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..?

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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.

Is the problem of absent young people taken seriously enough by churches? (enough, even to read a book?)

If only there were lots of books to read that congregations and churches could read to help them think through the pressing issue of trying to attract, trying to keep, and trying to disciple young people in churches. If only there were just so many, that there would be an exhaustion of so many to choose from.

But faced with the task, no, faced with the pressing need of trying to make church, discipleship and faith real for young people – where do churches and congregations turn? Well, its not books.

Therefore it is not those who think through, and do research about young people. For study

It is not the youthworkers of the past who have written up their experiences, shared their story and reflected it in way that makes it accessible for others.

And, without having an hankering for thinking and theory – what do current practices rely on? – just experience? just the latest fashion? just with the second hand learning of others? the youthworker youre about to employ, the student who is amazing, and just hope they know what to do.

What am i getting at? Whats my problem.

Well, i wish I was surprised. Im just a bit disappointed. I thought churches cared about young people, i really wish, the desire to connect with young people, and understand their world was really like. At least try.

At least engage with actual research. Published , verified research by one of the UKs leading statisticians on church numbers and data.

This is what I am getting at.

Are churches bypassing books to read up themselves and just employing someone to get their knowledge?

But reading a book might solve a lot of hassle.. mightnt it?

The following book was given to me last week for free.

(you can buy it for 1p here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Reaching-Keeping-Tweenagers-Peter-Brierley/dp/1853211478/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=reaching+and+keepping&qid=1555273495&s=gateway&sr=8-1-spell )

I was given it free from the North East Religious resources centre (RRC), as they were having a clear out.

It was in their youth ministry and childrens ministry section, yes it is a title from 2001. But why was it given to me free?

Because it had not been taken out of the RRC for 10 years.

Actually, the last person who did did so in 2007. That is 12 years.

12 years when no one from any church congregation in the north east took out a book that detailed statistics, findings, analysis, reflections on the lives of, the thinking of, the behaviours of young people aged 8-13 in the UK. Statistics and reflections from one of the UKs leading statisticians on churches and church growth. (his website is http://www.brierleyconsultancy.co.uk)

12 years where it doesnt appear that churches really wanted to do any difficult work around young people and think through things.

It may be out of date now, but it really wasnt in 2007,8,9, 10…

12 years where something else was more important.

12 years where research about young people hasnt defined or shaped practice in regard to young people – but something else might have done.. And im not saying general research is everything, on these pages you will know that i have issues about such general research and making generalisations. But at the same time, what might it say that this kind of book hasnt featured in any thinking about youth ministry, childrens ministry in the north east for over 12 years.

Maybe it also says something about how many people know about the fabulous religious resources centre, and please do register, connect and make use of the fabulous resources. And the books. The many 1000’s of books. Almost free, with an annual fee to join…

So, when youth work books are being given away for lack of use, what is going on? – what isnt going on?

What priority does youth work actually have ? And who might actually be prepared to graft, to read, to think about it, before embarking on the long term journey of it..

Books may be out of fashion, but come on, leaving them unused, unread and not part of the process of developing youth ministry practice… really?

Im not shocked, just a bit disappointed. When a resource this good has been laying dormant. What a waste.

‘To solve the church and society’s problems; we just need to get those feral young people into church’

Or at least, that’s what we want to pay a youth worker to do.

Harsh? Or deep down is this what churches are really thinking?

Twice in the last year I have heard the word ‘feral’ used to describe groups of young people.

As many times more have I heard that getting young people into church is the only answer to solving their problems.

Forgive me for just a little over sensitivity.

But WHAT THE ACTUAL F***?

Has brexit unleashed a whole new generation of intolerant uncompassionate baby boomer/late retireds who have a compassion and humanity chip missing?

Have church leaders forgotten what love and ‘people made in the image of God’ looks like?

Has personal blame, rather than community responsibility and societies ills been sidelined?

Or is church still set in Victorian ways.. still happy to feel colonial and superior and retain this by the use of Victorian language.

So I’m bloody mad.

