Getting young people into church? – Thats the whole church’s responsibility  

Last week I was reading Naomi Thompsons excellent new book,. Young People and Church Since 1900. A review of the book is on this site (see recent posts or link to it is here: If you didnt see the review, then one of the activities of the church that Thompson brings conclusions from is that of the Sunday schools, and christian youth work. But this post neednt be just Sunday School or Youth work.

One of the things that is frequently said of any church activity is – how does the activity encourage people to ‘come on a Sunday’? Often it is the church whom make this statement, in order to justify or validate an activity. It also seems to be the most prevalent national conversation in regard to ‘church growth’ ‘attendance’ and the secularisation debate, and there was statistics produced last week which were widely shared in the national media. However, the church can be its own worst enemy.

I used to have a pair of socks which said : ‘Alcohol: The Cause and Solution to most of the worlds problems’ – As Said by the great philosopher Homer Simpson. In regard to church growth, it might read: ‘Church; The Cause and Solution to doing Gods mission in the world’. For on one hand the church has been at the forefront of developing approaches to connecting with people outside the church, and they can be listed off, from toddler groups, youth groups, sunday schools, lunch clubs and there are many others.

In the midst of all the ‘doing’ there can be an unspoken expectation that this activity will help people ‘find faith’ , or ‘give them an opportunity’ or be a ‘stepping stone for persons coming to church’ – even if something might be for good in itself, an implicit finding faith is often apparent.

In the process of developing all of these activities, tons, tons, of resources are produced. People are trained, ministries have professionalised, universalised, and become ministries that those involved in them might be protective of.

However, it is not better training for youthworkers, sunday school leaders, or toddler group leaders that is needed. The issue in the church is not the quality of the materials, the issue is the quality of the relationships. In particular how the whole church becomes involved in the specific ministry, or the specific activity. Think of it this way, in 1870 2,000,000 children in the UK attended sunday schools. But only 2% of those children attended church as a result. Why? – because they had Christian parents, or could be linked into the services. is that not something of a tragedy – of missed opportunity? 

In 1960’s, when Sunday schools were on the wane. Ideas were hatched, that did not become mainstays to encourage The Whole Church  to be more integrated in the life of the attenders of Sunday school, what happened instead was that sunday schools moved to ