The last 4 books I have read on youth ministry have started sounding like a bit of a
or reading them, has been like
its as if there is nothing new under the sun, or maybe with a twist that:
Now, it could be that I read the same kind of youth ministry books, and to a large extent that might be true. However, I have also benefited from receiving a number for free, so that i can write reviews of them on this very site. So Nick Shepherd, Naomi Thompson and Chap Clark I am looking at you. But I will also add in this conversation Andy Root as well.
Heres what I mean. The only conversation in town is how to keep young people in churches. It is second to the fact there isnt any in church at all. But lets kind of go with the flow. See what you think from the quotations below:
Naomi Thompson in her 2018 book ‘Young People and church since 1900’ writes
“Young people today view their engagement with organised Christianity as a two-way transaction. They do not wish merely to serve church needs, nor do they expect to be passive consumers in accessing the youth provision on offer.”
Nick Shepherd in his 2016 book ‘Faith generation; retaining young people and growing the church’ writes
‘The first area we might consider is the way i which young people move in churches from learners to deciders‘ (p156)
Chap Clark insists that: ‘Sometimes it is not a question of whether students and young people have the ability to serve, but a question of power. Adults have the power. Empowerment is a theological and sociophychological one. We need to transcend participation, and go all out for contribution. A participant is allowed to be with us, a contributor is with us on equal terms, a coworker who is taken seriously‘ (Chap Clark, Adoptive Church, 2018, p146-7)
And from a different angle, Andrew Root suggests that:
Andrew Root in ‘Faith Formation in a Secular age’ (2017) writes that faith in a secular world requires that : “study after study in youth ministry seems to define faith primarily through institutional participation. The youth with faith are those conforming to the youth group through affiliation‘ (p30) The issue is that faith=conformity.
What all say is that participation is both essential, and yet it is not enough. All four writers identify young peoples decision making, creativity and desire to be part of the proceedings, not just a token gesture. Root and Shepherd also suggest that participating in the church structures really isn’t enough.
Young people want the church to be the place where they can be ministers in the world, and be agents of change in it. Institutional participation isn’t enough, but if this in itself isnt there well.. . Faith is to be Plausible (Shepherd), it is to involve ministry (Root) and it is about developing gifts (Root) in a place where faith can flourish (Clark).
But ultimately. I think they all say the same thing.
Its about identifying young peoples gifting, and created supportive places where young people can use these and decide how they want to minister using them. Its about moving from consumerism to contribution, and giving, or allowing young people to shape the roles they can rise to in the church, and develop faith that is risky, loving, generous and transforming.
Its great when four books say the same. Dont you think…. I mean its not as if youthwork hasnt been about participation for many a decade, has it…
It might be worth checking out this piece, on Youth participation, I wrote in in January last year, and includes Harts ladder on youth participation. ‘What role do young people have in church?’ given that this was a question posed by Danny Breirley in 2003, the same question is still being answered. We know that evidence and research is proving it, so why not any change?
Youth participation – the broken record – well it might be until its fixed…
Just before Christmas I penned the 35 experiences every youthworker has probably done which included the line that ‘everyone has done detached youthwork once’ and this may or may not be the case. Earlier in the week, I put together an A-Z on detached youthwork which is proving to be quite a popular post (thank you) . I thought for the end of this week I would zone in on the specific and compile a list of experiences that its almost certainly likely that as a detached youthworker you may have experienced , get ready, oh and this does carry a health warning for anyone eating food right now… especially the friday night takeaway:
You take delight in not being told to ‘F’ off
One conversation with a group of young people is celebrated as much as the beginning of spring or the reduction in chocolate prices
You develop weather proof toes and fingers
Youve had to ponder how the duty of care guidelines work when the drunk young people you’re talking to starting running across the road and climbing up traffic lights.
Youve told one group where another young person is, only for them to go off, hunt them down and beat them up.
Youve taken out shares in a Hot chocolate company for the after session drink
You have used up the years equipment budget on pairs of shoes alone.
