In safety first cultures; risk taking is more required in youthworkers than ever before.

It comes as almost no surprise that there has been a backlash to the cultural messages of safety, harm and avoidance of risk that have been prevalent in culture, and also I might add the church over the last few decades.

Talk now in youth ministry is of taking risks with young people. 

Or maybe more pertinently, talk is of ensuring that risks are important in the relationships with young people.

It was the focus of last years Youthscape conference in which 1000 youth workers attended. Its been the focus of FYTs resources also. But – is it ever the subject of clergy conferences?

This risk provoking goes against one of the key principle cultural and organisational implicit drivers of organisations, notably church based youth ministry, which has, as said by Pete ward in 1997 – been more about safety and conformity within the church, than the kind of radical discipleship offered by Jesus. (Ward, 1997, Youth work and the mission of God, p16)

It is a theme I have spoken of before in this post ‘Young people will go elsewhere if youth groups are too safe’ and Why a risky church might be the right one for young people?

Taking risks was a key aspect of Jesus’ ministry – don’t you think?

Taking a risk with us as humanity was a risk taken by God overall – don’t you think?

Pushing the disciples to risk taking – and even exposure to difficult situations- was a key element of how Jesus pushed the disciples- agreed..?

At the end of this piece I will refer you to a resource which has been collated by Frontier Youth Trust to help you develop risk taking in your youth ministry, do take a risk and have a look at it – the link is here: (and no I don’t get any commission)  101 Risky Ideas for your youthwork

But before you do that, Id like to offer a short reflection on risk taking within youth work and ministry, basing this on two principal ideas. The first is a chapter in ‘Youth work Ethics (YE)’ by Howard Sercombe, the second is the 9 stage process of youth work as developed by FYT a number of years ago. I hope you find both useful.

In ‘Youth work Ethics’ Howard Sercombe identifies 19 areas of youth work practice that he gives insight and reflection to, on the basis of suggesting that youth work itself is an ethical endeavour based upon itself as a profession, and a definition of youthwork as a ‘professional relationship in which a young person is engaged as a primary client in their social context’ ( YE, p 27, 2010). What this does, is form the basis of youthwork as a negotiated, limited, yet professional relationship – that transcends the plethora of activities, venues and delivery agencies- but frames it as a relationship. Something i think that is music to the outcome bleeded ears of the youth worker.

Before going further with Sercombe, here is the 9 stage group work process that once and still is core to the FYT Streetspace community, note especially the element of Risk, that its needed and where it is located.

You can download the whole document here: http://www.fyt.org.uk/downloads/

The logic being that, over a period of time developing the relationship that you as a youth worker (especially as a detached worker) will be able to take a risk with the relationship that you have with a group (as you may by then have developed small group work, gained their trust etc) and been able to make suggestions to enable them to do something they maybe wouldn’t have done other wise. A push too soon may indicate that the relationship has been perceived differently from youth worker and young person/group. But note, that from the process of developing spirituality – a ‘test’ is whether ‘risk’ can be taken with other maybe easier concepts – like travelling to watch a football match, trying to raise funds for an activity, undergoing a personal change like quitting smoking (as an example) – gauging how risks in these areas might be seen as some kind of indication of how risk taken to think spiritually might be perceived. For more explanation of these – you might want to buy the Here be Dragons resource, in which all 9 stages are explored further. This is here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-4t

But lets just say from this example that Risk is needed in the youthwork relationship, and possibly even that Risk is needed for faith.

Back to Sercombe. Helpfully in a chapter on ‘taking care and managing risk’ , Sercombe identifies that in the main there has been a confusion about ‘harm’ and ‘risk’, but also that a number of risks are needed in youthwork, more so, there are a number of hidden risks that we would do well to help young people avoid.

A few summary thoughts from the chapter:

· Because we want to develop, transform even, the lives of young people through the relationship we seek to have with them , and they to some extent put themselves in our hands– this is an engagement that is inherently risky because we could get it wrong, create defensiveness, create exclusion or be a disappointment

· We expose young people to other relationships with other adults, professionals or services – there is a risk here, as these too may end up being destructive.

We are as youthworkers responsible for the intervention in other peoples lives and have a duty of care, and Sercombe goes on to describe the influence of a number of legal decisions and oaths that have an impact on how youthworkers are responsible, and ultimately states that:

‘The first responsibility of the professional is to make sure that nothing worse happens to the person than has already happened’ – though this is obviously difficult to promise – especially in medicine.

This is key ‘we need to do the best we can to help a young person in their journey. That may involve harm. It may involve greater harm. We don’t know that our assessment of that, even in consultation with the young person will be accurate’  We might want to avoid it, but harm is almost always a possibility in any intervention we might take, whether its helping them across the road to the ‘safety’ of the bus shelter on detached, the football or table tennis match, the cookery group, or game of pool. All can be harmful, and minimising harm is key, but it cant be avoided completely.

Whilst a few high risk activities have reinforced a tendency to avoid risks due to fear and litigation (such as PGL disaster over 20 years ago), and insurance companies dictating which activities youthworkers can and cannot do, there has become a tendancy, as i stated above, for risk avoidance. The real issue is being sued and avoiding harm to the organisation. 

often it is our job to increase risk’ (YE, p110)

Whilst the risks that get banded around for young people are the usual list of subjects; drugs crime, unemployment, homelessness etc and these get the usual attention. There is a range of risks for young people that don’t: passivity, resignation, fatalism, cynicism, low expectations, isolation, and you might add a few others here. Like lack of political engagement or community participation. Our role, according to Sercombe, is to help the young person assess the risk as best they can and help them decide through the possibilities. In the short term there might well be harm for the young person, a better life might, controversially, not be a safer one. (YE p110)

The role that Sercombe suggests we take in this risk manoevering profession is that of a guarantor. We manage the risk, think about it, we assess it, and consider it. But what we also do is hope, believe and project. We want to believe that young people can do, will do, and might just rise to the risk, because we see them as capable, confident and want to give them the opportunity to be the adults that they want themselves to be. By treating them as adult – they become adult. Right? Isn’t this a risk in itself? – but not an entirely non altruistic, positive one?

For despite the best interests at heart, best support and best conditions – there is still a chance at ‘failure’. This is the guarantor, and our role. We hope and help to provide the best conditions, resources and buildings in the hope that this will help young people develop agency, confidence, to be adults to make decisions. This is why this puts us at risk.

Thats why we take risks in youth work – because we still believe in the possible, we still have faith in the potential, we still dream. We take risks, and need to receive good management on their risks. ‘Risk is a key resource in youthwork’ (YE, p111).  It frames the logic of our intervention. Without it there would be no change, no transformation, no improvement, no new reality being explored. Whilst young people ‘at risk’ can be seen as an issue. Many of these occasions are when young people themselves do not have the capacity or resources to prevent being exploited, exposed or manipulated, by populist politicians, tabloids, sexual predators or extreme faith groups.

