A practical prod to help churches be places where young people flourish, my review of ‘Adoptive Church’ (2018)

I have had a copy of Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive Church’ for over a month now, sent to me to write a review of it, for this blog, its a bit of an odd book to try and write a review of, that’s not to say that it is without merit, some very interesting points, but I guess for me, a book that only has a few references, and only 12 Authors are listed in the Index (though they do include Barth, Bonhoeffer and Calvin) then you might understand why this is a book that I have struggled with. I had hoped in one way that the last three books I had read on youth ministry were bucking a trend somewhat ( Nick Shepherds ‘Faith Generation‘, Roots ‘Faith Formation in a secular age‘ and even the ‘Theological turn in youth ministry’ by Root and Dean) towards attempting more thorpugh examination of youth ministry practices. This book makes no mention of these previous pieces (or Root/Dean/Shepherd/ as influences) In comparison this is skin deep, and possibly why I have struggled with writing this review.

However, that’s the pre amble for the review, and possibly reveals my own prejudices. As I said this book is not without merit.

Adoptive Church (Chap Clark)

 

Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive church’ is the third of his ongoing series on developing family orientated churches in which young people can flourish. Previously he has written in two publications the importance of family for the nuturing of young people[1], and in Adoptive youth ministry this approach was developed further. In Adoptive Church, Chap Clark changes the focus from developing a nurturing youth ministry, to providing guidance for the whole church as to how it be adoptive in doing so be an environment where the nuture of young people occurs. This book is squarely for those youth ministers who are working in a church context, little is mentioned of mission activities and outreach work, but despite this it does ask pertinent questions and gives practical suggestions on how a church, a faith community might develop an adoptive way of being that can be of benefit to all, and not just young people.

Outline

In part one Chap Clark explains what he means by an adoptive church, in addition he suggests three crises that he identifies are befalling the existing programmable approaches to churches working with young people , chapters three four and five describe further the requirements for creating an adoptive church including what this means for discipleship, and how a church might develop a strategy for being adoptive, and then the goal of what an adoptive ministry might mean for young people and the church itself. The implementation of an adoptive church is Chaps main concern in part 2, a number of case studies, questions and processes are considered and primarily these relate to the nature of leadership required , with two different styles considered. The final section describes the characteristics of an adoptive church and how to encourage churches to develop an adoptive approach. The main shift for chap is that he directs most of this conversation to the whole churches rather than the specifics of the youth ministry departments. His passion is that the whole church is the soil for the nurturing, empowering and participation of young people and a culture of family who adopts young people is what is required for this to happen.

Strengths

Universality of context – Chap suggests that an adoptive church approach can be considered for churches in ‘Atlanta, Ontario and Nairobi (p21)’ and in the main I agree with this sentiment. Describing how churches to have a better environment for nurturing young people in the faith community is critical for all churches, yet I cant help but think that the setting of a large church and the challenges that this proposes shape Chaps thinking and concerns in the main. Its almost as though Chap is responding to the problems in large church youth ministry where young people might well be cyphened off into age groups and never to be seen again by other supportive adults in a church, almost.

That discipleship is described as a process, rather than an end game, is another strength (page 49) – and Chap challenges the notion of ‘a mature’ disciple – when as he says, it is a movement and trajectory towards maturity that everyone in faith is undertaking. It is from this sense of movement that Chap orientates the solution to the three problems he suggest that are at the root of the issues in youth discipleship (stated below).

His solution to the three problems (and which encourages the movement of discipleship) to use a biblical analogy, is to focus on the soil.  The solution isnt the programmes, professionalism of youthworkers, the excitement of the residential. It is the culture of the church. For Chap, the solution is that the soil – that is the culture of church, which all of us are part (whether paid, clergy, laity, congregation) is in need of a rethink.

we need to create environments where seeds can grow and shoot down deep roots that will last a lifetime (Clark p50)

For Clark, creating the right environment for the flourishing of disciples (the seeds) – involves cultivating the following:

  • Knowing Christ leads to following (p51)
  • Love for God increases knowledge (p51) (Quoting Tozer)
  • Knowing about God so that they (young people) can know God personally (GF Hawthorne) (I might critique this ‘knowing God personally’ relationship notion, and Root does this already in 2007 Revisiting Relational youth ministry)
  • Keeping the content about Jesus, using every opportunity to use a Jesus phrase..(p52)
  • Loving God/Christ back – in how young people express love back – ‘Teaching young people to love Christ is not about introducing more content, but rather providing environments and experiences that enable young people to slow down their lives and receive Gods love. Instead of taking prayer requests devote more to times where young people can be drawn into a tangible sense of Gods care and presence’ (Clark, p53, last sentence paraphrased)
  • Following Christ – Helping young people use their gifts, helping young people be generous, helping young people do Gods work in the world

Student leadership may be fine for the youth ministry but rarely actually leads young people to feel like they are contributors to the body. (the main church) The same goes for singing and teaching four year olds. Whilst these are sound expressions of using a gift in the body, to truly feel important and valuable contributors, the young need to connect to adults while they are following Christ as he brings in his kingdom (Clark, p55)

Whilst I can agree with the sentiment, I am not sure practically how the latter might occur, if as in many churches, there might be a discipleship deficit amongst adults, who spend more time maintaining churches through meetings, that being as active in ‘following Christ as he brings in the kingdom’ – young people might in effect be doing more of this themselves than adults are anyway. The learning might need to be the other way. Though the sentiment of greater participation/contribution is definitely valid, but in the UK, talk of participation and contribution is barely new. Neither is using the gifts of young people in Ministry – in fact this is the crux of Roots Faith Formation (2017) – though the repeated call for cultivating a better soil, for the seeds to grow is one that is particularly important.

Before moving further into the book, and developing Clarks key theme – creating an adoptive church. I want to mention critically the assessment of the state of churches that Clark identifies in Part 1. Not unlike many youth ministry book, there has to be a stated problem in part 1, to then be given the response and solution in parts 2-9. Where many youth ministry books have focussed on MTD, and the UK happy ‘Midi-narrative’ – (Root & Shepherd respectively) as the problem, Clark avoids both of these issues completely, and puts no work into thinking about the contexts in which the churches find themselves. Clarks focus is purely on the church as a whole. And church that is existing almost without any recognition of the context around it. On this basis, this is why the three issues that Clark raises as the problem with church youth ministry are:

  1. We (the church) is losing young people
  2. Students are unprepared for secular society
  3. There is more hurt than we realise. (pages 25-30)

He is right on one hand to suggest that strengthen what is broken is a good way to start. However, I cant help think, that from a UK perspective, barely any church in the UK would be immune to the hurt in the students that they have, or the students/young people it is doing mission with, given the effects of austerity, young peoples mental health, etc etc – a church that doesn’t get this, especially in the UK must have its blinkers on. And to think that its own young people aren’t facing these, well…  On the point that Students are unprepared for secular society, then again, this possibly represents something of the culture of a type of youth ministry that in the UK might only be a dream.  Yes, there is much to be done of creating flourishing youth ministry and churches so that they balance a distinctive following of Christ, whilst ensuring that young people are world ready too. But not many churches in the UK offer the kind of 5 nights a week youth ministry that might shield young people from culture and the world around them. Yes preparing young Christians for following Christ in the long term is an ongoing real task – but in the UK im not so sure that many of them are non-world ready. However, giving them tools for mission and doing Gods work in todays world agreed, this is almost lacking. Especially if MTD (Christian Smith, 2005)  is still pretty much the order of the day in regard to teaching, hearing and attendance is the one thing valued. For the US audience, these 3 issues probably ring true. Though there is minimal research into the causes of this problem given by Clark, albeit reference to some research by Fuller institute, one example of a young person, and a reference to David Elkinds work as a total sum of source material for making these three statements of the problem. Whilst they may be accurate assessments of a problem, and many might agree, they do lack the rigour of an academic piece. I guess in a way thats part of the problem with this book, where Root asks the question ‘what is faith’ and how might faith be formed in a secular age/world? Thinking about the nature of the secular world and its influence, Clarks finger is pointed more towards the church without too much of a deep diagnosis of the secular world that the students will be trying to face. Its as if the church on its own can sort out the problem. It will help no doubt, but if you’re looking for a stronger argument about the nature of the secular world, and how faith and ministry can be meaningful in it, then its Root that gives the answer to this, and not Clark. 

The response by Clark is for church to do better, and be better at enabling, encouraging and supporting young people to flourish. I can get this, I honestly can. But if churches arent made more aware of all the issues that this is about, including the effect of the secular age on young peoples faith, then its only a one-directional solution, to what is a complex problem. Fixing discipleship is going to take more than creating good spaces for discipleship, though there’s no doubt (and dont mishear me) that this is definitely a step in a right direction. Because its complex, i might suggest that this is why Clark largely ignores the issue, compared to Faith Formation, Adoptive church is definitely a practical book.

