What if we treated young people (in the church) as Human?

What is it about young people that seems to be that they’re treated as something other that human?

And, before someone in the church responds to say that they have a healthy and positive respect for young people, it’s the church that whilst it generates and maintains a good number of youth work and ministry provision, might also be in danger of regarding young people as subhuman.

My recent case in point is Neil O Boyles book ‘Under construction’ which – if you read my most recent two pieces, details and shows examples of where young people are patronised (told that sex is for having babies), given simple answers to complex problems (you’ll not become a child killer, if you don’t watch video games) , restricting their view of sin, shame and maintaining a cultural view that the individual is responsible (whatever the horror situation is dealt with) and infantalising young people (something is interactive because it has ‘puzzles’ and join the dots). On one hand I had many issues with that book. Not least its view of God. But its view of young people is equally as odd.

And if this is endemic – what does this say about how the evangelical church – and the wider church view young people?

Its as if young people are less than human people…- a few examples:

Talking of Sub-human – There can also be a view that young people (for arguments sake the over 11s- the post primary schools) are somehow a weird, alien, arrived from space species – this was picked up by Christian Smith in 2003 (p259), when he urged US churches to not hold this view, seeing that those who are over 11 upwards are closer to the adults who read or write blogs like this, or run churches or are congregants, than the children in Sunday school and messy church that seem to be viewed as treasures and darlings. All of a sudden theres a collective defeatist disempowering thst ‘we don’t know what to do with them’ yet, ‘them’ has been known for 6 years already. The challenges is the attitude fuels the approach, and approaches are often lacking. Of course changed young people aren’t going to like what they had aged 9, but they’re not necessarily going to like high energy games or simple bible stories or moral talks either. But they’re not aliens, just changed…

What they might like – is being treated as a human – not an alien

Or maybe even – not a project, or a puzzle to solve and then boast about.

These pages, articles and theres blogs everywhere on how to reach, teach, keep, pass on the faith to young people. Young people (once the church has stopped putting its foot in its mouth about sex) is also on high alert for the quick win, model, method, way for arresting the decline of young people in churches, and now that project ‘employ a youthworker’ has changed to ‘employ a resource church faith enabler for millenials’ or ‘an outreach worker for the 25-40’s’ its as if the church, worry stats included this week, has given up on trying.

However. Whilst young people (the 11-25’s) in this case are mentioned. What about the over 65s or under 11;s – are churches bursting their seams with them? No- thought not…

Then, as Andrew Root suggests, the desire for young people in the church is not for their sake anyway, its so that everyone else can feel not only that the institution may survive, its also that Youthfulness=Authenticity in todays culture – so increasing young people can help those involved in it to feel as though its up to date, its real. Somehow. (Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular Age, 2016) Young people then, aren’t treated as Human, but as signifiers of institutional relevance.

In few parts of these discussions – of church growth and young people , does the subject of actual young people, actual processes, mission, values, and human dignity appear. Its high reaction, responsive, soul searching and trying to do better. But what if the following…

Instead of trying to project, solve, judge , patronise or reach young people (no one talks about reaching the over 75’s…)

Because, as my most read piece, since it was published, suggests, young people are treated as human, when it has been established what role they have in it – just like everyone else – or more so.

Why not instead work on thinking about young people as humans? Fully human, fully who they are in the sight of God at this present moment- not in need of change, but as they are…

Think of them as not them – but us

Think of them as spiritual – and actually religious

Think of them as gifted – and our task to harness those

Think of them as having passions – and adding resource to enable these passions to be realised

Think of them not as without, not as deficit – but with character, with determionation – who already in the midst show a kind of resilience, resourcefulness that would put adults to shame

Think of them as not ‘the youth’ with a ‘youth’ room – but part of the church

Think of them not as tokens to be paraded, a group to have sympathy for – but like every other human – with a contribution to make within the places where contributions are made by everyone. Think of them as not done to, but those who create for themselves, and to be heard

Matt Haigs Book ‘Notes on a nervous planet’ says the following – in relation to all of us, and the state were in on the planet we currently occupy, what if we reminded young people, and we remind ourselves, of the collective humanity that we are all part.

‘Remind ourselves that we are an animal united as a species existing in this tender blue speck in space, the only planet we know containing life. Bathe in the sentimental miracle of that, define ourselves by the freakish luck of being alive, and being aware of being so. That we are all here on the the most beautiful planet we’ll ever know’

What if there was something about the very young people in your church and parish whose humanity imight be revealed to you? What if their place on this glorious planet was no more or less significant than yours – what if young people are aware of participating in something much bigger than they know yet – and they dont have those dreams and stories and actions quashed by the very adults who say that are working with them, because there’s a drive to be pure from sin all the time.

Maybe the first thing is not to talk about young people as if they’re not in the room. But they are. Not in the room about them…. and where their involvement is too purchase attendance tickets to the thing we think they might like. Hmm, some humanity there.

What if there isn’t a new model, method or idea – but what if theres just something to be said for listening, inviting, sharing space and enabling young people to belong, to do, and to be challenged, and have opportunities to flourish and make decisions.