But if this is actually what we’re thinking as churches when it comes to working with young people, then churches and the congregations in them have got to own this.

Own that this is how they actually feel about young people. Own that working with young people is only code for ‘bringing them into church’. Own that they are scared and frightened of young people, and where these feeling originate. Often from the media, and when powerful leaders in churches use negative stories of the world outside and young people’s actions. Own it and be honest. Own it and challenge i. Own it and be collectively self aware.

I just don’t think the problem is with young people.

It’s with us.

It’s with the us who know better

It’s with the us who still believe

It’s with the us who hope that change is possible

It’s with us if we have any desire to realise that God’s love is inclusive.

It’s our problem. It’s our problem as church if this is our starting point. Or what we actually mean, but try and hide it.

It’s our problem if we believe some young people are worth more in the kingdom of God than others.

It’s our problem if the culture of church favours the behaved. Or people only like us.

It’s these expectations that cause challenges with employing youthworkers. But if it’s out in the open. We have to own it.

I may be critical and angry. But this is also heartfelt passion.

‘Sorry and We have got it wrong’ have to be the starting point. We will not provide reconciling spaces if we’ve already judged.

Whole communities do need restoring, encouraging, loving, understanding and being present in.

Those feral young people might be the key.

Those feral young people have had their life opportunities restricted by austerity policies that weren’t their fault.

Those feral young people are angry. Those feral young people need compassion not criticism.

Those feral young people are creative, determined, passionate and resourceful, and God is provoking us through them. They are the visionaries a dying church needs.

Those feral young people, and not other, they are not scum.

Those feral young people… are not other, they are us.

Maybe we do need to understand before were understood.

Maybe hearts need breaking first. Ours.

Maybe anger is a good thing.

God, please one day might there be a church where ‘those’ young people are welcome, understood, loved and cherished. And I hope it is in my lifetime and I am able to play a part in it happening.

And I haven’t started on the ‘getting them into church bit..’…

In church attendance statistics; should there be an ‘away goals count double rule? ‘

Not for the first time I find myself pondering a football and faith crossover piece. In the past I have written about a youth worker transfer deadline day, and also thinking about the theatre of football as a performance.

This time I’m heading to the slightly sensitive area of church attendance and growth statistics.

But first, a reminder, for those of you who aren’t sport inclined, what the ‘away goals count double rule’ actually is. It’s particularly relevant today on the day of the UEFA champions league quarter final draw.

The logic of the rule (And I’m not going to give you the official line) is that in some football competitions, mostly games where teams play other teams from a different country, there has always been and will be a home advantage. The home team don’t have to travel, they play in their own stadium on a pitch with dimensions they know, with all their home fans, their dressing room etc etc. It has long been recognised then that an away team (especially after long distance travel) is at a disadvantage.

Further details of this can be found here BBC article

For this reason, where a two game the is level on goals, any away goals scored by either team count as double. Their value is worth more. 1 goal counts as 2.

An additional meaning is attached to the number.

It crosses my mind that a similar weighting or value might be useful in thinking about church attendance, growth and mission statistics and success.

Put it this way,

The middle class already Christian family who move into the area and start going to the church might be recorded as ‘5’ on the figures.

And almost no effort might be made to find, work with or accommodate them, except being welcoming and hospitable. (Yet there are many churches/parishes where this is an unlikely reality)

The same 5 might be said for the family who start attending who have become known to the church via the foodbank. And whilst the same hospitality is recognised and evident, the effort and investment required might be more intensive.

If young people are really anti church and a youth worker has been employed- do the 5 young people who start attending chug h, also going as 5?

We may have real incentive as churches to do mission, youth work and community work in our churches, parishes and deaneries. But it might be as equally said that results by numbers might only implicitly cause churches to go for the ‘easier’ groups.

‘If we can get 1 of our friends to come along’

‘If we can attract a few Christians to come along by changing our service’

And that’s not to in any way suggest that this is easy. Not at all.

But if homeless people from hartlepool are made to feel welcome and attend because of years of effort changing a culture in a church to be more inclusive.. Then that ‘5’ of them has to represent and mean something more..

It might take 10 fold extra effort to encourage hard to reach groups (to be welcome in a church that often implicitly excluded) , and yet they’re counted as just 1.

It’s far easier if there’s a numbers game to go for the assessed easiest. It would almost be change in culture to intentionally advocate mission to and with the leastest in society.

So could ‘away goals count double?’ Or triple, or even ten fold?

I don’t mean to sound trite, or to try to dismiss the value of persons as numbers, the reality is that this already happens. I’m just highlighting the inadequacy of a numbers orientated system for measuring growth and attendance.

If there was church plant in Hendon, or Burbank, or moss side or fairfields, tulloch or the east end, shouldn’t a church plant of 10 people who became indigenous leaders have higher meaning and value than a church plant where 20 already Christians turned up because they liked the new worship style?

Just a thought.. what would church planting amongst the least communities and areas shafted by successive governnents be measured and justified ? If at all? But maybe not on the same measures of middle class suburbia who shape policy and expectation..

What might a good church look like, rather than a successful one, of a faithfully loving one in such a community. Why would that one need to be measured by numbers at all? And if so, could they count double?

Every new persons or families attending churches takes effort, agreed, but shouldt the extra resources required for the least likely, unchurched, abandoned by churcv/society, but warranted extra value..?

Just a thought…

What Role do you want young people to have in church?

For the majority of churches, the idea of having any young people being part of the church is a bit of a luxury. The task for many is to find them, attract them, and often this task has seemed to have fallen to the ‘christian organisation’ such as YFC, YMCA or FYT – the challenge where this happens is how the integration from organisation to church occurs.

But thats not the subject of this piece. I raised the question about the role that young people play in the church in a piece last year (here is this piece) , a piece that since April has been read by at least 10 people worldwide per day since. The role of young people in church is clearly crucial and something widely needing a discussion on.

So, what about progressing the conversation on a bit:

If its one thing to state ‘What current role do young people play?’ – and consider how passive, consuming, entertained they might be – the progressing question is :

What Role do you want young people to have in the church?

Because there is no point just assessing what kind of role they currently have, its what kind of role those who work with them want them to have, and how this might happen is key. So, this is yet another piece on young peoples participation. So, it might be worth thinking through why participation is important, and what might need to change, from the point of view of the cultural norms of church, of youth leadership and the perception of young people in the church which proceeds the development of their role. I have written before (and so have others) about the various historical perceptions of young people in churches, that needs to be changed in order that participation is increased. From the social rescue of the 1800’s, to the ‘protection and safety’ and creation of alternative culture youth ministry subsequent to the 1960’s. Throughout it all, there remains a high expectation of young people being involved in church to ‘learn’. Nick Shepherd in ‘Faith Generation (2016) suggests that shifting culture from learning to deciding is key. And I agree.

But why is increasing participation required?

On one hand, Theologically, participation is core to faith and the gospel itself. But I dont think I need to expand this here. Just look up ‘Bible Gateway’ and search participate or participation. And where there are no references, think about how God involves humans in the task of his mission, or loving and caring for the world, and developing the work of the church. Participation, and increasing it is core.

I want to look at this from a psychological basis as well. The psychologists Deci and Ryan have suggested that all of us are motivated by, and seek out continued spaces in which they feel they have:

  • Connection/Belonging
  • Competence
  • Autonomy

And, to be reasonable, developing relationships has been one of the key principles of youth ministry over the last 30 years. It may be something that still needs work, but ask a whole load of young people who have had the same leaders for more than 3-4 years, and they will remark on the depth of friendship and the value of them. Developing connections and relationships is undoubtedly key. From a young persons point of view – they will also be seeking out opportunities to create and have these connections – its worth bearing this in mind.

The second of these things is competence. It can take a number of facets, but essentially, being good at something, being confident in it and then also receiving the feedback for it. So think about it – in what ways do young people ‘do’ something in the church, that they can be praised for – that is quite meaningful? Colouring in a picture and showing it, really isnt competence inducing for a 12yr old. (especially when they’ve been in a committee in primary school)

The third is Autonomy. Which on the face of it might infer that they want to be independent, and this is partly correct, but it is a sense that they have responsibility and possibility to make decisions on aspects of things that directly affect them, having influence in the important. So – what about the youth group, or the church that young people might be important that young people could or should have influence over? Well if theyre an integral part of the church, then i might suggest almost everything. Only having a say in whether to play table tennis or indoor football may be a start, but its barely an important one. Chap Clark (Adoptive church, 2018) suggest that young people could have a say in the content or subject matter of the sermons in church. Maybe with that level of participation, young people might invest in church further. With a direct line to my youth pastor as a tennager, the youth group would make some suggestions to him, back in the 1990’s. It was great to hear on a sunday what he knew we thought was important. And not be patronised or ignored.

Think about all the aspects of the youth group, or the aspect of church – what role do you want each of the young people to play?

What might you need to do to open up the space so they can? challenge barriers? challenge assumptions? create spaces where young peoples voice can be heard? (and this not be a one off) If any church is serious about young people being more than token, more than passive consumers, then as adults, youth leaders and volunteers our role is to create the space, it is also to provide the support for developing the risk taking.

As a reminder, here is Roger Harts ladder of youth participation, which helps to give the rungs and grades of participation for young people.

Image result for youth participation

It might be said then, that increasing young people’s participation isnt just a nice to do – its actually what they need. Beyond connection, competence and autonomy are shot through the participation ladders higher rungs, decision making, doing stuff, creating things, taking risks – all deeply connected to a young persons needs (whether they know it or not).

Naturally, there are some areas in a youth group in which young people can have more participation than others (the games rather than the faith content..often) – it can also be said that some young people are more likely to be given roles than others – its usually the:

  • ones with the leadership potential
  • Right gender, race or ability…
  • extroverts
  • the oldest
  • the loudest
  • those known the longest
  • the most well behaved.

But what about the others? might a church be setting itself up to be accused of favouring the strongest (rather than the less visible) for participation, – is this theological ? After all – who did Jesus prefer. The irony is that ones who are likely to have participation opportunities in church, are as likely to be those who have them in school. So – the least get left out twice. The opportunities for participation might need to be adapted to the persons in the group. fancy that.

So – what kind of role do you want young people to have in their local church? or their youth group?

You might be content with them only having a token role in the life of the whole church, then dont be surprised if they only seem to have a token faith, or a token investment back. ‘The more we invest in young people the more they are likely to invest in their faith’ is a paraphrase from Christian Smith seminal 2003 book. Do you, does the church have increased and full participation as a main aim – but what kind of participation is actually possible for the 11 year old or 14yr old?

If you want young people to stay, and children beyond messy church and sunday school – then increasing participation in the local church is crucial. Its almost the only way. Its why when they have experienced it, ‘just going’ to a ‘event or festival’ might seem boring in comparison. Its participation free.

Without participation young people might get bored. And thats not because they need greater entertainment, its that they need greater respect and involvement. Relationship, Competance and Autonomy – might churches, and youth groups be places where these deep needs of young people are met? They might only be met through increasing participation. So – what role do you want them to play in the faith community? – what role do they want?

References:

Joined up – Danny Brierley, 2003 ( a chapter on participation)

Human Being, Bryan, Jocelyn, 2016 – On personal motivation/goals and a consideration of Deci and Ryan.

Adoptive Church, Chap Clark, 2018

Faith Generation, Nick Shepherd, 2016

Soul Searching, 2003, Christian Smith/ Denton

The following Anvil Journal has pieces on Participation and Empowerment – might be worth a read.

Are youth ministry books all saying the same thing?

The last 4 books I have read on youth ministry have started sounding like a bit of a

Image result for broken record

or reading them, has been like

Image result for groundhog day

its as if there is nothing new under the sun, or maybe with a twist that:

Image result for nothing new under the sun

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few summary thoughts from the chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

43. Ask young people to write a new parable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas for future youthwork for the ‘Indoor generation’

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?

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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…

If you have any suggestions – do put them below:

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