And a practical book, Adoptive Church continues to be, in Chapter 5, Clark begins to address the ‘church’ with a number of questions: ‘Is it a warm or a cold place’, is it a place where young people are given eye contact? is it a place where adults know the names of young people? (again i think the majority of small churches in the UK, this isnt an issue- well maybe not the warm/cold issue) , and then chapters 6-8 share further the practical ways (a process not a programme) of being an adoptive church. In chapter 6 this feels like using a business model of using ‘outcomes’, ‘intentions’ and ‘goals’ to create adoptive churches, and this is translated into sharing vision (p71), communication and training and creating opportunities where people can outwork the commandment to ‘love’ . Analysing the context is seen as important, so that churches intentionally work harder at being more welcoming (nothing worse than a church that says ‘all are welcome’ when actually no one is aside from those who know people already) – yet Clark is right in that even the most welcoming church that seeks to be ‘youth friendly’  rarely reaches out to young people, walks alongside them, or actively seeks to adopt in community young people as siblings in ministry. (p73). As he says, every church is unique, and every church might describe themselves in a certain way- but in analysing the context ‘how are churches for young people?’ . Clark then goes on to talk about resources, structures, reflection and evaluation- and much is useful, though it is worth being reminded of the American church context in which much of this is directed.

Clark then looks at the leadership style required for developing Adoptive churches, and whilst I can picture the kind of ‘Im in charge’ type leadership he describes (to avoid) – I think, generously, that many UK church leaders (whilst there might still be ego etc) are closer the the partnership models that he describes, given the rise in ecumeicalism in the UK and profligate attempts to share resources across churches for a variety of mission and community practices. Though what Clark is also getting at is trying to encourage an ongoing learning partnership approach to discipleship within a church instead of ‘hear me I have the answers’ , is the alternative ‘thanks for joining in this great and glorious effort, we’re all in this together’ (Page 86) – this might appeal to the ‘High School Musical’ generation who have, through Disney been exposed to the miracle of team work thanks to Troy, Gabriella and co, there is a deeper sentiment here, that developing adoptive churches requires an ongoing humility and respect for each persons worth, value and contributions (Ministry in the whole body). (p87) Clark then considers how a journey might be made from a managerial style to a partnership style. I can see the benefits of this, and wonder personally whether community approaches might be increased in clergy and ordination training to enhance partnership and educative approaches to leadership. However, that is not for today.

In the final section (pp129-176)  Clark describes the ‘fundamental practices of adoptive churches’, these are said to include :

  • Nurture and the Ministry of going – Chap describes a sense that Ministry occurs between the programmes (even though its a programme leader that most churches want to employ as a youthworker) , and that Ministry is as a result of the programme. Stating that ministry is to be relied on to help with young peoples participation in Gods work/ministry and his Family. Adoptive church is also about Going, about following God in the travel, the journey and the mobility of God, the kind of mobile, travelling ministry evident in the Biblical narrative (p134-135)
  • Nurture is about Familiarity – creating a place where young people feel at home. It is gentle, caring and loving, involves sharing the gospel of God and sharing life experience (p137), it is also Communal, therefore more than a mentoring (121) approach which is sworn by in many situations (p137) an adoptive approach is a community one and is akin to the family and all need to nurture each other (p138)
  • Nuture is strategic. It does require effort and intention, as though Clark doesn’t admit it, the default is not necessarily communal but individualistic (because of wider culture and individualism) so, some strategy is required to create communal nurturing spaces, to use language of community, sharing and encouragement.
  • It is about building trust, building warmth and gathering to explore the gospel together. But lets do this, as Chap Clark says, to build community and family, not just to ‘hear one person tell lots of people something’ but to create places of warmth that encourage learning together and learning spaces that encourage warmth. (p141)

Chapter 10 is about the Golden rule in most of what Youth Ministry has been all about in the last few years, at least in the UK (and the last three books mentioned above virtually say the same) – Youth Ministry, and in this case Adoptive churches, are all about participation. Or at least, Empowerment, which is beyond participation according to Clark, and in the main it is – for Clark it is about participating and contributing, and going beyond the ‘just getting the kids to do something’ type of participation.

‘Adoptive churches seeks more than minimal participation’ (Clarke, p146)

However, this is the sting (for many) . As Clark says, Empowerment is about realising that young people have a wealth of gifts, abilities, resources themselves that currently churches (and I will also argue schools) are not making the most of or are overlooked. Empowering contributing young people (in the task of Gods ministry) will enable these gifts to be used in ministry, and be ministers themselves. ‘Empowerment is the goal’ states Clarke, ‘we want teenagers and emerging adults to be embraced not only as younger siblings but also as valued ministry partners’ (p147). To achieve this, Clark suggests that churches need to be intergenerational, particular, incremental and intentional. Im not going to elaborate here on these, as they make sense. Though each of these might be counter cultural to what has gone on before, and even against attempts for universalism & quick fixes. However, his one idea of a ‘Youth Advisory Board’ is pretty weak as an idea, though not because having young people form a group to guide and advise in the ongoing preaching styles and content wouldnt be a good idea, but that it feels like the participation and contributions are merely to be Gods ministers within the institution. This is something he himself has argued against earlier in the book, and something Root certainly does, however, it would be a bold first step in many churches as to give power away to young people to help shape the preaching rota and content does require initiative, courage and risk taking. Its a step beyond creating a committee to help run the youth club, its participation and making contributions in the whole church. (I guess where there is a lectionary, this is going to be a challenge…)

Clarks final chapter considers the resistances and challenges awaiting those who take hold of these ideas and want to make steps towards creating adoptive churches, especially in organisations like churches who can be notoriously resistant to change, even in the face of decline. (if anything this brings about more fear and an entrenchedness). And do you know what, there are some gems in this chapter about language, persuasion and confronting the need to change in a church, and the effort it takes. So, again, on a practical level, Clark gives some sound advice, even in a UK context, the stuff on history, ownership and belonging is relevant, as is trying to be an agent of change even if you’re not in charge, youth worker and clergy might be united in this common cause. Clark does suggest that experimenting, and taking risks on the edges is one way, including family or community meals (something popular in the UK) . He contrasts family meals as a time for being together and sharing, and the deemed ‘inter-generational’ trade of having drums in the service, something that strategically doesn’t bring people together or relationally connecting people, its almost a trade off to ‘keep people happy’.. His tips for experiments, and cautions are worth a read. Its why change might be incremental, and working from the edge inwards might be key.

In effect that’s how the book ends. There is an appendix and a few bit n pieces in the index. But there isn’t really a conclusion, a final rallying cry, or some lengthy stories of how this worked in a few situations. Its a curates egg of a book, good in parts, an idea that has appeal, and a few practical hints and tips as to how to make it happen. His ideas are described simply and accessibly and will appeal to many, and I think for churches who want to do better ministry with young adults, and children, thinking through the culture of the church as a place of nurture, flourishing, family and learning are important, especially if the end goal is to help them be participants and contributors in Gods ongoing ministry. For me it lacks some of the depth and rigour, and even research that other recent books has, but thats probably unfair to judge it in this way. Overall I would recommend this book to the UK audience, even if there are aspects in which might not apply, there are churches who might not want to answer some of the questions truthfully that Clark asks, and this might not be a bad think, for the sake of young peoples ongoing discipleship.

You can buy a copy of Adoptive Church (2018) here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adoptive-Church-Youth-Family-Culture/dp/0801098920/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1544093694&sr=8-1&keywords=chap+clark

[1] Starting right, 1999, four views of youth ministry, 2002

Also

Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation, 2016

Root, Andrew Faith Formation in a Secular age, 2016

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Churches should be the safest place for LGBTQ young people (A review of ‘4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers)

That is the bold confident claim and dream in the recent book ‘4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers’, by the Youth Cartel, that includes contributions in this edition by Gemma Dunning, Shelley Donaldson, Nick Elio and Eric Woods, this is my review of this piece of work.4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teenagers: Effective Ministry to Gay, Bi, Trans, Queer, and Questioning Students Among Us by [Oestriecher, Mark, Donaldson, Shelley, Dunning, Gemma, Elio, Nick, Woods, Eric]

There is much to be commended in this book. Though in one sense, the writers readily confess that their four views share a whole lots of commonality, three of the views are from a US perspective, all bring to the table personal and/or professional experience of shared lives and practice with young people, some of whom would identify as LGB or TQ, and each of their views brings together the realities of how this experience of young people affects parents directly, churches and also the specific dynamics of groups of young people in church activities. What the contributors share also is that there is a complexity to trying to ‘work’ out a particular standpoint, perspective or set of coherent statements to this concern that they have and share with us. The contributors recognise the complexity of trying to juggle what appears to be the conflicts within the theological position of conservative evangelical youth ministry and churches, with ecclesial politics and also the lived experience of young people growing up in societies in which they as LGBTQ identified need to be given an abundance more of intentional inclusion than other young people.

As I say there is much to be positive in this book, and I mean this, its not a prelude to a long ‘but’- This is a detailed if not personal exploration of how four people in Ministry came to revelations about the faith, their practice, the world of young people and their struggle, challenges and culture doing so in christian ministries that caused them to have to dig deep, make sacrifices and begin a process of education and change within churches (that they were employed within) to enable young people to receive the kind of welcome, support and space to be that their dream for every LGBTQ young person might need.