It is our role to defend young people, and take risks in preventing what might be a default pathway into these risks. Yet, risk is not the same as harm, it is not our role to decrease the risks, as arguably young people need risks so that they can exercise sound judgement, and we need to push young people to new experiences for their learning. We take responsibility for the process, we might consider ourselves lucky at times for the risks we have exposed young people to and the lack of assessment thought through. When young people enter into a relationship with us, it is a risk in itself, they entrust us, the information we give, and for them to push back on it. We might do well to recognise where we might have failed young people and their development because of our own reluctance or avoidance of taking risks, we need to be skilled enough to know and make the possibilities open, and resourceful in encouraging young people to take the risks. We might need to take risks to challenge barriers in organisations which hold young people back, we need to be as brave and courageous. We need, as this suggests, not to be content in only bringing young people to our beautiful place – but pushing them through the barriers we create to the somewhere new.

We have to take risks. Faith is about taking risks. Life is about taking risks.

Whilst the section above is less about faith, and more about risks in general. It is not difficult to make connections about barriers in churches and providing the support for young people to develop an adult faith.

As a reminder: Those 101 risky ideas for faith based work are here

At random – these are numbers 41-50 on the list and are aimed at helping to develop spirituality in young people, if you like these, why not download them all..for free. i mean what kind of risk is that, even…

41. Rewrite a parable and base it in your local context. Tell the story to young people without revealing its biblical origins. What are their interpretations?

42. Get up early to watch the sunrise and pray for the day ahead.

43. Ask young people to write a new parable.

44. Go to a cathedral or ancient church. Do some research about the the faith communities that have been there over its history.

45. For an experience of awe and wonder, sleep out under the stars.

46. Identify some of the metaphors used to describe God (ie Lion, Teacher, Tower, Rock). Ask young people to come up with some new metaphors based on the local context.

47. Cancel youth group or church in order that young people might find God outside the spaces you can control.

48. Arrange a visit to the building and community of a different faith. Use the time as an opportunity to dialogue about what values are important to you all.

49. If you meet with young people to explore and discover God start calling it church rather than Bible study or youth group. How do young people react? When is church, church?

References
Sercombe – Youthwork Ethics, 2010
Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997
Advertisements

Start the new year remembering to focus on the ‘you’ part of your youthwork

Starting 2019 ; Start with thinking about you

This piece starts with a look at boundaries and how in faith based youthwork these can be blurred, causing a number of challenges, and at times not knowing how to react to a desire for professionalism and yet maintain relationships. This leads me to reflect on self care and how the same ‘blurriness’ of ‘vocation’ and ‘profession’ causes similar challenges to the person of the youthworker.

Firstly boundaries

Once derided for its amateurness compared to its ‘secular cousin’ state based youth work, Faith based youthwork has undergone a considerable transformation over the last 30 years. With the rise of qualifications, and professionalism, there has been a concerted increase in ensuring that faith based youth work has rigorous adherence with policies, procedures and guidelines, including child protection, health and safety and also boundaries. In the main, it has to be concluded that if this increased awareness and policy implementation has made our practices safer and healthier for young people then this is undoubtedly a good thing. However, we might reflect that faith based contexts are different to ‘non faith based contexts’ in a number of ways, and as such it could be accused that faith based contexts have almost gone too far in regard to policies and practices and lost some of their distinctiveness.

Yet at the same time, issues about personal boundaries regarding vocation, self care and sustaining our ministry and personal lives still remain. We might ask;

Q: What are the personal boundaries that you might need to manage if your house is the venue for the ‘young peoples’ homegroup ?

Compare your responses to this, when it is fairly unlikely that any young people will even know where the secular youth worker even lives or would even disclose this to young people.

The reason for suggesting this, is that if we’re not careful the aspects of faith based work, such as meeting in homes, might become lost, because of a desire of adherence to policies that are meant for places of employment.

Though at the same time, this is not that we are not aware of the risks and boundary issues of hosting a home based youth discussion evening, but these might be better managed to create a homely vibe and open discussion, something that the cold church hall may not be able to offer. So, whilst there is definitely a desire to ensure safety and that our practices cant be regarded as amateur, we would also do well to reflect on spaces where there is a distinctive approach open to a faith group, that shouldn’t be eradicated by a drift toward professionalism, but that it does need to be managed appropriately. If you are thinking of running a young peoples home-group, what would you need to consider? Both for you as the host, volunteers and also the young people who attend; in regard to boundaries?

Faith based contexts do operate from a different ethical framework, with a sacred text having a higher regard than what might be seen as beaurocratic policies, and yet on another hand policies and frameworks for practice have now been adopted by churches in the last 30 years then have often been reactionary, like government policies in the national arena, to incidents of child abuse such as the Victoria Climbie case. This is in no way to suggest that churches can relax about safety regarding children and protecting them, and this is crucial, and having policies to protect children is vital.

But this does not mean to say that some of the key practices of a faith context, such as a home group cannot happen. We might need to careful in fully adopting policies and frameworks meant for larger organisations, for schools or for secular youth work provision, and spend time developing our own, and those that reflect both the youthwork and faith values of our own organisation.

As a consequence setting and being aware of personal boundaries is a challenge. For, the nature of the youth and community work that you do is not restricted to the one building, even the church, and as a youth worker we do work within an emerging and often invisible set of values and guidelines which distinguish us from the teacher, doctor or social worker.

From a theological perspective we have used words like ‘incarnational’ and ‘relational’ to describe the style and nature of the youthwork that we do, we can often then be tempted to negate thinking about boundaries for our own sake, our long term sustainability and increase aspects of burnout and stress.

We might want to follow in the footsteps of pioneers before us, but we need to recognise that we are probably very new in the field and just learning our trade. Even the pioneers, yes even Jesus, did not spend every waking hour in the company of the crowds, or even his disciples, being relational and incarnational does not mean acting self sacrificially to the detriment of ourselves and negating personal boundaries.

But, and this is crucial, one key aspect of youth work is the ongoing professional relationship[1] this means that there may need to be continual negotiation of boundaries so that there is a professional relationship maintained, and that young people neither build up co-dependence, or are kept at such a distance that the relationship is meaningless.

Some of these questions were first recorded by George Goetchius and Joan Tash in 1964, in the write up (published in 1967) of their emerging youthwork in inner city London on the streets. As the team of volunteers started to encounter young people, the supervision and training that they developed focused on four different aspects of the work, the first being team work, the second defining the problem, the third aspect of the training they developed for youthwork focused on the aspects of the youth work relationship, as they asked the following questions:

  • What is a relationship?
  • How does it come about and why?
  • What can go wrong?
  • Why do the young people need relationships with us? [2]

We might also add the question: ‘Why do we want to have relationships with young people?’ and be honest about this. It is imperative that we think about our role, our intentions as youthworkers, and also the nature, style and objectives of the relationships that are built between us and young people, as reflecting on this will help us to understand what it is we are trying to and also who we are trying to be, with young people. If we understand what kind of relationship we, and our volunteers are trying to create with young people, its function, purpose and how this might be coherent with its nature, then we might find it easier to identify where issues might arise regarding personal boundaries.

