10 things you’re unlikely to see in Christian youthwork.

This almost feels a bit like the endgame on mock the week, when ‘unlikely things you’ll see…or hear’ is the opening strapping for which then the comedians are then tasked with completing. Today I was chatting to a few youthworkers about a youth work project that had a very similar name to another, and had used a bible verse number as their name. You know the one. It’s the life to the full one. (10:10). It got me thinking, if 3:16, 10:10 are commonly used, and there are some other common things in Christian youthwork.

What might be things unlikely to see or hear in Christian youthwork?

1. A project that has the name ’23:20′ after the profound words of Ezekiel.

2. A large worship gathering admit that financial reasons, and the need for advance funding, or internal poor partnership working was the reason for its demise. Far easier to say that ‘ the Lord is calling us to something new’

3. An all female worship band.

4. A Christian youthworker stay long enough in a church based role to be eligible for a sabbatical. And then to get one.

5. A youth pastor not use an analogy from Star wars/Lord of the rings or a U2 lyric in a youth service.

6. Young people involved in creating their own youth provision. Especially any collective worship space that’s apparently for them.

7. A job application for a youth worker that asks for a quiet, reflective, critical theological youth worker.

8. A youth work not have expectations that the Sunday school will be as full is was in 1890, after they’ve been in post 4 weeks.

9. A youth worker without 9 different coffee shop loyalty cards in their purse or wallet.

10. A commissioning service for the arrival of a new youth worker in post.

Here are 10 of my ‘unlikely to see’ in Christian youthwork, what might yours be?

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Is youth ministry just about survival?

I put a ‘thing’ out on twitter a week or so ago, amongst the youth and community work fraternal, ‘ share your top tips on how to survive in youth ministry’ and waited for the responses. I got a few, and i will share them below. But in the course of asking for the feedback, and writing this, I started to think about the reality that usually there is only talk of surviving in youth ministry – surviving with your calling intact, surviving with your mental health intact, surviving with your family intact, surviving so that you might be able to be in a church for longer than 3 years.

Maybe the talk is of survival because the boulevard of youth ministry is littered with broken dreams, lives and people that have been hurt. But could ministry – in particular youth ministry be a space to thrive or flourish in at all, when talk is of survival and the myriad of issues that cause it to feel like that.

And yes i am as guilty, repeatedly in these pages sharing pieces about ‘why youthworkers leave churches‘ and my own journey that felt like surviving youth ministry, its as if surviving is the only game in town.

I was almost going to write a pessimistic piece on why its impossible to thrive in youth ministry – given the fairly usual suspects of short term contract, generally grossly under paid, employed in false pretences, high expectations, not to mention stuff like mission/ministry contradictions between parents, youth workers and young people, and most of them are featured at length in the piece above. But, ill not do that. No. Because there are examples of thriving. There are youth workers who are thriving in churches. Though i imagine there will be a number of key factors as to why this might be. And their testimony might suggest that being in a role long term, having influence in decision making about young people, maybe not being too unrealistic, having personal values that are closer to the organisational values (rather than a purist youth worker), maybe thriving happens when there is a genuine regard for young people in a church as participants and contributors, so a youthworker, can be a youthworker (not just an entertainer) . Maybe thriving happens where there are volunteers, or where there’s good management – or maybe where a youthworker has the fucking determination to do a bloody good job in a space for the sake of young people- despite all these things not being in place.

Rant over.

So, if thriving is going to happen in youth ministry – what might need to happen for it to?

These are some of the thoughts of the youth work and ministry fraternal:

As with any job, have an understanding and exciting/motivating line manager. Most church leaders have no training or significant experience in managing staff, yet most churches are packed with people with those skills. That knowledge needs to be utilised

Having an amazing youth worker friend to pray, share the load with you, who understands, who is willing to be on the other end of the phone when things are tough, or when you just don’t know what to do.   (avoiding being on your own – yet how many churches appoint 2 youthworkers? – notice that ‘not feeling alone features in a few others comments below)

Separate work and personal phone. Learn how to say No. Ensure line management is effective. Embrace ecumenism – sharing is better! Spread the load, develop your team. 

Do not answer emails when you should be off/working with young people. Make sure everyone knows you are away. Also a good idea to have a nighttime curfew on contact.

