Does the church (and youth ministry) need to rid itself of capatalist c**p?

I was at my neices 18th birthday party last year, not a large affair, though a house and garden full of family and her friends in South London. As as is the norm with these things, the ‘young people’ were in the garden drinking or hiding the drink they were drinking, and the adults were mostly indoors (it was a fairly cold november evening), except for the odd excursion outside by the adult to ‘check on the garden’. All seemed to be ok. Balance of normality, with music in the garden chosen from one young persons Ipod, and adults inside either ignoring it, or being mortified at the odd swear word that escaped through on an album edit of a song. However, for a few minutes it seemed as though someone else was choosing the music, there was high school musical (these 18 year olds grew up on it (yes feel old)), and things like Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Little mix.

All of a sudden, equilibrium was destroyed, as one of the 18 year old girls, dressed in very inidividually designed attire, wanders into the lounge full of adults, and sat down on one of the chairs, looking disgruntled and annoyed, said (and I quote)  ; ‘Im coming in here, I cant stand all that capatalist crap music being played’. Her remark, sifted the socialist leaning wheat and capitalist adhering chaff within the adults, as to their response to this from cheers and support to being taken aback. Now it could be said that this 18 year old was a dreamer, a Jeremy Corbynite, an idealist, influenced by a wide range of things – (but when a young person makes a statement about their shopping habits they are less likely to be criticised of being materialist, or influenced by ‘the right’). However, this point aside. What this young person had identified was a lack of integrity within music of artists for whom on the face of it, seem only in it for the money, or created and produced with making money in mind. It would be easy to say that even the music on earlier in the evening might raise legitimate money, but im not going to muddy the waters here. There was something about integrity within the music industry that this young person was looking for.

Moving the conversation on. John Drane a few years ago wrote the Macdonaldisation of the Church (others have followed suit with other similar pieces) . Within it he describes how

aspects of the church’s Image result for mcdonaldization of the churchorganisation, ministry and mission have fallen fowl to Macdonaldisation; the process of creating systems that are calculable, efficient, repeatable and can be controlled. They then can be repeated in a similar fashion across the church community. One example might be Alpha (which restricted use of its branding and ‘service’ to tightly regulated videos and activities as one example, although there are others), other organisations have fallen victim to this when issues of brand protectionalism and universalism stand in the way of contextual unique ministry.  It is worth reflecting on quite how passive the organisations of the church were or are to external business and marketing forces that spoke a language and validated a form of practice that endorsed macdonaldisation, that churches adopted rather than being prophetic against. Sold as a way of having control, efficiency, calcubility and repeatedness – products are released into the church, mission and ministry, some sold as ‘franchises’ and ‘under license’.

Whilst talk of Macdonaldisation might be out of favour, even talk of ‘post-macdonaldisation’ is cheap. Some of it is merely a facade. Starbucks may offer ‘choice’ but  it is still bounded, giving the impression of choice – and choice in other brands might merely be as similarly just a front. Post-Macdonaldisation is about personal choice, though personal choice bounded.

Another form of Management that is creeping into the church is talk of ‘leadership’. From ‘transformation leadership’ (the setting of strategies, target and aiming for compliance), to ‘entrepreneurial leadership and missional leadership – there is a movement of thought that in a period of time when the deckchairs on the titanic of the church are in the process of needing to be reordered and painted, that this role requires the right type of leaders, and leadership training is all the rage. And continues to be all the rage when in the main the church is ordered around structured organisations that by almost definition of their role are in requirement of a hierarchy that by default includes some ‘leadering’ of them. Sometimes one can fall into the other, where leadership training is in part to ‘make the church more effective’ sadly effective could be misinterpreted as efficient. Jesus didnt do ‘efficient’ ministry. If anything it was the opposite.

‘Transformational leadership is consistent with the neo-liberal assault on professional integrity’ (Sarah Lea, ‘ Are youthworkers free to lead’ in Ord J, Issues in Youthwork Management, 2014)

So, whilst the church is in a battle to be relevant (and relevancy is the badge of honour in youth ministry) , there can be a tension between ‘relevancy’ when it comes to some issues ( lets just say moral issues regarding sex/abortion/relationships) and a different type of adopted relevancy when it comes to the organisation of the church, ministry and mission groups which it could be argue try and have moral distinctiveness, but managerial uncritical adaption to essentially the ideologies of capitalism and managerialism. It might have at times adopted the practice of the companies of the 21st century even if their ethics and human rights (or tax paying) have been vacuous.  Rarely does the church want to be run like ‘The Body Shop’. In short, much of christianity in the UK has sold its soul to capatalism, and it has limited integrity left from which to platform an alternative. As my nieces friend urged, ‘We need to get rid of the capatalist crap!’ – though it might be difficult, submerged in the culture to find it, or alternatives.