Moving on to Self care – looking after the you of the youthworker in 2019;

In her chapter ‘Sustaining ourselves and our enthusiasm’ Carole Pugh[3] recognises the stress and challenge of being involved in youthwork, and the emotionally draining nature of relationships, of the complexity of decision making and management, and she gives a number of suggestions which may help us to sustain ourselves.

Firstly, Be aware of the pressure points. Youthwork can occur with few resources, limited long term security, ill equipped buildings and unpredictable volunteers and young people. As Pugh says a sense of hopelessness can lead to fatalism, it can be difficult to remain hopeful (Pugh, 2010, p145), and this can lead to cynicism or retreat to the ‘golden age’. As youthworkers we need to sustain a youthfulness that is hopeful and transforming, being fatalistic, is not in the best interests of young people. Sustaining ourselves means sustaining our outlook.

Secondly, Pugh suggests that we are more likely to sustain ourselves if we know ourselves, who we are, our intentions, capabilities and self awareness in regard to shaping and building relationships (as stated above). It is important to know why we might lose heart when we do, to identify the causes. Pugh suggests that we need to hear the ‘inner youth worker’ taking time and space to find, listen and to understand ourselves. A key area that Pugh identifies as a mechanism, to help in this process is to have good supervision which can help with coping, sharing the problem and creating strategies for overcoming. It could be something more practical that causes us to struggle, it is fairly likely that you will work in a cold office, but if you end up working for 3 or 4 days a week in a cold office in a building on your own, then this may be as or more challenging that the situation of the holiday club where the church is busy for the entire 5 days.

Another aspect to manage, is how we prioritise the tasks that we have, from the tasks that could be daunting, challenging and difficult, which might be funding bids, trustee meetings, strategy document making or reports, and whilst this might not sound like managing boundaries, sustaining ourselves is a key factor in sustaining ourselves, and if we are able to sustain ourselves which is something we can take some responsibility for, we might be in a better position as youthworkers to create the kind of relationships we want to if we begin to create examples of how and who we are in our practice. As Christians we might pride ourselves with trying to want to have some kind of moral integrity and aim towards this, and this needs to be shown in how we manage ourselves, tasks and being aware of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The complexity of Self care & Boundaries in faith based youth work

A helpful section on Boundaries within faith based youthwork is written by Simon Davies, within a chapter ‘The Management of Faith based youth work’ in Jon Ords edited text ‘Critical Issues in Youth work management’ (2012). In his chapter, Davies suggests that the notion of ‘Calling’ and ‘Vocation’ as one of the key factors that link a persons identity, values and aspirations with the occupation that they choose, and this has a resonance with how in a faith setting Christian faith based youth workers relate to their personal values and work life, but at the same time this can present complexities which require managing, especially where there is a separation or overlap of the following:

  1. The geographic community where the work is situated within
  2. The geographic community where the worker lives within
  3. The field of the personal (ie being in relationship with others, with young people)
  4. The field of the professional (the functions of the workplace)
  5. The field of the personally held ultimate beliefs (what the worker believes)
  6. The faith community (the public expression of commonly held ultimate beliefs)

Davies suggests, as was intimated above, that the professionalization of some aspects of faith based youth work has encouraged the separation of personal life and professional work, however this is not always the case, and for a youth work based almost entirely in a church/faith community based setting it will likely to be a frequent occurrence where many of these (and other aspects of boundaries) will overlap. It is nearly always preferable or expected that a worker live within the geographical area of the church building, not far from schools or even where young people live themselves, it may also be expected that a worker make use of their home or office as a point of contact with young people. When these situations occur, not only might boundaries be blurred, they may even cease to exist[4]

There can easily become a real difficulty in having such a dynamic congruence between ones fundamental beliefs and working life. As one worker put it:

‘if our vocation is central to your sense of identity, then difficulties within your vocation are going to have an impact on your sense of self, and vice versa’ (Richards, 2005: 141, from Davies, 2012).

Davies also suggests, building from research, that the over mixing of ‘work self’ and the ‘personal self’ can have significant impacts upon mental health and well being, especially if achievement, role and function become the centre ground in a persons life, rather than being in relationship. The often result of this is stress and burnout. This can also be revealed through being in a leadership position where affection is received from followers and those whom a youth worker has authority over, and this becomes the source of their sustenance.

As a faith based youth worker – what are you responsible for?

Managing professional and personal identity is an ongoing process, and supervision and line management is a necessary component in increasing youth workers awareness of the boundaries of their responsibilities and their well being. It is to be encouraged that you ensure as a new youth worker that you put in place good line management for yourself, and suggest that discussions about boundaries, time management, workload and relationships occur in line management, (and if not in some external professional supervision) especially as the immersion of young peoples lives and involvement in the Christian community that is often expected of a faith based worker.

By virtue of a comparison, the same research, by Lake (1960)[5] in reverse can actually help us especially in faith based Christian youth work.

Whitehead writes that instead of being sustained by achievement and status, we might see and hopefully reflect on Jesus who was sustained instead by his relationship with his Father, and his sense of confidence, status and achievement flowed out of this. An unhealthy ministry might prioritise a sense of achievement, status and popularity, and seek these through giving unconditionally, trying to please and comparing a ministry with others. Having an acceptance that our sense of acceptance comes not from ministry but from our relationship with God, and that we are created by God and have an eternal purpose that whilst requires action, is not subject to earning love or approval. Growing in our security of God and our relationship with him, and attending to the relationships we have with family and friends needs to be the source of how we are sustained. This is also a vital message with which to share with young people, as it is a healthy foundation of ministry[6]. Get this right, and it will become far easier to identify in ourselves and in others where there are un-healthy boundaries, as often these will be revealed as a consequence of trying to do ministry as a way of gaining acceptance , approval or connection and could be detrimental to themselves or others.

Oh and before you think im only lecturing, re reading this stuff over the last few weeks has been hugely helpful and therapeutic to me.

A few concluding notes: 

We might reflect that the stuff that looks like acceptance, status and popularity, are in a way negated with a closer adherence to what we might describe as ‘youthwork values’ – for if we truly are about empowering others, then our invisibility should be noted, not our desire to be visible, dominant and surround ourselves with gatherings, and find our ego massaged by numbers of people. As well, if we value individuals (again a youth work value) then this as a precedent looks closer to a sacrificial and humble attitude to put others first, a not unlike Biblical imperative. The danger then the issues in our self care and boundaries might be less to do with faith, or values, but the ecclesial practices and expectations of numbers gatherings and popularity, evident in some parts of youth ministry.

Its is as pertinent, that the very things that are indicators of poor self care, are emphasised by competitive and outcomes orientated funded and programmes. If projects and ministries are measured and managed by numbers, attendance then these overtake any sense of values, theology and ministry to individuals, often, and might even then exacerbate poor self care and being able to do this. Making ministry less humane, might make is worse for the ministers doing it too. If Management processes and outcomes are less about the human behind the number, then self care for the minister might become even more of an issue. And when i say minister i mean youth minister as well.

