7 not-so-Deadly Sins in Youth Ministry


The film Se7en came out in 1995, I watched it when i was 18, i think, just. Or i may have been nearly 18. And it was pretty graphic and shocking for me at the time. Unlike Trainspotting or Aliens it isn’t a film i have given a re-watch to ever since. If you’ve not seen it, IMDB describes it as “A film about two homicide detectives’ (Morgan Freeman and (Brad Pitt) desperate hunt for a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. The movie takes us from the tortured remains of one victim to the next as the sociopathic “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) sermonizes to Detectives Somerset and Mills — one sin at a time.” Whether the film is in any way successful at telling this story is difficult for me to remember, but throughout its main story line is the effect of an ignorance of the 7 deadly sins:  pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

So, for some strange reason over breakfast I was wondering – probably because theres two conferences on youth ministry happening this weekend- is to think about what would be ‘the 7 deadly sins of Youth Ministry’ and focus on these 7 original sins, and i think there would be some merit in doing this to highlight areas of ministry that are prone to envy ( the successful ministry down the road), wrath (after the leadership meeting) , gluttony ( too many cream cakes during YF tuck shop) or Pride (‘its all about my ministry’). But I thought that would be a little obvious, and its likely that in the depths of time that Youthwork magazine probably did something similar.

So, instead of focussing on these 7 original sins, as I was out walking this afternoon, I thought about a different sin, linked to them all, ‘Ignorance’ and wondered if Youth Ministry, in part, or more in full, has been found to be guilty of ignoring the following aspects that have a real impact on the nature of youth ministry, the depth of engagement in young people, and how youth ministry might be threatened by what it accepts from the culture around,  in 7 key ways.

  1. Ignoring Theology for pragmatism. – Good theology helps give young people connection with a world story that they can assimilate as their personal story (McAdams 1997), Challenging Theology is what helps to keep young people in local churches so says recent research here: .http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP.  Settling for an easy night, of fun and distraction from the concerns of the world, might only be so helpful. Neither is settling for what Christian Smith calls is Moral Therapeutic Deism (2005) – connecting young people with a God who is ‘there for them’ to give them confidence, however, as a personal myth to believe in it will go so far, just it might need changing when it is tested.
  2. Ignoring young people. This seems strange as youth groups are full of them, but how many youth group evenings are judged as successful by the quality of conversations between youth leader and young person, and not by who and how many turned up? Young people can be ignored if they’re just to take part in the activities. What they need is a healthy place to be where adults take interest in them, listen and shape activities around their needs, interests and gifts. And that is on just a local level, and the local church.  Where do young people feature in the shaping of area strategies, of national programmes. Its also apparent when young people are counted as just numbers.
  3. Ignoring History. A bit like the Premier league, which only provides statistics of games back to 1992, as if football didnt exist before then. An understanding of History reveals christian youth work practice that nowadays would be seen as innovative, more risk taking and politically active. Meeting young peoples needs was core philanthropy in 1830, for example. Its what Sunday schools were developed for.  What might be one persons innovation might only show a blind spot for history, or good practice down the road.
  4. Ignoring the effect of culture.. What I mean here, is not the effect that culture has on young people. This is extensively researched, and if not the Guardian usually has something on ‘Millenials’ to reflect on most weeks. What I mean is the effect of the prevailing culture on Youth Ministry itself. The Sociologist Wolfe said:

In every aspect of religious life, American faith has met American culture, and American culture has triumphed… the faithful in the USA are remarkably like everyone else (Wolfe, 2003)

An example of this is in the marketing and programming of youth ministry resources, that are described as ‘almost Fordian’ (ie representing the process of making one size/colour fits all, mass produced motor cars) by Danny Brierley (2003) – It is an example of where the influence of Managerial theory and practice is inserted into the church. The same could be said for any youth ministry programme that claims to be efficient, calculated, predictable and be able to be controlled, for these are dominant tenets of the business model of Macdonalds. Without realising it, the prevailing culture wins, if a youth ministry seeks growth and transformational leadership to do this, then this again is from the management guru handbook, more so than Theology – however biblically justified. Youth Ministry is undoubtedly involved in the culture, it creates culture, but is also subject to it – it is worth being critical of the sources, methodologies and ideologies of practice – having filters set to ‘on’. Being predictable and efficient – might give 4 spiritual laws, but maybe not the complexity of a deep faith, and young people exploring difficult questions. Keeping up with culture isnt making Youth ministry more theological or relevant, its possibly only turning it into efficient organisations that are cost effective.  Managing a good youthwork organisation or it being managed well might not actually be having the best effect on young people.

