10 threats and opportunities for churches as posed by Detached youth work

Recently I was in a conversation with someone who was asking about my working experiences (no it wasn’t a job interview), and having talked a little about my experiences in working in a call centre, then making the leap to begin youthwork and theology training, I then mentioned that I have been involved in detached youthwork for the best part of the last 12 years, in one shape or another, either through coordinating a project, trying to start detached work, or managing and volunteering detached work back in the north east. The person, seeming knowledgeable about detached youthwork (for I didn’t have to explain it, there’s a surprise) said;

Detached youth work, Thats a real threat to the church – isnt it?

Image result for 6 and 9
Picture of image of the number 6 or 9 realised differently depending on how it is viewed

I kind of hadn’t thought of it in this way before. But in the subsequent couple of weeks I have realised that aspects of detached youthwork that are threats to the church, are also aspects that present churches with opportunities. I guess its where it depends on how the threats are viewed, as threats or opportunities.

So, what might these threats/opportunities – or thropportunities be?

  1. Detached youthwork deals with the reality. Countless times I hear about the perceptions of young people in the local community, their behaviours and issues that are occurring. But the reality of being out on the streets is a whole different scenario. Its not always like this, but the reality compared to the perceived reality, or talked about stories is very different. A reality discovered about young people from them, is usually far different to what people who dont know them make it out to be. Especially in terms of situations like ‘boredom’ or ‘alcohol use’. A threat to church is that detached youthwork is about a reality of a situation. Also, it threatens the universalisms of ‘gen x’ and ‘millenial’ thinking for ministry that are used to shape programmes, detached youthwork deals in the local and reality. And this is also an opportunity. An opportunity to learn and listen from the local and real. There are no millenials on the streets of your town, trust me, just young people who want a bit of time and respect, and to be treated for who there are, and not what people expect them to be.
  2. Detached youthwork shifts the big idea. The threat here is that the source of the big ideas about developing work with young people gets shifted from the corridors of power erm ‘youth ministry planning meeting’ which is when adults talk about young people and try and discover an idea to work with them, and shifts the idea making space to the young people themselves. The threat is the loss of power, the opportunity is that young people become invested in and the opportunity for high participation and creativity into the nature, practices and regularity of next provision. Its a threat because the assumed knowledge held in churches gets shifted. ‘Why not find out what young people like, want and could contribute’ is a both an opportunity and a threat, isnt it?
  3. Detached youth work opens up the empty space. The threat here is that pandoras box of the local community may be opened up and the church may feel provoked as hasn’t been as vulnerable or willing to open it before , to experience the reality, or face its own cultural boundaried edges. But this is also an opportunity, of course it is, an opportunity to be provoked into cultural change, an opportunity to listen and respond, an opportunity to realise that the empty space is already a God at work in it space, and therefore an opportunity to join in the party already happening. Image result for empty stage
  4.  Detached youth work makes the relationship ministry. A report the other day suggested that clergy like being clergy because they cant stand being with people, that its a way of being able to stand aloof, now I imagine that might be the same for a number of professions. In youth ministry, with the exception of the summer camp or weekend residentials, there can still be a temptation to the let the game, talk, activity, do all the ‘talking’ and that it not be about personal conversations and educating through them. The Ministry could do all the talking. In detached youthwork, the gloves are off, for, aside from what might be spontaneous activities like a game of football on the park, detached youthwork threatens as it is about personal rapport, personal conversations, and developing a purposeful relationship with a or a group of young people. It is a threat because it asks more than ‘new skills’ but asks that we become closer to who we are with young people, we do the talking (and listening). There is only the possiblilty of relationship that exists in detached work, rather than the offer of a next game, activity or session. Its why young peoples questions on the street, whilst sometimes challenging, are versions of ‘can I trust you?’ Its the young people that are testing us and whether they can trust us in that place. The threat is that ministry doesnt do the talking, and that we as workers and people who are out there do relationship building as ministry. This makes it still an opportunity- doesnt it… ?
  5.  Detached youthwork does not raise any money. Sorry, I had to mention the ‘m’ word. But no its pretty difficult to make detached youthwork pay for itself. Given that its about vulnerability, reality and conversation, its kind of difficult to charge young people for it, unlike subs or tuck shops or other ways in which churches generate small amounts of income from young people in the clubs and groups. But that means that detached youthwork is free at the point of access, and that, makes it an opportunity for young people who cant attend groups, who feel awkward about paying.
  6. Detached youthwork values young peoples group making. Have you ever noticed how group work develops in churches, usually its a mix of people who like an activity, gather together to do it, so the choir, the homegroup, the bible study. In working with young people, often young people have to try and develop group work even though they can be a dispersed group for the rest of the week (not unlike a sunday morning congregation at times) , so any group work is slow because it has only an hour or so a week to occur, and normally most Sunday nights are ‘storming’ events in the group cycle, and only over a weekend residential, or some collective activity does further group work happen. I wonder whether we attribute God to nights when good group work happened… ‘look how they worked well together, im sure God did this’ , it could be more sociology than spirituality as to why a group of young people functioned. Image result for group developmentDetached youthwork meets and tries to work with young people in the groups they have already chosen, spent time with and created for themselves. They are not created groups through a ministry practice, but groups in which young people have already found an identity, role, space and support from, and so detached youthwork if we do it well, forces us to recognise the possibility and strength of this already established group and try ourselves to become accepted as part of it in the way they might want us to be. But detached youthwork values that young people can make their own groups, find sanctuary and space to be in their own groups and as an opportunity to meet and connect in and with them, taking the pain out of trying to force group work upon a gathered group of young people.
  7. Detached youthwork connects churches with the other 95% of young people. (Scripture union suggest that churches are only connecting with 5% of the young people in the UK) I guess that’s the opportunity. It is more of a reality that detached youthwork may help connect churches with the 10% of young people who are out on the streets. It is almost guaranteed that none of these young people are the usual sunday youth fellowship young people. Its also as guaranteed that even if the church is involved in local schools assemblies or groups, there’s likely to be better conversations with young people on the streets, and this is where there’s the greatest likeliest long term ministry to be started from. There are projects in the UK who now have a small number of voluntary and paid leaders who were all the ‘destructive’ kids in school, but who with a dollop of patience, listening and availability for conversation over a long period of time from detached workers have flourished as part of a faith community. Far more than any in the ‘schools groups’. Detached work threatens the church, as it says, young people who no one else hopes for have value. It threatens the church because it asks the church to believe differently about young people and believe differently about the future leadership of the church and where it resides from. Its not the ‘other 95%’ of young people, but the 10% who have been left behind. Detached youthwork can be the standing in the gap people, the borders and margins, the opportunity to lift others and cause them to fly, even with previously clipped wings.
  8. Detached youthwork is a threat, because its unpredictable and open ended. Sadly in a world where the church has opted into ‘value for money’ ministries in which outcomes and outputs have to be tightly negotiated and planned for. Detached youthwork is a threat, for, like chaplaincy, it doesnt play that game. Detached youthwork may be the chaplaincy to young people on the streets, but it is a threat because it challenges the outcomes agenda. Yet it is an opportunity, because it challenges the outcomes agenda. It has the possibility of opening up the space, the empty stage and creating something new, improvised, that wasn’t thought of before, because that’s the tangent that young people trusted us with.  We might want to predict the number of sessions, hope for the number of conversations, plan for recruiting volunteers and measure the training hours, but to know whats going to happen with a group of young people in a period of 6 weeks? hmm… its a threat because it is open ended, but its also a possibility that being open ended might allow a church to follow and not lead, to be responsive and less in control, to challenge ‘value for money’ with values of ministry. It is therefore an opportunity of space creating within existing places instead of planning created spaces of expectations. Its not A + B to make C happen, but A + B and why not C what does…   Being open ended is an opportunity, but its also definitely a threat.
  9. Detached youthwork present a new lens for theology. When we explore, observe and feel the reality of life on the streets, when we’re in conversations and hear stories – we give ourselves a new lens with which to view scripture and the theology we held to. (and I know all experiences will do this) there is something about the fluidity of detached work and the same street occurences that we read about that Jesus and disciples had, that take on a new meaning through the lived experiences of detached work. It is also a lens from reality, from developing new conversations, from being involved in young people where they are, a lens where we ecounter God in the midst of the action, in the dark spaces on the streets. A lens of hope. It makes faith seem a whole load different and different from a Sunday shaped view of buildings, rows and order, or academia, reading and reflection (all valid, just different). Theology from the context of the streets, not just contextual theology for the streets. An opportunity and a threat.
  10. Detached youthwork is everyones game, not just young families and the young leaders. Having bought into the attractional game of youth ministry, where only Mr or Miss trendy can work with young people, detached youthwork is a threat to this. Image result for trendy youth leader

