is to educate students to lead a meaningful life, learn how to hold power and authority accountable and develop the skills, knowledge and courage to challenge common sense assumptions while being willing to struggle for a more socially just world‘ (Giroux 2011, p7).

Discipleship as prophetic pedagogy? It may be that the church, if it can think of youth discipleship as a process of helping young people lead a meaningful life (and not just conformity to institution) then it might have something to give and contribute in society with young people who do get ‘left behind’ but also who are in the system and struggling to cope. But discipleship as a pedagogical practice, that forms disciples to lead meaningful lives for the greater good, and gives them keys to understand their place in the world, to enable it to flourish, and challenge structures of power. How might churches do this – let make them places of welcome, and places where young people create hope, and places where young people are ministers of it in their world.

References

Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy, 2011

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2004

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

Van der Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014

 

10 mistakes that hinder youth ministry that can be changed!

I imagine you have heard the old joke:

How Many Youthworkers does it take to change a lightbulb?

100

why 100?

Well its 1 of them to change the lightbulb and 99 to write papers on coping in the darkness.

As I thought a little about this, I wondered whether there are other aspects of youthwork and ministry that we as youthworkers might be as guilty of, that at the same time as youthworkers we have to capacity to change.

  1. Proclaiming the darkness, without trying to change the lightbulb (something I wrote about here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1c7)
  2. Over Egging our own pudding things like : ‘Yes, church leader, get a youthworker with (insert organisation name) and we’ll be bringing the young people into church by the thousands, we are the answer to your problem’.
  3. Under egging our own pudding, things like ; ‘This was nothing to do with the youthworker, it was all God, or all the young people’- sometimes we do need to allow ourselves positive feedback, as often no one else might do. Its an unhealthy thing not to take some positive credit for our calling, ministry and actions in the moment, blaming ourselves for the crap moments (or others) and yet deferring every positive to God is really unhealthy.
  4. Making Youthministry Amazing again. Blowing our own trumpet is one thing, using the word amazing to describe it, as an enticement for others on the starting point – when at the same time the budget cuts and long term sustainability in the role is truly awful. It is not an amazing thing all the time, and can we use other adjectives in job descriptions instead of ‘exciting’…
  5. Not looking after ourselves. This time last year I wrote alot on self care in ministry (check out the articles in the search engine) but in a ministry where our satifasfaction is usually to help and support others we can neglect ourselves, boundaries, time and other relationships, let alone health, exercise and spiritual inner life. We can do something about this, by managing ourselves.
  6. Dropping the books post college; Ongoing reflective practice with young people demands that we keep ourselves sharp. If we want young people to have a deep faith, deep experience of life then they need to see that in us too. We need to equip ourselves with knowledge and believe that thinking and reading is important. If a fall back is to keep things simple for them, because its all we can cope with then, young people will find somewhere else to find depth. Without maintaining reading we have less to fall back on, and brains that start going stale.
  7. Liking our Hero status too much in our own Ministry; A level of ‘expert power’ is likely to be transferred from others to the lead worker, the professional or paid person who has arrived with great fanfare to spin the deep magic and rescue the church/young people. It is likely to be transferred as it is almost normal. As youth workers can we guilty of liking our hero status too much? When this gets in the way of young people or volunteers being participants, or developing the skills and opportunities for others. Or holding onto more jobs that we need to, so that we can be heroic…
  8. Only being critical, and not being constructive. It is easy working out what we dont want to do, what we dont want to be, how we’re not like others who work with young people, how we might see young people differently to others, how we’re not liberal, or not prosletysing, or not a short term fix, or not shallow or complicated – this is easy, and we , and i include myself (critical/satirical blogs get higher views, constructive theological ones dont) in this – but constructive pathways encourage others to join in, critical ones turn others off. We have something to say, we have a way of working that is positive and values young people, we are to dream and pursue a positive dream (even in the midst of the darkness, or where others dont see it) .
  9. Believing Bigger is better- and draining in expectation- Once we start playing the numbers game, its the numbers game that people will judge us on, once young people stay consumers and us entertainers (see my posts on participation) then the responsibility is on us to entertain, attract, grow and that pressure is immense and without a cure, except burn out and spinning a hamster wheel that is tiring. And then when youthworkers talk and proclaim ministry, numbers can be the core definer. This is also linked to the comparison trap, your young people and group need not be compared with others.
  10. Blaming everyone else, As Naomi Thompson in young people and the church since 1900 highlighted, there can be a tendency for churches to defer responsibility, and so as youthworkers in the church this can also be the case. Its the parents fault, its the elders fault, its the schools fault, its Gods fault (because I prayed), when all the time, its my line managers fault, ‘everyone else needs to ‘get’ what Im doing’. We need to be more self aware and take responsibility, and actually our poor practice or reliance on methods or decision making is our responsibility, sometimes we cant blame others, but when youthworkers get together, there can be a collective blame thing going on.