But its difficult. Things that need paying for, like buildings, and ministries and resources and organisations. Especially those that have large salaries, rents and mortgages. It is easier to make money with a programme that maintains the status quo, than challenge the system that creates it. Though that doesnt mean that our tune need to stay the same. Erving Goffman suggests that the integrity of persons appearances and interactions relies heavily on how close it is to goods. Its as if even sociologists know that proximity to things/money/resource affects integrity. Maybe thats what Jesus was on about when he told the disciples to go with nothing, its so that things didnt get in the way.

If our churches and ministries are to follow a different way, then currently it will be pioneering, it will be set to an off beat drum, and will be seen to be odd, strange or provocative- and invalidated. It will be pioneering to scale down rather than up. Pioneering to gravitate down, to live more simply, to create different structures within the church that have clearer intentions of equality, goodness and ignore the disparity between rich and poor. Currently the church doesnt have much of a voice of the oppressed, largely because it lives to serve them and be for them, not as Friere argues, build a pedagogy of them, or as St Francis would remind us a spirituality from the streets, not the temples. There are questions to ask, about how the church regain a sense of community that shares much, rather than individuals that collect and share little. Boff picks up the story, ‘that between 1970-80 the lay person began to organise themselves into christian base communities, where there is an experience of ecclesiogenesis, this movement exercised ministries, committed to faith and promotion of and liberation of the oppressed’ It was a movement that affected the establishment church which honed in on service, of Gospel to the margins and commitment to the poor- but also a more participatory and fraternal society’ (Boff, creation of a popular and Poor Church, in St Francis, a model for human liberation, 1980).  St Francis recognised that even in the 1200’s that a simpler life was required, and by all accounts, the 1200’s would have been a simpler life than now, in many places – certainly in the west. But again, to follow Jesus, meant for St Francis, to go, and to rely on the hospitality of others, to rely on the community of the poor, and to identify with by being poor. What he also recognised, was that things did not make him free, they were a burden. To be free was to remove them and give them away, for them to lose their control. And freedom from things seems to be the way of Jesus. Although easy to criticise, the freedom that pastors with millions of pounds in mega churches dont have must be awful. But there are other ‘things’ too, like fame, influence and authority. With all these things the temptation is to gain more. St Francis would suggest otherwise.

‘An individual cannot own anything that only belongs to God.Not even the certainty of ones salvation is ours, but rather solely God’s’ (St Francis)

Francis and Boff go on to say that for the Christian faith to appropriate within the capatalist system is illegitimate; stating:

‘Ownership looks for security, prejudices the community and neighbours, is inspired by passion and pleasure, wounds the soul, searches for one own well being, degrades work, overvalues the corporal, sees in intelligence and will a private property, is the road of sin and the devil, enemy of all good, taking sides against God and denying his kingdom’ (Boff, p71)

This is strong stuff, and its hard to know where to start with this, given how my own nearly 40 years of existence with the UK and broadly evangelical church culture has shaped me. If we regard our role in the Theodrama (a role given to us) as witnesses to the story, not the heroes within it, then to witness is to go and project a new reality. It is difficult to project a new reality if everyone is practically the same. Our distinctiveness need not be our morality, but our simplicity, or generosity, or care for the other. A care that St Francis suggests is true Humanity.

Oh, and if young people see that a capitalist crap has infliltrated the music scene, how much more might young people view the establishment and ordering of the church in such a way, that is less movement of social transformation, than ordered gatherings to maintain the status quo. Young people, theyre a perceptive bunch. They often want a cause they can believe in that has integrity.

How might the church rid itself of its capatalist crap? Especially if this is what young people might just want…

Might youth ministry, that once pioneering path that changed the church since the 1960’s- adopt a different tune completely for the future, forging a new pathway, not of organisation, but of true movement for the gospel doing so within community, integrity and simplicity. Might young people find in St Francis the hero to save humanity and model life around him, or view Christianity through St Francis.

If Capatalism and Neo-liberalism is under threat, as ‘populist’ politics (short hand for far right fascism) becomes influential, might the churchs response to be and act more prophetically, and create an alternative?


Boff, Saint Francis, A model for human liberation, 1980

Freire, P, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Rohr, St Francis, A Way of Life, 2014

Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, Christian Ethics, 2005



‘What role do young people play in your church/youth group?’

Often we hear that ‘young people are to play a role in the church’ – or the more than often suggested recommendation that ‘young people are the future of the church’ . But have we ever stopped to think about what kind of role young people currently play – and more to the point – what role they should play? It a simple question – but worth thinking through:

What role do young people play in your church?