 I want you to think about when you were a young person. seriously. What kind of person did you want to connect with? Someone like you, or someone who liked you, someone who respected you and gave you time, or someone still trying to find themselves, someone who listened, or someone who wanted to only tell their own story?  Did it matter to you what age they were?  Detached youthwork is a threat, because its not for the young leader. No it really isnt. Its for those who are willing to be vulnerable and take a risk. Its for those who are good at talking and listening, for those who have a deep call to hope for young people. It is not a young persons game, because it is not a game, it is real. It is a threat to the gravitational pull to the attractional youth leaders, and an opportunity to take years of experience, life wisdom and patience, and even deep maternal or paternal instincts out onto the streets. It is an opportunity to be surrogate uncle and Auntie, and respected as an adult for being an adult. The best detached youthwork volunteers i ever had – they were in their 40’s and 50’s. And i have had some good 20 year olds too. With churches that are ageing, 50 year olds – come on, do more than be a street pastor once a month, get out and connect with young people on a weekly basis.

So, 10 aspects of detached youthwork, and maybe also open club work and chaplaincy type work, that feel as though they both present threats and opportunities to churches in the current context of missional practice. The good thing about threats is that they cause us to rise to a challenge, to take a risk, and provoke, the mission field of the streets is still pretty much open, and young people are still there. Some of these threats may help to take churches to a new place, should they be vulnerable to go and learn, some may be opportunities to do good in a local community, just being in the place of reality and opening up the streets as a space of opportunity is an opportunity in itself. Its a threat to often how mission has been ordered before, but thats not a bad thing. Surely?

If you’re up for starting this opportunity, and want some training or help with it, let me know, contact me via the menu above. Thank you for reading and sharing, and I apologise for the adverts below:

 

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