Some of these might be common in other ministries, especially the numbers game, and possibly even the limited positive feedback. Culturally every ministry role in the church times or other publication is being described as ‘Amazing’ or ‘Exciting’ so its not just the youthworker problem this. As youthworkers, and ministers we do need to look after oursleves, but also have agency an responsibility to enact some of the changes we want to make, challenge where necessary and develop new cultures of working where we can.

Regaining transcendence in Youth Ministry

Ian Paul reflections on labyrinths reminded me of an unfinished blog post that I started last year. You might want to read Ian post, it is here https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/why-is-life-like-a-labyrinth/

At the Frontier Youth Trust staff retreat in early December we made the most of the snowy weather by heading out into the Staffordshire countryside on a snowy afternoon with a walk in the snow. True to the pioneer approach of FYT we did some of this walk following our nose and not Google maps. Looking for the cues and trusting in a sense of direction. Aside from muddy feet when we misjudged the softness of ground underneath our feet and snow we made it back.

Around the back of the farmhouse, was a flat ish piece of garden, covered in snow. With a bit of planning two of us turned a blank white sheet into a labyrinth.

Just before it got dark. (It was nearly the shortest day) we each spent time within the homemade route. Moving from outside to in, hearing the still crunch of snow on our feet, hearing the silence of the outside and birds chirping not far away, and focusing on the moment.

It was my first experience with a labyrinth.

And whilst I could give the impression it was an amazing experience. The amazing experience was had by the others who reflected on the profoundness of the experience afterwards, made more so because we had made the space ourselves. But I had to admit though I tried to be present in, to pray, to reflect, to give space to God in it. It was a real struggle.

It is only today that I have began to think that part of my own problem with this has been an acceptance on my own part towards the deconstruction spirit of the age. Call it a personal fear of the trancendancy of God and that divine action might be plausible and credible. Don’t misheard me, it’s not a lack of belief, more a lack of belief or vulnerability to the notion that God might still act or speak. In Andrew Root book he articulates this as part of a process of the secular age, and the current age of authenticity based on Charles Taylor.

It might have been that I couldn’t ‘switch off’ and let God be. It might have been that I didn’t want to. But there’s a broader point that the labyrinth reveals to me, is to wonder where the transcendent reality of Gods divine action might occur in our Youth work and ministry? For there could be a temptation to strategise, merchandise or franchise God in youth ministry practices, reducing God to programme,even prayer as a strategy, or singing in churches as as ‘warm up’ or because it’s it’s a ‘theme’. All examples where transcendent is reduced, because it’s not believed in or credible perhaps. We might also live in an age, writes Root, that the transcendent is easy to write off, as ’emotional’ or manipulated by bass drums.

So it becomes more difficult to believe in the transcendence, to incorporate spaces of divine action within ministry, giving young people a viable connection with the God they may already pray to. It’s a transcendence that as Ministers makes our role unique. Yet whilst we’re trying to minimise the damage or leakage of young people out of churches, it might just be that opening the possibility of transcendence into youth ministry might make it a theological and profoundly constructive task again in the formation of and performing of disciples who follow a call, action and way.

The next day. The snow had gone. There was only a short window of opportunity to do our labyrinth. That sacred space was temporary.

And I’m not sure how long the grass will have this funny pattern.

Let make the transcendance part of youth ministry, especially if it is temporary , unplanned and initiated by the young people. Like my own experience, it might not ‘work’ for everyone every time. But our ministry isn’t about what works, it’s about cultivating faith.

Growth in winter

Over the last few years I have begun to do a bit of gardening. Yes the dreaded 4-0 is heading my way soon. I can’t remember how it started, but I knew I couldn’t grow anything or plant anything in the garden as the dog would destroy it. So I decided upon getting a whole load of plastic planters and filling them with compost.

I didn’t realise the satisfaction of eating stuff that I had grown. The first year I managed to grow tomatoes, though most were green, the second and third years I have planted salads, spring onions and lettuce, herbs, betroot, and enjoyed the season of planting out in the spring to see how things would take shape over the summer. Last year I was given a chilli plant cutting which, in my sunroom yielded over 100 chillis and from them

Made chilli jam and sweet chilli sauce, as well as chutney from the apples on the trees. This autumn I wanted to keep the process going, instead of waiting until spring to try and grow from seed I’ve planted bulb instead. And so, over the coldest of winter days, darkest of days, there has been signs of movement and growth, as two stable crops in my kitchen have begun to grow. Garlic and onions, (to go with the now cut back and ready to grow again chilli)

In the darkness and cold, life can still occur, it’s hardly least expected on one hand as the instructions said to plant them in autumn. But there’s been growth in the winter, and 19 onion shoots are taking effect, as are the shoots from 3 garlic bulbs.

There are parallels here. Of course, I have been reading Leonardo Boff reflections on St Francis, who says that the place of the periphery and small is the place where Jesus is to be found. More likely dancing in the darkness and pointing towards the light. With the marginalised. Faith in unexpected places and growth from those encounters.

