Is it more efficient to give people money at the foodbank – rather than food?

In an age when Neo liberalism has reduced all public services to the sum of their profitable and efficient parts, there could be a case to apply the same logic to the vast, and i mean vast, attempts to solve poverty across the UK.

Because – frankly – the burn out rate of foodbanks is going to be soon.

And, with many nearing their 5 year mark. Questions about their effectiveness in reducing poverty, food poverty have to be asked. It is undoubted that their need is greater than ever. But is there a better way to reduce poverty, other than the stop gap of a variety of emergency foodstuffs, sanitary products. clothes, shoes even and other items for a 3 day period of time.

Think for a moment how much human costs are involved in running some of the most busy foodbanks in the UK, warehouses, store houses, travel, collection points, cooperation from supermarkets, publicity and ongoing requests for items – its quite a lot when its added up. For – a number, a large number of people. Seems so, far alot of effort. Then theres the few people in each foodbank who are paid as overall supervisors. Funding for which has to be obtained.

A question – why, in the beginning of setting up this kind of provision – would there not be a question about just giving people money, and not the items?

Would it not be far far more efficent, in terms of time, energy, resource, effort to just give people say £50 or £100 when they came to the foodbank. Wouldnt this be a better way of solving poverty?

Sounds bonkers doesnt it – but what money do in the hands of someone who was already going to a foodbank for them?

A number of things.

  1. It would give them dignity, control and choice – about what they would spend money on. This was brought home to me recently when i talked with a homeless young person who recalled how having enough money to choose her breakfast, and buy some make up was hugely important, compared to the well meaning who handed her a sandwich or half eaten packet of biscuits. Money gave her choice, dignity and something of a level playing field.
  2. Money would eradicate poverty. And giving it to people for free would have a significant effect. Yeah, free money. Where poverty is not just money – in the vast circumstances, not having any, and the stress of that has a deliberating effect. As, the film, I Daniel Blake showed.

But thinking about it further, why is it ok to give people free tins of food etc and not the money with which to buy these things themselves?

Is it because there is a thought that this money would be spent on things that arent food related, maybe even fags, drugs or drink? or -what is there are fights outside when people start being mugged if people found out that there were people leaving with £50 each time?

Both seem slightly judgemental dont you think? – but what about the evidence – given that food to food bank recipients has been helpful – but poverty really hasnt gone away anywhere.

Strangely, the evidence, from research, is that people who are given money who least expect it, and who need so many things, spend it on… the things they need, and at the same time the human difference is significant.

A project in London in 2009 on homelessness, there was a realisation that 13 known regulars had cost the economy £400,000 on rehab, social servs, police, court costs etc per year over a period of 6 years. So in 2009, instead of handouts, these 13 were given luxury treatment, of £3000, and were asked ‘what do you think you need?’ Though social workers were initially sceptical. The reality was that in most cases each of the 13 men were thrifty and only spend £800. The reality was that money empowered people, and all 13s lives were turned around. The total cost of the ‘experiment’ £50,000 per year, including social workers costs.

So, not only did the experiment work for the individuals, it was efficient. The Economist newspaper wrote : ‘The most efficient way to spend money on the homeless, might well be to give it to them’  (Example taken from ‘Utopia for Realists’, 2017, Bregman)

We assume that poor people can handle money (Bregman), assuming that they once had money and spent it all so they cant handle it, some may never had any in the first place. Money may have arrived in return for completion of assistance programmes and job clubs -but this still suggests that people who are given free money will make people lazy. The evidence is contrary. Give the poorest money and they will more than likely know what to do with it to make them better, healthier and escape the situation they find themselves in, rather than be told and have no agency.

A program in Uganda that gave every poor woman £150, realised that within 2 years each of their incomes increased by 100%. Bregmans thesis, is that free money works.

The big reasons that poor people are poor is because they dont have enough money, and it shouldnt come to any surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem (Charles Kenny, economist)

Im not going to labour the point too much further. I realise that there might be restrictions on charities giving money – but might those restrictions be actually preventing people for alleviating poverty, and doing more to keep the charity in ‘business’ and activity instead. The University of Manchester concluded that after researching the cumulative of 110 million families in money give away programmes, they realised that the benefits were:

  1. households out money to good use
  2. poverty declines
  3. there can be long term benefits for income, health and tax revenues (people who have money spend it)
  4. the programmes cost less than the alternatives.  (Bregman 2017,p 31)

So – what about the homeless and poor in the UK – well £200 free cash in Liberia to the most desperate only caused them to spend the money on food, clothes and a small business. So if they knew how to spend free money – so  might people in the UK in a similar situation. When the poorest receive free money – they tend to work harder ( Lancet, June 27 2009)

If efficiency really is the name of the game and councils want to save money – then it might be more efficient to give money away – and alleviate poverty poverty that way, given that poverty might, no is, the key factor in so many of the issues in society. Escaping (or feeling like alleviating)  poverty causes people to do costly damaging things, so, maybe its poverty that needs to be addressed. I wonder if  the most efficient way to get people out of financial poverty is to give people free money.

This isnt new by the way, I conclude with this:

Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness, it certainly destoys liberty and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult (Samuel Johnson, 1782)

Poverty isnt a lack of character… its a lack of cash.

Think of it another way – what would have happened in the last 10 years if food banks gave £50 per person rather than the food handouts instead… ?