Some might want them to have an active role, a quiet role, a passive role, even if one day it is a ‘future’ role. For the time being because its the present and not the future, it neednt in that case be an important role.

Two of the key values that underpin good youthwork practice are Empowerment and Participation, they help to distinguish youthwork practice from people just working with young people in other areas such as the police and schools. Empowerment is to create environments where young people can aspire, can better themselves individually and collectively and assume more power in a situation. The question to hand is whether young people in our churches an youth groups would be considered as participants?

Participation might be risky, it involves trusting young people. It involves empowering them. It involves creating spaces where young people can be involved in processes.

The easiest thing is to maintain a controlling or entertaining relationship with a group of young people. Programme, content, style, venue, time, activities all decided by adults dictated by the term ‘leader’ and young people largely passive in the experience of decision making. As Nick Shepherd suggests in Faith Generation (2016), in this scenario, the first decision a young person might make, is to leave. Like any customer, they have found a better place to be entertained, or sadly a better place to feel at home, valued and had their voice heard. In the meantime in the entertainer/consumer relationship the leaders get burn out trying to make activities bigger, better, larger, longer, funner, an ever increasing cycle which finds resonance in a materialism culture. And the young people play the role of consumer.

Alternatively young people might be viewed as users or clients of our service. Then our role is more to counsel or provide therapy with them. If im honest, thinking of young people in churches and youth groups the term ‘user’ or ‘client’ is barely used, but in other youthwork contexts it might be, and i know I have fallen back on using the term client or user from time to time, and especially in making funding bids. Although language helps, it is more important even if we dont know the language to make steps towards thinking of young people as not users, client, consumers (of our entertainment) or customers.

I guess the problem is that we create customers of our young people, because it would mean that they were treated better than some adults in churches to have more involvement. There has been plenty of resources abound that talk about getting congregations from audience to participants. Often a congregation is an audience in the party that the ministry and worship team are having. In a kind of culture where very few people are participants in churches and there is limited congregation input into style, preaching content, etc etc (the only choice is to leave and find somewhere less unpalatable at times), and i only say this because there is a danger of consumers of entertainment being the modus operandi in churches. Anyway, if this is the culture, then what hope of young people becoming more than consumers in them or in the youth groups which exist within them.

One of the issues that Naomi Thompson discovered was that although there was a shift in the theory of education practices to more child centred focus in the 1960s, when this was attempted to be brought into the church in the practices of Sunday Schools it was met with opposition, leaders were too ingrained in their roles, and shifting a balance of power was too much. The roles couldn’t be shifted. Education of young people maintained in one form, Sunday schools created in church culture within that framework of didactic teaching all started dying off one by one. (See Naomi Thompson; Young People and the church since 1900, a review is on this site if you search) .

Anyway, this shows how the role of children and young people in the church has been relatively constant. And what happens when young people get fed of being ‘in that role’ they leave. They left Sunday school from the age of 8-9 (when Sunday schools were popular nationally but locally struggling), they leave churches now after about 2 years, and when they’re only in the role of consumer and get bored of what is on offer, then again, they leave. 2 years isn’t a researched number by the way, its just what youthworkers around have said, that when young people have choice to attend a programme or leave, then without being involved as anything other than a consumer, then 2 years is about the average time that 52 weeks of sports will keep them. If young people are itching towards boredom, then involvement not bigger games might be a better response. Its their role that might need to shift.

Young people generally are not stupid. For self protection they will when given the choice avoid situations of fear, panic, pain and trauma, similarly, as Jocelyn Bryan writes in Human Being, they will gravitate towards spaces in which they are given self worth, challenge, meaning, value and attention. Now, I’m not saying that youth groups are places of trauma (but they could be), but neither, if young people aren’t regarded as being participants, might they be places of worth, value, meaningful challenge or attention? If adults attend churches despite these, it could be more to do with identity and duty, things that young people might not have- and even if they have we shouldn’t rely on it for attendance.

So, going back to the question – what role do young people play in the church – or the youth group? How might their involvement be flagged up on this scale?

Image result for hart's ladder of youth participation

What are your thoughts on this? How does your church or youth group measure up in regard to youth participation?

Where would you pin your youth group onto Harts participation ladder- and is there a gradual move upwards?