It is possible to plant in autumn and winter, it just needs to be more hardy a bulb and not a feeble seed. It is noticeable that Jesus farmer did not sow bulbs, bulbs that almost guarantee growth, (Though I’m not a gardener so don’t assume any real knowledge here) at least growth in winter. The talk of the town is of a difficult place, a cold place to be christian. In that case, it’s bulbs that need planting in winter. Faith that has a hardiness to cope. Seeds on the surface are unlikely to survive. But growth is possible in winter.

Is the church obsessed with working out what ‘age’ we are in, and does it matter for mission anyway?

Over the next few weeks I will be reading the following book by Andrew Root, Faith formation in a Secular Age. Andrew is one of the USA’s key thinkers and writers in Youth Ministry. However, it seems as though it has become significant to herald and pronounce what kind of age were are living in, try to understand what it is and then in so doing be able to do ministry that we have is being as relevant as possible.

Back in 1996 when I was doing a gap year with Oasis, the talk of the town was ‘Post-Modernism’ , Generation X and the shift in culture from Baby Boomers and Modernist thinking.

Then there is the other posts. The Post-christendom age, Post Modernist, and maybe even Post-truth.

Lesslie Newbigin suggested that The Gospel was needed to be rooted in a Pluralist Society.

Then there is the word ‘Secular’ – and this is common. I am not sure I go a week that someone in church, in an article or on social media poses a question that refers to the current age as being secular.

However, as Linda Woodhead, and others suggest – The Secular age might be behind us. It is just that other things are taking on religious meaning. And religious adherance is on the rise. (but not always church attendance). Secularity might be coming to an end, this was some of her thoughts in this book: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Spiritual-Revolution-Spirituality-Szerszynski-Wiley-Blackwell/dp/B00G09S68S/ref=sr_1_23?ie=UTF8&qid=1516652265&sr=8-23&keywords=linda+woodhead

Understanding the ‘age’ and ‘stage’ of the world, seems to be the obsession of the missiologists. In ‘Transforming Mission’ David Bosch refers to Christendom, Rationalism, and the emergence of a Post Modern Paradigm in which Mission is to take place, but give him his due, Bosch is more concerned with the nature of Mission rather than the world in which mission is to be inculturated. But it seems, that especially in Youth Ministry, there is much more time spend understanding the ‘age’ than reflecting theologically on Mission itself. From Generation Y, to Millienials and back again. John Drane talks about ‘Evangelism in a ‘new age’.

In such a Post-Christian, Post-Christendom world, new approaches to church, youthwork and mission were deemed required (Nigel Pimlott, Stuart Murray et al). It seems as if the doing the right kind of mission is pre-determined by understanding the right kind of ‘age’ that we are in. I am awaiting to read what Root has to say about Faith formation in a secular age, i might also not know how he defines secular, although a cursory look in the introduction and a plethora of common themes emerge, MTD, the rise of the Nones, ‘spiritual but not religious’ and ‘declining church’ all seem to be lined up read for use as evidence.

There is a book in Youth Ministry called ‘Starting Right; Thinking Theologically about youth ministry’  and i wonder whether the church and youth ministrys obsessions with correct pronouncement of the current age, have distracted from the task of starting right in doing mission. The words like Post this and post that, secular this and relativist that act to put people off doing mission in the first place. Starting right might be less about understanding the age, than observing the context by being in it, and never stopping being curious and learning from it, within it. Starting right involves less pronouncing and more presence. For, no one who is met in the local shop, or on the streets considers themselves to be ‘living in an age’ at all, many are just living day to day. The right starting point for acting like Jesus is to act like Jesus would ask of us, go, listen, find and find a place of welcome, or be a place of welcome for others. For, we can only be Jesus in the small place of the local community anyway, so every local church need not worry about the age, but just be personal and present in the space. Know the culture and context, and learn what it is like.

It need not need an announcement of the ‘age’ to know what goodness, love and charity look like, neither what peace, joy and hope are. As church in mission, we might follow the gentle example of St Francis and his simple life, in an ‘age’ of materialism (or we might join in and spend lavishly on church buildings/Ministries), in an age of Social media we might join in to be relevant, communicative, or be prophetic against it.

But theologically, what age might we be living in? In a way thats what the 5 act Theodrama helps us with, we are in the closing age of the fourth act, of Gods acting on the stage of the world through the church before the coming of the King. Theologically God is on the move through his Spirit, it is this age and stage that is more crucial, surely…

What is this age- the world asking of the church? It doesnt matter. It is what the people who live in local communities near to local churches think that is. A globalised world needs churches to act justly and lovingly locally.

Might the church be as obsessed by ascertaining the ‘age’ as it could be about being loving locally?