If you want to be a church community that has the desire to offer this kind of welcome and space for young people – then this book is for you, as there are many practical tips, and also pointers to the challenges that this might bring, especially in terms of trying to gain consensus on a particular view of LGBT (and if even Consensus is what is required). As they say, though, dont try and be inclusive if you dont mean it, and arent prepared to be it. I specifically enjoyed that when churches say ‘All are welcome’ some who identified as LGBT may still want to know if they  are included in the ‘all’ – and so without having to make an extra phone call to the church office, the church should go out of its way to specify that it a welcoming space for those in the LGBT community. It would be  simple thing to say, but might need considerable conversation so that a church might mean it. This is one practical tip, there are others, that specifically relate to young peoples activities such as residentials and small groups, all of which might give reason to not know ‘what to do’ but each is given due mention in this book, and ultimately many of the issues that might be raised are solved through respecting all young people and giving them all opportunity to contribute to how a situation might be ‘resolved’. This ultimately is good youthwork practice.

It is ‘this good youthwork practice’ that leads me to the ‘however’ of this review.

What is revealed in this book is that little preparation was available for youth ministers in the UK or USA to start ‘dealing’ with (and i use this phrase lightly) this concern. It is as if there has been a dawning of the reality of LGBT as a possible identifier for even christian young people is a recent thing, what is of concern is the underpreparedness that it seems each of the four persons were – at least Christian ministry training did not prepare them for. For Gemma, it was the approach of Informal education (youthwork) that enabled her to bring an approach of inclusion in conversation with the christian faith, and then this gave her a language and framework in which working with young people might mean in this way. Young people in this book are absent. To a point though one young person, whos is known to the writer exclaims

Why are you still talking about this?

As if the world and her have moved far on, but the church is still having to continue having conversations about this issue. The conversations itself that highlight that the complexity that the church might face in the ongoing to act meaningfully and inclusively with young people in the way the writers dream for in this book. But for youthwork in the UK, (not youth ministry) this conversation is a non-starter, there have been LGBT groups, conversations and friendly spaces for years, the LGBT youth clubs in Scotland have been active a long time. Because it is inclusion and anti-oppression first – (without conservative or evangelical theology in its way). It is telling that youthwork/informal education is absent in the US youth ministry context and conversation, and it is sadly absent in this book. But for youthworkers there is a sense that why are we talking about this? – its 2018 for crying out loud. On the other basis – No one has been talking about this as nothing has been in print on this concern, within youth ministry. 

It is the ongoing voice of young people that is however sadly lacking in this book. Some of these stories are painful, some are brave and some complicated. But this book has alot of is the voice of youth leaders who are shaping ministries, churches and lives to accomodate and be inclusive to LGBT and all young people. It is a shame therefore that the table is not extended to hear directly from LGBT young people themselves. We hear statistics of LGBT young people and recommendations of churches to young people, but it is their voice that is absent. There is not a story of how LGBT young people have found the desired welcome in a church. It is a minor thing, on one hand as there are not many youth ministry books that include the actual voice of young people, they tend to be the cumulative experience of youth leaders and academics. But a personal story and one from an LGBT young person in this book about inclusion might have been helpful.

Churches should be the most safe place for young people to ‘be’ LGBT. I wonder. This might reveal that youth leaders feel that other spaces arent safe. I would say in the UK that there are inclusive spaces for young people to ‘be’ LGBT are common and a church is lower in the pile that a young person might go to. However, a young person who has grown up in the church who identifies as LGBT at a time during their child or teenage years, needs to know that the relationships they currently have with supportive adult in their christian upbringing are going to stay the same when their LGBT identity is known. If the church is serious about being with and for young people, then this dream has to be a reality. If you want tips on churches being safer places for young people to be LGBT then this book is for you. If you want to use it to start a conversation that should have already been had, then use it, If you want it to have all the answers and something concrete for you in your situation then its not for you, there is much to be worked out in each situation, and much to i think do in order that churches might live up to the dream of being safe that this book aspires churches to be. Though- better to start a conversation about this, than only react later.

To buy a copy direct from Gemma, here is the link http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html?m=1

A kindle edition is available via amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Views-Pastoring-LGBTQ-Teenagers-Questioning-ebook/dp/B079YJ61QS/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1521663465&sr=8-3&keywords=youth+cartel (here its slightly less at £10, but you cant share it as easily around the church leaders compared to a hard copy..)

 

Without theology- can youth ministry keep the faith?

For those who keep up with these things, this is the fourth of my posts that is loosely related to ideas that emerge from Andrew Roots book, Faith formation in a secular age’ a book which is going to be discussed and referred to quite a bit over the next year within the corridors of youth ministry brand UK, possibly because we cant in the UK get enough of what the Americans think about youth ministry (even if their context, ecclesiology, missiological practices and political context, and spiritual context are vastly different), and that there can be a tendency to give a free ride to anyone intellectual that isnt that critical themselves. What Andrew Root does do is tell it like it is to his own audience. What we need to do in the UK is discover whether the message needed is the same. And there are questions. But for now, I have a different question. In a book so concerned about the formation of faith, and the context within which faith is formed – why does Root only spend a short time reflecting on what faith is, why faith might be important for young people?

In Chapter 8 of faith formation Root, after finishing an exploration Charles Taylor, sets to work on developing a framework of what faith is, in accordance with , essentially, Gormans view of The apostle Pauls salvation. Stating that faith is about negation. It is that Jesus entered negation, and that Saul (Paul) saw faith as

a transcendent experience born out of negation (death, brokenness and longing) . Faith is to experience the encounter of Christ, through the negation of the Cross, faith is not just an act of trust, but to ‘enter’ into Christ and have our own being taken into the being of Jesus’ (Root, Andrew, 2017, p119-120)

Faith, in this description Root gives is about negating, about giving up, and it is about participating in the actions of Christ, divine action, which Root goes on to say is a cause for a believer to become a minister, to become one who minister to others, and this is explored by Root in the next chapter, 9. Stating that Faith is about the experience of ministry, and in that ministry which arrives through negation, comes the divine action.

What this means is that Faith is something practical (ministering to others) and Prophetic (causes a giving up, negation, a simplicity) and also transcendent (in an age of ‘realism’ and ‘authenticity’). This links significantly with Healys view of a Theodrammatic framework for ecclesiology, church within the Theodrama is to be practical and prophetic, and not worry about its blemishes, history or ideals.

And culturally talk of faith is cheap. The key conversations surround growth as an antidote to decline within organisations, and this can be reduced to over reliance on the business models that spawned successful or profitable businesses. But Jesus wasnt about being a successful business. Jesus was someone who recognised faith, and asks of us that his return ‘how many will he find on earth who have faith?’ (Luke 18:8)

Faith has 55 references in the Gospels, many directly the words of Jesus who commends or rebukes those who do not have enough, or have enough of it, faith to be made well, faith as much as a mustard seed, faith as much as this– many, many references to the faith of those around him. Often rebuking those who think they have it, and commending those for whom their actions show more faith than they thought. So what might this mean for the ‘faith’ of churches, the faith of people around us in our communities and churches. Are the faithful the large – or the faithful the invisible?

However, Can we take what Root argues for without critique? – after all – Faith will be what the Son of Man comes back to see, and faithful ministry, (that might also be growing) might be the call of the minister of faith. Yet still- talk is about faith- without really pinning down what faith is. Often it can be a tag line, a descriptor- such as ‘faith-based’, or ‘faith motivated’ especially for youth work practice.

Referring to the Bible, Faith is described by the writer of Hebrews as : ‘Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen, it gives us assurance about things we cannot see’ (Hebrews 11;1) Then follows a log line of people who acted according to faith. What they reveal about God is that he communicated and spoke to these people in the midst of day to day and called them to action. Action, that Root might suggest, caused negation – the giving up of a home (abraham), the challenge to build a boat, the giving up of a child (Moses), a welcome to the spies (Rahab). Faith requires action, and God seems to be present in that action. It is as Vanhoozer and others might say, a Divine Drama of Gods being present in ongoing communication (Vanhoozer, 2010, Remythologising Theology)

In The Hermeneutics of Doctrine Anthony Thiselton, refers to Wolfgang Pannenburg who writes:

There is no separation between history and faith; we must reinstate today the original unity of facts and their meaning’, Knowledge is not a stage beyond faith, but leads into faith.

For Thiselton, ‘faith as based on the trustworthiness of that to which it is directed, hence ‘christian faith must not be merely subjective conviction that would allegedly compensate for the uncertainty of an historical knowledge about Jesus’. Jesus stood himself in a horizon where people expected a Saviour, and did not demand trust in his person without giving reasons for it. (Thiselton, 2007, p411-412)

Faith then is inextricably linked to knowledge, for without knowledge of an idea, a situation and belief system then there can be no faith. As Root himself says, young people within evangelical settings (especially youth ministry) now know very little about the tradition, but have been taught over and over about how to get high on the idea of Jesus. The need for knowledge within faith played down, only simple knowledge was enough, and within a vacuum of knowledge (of God) dangerous theologies and the idolatorous worship of these theologies reign free (prosperity gospel etc) , but it is also Knowledge of God and Theology that Vanhoozer brings as his anti-dote the dangers of MTD, the disease often said to infect american youth ministry. (Vanhoozer, 2014)

From both Root and Vanhoozer, Theology must come first, then practical ministry and action. (In the UK, Pete Ward was arguing for the same in 1997) Faith is inextricably linked to knowledge of God and knowledge of the story of God and accepting an ongoing role in the drama of it all.