Maybe if churches thought about young people as the humans that the other humans would like to be treated – then this might be a good first step.

Do I really need to make a theological case for treating young people as Humans, from the biblical material? No thought not, most of you youth workers recite it all anyway, and adults hear the same messages…; Created and made in the Image of God, Loved, gifted, persons who can be in conversation with God, in community, capable of feeling, emotion, intellect, generosity.. and participants in something God is calling them to – and that needs a conversation, respect and time – not a programme, a method or a model.

What if we began to reflect seriously about the humanity of ourselves, and the young people who are part of our communities, parishes, churches and groups?

And took what we might find seriously..?

Bryan suggests that ‘We understand who we are primarily through reflecting on the story of our lives. Every day we share stories about what happened to us and what we are anticipating or hoping for in our future, but each of these narratives is embedded in the broader stories of our family, the social groups we belong to , society, and beyond that to the unfolding history of the world’ (Bryan, 2016)

Locating and regarding young people as Human, and developing their true humanity is what we are to do – again, and as Bryan writes, and I conclude, with this to reflect on

‘An essential part of who we are is rooted in human beings as co-creators and participants in the unending story of God. It is the living story of God which defines who we are and who we become’  (Bryan 2016, p5)

How might young people be part of the stories of the church as they are?

How might church be part of the stories of the lives of young people?

How might church encourage the stories of young people as they participate in Gods call in the world?

And not just that, creative, quiet, loud, questioning, faithful, determined, thoughtful, considerate, loyal, you know – just like the rest of us…

 

References:

Christian Smith, 2003, Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Bryan, Jocelyn, 2016, Human Being

O Boyle, Neil, 2019 Under construction

Root, Andrew, 2016, Faith formation in a Secular Age

Haig, Matt, 2018, Notes on a nervous planet

 

 

What if parents actually read the books Christian youth ministry encouraged young people to read?

I thought I’d imagine a parent writing a letter to the local vicar about the newly published book ‘Under Construction’ (2019) by Neil O Boyle, national director YFC, its a brand new book, and a number of young people might be about to read it.

Dear Reverend/Pastor,

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, you may not know me, but I am the parent of Harry, who goes to the youth group in your church hall every Friday night. Tell you the truth Harry loves it, and as a parent its great that he gets the chance to meet up with other kids his age, and not the same ones he goes to school with, I think he goes because he fancies one of the girls but dont tell him I told you. Anyway, the church thing is new to us all as a family, I guess we’re ok about it, were not religious at all, but sympathetic to it, it’ll help Harry growing up im sure.

Actually Reverend, there was something more I wanted to thank you for. I dont know whether you realised it, but Harry went with the youth group to a camp in the summer with the other kids in the youth group, he had a great time, there was a band on and he loved the music, said it was nothing like church (hope you dont mind me saying) and there were other adults there who were being cool and friendly, and Harry was impressed. So, thank you for giving him that opportunity. Theres another thing too, whilst Harry was there there was someone who gave him a free book and said it was about developing a deeper relationship with Jesus. Now as you might imagine, Harry spends most of his time on a video games, and even though he showed me at the time, a few weeks ago, I was sure the book would stay on the bookshelf.

To my surprise, and a bit like the Bible one of your volunteers gave him a year or so ago, Harry tells me how much he is enjoying the book, if you want to give your children a copy its called ‘Under construction’ by Neil O Boyle, as a parent I wholly recommend it. The change in Harry since he has been reading the book has been amazing, he used to not have any decent conversation over the dinner table about things, just shove his food down, and be sullen, but not any more, he’s offering opinion on things like abortion, sexual assault, child killing, bullying and asking us over the dinner table about how good our prayer life is, also about watching too many video games, saying that these things are wholly shameful and God wouldn’t want people to do these things.

To my surprise he’s asked me to give his copy of Grand Theft Auto to the charity shop, when I asked why, he told me that if he played it too much he might end up killing a child on a railway line. As a parent I am just so proud that he is making these decisions based upon such diligent thinking and consideration of the facts of such high profile cases in British crime history. If this is what this book has been able to do for Harry, then I am just so pleased.

I must tell you this, The other day Harry and his older sister Matilda were having an argument at the dinner table, Matilda currently has a boyfriend and they’ve been together 2 years, and Harry quite abruptly asked her whether she had had sex with him (the book told him that sex was for having babies) and whether she was going to save having sex for her future spouse, because that’s the most important relationship. Now, Im sure Harry didn’t mean to say it in such a judgemental manner, but Matilda reacted bad to this. As a parent we tried to love both of our children, and so we’re thankful that Harry has helped us out by saying this, yes he may have destroyed any relationship he has with his sister, but as a mum I couldn’t be more proud that he’s learning a new perspective and without any critical thinking using it to help his sister be shameful about her sex life, saves her father trying to say it.

So Reverend, I was intrigued, what was this book all about? Forgive me ( are you the confession ones?) , but I kind of had to know what this genius book was all about, so one day when Harry was at school, I thought I would go and have a read, after all its just a book not a diary isn’t it.