References

Bosch, D Transforming Mission, 2011 (2nd ed)

Boff, Leonardo, St Francis, A model for Human liberation

Dean, et al Starting Right, thinking theologically about youth ministry 

Drane, John, Evangelism for a New Age

Newbiggin, Lesslie, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Pimlott, N, Youthwork Post Christendom 

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age

 

10 Questions with Natalie Collins: On Young People, Sex and Domestic abuse

I caught up with Natalie, after following her on twitter for the last few years via God_loves_women , after I had drafted a post on young people and sex that I was going to publish. After being in conversation she suggested, and I realised that I had much to learn on this subject, and that our conversation might provoke, challenge and help others who work with or who are parents of young people. This is a candid transcript that includes conversations about sex, sexual behaviour and young people, you have been warned.

So, Natalie, my first question; where did your passion to develop a ministry around the issues of sex and young people emerge from?

Well, I was once a young person.  I like to think I still am (I’m 33, so probably still pass for young in the Anglican church).  Growing up in Christian culture was both awesome and hideous.  It meant being part of a big family, with bring and share lunches and lots of love and fun.  However, it also led to me developing a whole lot of toxic ideas about sex, relationships, my body and gender.  At 17 I ended up in a relationship with an abusive guy, and after being manipulated into sex, I felt horrified about having betrayed Jesus and concluded the only way to resolve it was to marry him.  Within six months I was pregnant, and at eighteen I married him.  Four years later and he had almost destroyed me and I escaped him after he assaulted me when I was pregnant and my second child was born three months premature.  The dramatic nature of my journey is perhaps unusual, but the mess caused by purity culture, porn culture, gender stereotypes and complementarian theology has impact generations of young people, to a greater or lesser extent.

  1. What are the kind of activities/programmes that you do as part of your ministry in this area?

A decade ago I wrote the DAY Programme (www.dayprogramme.org) and since then have trained over 300 practitioners using it across the UK and the Isle of Man.  Last November I trained a group to use the materials out in Cape Town which is really exciting!  I have written a Christian version of the programme too which includes material on critiquing Christian culture and theology. I’ve also written national resources on child sexual exploitation and create materials for children and their parents to understanding pornography (see here: http://www.dayprogramme.org/creepynakedstuff.htm).  I also deliver training on these issues to practitioners, churches and other interested people.

 

  1.  What would you say are the key issues that young people face regarding sex, especially young people linked to churches?

The issues sit at two ends of the same spectrum.  On one end is wider culture, in which pornography consumption is normal; girls and boys are being shown via pornography that you finish sex with a “facial” (ejaculating on the female’s face), that anal sex is clean and easy and that women want to be degraded and violated, and that turns them on.  They are taught by adverts that women are sexual objects, which comes across in girl’s pouty Instagram photos, and boys are taught to be aggressive and are rarely given emotional literacy.  Young people think they have to be having sex, and have no framework for good sex or intimacy.

For young people in the church, they also have purity culture to reckon with.  Within this framework they are taught that their virginity is precious (particularly girls) and that they have to save in until marriage.  They are told masturbation is VERY BAD.  For girls, whose sexual organs are internal, this is particularly problematic as there is no healthy way of them gaining literacy of their own bodies.  Often girls become ashamed of their sexuality and genitals.  It’s different for boys, the external nature of their genitals enables them gain a more natural understanding of arousal and sex, simply because there’s a visible erection.  The church’s obsession with the nuclear family presumes that all young people are on a trajectory for marriage (even though there aren’t enough Christian men in the church to make that work) and so girls are presumed to be waiting for marriage and babies.  The lack of female leaders in the church leaves girls with implicit messages that their call is always to wife and motherhood.

72% of girls will be emotionally abused by a boyfriend by the age of 16 in the UK and 32% will be sexually abused (NSPCC stats).  Young people are not being socialised or taught how to have respectful, positive relationships.  Boys are growing up believing they are entitled to get what they want from girls.  Girls are often socialised to be passive and not assert boundaries or their own rights.  They are taught their value is in the boy/man they are in a relationship with.  The church perpetuates these message through a focus on marriage and babies.

  1. Do you think it is more difficult for young people involved in churches to deal with their sexual feelings, identity, development and exploration? (As opposed to young people not in churches)

I’m not sure it is more difficult.  I think it is different, and the risks are different.  For churched young people, sexual dysfunction will often involve a great deal of shame and guilt around sex which can last long into adulthood (and sometimes forever).  Many women particularly feel hugely betrayed by the church when they get married and discover sex is painful and makes them feel bad.  They were told that waiting will lead to mind-blowing beautiful sex and instead they feel constant shame and can’t switch off the strategies they developed to avoid pre-marital sex.

For those outside the church, they are perhaps having sex earlier than is helpful.  The recent story about Aziz Ansari and “Grace” and the New York Time’s short story “Catperson” reveals that those outside of Christian culture are navigating a whole load of messy situations.  They have been told they are powerful and sexually liberated, but discover that men still hold most of the power and they end up constantly trying to navigate their own needs, the men’s needs and the fear of what those men may do if they are rejected.