Find/develop close friend/s for support. i.e. can give them a call and speak openly and freely without worrying about what they will think of you when you hang up.

Seek out mentor/coach/director

Read fiction regularly
Use all annual leave each year
Learn how to organise yourself – work and life. i.e. calendars, to do list, project management, note taking processes, life administration etc.
Slightly different slant – but realise that you are sort of a team, likely to not be there forever, and supporting someone else’s dream &vision. Advocate for yp but also be a team player and build the wider vision.
(Thank you to all who contributed to these)
Of course, thriving doesn’t happen without often the need to survive the first few years, and whilst it has a few points, Doug Fields context of the mega church doesn’t always equate and his ‘first two years in youth ministry’ though sometimes, any advice on how to make it past what can be a fraught first two years is welcome. Often without realising it, we need to manage those above us, and manage people into managing us in a way we find most effective. But there is more to it than just management (and there’s a series on management on this site)
So- What will it take to thrive in youth ministry – or are many of those involved in it clinging on by their fingernails and just waiting for the next crisis to hit. And if that’s the case, forget thriving.

 

Being aware of the introvert young people in the youth group

Over the last few months, I have made a starting discovery about myself. I am 41, and I have started to acknowledge, embrace and identify as being more of an introvert. Most of you who know me well might have known this a while, it’s like that classic scene in the film pride when one of the characters has been thought of as being gay for about 20 years.
I guess when I look back on my life, I realise the moments where my being more introverted has been more helpful, positive and an advantage, like all things, it has maybe been a disadvantage. I look back at the various aspects of my growing up, my youth ministry and work with young people and reflect through a lens of Introvertion.. what do I find?
I find that I loved spending time with people and talking at depth (so maybe empath not just introvert) , including my youth leaders, pastors.
I often preferred the car journey to the activity, space to talk, more than the activity.
Small groups of less that 5 I remember fondly, large groups trying to learn in a classroom I felt quiet and pressured. These are just a few examples for me, and actually when I look positively back on my youth ministry upbringing, it was the quiet, not the noise where I found a place, energy and home.
So if it’s true that more than 1/3 of all people are more likely to be on the introverted side of an extrovert/introvert scale.. how might this be reflected in the way children and young people are part of education, society, and maybe specifically for here, the faith groups and churches?
One example, and although discredited, I began training in youth ministry in the mid 1990’s and so, stuff on communication and learning styles was deemed important, and how people learn.. I can’t remember that any real attempt was made to look at or focus deliberately on young people’s learning for the more introverted. Much of trying to be attractive to young people focusing on gathering larger groups, making more noise, and this could be hard work for the more introverted. It’s not that they wouldn’t do it, but it’s not where, necessarily they find energy.
Thinking about different approaches to youth ministry, schools work, detached, centres, groups, who amongst even those who lead, develop and shape youth ministry, do we have an awareness that some young people will find some aspects difficult and tiring, not because they are bored, fed up or annoyed, or that it’s rubbish (Though these aspects could be true)
But that it’s not feeding them and giving their natural introversion space to thrive and be validated. Especially if noise, large numbers and energised worship is the deemed norm.
Even thinking about group work, an introvert might needs time to think about a theme or topic, how does that work if the youth worker doesn’t know themselves the theme before the Friday before the Sunday?
There may well be countless other examples, in Sunday groups and evening clubs, where the expectations that young people like the noise and competitive thinking, drowns out the quiet, the thinkers and possibly even those who do know the right responses.
By having or defaulting to the extrovert in youth ministry, if we do, well.. Susan Cain, in ‘Quiet’ would argue that for 120 years society has shifted in this way too, and youth ministry has often followed culture to be relevant, then we might be in danger of implicitly excluding the young people who are already growing up and not fitting in, not because their not intelligent, thoughtful and perceptive, but that it takes even more energy to contribute into spaces defaulted to an extrovert ideal.
Tell me, who are the usual head boy or head girl? The popular and outgoing or the clever quiet one? Which young person in the youth club gets more heaped praise or expectation of leader, than others? Just a thought..
When we show films with young people, do any involve quiet methodical thinking and working alone? I mean.. has anyone shown ‘The theory of everything’ to their youth group, or highlighted the power of individual thinking and someone’s mind, in the discussion?.. something to validate a type of young person who may feel invisible and also may not be having their needs met or validated. Most young people won’t want to be given the bible passage or theme, the week before, to give it some thought.. but I’ll bet that the 1/3 who are discovering and needing to have their introvert side nurtured and energised might do. They’re likely to love you for it.
I look back at my growing up, and I have in a way the duke of Edinburgh award to thank for giving me this kind of space.
For, in doing the bronze section I had to do a skill, and as a lazy person, I chose something I knew alot about and would do easily, so I chose Bible study. And I was given 100’s of bible passages, questions and journals to write, over 18 months. And a leader to talk through them with. The work was all scheduled, and I had to work through them one to one with a designated leader. Honestly it was wonderful. For me, aged 12/3 to have my own space to develop thinking and have space to talk one to one about it.
Maybe that where my reflective practitioner stuff began. The funny thing was that I haven’t ever really thought about how much I enjoyed what I did for those 18 months, well it feels ‘geeky’ or ‘ christian’.. and its only now how much I realise that it fuelled my introverted side. Daily bible notes were one thing, but they didn’t get validated by discussion or further thinking unless I made the effort, weekly journal to write and bible study to do… well…
So.. you might do this already, the more introverted youth minister might have the lens opened and see it, but how might young people growing up lost in an increasingly extrovert world, find home in churches, groups and youthwork that gives them life, purpose and meaning? Its not just what a person believes, it’s how they are able to enact it and participate in it…