Would this have been more positive or negative? – the truth is we dont know, but maybe theres got to be a change, and a change to make eradicating poverty in an efficient way. Currently its costing millions – and is it working?

References

Bregman, Rutger – Utopia for Realists, 2017

Should discipleship be ‘action’ first?

Does anyone still use that phrase ;

its always the 20% of people in churches that seem to do 80% of all the work?

It got banded around for quite a while, though I’ve not heard it recently. It was, at best a passive aggressive way of encouraging people who only sat on pews every week to make more contributions in the life of churches. It neither rewarded those who did get involved, nor was much of an encouragement. However. We’ve moved on… haven’t we?

Though there is still a really ethereal conversation about discipleship that still happens, its as if there is a magical way that discipleship happens, that seems to be in need of being continually redefined, rejuvenated and energised. A cynic in me (yes there is one) might think that these attempts are to ‘sell’ the latest fad, model or concept, and with it a whole load of resources and practices. (and yes i do have an inner cynic)  The grown up in me might pose the question about whether there really is anything that can be humanly done about discipleship through churches. This is most pertinent when there are countless research on the ‘state of discipleship’ in churches (LICC have recently done one) . What they discovered that a significant number of active people in churches also self identified that they didnt feel that discipleship was happening. Yet, they were busy.

Maybe theres a few things to say here.

The first might be that a definition of discipleship that looks like Bible reading/prayer/study on a personal level might be genuinely not happening when a person is also involved in so much of the church’s activities. Its more group discipleship, than individual. Potentially.

So there may be a Definition problem.

There is also an expectation problem. Not unlike conversations about ecclesiology and models of churches (Healy 2001)- an almost impossible view of discipleship can act as a hindrance rather than an encouragement, its as if a ‘perfect’ process of discipleship is out there (though still yet to be defined) and until that happens there’s a striving, with often other metaphors like ‘whole life discipleship’ – that rarely about the struggles of life that include poverty, suffering, health and family issues – these can feel at times ‘in the way’ of ‘perfect’ discipleship. Almost that these are to be put to one side – God isnt in these… discipleship is somewhere else… at least that can be the implication. Discipleship doesnt = attendance or involvement – so what is it?  And theres nothing against the continual search – but the human search is for God, not for process or concept (Acts 17)

The problem with discipleship is not that we cant define it from the Greek (Mathetes) , not that we don’t see this as some kind of apprenticeship, or follower of Rabbi status (and i’m referencing Jo Dolbys PhD here) , or looking at Gospel discipleship – because thats been the church for 2000 years effectively – how to follow Jesus model/practice of it – but do it in the institutions of the church created since 70AD. The packages and resources have been written with every new discipleship package being better than the one before. It feels as if maintaining the church as an institution – with all the voluntary giving of time to enable this – doesn’t necessarily equate to the definition of discipleship – yet church maintenance is still good right?

We are urged to be disciples and witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth – (Acts 1:8) – the Wednesday morning community project may have all the semblance of the ‘ends of the earth’ compared to Sunday morning. But theres only a call to stay in those places not move people. We may have to reflect on what discipleship in the ends of the earth may look like. It probably wont look like what Jerusalem discipleship did. So  what might that be.

I’d like to end this piece with three thoughts that hopefully add something to this discussion. Practice, Theory and Theology.

One significant thing comes from my practice.

A number of years ago i was the project coordinator of a detached youthwork project in Perth, Scotland. Because of the nature of the role expected of volunteers, they underwent training, on the nuts and bolts of detached work and also, we spent time looking at values, principles and thinking theologically through a practice of being out on the streets, being vulnerable, and how this might be mission. What i didn’t realise, or at least, what was a great joy, was that in the months and years that passed of walking and participating in the practice, how often each of the volunteer reflected on how being involved in the project was a place in which they were doing discipleship, doing mission was discipleship. It shouldn’t have blew my mind, but that it came from the participants and not me, sort of made it real. Did it help that I had framed the action as a missional/theological one.. yes. Did it continue to help that there were spaces for theological reflection ongoing in team time, session reviews and in the growing of this community, well, i guess so. But still, i wonder if there’s just something to be said with how ‘volunteering’ is made a discipleship activity. I think.

From Theory, I wonder where the discipleship conversation converges with the Faith Formation conversation. Are the two the same. Maybe. Its not often a conversation about discipleship from the platform of a UK conference also includes reference to faith or spiritual development (fowler/westerhoff etc) – but neither, does it look beyond a glimpse of the need, to the culture and a few biblical principles. What Andrew Root (in faith formation in a secular age)  does is look at how Spiritual and faith formation needs to take root in the culture that we are in. I cannot in this piece go into his detail, and I have written 5 pieces on his book Faith formation in a secular age (2017) already (links at the bottom of this piece) – but Roots suggestion is that Faith formation is a process of ministry, and ministering and participating in the tasks of God. Where he argues consuming church, spiritual experiences, and personal faith journey all meet culture that is looking for authenticity that is found wanting. Simply put, every one wants authenticity, and there’s nothing more authentic than a real church that transforms the world rather than creates enclaves and avoids it, equally, its not just a current age thing, or Generation Z thing, its everyone. Look at micro breweries, farmers markets and bake off, the desire for the authentic pint of ale, the real news is there, its not just an adrenaline experience… but a real one. A danger, Root argues is that Churches have embraced youthfulness in an attempt to be authentic, culture has won, they have stopped being actually authentic. Practical faith formation for Root is a process of ministering and ministry. Is practical faith formation discipleship? Its not far off… but forming is for performing, and performing is also forming…

The setting for discipleship though, is not the church though is it. Church is the place for the faith formation, discipleship happens on the stage of the world, in which the church is also a part. And this is where the third thing, Theodrama, for me comes into play. Understanding the theological, physical and social context of discipleship might reveal that being in ministry in the world is closer to discipleship.  Theodrama provides a metaphoric platform to imagine/realise that the whole of the worlds timeframe is Gods, that the whole world is a stage in which all are participating in a Holy redemptive drama, just that not everyone is aware of it. From those drinking in the wetherspoons that i am sitting in,  to the drivers on the bus, and the market sellers in the shopping centre, the teachers in the schools and youthworkers on the streets. The framework  of theatre, and drama, takes the notion of connecting stories further, and to consider the artistic and dynamic view of participation (which is Biblical) in God drama, as the context of discipleship. So therefore the church is a principle actor, guided by spirit, to act on the stage of the world in accordance with a number of prompts past(trinity, kingdom, bible etc), and present (spirit) to act in the future. Personal discipleship, may well be a community venture. Personal discipleship is about be more fully aware to these prompts in the every day. It is not the amount of bible studies, prayer times, daily reading notes that have been completed, its being aware of these to act appropriately in the every day. To act in the world where there are competing values (Von Balthasar) where there are prompts to do so and goodness, truth, love and peace to be appropriated. Discipleship may well be a process of awareness and a new reality. Its being able to respond to the voice of God in the midst of the action. Not avoid the action and head to the nearest 5 evening  a week bible study and avoid the world.  (Theres more on Theodrama in other pieces on this blog, see the categories)

Coming back to the 80/20 thing – there is a new issue in town. Its that because of a lack of volunteers, and also the exponential growth in community work projects and ministries in churches – 100’s of volunteers for these things are being grown from within them, food kitchen receivers become servers in kitchens, young people in youth clubs become junior leaders – all in the name of good empowering community practices. The question could be said that these are good ‘social action’ and ‘not mission, or discipleship’ and it could feel as though the powers, and the 20% who’ve gone through the ranks properly and have a mission/discipleship resource to sell, cant conceive that there might be another way.  We might ask a question – how might people be already disciples through the ministry of serving in a community that they feel home in and welcome (and want to create for others) ?  and not that all this serving is only a step to a ‘real’ discipleship elsewhere, that can look like ‘going to a study group’ or ‘alpha’ – the real discipleship could already be happening – from a point of action.

A task of the church, might be to develop practical theological reflection and participation through these serving moments at the time – because im not sure any church has a luxury of increasing barriers to faith – when clearly there are many who want to participate in the good that a church can do.

I would hope there is a space, or a awareness that an action first discipleship can sit alongside a ‘traditional church attendance discipleship’ – because for one thing, people are joining in the action of the mission of God because it looks like something that heals, does good and is something to believe in – because it is making a difference. They are already participating in Gods mission before knowing full well who God is. Well, to be blunt, none of us know who God fully well is. For some people they might be closer to the actions and drama of God in their participation of it in a food kitchen than hearing about it and the stories of those before them.

The task might be to increase theological reflection – not import a model view and make discipleship  unachievable. Root may be right, thinking of discipleship as a faith formation process causes a shift to think of people as ministers and helping people to ministry, and this can start from the food kitchen, the holiday club or the social enterprise. Real discipleship is practical and takes place in the world, that where the tensions and drama takes place, the choices and prompts by the spirit occur. When we talk about discipleship otherwise its often more about faith formation and learning. Discipleship on the stage of the world might be less about doing more faith formation (something measurable by attendance and vocational calling) and more about becoming more attuned and aware of God in the midst of the whole world. Being aware that God might well be in wetherspoons right now, and asking me to have compassion on everyone drinking here at 10 in the morning. Can hearing God in the midst and acting on it in the improvised moments, in the participation of conversations of ministry be measured as discipleship?  I hope so. But discipleship is also volunteering, and starts with the provoke to be part of building Gods kingdom in a place. I cannot argue otherwise that this isn’t the person who has relied on a food bank, a youth club, who is now participating in making this goodness happen for others. God is active and on the move. And its risky and challenging.

References

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Hans urs von Baltasare – Theodrama Vols 1-5 – 1980

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Wesley Van der lugt – Living Theodrama, 2016

Nicholas Healy, The church, the world and the Christian life , 2001

‘But when did we see you?’ A sermon for poverty Sunday

For those of you who are interested here is a summary of the sermon that I preached this morning at St Aidans Church, Chilton, County Durham, as part of poverty Sunday: (and yes it was a bit longer than 7 minutes)

Good morning all, today we are going to look at poverty, and thank you for inviting me to share with you, I hope to bring to you stories from a variety of perspectives to help us look at poverty.

The first is a short quote from Darren McGarvey, Darren was brought up in Pollok, Glasgow, not quite Easterhouse, but still, an area of Glasgow renowned for significant challenges. In his award winning book, he says the following:

(poverty) ‘Its the belief that the system is rigged against you, and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile. That the decisions that affect your life are being taken by a bunch of other people somewhere else who are deliberately trying to conceal things from you. A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held in many communities and there is a good reason for it. Its true’ (Poverty Safari, p37)

Another quote, Gustavo Gutierrez says the following

Image result for gustavo gutierrez quotes

In our reading today what does Jesus say?