As you can see I’m talking mainly about the issues for girls and women.  I think it is much easier for men, both within Christian culture and outside of it.  The presumption in Church is that men want to have sex and that must be managed.  The presumption for women is that they don’t like sex.  At one Christian event a couple of summers ago, the man leading the seminar about sex told the gathered Christians that when women are having sex “they’re thinking about their shopping lists”.  Men (both inside and outside the church) are conditioned to believe that their sexual needs are of greater importance than women’s and so that leads them to behave in damaging and unhelpful ways.

  1. When I was growing up I was forced to watch ‘oranges are not the only fruit’ (as part of A level English studies) which detailed how a church tried to ‘remove demons’ from a young person when they were accused of being a lesbian. This seemed an extreme form of spiritual abuse linked to sexuality, but do you think that today there might be unhealthy approaches to talking about sex with young people, that could also be harmful?

We’ve eradicated certain illnesses (e.g. TB), but that doesn’t leave us presuming health issues are not a problem anymore.  In fact, we have seen increases in other health issues (e.g. cancer).  It’s the same with issues around sex and relationships.  We have this idea that things are a lot better now, reparative therapy for LGBT people is generally no longer acceptable, women can work, vote and have independent lives.  Things have improved.  But that can make us oblivious to the continued issues we face, many of which have become worse in digital culture.

I would say that for youth practitioners in the church, some of the harmful things they need to be aware of include:

  • Gender stereotyping (boys can you move the chairs, girls can you do the washing up)
  • Perpetuating neurosexism (boys are visual, girls are not)
  • Placing greater sexual responsibility onto girls (girls’ need to wear clothes that don’t cause boys to “stumble”)
  • Unrealistic abstinence teaching (just don’t think about sex, the end)
  • Making the only criteria for a potential partner their Christian faith (as long as he’s washed in the blood, then that’s enough)
  • Presuming marriage and children are the trajectory all young people are on
  • Treating masturbation as always sinful, compulsive and addictive
  • Making young people feel their virginity is the most valuable thing about them
  • Using terms like “tainted”, “defiled”, “dirty” to describe the effect of having premarital sex
  • Not making sexual violence a core part of any talk/session/resource about sex and relationships
  • Ignoring the different degrees of harm between consensual sex and being subjected to sexual violence
  • Not making wider relationships, including friendships an integral part of conversations about sex
  • Presenting sex as a worse type of sin than other sins
  1. If there are unhealthy approaches, what do you think a healthy approach is to sex and young people?
  • Young people need to know they own their bodies and that they have actual choices to make about sex and relationships and that if something doesn’t feel like a choice, they need to be seeking help to understand why.

  • They need to be taught to critique culture and recognise the messages co-opting them into particular ways of thinking (e.g. why do girls feel they have to shave all their pubes off? Why do boys feel they can’t cry in public?).

  • By giving them the skills to know God for themselves, and relate with Him, we need to get to a point where we can trust them to hear from God about how to be (or not be) physical with their partner.

  • We need to contextualise the Bible’s messages about sex (and about everything!) and enable them to understand that there are different ways of understanding the Bible, and that there is often ambiguity where they’ve been taught surety.

  • We need to stop pretending that abstinence guarantees awesome married sex. We need to be honest with young people about how messy it can be.  We also need to critique cultural narratives about sex and talk with them about how hookup culture can also be really damaging.

  • We need to provide role models for them of adults who are happily single and those who don’t have kids, and perhaps invite those people in to talk about how the church has been hurtful and difficult and (with the single people) how they deal with their sexual desires.

  • We need to be totally comfortable with talking about sex, we need to be literate about sexual organs and sexual acts that the young people will be familiar with (Urban Dictionary will help with this).

  • We need to tell them that it is all really complicated and we are not sure about how to make sense of it all, that sex can be the most awesome thing two people can do together but it can also be the most destructive thing. And that we’re all trying to make sense of it, and they need to get to a place where they can live out the courage of their convictions, hopefully in deep relationship with Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit.

7. Is abstinence the only way?

I think abstinence as it is currently understood is too problematic to be helpful.  Is it possible to be single or unmarried and choose to not engage in sexual activity until marriage and to remain a healthy, sexual being?  Yes, I think so.  Does everybody who subscribes to an abstinence only approach experience it as healthy and life giving?  Absolutely not!

8.The #churchtoo hashtag detailed stories of women who had suffered abuse in churches, when you reflect on these stories what do you think the church needs to do, and what advice would you give anyone currently suffering in silence?

I’m currently writing a book with SPCK about Christians and domestic abuse. It’s about 80,000 words.  There’s a lot that needs to change, not only in our practice, but also in our hearts and minds, and there’s no way I can detail all of that here!  You’ll have to wait until March 2019 to get a fuller picture of what we need to do.  For now though, I think the first thing churches and Christians need to do is to understand that abusers exist in our communities.  We need to stop “othering” those who are perpetrators and those who are subjected to abuse.  That is a scary thing to do though!  We all want to believe that we would easily be able to identify abusers, and accepting that people we love and trust could be hurting their partner can leave us feeling very unsafe.

For those who are currently being subjected to abuse, or have been in the past, I would say, they are valuable and important and even though they probably struggle to believe me, that is true.  If the church has been part of their pain, I would say that is not what God thinks.  God loves us and is justly angry and the way they have been hurt.  I would also say there is hope and the possibility of transformation.  Gaining knowledge and understanding it the first step, along with trying to find safe people to talk to.  Most local areas with have some kind of specialist service who can offer help, either domestic abuse services (you can find your local one here: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic-abuse-directory/) or Rape Crisis, who can help with any form of sexual harm, not solely rape, (you can find your local one here: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/rapecrisisspecialistservices.php).

9.I notice that you have done some work on domestic abuse training recently, what are your thoughts on domestic abuse and young people?  Is this something that needs to be talked about more with young people for them or for if they encounter it amongst their friends?

Oh absolutely!  All youth practitioners should ensure they have had training to understand domestic abuse.  I developed the DAY Programme to ensure young people have access to good quality resources about abuse and exploitation, but that they are also equipped to critique popular culture and are able to identify the messages around them that normalise abuse.  Young people will either tell no one, or tell a friend about how they are being hurt (NSPCC research), and so not only do young people need to know how to recognise abusive behaviour and how to behave respectfully in a relationship, they also need supporting to become a good friend.  All practitioners are given safeguarding training to know how to deal with disclosures, but the majority of disclosures are between young people, what training do they have in understanding and responding well?  How can we ensure they are supported in this?

10.What advice would you give youthworkers and volunteers about how to talk about sex with young people?

  • Reflect on your embarrassment and other issues which prevent you being open and honest with young people.

  • Get equipped.

  • Assume in every session you deliver that there will be young people present who have been subjected to sexualised abuse, rape, physical violence or emotional abuse.

  • Seek to help young people make intentional choices about sex. How old do they want to be when they have sex?  What sort of relationship do they want to move beyond kissing in?  How do they feel about watching pornography?  Rather than starting from an assumption that they won’t have sex until marriage (the vast majority won’t wait that long), how do we ensure that they are making intentional decisions, rather than “accidentally having sex”.

 

There is much to ponder on here, depending on the situations that we work in and are involved with young people, the streets, clubs, schools or churches and how we might educate, influence, guide and support. Natalie Collins can be contacted via her website in the links here: https://mrsglw.wordpress.com/   , undoubtedly the issues and scenarios raised in this interview are complicated, and there is nothing simple about sex, about identity, relationships,power and abuse. If you have been affected please do seek help, and the links are included. It is not an issue that goes away. I want to also thank Natalie for her time to share personally and thoughtfully on this very important issue.

In 2019, Natalie is hosting an event in London with a large array of speakers on the conversation of domestic abuse, couples and conflict in the church, there will also be a launch of her book. More details are here: https://www.nataliecollins.info/outofcontrolevent If there are aspects of this post and here story that have affected you, or you want to find out more about how you can help in situations then please do be in touch with her and attend the event to hear and discover more.

If you would like to have 10 questions about your ministry, theme or issue please do be in contact, if this is a platform in which you would like to share your story, ministry or perspective.

How many youthworkers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Image result for changing a lightbulb

 

Go on: ‘How many youthworkers does it take to change a lightbulb? ‘

Answer: 100.

Well it takes 1 to change the lightbulb, and 99 to write papers on coping in the darkness.

So the old joke goes, and im not sure this is as accurate as it used to be. Youthworkers have at times had to find the reserves to cope in the darkness, and cope and fight for the rights and welfare of young people often left behind or deemed the underclass. However, the joke could almost read, ‘and 99 to write papers on how the darkness came about’.

At times there might the odd lightbulb moment in youthwork & youth ministry. One person reaches up to grasp at an actual solution, and makes a change and the lights could be switched back on. This week, if i was being critical, has been a week of darkness pronouncing. Whilst The church times has ran a whole load of articles on teenagers and young people – mostly written by esteemed colleagues and friends (though they might not be after they read this!) – much of it has been darkness pronouncing. Much of it, with a few small exceptions, has been what has been said many many times before. And I throw my own hat into this ring- darkness pronouncing is particularly easy to write about, sometimes it gets rave reviews under the guise of ‘being prophetic’ or reflective or challenging. Maybe the Church times audience has never heard half the things that the youthworkers are writing about. But i cant imagine any of them are surprised by the correlations between the reductions in sunday school and then exclamations that less than 1/4 of churches have any young people. Many people in churches have lived through this shift, and still go goey eyed at remembering those good old days.

Much of the time, as Pete Ward commented on this week, youthworkers and churches have known the answers – such as family work, generational work and creating positive participative places for discipleship (as ive said in the previous two pieces on this site)  – but has it not been able to happen? or not been able to be a long term change? or something else – not become culturally norm – and when the youthworker leaves this way of being reverts back (as can be the way).  Nothing new is being said, though it might be being said on a different platform. For once the established church might be listening, and not youthworkers circulating the same darkness coping papers around themselves.

As youthworkers, brought up or educated with critical reflection as part of or an extension of our being, can be easily put into find the thing to blame mode. And usually it is not ourselves.