So, if 1/3 of the few children and young people, or dare I say it adults, in your church are introverts… where might they find life and a place?

How might their natural gift and character be recognised, validated and enhanced for its gift, and not swallowed up in the noise?

I’m a secret introvert.. but that’s a good thing.

I hope I’m not a disappointment meeting me face to face

That’s something I’ve said a few times in the last few years. To the people who have read my blogs or follow me on Twitter, who then do meet me. Me, hiding behind a million words of creativity and not knowing if i live up to an expectation.It was only recently that I realised something that helped me think through all these awkward moments;November 2016 might be a significant moment for me. I couldnt say for definite how significant in the rest of the whole of my life, as i hope theres alot of other moments that happen in the rest of it.

I was delivering a talk at the Newcastle Diocese office, i blogged on it here: ‘Young people as performers of the gospel’ in which i shared with a group of youthworkers and delegates from the diocese a day of conversations on developing the space of drop ins and helping young people become performers of the gospel.It was stuff that I had just finished writing up for my MA thesis that summer.

And the first, and so far, only, time that i have communicated this in public.On one hand i was significantly under prepared. On the other I though i knew enough to be able to get my way through an afternoon session after a fairly interactive morning. So, although i got some good feedback. I still felt a little raw.

A friend who was in the room met up with me for a coffee a few weeks later. In debriefing the session they asked me whether I had considered how much of an introvert I was. Saying that they had only seen me in other situations, but when they saw me in that public space, that they identified me as being more introverted.I kind of pushed back. Me. An introvert.?That was for quiet people.

I was a youthworker, I loved conversations, i loved making myself known, i loved people.But i wasnt , and still am not, one of the crazy types. Have always been perceptive, reflective and prefer the significant conversation.. to the many conversations. In the kitchen, rather than the party.

But I pushed back, also because well, it didnt really register for me what that might mean, or help, and if it did I only thought negatively, so i didnt give it any more thought.

Ministry, youthwork was for the lively, or at least that was one space that being an introvert wasnt the place to be that in.

Also…I thought i was ok.

I thought i knew who I was, even had the audacity to publish blogs on self care for others, even try and talk about stuff like boundaries, self care and management with others.

Yet realistically, I was hiding alot.

Realistically I hadn’t really ever thought about the deep stuff.

Just thought I knew. Even now I’m only just beginning.

At the beginning of this year I met up with that friend again.

She asked me whether I had done anything about being introvert. I fessed up. Keeping up with all youthwork theory and being articulate in the knowledge stuff i really had. (Don’t accuse me of not buying a youth work book post college)But take a step and look at myself? Nope.Of course. Because she knew I was an introvert, the best thing to give an introvert is a book on being one.Its popular, it’s maybe not complete.

Quiet.. by Susan CainYet at a point in my life of significant struggle.

I devoured it.