And, if you placed them on rungs 1-3 then Hart defines this as ‘non-participation’…

The question that we also need to ask, is that it might as easily be that the nature of the role that a young person has in their local church, might also be the very nature of their faith too. As i grew up in the church, i was told that ‘faith was a free gift’ and that I didnt need to do anything, and whilst this may be 1/2 true, it also relieves me of any expectation to do anything. Instead if young people participate in faith as free agents who accept and continue to act as participants of an ongoing redemptive drama, then there is expectation not just to bathe in a free gift, but also to be wholly participatory in it. (For more on this see my other posts on Theodrama) If we want young people to have a considerably more active faith, then it might be that participation needs to be at the heart and essence of the faith community. I say might, its just a thought, and one to ponder on…

Now, it might be easy to cause young people to have some participation in things like ‘activities’ or ‘food’ or ‘games’ – but how risky might it be to give young people participation and decision making when it comes to talks, programmes, styles, worship, or other aspects of the youth group. How risky would a fully participative ‘youth’ congregation look like? if its not working towards participation, then its ‘youth’ in only name. Yes its risky, yes it requires more effort. But it might be worth it, and the process of trusting young people might be surprising. If young people really are only going to be the church of tomorrow, then we have a duty to help them practice and rehearse a real form of participating in church today.

Its risky, it involves losing power, and being leaders that take on a different role. It might involve causing the youth group to be counter cultural to the whole church. It might involve a paradigm shift.

So: What role do young people play in churches and youth groups?

if they are going to be ‘more than conquerors’ they need to be more than consumers.

People should have not just the typical right to participate, they should also be educated in every aspect (of leadership & politics) in order to be able to participate (Castoriadis, 1996, The problem with democracy today)

It might also be worth thinking about the role do young people and those who represent them have in affiliations, dioceses and organisation planning? Does the DYO only have a token role…. (ill leave this here as an after thought)


What role do you want young people to have in the church?, is a direct follow on from this piece, as ultimately, it is us as adults who shape and create the spaces for young people, and is part 2 of this series on participation.

Another piece titled: if discipleship is about participation – why is this an issue in churches?  can be found by clicking the link

Please do use the search button or click the menus for further pieces on youth work and ministry with young people. All the work on this site is done for free, but if you would like to make a donation or gift towards the ongoing costs, you can do so here 



Thompson, Naomi, Young People and the church since 1900, 2018

Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2016

Bryan, Jocelyn, Being Human, 2016

Brierley, Danny, Joined Up, 2003- (although he gets into knots about open theism, gives some theological understanding around participation and then links this to youthwork practice of it.)

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2004

For more on Learning, see Paulo Freire Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, in which banking education models are critiqued and in their place collaborative problem solving approaches are encouraged especially in community group settings.

How might Youth Ministry be evaluated beyond the bums on seats?

Image result for bums on seats

‘Then Jesus saith unto them, go to the villages, take nothing, and wait for the man of peace to give you a welcome. Then set up an event for people to come to and count people as they arrive. Then, loadeth photos of the full event to the internet’

It has been an interesting week. Various articles have been circulated that I am going to tie together in this post. First David Goodhew wrote this insightful piece on developing a theology for Church Growth, its a piece that stops short of playing up the issues around purely numerical growth in churches. However, at a time when the church has announced that £24million is going to be spent on Mission, Evangelism and ‘church growth’ over the next few years, this report is here:  The critical question, one that has plagued church based ministry, including youth ministry, is how can growth and success be measured in any other way than Bums on Seats? 

Image result for bums on seats

Numbers is the easy way to measure something. It hides alot too. But Bums on Seats, and theres no cruder way to put it, has felt like the key driver for many ministries, the key expected outcome. Often this equates also to bums on seats on Sunday. For some aspects of youth ministry counting is important, counting is what determines value and success; how many conversions, how many resources used, how many ‘recommitments’ (whatever biblical justification for this) , it becomes an ongoing task of recording numbers, and recording the faith of young people ‘by numbers’. Even worse it could be ‘how many young people ‘heard a talk” – as if hearing a talk is a measure of faith. Hearing a talk might be as much because there was free pizza involved, or parents forced the young people to be there, but if the number was 20 whos to know how it was done, or care.

However, Youth Ministry in the UK is suffering. Theres no two ways about it. Sorry to be the bearer of this at the beginning of the new year. But countless quality reflective and strategically pastoral youth workers across the UK are in the process of losing their jobs, having them changed and mostly on the basis of costs, and of value for money efficiency savings. (And, its the non clergy posts to go first) I have heard a few people say things like; ‘youd think the diocese would know how good what we do is, weve been doing it for ___ years’ , in other situations, those who are youth workers, or who employ them have become fixated with a promise or myth that having a youth minister has been a sure fire way of increasing the numbers of young people attending a church – this myth often continually conduced by over enthusiastic youth ministry activists who have grown a youth group by 5% elsewhere. Either way, Youth Ministry is stuck playing a numbers game it cant win, and being judged in a culture where success has become synonymous with physical attendance, the beloved bottom on pew. Without another way of justifying itself youth ministry is on the path to extinction. Without a new way of measuring the activities of faith in ministry many are stuck playing a success by numbers game that will lead to stress, pressure and disappointment.