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,[f] you were doing it to me!’

41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.[g] 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

When we hear any of these words, we may want to ask the questions;

  • What surprises us?
  • What do we notice?
  • Whats going on?
  • What provokes us?
  • What makes us think?.. or
  • Why doesn’t it? if it doesn’t..

So – what might surprise us about this passage? For me, the following

I notice the complaint from those who gathered  who after Jesus made the separation, they said ‘But we didn’t see’ – yet all that was asked by Jesus was to do something – but they didn’t see.  Not seeing is equated with refusing.

What else might we notice in the passage. Something else. Notice the language Jesus uses. He doesn’t say that the poor are out there, some where else. The outside of the walls, ‘the other’ – He says ‘ I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger’. Jesus identifies himself in the poorest, the most vulnerable. He says, when you see the poorest, you see me. When you see, and give, and share, and respect – you give and share and respect me. It makes it the gospel of the weak.

We notice as well that, taking the whole gospel, this is not just about basic human needs, or at least not just the tangiable. Someone hungry and thirsty requires food and water (but how), but also the stranger is felt welcomed. This is about social poverty. As a youth worker, one of the most important things is to always try and talk to the young person who looks like they are on their own, they might be travelling through life on their own, and an opportunity to listen and give them time and space is often most needed.  But I was a stranger – says Jesus. A Stranger, in need of community, a stranger in need of belonging. A stranger, outcast. The whole gospel, its not about fixing, its about dignity. To blind Bartimeaus, Jesus doesnt assume that he just wants to see. Jesus asks the question; ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ – Gives the person dignity, respect, and yes is healed – and yes this healing is so key for that person at that time for their whole being. They make the possibility happen that a person can be fully human, can contribute, can have a say in their future.

It is ‘Poverty Sunday’, and in working for Communities together Durham, we think of poverty in three ways, Poverty of resources, Poverty of relationships and poverty of Identity. Now, poverty of resources might be the easiest to think about – yes its food, water, housing, money, employment and getting access to these things – as well as health care. Poverty of Relationship – is about who we are connected with, the support structures, people, family breakdown – and families do breakdown, thats life it happens, but it is who is around to support, listen and help people through these things. Poverty of Identity.;  I come from Hartlepool, which is a fabulous place to come from, and fortunately it has middlesbrough just down the road to think of itself better than (Ha), and we all have those places, whether its Ferryhill or Gilesgate, Hartlepool or wherever, its as if the ‘Nothing good can come out of Nazareth’, that Jesus heard about himself, has been an identity curse ever since.  But identity is more than town, its being uprooted and having to travel half way across the country as a refugee, its being part of a community or age that is often deriled – like a young person, or someone from the LGBT community. Bullied for being someone, and being true to yourself.

So – we might want to ask ourselves questions? like

what does poverty look like in ____________ ?

What does poverty look like in County Durham?

What is its name?

Poverty could look like a statistic, this might be one way of seeing. Here I have brought copies, you can easily get hold of them, of household population, employment, qualifications of Chilton – but you can do it for anywhere. You can see through the lens of these figures, and you can keep them because i dont need them. Being able to see, doesnt just mean that we read data from surveys. But it is one way.

One of the things the communities together Durham team do, is help churches to see, yes using some data, but also to listen, learn and gather insight into poverty, and then ask the questions, the same as we shared earlier:

  • what surprises us about poverty?
  • What have we learned?
  • what is provoking us?
  • what is really going on?

Because it might not always be the best thing to ‘respond’ by doing something practical – even if there is the urge. A compassionate urge. As a team we try and help churches to realise that there is a difference between a foodbank and a food community meal, where many people serve each other and contribute. There is a difference between a coffee morning and a place of welcome, where people are involved and participate, and not just in receipt of service. And, there is nothing wrong with these things – but how do they provoke us – if the foodbank has been growing in the last 5 years. Yet people are still living in complex poverty – what else hasnt been seen?

The first step is to see –

The second is to reflect and ask questions

Questions we also ask as a team are : How might a response promote human dignity, how might the gifts of the person be utilised, how might this response challenge injustice (as we read in our Isaiah reading) – and where is God in the response?

An additional one – is – how might the response build community – build conversation, build participation and help people be involved – like we read with Darren earlier, be involved in decision making in at least something that is with them. They are not just a user.

As a team, we would love to help you in your responses to poverty, to help you see, and help you reflect on this. Theres leaflets at the back (and for the rest of you theres our website  http://www.communitiestogetherdurham.org.uk

I then read the story of Lucy’s Flowers, which can be found in Mike Mathers book ‘ Having Nothing, possessing everything’.

after wards; i recounted a little of my experience of hearing, seeing and being alongside a young woman in the town, who shared of her situation, being homeless, and how it wasn’t just money that helped her, but support, time to meditate and have control, and also to feel like she had choice, some self determination.

Poverty is not out there, we need to see. Human dignity and poverty.

For, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was thirsty, I was in prison.

Thank you.

And that was the end of my sermon this morning.

 

 

The personal bit – i didnt share – but reflected on in the car on my way home:

But what do I know about poverty.?