5. Ignoring Youthwork (& Education) philosophy. What the Values and practice of Youthwork can bring to Youth Ministry is an increased focus, not only on young people and their needs, but processes shaped by values that are in their favour, such as empowerment, voluntary participation, inclusion & anti-oppressive practice, and informal education, what it also can provide, again according to Danny Brierely, is an ethical yardstick for youth ministry. Youth Ministry will only be improved by encompassing more of the discipline of youth work. Not only that but a refreshing of different concepts of education especially as young people participate in youth ministry in a voluntary way would be critical.

6. Ignoring Pioneers. For too long the biggest conferences are sponsored by the same people who select the same people to be the experts. Critical and Pioneering voices, generally are put to one side, unless they have been youth ministry flavour of the month in the past – and can still retain ‘Hero’ status. But in the main, those who are known for good, solid local practice are ignored. Those who lead ministries and have several lead responsibilities in organisations are the heralded experts. Some are the pioneers, but others are selectively ignored. Organisations, cultures and practices are only developed further through critical thinking, questions and dissent. Yes people will only keep the hamster wheel turning, critical thinking will ensure the hamster is travelling in the right direction. Pioneers are what the Disciples were, lest not forget, improvising in the new spaces what they had been taught.

7. Ignoring ourselves. Not unlike the film, the final twist is played on the main character and the audience. The final ‘deadly sin’ in Youth Ministry is when we forget about being honest and kind and generous to ourselves. We help define youth ministry and youth work through our very actions with young people, our communication with churches, partnerships, agencies and schools, we also define it as a practice through the cultures of the settings we create, the young people we invest the most time in, creating healthy spaces for young people also starts with being healthy ourselves – not perfect- just healthy, self-care is important, and probably the most ‘deadly’ of them all on an individual youth ministry level.

Could I have included others, possibly. But what might be yours? Excluding obviously ‘critical blogging’….



What makes the Christian Youthworker distinctive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanhoozer suggests the following:

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

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

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



Passmore R, Ballantyne  Here be Dragons, 2013

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

Smith, M, Jeffs, T, Youthwork, 1987

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

Vanhoozer, KJ The Pastor as the public Theologian, 2015

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


Renouncing second hand expertise in Youth Ministry

I had been guilty of fake-reading Soul Searching. I think it is a common curse. A friend of mine was telling me about the book a few years ago as he was I think just starting his Phd, and we had a great conversation about it, he even put some quotes up on facebook, when putting ‘notes’ on facebook was a thing.

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But I didnt read it myself.

Fast forward a few years, and I am reading a Vanhoozer book, on the place of doctrine in Ministry, and in an article, he refers to the key conclusion of ‘soul searching’ and considers ways of overcoming this.

Oh well and good I think, Vanhoozer is much more challenging to read than Christian Smith, and he knows what he is talking about, so I neednt bother reading it myself. I even write a great blog on it, well i say great, a few people thought it was great. But I still hadnt read the source material. I had fake-read Christian Smith then proclaimed to be a trusted source myself to talk about it.

I wonder often this occurs in aspects of Youth work and Ministry. Somebody else reads a book on something, then uses the idea from the book to be an expert on a thing, and those receiving it only hear an interpretation and leave trusting that the person has represented it right. That person becomes the expert on Freire, or Jeffs and Smith, or Vanhoozer, and then its the few snippets or quotes that are circulated. I must admit, I still have a few of these blind-spots in my literature closet, but having now read Christian Smith, this is now not one of them. 

There is a task in the ongoing practice of youth work and ministry to be maintaining integrity to what we say we base our practice on, if we do have notions of doing so with theory or theology in mind. The pain of the personal hard graft to read it ourselves is worth it, we are changed through the process of reading. 

It is not enough to be on the bandwagon of someone elses expertise, yes be inspired when someone refers to a book or article – but then get hold of it and read it. This is what I did when Helen Gatenby refered to ‘We make the road by walking’ by Friere and Horton a few years ago in a conference, and what a book it was, to read the whole thing. Deeply inspiring for practice and a view of educating humanity presented in conversation very inspiring. But i could have just taken Helens word for it.