From the point of cause comes the how to fix it mentality – how might that lightbulb be changed?

so from this there becomes 10 things that ‘we need’ in youth ministry or the church needs:

  1. The church needs a youthworker#
  2. The youth ministry needs this resources
  3. The young people need to gather to a large gathering
  4. The ministry needs to be thought about theologically
  5. People need training
  6. Church needs to change
  7. Youth ministry needs a new vision
  8. Your practice needs more of Jesus
  9.  Do you need better self care?
  10. Are you praying enough?

There is some logic and reasoning to all of these, though beware the wolves selling goods and franchises. But fix-it responses to darkness pronouncing, sometimes only skims the surface, (not saying Jesus is a surface thing) but more of Jesus might only be strategic. hmm….

But something does have to change. and its not the lightbulb…

When I used to work in a call centre, one of the things that was said to me was that it only takes 1 bad experience for a customer to leave a shop, tell 10 friends and then you lose 11 potential customers. And that was before trip adviser or amazon reviews were invented. It is easy to argue how much of a detrimental effect in local communities it is when something that people enjoy going to is closed, and this ties back into the sunday schools to a point. But when it comes to the positives that are happening, or positive experiences, people barely tell other people, again from a customer/client perspective.

It feels like it is significantly hard work to make the sort of institutional changes required. It may be that research into what is happening that is good and ‘working’ needs to happen. But on the ground where 1 local youth ministry project has become a faith community/emerging church is really positive, the process of enabling their process to be embedded elsewhere should be as quick as it would be for churches to pull the lightswitch and close the sunday school.  There are positive stories across the UK, about youth ministry ‘on the edge’ the pioneer stuff (and any youthwork could sometimes be pioneering), the risk taking and those living on the edge of their purse strings in order to do it.  Under the guise of Fresh expressions, youth churches in areas are growing and developing, where resource is given to be able to facilitate and encourage it. Messy church is another positive thing.

Whilst there is no quick fix, though there has been a quick decline, and that has been easy to accomplish.

We might have to ask some of the serious questions, beyond how the lightbulb might be changed. If we ask – what might young people want from a church? – or need it to be for them; we might discover a variety of responses:

a safe place

a place that provides space

a place in which i can escape

a place to think through life

a place that feels at home

a place where i am part of something bigger

a place to be listened to

a place to grieve and mourn a loss

a place to socialise

a place to be involved

But dont take my word for it: research, from 1400 churches in the USA, that had young people over the age of 15 as part of their congregations still ( i know a luxury) – pointed to the following things:

  • a Healthy place
  • A place of challenge
  • depth.

That article, one that at least points how the lightbulb shines is here: What do young people want in a church?  – at least young people have been asked.

Every article points to the same things, essentially. Young people need to be more that consumers, and church needs to create spaces where they feel participants, feel at home and be respected and challenged, and they want churches to help them raise their game. Lets change the question to:   ‘Can we do this?  – any what did Bob the builder say?

If discipleship is about participation, then why is this an issue in churches?

To show just how much this church values young people – we’ve appointed a youthworker!’

‘to all young people of _____ area, the adults from ______ church/ministry are putting on an evening entertainment in a building you’ve never been before and involving people you’ve never heard of but we know them, and please if you can bring a friend too’

we had a successful evening when 3 young people turned up

‘We closed a ministry because there was only 14 young people’

It was great to have 100 youthworkers together at a conference to discuss young peoples issues’

This week I was in Cumbria talking with a group of youthworkers based in churches on the subject of participation, following on from my post last week on participation on this site; participation (part 1)

Image result for hart's ladder of youth participation

We looked in the session about what participation is, and also in what areas in youth ministry that were easier to encourage participation. Examples given included giving young people opportunities to shape and design the room, and the activities, others included the development of leaders. There were many examples of trying to encourage young people to be more than consumers of youth activities, one way around this was to change the starting point, especially if young people consuming youth activities felt like the default starting point. It was about creating participatory cultures.

But the question from one of the delegates was ‘why doesnt the church believe in participation?’ And defaults to consumer/attendance/telling mode?

And this was the question, that i could ony give a short response to at the time, that I have been pondering ever since. Why does it seem to be a paradigm shift for the church to consider participation as default within its practice, why is non-participation the default mode?

Obviously as the diagram above shows there are significant levels of participation. The question might as also be how might churches embody participation in everyone, and so this is the culture that young people discover, or young people grow up in. Yet, at times the church is about a form of participation, from rotas to meetings, volunteering to contributing, participation does occur in the church, to a point. In general however, none of these things are accounted for or valued when church growth is discussed (positively or negatively), it is all about attendance, rather than participation – unless a few people become trained or ordained. But though it believes in participation, it is not often that participation is part of how it values itself. But i wonder why this is and whether gradually, there are even less spaces in which young people can participate.