Its a long one to start the year, but I am convinced that in Ministry and practice with young people, with any people, we need to look after ourselves, recognise the aspects of our work that cause stress and put us into places where our self care may be about to be tested.

And finally I think this is beautiful from Howard Sercombe:

“At the heart of a good youth worker is a beautiful spirit, a quality of connection that is positive, hopeful, good. It is often that this is transformative, projecting a possibility that young people can see for a way that is different. But the situations that youth workers have to deal with are often not beautiful; we often confront horrifying neglect or abuse, disturbing levels of violence, naked hard core damage to people that we care for and respect, the wanton waste of human life. A youth workers quality of spirit needs to be nurtured, maintained and protected, the most important resource for the young people you work with… is you; intelligent, wise, compassionate, engaged, skilful, insightful, well informed, well connected, articulate, creative, productive, confident you. Creating and maintaining this beast in the midst of high pressure and often poor resource provision needs work and constant attention” (Sercombe H, 2010, p168-169)

Start 2019, not just with the youth programme sorted until Easter, but also the programme that looks after you, beautiful, intelligent, creative youthworker.

This article was derived from a piece I recently wrote for CYM on this subject, It was published a week ago via my patreon site: https://www.patreon.com/JamesBallantyne and so if you would like to receive my posts early, you can do so via that platform.

References

[1] Sercombe, Howard, The Ethics of Youthwork, 2010, p27

[2] Goetschius G, Tash J, Working with the Unnattached, 1967, pp242-244, Routledge and Kegan Paul Publishing, Liverpool

[3] Pugh, Carole, Sustaining ourselves and our Enthusiasm in Jeffs T, Smith M (eds) Youth work Practice , Palgrave Macmillan, 2010

[4] Davies Simon, The Management of Faith Based youthwork, pp148-161 in Ord, Jon (eds) Critical Issues in Youth work Management, Routledge, Oxford, 2012

[5] This is referred to both Davies, Simon, and Whitehead/Nash (below)

[6] Jo Whitehead, Sally Nash, Ten Essential Concepts for Christian Youth work, Grove Booklet, Y40, 2015

Practicing thankfulness in the midst of the storm – 2018 into 2019.

You’ve probably seen the end of year lists. You know the ‘list your 10 achievements in 2018’ or ‘ your 10 films of the year’, and whilst sometimes excruciating hearing the achievements or interests of others can inspire and provoke. It can also be therapeutic and useful to name and remember the blessings and moments of a year period into another.

Unashamedly this piece is inspired by the many people who are an inspiration to me. This was going to be a ’10 things to be thankful for’ in 2018, as I am constantly inspired by Becca Dean who publishes thankfulness on a regular basis. I’m also thankful to Diana Butler Bass who has published a book on practicing ‘Gratitude’ in the face of the Trump era. In the storm, whether political or personal or both practicing thankfulness and gratitude is tough. But at the same time. It’s what as Christians we and I are called and commanded to. So, and I mean this, through some gritted teeth and possibly even tears for the pain of many storms, stresses and situations, here are a number (maybe not 10) things I want to say that I am thankful for in 2018.

1. The North East Sea Coast Is just Beautiful, rugged , haunting and majestic. I’m writing this with this view as I sit on a large rock.

I’ve probably walked 50 miles this year along parts of the north east coast. Using the space to thinking, praying, running after the dog, being renewed by the crashing of the waves, the glory of the sunrises and sunsets.

If you’ve never been north of Sheffield and enjoyed the best beaches in the UK.. then next year… Oh and todays sunset was pretty special too

2. Books. This year I’ve not read many new ones, but even re reading Friere has been a joy. The one that stands out was ‘Falling Upwards’ by Richard Rohr. Reading this at a difficult time was like reading cups of fresh water being poured upon a weary soul.

3. The support from friends and strangers who have heard my vulnerability. When I say strangers I mean social media now friends and community. The friends who follow this blog, the strangers who also do, and those who have helped me financially through donations or asking for training or consultancy in the last 12 months, thank you.

4. My church family a small group of people hartlepool who have road tested a number of my seminars, heard a few sermons and witnessed a 40 year old fall in love with playing the guitar again. I will also add the streetspace family, a group of people who did vulnerability and joy in bucket loads at the national gathering in June. Thank you fellow travellers.

5. Coffee. No words. Favourite cups of coffee include York station, Seaham harbour, and at Tyneside Cinema. Craft beer at York station too.. the times to stop and read a book, or to chat.

6. The sacking of Jose Mourinho… Sorry, but it was needed. Not sure what this says about me. But if there’s a confessional for being a Man utd fan (since I was 6), then..

7. The NHS who for a fifth time worked wonders in operating on and then helping my wife Lynn to recover. We need to remember that there are many many good stories about the NHS and it needs to be valued.

8. My Family, it’s been another tough year but I’m thankful for all of them.

9. My Faith in God, maybe even God’s faith in me. Something that’s been a constant for me since childhood and this year has been a source of hope, life and support as well and even more so the inspiration to want to fight for injustice to care for the needy, to love and transform the world. Daily prayers, evening and night time prayers, discovering that rhythm is important as a discipline. And being honoured to pray for others, thank you.

So not quite 10. But an end of year 9. There are many many people I could thank, and you know who you are if you’ve encouraged me this year, listened, sent a message and prayed for me. I’m not joking that 2018 has been really tough and I grittily write about next year being a ‘happy’ one. But in a real sense and true sense I can still be appreciative and thankful. And despite alot I can still have a thankful and grateful heart and attitude into 2019.

Maybe that’s what we should practice more, thankfulness in the midst of the storms.

Last post for 2018 – reviewing a year of blogging in youthwork and ministry

Image result for 2018

 

Its that customary time of the year, to look back on the year, its highs, lows, drama, challenges and achievements. As this will be my last post on ‘Learning from the Streets’ in 2018, I thought it would be a good time and interesting to look back over my year of ‘blogging’ about youthwork and ministry and share a few thoughts on it. In context 2018 was my 6th full year of blogging on these subjects, and overall i think i expanded writing into a few new subjects and titles. Some of this reflected my own situation, books that i was reading or conversations I was having at the time with other youthworkers around the UK.

Firstly some of the raw data for 2018:

2018, in Numbers

This post that you are reading now is the 124th I have written this year – which in a rather coincidental round about way, that makes on average 2 posts per week. Its less than 2016 (228) and 2017 (168) , but still….

My posts have received 179 ‘likes’ that’s the ‘like’ button on the bottom of them, that no one really uses…

And, not including this piece, I have written not far short of 169,000 words over the course of the year. This is less than in the previous two years, and but not by much and so, generally my posts have got longer. This could reflect my own studying and reading, the style or writing, the ideas covered, who knows..

Facebook (by a long way) , Twitter and Google search attracted most people to the site. The most searched phrase that caused people to visit was ‘the role of youths in churches’ and this is reflected in one of my most read pieces of the year.