Well what a surprise I got.

You see, not only is it a book, but it has exercises and activities in it, and Harry had filled some of them in. I thought, should I look.. but, a book for teenagers and about christianity what is it going to have in it, draw a picture of Jesus or some kind of bible story quiz, but no Reverend, not at all.

This is why you need to get copies of this book to your children Reverend.

I know I shouldn’t have done it, but there were reams of notes written, as Harry, usually not that diligent in school according to Parents evenings, had completed the activities. I bet you want to know what they were. Ill try and tell you, because what I discovered shocked me at first, but then I realised that all the information would be great to use as bribery against Harry if I needed it, you know as they say, knowledge is power.

I just started with the activities and where Harry had written, at 13 he’s already realised that he needs to make big changes in his life, he’s drawn what the foundations of his life are, he has a series of dots to draw the nature of waves in his life (any ideas what the waves of your life are Reverend?) , and on page 38 described the things that make him panic, now, Harry has always been pretty chilled and nothing phases him, but like a good boy, he managed to write a few things, Donald Trump and Climate change, they are what makes him panic, and on page 62 he’s asked the same thing again, there seemed a lot on this.

On page 102 Harry was asked to write down the principles that guide his life, now I dont know about you Reverend, but I wasn’t surprised Harry left this blank to be honest, though he had a go at it.

Harry made a good job of drawing something that symbolises his exercise (a football, what else) , and then Harry described his prayer life – do you have any idea there Reverend, that my 13 year old has been asked to describe his prayer life, he said it was ‘fine, but not as good as the leaders he met at camp’.

I was so thankful too, that on page 119 and 120, I was able to read about the internal labels of shame, rejection, guilt and other that Harry says have carried around with him, all his life. I thought I knew everything about my boy, but when I discovered how he’s felt guilty for the death of our family pet dog, and rejected because he thinks his sister gets more attention, and shame because he masturbates and there’s been conversations about girls, underwear and porn at school, but at least now I know some of the things he is going through. And Im going to tell his dad later too. If you want to find out the inner shame of your kids, then this book is amazing.

You’re going to think this book is amazing aren’t you, well sadly reverend, I think there are some not so good points. I think its great that there’s just so many opportunities for Harry to write down all the areas in his precocious little 13 year old life where he feels he is a failure, feels guilty, feels like he needs to change, there’s even a section where he is made to feel so bad about one of the things, its likened to a weed, on page 135. Harry said his weed was ‘masturbating’ and he didn’t feel it would ever go away or be removed, it looked as though there’d been tear stains on the page. Well as a parent, if Harry feels so shameful about his body now, then its unlikely he’ll end up doing anything like his sister has. He’ll probably never get married or be able to talk about sex with anyone, and as a parent, that’s far easier to cope with.

Reverend, there is a bit on page 80 that might shock you if you gave it a read, no its not the stories of sexual assault, rape and abortions, no, they’re all told as if its the woman fault, and in this PC culture, its refreshing to have some traditional women shaming attitudes, men cant be at fault for their penis at all, and im glad now that Harry can grow up thinking that he doesn’t need to take responsibility for what he does with his penis, a relief, given that now that he’s so embarrassed by what it does.

No, the bit you have to watch out for, is a little section where Harry had the chance to rate how good Dave and I have been at being his parents. And the little shit, sorry, darling Harry, gave us a grade of only 7 out of 10, and for some reason, and I looked in the text, an anticipated grade of 8? what’s that about then – what’s Harry expecting? an Xbox for christmas, is that what he’s anticipating, well not now…

When I read the chapter it was talking about abuse in the family, and men and women having sex to have families, I thought that was a bit weird, I mean Harry is 13 not 8. He was told that some couples its painful to not have children and God wants people to be together to have children. Well that’s a bit awkward for Harry as his Grandad recently remarried, if he has kids at the age of 75 there’ll be a shock. In the book I read that following Gods instructions about what to do when there’s abuse in the family or a parent leaves us. Im just so glad Reverend that in the Bible there are instructions for Harry when this happens, can you tell me which book in the bible is specifically for 13year old boys and what to do if a parent leaves, im so thankful the bible is so specific and helpful.

So, yeah, keep a watch out for the family pages, you might get a shock, especially if you’re expecting a high mark, this book doesnt have much positivity in it, so be ready for a low score.

Before I go, I am going to need to ask you for some help Reverend, as I said in the beginning, I haven’t ever been to church, but I would love to be able to discuss some of the questions that Harry is about to read and know what is going on so I can at least help him. So would you mind getting back to me, I note that you have an MA in theology, and this book is being for 13 year olds, so I guess these are standard questions. So could you give me a few hints on how I might answer these questions please?

