How should a church start working with young people? (pioneering advice from 15 youthworkers)

There is a stark reality to be had. Most churches in the UK are not places where there are many young people, and this appears to be an issue. An issue so much that ‘young people’ is a strategy for some dioceses, and also probably part of the motivation for the Church of England recruiting and appointing a youth evangelist in the last 2 years. So, for many there is a church problem with young people. And it has to be that way around.

I am encouraged though. Encouraged by the pockets of endeavour happening where spaces and places of faith are being opened up with young people in communities, especially in the north east, that include after school clubs which have reflective meditative moments around the cross, or where young people become involved in whole church activities like walks, social events, and eucharists, or where there are dedicated committed people open to learn from and journey in faith with young people. So, there are signs of hope, signs where young people are encountering and experiencing faith.

But these are the minority not the norm.

So, what advice would I give to a church – who was either thinking about, or having to think about starting work with young people? 

I put this question out to youth workers on social media the other day, here are some of the pieces of advice that returned:

(in no particular order)

  1. Look at the needs of the local community and look at your own resources  (@smoorns) 
  2. Don’t be afraid to start small. But start somewhere and learn as you go. Some things you try won’t work. Try stuff anyway. (@loydharp)
  3. Talk to God about youth, before talking to youth about God (@katneedle)
  4. Stop doing Sunday School and move to all age worship 10 years ago. (@revmadbull)
  5. (host it) Not in the church (@seanusx)
  6. Stop expecting young people to come to you, go to the young people. God sends us out for a reason! (@ccwgcyouth)
  7. Find them, listen to them, be with them, no commitments or invitations, just show up consistently. (Can I get away with that as a sentence?) (@abbiebeale)
  8. Make friends with other youth & community groups- uniformed, council, sports, schools. Find out what young people in area need. Pray. See which yp are hanging around in your area, where, when & why. Invest in the children your Church has. (@helenwolsten)
  9. What would welcome/hospitality look like to a young person in your home? If positive then replicate it and make church space part of this. (@stalbansdyo)
  10. Focus on serving young people, not on growing Sunday attendance. Trust your youth worker.. (@hdschutte)
  11. Pray. Pray that God will choose one among you who has appropriate skills and lots of energy! (@relmelrose1)
  12. Gently and with love. (I agree with everyone else). What are the community saying and how do you provide for them? (@lizskudder)
  13. Listen, look and seek beyond your own needs – what is it that you have to offer? (@mizenben)
  14. Find out where the young people are, get a bunch of loving and generous adults to hang out with them, and then build from these relationships. (@the267project)
  15. Take time to listen first, what are the needs and what resources do you have. (@youthworkermike)

It is often that the ‘Why’ of starting working with young people is focussed on alot more than the ‘how’ , though there are a number of ‘how to’ books that circulate , many of which reduce the long graft of working with young people to a series of formulas and ‘quick wins’ – when there is often no such thing.

One thing to be positive about, is that if you are starting from scratch, then you have the opportunity to try something new. As, it looks like previous attempts, and previous approaches didn’t work, or weren’t right for that time. Starting from scratch might also mean thinking differently, and not just about blaming the world for not being as christian as it used to be, but thinking differently about young people, faith, spirituality and mission. A new way might need embracing – that goes beyond strategies and attractional programmes. And embraces the incarnation, the improvisation and being vulnerable. As Richard Passmore says in ‘Here be Dragons (2013); Mission and Church are two sides of the same coin, and there is need to know stories, scripts and tools – but be ready to improvise in spaces where the wind blows (Passmore, 2013)

Being prepared with tools to understand the landscape, and tools that help with thinking on pioneering might be required, and Here Be Dragons might be one resource on this, especially as its written with youth work in mind (see the menu above for how to get hold of a copy)

One of the key aspects in developing something new is the waiting, the observing and the preparing phase, and im generally not sure this is done often or well enough. It is more common that a top down strategy is needed to be implemented to work with young people, and this dictates the process. Where, as many of the contributors above said, watching, waiting, listening and learning are key. As Friere said, we have to watch, for todays flower is different tomorrow. Watch and learn on how young people engage in their local community, or dont, watch and learn about how they gather in the parks and why, watch and learn about other community resources and partnerships. Learn about the needs of young people (and any school in the land will tell you these) – but also the gifts and talents of young people that you can enhance that arent being harnessed because of lack of opportunity, access or funding.

Participation is another key, (it might even be the key that unlocks the ongoing toolkit) How might young people be involved in an ongoing process. Dont just invite them to an event with free pizza, invite them to be part of a conversation to create youth provision (with free pizza) – theres a big difference. Between treating young people as consumers, or treating them with respect and as possible creators and contributors. After all, its not like we have any clue about young people (thats why you’re reading this and trying to get an idea or two..) ., but every young person is different, and, worth being specific not general. Work with who you have, not the fabulous young people it seems everyone else seem to have.

There is nothing wrong with trying to do an activity. As i said, the after school clubs and groups are fantastic, but both were started after conversations with young people, and not just an idea that was started without young peoples involvement. It might be necessary to, as someone above said, to ‘go to where young people are at’ – and so detached youthwork might be the thing to do to learn, listen and have conversations with young people. (Further training on this can be found above in the menu) . its a big difference between opening a space where young people have conversations, are given respect and feel a sense of home and then develop faith – from an activity space of high programme, curriculum and activity where it could feel not much different to school and where young people have little involvement, other that to kick off or out.

Some of the advice above is assuming that there are at least a few young people in the church. Some is about how we might in church convey messages that the whole of church is for everyone, such as the ‘all age service’ – and reducing the moments of separation, and encouraging children and young people to participate in the meaningful acts of the service. (And if the service isnt meaningful or inclusive for families (and families who want to be there)  then maybe theres a problem, … ) .

Starting something new with young people – go on, give it a go – be pioneering…

I hope this post has given you some pointers, pieces of advice, and been helpful to you if you are in the process of starting work with young people, especially from scratch. There is plenty on this site on detached work, participation, improvisation and mission, (search via the category tabs) as well as thinking differently about young people, so do have a look around if this interests you.

How might a church start working with young people?  It hasnt got to, but with the right thinking and approaches, even an ageing church can do something meaningful to help young people. Its just not about trying to entertain, more encourage, empower and embrace (a new paradigm) – sentiments that many suggested above.

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One thought on “How should a church start working with young people? (pioneering advice from 15 youthworkers)

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  1. Thank you for this – it’s really helpful, not just for those working with young people. The pointers and advice are equally applicable to those working with adults. It’s no accident that some of the most creative missiological thinking comes from those with a youth work background…

    Liked by 1 person

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