I received alot of traffic from three other blogs, Thank you to In defence of youthwork, Thrive youth ministry and St Albans Childrens ministry for sharing my pieces or linking to them in your own. I know a few other people also did this, and special mention to my friends in Australia, the Ultimate Youthworker team, who regularly comment, share and publicise my pieces down under, thank you.

This is the first year in which more than 1000 people have viewed this blog site each month, and there have been 27,500 views of it over the year. Over 10,000 more than 2017. Thank you big time.

The blog has been viewed by people from 133 countries, with the top ten views from countries after the UK being;  Australia, USA, Ireland, Canada, India, Philippines, Germany, South Africa, Singapore and New Zealand, and as wide afield as St Kitts and Nevis, Burma, Andorra and the Kayman Islands, quite incredible, thank you.

So, beyond the views and reads, what was popular, and in the interest of balance, what actually wasnt..?  Starting with the more popular in 2018:  Heres the top ten, starting with the most read piece of 2018….

Top ten posts: 

  1. Posted at the end of November ; 35 Experiences that every youthworker has done  was a sympathetic yet reassuring and humorous piece (so i was told) that many many youthworkers enjoyed, agreed with and could reflect on their own practice joys and failings.  This piece went a bit ‘viral’ for a few days, and thanks mainly to the community in the ‘In defence of youthwork’ facebook page for sharing it around the country.  This became my most read and viewed piece in 2018 after 24 hours of being published.
  2. ‘Where are the UK Church employed Youthworkers’  This was posted in June, and was an idea to try and collate a map which would give a snapshot of where the church employed youthworkers were in the UK.  I am not sure that it was filled in by everyone who knew information about all the youthworkers in the UK, but if it has been then, there are about 300, and they are mostly in the South East.  Probably a classic tale of revealing a reality most of us already knew. However, this got shared as clergy and diocesean staff around the UK passed it around (thank you)   To note that 811 people clicked onto the map from this page.
  3. In January I spent some time preparing a seminar for the Cumbrian Diocese on ‘Participation and Empowerment’ and this meant that I read a number of books on these subjects. One of the key questions that I discovered, and used in the session was this one: ‘What role do young people play your youth group/church? ‘   This became the title of a piece. This has been the slow burner of the year. It got a few reads when published, and a few people read it over the next 6 months, but its gained traction since August, to the point where i think at least 1 person has read or viewed this post every day since the summer.
  4. Coupled with my own situation of being unemployed, and looking for work in youth work and ministry myself, and therefore looking at job adverts constantly since April, I wrote a series of pieces in June and July about recruitment and employing youthworkers. My 4th read piece of the year raises the delicate question about the pay of youthworkers . And I took an angle of looking back in old copies of youthwork magazine (yes i keep everything) and comparing advertised salaries down the ages, from 1999 onwards. And it is a bit of a quiz, so if you felt the urge to take part or have a go, see how you get on…
  5. In November, I followed closely and did some social media contributing to the National Youth work week, in the UK. Towards the end of the week I thought it would be good to collate some of the pictures, responses and opinions from youthworkers about : Why is youthwork good for young people and society? and the 50 reasons given are included in this piece.  It was another collaborative piece in the year, and again possibly a good reason why it was well received and circulated. Thank you for those who did contribute.

Before continuing I want to remind you of the additional platform that I will be launching in 2019, I will be starting a Patreon Site, at this link: https://www.patreon.com/JamesBallantyne  My first post in 2019 will appear on there, so do keep an eye out for it. 

Other pieces that made up the top ten included

6. Church with no young people – heres 3 ideas for starting – without employing a youthworker

and with a similar theme, but another post that had a number of contributions from pioneers:

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

I did do a bit of critical moaning about the government, education and youth work policies (or lack of) in 2018. When i visited a number of regions of the UK there was often stories and examples to reflect on and share about. My 8th most read, on that theme was how the question raised to the Prime Minister about the state of young people due to austerity and budget cuts was laughed off. 8th of the year goes to : Nice try doesnt cut it Mrs May, not when youve lived with austerity for 8 years’

9. My 9th most read post this year, was one that Id written over 3 years ago. I am thinking there must have been a seminar/conference on it somewhere, however, for those of you involved in church based childrens and youthwork, its a critical question: does the future of the church rely on how young people leave messy church?    Though I didnt answer the question at the time with too much practical (and three years ago, my writing was very different) I have done so since, and this post does start to think through this, to think about helping young people become ministers not just learners.

10. And finally, my 10th most read piece of 2018 is……. one from 2017.. I wrote this piece because it is so easy to use negative and ‘not’ phrases when thinking about young people ‘ theyre not this, theyre not able to do that’ and was keen to try and start to use langauge about strengths, about gifts, and change this, from nots to strengths. So this, on strengths, not not’s – was 10th in 2018

Thank you to all who read, shared and enjoyed these pieces. Because they were the most read, you probably havent re clicked them, to read them again. (whats the point) – but if you havent or want to share them then do have a look again at them.

As a contrast – these pieces all published for more than a month ( ie so not this weeks) were read by the least people in the year. Many of them so convoluted, deep and theoretical that there’s no wonder, but some really werent that either. However, it might be worth reflecting on why some of the longer deeper stuff doesnt get read and what this might say about the time we have for doing this, the desire to think critically or whether I am actually usually just barking up a particularly crazy tree that no one really wants to participate in… so – my top least read 5 this year are: 

5th Least read, published this year was one that I really though might stimulate discussion, and was on how churches might help create a movement for young people to join in with, rather than view themselves as entertainment to attract young people to, I am still convinced this is a shift that we have to make in youth ministry, and how we view the Bible as a guide for social justice, and be something young people can believe in. Oh well… maybe thatll take time.. or maybe that already happens…

4. One of my longest pieces and most theoretical was this one, on Discipleship and Performative pedagogical. And whilst I drew from Giroux, Freire and others to make a well reasons sound argument, it didnt draw many of you in to think critically about discipleship and education. Still, its there if you want a read… but i dont blame you, mostly it was a jumble of randomness and reading..

3. My third least read of the year was thinking about how churches and organisations need to create spaces and opportunities for young people to grow into, using the analogy of seeds and plants needing to be replanted in gradually increasing sized pots. Yeah, I thought it would be interesting… 😉

2. Big surprise, I honest thought this would be a popular one : ‘No ones every given me training to do mission before’   A piece on the helplessness and disempowerment of people assuming that mission activity is somehow just a natural given. (maybe it is)

and the most least read best of the unpopular posts for 2018 was….

  1. The Drama of the last supper – a piece on on what it must have been like for Jesus to ask each disciple individually that question.

So, clearly not everything I wrote hit the marks, or was really popular,  even if all of it was well intentionned to stimulate, advise or reflect. And as the Film Critic Mark Kermode says, just because a film is popular doesnt make it good. And the same in reverse can be said for some of what I and others write. Popular doesnt = good, neither does upopular =bad either. I am aware that there are temptations in this world to provoke using titles or images, and I have fallen fowl to that, yet at the same time, titles with theoretical words seem less received. I would hope I strike a balance but veer closer to trying less to be controversial and popular, but speaking from some experience, speaking from trying to make sense of stuff and trying to be helpful, and yes that may mean it needs to be provocative or probing.