When talk is of growth and growing youth ministry, what effect might this have on faith when real faith requires slow knowledge, self sacrifice and denial, living a radical deducted (even simple life) and not just Jesus as the great confidence giver and permisser of a materialist life. Faith seems to be more than belief, it is an act of the will to live a different life. Can growing and growth be detrimental to depth because the emphasis might be on quantity, efficiency and speed.

A faith based ministry or church- what might that mean, based on a faith and acting like the faith that is required. Without a theology of faith, what are young people having faith in? An experience that makes them feel good or gives them a high? Or the kind of dangerous self giving generous discipleship which loves their neighbour and in obedience hears the holy author prompting in the midst, to act in faith towards human and community flourishing? (And it’s not too young to start)

Andrew Root has put faith formation back into the youth ministry headlines, what is as required is to contemplate the life of faith that is required of those who accept the challenge to take on Jesus discipleship.

References

Root, Faith formation in a secular age, 2017

Thiselton A, 2007 the Hermeneutics of Doctrine

Vanhoozer, 2005, The drama of doctrine

Vanhoozer, 2010; Remythologising Theology

Ward, Pete, 1997 Youth work and the Mission of God

Have churches embraced youthfulness – but given up on young people?

This is one of the key premises of Andrew Roots book, Faith Formation in a secular age in which he suggests that one of the key reasons that churches, from an american protestant perspective (and he makes this point clear), are obsessed with involving young people is that a youthful church, is also, in an age of authenticity, an authentic church. Root makes a coherent argument, on the basis of his own reading of Charles Taylor, that as youthfuless, (staying youthful) is deemed as authenticity, then for a church to be deemed authentic it must embrace the trappings of youth. Relevancy is youthfulness, youthfulness is authenticity.

As a result in an ‘age of authenticity’ an authentic church is one that embraces and includes the trappings of youth.

The question that I hear often, and Root builds up in his introduction is ‘How might young people become part of church?’ Especially if theres continued considerable research distributed about the whos left and the who’s not in church. In thinking about the question, there is another question to be asked, like ”why young people?’

A few years ago I was asked by a church to do some research into young people and their activities in a local area, what they wanted, what they did and other community activities. The church were focussed on the young people. What the church was wanting to do was work with young people, as there were none in the church – but there were also no 30 yr olds, 40 yr olds or 50 yr olds either – and this group of people made up more of the population in the parish. yet the focus was on ‘young people’ .

It goes back to the why – why is the church obsessed about children and young people? and why not the 30-50 age group (parents of children/young people) and may be more pertinently – has the church in the UK given up on its obsession with young people anyway?

However, the church has embraced trying to be youthful.

This is evident by changing its very public face, programmes and styles to embrace the latest thing – so websites, twitter feeds, guitars, lights, coffee in services, ‘cafe church’ – all of these are positive in one way – but also symptomatic of the wider culture of trying to be authentically youthful. And what then tends to happen is that people are disappointed that ‘youthful’ doesnt work. Its often because it lacks actual authenticity. Root is right, youthfulness drives authenticity, but there is a clamour for real authenticity too, and young people can smell a rat, or people trying too hard, or that they are the target or pawn of a church’s strategy.

At the same time churches have taken up youthfulness – but given up on young people.

I would like to say that there are still some positive signs that this is not the case.

But it is very difficult looking out from the north east of england to make a case otherwise. There have been far too many redundancies, ends of contracts, and ended ‘ministries’ in the last 10 years not to think this. Now it could be that a particular way of working with young people has reached an end point in the north east, and it was a way of working that involved large gatherings, ‘christian rock’ concerts/events, festivals and youth worship services, the scene of worship gatherings in an evangelical sense may be at the low point of a cycle, yet it was deemed the dawning of many a changing generation at the time. There may be other ways of exploring worship with young people in local contexts, but the big gathering time could have had its day…

The down side is that this created an element of enthusiasm for developing working with young people in areas, and taking them to a ‘thing’ could be a huge event or marker point. And large numbers, gatherings and events imply success. What these events, styles and formats did was to imply to those who participated in them that this was the ‘way to go’ – and similar forms of embedded youthfulness continue, and can be seen in the rock concert warehouse churches. And, as Pete Ward talks about in ‘Selling Worship’ songs and the ministry and industry of them have shaped the church, shaped it, Root might argue around maintaining youthfulness.

And that’s before a discussion about the cutting of strategic youth posts across nearly all affiliations and shrinking of denomination posts. Youthfulness has value. Valuing the practices of working with young people….. a different story.

Youthfulness is rife in the church, at the same time, there are few young people. Maybe that is a good thing, as they might be scared by the youthfulness on offer. But ‘be youthful’ attract young people has been the mantra. Be youthful – attract young people- create authentic church might have also been the intention. Though I imagine that in the UK the drive to attract young people has less to do with authenticity, and more to do with survival.

If the church is to be obsessed about young people again, and not just youthfulness, then there might be some re-thinking needed about how a church might re-connect and review on what it does and is for and with young people in every local setting in the UK. As, even in areas of high youthworker population (not the north) – may churches still do not have young people, children, or the under 45’s. So there is much to be thought through and reflected on. If the church became obsessed by young poeple (and their families) again – what might this look like? What might it look like in your parish, your church, your community?

What if everything that a local church did, every decision it made was for the good, or with families and young people in mind? What would change? In what way would a church be both practically for, with and loving young people and families – and prophetic viewing young people/families within a wider context, as ‘victims’ of society, or as important within the faith community (despite what others may say). Most of the time, churches connect with many children and families – but are not able to build on the opportunities – so toddler groups, confirmation classes, school assemblies, and other activities. Building from those already being sent might be a first step. Trying to attract through youthfulness… hmm..

Making the church and faith authentic in an age of authenticity? Well that’s not about trying to be youthful – its about being faithful to being practical and prophetic in the world. Do this, and young people might find distinction and hope in a church, a challenge that causes them to dismay at the authenticity of every lie about them in technological media, and, like i said in my previous post, give them real quality time.

References

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 2017

Ward, Pete, Selling worship, 2005

This is my third post arising from Andrew Roots book, the second ‘Where does God act in Youth Ministry is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1bR

The first is here : Does it matter what Age we are living in for youth ministry anyway? 

I am sure there might be more, I reviewed two of Roots previous books in my ‘Best of Youthwork reads for 2017’ post.

My top 10 reads of 2017 (maybe inspiration for your ‘book’ tokens?)

Recently I was meeting with a colleague who asked me whether I had always been ‘well read’, a question that I hadnt really thought of before. It wasnt something i would have said to myself up until the age of 18 when i read a little academic reading as possible to get through school. But that changed when I started studying and working towards something vocationally, and also had access to libraries on subjects like youth work and theology that i was keenly interested in reading more. Up until now, I have been reluctant to do a ‘top’ anything of any-year, largely due to avoiding the self absorption, and that many of these books have featured in articles already this year, though some may have passed you by. So, it might be that youve been given ‘book’ tokens (i am avoiding using brand names) and are looking for what to spend them on (I am) and so here are my top reads from the last year with a summary from each, and please do comment on what yours have been or suggest titles for me to read in 2018.

  1. Eager to Love- the alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, By Richard Rohr This bargain was found in a Durham charity shop for about £2 last December and I dont think i put it down for most of January. My first read  of anything by Richard Rohr, and the first time id read in depth about St Francis.

‘My Brothers, God has called me to walk in the way of humility, and showed me the way of simplicity..The Lord has shown me that he wants me to be a new kind of fool in the world, and God does not lead  us by any other knowledge than that’ St Francis. (RR, 2014, p33)

As a result of this I signed up to receive Richard Rohrs daily mediation at CAC. As well penned a number of articles on St Francis and Spirituality of Street based work.

2. Improvisation- The Drama of Christian Ethics, by Samuel Wells. This was one from last Christmas, and was a book that I wanted ever since I had seen Kevin Vanhoozer refer to it in his Drama of Doctrine, and also Anthony Thiselton do so in Hermeneutics of Doctrine, both of which would have made it to previous top 10 lists had i made them. Sam Wells in this book discusses Ethics and develops thinking around theatrical Improvisation to build a case for Christian ethics, within the narrative of the Christian drama as improvisation.

‘Christian Ethics is not about helping anyone act Christianity in a crisis, but about helping Christians embody their faith in the practices of Discipleship all the time’ (Wells, 2004, p15)

3. The Pedagogy of the Heart- by Paulo Freire. A friend of mine recommended this book as they were often selectively quoting from it on facebook. To be honest I would have found it anyway, eventually as I was buying at least one Freire book per year anyway. This book is more autobiographical as the principle ‘practice-reflector’ reflects on his own life, from its military rule, exile and then his early moves into education in Sao Paulo. It is deeply moving and like all of Freire an easy but provokative read.