I didn’t grow up on a tough estate. I cant write like Darren McGarvey can.

I went to a decent school, in the midlands. The posh bit of it. well, it wasnt bad…

I didn’t have that much of a challenging family life- though not without its issues. So, am I a fraud?

Well maybe its a realisation that at any point, a decision, a moment of conflict things can change. And though i didn’t say it today in the sermon,events that started from one year ago today, meant that i was about to need to rely on needing to stay in a friends house for 6 months with barely any money. I felt alone, confused, broken. As one friend said at the time, my whole life had fallen apart.

One year on, I count as blessings that decision and those times. I realise how friends, and not money, but care, hospitality and dignity supported and rebuilt me, from a pretty dark place.  And yes I did get a new job, underwent counselling, and now have my own new home, and I feel blessed, loved by friends, confident in who i am, at peace, and have gained so much through it all.

I am able to reflect back, and look forward, knowing how blessed i have been, grateful i am. Just one year on and still in the midst. So, poverty isn’t out there. Its so close to each one of us, and decisions I make, we make affect all of this. Sometimes we hide it well. Sometimes we don’t see it, before it hits us. I was a stranger, thirsty and hungry – and so many people gave to me.

 

How do you recognise a lesser spotted youthworker? Theyll be overheard saying these

If you were to gather a whole load of youthworkers together, or over hear them talking in the office or with family and friends, and theres a good chance you might hear some of the following. They are the audible signs that the person is a youthworker.

1. I wish you could get funding for developing purposeful relationships

2. No I don’t get paid just to play table tennis Image result for table tennis

3. It’s like a combination of being a social worker, teacher and police officer, but also nothing like them.

4. Maybe we need to have a conversation about that.

5. No one gets what were trying to do here, but were trying anyway.

6. Don’t call them youth, or young person, they have a name.

7. I wish I was better managed.

8. Youth work is not like it used to be.

9. Margaret Thatcher. (Often in an informal lecture about cuts to youth provision or rise of neo liberalism.) 

10. To young people: We do just want this (CCTV ridden, brand new building ) to be your space.

11.Yes i do a proper job, an no i’m not too old to do it 

12. No Im not just warming up to be a teacher or vicar

13. Yes im sure we’ll be able to use something random from the store cupboard to run a session

14. You mean i have to do my own admin too? 

15. Needlessly dropping the words ‘Generation’ into any sentence.  (this is often the ‘church’ based youthworker- they have other phrases too) 

16. We just want to be ‘there’ for young people

17. Have you considered the ethics of this decision? (over deciding which coffee outlet to meet in) 

18. We need to consider the context of the young person

19. ‘Our job keeps changing, a different job title every year, for every funding cut, every new reshuffle. I used to be a youthworker, now im a children, youth, families, community flourisher with early educational intervention remit. Its the same job, but i report now to the litter picking department’

20.  There’s just something wonderful about when young people want to talk, share their dreams and ambitions, and i can help them achieve them. 

21. Its the system. Its always the systems fault. 

22. We have loads of funding, last week we were able to throw away a pencil in the office without going all the way down to the lead. 

23. I wish young people didnt have all those expectations thrust on them, that they could choose what kind of service or provision they want. 

24. God i hate funding forms. 

25. It is all about values isnt it? 

You may, of course spot a number of other phrases or sayings that in a crowded room, a conference, or even now at the school that help you to indicate the sounds of the now lesser spotted youthworker. They are an endangered species more than ever, so, buy them a coffee, say hello, and only when you mention NCS, Neo liberalism or evangelism, do they bite. Do add your own below:

 

6 common defaults when churches start working with young people (to try and avoid?)

It never really surprises me how often when churches, (and when i mean churches i mean, clergy & some interested congregation members) think about working with young people, that a number of fairly common defaults are evident. In this post I want to share some of these, not because they are wrong necessarily, but it might be that you if you’re reading this didn’t realise quite how much of a default it is, when there might be other alternatives to how working with young people in a faith setting might take place.

Default No 1. The best way to start any youth programme is when a whole load of adults sit in a room and have ideas about what to do and hope young people want to do them. 

How often is this repeated? There’s young people. There’s adults. Adults have a whole load of ideas, look up a whole load of resources from (insert UK wide faith based youth ministry provider) , who is trusted because (the leader used to work for them/leader used to receive them/the organisation is credible/its easier) . Then Adults use resource to shape a programme that young people maybe want , or don’t want, or are encouraged to do because they feel that the church is making an effort . But the only option for them is to opt in, or opt out. And opting out makes them look ungrateful.

Or the adults have a ‘big idea’ – now ‘big idea’ – could be a rock cafe, a worship event, a youth praise group, a choir, a football night, cheese on toast for Jesus, graffiti artist, Rap artist (yes its still the 1990’s in some churches). And its a great idea that the adults spend ages. I mean ages. shaping, promoting, deciding in meetings, risk assessing, getting an MP to praise it, organising prayer meetings for it, getting it blessed by the elders or PCC…. but yet when it happens… not a single young person is involved at any stage, and three turn up, the same three who already go to messy church, the same three who would have turned up if you have offered tea and a biscuit instead.