  1. What its the Hallway of my life? – Because I am asked whether Ive left Jesus there
  2. What is the MY version of the Bible, and can I get a copy of it, I used to have a bible with weird drawings in it, think it was the good news, but what’s the MY version?
  3. What might the dry rot in the walls of my life be, and Reverend, these affect how I view my life – so as a Parent Id like to know- and Jesus exposes dry rot, so can you tell me what’s going on there please?
  4. This one is in the book, Can you understand this reverend? when the storms hit your metaphorical house (your life) does the roof leak and cause further damage by the manner in which you panic, react or stress, or is the roof watertight because you find yourself able to draw close to God, whether you sense him or not and find his peace? Reverend can you explain this one please?
  5. Do people who wear provocative clothes have no self esteem Reverend? (Thats what page 75 says)
  6. Reverend, does your life have a dining room and has Jesus walked round in it?
  7. Whats your prayer life out of 10 Reverend? – just so I can help Harry know what the vicars score is and compare, thank you.
  8. Reverend, how might I respond to the question whether I have an undeniable weed growing in my life?
  9. Why is this book all about bad things, shameful things, about introspection for 13year olds – yet nothing about God being about love – like I heard at Harry and Meghans wedding? Its almost a completely different faith to that one?
  10. Lastly – Reverend – I notice there’s a whole load of assumptions and claims made in the book- about girls having abortions, about video games and that they lead to being a child murderor – is this kind of amateur reading of society to make young people feel shamed what I might expect more of in Harrys life? If so, ill keep the real study in our house out of bounds, I wouldn’t want him to actually think critically about these things or discover research, like my own psychology degree papers to challenge it.

So, thank you Reverend, its been a long letter I realise, and you dont hear from parents very often I guess, if you could help me out with these questions I would be grateful, this whole house thing seems a bit weird but if thats the basics in christianity for 13year old then I really am going to have to pick it up quick. Oh and the sex before marriage thing, try not to tell Harry that his older sisters date of birth was only 2 months after our wedding date, keep that a secret, otherwise my score will probably go down to 3.

Thank you again, as I said Harry loves the youth group. And this book is going to really help me to discover all his hidden secrets and fears, its like a dirty diary full of sex and shame, just let me know if he talks to you about it, I can even give you a heads up.

Your Parishioner

Joanne, Harrys Mum.

PS, there’s some resources for the youth group available, I think you should get the youth group to do them. They’ll be a nervous shame-filled wreck of a group, and dead easy to parent.

Oh, and reverend, I thought id copy a few pages for you, just so that you can see for yourself how good this book is.

(after contemplating these words the Reverends response is here  )

 

Why I’m thankful for Jose Mourinho leaving Man Utd a year ago

I realised that this week upcoming is particularly significant.

Its one year since Jose Mourinho was sacked as Man Utd manager and as a Man Utd fan, these things are significant.

Theres a number of significant events in my life that I can also remember when they were… because they happened on the same date or time as a Man Utd match, I can remember the date of my first kiss, it was the same date as Liverpool vs Man Utd in January 1994, the game ended 3-3, though united were 3-0 up in the first half. I remember the kiss too, fairly innocent, naive, cute and romantic. But, back to last year, as im not sure theres any more details of my teenage years you want to hear about…

Oh yes, 18th December 2018. The Mourinho Day. I got this news in the car park of the office of the Diocese of Durham at 10am or so. And it made me smile and pump my fist in the air and happy. The Mourinho days were dark days, football was dire, manager with narcissist syndrome. For me they werent the only dark days of 2018. But I remember that day, because I was heading to an interview for the job I love, and the job I have now, and its been a year. I think i got the job, because i was good at an interview presentation – tell you the truth I imagined the interview panel as a group of youthworkers that I was training, and my material was the presentation. It clearly worked. There was just enough endorphins running through my body from the sports news to get me through. I got back home and I was shattered though. A few days later I was told I was successful.

For 2018 had been a year in which I had gone for jobs, applied for others, and not got them, or got that far, this could have been one more the pile. One more where do I actually fit in the youthworker/manager/faith/community/institution spectrum in which i hadnt found somewhere at the time. Thank fully that issue solved itself on Mourinho day.

And at the same time of going for that job, I was also outside from my family home, having separated from my wife since the September before. If it wasnt for the sheer generosity, hospitality and friendship of someone id known 20 odd years, and who could house me free until i had a job, i have no idea where id be. However, thats not to contemplate, I’m grateful. So, whist in the midst of that, I was looking for jobs, and trying to recover from alot, and support around me was forthcoming, via social media and friends.

But on 18th December, I got that job. And its been a year this week since.

So, I have now been the Part-time Team Leader for Communities together Durham for a year, a year in which i have been well supported, managed and have the most amazing team around me who are deeply committed to responding to issues of poverty across the north east. Its no easy job, but it so fits with my skills, and at the time of quite serious emotional upheaval, has given me the flexibility, but also the opportunities to have purpose, grow confidence and rebuild. And through this job, and via the diocese I was also able to access professional counselling, which accelerated the rebuild, the self awareness, the ability to think, make decisions and see things, though am still sincerely indebted to friends for this too.

Because the emotional upheaval only continued, maybe that was predictable. And cut a long story short, until the point in June (after a lovely week in Tunisia) and having been back in the family home for 4 months, that I made the decision to end the relationship.