‘While a virtue, tolerance does not grow on trees, neither is it a concept that can be learned through mechanical transferrance, from a speaking active subject who deposits it in subdued patients. The learning of tolerance takes place through testimony. Above all, it implies that, whilst fighting for a dream, i must not become passionately closed within myself’ (PF, 1997, p17)

4. The Presentation of self in everyday life- by Erving Goffman. Although this was on the radar, given Goffmans concept of human person as metaphorical performer, It was only because a significant section of my thesis looked at Goffmans theory that I gave this book a significant read. What i find surprising is that Goffman is barely mentioned in youth ministry in terms of thinking about persons in interactions, and the environments of the stage of the church/youth setting. Though there is some reference to Goffman on the http://www.infed.org.uk website. Its easily the most readily available book in this top 10 and you can get a copy for less that £1. The sociological Anthony Giddens suggests that Goffmans metaphor of human presentation as theatrical is, though often dicredited is still the best for expanding and encapsulating human interactions and co-presence within some kind of framework, so on that recommendation might be worth a read for the conversational element of youth work, and if nothing else might give you a new discipline to reflect on in your ongoing reflective practice, that of sociology.

‘When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them’ (Goffman, 1960, p28) (ed; like those reading this and what this article gives the impression of? 😉 )

5. The Pastor as Public Theologian – Reclaiming a Lost Vision – Kevin Vanhoozer & Owen Strachan (2016) – Ok, so I have a bit of an obsession with both Paulo Freire and Kevin Vanhoozer, my bookshelf might be considered a bit of a shrine to both of them, In April I bought this book of Vanhoozers, and whilst it only got a quick skim read during a time when i was completing studies at that time, it still easily makes it into this top 10. Vanhoozer and Strachan scope out the current problems faced by Pastors, Ministers, and Youth leaders in that they might be feeling that they have less place in ‘people work’ in society and that as a result their identity to be needed is reduced somewhat. (I would add that in the UK, austerity has caused the clergy/church/youth worker to be even more required in a people person role). They suggest that too many pastors have exchanged their theological birth right for a bowl of lentil stew of management techniques, leadership, strategic planning, because ‘the role of the pastor as a theologian no longer is exciting or intelligable’  according to Vanhoozer/Strachan, this book is about theology’s return to the public and proposes that the pastor-theologian is a peculiar Public figure, who builds up people in christ, says what God is doing and involved with people in and for community. If you are in need of an encouragement as to your role in vocational ministry, and a reminder of the theological imperative of building community, then this might be for you.

6. Faith Generation – Retaining Young People and Growing the Church. Nick Shepherd (2016)  Quite Simply the most thorough, challenging book on the state of UK youth Ministry for the last 10 years. Nick addresses a number of popular targets (MTD being one) and also incorporates a number of recent conclusions from research into church attendance and growth, and also takes apart a number of youth ministry urban myths, such as the reliance and adoption of developmental theories, such as Fowler and Westerhoffs faith development theories and suggests that faith is something that is generated in young people in a constructive exercise involving their identity, that needs to be plausible and reliable, and this includes meaningful and testable. My full review of this book is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-HN and this book featured heavily in my posts in 2017, including this line:

‘The first area we might consider is the way young people move from being learners to deciders’ (Shepherd, p156)

Though it was written with a ‘church context’ in mind, generating faith in, as well as helping it be formed in young people is a task for the missional church and projects that do this, it is a worthy read.

6. Theatrical Theology – Explorations in Performing the Faith (eds Trevor Hart, Wesley Van der Lugt, 2014)

The next two books featured heavily in my reading in the first half of the year as I was writing my Thesis on Theodrama. This first one features 13 seperate essays from some of the main proponents of Theatres insights for Theology, and as such we are part of an ongoing Drama. These essays feature Vanhoozer, Wells, Hart and Vander Lugt, and its chapters include subjects such as the drama of empty churches, the play of Christian life, Death, Doing Gods Story, and one I particularly liked that of Heltzel who describes how a youth project in Wall Street were improvised performers as church of the theatre of the oppressed, and how revolution was through dramatic interruptions to the neo-liberal normal life. He goes on to talk about Jesus as transformer of space from despair to hope, and this is what churches can bring to communities.

‘Churches today need to learn how to translate the liturgical performance of Sunday worship into street theatre freely performed throughout the week’ (Heltzel, 2014, p261 in Theatrical Theology)

7. Living Theodrama – Wesley Vander Lugt, 2014

This one is only for the serious Theodrama students, at nearly £100 RRP, though not the most expensive book on this list. In this work Wesley Van der Lugt attempts to bring together all the many phrases, terms and metaphors linking theology and theatre as expressed in proposals since Von Baltasar in the 1970’s. Vander lugt attempts to bring more study of Theatre into the Theodrama discussion (as it can often be lacking) , this he does through use of terms like ‘disponibility’ and drawing from Theatrical theory of Stanislowski and Brecht in a way that others hadnt. He also describes church as an inter-actional theatre and discipleship as a twin task of formation and performance.

‘Reflection on the living Theodrama gives rise to a theatrical theology and motivates a livelier way of life made possible by a living King who died, rose again and embodied both the rough and the Holy’ (Vander Lugt, p28)

8. Young People and the Church since 1990 – Naomi Thompson, 2018

A confession to make, at £105 I did not pay for this full price, and I realise that it is beyond the reach of most if not all. It therefore might only be a relevance to the UK practice of Youth Ministry if it is read and bought for university libraries where the historical actions that shaped the development of youth ministry in the UK. For in a way that is what Naomi discusses, and along the way expounds from her research into Sunday Schools how they rise and fell, and the affiliation issues that they created. I have already written a review of Naomis book, it as here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-15v . A post that was based on this book, and was then published in Christianity Today is here: The one question in churches that, since Sunday Schools, hasnt gone away.  In her conclusion Thompson argues that churches often adopt a passive approach to decline, when they have the agency to affect positive change, in the same way that they acted with agency to contribute to their own decline.

9. The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean. For some reason, half way through last year, i think it was to do with my studies, I spent a little while reading up on theological frameworks for youth ministry, and most notably the US context. Also I had just been to hear Kenda Creasy Dean at an event in Leeds. This book builds on, and asks strangely similar questions to the earlier Thome (Starting Right) with significant additions that reflect on Dean and Roots own personal theological journeys since, most especially Roots developments of Practical Theology, methods and models, and to be fair, 15 years of new insights, research and practices of youth ministry since that first work. If you want to think practically and theologically about youth ministry as a theological task then this book, a serious read is for a serious player in youth ministry. It might reward you back. My concern is that Youth Ministry is more than practical theology which is where Root ends, and that an imagination of Theology as Theatrical is lacking in this book. Roots practical theology is too scientific for my liking. Performers for me is better, and theodrama best describes the action of God and humanity intertwining in a way that Roots chosen models do not.  But until that book is written, this one is a good follow up to ‘starting right’ and also gives an idea of the critical conversations in academia that youth ministry is causing in the USA. Criticism aside, this still makes it into my top 10 for 2017, as it easily gave me much to think about.

10. Border Crossings, Cultural workers and the politics of Education, Henry Giroux, 1992. After I had finished my dissertation, I stepped off the gas for a few weeks and did nothing. Read nothing. The first book I picked up to read was Naomis book above, the second was this one. The concept of ‘Border Crossing’ has been in my mind since Cockburn and Wallace wrote that youth work plays a role in Border pedagogy, and they referred to Giroux in that book which i read about 4 years ago, and so this has been on the radar since. It didnt disappoint, especially for the few pounds I paid for it. It was like reading Freire with the politics cranked up a notch, and where Giroux was talking about Reagans American and a slide to neo liberalism and an eduation for the economiy which had no regard to for power, identity politics and equality. I was reading the same criticism but with Trump and the current tories in mind. It made me angry, passionate and determined to persue a path of equality, education and constantly helping young people be critical reflectors in their place in the world. Worth it, and an easy pick for number 10.

‘Cultural workers (that could be youthworkers) need to unravel not only ideological codes, representations, and practices that structure the dominant order, they also need to acknowledge “those places and spaces we inherit and occupy, which frame our lives in very specific and concrete ways, which are as much part of our psyches as they are a physical or geographical placement’ (Giroux, 1992, 79)

when Giroux described the institutional racism in schools, (p138) and within the curriculum of history, then it was easy to draw parrallels with the charlotesville protests and dismantling of statues that embodied that colonialism.

So there we go, I hope, by the end of this you might be inspired to buy and read for yourself one or more of these titles, and I hope that they cause you to be inspired in your community practices in churches, with young people and also the playing of your part in the drama of ongoing redemption that is the Gods ongoing Drama. Please do send me your reads in the comments below, or upcoiming titles you think I should give a read. Thank you, and Happy 2018!

The one question in churches that, since Sunday Schools, hasnt gone away.

What does the church do ‘next’ with the children in ………Messy church, or Youth Club, or Sunday School, ? 

How can we keep young people in churches? 

For anyone who works with children and young people in a church setting. Naomi Thompsons book contains a stark warning. A warning that it as current now as it was not heeded during a time when the most numerically successful ministry amongst children in the UK was at its peak and subsequently virtually disappeared without a trace. Today in children and youth ministry which is important that lessons are learned from the demise of Sunday Schools.

Records indicate that in the late 1800’s over 2 million children in the UK attended Sunday schools. As Thompson research indicates, this had dropped to just over 500,000 by the mid 1950’s and 60’s. (there is no data for 1970’s onwards) It was a movement that was responding to a crisis of uptake (less children are attending), and a crisis of progression (less children are staying).  Both of which continue to be questions for children and youth workers today.

