With disruptions to them inevitable, Are strategies in youthwork worth the paper they’re written on?

Its not a negative question, but a realistic one; With all the disruptions to a strategy especially in youthwork- is it even worth bothering with one? Is it even possible to develop strategies for ‘industries’ that are so unpredictable, and people orientated? A possible solution is below, but first the case for the prosecution. Why strategies dont work…

It can feel like a strategy for youthwork practice isnt worth the paper, the time or energy to put together – because its disrupted and in need of change almost immediately.

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Because; ask a group of youthworkers about the successful of the strategies that they have been able to complete, as you will nearly always find a whole load of reasons why this wasn’t the case.

They didn’t have the power to execute it

They ran out of funding

A volunteer pulled out

The Bishop decided upon an event instead and my time was re orientated

Young people just aren’t straightforward

The trustees change their minds on the plan

Its just not how things are done in this organisation

and the rest…

There a fairly common saying ‘Culture Eats strategy for breakfast’ and whilst this is true, this hides some of the other disruptions that affect the implementation an success of a strategy. The problem can then become that a strategy might need then to incorporate the cultural issues – as well as all the potential risks and hazards that affect the strategy- so in terms of the above – it might need to include

A funding strategy

A volunteers strategy

A strategy to affect culture

A strategy to deal the volunteers

A strategy to convince the ‘higher’ powers of the value of youthwork – such as the heads of affiliation

A strategy to be flexible to overcome the potential disruptions………..

And in that way, having a strategy that can overcome the disruptions, and be that flexible when these unplanned disruptions occurs almost defeats the object of bothering with developing a strategy in the first place, or not far off. Even the most creatively created, participatory planned and organisationally owned strategy. It may be concise, communicated and coordinated, it may intend to be effective and easy to understand. The strategy might incorporate values, be step by step, measurable and time orientated – and have all the bells and appropriate whistles. But it could all go to waste because of the so many factors that could still cause it to be disrupted. Though at the same time developing and redeveloping strategy, aim and vision – revising, revisiting and reviewing it then become regular. But doesn’t it seem like a lot of time, and managerial, leadership effort – for something too easily challenged and changed.

It would become so broad to encompass the potential disruptions – that to be alomost meaningless, and so flexible to adapt to them to be unspecific.

Some of the business gurus when talking about strategies say that a strategy is nearly always going to be unsuccessful if there is no attempt to name the problems that the strategy is trying to solve.

I wonder whether in youthwork we have become fixated by outcome orientated strategies, because these are often what we feel we have been asked to compile, as often our management group, committee or clergy have understood strategy through the prism of transformational and visional leadership (which sets outcomes and prioritised conformity to these fixed outcomes, elevating the ‘transformational leader’ to set and create ‘their’ strategy within cost cutting/efficiency/ and setting outcomes and indicators first) that has been adopted relatively uncritically over the last 10-15 years in orgaisations.

However. Outcome orientated strategy is barely worth the paper it is written on. Youth workers require an alternative.

What about this;

Good strategy, in contrast, works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes. It also builds a bridge between the critical challenge at the heart of the strategy and action—between desire and immediate objectives that lie within grasp. Thus, the objectives that a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competencies.

In short – good strategy is about making the right conditions exist, for the potential for the most opportunities to occur – that are favourable to the aims and objectives, and that use the resources and competencies known to the organisation. It is opportunity orientated, not outcome orientated. Opportunities are things we create the environment for. Outcomes are too unpredictable in youthwork that can be disrupted in too many ways. But we can create positive environments that endeavour to facilitate opportunities.

And in youthwork, those opportunities can happen anywhere. The streets, schools, churches and youth clubs. The problem with an opportunity led strategy is that it needs to be close to the action with young people. Or creating opportunities for training, for supervision, for something else that involves equipping, resourcing and supporting youthworkers – then one step removed from the action – but also close to those who are – but that doesn’t negate opportunity orientated strategy – but that the opportunities might be less frequent than the ‘on the ground’ practice.

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Opportunity orientated strategy might suit the openness of youthork closer than an outcome orientated strategy. It also places the emphasis on the agency of those responsible for the strategy to deliver it – through opportunity creation, not dehumanising young people as numbers or potential outcomes, or being frustrated that ideals, or targets havent been met.

The question is – can we afford to develop ‘opportunity’ orientated strategies in a culture of cut throat funding that often seems to demand targets and outcomes – or have we got in some cases the favour an capital to take a risk and communicate opportunity orientated strategy. Often we are asked in funding bids ‘what are we going to do about a situation’ – which a cue to share the proposed opportunities- but as well we might need to be specific about the outcomes – which goes against the flexibility of an opportunity orientated strategy – pushing and driving it to numbers based. It might be a luxury to be able to construct an solely opportunity orientated strategy for youthwork practice. But – on the other hand – it a luxury we might want to afford ourselves given the almost pointless practice of trying to create outcome orientated strategies – that get eaten alive in the culture of organisations and in need of constant revision.

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If were not able in the culture of our organisations to create opportunities for young people and those who work them – then we might need to question what kind of young people orientated practice we are.

With an opportunity orientated strategy it is less affected, to an extent, by disruptions- because we do have slightly more agency in its realisation. Though even then the level of disruption can still disorientate strategy – especially if the resources become so slim that opportunity creation is minimalised – but again at that point- we will be spending time increasing our resources, changing approaches and adapting to the disruption –which might turn out to have surprising results. We might not have enough leaders to manage the youth club – so we take our presence and provision out onto the streets (for example) a change which might end up creating new opportunities – even more that we hadn’t predicted before hand.

In the opportunities might emerge the disruptions we are looking for. The next bright idea might emerge from the point of action.

References on Strategy and Management in Youthwork can be found on this page on this site: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV- or via the menus above, and many more on strategy in youthwork and managing strategies can be found via the tags and menus. For further on this and maybe to develop the conversation, contact me via the menu and arrange training or workshops on the theme.

Special mention to Jon Ords book which talks about faith based management , and also in his introduction critiques the transformational leadership that has brought forward outcome orientated strategy building.


The drama of the last supper question; Am I the one, Lord?

As you go into the city,” he told them, “you will see a certain man. Tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My time has come, and I will eat the Passover meal with my disciples at your house.’” 19 So the disciples did as Jesus told them and prepared the Passover meal there.
20 When it was evening, Jesus sat down at the table[c] with the Twelve.21 While they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.”
22 Greatly distressed, each one asked in turn, “Am I the one, Lord?”
23 He replied, “One of you who has just eaten from this bowl with me will betray me. 24 For the Son of Man must die, as the Scriptures declared long ago. But how terrible it will be for the one who betrays him. It would be far better for that man if he had never been born!” (From Matthew 26)

There are five words in this passage that for me slow this whole thing down. It is easy to rush headlong into the ‘reasons why Judas betrayed Jesus’ or How did Jesus deal with the betrayal. Skip on the detail and head straight to Good Friday.