In July, after again, being in receipt to the most generous hospitality from a different friend (and now new work colleague) for a month, I moved into my own flat, my own home, and it so feels like that, my own home. I cried as the estate agent showed me round it.  And ive been here since July. I am 40 seconds walk from the sea, have lovely neighbours in the block, and am so enjoying cooking, playing my guitar and being able to get home from work, (though i work from home for all 3 jobs i have) and sit, reflect, and often do morning or evening prayer (northumbria community – i went on retreat there a few weeks ago) , and i feel that the flat, and that life itself has been granted to me as a gift. A new gift to treasure and open, to explore, to adventure and dream.

My old family home sold this week, moving on is happening and theres a new reality, routines getting used to. Some of you reading these words have met me in the last 2 or 3 years and would have no idea, and you’re right, you wouldnt. I was good at being closed. Even though some of my posts have shared some vulnerability, some things stayed guarded, and i am pretty good at talking to other people about them. Keep me off subject.

I have so much to be thankful for in 2019, I have so much to be proud of in such a good way. The old addage, what a difference a year makes is certainly true, the last few months has been a time to reflect back over the year, and consider how I got through it all. Theres triggers and awareness, emotions and reactions, only natural, but theyre all ok. For usually i realise quite how thankful I am to be who I am, where I am, to be active in the ministry I am, and loved and treasured by God, my friends and so many people. Life is good. Life is a gift, and i feel like I’m enjoying and appreciating every minute.

Jose Mourinho leaving Man Utd… I owe you one.

I have had easier years, and though theres been despair and desperation, theres also been genuine joy and happiness. I am due a very easy year, though I cant see that happening, theres at least a few challenges around the corner to deal with, and others im sure that I dont know about. So, my review of 2019 starts with a heartfelt thanks to the board of Man Utd for sacking Mourinho, but has a deeper heartfelt thanks to an amazing set of friends, colleagues and the many people who have supported me through this year. I will encourage anyone to go for counselling by the way, i will also suggest that we make space to talk about marriages, relationships and home lives with people more often. Maybe it was only me that was guarded about this before it had hit crisis point, though im not sure talking about marriages ever crops up at youthworker conferences or in supervisions… just a few observations.

Jose Mourinho… you have no idea. Oh, and I’m so glad you got sacked… the football at united is so much better… 😉

 

The Man you’re Made to Be (Martin Saunders, 2019) – A review

Even though I met Martin at the National youth ministry weekend last week, my view of his book has increased in favour since, but not because i forgive him for not taking me out for a coffee, that boy Martin was pretty busy all weekend, and the conference was a good one… (;-))

Back to the book….

Martin has written an engaging, self deprecating at times, accessible book on 11 principle aspects of growing up male in the UK, from emotions, to sex (there was always going to be at least 1 sex chapter..) , about temptation, identity, adventure and a few other aspects, most of which are written with the christian faith in the background and sometimes foreground.

It is a book that has challenges itself to looking at the individual male, and the male in society who, if Martin is right, is almost determined to be a certain type (page xv) – and so attempts to be a counter narrative to this. Though this presupposes that young people aren’t critical of the culture they are in… and some really are.

The Man You're Made to Be

I like this book, though i think, i wanted to like it more, and yes thats even though it frustrated me at times. But i like it even more since the NYMW19 weekend.

The bits i liked

I liked it because Martin isn’t afraid to be personal, and at times real and maybe vulnerable, there’s plenty of personal references, of situations in his own childhood and teenage years, and quite crucially, if he points the finger elsewhere, its at the world of cinema, music or culture, and not a real person he knew or a real situation in a group of young people, this is to be commended. I read the book before I met Martin, though we had conversed via Social media, the book feels like he is having a conversation with you, its a casual chat about some important aspects of life, and comparing this to some of the equivalent books I read as a christian teenager (the teenage survival kit – anyone?), this is less a moral treatice on how to behave – but an encouragement to be a man, a real man growing up in the world and what that’s all about. Its not just about surviving a moment (teenage years) – but attempts to point forward – and ask – ‘what is it you’re made to be’? – and in addition, to have a gentle conversation about some of the alternative views of what being a man is all about.

I like the sense that Martin asks the questions, it is a conversation, and there’s encouraging advice (to reflect on your purpose, to give yourself some moments in silence) , and not necessarily assumptions (‘if you’re someone who, ‘if you’re the sort of person who…., ) , this may reflect that Martin hasn’t got someone in mind as the audience, or a more nuanced reality that he is leaving this a little more open, this is also reflected in that he doesnt make the assumption that the reader is a christian, or a type of christian – yet most chapters do have something about faith in it, and 99% of the time its about the Christian faith, and there’s a whole chapter about Jesus too, yet whilst this book isn’t going to achieve awards for Theological nuance, Martin brings into the conversation stories from the Bible to use as examples, in a way that he also uses his own stories, and movie storylines to reflect on, its what it is, and Martin is good at it. It makes for easy reading.