Oh – but when have we got time for reading you say? Its not a matter of time, but a matter of priorities. A conference or lecture might give us a dip into an authors perspective – but in reading it ourselves are we opened to new possibilities and use our skills of interpretation to bear further fruit on and in it. As reflective practitioners we can consume contemporary culture and learn through it, and contemporary culture includes publications in sociology, psychology and theology to inform , shape and bring insight to practice, and to ourselves as persons.

What i found in ‘Soul Searching’ was considerably more than the headline of it that has been oft quoted. That of MTD, (Moral Therapeutic Deism) – and as I am reading it, I am reflecting on whether it is significant 10 years after its publication, and in my context the world of Christian youth work/youth ministry in north east England. Especially in light of two pieces of research regarding the faith of young people and their engagement in churches. What i can use the detail of the book for, and reflect on is far more than the headline, and ill be posting some of the highlights from Soul searching in the next few days, but this post isnt about the content of Soul searching, though what it does say is that young people arent given the critical skills or deep theology as part of their faith, thats ironic – because unless we as youthworkers develop a love of gaining ‘first hand’ knowledge, and the critical skills to go with it, then not only might we sell ourselves short, its likely we’ll do the same for the young people.


Tools for developing a Youth Ministry Youth Strategy

In a way i wish this was a post I needed to write more often, and in a similar way it a post i hope that i didnt have to. Why, well, sometimes i would like to think that churches would have some kind of plan/strategy/pathway for thinking about the discipleship of their children and young people (beyond them just attending groups). In another way there is often talk from a more regional level about developing a ‘youth strategy for a diocese, or deanery, or affiliation’  in which then someone outside of the jurasdiction of local churches is making plans, shaping ideas and practices for a local church to implement, be guided by, and how it might be resourced.

The reason that i wish i didnt have to write about this kind of thing is that because there are so many factors involved in the implementation, impact or outcomes of such a strategy that they can be little more than well merited & intentioned and thought through broad brush strokes. They might focus the mind, but they can often breed disillusion, false hope, and unreal expectations. However, they have become a bit of a trend. So what might a good youth strategy take into account?

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What might be some of the key factors to consider before developing regional youth strategies.

  1. Whose strategy is it?  So – is the young peoples and they are shaping it, or is it for the leaders and the bosses of the affiliation or organisation…
  2. What is the strategy for?  Can it be more than a paper excercise, heralded at a launch event, but nothing has really changed..?
  3. How might it take into account the cultural shifts required for empowering discipleship to occur in a church? If young people are to go from learners to deciders and then creators as part of discipleship (see this http://wp.me/p2Az40-HX ) – what might be needed for a culture shift to allow this to happen in a church setting?
  4. What might a regional strategy look like that might suggest that local practices need to take their cues from their local context, resources, partnerships and demographics- not to mention theology? and culture…
  5. How might the success of a regional strategy be realised – in terms of long term discipleship – or short term initiatives – and does short term thinking prevail so that quick wins are garnered..
  6. How might young poeple be intrinsically involved throughout the process of resourcing, developing and implementing such a strategy and for making it accountable?
  7. Are the people making the strategies the right people to make the strategies? What methods of youth work/ministry might they favour and how might this shape a strategy to the detriment of other work with young people?
  8. How might a strategy be implemented if local culture might just as they say ‘eat strategy for breakfast’ ?
  9. Is there more resource put into making a strategy than being on the ground to enable good practice with young people to happen?
  10. Does youth ministry use good community youthwork strategy and evaluation tools to create strategies, processes and objectives and develop ongoing communities of learning and practice, or is it just a piece of paper to be signed off.

So, just a few thoughts from me on the things to consider when developing regional strategies in youth ministry, generally id argue that without creating cultures of learning, of empowerment and of collaboration that the strategy might only exist as a paper exercise. Developing culture might be more difficult, but its from within this that young people and those who work with and for them are more likely to be able to thrive.

Beyond self-care; what else is a youth worker/minister responsible for?

In my last post, on the need for youthworkers (and their managers) to take an active role in their self-care, i intimated that it is mostly a youthworkers responsibility to do this, despite their better passionate instinct. What tends to happen is that, especially in youth ministry type roles, the individual youth minister is seen to be ‘at fault’ if they cannot cope in a situation, rather than the culture of the ministry to have any responsibility for their well being and satisfaction in a role. It can become more difficult to challenge a structure if it can be deemed a faith one, and ordained one, one steeped in theological history.