One of my most read pieces on this website is this one. Titled ‘what role do young people have in your church/youth group?’  The challenge in avoiding the default above, is to be brave and give young people a different role in the life of the church and youth group. One in which their role from the outset isn’t just as a consumer of an idea that is foisted on them, but that they are engaged in ongoing conversation, planning and creation. As i say often, usually 11 year old’s in primary schools have some say in small groups about spending school budgets on improving it, via a school council. Meanwhile the same young people in a different institution, church, are just given shapes of Daniel and the lions den to colour in. Or spaghetti towers to make to illustrate a moral point. Avoiding this default might require an approach taken in which space is created for conversation, and ideas from young people, and trusting in them to be able to shape and create something with adults. You never know…

Default 2. Young people who are bored in church don’t always want bigger,brighter entertainment to keep them interested and coming back.   They don’t always like it when their youth thing condescends, patronises and makes them feel like children, by just looking like a school disco. 

Avoiding boredom may well be the curse affecting most of youth ministry   so there’s constant re invention taking place, constant new song, constant new material, constant make something relevant. Making the programme more exciting might be the biggest long term turn off for young people in their ongoing faith development. Because, when the programme runs out, or they get too old for it, what then? even more boredom when the only option is real church. Sod that.

But if the signs of boredom are beginning to be seen in the groups you have, and 2 years of colouring Daniel, is going to start wearing thin, then it might not be ‘Daniel colouring plus’ that’s required. It might be to actually talk with, respect and give young people the space to contribute, to be involved, to have their say. This is linked to point one above. But its also more than that yes young people might, in many cases want to have their say and voice heard and participate. But it might also be that what they are being offered isn’t challenging enough, isn’t controversial enough (talk about ethical issues) , isn’t real enough (talk about health matters, cancer, periods, mental health, the environment) , maybe even… isn’t spiritual enough. When their friends are into meditation and mindfulness, and the church is offering a prayer spoken by an adult and a god slot- where might their spiritual awakening or curiosity likely to go?  Yes i said it…. youth groups might not be spiritual enough. Young people might be bored… but why might they be…?  Work that out with real conversations and then see… don’t resort to making it louder or bigger as a default. Deci and Ryan suggest that challenge, autonomy and relationship are key factors in personal motivation. Work out how these can be part of developing youth ministry, not just smoke machines and drum kits.

Default number 3. The God bit is the God-slot

Oldest chestnut of a conversation this. Id reveal my bias here when i say I am encouraged that there are some fabulous interesting practices of youth work around that are starting to think differently about how young people learn, engage with, form, and become involved in faith – and have moved away from a God slot. In this piece i provide 6 alternatives. In a way it says something about how we as adults view education, and view discipleship if the only part that of a youth group regarded as ‘God’ bit is that God -slot moment.  Which is a shame… because that can often be the most challenging, boring, difficult part of the youth group evening and yet that’s the bit where young people receive instruction about God. Hmm… God explicitly is getting a raw deal there i think. Its also the bit in the group where young people can often have the least involvement – even if there is an attempt to give them options in other aspects like food or games – and its also the time when the power dynamics shift – and bluntly- it looks like school. Anyway. Old chestnut resurfaced, nothing new in this paragraph. But its a fairly common default. Disciopleship isnt one way and faith isnt formed by just listening. Check out the FYT experiments resource to flip that one on its head. There’s more on the God slot stuff in Here be Dragons. See link above.

Default number 4 : Young peoples faith will develop even more if we get them involved in christian youth culture.  

This is often a parental pressure thing. The default is that once involved in church, a young person must immediately only listen to christian music, wear tshirts, go to christian summer festivals (cheap holidays for parents to send kids away on, and their ‘safe’) , and become a leader in church, volunteer in sunday school. And basically show their christian faith and discipleship through countless attendances and involvement in christian titled things.  Nick Shepherd is onto something though, saying that these things do help with a young person creating a christian identity for themselves. But its part of something bigger in constructing faith… read his book.   Though I wonder… is this what adults do as well… well of course.. . I am not sure its as prevalent – and i also know I pretty much chose to go along to all the things i mentioned there in the 1990s.. however… what might have been ‘good’ in previous generations… might not be now.. but the default remains. Especially when young people more than any other group are bombarded with messages about being distinctive from the world, about almost avoiding the world, about only being ‘in the world’ to evangelise to friends, only having friends.. so they can be invited to youth group (I’m sure this doesn’t still happen) – but what do these messages do?  Create divide. And unhealthy them and us, and put young people in the most difficult positions in schools, communities and homes.  I am sure this isn’t the default it might well have been before, but worth watching out for it.

Default 5. Working with young people is for some one else

There is a magical human out there, who is so radically different from the humans in the church, who will be able to do something magical with young people that they don’t know, but you have known since they were 3 and been in messy church or Sunday school (and got bored colouring in Daniel), and this magical person is about to be transported in under the false pretenses of needing to be innovative, creative and experienced (with the reassurances of being underpaid, under supported and poorly managed) to round up the previously bored from messy church group, the alienated from church 12 year olds, the 15 yr old daughter of the vicar (chosen specifically because they had a young family 12 years ago, and they could be the previous magic person ) – but new magic person is now needed.

This default, creates a thought that magic external person is the best person to connect with young people. The reality is that if you know the young people, and have done since they were 3, then you are. You just need to re connect, maybe apologise (for too much Daniel colouring in) ask and listen and rebuild a relationship.  Young people value relationship, authenticity and long term integrity. You’ll get that if you take the time and listen. value them and re connect. A magic person is starting from scratch. If young people are important, you don’t value them by employing a magic person to rescue them, you value them by giving them space, time and opportunities. You value them by creating a culture in a church where they are important. from the leadership, organisation, planning and decision making down. Where they are welcomed and participate. Thats value.

Default 6. Young people are all______________ – they’re just a completely different generation to us, they so different. 

This is ‘Young people are alien syndrome’. All of a sudden there’s a default position taken that goes along the lines of ‘young people have just arrived from outer space, they’re weird, unruly, into things we have no idea of, unpredictable, different.. etc’ and then someone clever, will recite a piece of research, or the bloody guardian, that talks about ‘Meellenials’ and how in order to reach ‘meeelenials’ the church has to do X and Y and Z.  An invisible ‘them’ and ‘us’ is created. Young people are all of a sudden different, difficult, hard to reach, unique- and yet no one has even spoken to any of them. Just looked at generalised research to make an opinion. Then someone will say ‘its just helpful to do research’ well.. yes it is. But if you want to do research, ask the young people in the community you are working in, and build up knowledge from actions, from conversations, from reality. There is no one else in the world like the young person who plays football in your community park, or the young person who is bored in messy church, or is a bit lost in church, but comes along with his Dad. Research and thinking of young people as alien, really isn’t going to help with listening, learning, empathy, time.  As Carl Rogers said, we cannot empathise if we prejudge, and we prejudge all the time, so lets not add to it with extra lenses  from adopted sociological research (used mainly to justify programmes that we’ve already said… perpetuate a default) . There is no such thing as a millenial young person. Can we dump the universality research, and thinking of young people as aliens. They’re just people (Christian Smith, 2003) . Like you and me. Its children, ironically who are less like adults. Think about it.

Theres 6. I could of added a few others, and yet as i thought about it, they all nearly stem from the concept of participation, and lack of – and these are covered in the post i shared in the link above. its almost as though the key default in churches, is not to give young people any involvement in aspect of what goes on, for them, or for anything at all. Or that they wont be interested if its made too difficult, challenging. For the few young people left in churches…we have to do better. For starting work with young people, churches could start from a different place, and not go straight to these defaults. Expecting different results from the same actions.  I am sure you can think of others too. But these are the ones i see, and have also been guilty of doing myself too.

Some references and additional reading

Christian Smith, 2003, Soul Searching, his 15 recommendations for christian youth groups from research of 1500 church is well worth a look.

Nick Shepherd, 2016, Faith Generation. Still one of the best critical, thought provoking, books on youth ministry in the UK.

Carl Rogers, 1972, A way of Being. On person centred therapy.

Andrew Root, 2017 Faith formation in a secular age, isnt referenced directly, but some of the links do.

Chap Clark, 2018, Adoptive church. Chap suggests churches should be places of participation where young people flourish in the whole community. Id recommend this one.

 

 

‘In an ideal world you could just get funding for building relationships with young people’

How many times have you said that in the last 40 years? (As a youth/community worker)

Not a relationship that had to make something else happen to justify the relationship, not a relationship where the young person ‘changed’, not a relationship in which entire decades of social harm, psychological damage caused by other relationship was solved in 4 months -type of relationship. Not a relationship in which the young person achieved something, said something, evaluated something like the relationship offered to them was worthwhile. Not a relationship that was needed so that the new 3m youth building wasnt closed.

‘in an ideal world we would get funding for building trusted relationships with young people’

Just a relationship.

Just being with someone for the sake of it

Just having someone to talk to

Just . a . conversation.

Just a moment to be valued

Just a moment in which time stood still, and there was an interruption to the norm

A moment where someone stopped and took an interest and for the young persons sake.

A relationship that may lead to action, a relationship that may be supportive, a relationship that could change the world of the young person – and the adult – but not a relationship that expects and targets that before its already happened.

I am reading ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey; within it he notes the reflections of a youth worker, Joe – reflections that have been echoed by the youth worker fraternal for decades. Its Joes boss that bemoans the lack of funding for relationships. Joe, goes on to say:

‘good youthwork can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector. There is funding out there for targets, outcomes and issues. However many are not relevant to the work we do’

(which is)

‘ we are working to combat the effects of inequality and poverty has on the lives of young people, the cycle of insecurity, mistrust, lack of resilience. low self esteem and confidence. It is holistic, long term and multi faceted work’

This may not be the space to critique all of the above. Certainly there is an element of youthworkers clinging to the darkness as their natural habitat, and not necessarily seeing all the opportunities and options for funding and developing their work, and working in a needs based, and meeting emotional needs might be already fitting of a funding or social policy agenda. However.

The point remains to be said.

None of any of these things, any of these approaches, will ever come to fruition without the basic need to develop relationships as a core focus, no not core focus, as a reason to exist. Anything else is a course, a program or a ministry.

It may only be the voluntary or faith sector that has the capacity to do this, but the culture of outcomes and targets is fully pervasive, whether that’s in funding bids to charitable trusts, outcome promises to consortiums, or even, the final result of good youth ministry, have kids turn up on a Sunday. Its outcome orientated- no its outcome defined relationships. Its fully pervasive, because the systems are crumbling and in need to justify existence. Its fully pervasive because the value for money neo-liberalism default has made anything other seem radical, seem ‘non real world’, too idealistic. And Funding, and outcomes always generate a implicit direction of travel to the lowest hanging fruit, so that funding can be justified. The nearly christian who might go to church, the nearly got a job or capable to do a course- an easy quick win. But no one (as McGarvey writes) dare say this.