The key responses to these crisis, within Sunday School Unions, as Thompson indicates, was to blame Sunday school leaders for lack of training, produce even more materials, or to set up follow on groups, such as early youth fellowship provision. In effect the crisis of progression in Sunday Schools was a contributory factor to the dawning of modern day youth ministry. What also is apparent from Thompsons research is that although regional or national strategies for Sunday Schools could be stated, and recommended, these depended on the local church for their implementation, and often this did not occur. A local decision (adopted from a national plea) to increase longevity, and focus on ‘church linked’ children , a strategy that local churches did adopt, may have increased the long term participation of pupils within the church (from 2% to 4%) but this coincided with the same dramatic reduction in overall attendance.

So, what about now? These two questions still remain for children and youth ministers across the UK. How to address the crisis of uptake , especially as Scripture Union suggest, churches only work with 5% of the UK population of young people, and the crisis of progression, once children and young people start attending – how does a church keep them – what happens next?

The amount of churches I go to when travelling around the country who say, ‘well we have children – but we lose them at 11’.. or ‘once theyre 9 they don’t keep coming to our messy church’. Looking around the country, it feels as though there are more opportunities that churches are creating places for initial interest and connection, from the explosion in churches developing ‘Messy Church’ , or after school provision led by volunteers, or youthworkers. Churches may not have regained the 2 million who used to attend Sunday schools – but the desire to provide spaces and connections with children and families again has become recently more popular, and  children and youth provisions has become part of diocesan and affiliation strategies.

So, if churches have cracked the ‘uptake’ question (relatively) – then what about the progression one?

The answer to the Sunday School progression question, (when children started to leave) was, to develop similar older groups, that still had the same feel and style to the ‘junior’ ones, writes Thompson. For a short time, a few young people retained interest, but they were generally a failure, for they didn’t change as young people themselves changed. A question stemming from this one is – When as an activity is planning for the future needed?

There is no rocket science as to when children or young people ‘start to get bored’ with the provision on offer. For some young people they are bored with it after just a few weeks, for some depending on the age they start it could be 2 or 3 years. It then does not matter how old a child is, it is their longevity in the activity that can determine how they feel about it. So – there is little point waiting until a child is 11 for the ‘next group for them to happen’ is , if a church follows a schooling year– as that be 2 years away.  It is funny how quickly the question of uptake is often usurped by the questions of progression.  We might celebrate 25 families coming to messy church – but theres an air of disappointment that ‘only one’ maintained an interest in the wider church community – or ‘started coming on Sunday Mornings’ . Uptake is often measured through a lens of progression, and can weigh heavily, distracting from the genuine good that is occurring in the moment of every interaction, activity and session.

For something like Messy church, or equivalent afterschool children/family orientated provision, there is significant learning from Sunday Schools that can be accessed. One of the key recommendations from the Sunday School Unions – that was never implemented locally- was to encourage person centred education methods within the Sunday schools. This was an approach back then ahead of its time, but because Sunday school leaders and teachers relied on materials and ‘school’ culture and curriculum had been established, this change was a difficult one to make in local churches. Often when children and young people are bored, they are choosing to reject the curriculum and culture and so adopting person centered approaches before this boredom occurs might delay this – and give children developed responsibility and ownership of their learning a critical aspect of long term discipleship. However, the question of progression never goes away. Not every child in messy church will want to ‘be a leader’ or have responsibility – some have a desire for learning about faith that might not be matched by the programme, for others they just want to be away from the ‘younger ones’. There are no simple solutions, because each young person has a uniqueness, gifting and possibility that our interactions with them needs to acknowledge, harness, and help them thrive within, so it might be persons rather than programmes that need to be makers of any future provision.

Thompsons insight into Sunday Schools is thorough, well research and provides ample questions for youth and childrens workers today, however it is most notable for its price, and a paperback copy should definitely be made available. In a way Thompsons book reassures that the same questions haven’t gone away, though at the same time is a realisation that cultural shifts in the way children and young people are formed through learning within churches are hard to make, as formal approaches – even more interactive ones, remain popular. It is noted that children in primary schools are given the responsibility to spend portions of school budgets through small committees, yet in churches they choices they often have in similar decision making might be the flavour of juice to choose at snack time. If their decision making and autonomy is awakened in one context, then as churches who have children attending groups, might we begin to reflect the potential of them to be deciders and decision makers of their own discipleship within the faith community?  Progressing children from one group to another is not really the question we need to ask, it is how might we help children use the full gifting, character and abilities they have in how they discover a long term life of faith?  And if this is the question – how might we plan for this through all the wonderful, creative spaces that churches current create that engage children and young people in Messy churches, youth clubs alike.

Thompsons book: Young People and the church since 1900, can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Young-People-Church-Since-1900/dp/1472489780/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1508666712&sr=8-9&keywords=Thompson+young+people

Christian Today also published the above piece, a link to that article is here: ‘How can churches retain children and young people’?

What the strategic demise of Sunday Schools teaches us now; Young People and the Church (2018) : A Review

Young People and Church Since 1900: Engagement and Exclusion, by Naomi Thompson

 

Product Details

It is difficult to get past the fact that the most startling thing about this highly intelligent and accessible piece of work, is that is made inaccessible by its price. At just over £100, this is information that needs to be accessible by a wider audience, and not just via university libraries, therefore a paperback version is essential, for what Naomi has discovered and described within her research is valuable for conversations across churches, and affiliations. I am not on commission, but here is a link if you want to purchase this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Young-People-Church-Since-1900/dp/1472489780/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504884321&sr=8-1&keywords=young+people+and+the+church.  At a time when budgets in churches are slashed, and training and reading budgets maybe non existent, buying this book is nothing other than a pipe-dream for most. Hopefully university libraries and diocesan libraries might order copies.

As an overview Thompsons book charts in detail using statistics from the archives on the rise and fall of Sunday Schools since their inception in the late 1700’s through to the 1950’s, including how they became institutionalised, and the often fraught relationship Sunday schools had with the local church. Naomi then brings to this discussion a detailed analysis of Sunday Schools in Birmingham, from the perspective of archives of their union material, newsletters and meetings. Thompson then describes the response the church made to the challenge that older young people were leaving Sunday schools, this included uniformed organisations such as Boys Brigade, but in the main this section charts the beginnings of Christian youth work including the aspects of it that regularly contribute to its discussion, belonging, relationship and education, she follows up this with proposing a model for Christian youth work, based upon 3 domains, Social, Cell and Sunday Service. Her penultimate chapter brings into the conversation research into the development of Sunday Schools and youth Ministry practice in the USA, including contributions from participants, young people and youth workers within practices.

Emerging from her research Thompson identifies a number of themes that have particular relevance for current practices of childrens and youth work currently. Firstly that the way in which churches discuss the decline of children and youth attendance affects how they respond to the challenge, that churches themselves have agency, (capacity and responsibility) for their growth and decline. Thompson highlights the era when Sunday Schools withdrew from being open and available in their communities to being focused on the ‘family who attend church’, which may have been a decision made in individual churches, but also reflected from the Union (at the time) a desire that more young people statistically might join churches from Sunday schools, that the percentage of this occurance increase after this time is reflective of there also being a dramatic reduction in overall attendance of Sunday school. If only ‘church orientated’ families attend Sunday school, then this will put this desire in a better favour. Worryingly it was still less than 5%.

Desiring that attending church is not a new, that Sunday schools were barely successful, or at alternatively ‘church’ had opportunities to make and maintain connections with 95% other young people and did not, might give a clearer indication. Warnings of this ‘drop-off’ and strategic ideas to make significant changes to the Sunday school model are highlighted by Thompson, yet these were met by the then strong-arm of the Sunday school union, and enabling cultural change in established practices became challenging. A significant idea suggested in the 1950’s, that was mothballed, was the suggestion that churches should mentor young people in Sunday school and associated groups, building connections, and that child centered learning became part of practice. Even today, this idea is trialled in some churches, but would appear to be a shift in practice, as top down and leader led resources are youth ministry’s dominant educational approach.  What Thompson highlights is that as the Sunday Schools became locally operated and managed by the church, they at the same time lost their missional edge, it highlights that decisions made by churches sought to benefit the people within their faith community, than outside, ultimately heralding the almost obliteration of Sunday schools altogether.

Her research into the practices of the Sunday School Union in Birmingham (BYSSU) a significant city for the development of Sunday Schools, between 1955 and 1972 provides an illustration into how the ambitions and actions of an insitutiion (the Sunday School Union) become in tension with each local institution (a local Sunday school) and its linked church. The Birmingham Sunday school union had been created by Sunday school leaders in 1814, and via a number of changes was subsumed into Birmingham churches together in 2001, and it remained distinctive and active well into the 1980’s and 1990s. Thompsons research reveals that the principle concerns within the BYSSU were internal concerns, they include institutionalism (a change of BYSSU’s name took four years), Recruitment and Decline (concern over numbers of teachers, leaders and pupils was common), Scripture Exams (and how these were to be implemented), Changing Methods (the most significance was the move to ‘family church’ post 1965), Criticism of teachers and teacher training (this was seen as main culprit for teacher retention) and also the ongoing encouragement of the importance of the union (increasingly as it felt it needed to communicate, be useful and also be needed),  conflict between the church and the BYSSU (which seemed to be focussed on the relationship between the BYSSU and the church/Sunday school secretary ) and finally gender (in which criticism of women working in the 1950-60’s, women also received no recognition for their contribution to Sunday schools, and yet were expected to continue in their role).