However, thats a bit of a tangent, the point is that regardless of the culture of a workplace, a youthworker is responsible for their self-care, for looking after their social, spiritual, physical and mental well-being, albeit with hopefully some good supervision (and thank you for this comment on the article steelcityman) to hand to help.

I wondered: what else youthworkers are responsible for in their role and profession? – beyond their job title and description.

  1. Their Self care-, looking after themselves (obviously)
  2. Finding their own support system, practice supervisor type role for them
  3. Developing their own career path – there are limited straight pathways (thanks to Ultimate Youthworker Podcast for this one), they may have to make a choice to leave somewhere  Image result for responsibility
  4. Developing secondary work when funding starts to decline in their paid job
  5. Depending on their role, they could be responsible for all the NEETs in a town getting a job, all the anti social behaviour being reduced, or all the young people going to church. (;-))
  6. They are responsible for filtering out and discerning the right kind of training opportunities, and also for ascertaining them in the first place.
  7. They are responsible for trying to manage purposeful relationships with young people that are difficult to quantify, and treating them with care. Image result for responsibility
  8. They are responsible for maintaining reading, learning and being up to date with policies and theories as it as an ever changing practice
  9. They are responsible for managing a smooth transition in themselves from worker to manager or supervisor with often limited support to do so.
  10. They are responsible for holding and keeping alot of information about young people through conversations with them, with other agencies and hoping to still treat young people with fairness, equality and respect.
  11. They can often be responsible for finding funding for their own role.
  12. They are responsible for their own priority setting, where they have the power to make priorities of their tasks, and time management.
  13. They are responsible for finding their own pension scheme, usually.
  14. They are responsible for maintaining a position of trust in the middle of other agencies and be trusted by young people.
  15. They are responsible for defending themselves with no union.
  16. They are responsible for the table tennis table and trying to continually act 21 with young people.

I am sure there are others, and not to say that youthworkers are unique because in other practices of work these things will also apply. It was just as i was thinking about what youthworkers are responsible for, that are implied or extra beyond their job description, or like number 5 or 16, its what people expect a youthworker to be able to do, or only do.  It is a hugely self determining role – in terms of decisions a youthworker has to make, ethical decisions, practical decisions (about pensions, or jobs) – and this coupled with the high levels of emotional output, it can be undoubtedly draining without looking after ourselves, So maybe getting number 1 right is the best first thing.

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Detached youthwork as a community building exercise

Earlier this week i wrote a short piece that held a mirror on the faith organisation of the church to the comparison of ‘the community’ in Cormac Russells blog on the nuture development site, this article is here:  http://wp.me/p2Az40-E6. I notice that on the same Nurture development site, Shaun Bartlett has written a sequel, titled ‘building bridges or walls’ – this is here, and worth a read: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/taking-strengths-based-approach-young-people-part-2-building-walls-building-bridges/

In the article – Shaun comments, from the perspective of being a youthworker for a while in Ayrshire, that;

In every neighbourhood, there are residents who care deeply for young people and who believe in them. They are not motivated by the impulse to keep young people “off the streets” or “out of trouble”. Instead they have a genuine and well-intentioned instinct for connecting young people into civic life. They see the untapped energy of all young people, and are sincerely perplexed and often distressed as to why others can’t see what they see in the young people of their community. Where some only see trouble, they see potential.

Among such folks, there are a number who are able to bridge the gap between young people’s potential and potential places of welcome in their communities for the gifts that young people have to offer.

This first section describes perfectly the tension experienced by the detached youthworkers, their volunteers and some of the criticism or expectations of it. For some, detached youthwork can be a means of social control, a catalyst of physical movement – yet as Dynamo international state in ‘The international methodology of streetwork throughout the world (2008);

Social street work favours an innovative proximity approach where the people play a predominant role in any action undertaken, from its beginnings (the request) throughout its development (accompaniment). It is this trust-based relationship, built up with the subject, which will help break the silence and enable support to be given to the person.

The underlying idea in social street work is not to take a person away from the streets or their surroundings “at all costs”, especially if it consists of compartmentalising them in a new social context where they will feel uncomfortable.

Whatever the context, be it a child, a young person or an adult, the work of accompaniment means building self-esteem, developing personal skills, independently from the degree of exclusion, and enabling participation in social life.