Nothing in the evening phases you anymore, so you’re the one that goes and gets the late night pint of milk or chocolate bar, or walks the dog. Evenings are your environment.
You have had a young person say that you ‘saved their life’ even though you may have only walked them to the nearest bus stop
You have tried to find a million different alternatives to ‘detached youthwork’ just to try and encourage trusts to fund it.
You complained on the quiet nights, but then thought a busy night of conversation was also just a bit quiet too.
You tried to split up a fight
Youve been asked for directions from the general public
You have been mistaken for the Police
Youve been asked ‘ why are you here?’ – by young people
You build rapport and start developing connections with a group of young people – only to never see them again
You have had ‘that’ moment. There is an epiphany moment for every new volunteer – it is all going swimmingly and pleasantly – until ‘that night/session’ – a moment of drama, unpredicted, challenge, – an accident, a fall, a very large group – something that takes it all up a notch.
You just wish you were out on the streets talking to young people – and not now stuck in buildings because of funding restrictions…
You love the general public, sorry, I mean, you learn how to react to the general public in the many situations, such as the shouty getting off the bus ones, those near their front gates, the ultra right wing dog walkers who forget their own privilege, those just smoking outside the social club. Ahh bless them all. Its when you get more abuse from this lot than any young people, and realise how challenging the environment is for young people to be themselves in with this much judgement scorned down upon them.
You have the beautiful moments to treasure like:
The young male who opens up and discloses stuff
The positive feedback
The in depth random conversations
The young people who do think about their futures
But not only that, the beautiful moments, where as youthworkers and volunteers the change, revelation and learning is happening two way. And i know this should happen everywhere, but taking volunteers from the beginning of training (where they fear young people) to a point of learning of them and being changed in the conversations is a real joy.
You write up a session and it takes 2 hours to remember all the conversations- ;-
You have no idea what to do after becoming a detached youthworker, loving it and then scrambling around to try and find the same kind of role elsewhere, that gives you the same joys, challenges, feelings and delights. (This may just be me. )
You feel the pain of young people because you see the reality of stuff as it happens. Its not just that they tell you afterwards.
You discover that many policies for building related youth work, just arent suitable. The grey areas ethically are cavenous.
You wish that some seasons of detached work never end – theres groups, conversations etc- others cant end soon enough.
You have left the building without your ID and had to walk/drive back to get it…
You discover an art of wearing layers upon layers just to have the pretence of staying warm.
You have been put off take away food for life by the continual avoiding of the ‘remains’ of it splattered across pavements in pretty orange and pale pink colours. (sorry) Even though the smell of the chip shop makes you hungry every late friday night on the streets…
You’ve tried to second, third, fourth and fifth guess why a young person might just be crossing the road. (usually just to get to the other side)
You can rest easy knowing that challenging behaviour is less likely, and relatively easy to spot and walk away from.
You cant lose young people, theyre not yours to lose, though you might spend a while trying to find them
Youve have responded to urgent calls by police, organisations and the media, and when you turn up and walk around. There is no young people there at all.
You get to be good at discovering ‘young people lenses’ as you’re looking for them all the time.
You have said the wrong thing, asked the wrong question or missed an opportunity – kicked yourself for it, but often this has been forgiven easily by the young person, especially accompanied by continual presence and an apology.
So there we are – 35 experiences, that, i think, many a detached youthworker might agree with as those that have happened to them, especially if they have made a good go of it, doing it for over 3-4 years in places.
I do hope I didnt put you off your tea on number 29.
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Further resources for detached youthwork are in the menu, and I would be very happy to help you start the adventure of getting out on to the streets to feel the magic and have conversations with young people, meeting them where theyre at. Do get in touch.
I was delivering some training for a group of volunteers just before Christmas, on the subject of developing pioneer youthwork. After talking through a number of theories, processes, ideas and stuff like values. The question was;
Well, that’s all very well – but what if the young people are ‘stuck’ inside their house?