Cover to cover with at times tears in my eyes.

Cover to cover beginning to open my eyes to look at myself.Cover to cover being ready to accept the reality of who I am.

 

But also… Cover to cover and recognise my own strengths, my own gifts, and my own power. To realise my place in the world and who I am to be able to construct and change it.

Before digging wide and providing practical reflection on what being introvert might mean in the world of youth and community work, management and leadership.

That can wait.

In a way I wanted just to share with you from me, about me and how this self discovery has been helpful. In more ways that just work.

The book helped me dispel the myths, and erradicate my own fears of what being introvert was all about, it helped me to view the changing world around and how the path of extroversion is heralded and prioritised.

It helped me realise how I think, and also how others do.

To a point.I have more to learn and dig. I have more to gain by doing so. But ignoring the me and the me when dealing with the difficult stuff was negligent on my part. Self care is one thing… becoming self aware another.

Maybe we can only truly care for ourselves when we know ourselves.Maybe I had to be ready to hear my friend. To be ready to undertake personal reflection, and for that I am thankful for the circumstances that brought me to that point.. however painful.

Oh, and maybe I’m just grateful for the friends in my life who aren’t afraid to speak and share their truth to me, knowing how much it could benefit me.

I bought the book. I confess I haven’t read it again since. But I will do.Or I’ll give it away to someone else who might need it, and benefit from it like I have. The start of a process, started from whatever age or point..

No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are. (Paulo friere)

And… being an introvert isn’t that bad, in fact, it’s better than that. Much better.If you want to hear more, and just read a book on this. here’s a ted talk

All youth ministry is local.

No matter what the denomination leaders say

No matter what the youth ministry specialists say

No matter what the seminar leaders at the latest conference says

No matter what the trainers at Christian ministries explain.

No matter what the latest generalised view in a book is

No matter what the latest research on a lost generation of young people says.

All youth ministry is local.

Youth ministry is only effective when it is in response to local needs guided by local convictions in the hands of young people. When community convictions and concerns, financial and leadership resources, theological and moral values when tied to ministry vision and passion, shape strategies for reaching young people.

All youth ministry is local.

I bet you thought I wrote this. That these are my words. I bet , probably aside from the reaching young people comment, that you thought that I have found another youth work book that fits a ground-up, community development approach to youth work, a community view of ministry.

But no.

These aren’t my words.

Well.. not quite..

These are written by an American youth ministry expert.

Really?..( I hear the 4 of you who will read this blog say…)

Yes.

When did they say this.. when did American youth ministry realise this..? … is it recent?

Well it is ‘new’… a ‘new’ direction in youth ministry.

A new direction… in 1998.

A voice of American youth ministry, going against the tide (Mark H Senter III) . Criticising the generalised view of youth ministry, cultural assumptions and may be the macdonaldisatuon of youth ministry programmes, resources and faith. Staying that. All youth ministry is local.

In 1998.

Shame books don’t get read much. Or affect the practice of youth ministry much. Shame this book didn’t even get chance to leave the RRC in 20 years.. (yes no one took it out)

So what happened in the last 20 years.. has UK youth ministry recognised this.. ? I wonder..

Of course 20 years later.

I’d go further. Beyond needs to gifts. Beyond programmes to participation. And what does local youth ministry look like… well it looks like conversations, group work and developing and emerging from what you have.

But that’s for another blog.

All youth ministry really is local. So look for the beauty, possibility and spirituality in the young people you have.

Reference.

New directions in youth ministry. 1998. Rice, Clark, eds

And I Would do anything for God..(but i wont get bored)

In his book ‘Faith Formation in a Secular Age’ (2017)  Andrew Root suggests that the biggest motivation in society, that has infected the church – especially in youth ministry , is what seems the influence of the avoidance of boredom. And in the church this looks like:

Must make this event exciting – or no one will come along

Our new youthworker must be excited and innovative (always thinking of the new)

What will make the programme lively and attractive?

We cant be doing the same songs, we must do new ones every now and then!

Young people wont be interested in coming to sunday church, they must have their own meetings

And, some of this also plays out in worship songs, using screens, countdowns and smoke machines, even in an avoidance of reading the bible or meetings (these are deemed boring).