Increasing young peoples capacity in the social life, their participation and reducing exclusion (not of their making often) of it is part of the process of youthwork – especially that which starts from the streets . Yet there can still be expectation that detached work leads to a building- in the short term. What Shaun is suggesting, I think, is that often many local people understand the culture of the young people and have some sympathy with them. As i am in the process of helping to train people in detached youthwork in a specific place, those from the area, tend to not only have more knowledge of the young people, but equally if encouraged, have the desire to see them thrive despite it, being slightly less prone to see needs, but more untapped gifts. It can be as constant a tension between seeing the potential and actual of the gifts of young people, and worrying about their reactions and assessing their needs and trying to help, a natural response at times.

Shaun makes a further point worth reflecting on though. How often are the gifts of the young people, who are encountered in detached/mission type youthwork, given back into the community in order that they can re access it and create identity in it?.

Giving a young person a leadership role in their own youth club is one thing, or maybe even a leadership role in the sunday school – but where might they pay it forward as to speak, not just serve those who helped them become ‘redeemed’ or have their gifts harnessed – but give that back to the community that once rejected them?  Places of welcome where these gifts can be harnessed, can be as fluid as the conversation on the streets, in that space there is a moment of ‘theatre’ where a scene is outplayed, and performance is displayed, played by a gifted young person. The gift needs to be payed back so that young person can increase in their civil life in society, allow not just ‘the youth/church organisation’ to see & feel the benefit, but for others to see a change too.

Further on Shaun makes the point that we as workers on the streets, in the public places with young people are to become the steward;

A person that doesn’t lead, but offers guidance and stewardship nurturing strong citizenship amongst young people and the civic life of their community: they find space for, and often broker young people into community space, to take action on what matters to them.

On detached, the key issues for the young person are often brought to the fore, they are real, and honest at times, and often quick to lay the blame of their situation elsewhere. The game that is often harder to play is to have the toolbox of questions, or converstions that guide the young people into becoming the agents (agency) of their potential future change. Often we maintain the helper role, as adults, or the signposters, but building community, even building community as a faith group involved in detached youthwork, might involve a type of community building that provides only the structures for young peoples gifts to be awakened and they individually and collectively undertake actions of change for themselves and the community at large. They might be their own stewards after all.

If young people are citizens in their community first and foremost – how dare we on one hand proclaim their ‘anti-socialness’ ?  is this the value and language of the community organisation (Goeschius & Tash, 1967, 100), rather than the informal community- the families or the young people themselves.  The kind of language that restricts freedom and movement. To build assets is to remove the walls, often constructed by language, and for communities tarnished by external reputation, but filled with signs and actions of true community to become places of welcome, and spaces for young peoples gifts to be harnessed, and stewarded.

If i was going to reflect a little theologically on this, the obvious place would be to think about Jesus mission strategy with the disciples to go in pairs to local villages and await being welcomed, a model of practice  Jesus himself shows the disciples with the incident with the woman of Samaria (see http://wp.me/p2Az40-Cc for this in more detail), and it is also throughout the Bible narratives of people being commended for the gifts that they bring to be shared in the community, not just the emerging faith community, though this was more evident as the faith community closed ranks during intense persecution. The essence of the Biblical drama that is ongoing is summed up by Kevin Vanhoozer, a catholic evangelical theologian who says:

“The Christian faith is not a private affair for individuals but a community-building project” (Vanhoozer, 2014)

Building the kingdom is a building process.

Strength based faith communities for (young) people

On the excellent Nurture Development website, Cormac Russell (Managing director of the ABCD institute) has recently written a piece titled ‘Taking a strengths based approach to young people’ . It is about having a perspective of young people that is distinctive from society – one where young peoples strengths are focussed on, you can read it in full here (and it is well worth a read) http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/taking-strengths-based-approach-young-people-moving-risk-promise-part-1/

In it Cormac, after commenting on the negative stereotypes of young people in the media, and through the writings of philosophers such as Socrates, writes that:

Defining young people solely by what they receive, fails to realise what children and teenagers need most, which is to be needed and meeting that need is about organising our communities so that the contributions of young people can be invited and celebrated. Our current way of organising lifts up consumption to such an extent as to render young people to the margins.

going on to say that the kind of youth work that attempts to bring young people into organised youth programmes misses a trick in that it fails to bring them to the core of the community that has sought to exile them stating:

As well a providing such programmes and access to them, youth engagement must also concern itself with building a bridge between young people, productive adults and the centre of their communities. The very same communities it has to be said, who all too often exile their most ‘needy’ young people to the margins.