And so, all the best theories, the best processes, the best methods might be ultimately faced with a barren brick wall, if the majority of young people are stuck inside. When I say stuck, i mean that as far as an outsider is concerned, they may be playing video games, on screens, doing homework, being escorted to organised activities (like after school clubs with Parents). But they are definitely not allowed out to wander, to go to the park, to ride a bike even. Some might be seen walking the family pet. Some might not want to go out. When bedrooms are the sanctuary from the horrors of school, family life or other stress, then why go out at all.
On one hand, some of this might be the feeling we have when ‘numbers of young people’ and not ‘quality of youth work’ is what we want to try and do. It could be as if ‘only a few young people’ isnt good enough, beneficial enough, or valid enough. See my post ‘But we only have 6 young people’ where thinking about the ‘only’ of numbers should be banned. However, this is only one side of the coin, probably. Its the side of the coin in which value for money might only take breadth and reach into equation, not depth and meaningfulness.
What is quite a challenge is that the young people some groups and organisations want to work with are the ones who are inside, who are generally diligent, who are doing their homework. But the ones who are disruptive and challenging, who are out and about, are the difficult ones that the groups dont seem to have the same enthusiasm for… strangely. Its as if the 30 kids in the park, arent the right ones…
Nevertheless, what if there isnt any young people around at all?
Some of this may be true as well. Talk of a sensible generation isn’t new. A generation adverse to risk taking, and trying to ‘get on’ might just mean that they don’t want to ‘ruin’ things, be disruptive, or be on the streets, to find identity, belong and community – when this is online instead. Or where fears of the outside world are overblown. But its not that new that the majority of young people aren’t ‘outside’ or at Youth clubs.
In 1939, 50% of young people were uncontacted, (not in contact)with any youth serving agency. (Circular; Board of Education). This included, faith/non faith groups, sports, club work and uniformed groups.
So, in 1939, only 15 years after young peoples clubs had hit a boom, things were on a decline. And in 1962, the ‘large numbers of young people’ not attached to any youth organsiation were a principle reason for a small scale, but 5 year funded + research project starting in London with a YWCA (More of which can be read in Goetschius/Tash 1967 Working with the unattached, a summary of which is on http://www.infed.org) . So the moral panic, or more accurately, desperate need to react to young people not attached isnt new. But maybe then, a good number were unattached and outside. I would say that since 2010, if a project doing detached youthwork in one particular area for 2-3 years sees 15% of the youth population in a suburban area it is doing well. Its probably only 10% of young people in an area who might be seen and contacted outide, and if the youth club (if such a thing exists) has 10-15 core young people then this is often the most it can manage and develop into a deep and meaningful experience long term for them.
In many areas, there are still the sports clubs, uniformed groups, faith groups (who may be the only ‘open youth club’/detached work left’) – church group like a ‘Messy church’ – dance, drama and music groups.
And so – whilst it may be that there are no where like 50% young people attending these things, it might be unlikely that they are doing nothing at all. Even the secondary school/Primary schools in many areas are delivering later evening activities, sports, etc.
That being said – the hard to reach might still be hard. And not every young person is the same. Screen time is one thing, home work another, but what if young people (aged 14) are caring for younger siblings until their hard working parents get back from shift work or a days work at 6. As a young person they are having responsibility – so what might a youth agency do to help them out? – what about a young carers and children session? (one example)
It could be dispiriting that the open youth group cant compete with all the technology of the childs bedroom, and there has been a tendency to try and fill the youth club with the same kinds of things. Or try and be relevent through making a you tube clip.
What is interesting is that young people like to feel at home in the spaces of the youth club – that doesnt mean that it has to replicate home. It could be ‘home +’ – where is feels like home, but they are trusted more, or given more responsibility, that they are cared for and listened to – not assumptions made. Where they are challenged even and enjoy social relationships. Having an Xbox in the youth club might be nothing at all really what young people want. Maybe its is something completely different, its time, its attention, its could be escape from the headache and stress of it all.