Power is undoubtedly one reason, and linked to this is control. Churches can become big beasts that require high levels of organisation, especially as the expectations of them in view of affiliations or the charity commission can weigh heavy. But this is only one aspect of it. Foucaults view of power is that it is not in the organisation, but in the spaces between, it is ‘everywhere’ and there is no finite amount. The organisation of churches and youth ministry can create spaces where power is at play, especially expert power, and legitimate power – where the youth minister or ministry can hold the keys of expertise, or be in a role from which power is deferred from. Looking back, it is difficult to ascertain where youth ministry in the UK has ever been anything other than an adult orientated movement. It was philanthropic adults who began sunday schools, the evangelists in the 60’s with a ‘reaching’ young people agenda, and the development of clubs and groups that have been adult, rather than young people run, including the many ministries, festivals and programmes. The default may have been set, and it keeps people in places of power and control where they can feel comfortable and create an identity of ‘being a leader’ in a church. In a situation where young people have limited participation, they become little more than consumers. Given a token role in the odd service. Essentially whilst churches believe in power and control over participation young peoples experiences within will only be consumerist, and that leads to boredom.

Im pretty sure, so far, this isnt rocket science, or new.

Fundamentally i think the problem is deeper that this. I think theologically there is a stream of thought that shapes an understanding of other people in the church that means that theyre not fully trusted.

As Christians we read stories of disciples who God used but had failings (though we dont often refer to Mary, Deborah or Esther in these lists, whose ‘failings’ dont appear in the Biblical narrative) – and we often sing about ‘trusting in God alone’ , and comparing ourselves as failing Humans to the unfailingness of God. We also hear that no one can serve two masters, usually referring to God and Money/wealth. I wonder tentatively, whether a combination of these thoughts, implied through preaching, singing and the biblical narrative mean that within churches, though we rely on people to do things, it becomes a risk, beyond the call of the culture within the church to fundamentally trust someone. Especially a young person. Its only a thought, but what might be the effect on the kind of participation possible in a church in which the sinfulness of persons is readily preached? Why might a church not believe in participation, because it doesnt trust people enough or create the right environment where participation is a possibility. Valuing the humanity, and encouraging the contribution of others according to gift, can be low down on the radar, especially if at the same time persons feel reduced by an overload of sinfulness. The opposite however, is true, as I wrote in part 1, is that God believes in our participation.

Thinking through further. The role of the church can often revolve around being the moral guardian, or the rescuer of persons. The pressure is on to ‘tell’ young people, to ‘protect’ young people, to ‘guide them’ , at the same time, the church might view its role as the saviour of young people, a place where they are found from being lost, a place of community when before they were alone, light instead of dark. These roles carry with them the same sense of power as above, and also the limited trust of persons, because they are regarded as in need of rescue, and also in need of guidance. That young people, especially, are participants in this seems alien. The churches role, it may have changed in the last few years, but has largely retained the language of serving the poor, or engaging with young people, or reaching them, and this has been accompanied by non biblical views of young people that emphasise the negative traits of them (lazy, ferel, in transition, etc) – rather than the participative roles that the Bible gives young people within the narrative, that call forth the kingdom, Mary, for one. David the young King, defeater of the philistines. Our cultural shift has delayed the ages of trust and responsibility, to the point where young people are delayed in growing up. The church may be complicit in the same process of delaying the age of young peoples responsibility and participation, to a point which is too late, a point beyond when young people feel invested and contributers within it.

When it comes to participation, the church might not believe in it for a number of reasons. What is needed to happen is that the language of consumer, attender and measuring the effectiveness of ministries by numbers is challenged. Discipleship is a participative activity, and so, it is not that 5 people put on an event that 50 people attend that is as important as 50 people being valued as creators, shapers and discipled through the process of the activity. Might we measure and create spaces of participation with young people, starting on hearing their views, voice and trusting them to create their own spaces, starting at rung 5 of the ladder already. And hoping that they get bored of the consumer approach when they are receivers of it, because they desire more involvement. Not to be told but to discover. It might be risky to trust young people, trust they might know actual useful information, trust that we might learn from them, and create cultures of participation in churches, in groups and ministries. God calls us to participate in his mission, might God be asking young people to be participants too?

not only is it risky, it is also the more difficult thing. The slower thing, but that because it involves processes of learning, processes of collaboration, listening and creating community frameworks. Collaboration and processes are slow and difficult, maybe even chaotic. But again, didnt Jesus give the opportunity for chaotic discipleship, Peter wasnt controlled, but given freedom to ask back, to criticise even as a disciple. Discipleship isnt about control, its about pledging a relationship that gives space for ongoing conversation, participation of tasks and learning.

As church we face the wrath if we cause a little one to stumble, and this might happen if we create cultures of power and control, of morality and rescue, that are log jams in the ongoing participation of the kingdom that young people can be part of. In the ongoing mission of Gods redemption in the whole world. For that to happen a shift is needed that churches believe in participation.

One day a church might value young people so that it provides the possibility that they can be deacons. One day a youth ministry conference will be held that young people are part of, not just talked about. One day, young people in churches will write the articles.

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