In closing he suggests that young people and adults, and older adults are more segregated than ever, in my view this segregation is also cultural, young people are segregated from adults because of access to prosperity, academia, employment, housing and more importantly hope. Cormac concludes by suggesting that, due to this segregation, and the view of young people:

  1. There is space and hospitality within every community for the gifts of all young people (regardless of their history or reputation) if we intentionally invite it in and make the connections. These spaces will not be found unless we actively seek them out.
  2. We do not have a ‘youth problem’ we have a ‘village problem’. Every young person regardless of past transgressions has strengths that are needed to tackle this village problem, and by so doing, to build inclusive sustainable communities.

From this article – I want to reflect on the following question.

Does the church have the same village problem?

For so long now, in many local settings the youth worker has tried to give young people a ‘voice’ in the community of the church – but legislation, or implied disinterest, has maintained segregation. Can young people change the village of the church using their gifts alone – or is church too wieldy for this to happen?  Is Sunday a space of segregation of young and old? and should this be challenged?  How might a church recognise the gifts of young people, inside its walls, and also outside in mission, so that they too are ‘at promise’ and invited into the core of the community- the faith

Is Sunday a similar space of segregation of young and old? and should this be challenged?  How might a church recognise the gifts of young people, inside its walls, and also outside in mission, so that they too are ‘at promise’ and invited into the core of the community- the faith community. Might ‘faith community’ need to behave according to faith values – where love, faith and hope – for all prevail – in order that the promise of young people is realised?  And they are not viewed as the world views them – but i dare say more like God does.

I know too many questions. But Cormac as ever poses them for the community of the young person, yet, where that community helps to shape a young persons identity in the faith community then the same questions should at least be asked.

How might young people be at promise in the church?  Can a youthworker help to heal the village- or are they (often) the scapegoat? Does the village need healing or does the church act in a better way than this – better than using young peoples gifts – or does it have a theology that causes this to be an exemption.  I would argue that focussing on young peoples gifts in a church should be an absolute minimum for discipleship and their identity, to help them find identity in the local faith community and the ongoing drama of redemption that they play parts in.


Paul Ricoeur & Youth work – in search of the sacred.

Following on from my previous articel ‘Youth Ministry-In Praise of the Beards’ – here as ‘promised’ is a piece on the writings and thoughts of Paul Ricoeur. I hope to inform, inspire and whet your appetite for thinking philosophically about the contemporary philosophical & theological context of youth ministry – by starting with one philosophical perspective on the nature of humanity, from someone with a keen eye in both the philosophical and theological camps. or if nothing else point you in the direction of someone worth grappling with further.

So… Paul Ricoeur.  This wasnt an easy task:

Image result for paul ricoeur


Details of his Early Life & Background (skip this bit if you just want to hear about what he said)

Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) was a distinguished French philosopher of the twentieth century, one whose work has been widely translated and discussed across the world. In addition to his academic work, his public presence as a social and political commentator, particularly in France, led to a square in Paris being named in his honor on the centenary of his birth in 2013. In the course of his long career he wrote on a broad range of issues. In addition to his many books, Ricoeur published more than 500 essays, many of which appear in collections in English.

A major theme that runs through Ricoeur’s writings is that of a philosophical anthropology. Ricoeur came to formulate this as the idea of the “capable human being”. In it he seeks to give an account of the fundamental capabilities and vulnerabilities that human beings display in the activities that make up their lives, and to show how these capabilities enable responsible human action and life together. Though the accent is always on the possibility of understanding human beings as agents responsible for their actions, Ricoeur consistently rejects any claim that the self is immediately transparent to itself or fully master of itself. Self-knowledge only comes through our understanding of our relation to the world and of our life with and among others in time in the world. (taken from Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ricoeur/)

Top 5 Key Themes/Ideas of Paul Ricoeur (taken from Stiver D, Ricoeur & Theology, 2012)

  1. Phenomenology:”Ricoeur developed further the sense in which all such description is inescapably interpretative or hermeneutical” (Stiver, 2012)

2. Hermeneutics, Ricoeur developed the emphasis of both Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer, that people do not just ‘do’ hermeneutics from time to time but are hermeneutical all the way down, as it were, which Ricoeur saw as ‘Ontological Hermeneutics’ (Ricoeur 1991a:63)  Stiver suggests that “this is the basis for a powerful critique of modernity’s desire for a presuppositionless beginning, as well as the Cartesian demand for clarity and distinctiveness. We always start reflection too late, the unconscious, the involuntary and our immersion in culture and tradition always already accompany the conscious and voluntary” (Stiver, 2012, 10)  We are in a sense as reflective all the way down as we are hermeneutical, life and understanding go hand in hand.