The bits I wanted to be better

The bits I wanted to be better, were that I just wanted such a book, written for young men, and as someone with a teenage Son, to have something in it that had something like an actual proof, or evidence, or even, references to places where young people could get other help. I liked the conversational tone, but if Martin had stated where such things as ‘the biggest killer of young men is suicide’ comes from, to give it weight. And that same weight, proof, evidence, could be included elsewhere, *and I know this is the kind of thing an academic would say, i realise, but if something as important as alot of what is said in this book, about emotions, about health, about then psychology and sociology, then to say ‘ this comes from research from ____’ – a point being that on a few occasions Martin references the Bible exactly (p61).. so it feels like an opportunity missed, big time.

The other thing, is that by the time I got to the end of the book (and I read it all) I started to get a little tired by the moments like this where Martin left the page and started talking to me, *if you’re reading this, its called breaking the fourth wall like this. And it just got a little irritating, maybe because it wasn’t that necessary, and then it sort of got a bit patronising, especially if i put myself in the place of a 15yr old boy reading it, definitely an 18yr old – because they might feel as if theyre not being talked to at that point..

But then thats another thing, I was trying to work out who the book is directed for…. if it was for young men who have been brought up in churches and christian homes – then theres a distinct sense in the book that each Bible verse and theme needs explaining – and yet many should be familiar to them, even a cursory look at many sunday school teaching materials and most of the stories are covered that Martin uses. Theres very little in the book about a purpose that doesnt involve God – and i will be critical here, if the whole premise of the book is whats said in the conclusion, that ‘The relationship (with God) is above all else , what you’re made for. If you embrace that, everything inevitably falls into place’ – seems quite a trite ending, and is the voice of someone who has had the privilege of now being able to look back (and recount stories of Hollywood) – but what if the young person reading this isnt feeling like ‘everything is fitting into place’ even though they have faith? – they could live in poverty, experience childhood alcohol abuse, be a young carer, and for many adults reading that sentence.. doesnt that suggest that Jesus is the answer? – yet as Martin also suggests throughout, there is work to do in life (like discovering being introvert, or reflecting on purpose, or other activities) … but then – in regard to audience.. is this said to affirm someone who is a christian (the target audience) or said to encourage someone? – given that Martin is tentative initially with faith references, he probably does have a broader audience in mind, but thats a bit confused then with the ending.

I’m glad Martin has written a chapter about Sex (which got all the attention when this book came out), im more glad that Martin has written a chapter about Women, about objectification of women, and how this is endemic (at least in the coffee shops Martin goes to), it may have been good to have a female voice included in this chapter, given that by the 9th chapter the boys reading it, might be interested in hearing it. I guess, also, there’s something Martin could say about women that isn’t said, though its to be applauded that he has written something that is targeted at boys that encourages them to think about equality, just not sure where they themselves go with this if they challenge their all male church leadership team… but hey.. that’s #churchtoo for you – and Martin steps a long way short of encouraging the boys who read the book to share platforms, or to stand aside in the youth group if there’s a girl who is more gifted..

There’s one other problem. I’m not sure whether Martin has written half of a good book. This one is the reactive one. Its as if Martin has looked at some of the issues facing young people today, rightly, and written a response to help young people navigate them, reflect and even grow as a man through them.

What would have been good, is actually, the good. I wanted Martin to suggest what might be good for young people *you mean use actual research that shows whats good for young people yes that. During the process of 2019, young people are taking to the streets in protest for good things, young people are volunteering in politics, young people are having a say- or wanting to. Maybe this could have been encouraged a bit more- and yes, even having a relationship with Jesus permits/encourages these… (As ive said in this blog, psychology suggests that belonging, competence and autonomy are good for us all, including young people, and developing these themes further may have developed the ‘what we’re created to be’ )

Though, I do, generally like this book. It is not without flaws *wittertainment reference for ‘the film podcast’ listeners, its heart is in the right place, and Martin is engaging, yes heartfelt, self depreciating and comes across real and honest. Its real and honest and tries to treat the young person reading it with respect, with a reality that life isnt perfect, and that he isn’t trying to tell the reader what to or not to do (p125) – and for this reason, easily, I would recommend it to any youth leaders who have 13-16 year old boys who might be interested in reading it, as a positive encouragement to thinking about being male, growing up male and being critical of the accepted messages about whats expected or accepted.

Martin Saunders – The Man You’re made to be (2019) can be purchased here:

I have amended my Review, in a previous version, I compared Martins Book, with Neil O Boyles book ‘Under construction’ which was given away free at Youthscapes weekend youth ministry conference. There is no comparison, Martins is light years better. However, whilst i retain an opinion that Under Construction is not just poorly written, potentially damaging and theologically all over the place, I should not have communicated this in the way I did. It does make Martins book look a whole lot better though.

 

Has the church lost its dream – if its just measuring growth?

I want to write something about church growth and people who I work for in faith organisations and churches still talk to me, and yet whilst contentious I think, its needed to be said.

Image result for church growth

Statistics about the decline of the church and anecdotal evidence have pretty much meant that church growth is the only game in town, (and this is reflected in a previous piece, on bottoms )the yardstick in which every initiative is measured, and where funding applied for has as key outcomes, and even where research by Social justice groups (CUF,Grace project) has to assess whether social justice projects ‘help with church growth’ – to inform that conversation – regardless whether they are good or not.