If young people cant come out of their houses – then why not go to them? – Could we do some door knocking and do a survey in the local area – find out actual information – rather than make assumptions? If they are hard to reach – then at least we make ourselves available… – this is happening elsewhere. Meet them where they’re at – how easy is this when they’re in their home?
We might think that starting the conversation with young people in a different space might be the thing – but doing schools work might not be practical if no one in the youth club or church is available all day, and the vicar turning up to do an assembly is no real incentive to come to the church youth club. Not really. Only for the already attending church kids.. probably… (its why i dont think vicars should do assemblies… 😉 ) – but trying to find a starting point for interaction seems to be one of the main questions – and something then that your group, church, organisation could spend seriously thinking about, especially if there is no natural footfall. But theres nothing new there…
Questions like these might help:
Where do young people hang out in their leisure time?
What are the routes from schools, from the school buses?
Do any young people spend time in the town centres at weekends? (i have tried detached work on a saturday afternoon before)
Where might young people find us? – How might they opt in?
There may be a realisation that we are heading into a space where we might want to think about ‘digital youthwork’ – and this will bring up a whole load of new scenarios, issues and practices to consider, in terms of values, engagement, confidentiality, individual/group work, participation. I am not sure what the latest guidance on this is, but i know that the NYA did produce some guidance a few years back ( in the age of Bebo.. ), which must have been updated since. However, if you think moving to digital youth work is the future for developing youthwork for the future indoor generation, then there is much to think about. I would suggest that there are enough young people who do not engage on social media 24/7 and there is evidence that young people are switching off. We might want to think about interest groups – how might we help young people be part of a movement – rather than a club… could the church be the space that helps young people change their local world, or a national issue ( like plastic, litter, energy, pollution, poverty, justice- the things young people care about…) .
If we offer something that is meaningful, that starts with young people in mind, offers a hand of participation, ownership and involvement, then it is more likely that this will create good youth work practice.
On the other hand, it is highly commendable that we want to reach as many young people as we can, the sad inevitability is that this may not be possible, but that doesnt mean that a small group of young people who we do spend time with is not worthy or unimportant. Maybe we are given a few first, and then opportunities to grow come more organically. Whilst we might not be in need for numbers for funding bids we can rest easy. Though if we have young people and are losing them thats a different matter – then we might have a different challenge on our hands- thats for a different piece.
Future youth work for the indoor generation? nothing new, but it might mean we have to raise our game…
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.
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.
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:
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.
‘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.
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.
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…
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.
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..
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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:
We (the church) is losing young people
Students are unprepared for secular society
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.
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? ‘
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.
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 cartoons, 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.
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.
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
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.
Have mock funerals, and maybe arrange to have visits to funeral parlours, or the crematorium (that can be a real shock)
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..?)
Have a think about this for a moment…. Where is God speaking to you through your youthwork practice?
Might it be easy before, or after, but what about through and in midst of it all?
This post will look at how God speaks, Biblically, divine action and then what it might mean for God to speak through our practices of youth ministry. For those who have a memory for these things, this is the post that i was about to write a few weeks ago, after writing this one in which i started the conversation on conversation, speaking and their lack of mention in youth ministry writing. So this is a long awaited part 2…
So, Starting with God speaking. How does this happen?
It might be too extreme to say that God only acts through communication, as Vanhoozer suggests in Faith, Speaking and Understanding (2014) but it is as equally fair to say that the Biblical God does an awful lot of speaking to his created humans, whether that is directly – to Adam, Eve, to Noah, to Abraham, about leaving his home, and crucially in a lengthy dialogue over the destination of Sodom (Genesis 18) . God who speaks to Moses, to Eli, Samuel and David, through Angels who pass on his messages, and ultimately in the communicative act of sending Jesus into the world, to communicate God in person, speaking, acting and communicating God in this one location. And where Jesus does more that speak, he communicates through action, non action, miracle, question, parable and behaviour. ¹
but looking at google, and images, it looks as if God only speaks through sunsets,
silence and reflection and prayer. But God in the bible seems much more practical and conversation than that…
So does God continue to speak?
And if so, where, when and how might God be speaking through your youthwork practice? and who to?