Is Andrew Root right?

in Faith Formation he tells the following story:

‘ A famous bible scholar was meeting up with a young muscle bound man who expressed to him his deep deep love for Jesus. Judging from his passionate excitement, the professor believed the young mans commitment, so they talked about faith and the bible. When the topic of sunday worship came up, the young man explained that he rarely went, telling the professor that it had none of the adrenaline of the workouts, that ultimately Sunday worship was just too boring.

‘I thought you loved Jesus’ the professor asked

‘i do’ said the young man, and said with genuine authenticity, I really do!”

So, the professor asked, ‘do you think you would be willing to die for Jesus?’

Now more reserved, the young man said ” Yes…yes, I think i would, yes I would die for Jesus’

‘So let me get this straight, the professor continued, you are willing to die for Jesus, but not be bored for Jesus?’  (Root, A, 2017, p7)

The point that the scholar would try and make from this is that is the importance of co-orporate worship. The inconsistency of boredom vs commitment.

But Root seeks a different point in Faith Formation, because in an age where the authentic experience is sought… think not adrenaline junkies of the 1990s, but the authenticity of the farmers market/homebaked bread/real music – then in such an age, anything is deemed disingenuous if it lacked connection to the depth of subjective desires.

Therefore to be bored in an age of authenticity is not simply unfortunate or unpleasant it is to be oppressed and got rid of. if we have responsibility for our own individual journey of spiritual life then why would we consider anything boring to be worthy and part of it? if its boring our needs are unmet… arent they?

On one hand is Root right?

Well hang on just a minute. He goes on:

Because if on one hand the church’s pursuit of youthfulness (see this post  ) has created churches that are having a juvenile tantrum (Roots words not mine), then what an age of authenticity also reveals is that churches are criticised not for too much spirituality and depth, but not enough. It is as if they have somehow lost what they are meant to be. The depth of experience (found in the gym, or found travelling the world to ‘find oneself’) is not found in the church.

There are two issues here, and Im not sure even I can do both justice in the remainder of this piece. So, i will focus on the first of the two.

Has the church, in regard to youth ministry played the ‘avoiding boredom’ card far too often?  and what has been its response..

  1. Make everything louder than everything else? Ie bigger and brighter music, churches, buildings, more attractive – keep up with the entertainment
  2. Work out what it might mean when people say that they are bored of church..?

Boredom might mean actually not being involved. Boredom might mean that it is too simple. Boredom might mean that it is not challenging enough. Not that it isnt loud enough. Boredom might mean that it isnt real, or authentic enough. And what might make church authentic… authentic relationships, authentic involvement, authentic respect and faith formation, authentic opportunity to make decisions. (see my post here on developing these) So often boredom has just caused a reaction of adopt technology, adopt fun, adopt noise.

Whats strangely interesting is that the churches that have fared better over the last 50 years are those which retained something of the youth movement of 50 years ago. Possessing the spirit of youthfulness is equated to authentic, because being and staying young is exactly that. In and amongst this is a pretty non existent space for what church is or isnt actually meant to be about. But is that to be the case today? im not too sure…

The possibility of divine action is somewhat minimised for the sake of authenticity, faith is not connected to divine action but meeting in an authentic way. In short, is God more present when im not bored..?

The challenge for those of us who are involved in ministry and youth ministry is not that we cave in to calls to make churches and meetings more youthful, not to cave in to the cries of ‘young people arent going to come to church, its boring’ . The task is not to cave into church being more entertaining, for this will, or has already caused significant problems, where faith formation has almost completely been abandoned for youthfulness.

The challenge is to try and develop opportunities for ministry and gifting, usefulness and meaningfulness, not just a bigger brighter, louder, more colourful experience. If young people want that, they can get it at a coldplay concert. And that might be more authentic. For a coldplay concert does exactly what it says on the tin.

It will take a huge amount of effort to stand up in a culture that prioritised youthfulness as authentic to say hang on, lets do something meaningful, real and faithful. That might take guts to do, yet the hamster wheel of continual youthfulness is only going to have one winner. And it not faith formation, or long term discipleship. It is not experience of God, not the kingdom experiences of generosity, giftedness, gratitude and rest that permeate in church and discipleship, and ministry of the kingdom (Root, p 202) .