Yet, as McGarvey writes. Young people can smell outcome orientated rats a mile off. Young people in poverty can attune to being projected. Being rescued for a moment by the short term saviour (p83). The parachuted in for a funding season organisation that makes promises and delivers nothing, and has no actual involvement in the real needs, real situation of the community its is meant to be there for. And no one in the community has any involvement in any of it – except to turn up, and be a number.

Things young people want; (According to McGarvey)

Value ; The adult ‘ was passionate about the work they did and made me feel valued’ (p69)

Place and space: ‘working class folks receive strange looks when their groups lofty objectives are to want a place for the elderly and a space to drink coffee’ (p49) – or – ask a group of young people what they want to do – just want somewhere to go thats safe to talk.

Participation and Autonomy: ‘Joe and his team are one of many small (and chronically underfunded – my words) organisations that are dealing with the social and cultural legacy of decades of poor planning and tokenistic consultation with local people’ (p82)

Good youthwork is more than what Joe says it is, but then youthwork is an ongoing conversation that creates new definitions in each context, what is important is that relationships where young people are valued, where there is safety, space and place, and where there is a genuine desire for participation, and young persons autonomy to be at the forefront of it. Where honest means that its not a relationship for an outcome. A relationship that’s reduced to a trade.

So, yeah, in an ideal world,

‘we would get funding for building trusting relationships with young people’

And we will have realised the inherent good that there is in every single one of these. Whilst there are some ways of writing these down – the desire that relationships have outcomes at all virtually destroys their honesty, and their goodness. The ethics of the market reigns, and as Goffman says, the closer we are the trade, the less authentic the performance we play in our interactions. (Goffman, 1960)

But we must not give up. We will keep on going. There will be a way. It may be asset based community development, it may be in re framing and using different language to describe youthwork, it may be something else. Whatever we do, its relationships with young people that matter. after all…

Youthwork is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context (Sercombe, p27)

References

Goffman, Irving , 1960, The presentation of the self in everyday life

McGarvey Darren, 2017, Poverty Safari

Sercombe, Howard, 2012, Youth work Ethics

What makes a good conversation with young people?

In the past I have given many hints and tips on how to have a good conversation with young people, I have also reflected sociologically and theologically about conversations, and suggested ways of valuing them (Ie ensure they feature in review sheets) but I wonder;

‘What makes a good conversation?’

Think about for a moment, whether you were in a pub, a coffee shop, in your home, out walking the dog even, walking in the countryside or at a beach.. what was it that made the conversation you had with someone.. a good one?

A sense of sharing?

Time flying, yet every moment being precious?

Personal disclosure?

Humour?

Good body language and eye contact?

Shared understanding?

Trust?

No fixed ending?

Equal power dynamics? Or at least awareness of these but respecting each other through it with boundaries..?

What might you add?

And whether we’re 14 or 41, 30 or 60, we sort of know intuitively when we’ve had a good conversation with someone, we felt it, we learned something, we gave something away, maybe there was a spark of life, of hope and of support or care. But we just know.

So, thinking about the dynamics of the youth group setting, the club, the school group or street..

How can spaces, become places of good conversation?

The responsibility is on us, the practitioner, the volunteer to make it so.

Though we might meet a friend in a coffee shop – the conversation with a young person might be less deliberate.. only that they might be looking for the moment

Though we might pass a conversation off as insignificant (we have loads in every session..) young people might have treasured them, or felt an emptiness without one.

The culture and setting is important for conversations. I remember that the best place for conversations was on the door of the open music night, where the young people were smoking. Inside was too loud and dark.. yet, outside was good for conversation because it was an extension of the informal space inside. How might conversation be had in the space of your setting.. I’ve seen homework clubs recently where the leaders have some great conversations with the young people, whilst they’re doing their homework. But also seen very stilted conversations with young people about a theme not of their choosing. When I say I’ve seen, it’s because I led them. When urgency to educate overrides participatory culture that is for young people.

Trust. Agreed, not only being trusted people, but as Jeffs and Smith also say, trusting in conversations themselves. Investing emotionally, in the connections, relying on the conversations for learning, for themes if any to emerge, to let tangents happen, to trust in ourselves as practitioners and volunteers to hold on in conversations, to listen and ask, not try and direct or shape..

Then again, whilst we might want to fixate on the good conversations, we might do well to treasure all the conversations and interactions we have whether it’s banter or chat, or something deeper, all are important. When doing detached work I used to have different categories of the interaction, from ‘acknowledgement'(a quick hi and bye) , a social conversation (about the local context, evenings activities) , a detailed conversation (about a subject in depth) or even a personal one (where disclosure occurred or a personal opinion shared) .. these helped us to value the nature of conversations and recognise that all had value and occurred at different points of a detached evening.. the same group might have a social chat early on or an acknowledgement and later it’s more of a detailed one, once they have found a space to settle in.

I guess if we value conversations, we might do well to recognise their variety, the changes, and their nature. But what makes them good?

And whilst we might have an idea.. sometimes the most naturally good conversations are the ones that just well, happen. We just have to create the right kind of space where young people feel at home and safe.