3. Personhood, Ricouer – as suggested above, understood the self to be primarily and deeply hermeneutical. It was also that he regarded the self, not as a thinker ( I think therefore i am) , but as a doer, a mixture of the voluntary and involuntary, freedom and nature.  The self has an embodied desire to exist, yet at times it exists as a wounded Cognito, that is not fallible in its objectivity. For Ricouer

“the human identity is formed by narratives and myths, which likewise are irreducible to theoretical prose” (Stiver, 2012, 12),

Self identity is an open ended story, that is interwoven by other stories that we encounter. The self, for Ricoeur, “is not only in dialogue with personal others but is inescapably enmeshed in larger communities that call for a sense of justice”

4. Religion. For a major Philosopher, Ricoeur unusually writes extensively on Religion, notably Christianity, Old and New testament. He labelled himself an apprentice Theologian, and in ‘Figuring the Sacred, 1995’ describes his own link between Philosophy and the discourse of Religious language, as it is from his philosophical discipline that he interacts with theology, with exegesis. His interaction with theology from philosophy is fruitful (according to Stiver) suggesting that theology is deeply hermeneutical and philosophical as it deals with the interpretation of texts.

For the Christian, for the Youth worker then, Ricoeur is significant. His views on Personhood, developed from the European/German philosophical tradition of Gadamer and Heidegger, influenced by his own sympathy with the Christian tradition and its own philosophical writings in the Bible should inspire the faith-based youth worker, or even the non ‘chrisitan’ faith based youthworker for his considerations of humanity alone.  For the youth worker not in sympathy with the Christian faith, then look away now, or at least bear with me a little for the next part, as I am going to share a few key quotes from Ricoeur about his thoughts on the Christian faith, or you might be inspired to start thinking about the Christian faith from this deeper philosophical angle, where there is rich treasure to be found.

The following are taken from ‘Figuring the Sacred’ (Ricoeur, 1995)

“The first task of hermeneutics (understanding the Biblical text) is not to give rise to a decision on the part of the reader ( ie what should they do/’WWJD’?) but to allow the world of being that is the issue of the biblical text to unfold. Thus above and beyond emotions, disposition, belief or non belief is the proposition of a world that in the Biblical world is called a new world, a new covenant, the kingdom of God, a new birth” (p44) … persuing this line of reasoning to its logical conclusions, must we not say that what is thus opened up in everyday reality is another reality, the reality of the possible?”

About Culture and humanity, Ricoeur argues:

“One fact about culture is that we live in a desacralized world,  human beings have moved beyond the sacred cosmos, nature is no longer a store of signs, the cosmos is mute. Modern persons no longer have a sacred space, a centre, a temple, a holy mountain. The Sacred world today is archaic, the sacred is the archaic. ” (italics mine) (p61)

Yet positively Ricoeur says that; “One of course can find remains of the sacred in our culture”  it may be camouflaged in a range of myths, of stories and behaviours, it was not deliberately forgotten  as the elevation of technology nd science to rank as more dominant in the public consciousness.

“The only religion whose message is to be heard is the one that has the resources to survive, but to also accompany the decline of the sacred in a positive manner” (p62) –

If modernity has desacralized the world of interpreting the text, and as Ricoeur states and Biblical interpreters have desacralized the text to its deemed rational aspects and constructs, then the playing field between Science and Religion is less levelled but that Religion plays second fiddle. What of the renaissance of the Sacred , asks Ricoeur, asking further “Is Christianity without the sacred possible?”

and if Christianity is in need of it own sacred renaissance – where might youth ministry connect young people to the sacred? the wonder and the cosmos? 