Making church less boring again, may well be a legitimate question. The response to it is one that will shape church for the next 50 years. Yet strategy will kill essence (Mather) , so we might as well get on and do the work of the kingdom, that looks like the ministry of God in the world. Being authentically inauthentic in a world of youthfulness. Do the essence of God.

Oh… and making church meaningful, hopeful and dangerous. A sub cultural movement of justice seekers called by God towards peace and reconciliation, generosity and gratitude. Now – who might find that boring..?

Is UK youth ministry too American, and too male?

I read with interest that Tim Gough, from the award winning youthwork hacks blog has listed his 11 most essential youth ministry books, from a collection of 113 in his study.

The list is here, 11 essential youth ministry books

What strikes me, though it’s not a surprise, is quite how influential American Christianity and youth ministry has on this list.

Theres at lest 5 of the 11 that are from American writers, though i confess a number i am not sure of. But the american influence is there.

What is equally as real to say is that are British based youth ministry writers, researchers and students, prophets without honour, in our own homeland? Though Tim mentions Pete ward and almost writes off his incarnational approach ( which cannot be out of place, as it is theologically grounded, yet has Ashton and Moon in there… wow, but Tim and I already know we disagree on ashton and moon..) – and Theres recent Pete Ward that needs to be taken seriously.

However, It might be easy to say that American Christianity has influenced youth ministry in the UK, by too far, and by too far, i mean that Doug Fields gets a mention in this list, what is of more concern, is that in a list of 113, no titles written by women make the short list of 11.

Thats 0.

So it begs the questions?

Is Youth Ministry male? Is it the all boys, old boys network? It looks that way.

It could be argued, that there are no female youth ministry writers, but thats bullshit.

It could be argued that youth ministry titles written by women dont make the grade in academia – but then academia discounts much of the male written stuff (including Doug fields too)

It could be argued that women writers arent given the publishing opportunities, or time, or encouraged to write.

It could be argued that the popular books are written by male writers, because they manage to create a machine our of their ministry and can then sell them. So thats a really great state of play.

As an addition. From the religious resources centre I was given this book today

Written in 2000. Over 30 different youth ministry leaders, leaders of various ministries, churches and organisations have 1 chapter each to make a contribution to a ‘youth ministry handbook’

Guess how many of those 30 are women?

(Answer at the bottom of this piece)

It could be that women writers dont write theological books, more ‘ministry’ books on a topic, though that hasnt stopped Doug Fields getting influence… and see above.. 30 ministry leaders got a space in that book..

Whilst great strides have been made to balance out the speakers and seminar leaders in conferences in the UK, thanks to the work of project 3;28, and where in the UK, youth ministry has been, possibly, influenced by youth work, which has tried to encourage equality, and anti-oppressive practice. But what about the leaders of UK youth ministry organisations, male or female? If there is ‘power’ who holds it…

But if books, and blogs, and writing still has some influence, then much of this is clearly still very much male orientated. And i know it. I know it, because I have few female youth ministry titles on my bookshelf (and yet i quote Kerry Young, Joan Tash, Jocelyn Bryan and Naomi Thompson, alot) – but they tend to be from a youth work perspective, rather than what i would say is youth ministry. I confess I havent bought a UK based youth ministry book written by a woman, sorry Sally Nash, Rachel Gardner, and others. I confess.

I confess the twitter shouting on UK youth ministry is fairly male. And thats me too.

Yet, put it this way, if as many books on our bookshelves were written by UK females, as they are US males, then the shape of UK youth ministry may look far different. It may look like it was birthed from a UK context with a different perspective, not american mega church evangelicalism and a context so wildly different from the UK, it isnt almost worth bothering with. And we’re streets ahead in thinking anyway. We have to be, were dealing with post christendom, and have been for ages.

But if UK youth ministry also revered its female writers, contributors, as much as it revers and looks across the pond at its male ones, then, this has to make a difference.

It could be that I am having a pop at Tim, and im trying not to, what his list reveals is the ongoing influence of a male american youth ministry perspective that still pervades, and is popular. When there are many thoughtful, reflective, articulate female youth ministers in the UK whose voice and words and ministry needs to be as well received, regarded and be shaping the dying fragments of youth ministry in the next 50 years. Maybe it will do ‘it’ good. I cant write any more on this subject. Its not my voice that needs to be heard.

The answer….. 4.