Is God saying something when the ‘numbers are down?’ or up? Is God saying something through the disturbance by a young person? is God saying something when the group reacts to a local poverty issue? is God saying something when people leave? Is God speaking through the young people themselves?
For so long the model of youthwork has been the key. Having the right motivated by faith – might be considered theological practice (Ward, 1997) , but God is no Model, or strategy or even process. God is first of all community and second of all communicative. But models of community might be overstepping the mark, trying to emulate being like God by a community orientated approach and we could get tied up in circles trying to make a practice model itself on community for the sake of a theological perspective. But we could be accused of trying our best, or too hard to find the right model, instead of being open and creating opportunities for God to speak in the present in what is going on in the youth work practice.
Of course it may be particularly important to ask where God has spoken in the past, how God speaks and what it might be that God is likely to say, and with that maybe comes developing a kind of biblical intuition into the way (s) of the speaking God. The God who provokes his own people that theyre not worshipping properly, the God who welcomes children, the God who has high ideals, the God who guides through the wilderness and who sets people free – the God who speaks to his people through it all, what might that God be saying to you?
Yet strangely, how often might we stop and reflect on where God is speaking through our practices – What is God saying to you about the young people you met last night on the streets – what might God be provoking you with what they say? what story is the parable of tonights youth work, this afternoons mentoring session, or this mornings classroom activity. As reflective practitioners, and theological reflective practitioners, God might be trying to speak to us more that we might think.
Discovering the divine action of God and our relationship to the divine action of God in human practices is one of the key questions that Andrew Root wrestles with in ‘The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry’ , his wrestling continues in ‘Faith Formation’ . However, thinking through the divine action of God, is a topic barely considered in UK youth ministry, at least not the books I have seen. It makes something of an appearance in practical theology, but even then the relationship between human action and theology is the most common, not necessarily what is means that God as communicative agency is the theological perspective overall. So – where might God be speaking through your youthwork practices? – and how might we be open to God speaking through our own actions, and there being ongoing participation in the divine acts of God, on our part too.
So, lets ask the question more often – where is God continuing to speak in and through your actions, in and through the actions of others and in and through the interactions between others in your youthwork practice?
If we take the metaphor of the theatre as one that is plausible, then we might act along with Jesus incarnate on the stage, performing an improvised drama with the script, trinity, church and eschatology as guide, and be in response the similarly ongoing prompting and directing by God². We do not act alone, God acts and prompts in this way in the present. Through our ministry and in it, speaking and directing, and going ahead to prepare the stage for the drama of our obedience.
It is only one metaphor, but in a way it encapsulates how were are both free to act and responsive to act, obedience and yet attempting to participate in something larger than ourselves. And where God is in the ongoing, the present, not just a model to copy, or an ideal to aspire – but a character in the ongoing drama that is prompting in the very midst.
The Bible depicts the living God, the Holy Author acting as an agent in our midst (Vanhoozer, 2014, p481)
Where does God continue to speak in youth ministry? In your ministry with young people? From the midst, from the action, and in the action itself. God as the Holy Author prompts and directs the drama towards redemptive purposes, edging and nudging along. Its our job to be open to hearing, improvise and take up the challenges of those nudges.
For Andrew Root, Ministry or being ministered to is one key aspect of participating in divine action (Faith Formation, 2017, p201), I might suggest that divine action is in the communication of God and his divine action is in communication, and yes, we do communicate the Love of God through the acts of ministry and being ministered too – but it is also about hearing God in the midst and responding in the moment to the prompts to act in a loving way, strategic ministry might not be as loving as the in the moment prompt to take a risk and do the most loving, caring compassionate thing in that moment, despite the risks to reputation. It might be seen as ministry, but if God acts in the present, then it is present obedience and in the moment love, generosity, mercy, forgiveness, hope that might be the moment where God is also at work. And that might be when we see God at work through young people as they do these things. Additionally,
Where might God be speaking in your youth ministry? – Might be where young people are being prompted by God to be ministers…