A case study of BYSSU reveals the limited level of engagement and acknowledgement of its leaders, but as importantly and notable young people and their families. Strategies for changes in direction (such as the significant shift to ‘family church’) were implemented with limited acknowledgement of this effect, and without consultation. Acting as an affiliate to Sunday school leaders its methods showed a mentality of ‘attack is a best form of defence’ where they acted to defend their own significance and need, over an above the actual needs within each Sunday school.  What the case study of BYSSU indicates is an affiliate institution will ultimately lose its support if it continually attacks its members on their morality, commitment and training. Teachers and the Sunday school secretaries were left demoralised and de-motivated. It looks as if the secretaries may have been protecting Sunday school leaders from their own union. For those who are involved in the institutions of current children and youth ministry practice, and have similar supportive roles in denominations,  the example of BYSSU acts as a harrowing warning of the dangers caused by institutional survival, strategising and significance, over actually supporting, valuing and listening to its practice leaders and young people on the ground.

After a brief interlude into the development of Christian youth work as a response to senior pupil drop off in Sunday school and other principle concerns, Naomi turns her attention to the same Sunday school and youthwork scene in the USA. The principle difference between the UK and USA context was that in the USA there was a stronger competitive playing field that churches were in, young people who had grown up with the notion of choice, could make choices between sites of youth ministry programmes, whereas in the UK, young people were likely to have one experience and leave. The competitive, or open market, of Christian ministry is identified by Thompson who who argues that this profligates a consumerist race to attract young people through bigger, more inventive and exciting ministry programmes, and as a result aspects of formation such as theological understanding are sacrificed. Previous studies such as Christian Smith on MTD (Moral Therapeutic Deism) have highlighted this. Other similar factors were highlighted such as the limited transition from Sunday school to church, institutional barriers, and also the rare but fascinating actions by churches to develop ministries out of social care for their local young people such as the building of a purpose built youth club. The gradual moving away from church by young people is common. Thompson also noted a dichotomy between the literature and lived experience of Religious decline within local contexts, expressed by youth workers. Thompson suggests that there is a fundamental difference in the US and UK context in that choice in the USA means freedom to believe, in the UK it is likelier to mean freedom from belief.

Various other similarities are noted by Thompson, including young people belonging to church, institutional elements of church, developing social activities within the community, transition to adult church and maybe more notably the consumerist element recognised within American youth ministry, and how personal choice for young people is acknowledged, yet their voice can often be lacking in developing and shaping ministry.

Overall Thompson has identified, through research, that churches have to do more to connect with young people in their associated groups, clubs and activities. Young people face the risk of only connected with these activities on a social level, however good this might be, fostering belonging, a continual theme in youth ministry is essential. Thompson argues that her research shows that churches are just not welcoming into their community at all. She argues that churches could be accused of acting as consumers, who provide the economic investment for a youth worker, but offer little in addition to invest themselves in the ministry and practice that might have long term positive effects. This is an additional area where Thompson suggests that churches have choice and agency in their ministry, stemming potential decline through emotional investment in people. Local decline might not be as inevitable or something churches have no control over.

What I find particularly helpful about Thompsons book is that it ultimately offers simple suggestions for churches currently involved in youth ministry practice. It highlights the challenges of institutionalised religion, and also institutionalised affiliations and the effect of this within children and young peoples faith. As a youth worker, there is some reassurance in knowing that the challenge to culturally change how churches connect with young people has not been recent, and churches largely failed in developing from missed opportunities in the past, such as 2,000,000 children attending Sunday schools. Careful digging beneath the surface reveals how churches and Sunday schools contributed to their own demise. In her conclusion, Thompson suggests that churches either have to ignore the narratives around decline, or challenge them, in order that a mindset of defeated-ness and passivity does not inhibit churches in the future. The question is, and this is the important response to this book, do churches, children’s and youth ministry still feel as though they have the agency to contribute to their own revival? If the opportunity of connecting with children and young people presented itself in a local church, would it do all it could to take that opportunity? For these things are only borne out in the local context – each church has an initiative to take.

Unsurprisingly, Naomis book made it into my top ten theology/youthwork reads for 2017, to view the list of others click here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1aL  and view the others and a summary for each.

What makes the Christian Youthworker distinctive?

At the moment, amongst a few other books, I have been reading ‘The Pastor as Public Theologian’, by Kevin Vanhoozer.  Within it, he asks the question: ‘What is the distinctive role of the Pastor’? describing that there is a problem of identity not just for pastors, but all associated with a Christian vocation, such as Youth Ministers, worsh
ip leader and so on.I’ll come to his responses in a bit but it might be worth exploring for a moment, some of the identity and role challenges that a Christian Youthworkers might have.

This is not a new query, the God-fathers of modern theoretical Youthwork, Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith, wrote in 1987, in ‘Youthwork’  that Youth workers not only have to conduct a number of roles, but also, because ‘what a youth worker is’ is such an ill-defined term that they often use these following as a guide or starting point:

  • Youthworker as Caretaker (puts the chairs away)
  • Youthworker as Red-coat (entertains)
  • Youthworker as Social Worker (1:2:1 support)
  • Youthworker as Character Builder (resilience improver)
  • Youthworker as Community worker, and finally
  • Youthworker as Educator

And so- this plight to not only understand the role of the youthworker, using more well trodden paths of understanding is not new. A youthworker might need to use another profession to define themselves against, their role might even encapsulate all or some of these others, but in a distinctive way. When Jeffs and Smith were writing this, it was very much to and within what might be considered the statutory youthwork sector. Kerry Young (1999, 2nd ed, 2006) expanded this list somewhat, by reflecting on Youthwork as an art form, in The ‘Art of Youthwork’, suggesting that

The Art of Youthwork is the ability to make and sustain such relationships with young people. In so doing, youth workers themselves develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to engage with young people in the process of moral philosophising (Young, 2006)

So, adding to the list, of the roles of the youthworker became self-awareness, examination of their own values, critical skills and enlargement of their own capacity for moral philosophising.Product Details

In addition, she also suggests that Youthworkers do not just deliver youthwork, they define it, interpret and develop it. She argues that youthwork is a ‘distinct practice’ – not unlike what Jeffs and Smith were suggesting. So, the question is, for the Christian faith based youthworker – if indeed, this in itself is a distinctive practice – what is it that makes it distinctive?

We’re 30 years (ouch) since Jeffs and Smith’s ‘Youth work’ Book, above – I wonder if there might be other additions that could be made to their list? That youth worker could be defined as. I guess I am waiting for a different professional to say – ‘Im a bit like a youth worker, but less structured’ or ‘if you imagine a youthworker, then I do such and such’ – as if there is a profession that defines itself as one step from youth work – 30, 50 or 70 years into youth work as a distinctive practice – it hasnt captured the public imagination in the way, teacher, nurse, police, social worker or redcoat might have done… (‘hi-de-hi’ has alot to answer for in the latter of these)Image result for butlins red coat

Because there hasn’t been new people-orientated professions I cant think of another new profession to add to this list. Though one of the oldest professions could be – The Priest/Vicar/Clergy? In a way this is not that different to what Kerry Young is suggesting. The Youthworker as Clergy is one who has a sense of values, of practices according to values, is someone who would guide to moral decisions, maybe even challenge some too. Now, probably a few of my clergy friends might dispute that Clergy have time to do the kind of pastoral work required for this, but thats not the point im making, for the youth worker, a nod to the role of Clergy might at times be appropriate.

The slightly worrying thing about this, is that if Vanhoozer is to be believed, Clergy might be in the same kind of identity predicament. What he suggests is that there have been a series of images and metaphors that have shaped the understanding of ‘Pastor’ which were created in the social context/culture, been retained and have held the role captive – such as ‘The Pastor as CEO‘ , as ‘psychotherapeutic guru’, as ‘political agitator‘ , (all of these could easily be transferred to youth worker)  – different times in history shape the nature of the role of clergy and models, and so ‘master’ (of theology), ‘Builder’ (of church congregations), ‘Revivalist’ (in the 19th C) , and ‘Manager’ (of programmes, buildings, people- a 20th Century concept) – additions in the 21st Century include ‘Social media mogul’ and ‘community activist’ – and thats before others such as life coach, agent of hope, story teller, midwife (Vanhoozer, 2015, p7-8)

A look to clergy might not be that profitable, in this sense, though there is an element that Clergy are able to shape their practice in a way that defines it, interprets it and develops it, the many examples of books on the role of being a pastor are testiment to this, but this also occurs in the local setting, as clergy encounter people through visiting, groups, wandering around their parish, in schools. There are times when Clergy are as much the youthworker, as vice versa, doing assemblies, being governors, leading groups. The fluidity of role definement remains.