The same was in the evaluation reports for the fresh expressions over the last 10 years, indicating where growth (numerical) occurred and the causes of this – the key headline being where a vicar was in charge of 1 church, and the employment of a youth worker.

Image result for fresh expressions

I just wonder whether we’re measuring growth in the right way.

What about the following question…

How do you know if a country is showing signs of growth? – what statistics might you have heard of or know about to indicate this?

One is GDP and this often used and this is the measure for much of the government debate on growth – but have you ever thought about what is or isnt included in GDP and what influences it..?

The second world war had a wonderful effect on GDP. As do national disasters. Rebuilding a country after flooding in 1950s increased GDP by 2%, as the services required were utilised. GDP is also increased through the increase in Human suffering – therapy, solicitors, one company pollutes the other cleans up – all good for GDP. The families with the most poverty -and in need of services and spend money and consume- are the best for GDP.. those who go for walks and talk are worse for GDP… think about it.. yet how much we rely on GDP as a measurement – and yet probably dont stop to think about all the ways in which it is affected. Yet, its origins were for measuring an economy and its power during the time of war, in 1930. From being a yardstick of power during war, it became the ultimate measuring tool for a consumer society post war, but its prime success was in the war era – its still being used – for the sake of no other viable alternative being offered or created. Its a war time measure, still in operation and clung to. The problem, as Bergen states, with GDP is that simple rankings hide more than they reveal. He uses the metaphor of a violin piece, that if written in 1800 took 4 minutes to play, than in 2019, the same piece even with an orchestra and all the technology involved… still takes 4 minutes any adjustment ruins the tune – even if it taking 2 minutes makes it more efficient.

when you’re more obsessed with efficiency and productivity- its really difficult to see the value of education and care (Bergman)

Targets driving performance in the public sector start to sound ridiculous dont they?.. ‘we have a high graduation rate, therefore we offer good education’ or ‘the economy is growing therefore our country is doing fine..’ As Kelly suggests:

‘productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating and exploring’

Governing by number is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia (Bergman, 2019). And this isnt a political post during an election season. More to reflect on what might seem a standard measure that is uncritically accepted often – yet we rarely think about what it measures or doesnt or what it is affected by – and whether it in itself is good.

Does this resonate for you with ‘church growth’ at all?

I wonder if the warning of a country measured through statistical lenses and that has no vision of utopia – what it is dreaming for- might be stark, or appropriate. A church that statistically grows numerically – might only be increasing due to receiving new members from other churches that have closed. A church that is growing numerically – but who is attending – and are they from local estate communities of lower income – or the wealthier , not that its known – because this data is secondary often.

But then – is this in any way a real sign of growth in a church anyway? more services, and attendance – but what about faith formation, discipleship and how a church increases capacity, depth and responds to poverty locally? or – how might a church be involved in communities like school governers, voluntary groups, business and politics? Are they signs of growth too – as they impact and enable human flourishing in the world too? And not to mention funerals, weddings, ceremonies – and all the 100’s of encounters that people might have who have a moment of faith, lighting a candle, saying a prayer and feeling at home in a drop in. Then theres all the volunteering, the ‘performing’ – and the theological reflecting, growing and training that goes on..- not just for ordinands.

In a church I was in recently – they estimated that 500 people used the building each months for all its activities, yet only 100 attended on a sunday service. In another church its community work hosts more than 2000 per week, employs 7 people and receives £1000’s of funding for its community programmes – yet has less than 50 per sunday. A small church of 8 people, put on holiday clubs in one community that enabled over 100 families during the summer to have food and space to be, space to feel welcome and love and be community, in one of the most challenging estates in the north east. – are these churches growing – or being faithful – or doing good – or acting in a way which looks like the kingdom?

Just thinking about the effort, discipleship, growing that is going on in these- and then what might be measured on a spreadsheet.

Might measuring for church growth be a sign and also a pressure that creates unnecessary anxiety- and at the same time reduces the core function of churches to achieving productivity. If thats ‘the real world’ – then the real world is anti faith. The question is not just about what is measured in terms of church growth – but whether implicitly this has caused the church to lose its dream, its passion, its edge and what it is called to be. A place for spiritual flourishing, a place for goodness, and place that transforms the world. Maybe we have to dream differently about the church that is for the context we’re in- and not take measurements of churches that reflect a bygone way – does the current or future age need new measurements?

If measuring faith and virtue and discipleship is difficult – does that mean we dont bother and just measure the easiest indicator – even if its not complete? – it takes 722 pages of A4 to define GDP and yet its reduced to one figure- hiding so much through its simplicity. Church growth might be doing the same. An empty Sunday church might be a blessing after all, a place of expectation in the void, to not keep the pews full, but keep the altar empty (Craigo Snell, 2014) – a full church on a Tuesday afternoon might just be the spark of hope, faithfulness and goodness…

References

Craigo-Snell; ‘In praise of empty churches’ in Theatrical Theology, Van der Lugt- 2014

Bergman Rutger, Utopia for Realists, 2019

#NYMW19 – A weekend of great conversations – but which important questions does youth ministry need to ask?