Best of all, is that people have genuinely said to me over the course of 2018 that I have helped them rethink or do their youth ministry differently because of reading one of my pieces. That they have thought differently about young people and wanted to develop something in a way that treats them with respect, this is my hope all along, and so, beyond every view, like or share, this has brought me the greatest encouragement. Thank you for those who have took the time to feed this back to me. 

So, it leaves me to genuinely thank all of you for reading, sharing and contributing to these pieces over the past year. I have really enjoyed contributing to the many conversations in youth work and ministry in this time. I wish you, your teams of volunteers, staff, students a happy and restful Christmas, and all the best for your youth work and ministry practice in the new year.

Thank you

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

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

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

Adoptive Church (Chap Clark)

 

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

Outline

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

Strengths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also

Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation, 2016

Root, Andrew Faith Formation in a Secular age, 2016

‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Does Jesus’ question shape our mission and ministry with people?

This was Jesus question to the blind man, Bartimeus, as Bartimeus sat by the road begging for money as the people passed by. The full story is in marks gospel chapter 10 verses 46.

After the crowds told the man to stop shouting and he shouted louder

Jesus said ‘tell the man to come here’

Bartimeus threw aside his coat, jumped up and came to Jesus..

Jesus asked him a question;

It wasnt;

  1. What do you want?
  2. What do you need?
  3. What is wrong?
  4. What do others think you are?

Or

5. What do you all want, need or desire?

Or

6. Can I help you? Or

7. What strategy do I need to accomplish for church growth before I can help you?

8. You need help, let me help you?

No, to the blind man begging by the road. The homeless outcast waiting for the pennies to drop, as Jesus walks by, Jesus places himself at the choice and decision of the other. He asks

What do you want me to do for you’?

‘Heal me Jesus, I want to be made see’ is the response.

A response that the blind man has full freedom to make. A choice bartimeus can opt into. A moment of passion, of desperation, but also one that he is being given and granted by Jesus.

In the brilliant blog I linked to above Cormac Russell suggests that the desire to help can override the value of respect and the much over used/contested concept of empowerment. Cormac contrasts four approached within community development , working for,at, with and alongside persons in communities (they are not others but persons). As a youthworker, working with values like human dignity, respect, participation and empowerment, I see all of these things in Jesus question.

We might want to aspire to be all the greatest ministries in the world, and be known for many things, but I hazard a guess that if we stop thinking and asking and responding to the very question Jesus would have us ask, and embody this in our community, youth or families work, then we might only be, as Paul wrote, a clashing cymbal or resounding gong.

Jesus asks ‘what do you want me to do for you?’

We will always be in bereft of what Jesus might give us if we ask this question to ourselves, especially when we undergo the most vulnerable of times. But its a question not just for ourselves, it’s a question to share and give away.

Notice that we know the blind man, who has a name. Not many who Jesus heals were given names, Jarius daughter, the centurion, even the woman bleeding. But Bartimeus is remembered and has a name, we think because he became involved in following Jesus later on. But even so, that cannot be our focus, to have an outcome as the motive for our present action. Jesus asks it to the person who was taking the shit left right and centre, whose circumstances put him on the lowest of planes, and who was being virtually trampled on by the crowd who followed Jesus. Jesus asks and gives choice. Asks and gives respect. Asks to a person with a name and gives dignity to the individual.

Jesus cuts through the crowd and finds faith in the individual. And asks that trampled on individual a question that we might do well to be reminded of.

‘So _____________, for we all have names, the families in our communities have names, the person begging outside the shopping centre you walk past has a name, the young person in the inclusion unit has a name…. ‘what do you want me to do for you? ‘

Are we prepared to ask, or afraid of the answer…

Is Death a conversation that the church and youth ministry should be having more of with young people?

Youve outsmarted the young people this time, or so youve thought. Over the summer and the proceeding years you’re beginning to build up a range of resources for every given topic that they might want you to talk about. Sex, Relationships and Sex, all covered, all newly resourced, all ready, you even went ahead and got hold of the new PODS resource from FYT  on Sex education for the under 12’s,  then theres stuff on ‘other faiths’, evangelism, and ethical dilemna that are up for discussion, abortion, marriage, war and conflict and homosexuality, and with Mental Health in the news so much recently, you’re genned up on this as well; so you’re all set, ready for the beginning of term open planning session that you’re about to do with the youth group.

So the evening of activities and chat goes well, and theres the usual comfortable atmosphere, people connecting, chatting and getting along, after all the group has known each other a while, and last week even you had asked them to think about what they might want to do this term, so they, for the first time are a little bit ready. They may well be excited as they also get the chance to pick the outing or trip for the term, but that is by the by.

And in the main you are right, a number of them did want to talk about sex, or homosxuality, or mental health, a few even wanted to talk about evangelism and church stuff. But the one thing that united them all, was a different subject altogether. They wanted to talk about Cancer. Not only cancer, they wanted to talk about death.

This is not a fictitious story. This happened to me and our group of youthworkers at Durham YFC. The young people wanted to talk about cancer, and more importantly they wanted to share, and talk, in a group about death.Image result for death

Finding resources to talk about death and cancer with young people doesnt seem to be easy in ‘youth ministry world’ – theres not much about this, more about morality than morbidity. Even as youthworkers in a team we wrestled a while with actually doing the session, how it would be done, and how we might deal with the consequences and emotions. But young people trusted us, to talk about death. And, if there is one thing that the institution of the church could do, more than other – is to help young people, all people, be more prepared for dealing with death.

The reason that this subject has been brought home to me today is that I was at a funeral this morning. But unlike any other funeral I have ever been to, it was a funeral of someone that I have absolutely no connection with, aside from the person being a fellow human on this earth. I was there to help out with some of the technical aspects and to help out a friend who is the vicar leading the service. So it was a rare experience. A rare experience that outside of being clergy, organist, funeral director and church warden might be a rare one for any of us. It caused me to think about the funerals I had been to in my life, and also realise that even as late teenagers my own children have never been to a funeral, they havent had to (and its not that we prevented them) , and maybe thats not uncommon. But neither had anyone talked with them about death before either.

So – where are the opportunities to talk about death and where young people get the opportunity to talk about it? and by whom?

Death is a pretty real occurrence in the lives of the many young people, especially from estates where low life expectation due to poverty is a thing. One vicar I know had done three funerals in the last 3 years of 40 year olds who’d committed suicide relating to mental health and drug abuse. But that kind of thing isn’t confined to the challenging estates is it?  A number of schools have experienced teen suicides. Tragically. And what if it is their best friend is the first funeral a young person has to go to, or their 40 year old uncle. There is much to be done for after the event, sure, counselling and therapy, and none of this would prevent sadness, shock and mourning – but at least talking about death before hand might help a little, surely.