But when it was still evening, Jesus sat down at the table with the disciples (they were already at the table). While they were eating (so all seemed ok, normal even?) Then the next but should read; Jesus said ; ‘I tell you the truth one of you will betray me’

Greatly distressed,
Peter asked ‘ Am I the one Lord? Fairly confident that it really couldnt be,
then Andrew (Peter’s brother) asked the same
James (son of Zebedee) said surely not I Lord, but is it me?
John (James’s brother) agreed but asked just in case
Philip asked Am I the one, Lord?
Bartholomew asked Am I the one Lord?
Thomas doubted whether it could be him checking his own evidence, but said is it I Lord?
Matthew (the tax collector) asked Jesus if it was him – though he thought he got the accounts right
James (son of Alphaeus) thought hed check all the same- Am I the one Lord?
Thaddaeus asked too
4 Simon (the zealot[c]) made up the eleven confused, distressed disciples who all asked, hoping for a moment that it wasnt them, but not entirely convinces- and he asked the same- Am I the one Lord? he asked- like all the ten before him.

Imagine going around the table. One. by One. Each asking. Each not knowing what the response might be. Each awaiting some kind of response. Did Jesus reply to each one, or wait for them all the ask. Think how slow and painful this scene is when you imagine all 12 of the disciples, in turn – (what turn?) asking Jesus the same question – Am I the one Lord?

Their meal started to taste bitter, cardboard, empty, uncomfortable, nauseating, anxious. I imagine. Potential guilt upon potential guilt. It feels an ordeal just writing all this out. 12 distressed men one by one awaiting the verdict of Jesus.

Judas Iscariot (who later betrayed him) then asked – was he last to speak up? cowering in the corner? Last just because of how they sat. Starting to sweat, starting realise his game was up.

Am I the one Lord?

Jesus said to him – ‘You have said it’

But I do not condemn you, says Jesus – Judas will have condemned himself. The others would still not to know completely what that betrayal may have meant, for each themselves had also ‘not been perfect’ in their lives, and each could feasibly think of themselves as potential betrayers.

I had not noticed or realised what it might have been like for each of the disciples to ask in turn that same question. How slow in time it might have took.

It is only 5 words, each one asked in turn. But reflect a moment on every individual disciple asking the question. The drama of the question being asked around the table.

The other 11 hoping it wasn’t them but not sure. No one was sure. But each asked and each asked for themselves, knowing that drama was also around the corner.

Thank you to John Ristway for the picture given to me 10 months ago.

12 responses to the question; what is youthwork all about?

What would you say the basics in youthwork are? what is it all about even?

One of the things that has tormented many a youthworker is to establish what ‘youthwork’ actually constitutes. It may, constitute only as a conversation, being defined by youthworkers in their ongoing practice (this is also a view shared by Kerry Young, though this is not one her more popular concepts when she talks about the youthwork as an art, 1999) However, beyond what youthwork actually is, there can be a need to reflect on what the basics of developing a youthwork practice actually is.

This need can sometimes be realised when we forget what we actually do as youthworkers, as it has become ‘normal practice’ default in our brains but and we have to then share this with others, maybe even ‘young’ leaders, or teach others on an academic course. And so, for your benefit, I have tried to come up with 12 commandments of basic youthwork practice.

  1. Youthwork is about young people – but its not just about them, but putting them as the primary recipient and creating participatory agendas around them as central is part of it, yet it is about them in and part of their communities and how young people access, reject, use and change aspects of their local community for their or others good.
  2. Youthwork is about creating spaces for education through conversation – it is about conversation with them included and respected in them.
  3. Youthwork is about developing relationships –that help young people to learn, to use their talents and pursue collective and community action
  4. Youthwork is about negotiation and participation – with young people who are principle dialogue partners in the negotiated conversations
  5. Youthwork is about respecting young people and also the communities they are in and choose – it is about group work
  6. Youthwork is about challenging young people – not about just giving them what they want – its about negotiation
  7. Youthwork is about politics, because it in itself is political and young people are politicised- young people are given respect and trust – this is political in itself. Young people are marginalised through media derived policies and taregtted through an underlying current of neoliberalism. Challenging this is political.
  8. Youthwork is about opportunity- not outcomes- our strategies are to create spaces that expand possibilities, not reduce to youthwork to a process of enabling young person to get from A to B.
  9. Youthwork is about Hope and belief – that young people and ourselves collectively can and do enable something new to occur through the relationship.
  10. Youthwork is about taking risks- it is not risky in itself – because that says something about the believing the narrative of young people (to be dangerous etc) – but it is about taking a risk with young people.
  11. Youthwork is about being a youthworker and being a role model – not perfect, but persistent in ongoing learning, and maintaining a critical awareness of the world around, that young people themselves are also part of. Its about temperament, attitude and also about modelling professional boundaries, personal boundaries especially time off.
  12. Youthwork is about improvisation – its about the being ready for anything – but also being ready in the opportunities created to enable young people to take positive steps and changes. If we have a toolbox of resources that are to be ‘ready to use’ in case – not pre determined to use at all costs.


I have avoided, or at least tried to avoid using words that have become acknowledged as the ‘Values’ of youthwork – such as equality, as participation, as empowerment – because whilst they are implied in nearly everything ‘basic’ youthwork is all about – they are open to considerable interpretation, and at times need themselves to be challenged and critiqued, and their current use might not be what the intention of them was. Empowerment a case in point. So, instead, I have tried above to focus on the practices of what basic youthwork might be about, so that these are the starting point for developing further practical ideas, and activities for training others, optimistically so that youthwork has a conversational future.  Each of these 12 things might need breaking down further, and often things like communication skills, group work development, conversation, risk assessment, strategy, power, leadership and management are all part of all of these in different ways. It is not always the case the if we get the basics right we get everything else right, because sometimes in youthwork there is no one ‘right’- and why 12 basics might be better than 6, because youthwork practice can be broad, unwieldy and open. It is after all in many ways a continual conversation that includes conversations.  Critical conversations, hopeful conversations and inclusive, participatory conversations, but conversations none the less.

Anyway – Starting right- or at least trying to put words to what we might already do, What might else be included in the 12 basics of youthwork practice? – what are we trying to be about?

Why did Jesus’ practice of telling parables disappear?

I was reading through the passages in Matthews Gospel that tell us a little about the goings on during Holy Week in Jerusalem all those 2000 odd years ago. What I was hoping to was write a piece on something to do with Holy Week. What I noticed instead, was that in the midst of the week, there seemed to be good deal of story telling going on that Jesus was still doing with the disciples and others around him.

Theres the Story of the two sons (no not the prodigal one)

Theres the story of the evil farmers

Theres the story of the bridesmaids

Theres the story of the great feast

Theres the story of the 10 bridesmaids and also the Three servants

All of these occur, notably in Matthews account between the Palm Sunday narrative and then the lead up to the arrest and betrayal of Jesus in chapter 26. On one hand we might deduce, accurately that Jesus was a great story teller, and these stories have sacred value (as well as make pertinent points). But the question I ask – is where did all the story telling go?

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From a missional perspective – Jesus doesn’t tell the 12 or 72 to ‘tell stories about the kingdom’ when they are given instructions to go into the villages. Neither is story telling part of the deal for the great commission. But at the same time, after three years of watching Jesus – you would think that there may be records of the disciples developing story telling as part of the emergence of the early church. But it seems to be almost completely absent.