Its almost 48 hours exactly since I got back from Youthscapes (www.youthscape.co.uk)  National Youth Ministry weekend and so I thought I would put pen to paper on a few reflections from it, with a few added and notable caveats.

The first is that this was the first time I had attended an English Youth Ministry conference. yup. Well aside from YFC’s own staff jamboree, my own youth ministry journey was too embryonic to go to the early incarnations of youthwork the conference back in 1997, and from 2004-2012 I was in Scotland (and why travel to england..) and since being back in England I have largely gone to conferences that i have prioritised in terms of learning and specialism, or where i felt it would be important to have an input from a faith perspective, such as In defence of youth work, Federation of detached youthwork and a few others.  Though I did attend Deep Impact a few years running in Scotland.

The second thing, in terms of reflecting on the NYMW19 is that i spend the great total of 0 (zero) minutes in any seminar, talk or workshop. With the exception of three workshops that were being presented from the room that i was part of with my lovely colleagues at FYT. Ill include only a small part of this , as they will show more of these on the FYT website soon along with a few graphs and pictures (http://www.fyt.org.uk) 

So – what have I actually got to say about the National youth ministry weekend, if i wasnt at a seminar and didnt hear a single thing from the stage. Well maybe thats the point, what is the essence of a conference? How much is it directed by whats on the stages, or what happens in between?

The bits in between were fun.

Thats all i can say really. I was tempted to wear a T shirt that said

yeah, i did write that blog – sorry if it upset you

But then i realised that actually, though a number of other ministry leaders, organisation leaders, and twitter followers knew of this little blog of mine. 750 people at the NYMW really didnt. And i already knew this.

For, whilst the twitterati of christian youth work, some engage with these reflections, the reality for me is that i get far more responses from the more critical, more open spaces in ‘secular youthwork’ than the youth ministry world. If such a world exists.  Thats not to say that this has no impact – but bring 850 people involved in youth ministry into a room for a weekend, and id imagine that the echo chamber of those who engage in theory regularly, theology even, or who have the time to read the stuff i write, or know about it, or search it out is few. But that didnt stop the fans of this blog searching me out. (blushes) .

The other reflection – is that there are many people who i would regard as being important in the conversation about youth ministry – who were absent from the conference, and some are very important – whether DYO’s, Clergy, Bishops even, representations from other denominations, and not many people involved in christian charities such as YMCA’s and very few from YFC – two from different ends of a youth ministry/work spectrum, but largely absent in the conversation.  Is youth ministry so confident in itself that it has any clout to speak to power, and those who make powerful decisions that will affect the future of churches working with young people in the UK. Because, if it isnt doing that, its merely speaking to itself. (which i know is also a criticism of the echo chambers of social media of which this blog is a part)

But what of the question… what of UK youth ministry in 2020?  or the long term 2030?

What is it going to be able to do – if the organisation it serves.. the church is 11 years further into the decline its currently in – and youth ministry itself hasn’t got much of a track record of stemming this overall tide – and churches themselves are recruiting family and youth workers, community and youthworkers (with more of a missional/outreach focus),. Has the church given up on youth ministry or young people? And if not – what is the core of youth ministry and what has it got to say? – if its discipleship.. have we even thought about what this is, and how this occurs? And – what about youth ministry and theology, and worship, church, mission, spirituality, poverty and faith, and then – what about thinking about youth ministry and other disciplines like sociology or psychology, all are important. At least I think they are.  These conversations need to happen not just in the centres of academia. Young people are far too important to not do this.

Having a conference next year is one thing. Systematically putting young people right at the heart of the UK church’s focus is another, and not just to save the church – but to enable communities to flourish too.

However, It wouldnt be unusual for me to get sidetracked down a rabbit hole of reflective purposeful questions, and yet at the same time say that I really enjoyed the weekend, but thats probably because I love having conversations with people, and there were 100’s of them in the FYT room and in the market place area, conversations that went deep, conversations about critical aspects of youth ministry, conversations where I learned things, conversations with others who are in the midst of the challenge, the midst of trying to do some great youth work, conversations with other ministry leaders and friends, and these conversations are completely life giving, energising and positive.

Honestly – I genuinely loved the weekend – it was great to catch up with and meet so many people – far too many to name. But does having a fabulous weekend, mask some of the difficult questions, and conversations that need to happen?

And gathering 850 youth ministry people – what conversations do they think need to happen – is there space to hear and listen as a process?  or are they to be sold ideas too?

Ultimately youth ministry (like youthwork) itself is a conversation anyway, shaped by those who experience it, see it and narrate it, so did NYMW open up new conversations, or shut them down, do the difficult ones need to be asked in the next few years, and work towards the responses. So, yes i loved the weekend, yes i love the conversations, but then again, you know i love a good conversation, whats important is that the conversations continue, and not just on twitter….

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