If these are important observations of culture and the place of faith within the current culture then it worth closing with a few more gems from Ricoeur about the Biblical texts;

If Genesis 1 is to be read in a narrative sense, as a prologue, the vision of the creation of the world has its pinnacle in the creation of Man, therefore;

“The miracle of creation is a miracle of redemption”  (1995, p131)….  The highest form of immediacy is between God and humankind, the latter appears not just created by the word in a general sense, but by a solemn resolution from Gods own heart”

and finally; “The God of beginnings is the God of hope. And because God is the God of hope, the goodness of creation becomes the sense of a direction” (1995, p. 299)

Undoubtedly i have done a complete injustice to Paul Ricoeur, his influence, work and writings. His writing is both extensive. My key reflections, having been writing this article for a week on and off, in the aspects of Ricoeur that i have grappled me in my thoughts, have been the sense of a return to the sacred in the world, in the world of the church, and also in the world of working with young people from a faith perspective, whether ‘in’ or ‘outside’ the church.

When Ricoeur writes that the sacred has been lost in society – and as I’ve written before- Healy questions ‘ what does the church offer that no other agency can? ‘ – then surely an awakening of the sacred, connections with the abundance of creation, the recognition of the symbol, the signs in nature, and the opening up of the profound are surely potential domains for the church in its prophetic sense. To be a conduit of the deep and mysterious that is God, God that young people connect with in his/her sacred sense.  Deep church, deep youth ministry might provide spaces of the sacred. This is one reflection, there are undoubtedly others.  I must admit, for a long while the sense that working with young people outside the church starts with ‘doing good’ practically has been what i have tried to do – yet how might those kind of spaces, on the streets, in the parks, be also windows for the sacred?



References and Further reading:

Ricoeur, P, 1995 – Figuring the Sacred, Religion, Narrative and Imagination

Ricouer, P, 2013 – Hermeneutics (trans by David Pellaur)

Ricouer, P, 2004 – Memory, History, Forgetting

Stiver, D, 2012 – Ricoeur & Theology


Youth Ministry: In Praise of the Beards

There is an interactive site that Youthscape are running at the moment, in which people involved in youth ministry are able to design through a basic picture, and then name and describe a person who has greatly influenced them, or their ministry. The link is here: Design your inspiration.

Alongside an impressive list of activities, ministry leaders, determined souls and unsung heroes stands the stuck out on a limb theologian that is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thus far he is the one theologian that has been uploaded as being an inspiration for this so far unscientific poll of youth ministry contingency, and i wonder, slightly cruelly if that is only because Andrew Root recently wrote a book about him. This isn’t anything against any of the people uploaded, though Jesus isn’t mentioned, strangely (maybe he was off limits), as there are other Biblical Characters, and contemporary leaders, who are genuinely inspiring. Yet, repeatedly, even in these pages, and even in youth ministry conferences, there are calls to ‘Go Deeper’ with young people – and the question for us in that, yes it can be to go deeper by acting more ethically, more appropriately- but can going deeper also mean thinking and being inspired Theologically and Philosophically about ideas that might inspire youth ministry practice, about intrinsically who we are as humans, who we are in the place of the world and in this way enable young people to be inspired by depth too.

So, whilst ‘in praise of the Beards’ is totally sexist, it does tragically represent the lack of female philosophers and theologians on my bookshelf (unlike my ‘youthwork bookshelf’). What I would like to do, over the next few weeks is to outline the key ideas of a small series of Philosopher/Theologians to whet your appetite for thinking more in depth about Faith, about the Bible, about Humanity and because of all these things, about Youth Ministry. You might be bored, you might be inspired. If nothing else, it might help put some of the current thoughts of theology in some context.

So, as a marker for the future, these are the Beards that the practice of Youth Discipleship and Mission might draw from their richness further:

Paul Ricoeur

Paulo Freire

Hans George Gadamer

Kevin Vanhoozer

I would add Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but as i mentioned above – he is already inducted in the hall of fame, and Andrew Root has made his work accessible to the Youth Ministry market. What i would like to do, therefore in the coming weeks is give some time to describing and outlining the incredible insight of these ‘beards’ to the philosophical and theological landscape. I will not be able to do them justice, but try and share a few key insights and how their work might apply to youth work/ministry.

If you are inspired by a theologian or philosopher and would like to write a guest blog (1000 words max) on their key ideas, their inspiration to you and youth work/ministry, then please get in touch (above) , happy to add to this list, from the list thats on my bookshelf, to those who are on yours…

So, in Praise of the philosophical beards… Paul Ricouer coming up in a few days…

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