A clue might be found in Luke 24 – When Jesus meets the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, his revelation to them, and their great surprise is that he told them how Jesus’ own story was now fulfilment and part of the whole of Gods bigger story ( Luke 24:34) – The story they needed to tell was that Jesus was the Messiah, and this was the one they were guided to. And then throughout the description of the early church, there is the chronological retelling of this one story, at least this is what we hear from the lengthy public discourse by Stephen (acts 7) and then Paul (acts 17) they preach theology- the story of the knowledge of God.

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It is almost as if priority is given to this one story (and probably rightly so) and then the functions of the early churches as a community of many small organisations across the middle east of the time. But it still seems strange that one of the principle teaching methods of Jesus is barely mentioned again. Its not as if Paul or Silas are documented telling stories, neither Peter or John.

But I am intrigued, as to why it seems to have gone out of view all together.

Other practices that occurred in the early church seem to be also at odds (with current moral view of faith) – but so soon after Jesus the disciples drew lots to see who would replace Judas as one of the 12 – was this seen as acceptable practice, endorsed by Jesus for decision making? If this was implicit from Jesus – why did story telling seem to not be in vogue?

What might be some of the reasons why parable telling seems to be absent post Jesus’ ascension?

  1. Jesus story telling was so unique – before Jesus and after – the story telling of the chronology of history is what seems to have been the norm. See for example the references to the story of Israel – or at least these are what is written down and recorded. It may be that the narrator was keen to record the facts in line with the theological chronology and not the incidental fictional stories – but in a way that doesn’t seem to fit with the story of Jonah which has more evidence that it is fictional than historic. So this may be a fable of novel like proportions that is told to reveal something of God – and referred to by Jesus as such. However, the story telling and sharing capacity of Moses, David, Elisha or Esther is barely mentioned- they are the story. With this in mind it might be as reasonable to suggest that this method of narrative story telling is so part of the Jewish culture that it continues post Jesus- so that it then includes Jesus within the chronology. Just as Jesus gives the permission to do for the two disciples walking along the Emmaus road Luke 24. But then is Jesus story telling so unique that it shouldn’t be copied? Only Jesus could tell such stories inn that culture – and so the task of the disciple was not to replicate Jesus, but fulfil the tasks that he set out for them, none it seemed to revolve around story telling.
  2. The context shifted. This response is from Roger Mitchell on Twitter. The fall of the church , because story I harder to control or contradict that historical accounts and so the church of the empire depended on control and conformity, rather than the expansive story telling that is implied in Jesus own stories. Jesus had to talk in parables – argues Mitchell, in this piece, because the entire church was under threat politically. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Church-Roger-Haydon-mitchell/dp/162032928X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522261353&sr=8-1&keywords=roger+mitchell

3.So maybe it was less that the disciples didn’t continue telling parables, than just that they didn’t need to. What about the possibility that the stories Jesus told, were the ones that were continued to be told by the disciples and so these were the ones remembered when it came to compile the 4 gospels? It may account for some of the variations – as some were more remembered than others. Also as Ricouer discusses, there may be some narrative building between the different accounts as each was written and then recollected, but essentially its at least 2-3 people remembering the stories, and some may have heard them again and again and others not so.

  1. What if the message and not the context changed? Post Jesus resurrection – talk of kingdom seems to disappear almost completely, from what is talked about in Acts, and then Pauls letters to the churches. There are 155 references to Kingdom in the New testament, but only 30 of these occur after the four gospels, and 8 of these in Acts, which isn’t surprising on one hand as there are 43 mentions in Luke itself (second only to Matthew ), in Johns gospel there are less than 3. The message has shifted. The elaborate explanatory stories of kingdom seem to have changed. OR alternatively, they have continued with the writers of 3 of the gospels and inserted into their narratives as they were commonly told and then needed to be attributed to Jesus as to give them their original authority – if it was indeed Jesus who told them originally. The explanations of the kingdom through pictures and stories needed to continue and was being continued through story telling, and it was the gospel writers who were the key narrators of this. This seems in contrast to Pauls more explanatory practical epistles, which barely have any mention of Kingdom at all. Did the objectives change; the early disciples had the job of proving to people who Jesus was in connection with the religious history of the culture – Jesus himself was merely proving himself to be God through how he had authority, through wisdom and pictures.
  2. Can we assume much about ‘how the early disciples evangelised?’ – This is the question posed by John Drane on the facebook conversation that I opened up on this subject. And of course to a point we cant. We can deduce that the early disciples met frequently, they shared belongings, miracles were performed and councils were had. Conversations with people seemed to be more confrontational (and leading people to be imprisoned) than how Jesus communicated. We can only deduce so far, or more to the point, only have the information to hand that include the epistles and written information. The tradition of oral story telling was part of the culture, and telling the dramatic story, both of Jesus within the Jewish tradition to the town squares, councils and in front of the judge, and also Pauls own story as part of the epistles is indicative of this. There is undoubtedly Dramatic retelling and embodiment of the story through its retelling. We cant I guess prove that the early disciples didn’t tell stories – maybe they told stories about Jesus to each other, and shared their collective wisdom about him – what he did, said and amazed – and so parabolic stories about the Kingdom faded from view at least they faded from importance in the task of evangelisation. Maybe stories were so embedded in the culture in the tradition, that it was taken for granted that this was how to do it, and it was uniquely rare to have the longer public discourse of the town square or market place (so these were written down as exceptions) – the story telling over food, fires and walking might have been so regular and repeated than it was barely mentioned. But its not as if at any point- there is a plea to any of the churches, or within the group to ‘carry on telling the stories Jesus told’ or to use stories in this way. Maybe because it just wasn’t needed to be said.Wells suggests that the role of the disciple is to be a witness to the story (2005) and acknowledge the place of the saint verses the hero in the story. Jesus as Christ is the centre of the story, and he creates the narrative – is the role of the disciple just to tell Jesus story? That may be the case.What if story telling was so apparent in the early church as the norm, that it wasn’t worth mentioning? It was taken as red that it was occurring? So it wasn’t needed to be mentioned. What if the reasons that these stories of Jesus have stayed the test of time is because the gospel writers themselves were hearers and retellers of them, and therefore they had been retained through theie ongoing audible use.
  3. What if the disciples were no good at it, and to preserve the dignity and sacredness of Jesus, only retold the same stories Jesus did. They didn’t get the metaphorical stories as Jesus told them, so it might have been easier for them not to maintain trying to use this method for the future. Maybe Jesus let them off the hook and didn’t make this expectation on them. The Wisdom of Jesus gave him story telling nous for the everyday stage – it wasn’t what the disciples could do. Words they did write down that were in any way poetic or metaphorical are attributed as prophetic ( Revelation) and so derived from God – rather than as a gift of eloquent methaphorical speech that the disciples have themselves.

Thank you to the social media communities of Facebook and Twitter for some of these recommendations from the original question.

It leaves us with potentially a further question, how are we expected to be witnesses of Jesus?

We learn so much from Jesus communication methods – from parabolic stories, that inspire, educate and confound their hearers, and create a expansive space for understanding the kingdom of God- but is it in our humanity to try and emulate, replicate or re-appropriate in the contexts we are in. It is said by Vanhoozer that Character (ours) is plot. We tell the story through our lives, but we also need to tell the story through our actions, provocative, prophetic and practical. (not just that we don’t swear) .

The sacred myth, story, narrative of Jesus within chronology has faded from popular view- and replaced by other myths that have a detrimental impact upon people – commercialism, materialism, capatalism and others- the stories of self indulgence that are never satisfied. The place we might have in the story is to know, just like the disciples did how the story all fits together with an ending that draws ever closer, that requires even more love, charity and hope more story. And not just a story to believe – but a story to participate in, as it participates in us ever prompting, ever guiding. The Jesus story is not just a story to live by, it is a story to perform – and that is something, there is no doubt, that the disciples did. To their own personal sacrifice and as they quite literally were martyred for the faith.


Wells, Sam, Improvisation, 2005

Ricoeur, P Figuring the Sacred, 1991

Kevin Vanhoozer, 2005, The Drama of Doctrine

Youth workers take heart – you’re trying to do the (almost) impossible!

Over the last few weeks my Son and I, have been playing a game – I have also used in leadership sessions on strategy that I have facilitated as part of my role for Frontier Youth Trust. The game is called ‘Forbidden Island’  and it involves setting up the pieces iin a formation, to form an island, and then using each others abilities, and the game play to collect treasure and escape from the island before it becomes flooded. We have had the game a while, and when we got it aside from a few scrapes we managed to do it fairly easily. However, last week I played it in a group of 4 at the leadership training, and according the way the island formed – and doing the game with ‘new’ people we lost. Last night my Son and I played, and though we changed the settings from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ we still lost – twice.

Whilst the game relies on a number of factors, each very changeable, and then some strategic thinking – how it is set up also contributes to how difficult it is. Making it virtually impossible for a group of newbies, or even more experienced players.

On a slightly different note, I once went for a job doing door to door sales for Gas and Electricity company, in the interview i was asked if i had done anything similar before. My response was that i had done door to door evangelism (dont judge me) as part of working for a church a few years before. It was, i think, the only part of the interview 20 years ago that i got full marks, for the interviewee said; ‘well if you can sell people religion at the door, you can sell them gas’

The point being – some times we dont realise quite how difficult – almost impossible the work we do actually is. And if we stopped to think about it – many of the conditions around make being a youthworker considerably difficult – and almost impossible at times to think that we might have ‘succeeded’ or ‘reached an outcome’, yet that doesnt stop us believing, trying, and being determined that something could be different for a young person, their family or the community around them. 

Now of course, there are other ‘impossible’ jobs around. Many in social work, the NHS and education might feel the same. Undervalued and Overworked, and under resourced. But some of those roles carry with them a large weight of political or organised will to make things different, unions, or the general public favour (especially for the NHS). And for many even in these professions they are under resourced and busy because of lack of nurses, for the youthworker under resourcing looks very different, it is no money. There is no shortage of work or even vacancies for employment in some of these sectors, and they are in the current climate still very much impossible jobs.

In regard to clergy, there is a fair amount of challenge, following vicars on twitter, and acknowledging the high issues of stress and mental health problems in the role is a sign of it becoming significantly more difficult, demanding and discouraging a role that it might used to have been. But again, there are vacancies for clergy, and long term contracts for clergy- its not the only thing – but security in a role can go a long way.

In another example, within Youthwork practice, whether we like it or not, theres a big push to help young people with ‘developing resilience’ that youthworkers are involved in through clubs, groups and activities. Yet at the same time theres not really the same push in society to create a better environment for young people to grow up in, especially the stressed out schools, the target driven teachers, or ofsted orientated outcomes. So, the youthworker ‘trying to build resilience’ is in a way trying to push against a heavy weight that is playing the game against the individual or group of young people. None of which is in its favour – just neo-liberalisms way of trying to get value out of education. So, the youthworker is almost trying to do, or measure, or actualise the impossible. But in a small way, its better to keep trying at the impossible, to keep believing that a young person might still flourish within or outside the ‘system’ and create those opportunities. And there are many other barriers, including poverty.

For the youthworkers in a faith context, or dare i say it in a faith-evangelism context- your task is as impossible. It is difficult to get anyone interested in the church, in the christian faith at the moment – let alone young people. You might only have a year contract to do the miracle, or be employed by the church without actually any other human resources or volunteers to ‘do the miracle’ – and theres no wonder its proving difficult and challenging. Because its virtually impossible (even with faith as an inspiration or motivation). But again, thats not to stop, its to realise that what you’re doing is not the game on an ‘easy’ level. What you’re trying to do isnt solved in a quick win, a short game – its long term. Nothing in faith based youthwork is about making something sustainable happen in the short term. Getting the church to ‘change’ though they pay you to get young people into the church (without saying as much) – impossible- almost… 

The youthwork manager – often forgotten in ‘youthwork blog posts’ – you know your job is impossible. Theres 28 plates spinning, from fundraising, to a child protection issue, to planning an away day, to writing a strategy, to recruit and train volunteers and everything else besides, you dont need me to say how impossible it can all feel. And everyone wants to tell you how they prioritised and organised, sometimes one dropped plate makes a heap of mess. And at the same time theres a longing for just ‘easy’ face to face action with young people – which isnt easy at all. Its not a completely impossible job – but it can feel like it, especially when funding gets tight and decisions about employment, contracts, activities and resources need to be made (including your own). But as a manager, you try and create an environment where others have the backing to do some of the difficult face to face stuff, create space to talk, training and supervision, try and eek out some funding for a trip, or a resource, or create an atmosphere of reflection, of determination and also support for the staff, the young person and the volunteer, and you fight, fight to keep the noise about young people to be more positive, to try and change the narrative about them. You galvanise and work in partnership, you gather and organise, you campaign and push for justice. All against the tide. The media tide, or local community opinion about young peoples place in society. It is an almost impossible task – but keeping on keeping on is what you and we all need to do. Image result for youthwork

For many reasons then, youthwork in its variety of forms, practice and approaches is an almost impossible job. It tried to act for justice and equality, tries to hear and respond to the voice of young people and give them trust and dignity, it flies in the face of those who write off young people in education or health systems. But think for a moment how much more impossible life might be or feel for that one young person you meet today without the conversation, question, activity or support that you are able to give them. Be encouraged, you’re doing an impossible job, yet for many young people you are making something positive more possible, and thats a beautiful thing and an impossible thing all at once.

The times we think it might be ‘easy’ in youthwork – hmm i think they are long gone…. ‘novice’ setting doesnt really exist. Take heart over Easter, have a break if you can, and deep down reflect on how you’re trying to create the beautiful in the places that can feel like the impossible.

I still might not have found what im looking for, but finding might be in the searching

Bear with me (non U2 fans) , but now im post 40, i can quote U2 lyrics…

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

“The process for faiths search for understanding- seeing, hearing, engaging and reflecting upon,’ what we have seen and heard’ through reading is itself a matter of high drama’ (Vanhoozer, 2005, p19)

This one of three aspects of thinking of Theology as a Drama, is explained by Kevin Vanhoozer, in effect he is saying  that there is drama in the search for faith – in the search for God and understanding. On one hand it is the least of the three aspects of theology as a drama that i focus on in most of my previous writings on Theodrama. But in reality- it might be one of the more profound. God is in the search. Less the destination. Finding is in the searching. Trying to find something, but not know if we found it is something we’ve all experienced. Participating in the search might be enough.

Often we are told in Christian culture that – ‘when we seek we find’  and this is a paraphrase from Jesus own words in Matthew 7- ‘keep on asking and you will receive what you will ask for, keep on seeking and you will find’  Note however that this is about a continual searching, a continual looking. Its almost as this is about our very nature to be seekers, searchers and curious (something implied in the creation of nations in Acts 17; 27) . We find in the process of being those who are curious, being those who participate in the searching. Not what we might find. God is less in the answer of the prayer, than the prayer itself. Yet the temptation is to think that God is in the destination of what is found, rather than in the finding.

Participating in God’s overall drama – The Theodrama – is about the ongoing search – the ongoing curiosity – and because it is a drama – and not the predictability of the maths that underpinned much of early philosophy- or the predictability of science and rationality – the search is a drama in itself.   Is Aslan good? – yes – but he isnt tame – said Lucy. Predicting the prowling Aslan, is only possible because of the signs, the winter starts to melt away. The Drama takes a new twist when Aslan is on the move.

The ongoing search is a drama in itself. It is fraught with danger and distraction all the time, we may have access (because of the cross) but it is still a drama to attune to God, still a drama to participate in the search after God – still a drama because God herself might not be as predictable or predicted. To search after God, to seek, may just be to participate in the drama, Gods drama itself, what we find might not be what were looking for. Some are still not finding what they look for.

Because, finding is in the searching.

Will the good man find the lost sheep – when he leaves the 99? who knows.

Will the woman find the coin, even when the others are in the tin? it might have been stolen.

These are metaphors Jesus uses for the Kingdom of God – maybe the kingdom is found in the searching itself. Not the finding. That trauma of having lost something and knowing it.

So, whilst the overall Drama of Gods redemption is taking place towards the fifth and final act of the ‘Return of the King’ – in this in between time of the emergence of the church since the ascension – we are left to search for God in the midst, and respond to prompts, signs and symbols, a search that is dramatic in itself.

Even if we ‘know’ the truth – it still has to be found, and re-found and re-lived again and again. It is an ongoing drama, an ongoing search, of shaping character and gaining knowledge, and faith barely exists outside knowledge. There is struggle and drama in the reading – how many distractions are there instead of reading the bible – or even tempting – just to hear our own voice in the scripture – and its specific or worldwide context or interpretation. Drama is a collective search – it is mysterious and artistic – and it is performative – it is in what we do – acting with God in the search for God.

Thanks to Richard Passmore, for his post here: http://www.sundaypapers.org.uk/?p=3623 and those on the subsequent facebook discussion, for helping to stimulate some of these thoughts.

References, On Theodrama

Vanhoozer, K , 2005, The drama of Doctrine, p19 

(and if you’re new to ‘Theodrama’, there are many others in the links on the tab to the right)

What might a theology of strategy look like?

Last week I posted a lengthy piece on developing strategy within organisations, for those who read it it got many positive reviews and comments, a link to the piece is here   if you want to read that one first  , but please remember to come back…

Over the course of thinking about strategy and planning, it occurred to me to ask the question, Might there be a theology of Strategy? The reason being, is that there is something critical to be thought of further in regard to the developing of strategies as a theological task with theological intentions and underpinnings. Theologically where might we start with thinking reflectively about strategy?Image result for strategy

What is a strategy in the first place?

Is it a plan, a way of working, a development of ideas? could be all of these things, and a bit more. It is a commonly used word, in sport, business and games.

A Broader conversation, theologically, might start with thinking about planning, and this is an overdone topic in a way. Talk of ‘Gods plan’ and perfect plan, are common, and especially in regard to free will, predestination and also how someone might live their life, and some of this I might come back to later. Before thinking about the content, it might be good to think about the theological method, or what might be meant by a ‘theology of’ something.

A simple, helpful start to think about developing a theology of something is Paul Nashs Grove Booklet – What Theology for youth work? For, whilst youthwork is his object in this – his subject matter is the different theological positions that could be taken. It is a starting point, and worth a quick read to reflect on the different theological starting points, or at least some of them.

Practical Theology and Qualitative research (Swinton) describes how there might be a critical conversation between theology and social science research, one that informs each other, again this is helpful, in thinking how the ‘on the ground’ practice of strategy development converses with what might seem to be the metaphorical and narrative artistry of the Biblical scriptures, written in a vastly different context.

For the purposes of the remainder of this post, I want to focus on Helen Camerons (et al) work Thinking about God in Practice (2010) for thinking theologically about Strategy.

Within her work, Cameron suggests that in the process of theological action research that we might be attentive to FOUR voices within theological reflection;

The Formal: Theological reflection discovered from the Institution, the university or academia, the product of hard study, interdisciplinary work and conversation.

The Espoused: This the Thei=ology that is discovered through the artifacts of an organisations literature, so for example a written constitution, statement of beliefs, creed.

The Operant: The Theology that is uncovered through observation of an organisations actions – it is what is implied in what people do

The Normative: These are the theological positions that are considered as default within the Christian (or any faith) tradition, and encompass the creeds, liturgies and what might be considered official church teaching on the matter.

Cameron is keen to point out that these voices are not invariably distinct or separate, and each voice is not simple. It may even be these as a tool are not helpful on this basis, but for the purposes of this discussion it might be good place to start.

It feels like the use of strategy within organisations is almost normative as practice. Ways of scientifically organising people to tasks and work go back a long way, from the industrial revolution, to the advent of factories and processing people into order to create an environment where tasks are completed. Strategy thinking of one form is almost normalised, to the point where ‘bad strategies’ are critiqued not ‘not having’ strategies. Not having a strategy is frowned upon. Though this isn’t a history lesson on the development of strategy within organisations. What I am saying though is that there is a considerable weight of pressure from businesses and organisations to develop strategies – it is their normative position. Standing counter to this, is going to be difficult.

So, if we started to think theologically about strategy, against the weight of normativity of this in other organisations – where might we start?

We might ask the question – is the church an organisation? And if so what is its type, purpose and nature? In that way we glean something about how a church especially might become inclined towards the normativity of other organisaions in strategy development. Another question we might asked is what is faith? Especially for a church- considered a faith-based organisation. Faith as a definition, ‘to be hopeful in what we cannot see’ might in itself be contrary to strategy planning at all, especially iif strategy planning might be considered as the thinking ahead to mitigate risks. If church instead was created as a movement – its possible intention – then does something need to be rethought again?

So, to continue on this vein, What might be some of the normative teachings on planning and strategizing from church traditions, the Biblical text even? In his work Leading, Managing, Ministering Nelson outlines some of these, though focusses on leadership and management. There are a few others – to be found via this link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leading-Managing-Ministering-Challenging-Questions/dp/1853112380/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1521800521&sr=1-3&keywords=nelson+leading (and the other similar titles)

Often God plays the role of the great disruptor of Human plans. Abraham has it all in one place, probably his life, and pension all worked out, and then God calls him and his family to something and somewhere new.

Joseph seems to follow God in the midst of an unplanned out life where things are put in front of him to react to, Moses might be similar. The plans of God were hidden, and when disclosed weren’t always obeyed. When there were plans, they seemed to be thwarted. The God has plans, people disobey them is carried through in Jonahs tale, and is indicative of Amos’s warnings of Israel. Through prophecy, Isaiah brings to the attention a pictoral glimpse of the plans that God might have – but this certainty leaves the space within it for Human planning to be minimal. All we have, to a point, is knowledge that God might also have a plan for us, in the oft taken out of context Jeremiah 29:11 verse. In a way this might be reassurance that a human plan and strategy is less required, than it is to trust and have faith in God who knows these things.

Then strategy might be considered in the New testament. In the parables faith is not seen in the man who builds bigger barns – again planning for the future. Stability is in the house built on obedience, not the barn built on planning. When Jesus sees the people of Israel like sheep without a shepherd (might considered as ‘without a plan’) it is a compassionate response, not a desire to organise. Again, many of the livelihood of the disciples is interrupted, temporarily by Jesus call to follow – though some might have used their skills and income in the ongoing movement of faith. Saul/Paul is another whose strategy in life is interrupted, and this continues as the journeys taken by these early missionaries is thwarted by acts of nature, sometimes attributed as active resistance to Gods plan, and other times as Gods plan. The closest we might get to thinking about strategy=ie and organisations , rather than individuals is through the epistles which are letters to new churches, and also to the letters to the churches in revelation.

So, we are beginning to build up a picture of some of the biblical precedents for and against developing strategy, and a part of the overall drama of scripture and the path towards redemption, these should be heard and reflected on.

However; An espoused theology of strategy needs to drill down to the actual practices. Where there are plans and strategies, there also is a belief that strategies are the implied way to do what the tasks in hand require, and a belief in strategy planning as a process. From a fundraising strategy, to safeguarding, mission strategy or youth strategy – by having a strategy as an artefact within an organisation is its own testament to how it should be organised. Whatever might be normative – through biblical theology, could be usurped by an espoused way of doing things that has become the norm. From plans and strategies, can come order and control – and actions, results and behaviours brought in line to the pre determined plan and strategy. The espoused theology might regard highly the biblical warnings – (is a parable a warning?) about ‘without vision the people perish’ or the ecclesial determination that Jesus loves the church and wants it to succeed. (then there is the success narrative) But this in itself is problematic, as it can merely use strategy as a way of ‘keeping the church open’ through planning – and endorsing this as the right way to maintain an organisation. Even the most realistic of plans might not be the best way of causing change to happen. The strategy itself might lose the intention, or virtue of the action.

An Operant theology might be determined by how an organisation behaves. So – actually – what is the talked about theology or reaction to the strategy? (just new flangled ideas..?) does the church congregation act in a way about the strategy that endorses, or deliberately objects the desires of the strategy itself? There might be opposition socially or politically to the strategy – but there may also be prophets who disagree theologically and spiritually too. But I wonder whether at its heart churches aren’t a place theologically where strategies and plans sit very easily. So an operant theology of strategy is one that whilst exemplifying compliance within a structure – usually- is also reluctant to embody the normativity of strategy thinking, causing active disruption. But thinking about what might be the operant theology of strategy is to look closely at somewhere specific. The point of Camerons research method in the first place. So – what does your church or practice operate as – in regard to plans and strategies? Does strategy seem to be ‘the way out of a crisis’ or the ‘way to do things’ – and how is this viewed? How is strategy justified theologically through those who adhere or dispute its implementation or necessity?

Finally, there might be a formal theology of strategy. Through the few published works on this subject, the working practices of theological academia, and the dissemination of research, hypothesis and ideas on this subject all contribute to a formal theology of strategy, that probably, with the weight of normative use in the business and commercial world, contributing to a general endorsement that strategies are a positive and necessary thing. Nelson book seems to endorse planning and strategizing and notably the transformation leadership culture that underpins the strategy thinking in the first place. Others in different discipline to ‘church leadership’ have been less enthusiastic of ‘strategy planning’ especially where is contravenes values and approaches. What is interesting is that the ‘secular’ youthwork approach dismisses strategy planning as something that is against values, and ethics, yet the church – which could have stronger values – does not always. Maybe church sees itself as a stronger organisation and culture- than the youthwork profession.

What if theology itself was more of an improvised play than a planned action? What might that mean in regard to trying to develop a theology of strategy?

Martyn Percy says this:

The belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit is not an arid set of directives, but rather a faith that is embedded in a community of praxis which makes beliefs work and gives shape and meaning to the lives that believe. So religious belief is not some kind of arcane metaphysics; it is rather, performed-much as one might perform a play. Indeed the beliefs must be performed in order to comprehend the drama. Simply reading the scriptures as a text is about as effective as reading a play as a text. To understand the life of the drama and the intention of the author , the play needs to be witnessed as a performance. Christian faith is, first and foremost the performance of God’s drama”Image result for passion plays

And others the same. Im not going to rehearse these again (just see the Theodrama link on the right)

Do plays need strategies? – they need scripts (we have one its the Bible), they need actors, directors and an audience. There is planning in the acting as actors respond to the cues and know how to respond. Training to act might be more repetition of action than planning of action. Yet whilst the great theatrical performances of the bourgeois need promotion and strategy – the improvised theatre and the mystery plays had word of mouth and reacted in the moment – live. Does the production of the drama of Gods redemption need strategy? Goodness is slightly less good if its planned isnt it – its strategic and false. Authentic reactions in the moment cant be pre planned or strategised. In the great drama of Gods redemption that we are part of – does strategic planning have any place at all? Where there was Chaos – God brought order into creation – but ever since doesnt it feel as though God is continually disrupting the order we try to make ourselves?

I caught a glimpse of ‘Scruffy Vicars’ recent post this week on ‘The Ideal and the Ordeal’ it is here: https://scruffyvicar.wordpress.com/2018/03/21/the-ideal-and-the-ordeal/  and practically this is a problem with aloof strategising. It is to envision the outcome, and not be ready for the actual, normal and effort required. It took me to think about not only what Jon Ord talks about in Critical issues in Youthwork Management – that we should plan for opportunities and not outcomes. But also that when Jesus told the seventy two or twelve to ‘go out’ he gave them instructions to create the right scene – what he barely said was what to do when getting there (except to stay when welcomed) neither was the outcome part of the plan. (aside from leave if unwelcomed). But these instructions we to his own people. In Matthew Jesus’ instructions are that the 12 go to the lost people of isreal. So in effect, Jesus was saying, go and try and find a  welcome in your own land, with your own people. Be receivers of service. It was not outcome strategising, but strategising – or preparing for opportunity.

We need to strategy with an emergence and a readiness on one hand, as well as some thinking and dreaming on the other. In ministry we can be disillusioned with too much dreaming and no reality, or too much thought about strategy before anything is done. Its like in the BBC2 series Red Dwarf, Rimmers Revision timetable takes 4 weeks to put together all colour coded, and only gives him 1 day to actually revise. i digress, let me close. (if youve even got this far)

The four voices of might be needing to be attended to, for the purposes of doing qualitative research into a practice and to work out what a local theology of strategy might be. Here it might be enough to reflect on strategy theologically and critically from a few different angles to begin a conversation. Where there are organisations there might also be strategies, but where there are disruptions – is this the voice of God calling us out from the order we think we have created? God might be in the strategising, but that in itself is action on the stage of the world, and it needs to be performed with the same love and goodness of all the play.Calling to perform his improvised play that is emerging on the stage of the world?

What might a theology of strategy begin to look like…?


Cameron et al: Talking about God in Practice – 2012

Nelson Leading, Managing Ministering, 1999

Martyn Percy, Shaping the church, 2012

On Theodrama – Vanhoozer, 2005, 2010, 2012 and many others

Ord, Jon Critical issues in youthwork Practice.  



Help! Is it possible to be a critical christian and have purposeful faith?

As a four year old, I used to like trying to work out how things worked. Nothing was safe, clocks were a favourite, I’d take the backs of them and then remove the springs pulleys and mechanism. Sometimes I could put them back together, on other occasions there would be a mess of wires and springs on the bedroom floor and no clock possible. I’d take apart bikes and put them together again when I was older. I was curious from an early age. It was more than just asking the ‘why’ question but the ‘how’ question.

My school report might read that I was messy and untidy, but would also say that when it was something that I was interested in it be normal for me to continue that same curiosity. I had an active brain. Being perceptive was something that I had been commended for. Growing up asking questions, growing up thinking. I dont say these things as thinking of myself in any way special or unique, if faith and social development theories have anything to go by then curiosity and exploring are so much part of growing up.

I guess what I didnt do was stop at bikes, or clocks, but continued to ask, sometimes the stupid, questions in my growing up in church; why do you believe in that? why do we do things in a certain way in this church? my own perceptive brain was thinking, and didnt want i guess the stuff of faith that i was drawn to, to be a back alley or cul de saq that hadnt been thought through. Yet even then, I had blind spots that needed others to point out to me – as sometimes the answers to my questions positioned faith in a certain way within the box of that church tradition i guess- within the safe.

Recently I was reading faith formation in a secular world, by Andrew Root, in it, he brings to the youth ministry attention the observations of the world as proposed by Charles Taylor. In a way it gave me a sense of relief – but also a worry.

A relief, in that what Root explores from Taylor is that faith exists in a context, largely that is critical of it. Critical because of religious institutional scandals, cover ups, because of perceived prejudice against groups and inequality, and , the main thing when i was growing up, a media perception of its irrelevance, boring, or something generally to take the piss out of.  I think I also grew up, in that same zone of perception and criticalness that meant that it became difficult to accept completely what was said by powerful people, one example being to ‘stand at wembley stadium and ‘feel’ Jesus at work whilst singing along to a song’ as one example. I guess i questioned the evangelical way of things, that at the time had also fed and nurtured my faith since birth, to a point. But growing up questioning, found a critical edge, and then, in my mid twenties, a further space to enjoy being questioning, and opening up more of the how and why of things through academic study at ICC. (Now SSCM, Glasgow).

I had an avenue to be critical, to think, to read, and in the main ever since I have enjoyed reading, thinking and also being at times really awestruck by images, metaphors and descriptions of God through writing that has broadened, and aided me in personal devotion. Be a critical reflector, thats what they said.  However, there is still a snag, a big one.

My own critical and cynical nature.

What I struggle to do is peel off the onion layer of critique and expose myself to the vulnerability of faith, even that innocence of faith. Im too battle weary, too thoughtful, too much a product of the critical age, and a culture of realism that besets the same. Dont get me wrong its not culture I blame, but aware that it is this culture that it is easy to fit in. And at the same time easy to be critical of ongoing practice that seem at odds with what i might perceive as the truth or the performance of theology, or even just poor ethics. The hand that used to feed me, the evangelical church tradition, is probably the one i bite the most.

But as a contrast I have found solace, spiritually, in a theological framework that remythologises and constructs. The great Theodrama that expands the metaphors of action, of time, of God interjecting and the drama of everyday life. A built up theology of Gods voice speaking in the everyday and a drama of ongoing redemption that connects us all in an overall plan of redemption. It is a thing of great beauty, of humanity and of promise. It is what in every day should cause me to wonder, to believe and take hold of.

But instead, beautiful theology meets skin of cynicism.

Where the Theodrama prompts and provokes – the me of my time kicks back the question and writes it off.

Once the critical has been unleashed is the fear that it wont go back in the bubble? Can I not just have an innocent simple faith anymore? I never had an innocent simple faith, and if im a realist, i dont think anyone has an innocent simple faith anyway, unless thats just my projection. Innocent and simple faith, is that what we’re called to have anyway? see a load more questions. Then a shred of doubt? Can God still use me even if I am critical and cynical at times, or might he use me because of it? Have I spent too long trying to be someone else, someone who isnt full of questions, thoughts and exploring? What if i need to not be for a moment, can i switch off the radar, and just relax and be in the moment and faithful.

I was visiting a project a few weeks ago, that were doing detached youthwork out on a fairly wet night in Glasgow. Before we went out we met at a house with others and spent some time praying together, at least they did. I couldnt help but think that it was the kind of moment that I hadnt had for a while, spending time praying with people, or more to the point, praying with people who seemed to have that innocent faith, combined with an missional heart for a local area that they were prepared to do something. The haggard me realises that I have had to lead prayers in staff meetings previously when much of the time there was foreboding and challenge in the air. On other times involved in prayer meetings where there was too much amazeballs going on that honestly it was difficult not to feel threatened, or that its so unreal that it doesnt make any sense, or its power games and trying to be the most charismatic pray-er in a room of exciting youthfulness. (back to me dissing the evangelicals again – apologies) .

In the great Theodrama, there may be a role suitable, though its not the critic.

Its the Theologian. The task of the theol0gian is to help the play towards its redemptive ending, to keep it guided along against the script, however difficult this is. It is not to ask critical questions that derail the drama of redemption, but ask :

are we on track with the Theodrama?

Is what we’re doing the way of Jesus?

Are we performing in and acting it out in obedience to the prompts of God in the midst?

These are the questions for the theologian to ask of the action before it, is not to critique the play of others, as they do their performances, but to steer guide and help gravitate the existing plays to develop Gods plays. As The Greatest showman realised, critics can say one thing about a performance, but the audience another. But in the Theodrama, the audience is the guest not the critic, and the theologian is the dramaturge guiding the play to be closer to the way of Jesus, but also in doing so is part of the action in obedience to the action. As has been stated previously, who are the theologians, who are those that know in innocence the heart of God – thatll be the children, the intuitive theologians. Those with innocent left, not with innocent lost. More are theologians that just the academic, for, its also the task of the theologian performers, the pastor-theologians who look after the flock, and those who expand the stage to include others in the performance, theologians one and all in the midst of the drama. Shaping from within, listening to the prompts in the heat of the action. Being followers of the great improviser on the stage. As i said, this is rather beautiful.