Young people drink alcohol like the rest of us. The young people i see drinking do so for social reasons, rebellious reasons and because of escapism. Yet ask a number of them what their other trigger points are that ‘its the anniversary of my best friends death’ ‘ or ‘it would have been my best friends birthday today’  a trigger point for many young people (and undoubtedly ourselves at times) is that drinking is about remembrance, about raising an underage bottle, about making a moment special because the person meant something. But as well, this might also tell us that young people have no other outlet to work through and remember this person, death is to be dealt with through drink.

Im not in any way saying that helping young people deal with the realities of death is going to prevent the tears, the desire to go and get drunk, but neither will it do any harm either. A number of churches and schools have worked together over the last few years to do mock weddings, in order to help young people talk about relationships, commitment, love, sex and also the process of the wedding itself in the sight of God. But what about doing mock funerals? Could all souls day, could halloween be the ready made opportunity for churches, youth ministers and schools to work together to provide a space where young people can experience the emotions of a funeral, can experience the emotions of death and can have done some kind of preparation. Now i know immediately that this might be insensitive where young people have already experienced this and there is a conversation to be had about specific situations. What might the church do that no other organisation can do? – help people prepare for death might be one of them.

Yes I know this is depressing. Yes i know this is not ‘good news’ and not the talk of the gospel, and making church and youth ministry exciting is the game in town. But so is relevancy, and there is nothing more relevant for a church to do that help young people prepare themselves for a guaranteed experience. That one day they will mourn, grieve and cry. That one day they will confront morbidity.

That one day there might be a reality to death that is hinted at in Disney cartoonsImage result for bambi mom death, with the exception of Bambi, or where characters overcome it immediately in video games, or where there is a heroic death for the character like Boromir, (Lord of the Rings) whos death saved many.

Yet amongst these examples of death we find various perspectives of dealing with the death of Jesus. The heroic death, the quick death who was mourned only momentarily, and even where death is only hinted at – and ‘life moves on’ – and ‘we cant focus on good friday too long’.  That a perspective of Jesus’ death must ‘include both what the cross says on its own, what the resurrection says on its own, and what each of them say in light of each other’ (Trevor Hart, 2014, p227). And yet, Tolkeins word ‘Euchatastrophe’ fits is is goodness emerging out of tragedy, Jesus death is a tragedy because of what proceeds and succeeds it and their relation to one another. It was no shallow grave. Death was beaten, but death and mourning was experienced it is short term fullness. The tendency to only talk about good news, or to have a happy ending in our testimonies might only extenuate a sense that we are the ones that cannot cope with death.

The sacred story that the church plays within, and where Christ plays in 10,000 places, is one that includes death as part of its life, the two go hand in hand. The reality of death counters any temptations for constant unreal celebration. It is in this reality where many young people might want the church to find them, and be with them in.

I would like to make a number of suggestions for helping deal with death.

  1. Get the young people to bring stories, films, and other TV or video game examples of death, and share what is going on in them, in regard to human life, feelings, and emotions.
  2. Could small groups of young people in years 6,7,8 be given the opportunity to sit at the back of churches at funerals (of people they do not know) as a part of talking about death
  3. Have special all souls services for the under 18’s in the parish. Where they can remember all under 18 who have died in the area, for pets, or even the celebrities/role models that mean something.
  4. Have mock funerals, and maybe arrange to have visits to funeral parlours, or the crematorium (that can be a real shock)
  5. Have death cafes, or evening groups where this subject is advertised and where young people can spend time thinking through death, dying and preparing themselves for what mourning and grieving might involve.

I am sure there are a few other examples too, and some of these might already have been tried. Whilst youth ministry has been often about ‘the life, and life in all its fullness’ a full life might need to have a healthy dose of reality in relation to death in it too, and if this is suppressed, ignored and avoided that might be an issue.  We might set up young people for greater trauma. We might have such an under realised notion of death that the now of the present becomes only all consuming. Life is not lived but consumed, without as much greater purpose. Facing death head on, and having a healthier place to mourn, celebrate, grieve and commemorate might be, and could be one of the key significant aspects of faith based ministry with young people. And the week of Halloween, might just have been the perfect opportunity. (but then we avoid it by having light parties instead..?)

 

References

Trevor Hart, Between the Image and the word, 2014

Church; Be thankful that being young and trendy isnt the starting point to developing good youth work

Which is quite a relief. Isnt it.

The amount of times I hear, ‘but we’re just a bunch of old people, no young people will relate to us’ – or ‘we’re just too different from them’ or ‘we’re too old’  … And it makes me sometimes want to scream.

The fact may well be that unless youv’e been blessed with an eternal youth or maybe even decide that you didn’t want to grow up since being a teenager, then the chances are that in a number of ways you will be distant from the exact goings on in the lives of young people. Even this year all the exam grading changed again, so yes, GCSES are 1-9, not A** to F. Not to mention that they don’t buy singles anymore. (i know..) They use words like woke, and sick. Image result for trendy

So, when it comes to working with young people an ageing church could feel like it is unable to , because it feels out of touch, only ‘in touch’ because of the ad hoc moments with grandchildren, or ‘what they see on the news’ about young people. That distance keeps widening. And at the same time as young people are into well, who knows what they are into, you’re more likely to be found in the garden centre than the shopping centre.

There have been two competing strands in youth ministry, and they seem to be at loggerheads. The first is that youth ministry has strived to be relevant. Which can mean trying to keep up.

The second is that there is a call for those who work with young people to be authentic.

I dont think it is possible to have both. And young people normally see through the former, and ultimately prefer the latter.

The problem is that in churches we have convinced ourselves that the former is more important, trying to keep up, trying to ‘entertain’, trying to ‘keep’ and ‘attract’ young people will take a certain kind of youthful looking energy driven relevancy. But will it? Of course the problem with this thinking is that the numbers of 20-30 year olds in the church has dropped so significantly (because the previous generation of young people in the church escaped by 1/3) – then its left to the few 40-60 year olds to do youth work. Including the retired teachers, the clergy, the volunteers, the mums and dads. And there is no point in all of them trying to be cool. Because for them cool was wicked. Cool was the 80’s. Cool may have even been the Beatles. And so, if this generation of people thinks that they need to be cool, trendy or relevant to work with young people – then frankly there wont be any youth work done by churches in the UK. or at least not soon. And trying to be trendy is hard work and counter productive, because its fake. Its also not hugely respectful of young people and the space they might be trying to create for themselves.

Image result for trendyFortunately, and thankfully, there are ways of making youth work not about those who lead it. Its not about us, thankfully. Its about the young people. (and its about God, but thats for another piece). Very early in my youth work vocation i realised that the sooner we realise that youthwork is about being interested in young people, rather than them being interested in us, the better. We do have to be interested in the lives of local young people. That just takes some hard work, listening, learning and being present. What is going on?

What is going on with young people and how they communicate, how they travel around the local area, how they use local facilities, how they cope with situations, how some have access to opportunities compared to others…

What is going on in regard to young peoples mental health, well being, fitness, spirituality?

What is going on in regard to pressure, expectation, fears, dreams and ambitions?