I find it interesting to look at the 7 churches in the book Revelation. Not one of them is criticised for being small.  In fact one of them is commended of its smallness in-spite of challenging situation. They are praised for good works, for holding on, for not giving up, and criticised for blandness, losing heat, and giving into consumerism. If these were the prophetic warnings that evangelicals like to say that were Jesus’ warnings for the church, then size seems to play very little part of it.

But youth ministry has put itself in the numbers game. Because its main servant is the church, and therefore, either keeping young people within it, or adding new young people to it has been its dominant trajectory, since the dawning of groups post Sunday School, and the emergence of evangelical youth ministry that arrived in the UK from the 1960s with Billy Graham Solving the church’s numbers crisis has been the fanfare of Youth Ministry, come to save the church through evangelism from the ground up through relevancy, events and music. The warnings have been there, and its critique has been lengthy, especially from those who began to think seriously about young people, faith, theology and ministry ( See Pete Ward, 1997 and much more). The Key Issue is that because of its own over egged pudding of significance, numerical bums on seats has become the only game in town for evaluating youth ministry. The church lapped it up.

Image result for bums on seatsSo What might be the alternative? 

Firstly, there is a sense that playing a numbers game fits within a culture of Christianity that has adopted its own Macdonaldisation process, hook line and sinker. Ministries have been reduced to universal programmes (to save costs) and resources splattered around the country without a thought as to whether they are culturally or contextually appropriate. Faith has been pre packaged to have a number of pre-existing indicators, attendance at already prepackaged alpha might be one. But Macdonaldisation means that faith is reduced to what is efficient (not what is difficult or complex), what is controllable , (not what might help people have autonomy), what is repeatable (no what might be unique or creative) and what is predictable (not what might be surprising/dramatic). So in this context, and a value for money context that is at the heart of neo-liberal ideology and management, ministry cannot be viewed in such as way, yet often these influences create expectations around it. Especially when organisation survival is a task that meets efficiency savings in the church. Is it too late to put the bums on seats jack back in its box and start all over again?

What if there was a Theology of Measuring Ministry? in the same way that there might be a theology of church growth (see above)- and if so – what might measuring ministry look like from the basis of Theology?

In my previous posts i suggest that performance might be one way of young people engaging with Theology , in addition to this, maintaining the Theatrical metaphor, Wesley Van der lugt describes the relationship between the formation of the actor, in a performance, and their performance, suggesting that both are intrinsically linked ( Living Theodrama, 2014), on one hand it might be thought of as experiential learning, or forming through performance. Behind this is the sense that participating in the Drama of God, as a christian is a way of life, an ongoing drama of participating in the actions of God in the world, acts of participation that have human and community and world flourishing in mind.

It is therefore that within theodrammatically understood youth ministry, that it is measured not by what the church gets young people to do for itself, but how it forms young people into a way of life in the world that loves it and cares for it. Social justice might be a start. Local community activism might be another. How young people act out of love for God in the community they are placed is what is required, not just whether they turn up and play games. Youth Ministry has the opportunity to be the acting coaches in the drama of redemption that give young people acting parts to try, try and persist with, in the pursuit of goodness in the local area. Of course all us are formed through a variety of aspects of faith, from Eucharist, charismatic praise, bible reading, and also, critically to be aware of the ongoing nudges from God in the midst, during time on the stage of the world (where discipleship really occurs).

Then bums on seats is only the start, if at all, its the action that young people that forms them through performance that could be what counts. It might be in performing the gospel that young people find the gospel. Performing goodness might be part of performing the good news. Love is what matters and that is a verb. What might a theology of measuring ministry look like? It might start with causing people to live simplicitly (in a worldview of abundance), to learn to love the poor, to be inclined to generosity, to act with gentleness on social media, to cultivate community. Its not about leadership in the church, but it could be, only if thats also matched with loving the world outside it.

How might youth ministry be measured beyond bums on seats, and can theology help? Possibly, but it should do, and theology should be our starting point. Might it still be a numbers game even then? Quite possibly, but one in which young people are the world changers in a movement of the gospel that is dynamic, exciting and dangerous.


Brierley, Danny, Joined up, 2003

Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Gospel, 1997

Wesley Van der Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014

Smith Christian, Soul Searching, 2004

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation, 2017


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