There might well be space in the Theodrama for critical and helpful questions, sometimes depending on the audience or performers, these rent accepted or heard, other times they are questions loaded with too much malice, cynicism or motive, and  i know i struggle with getting this balance. What i struggle with as much though is hanging onto a kind of accepting faith when my inner cynic, cant keep quiet, and neither my mind and spirit is rarely still. Is it possible to be critical christian? – and yet still have a role to play in the overall drama, and also the day to day drama in the world.

In a way what right do I have to think of myself as a critic, how do I know the acts and wonders of God in the midst, prompting the faithful to new performances, what can I do but contribute to the performances and helping others with theirs. It is no relief to be like this, however much I might be a ‘product’ of a questioning culture. It makes it harder to see God in things, to relax in the transcendance space and to accept an innocent of God involved. Can a critical christian have faith – yes- it just might not be an innocent one anymore. In a way, that is ok. It is trying to find the grown up faith beyond and through the questions that I am struggling to find – when faith seems only to be about simplicity, innocence and acceptance. Can I still have faith, even more so. Is it a learning faith that retains curiosity (as part of our Humanity Acts 17) very much so.

There is no going back for me to naive innocent faith, once the can has been opened and new light has dawned. But that is not either what we’re asked to have. We are meant to grow up in faith, and be aware that our critical nature is part of who we are, and so developing learning, being challenged must be part and parcel of discipleship, and despair and cynicism, like the psalms might be left to our moments of personal reflection, angst and anger. Help! i may be a critical christian thats lost his faith in evangelicalism, but that doesnt mean that i dont have a faith or purpose. What im trying to work out is how the beauty and mystery of God can be realised even with my critical nature as part of the deal. Does God accept our critical nature? take us as we are?



Root Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Vanhoozer, K, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Vanhoozer, K, Remythologising Theology, 2010


Why does Media representation (for christians) even matter?

You know how the saying goes, the media portrays the NHS in crisis overall – yet everyone loves their local hospital, fights for it and want it to be kept open, facilitated and the core provider of health services in the UK. But ask people on the street about the NHS overall and theyll say something different, depending on whether they have used the services recently or not.

One of the earliest lectures I attended as part of my Youthwork degree at ICC, was that on the media representations of Young People. Often nearly always bent towards the negative (even their success at exams is skewed to reflect ‘easier exams nowadays), but young people are portrayed with hoods, as closed off, as in groups/gangs, at fault for many of societies ills. We learned and saw how the narrative of negativity around young people shaped government policy, as what might be said to be the Daily Mail brigades were reacted to. Though the moral fear about young people created by such stories is not new.

One of the things in church based youthwork is to maintain challenges these narratives, as they can be often the ones that church people ingest the most frequently and then shape whether they as people will bother volunteering to do youthwork in the church, or dictate how to treat young people. When as we know, God sees young people differently…doesnt she?

So on this basis, media representations of young people in society, as a youthworker are important- because they shape attitudes, narratives and policy. (and thats before we get the new wave of ‘millenial bashing’)

However, there is also a complete surprise in the local situation. When a group of volunteers encounter and interact with young people on the streets for the first time, they are often surprised, saying ‘that went better than i expected!’ – why what did you expect… ?  Well id heard so much about young people…… So again, the universal media narrative is the default norm, but this is often overcome because in the right kind of environment, and with the right kind of approach, young people are barely anything like the media portrays them. They cant be. boring young people all 99% of them arent newsworthy. Though its also fair to say that the services that provide for and with young people (as many of the 99% need mental health support, or counselling, or universal youthwork that barely exists)  and the plight of this is also less newsworthy, because it is about young people. And so, if the media doesnt care positively about young people, then it is going to care less about paying for services for them. The anti youth bias continues.

So, fast forward to the last two weeks. Not for the first time there is a conversation going around about ‘How Christians are portrayed in the Media’ and an open letter by the evangelical preacher J John. Im not going to share the link, but it is in this response piece by Bryony Taylor, which is well worth a look, to at least balance the scales on media portrayals of christians: https://bryonytaylor.com/2018/03/21/representation-of-christians-on-the-bbc-my-response-to-j-johns-open-letter/

A few reflections;

  1. Its a bit self indulgent. Surely Christians can protests about media portrayals of more oppressed communities in society than themselves. Young people perhaps, LGBT, Women (in general), people from other countries (but no), Muslims.
  2.  I wonder is there anything worse about Christianity than putting across a victim complex. And being seen to be that way.

But overall does it matter- and why does it matter?

For one thing, I do go on at this point. The perception, is that the media is somehow meant to be on the side of the christian church in the UK. That’s the perception within the church, in the main. Along with this is the belief that if there is religious stuff on TV then this will make the church relevant and cause people to think positively about the church and then go along to it. Negative media representation obviously damages this approach. It is about relevancy to the evangelical, that’s one of the whole aspects of the strategy. Being relevant has meant being involved in the media. When i was growing up it was Steve Chalke on the TV – somehow he was trendy for young people.. (!)

In a way I wouldnt want the BBC to think it had to respond to J John about his complaint, because that might mean that they werent genuine about what they might try and do in the future. What the christian church would be better at doing was actually doing stuff in their every day locality that was meaningful, provocative and risk taking to and with local communities- that the BBC couldnt help but write positive stories about the church. Like the methodists who protested against the arms depot and challenged the courts.  But many other countless examples. Lets face it, christians doing foodbanks in Newcastle were the heroes in ‘I Daniel Blake’.

If people in every day local communities had a positive experience meaningfully of their local church- then universal media representations wouldnt matter. It has become the great ‘hang up’ on one hand we pour christian celebrity status on the bakers from bake off (Martha Collinson) who profess faith, the brit award winners (stormzy) – and they become ‘role models’ – yet at the same time decry the media for challenging portrayals. We cant have both cakes and eat them. But even this rush to get christians in the media is part of the same approach. Stormzy might be the coolest thing since Ice Cubes. And Broken the most powerful portrayal of priesthood since well The Passion of the Christ. None of it is of any importance until people locally become connected and surprised by the church. One of the ways that this could happen, is if local churches forgot their own oppression, and connected (even more) with those who really do face it.

There is moment in the film ‘Pride’ (2014) where a character uses the media as a way of  telling tales about the ‘Gays and Lesbians’ who had gone to the village to support the striking miners in the miners strike. The response to the character from one of the support group leaders was ‘ well i dont believe the media about what they say about us (the miners) so why do i about them (the Gay fundraisers)’. We either think people cant make up their own mind and uncritically believe everything they hear in the media, or as christians we might surprise by being different in the local area. If we’re doing good works, with love, then the media cant touch us, and if we react it gives fuel to their fire, not ours.

Bryony is even more prolific than me; here is her second response, on developing a theological response to media courting: https://bryonytaylor.com/2018/03/22/representation-of-christians-on-television-a-theological-response/



Roche & Tucker, Youth in Society, 1995

Garratt, Roche, Tucker, Changing experiences of Youth, 1997


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