It is not a semantic question to try and define the ‘Christian Faith-based youthworker’ – or at least suggest how this is distinctive as a role and in practice.  Carole Pugh locates ‘youth work with a spiritual content & ‘youth work based on Christian (or other faith) principles focussing on a social action/youth work values approach’ in between the deemed extremes of ‘youth work with no spiritual content’, on one side, and ‘Christian youth work adopting an evangelical approach’ on the other.  (Pugh, 1999) This is similar to that of Danny Brierley in All joined up ( 2003) or Richard Passmore (and I) in ‘Here be Dragons’ , in which we argue that at the heart of Symbiotic youthwork are the core principles of education, equality, participation, empowerment and group work within an understanding of Mission, of improvisation, of ‘valuing culture, traditions and the Bible’ (Passmore, 2013, p60)

So, if Core to ‘Christian faith based Youthwork’ is Youthwork and its values – how might a developed understanding of Christian vocation help. For, as in ‘Here be Dragons’,’ Youthwork and the Mission of God’ (Pete Ward, 1997) and others – one of the key attributes to the Christian youthworker has been a mission prerogative – to ‘meet young people where they’re at’, to ‘be incarnational’ and so, as a result ‘understanding the culture’, and forming practice around Mission has been essential, and has in many cases driven practice; often with Vincent Donovan ringing in our ears. Mission may have taken the youthworker thus far in their thinking, Fresh expressions and emerging church is developing new avenues for youthwork ( see also Here Be Dragons again..), but if Mission becomes swallowed up and synonymised by Evangelism, as the church in ‘Status Anxiety’ might cause it to be, and the Church of Englands national youth person has ‘evangelist’ in their title, (one example amongst many) – then the Christian youthworker, may become even more distinct, but not only that Mission becomes reinterepreted as ‘church grower’ – leaving the Missional christian youthworker without a theological discipline to call home.

Enter, metaphorically, stage left, Kevin Vanhoozer again or at least a paraphrase of him, as I ask ‘What does the Christian faith based worker do, that no other institution can’?

On one hand they might be the only living remnant of youthwork practice soon – much to the thanks of the Conservative government slashing local council funding and with it universal youth service provision – so that might be one distinction- with a youthwork underpinned practice – this might be a future distinction.

But what else – at least from a faith perspective – what might the Christian youth worker be called to be and do?

Vanhoozer suggests the following:

  1. A Theologian- ‘To be a Christian Theologian is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God was going in Christ for the sake of the world’- theology is not just a job for the professionals, the qualifieds or academics.
  2. A Public Theologian- This is someone who reacts against the privatisation of the faith, restricting it to individual salvation – it is someone who is able to discern truth and justice, able to discern how and where in the world the traces of truth and justice may be unveiled, it is to be communicative of the story of God in the public domain, to be as Volf suggests a ‘witnessing presence’ or as Sam Wells (2005)  ‘Saints’ (See my post ‘Theodrammatic saints..) –
  3. To be in Public: It is to be involved with the public, being present, working with people to have conversations, to raise questions, address big issues of life, death, hope, fear, meaning and despair. To have much knowledge, and but also have general knowledge, to encourage places of connection, and environs such as homes (see my previous post on ‘home’ here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-S5)

Now these three things are directed by Vanhoozer, firmly and squarely with the role of Clergy, and in his words the ‘Youth Minister’ – and he has Christian Smiths (2005) research on Youth Ministry in the USA in mind as he makes this point (2015, p116-117, 154) and so this might have more resonance or direction with the ‘Youth Minister’ role in the UK. But what is interesting is that the ‘Christian faith based youth worker’ is probably more used to be doing these three things, as they have an adopted language of youthwork (universal), are involved in conversations that invoke witnessing, are discerners of truth, justice and equality (even if youthwork values drive these) and also value space for conversations.

Maybe ‘Christian faith Based youth workers’ might be Public Theologians after all…  

 

References

Passmore R, Ballantyne  Here be Dragons, 2013

Pugh, C Christian Youthwork or Social Action, 1997 in Youth and Policy 1999 no 65

Smith, M, Jeffs, T, Youthwork, 1987

Ward, P, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997

Vanhoozer, KJ The Pastor as the public Theologian, 2015

Young K, The Art of Youthwork, 2nd ed 2006

 

MTD & 10 other findings about Young People and Religion from ‘Soul Searching’

There were 10 main points in the conclusion to ‘Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers’ by Christian Smith, but the main headline from the book referred to the concept of MTD.

Product DetailsBetween 2001 and 2005 , the National Study of Youth and Religion in American undertook research into the Spiritual lives of young people aged between 11-17, they conducted interviews, focus groups, and telephone conversations with young people all across the USA.

Whilst MTD got the headlines, and has been referred to in a number of publications, it is some of the other conclusions within the research that might be of equal interest to Youth Ministers, clergy, volunteers and parents of young adults, especially in the UK.

Ill get to MTD later.

So, after listening to and dissecting the information from the research, these were Christian Smiths conclusions regarding the spirituality of American young people:

  1. Religion is important: Religion is a significant presence in the lives of young people. Most have not dropped out of the religious congregations they were raised. Many profess religion to be important and has influence over moral choices. They might not be able to articulate their beliefs that well, but they do have some kind of religious identity.
  2. Young people arent as rebellious as we think! The Character of most young adults is extraordinarily conventional, they follow the religion of their parents in the vast majority of cases.
  3. Religion or no religion – spirituality is not the question; As part of religious conventionality, very few young people express a desire to be ‘spiritual and not religious’ many grant others right to persue religions, but  few would be interested in doing this themselves.  What they were raised with, religion or no religion is what they are most happy with.
  4. The USA is still predominately Christian; The shift in religious observance in 2001-2005 was of no significant difference to the previous 20, 30 or 40 years. Any claim to the alternative – ie the influx of Muslims, is simply overblown.
  5. Some religions are better than others at ‘helping’ young people; From a sociological perspective the young people who score highest on self esteem, and life choice factors were Mormons young people, conservative protestant and black pentecostal teenagers. It was identified that consequance and causality are reasons not to make astute claims, in this regard, and religions cant be compared like for like, however, from the data these three religions had a more positive effect on young people.
  6. Parents, Parents,Parents! The single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual life of a young person is their parents.
  7. Invest in training youth leaders! The greater the amount of religiously grounded relationships, activities, programmes, opportunities and challenges available to teenagers, the more likely teenager will be religiously engaged and interested. Religious communities that invest in training their leaders, teach adolescents are more likely to draw youth into their religious lives. The opposite is also the case, less investment by a church (not just financial investment) then young people are less likely to invest in their religious faith.
  8. I cant explain what i believe – I just do! Most US young people have difficulty articulating their faith, what it means and the implications of their faith on their lives. Many say they have no religious beliefs. Religion may play a part in a young persons life, but it seems confused, un-focussed and in the background, valued but not invested in, praised but not describable. Research pointed to a view that teaching and educating beliefs was weak.
  9. MTD has taken root! It is the new religion that is now worshipped within many of the main religious traditions. What is MTD? – it is Moral Therapeutic Deism – The belief that God merely gives, God expects moral behaviour, and that God is distant. MTD is covered in more detail here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-KS –  If ‘God’ helps a person ‘feel happy’, or ‘confident’, or ‘helps me do what i want’- then these are possible symptoms. God exists and watches, God wants people to be nice, fair and good, being happy and feeling good is central to life, God is only required when theres a problem to take care of needs and good people go to heaven – these were all central beliefs of young people and form the basis of MTD.
  10. Religion takes place in a social context – and these are powerful influences. The choices of a young person are very powerfully influenced by forces outside of religion, and where religion is adhered to is still marginal then it becomes v difficult for a young person to see these powerful influences and the influence they have. Expectations are that young people go against the flow, half the time they are powerless to even swim.
  11. Religious life is important and has a positive effect on YP; religious young people are not the same as non-religious, there are differences in life outcomes between adherents and non adherents, as religions ( nearly all religions) shape and influence a young persons life. The culture of religious practices has an effective influence.

Recommendations;

  1. Adults to help to understand to socialisation process a young person is going through, including the socialisation process in a faith community – rather than see the young person as controller of their own desitiny, more often they are being shaped by forces outside of their control
  2. Young People are not alien creatures, are less dissimilar than like adults. They are more unlike their 3 year old younger sister than us their parent. The continuities are far more prevalent than distinctions. There is no need to research youth culture.
  3. Adults need to be reminded of the similarities with young people.

These recommendations are squared at adults in churches where there can be unseen but said barriers to working and involving themselves with young people.

“Religious organisations and congregations are uniquely positioned to embrace, connect and strengthen links between adults and teenagers, though it will require intentionality and investment “- concludes Christian Smith.

What might Christian Smith have highlighted that might be of relevance to the UK youth ministry, the North East Youth Ministry, 12 years later in 2017?

Does it represent a different culture that of the USA and so some of this is barely relevant at all?  –

How might faith be something young people receive as being something ‘good for them’ but it not require sacrifice, a change in lifestyle, or discipleship.

How well to UK young people articulate faith and beliefs? What they actually believe about God? not just a moral opinion on gay marriage or abortion?

Just a few further questions from what was a fascinating read. MTD may have got the headlines, but theres at least 10 other helpful conclusions from Soul Searching that are good discussion starters in UK youth Ministry.

Thoughts?

 

 

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