What is going on in regard to helping young people use their gifts, skills, abilities not harnessed elsewhere?

If we can re-tune our thinking to think about young people and be interested in them, have empathy with them, connect with them then this causes any youth work to be about them, not about us. And ask – what might we be able to do to help young people? to be practical in their situation? What if the church can provide spaces and resources for young people to develop their own space, activity and community action? Rather than be ‘leaders’ of it?  Running a youth group is tiring, energy sapping and sometimes feels a lost cause, but – from the outset why not develop a participative approach where young people gather to make it happen using the safe welcoming space that could be in the church hall or main building.

If were interested, and have a desire to do good, and desire to show empathy – a desire that might be counter cultural in todays polorised generational society where young is pitted against old, and vice versa- this isnt Biblical its the Daily Mail remember. Then this might go a long way to trying to be authentic. It may well also be relevant, but in a more meaningful way that ‘just trying to be trendy’.

You dont have to be trendy to empathise, or trendy to listen, or trendy to walk alongside a young person, or to help them flourish, or to build rapport with them, or to mentor them, disciple them.

Maybe we do have to be youthful though, a kind of youthfulness that believes that young people can dream, can hope, can make something of themselves in the community their are in, a youthfulness that has hope for the future. A youthfulness that wants to still make a difference, however corny that sounds, and accompany that with a state of mind that doesn’t want to be the person who takes the credit for being that ‘difference-maker’. If we’ve given up on youthfulness and a that state of mind, then it might be argued that we’ve also given up on God and his redemptive transforming power, and lost sight of the eternal goal.

Be thankful you dont have to be trendy to start working with young people. And there are countless ‘un-trendy’ people who are being the saltiest salt and brightest light in the light of young people across the UK, but by providing places of welcome, conversation, listening and hope. Someone to talk with, a person who is there. Something this seemingly insignificant to our large ministry or weekly activities is hugely significant to every single young person, lets not forget this.

That doesnt mean to say you might not need advice, or guidance or support in trying something new – remembering that you may have survived the type of youth ministry you were subjected to – but others didnt and that might not be the best starting point today. But start with young people now, not history, or programmes, start by listening and learning in the local and the present. Shake off the shackles of falseness and attraction thinking and build from the ground, and build with young people not just in mind but present from the outset.

 

Why might churches (only) advertise for a passionate, excited youthworker?

All together now, you know the tune:

‘The wonderful thing about youthworkers

is youthworkers are wonderful things

their tops are made out of rubber, their bottoms are made out of springs

Theyre bouncy, trouncy, flouncy pouncy,  fun fun fun fun fun

but the most wonderful thing about youthworkers is i’m the only one….

Youthworkers are cuddly fellas

Youthworkers are awfully sweet

Ev’ryone el-us is jealous

That’s why I repeat… and repeat

The wonderful thing about youthworkers

Is youthworkers are working all hours

They’re burdened with being all jumpy

They’re running on overactive powers

They’re jumpy, bumpy, clumpy, thumpy

Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!

But the most wonderful thing about youthworker is

I’m the only one

 

A cursory look at the most recent job advertisements for youth workers and ministers, not only reveals that a pioneering/creative spirit is required, and so is qualifications, but that the most common attribute for the ‘new’ youth person is that they are the following……

EXCITED! (and closely followed by..)

PASSIONATE!

and the job is usually exciting too!

Everything is exciting, Everything as LEGO says is Awesome… I have seen roles for administrators being described as exciting, in the same way i have seen roles for running Sunday schools as exciting opportunities, and also developing new pioneering youthwork as exciting too. Everything is exciting. The person needs to be excited. The person needs to be passionate. In short it feels as though any new recruit to a youth ministry role needs to be some kind of ‘christian tigger’.

Bouncy, fun, lively, on the go, busy busy busy, no time, no stopping, hours upon hours, happy, smiley, exhausting powers upon powers and ideas and on the go, passionate, excited, creative…

Lets ask a question: Who might be wanting ‘Christian tigger’? the church or the young people?

Image result for tigger

If it is the church in general, why might a church want someone to be ‘passionate’ and describe that their role is ‘exciting’ or that a person needs to be ‘exciting’?

Is this just good sales techniques? and attempt to make the role attractive to the prospective applicant?

Possibly. Or maybe theres something more than this.

What if instead it wasn’t just good sales, but that deep down there’s a fear that the local church needs a pick up, an energy boost, a lift and it is the role of the ‘new/excited/passionate’ youthworker to somehow lift the local church out of a bit of the doldrums.  Don’t get me wrong, its almost human nature to want a new person to add energy or something new to an old way of being (though ironically, how much change is a youthworker allowed to actually fulfil..) . But there’s a deep down fear as well, that Andy Root suggested in ‘Faith Formation’ ;  because of society’s equation of youthfulness with authenticity – and anything that seems old fashioned/old is not authentic – then what a local church might be buying into with the ‘passionate youth worker’ is for that person to be the person that helps them to starting thinking and being youthful again.

There’s a fear maybe that a church is getting old, and the enthusiastic youth worker might be the person that helps the church feel young again. Is that the real reason an enthusiastic person is required… that’s some responsibility… not just bring youth into the church, but bring youthfulness too. What do you think – ever seen this happen?

Whilst ‘passionate’ is flavour of the decade for the youth worker role – whatever happened to compassionate? 

Again, a quick cursory look around the youth ministry job adverts, and compassion is lacking. Even in some of the job descriptions, passion is ahead of compassion – its compassion that may just be what young people need/want – and empathy – well above just someone who might be ‘passionate’ to be there and full proverbially of themselves. Compassion situates the ‘ministry’ of young people with young people – young people as primary. Compassion is about the other. Because as we fundamentally, young people don’t care that much about the youth worker anyway, or the church, or the ministry, or the activities, they are more interested in themselves – so the more compassion a youth worker has the better. The more the youth worker is less of themselves, less of their own powers, passion, ministry – and the more listening they do and being interested in young people the better.

This is nothing new, Young Life in the 1960s, developed contact ministry – in which youth workers would spend more time in the world of young people than the opposite, be in their space. Be less passionate, be more dependable, be more compassionate, or more enthusiastically present.

If young people designed job adverts for the youth minister- would they opt for passion or compassion, what do you think?  Because they’re looking for passion and excitement, are churches are looking for is someone for themselves – not just someone who is for and with young people?  And yes of course it might be a bit of both. But is it passionate excited youth ministers who churches have in mind in their job adverts…

Why might churches want a passionate, excited youthworker ?  Because maybe, there’s too many Eeyore’s in the church already, and a tigger is needed.. What happens when the Tigger cant be Tigger anymore?

What if a youth worker helped churches to be more compassionate about young people in their local community, to fight for injustice and help to remove barriers – would compassion lead for something good happening that the church locally could be part of. Not just the passionate youth worker tries man/womanfully to engender youthfulness or passion in the church and ministry of it. I wonder…

NB – And sorry, the tigger song will be going through your head for the rest of the day now…

References

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

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

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: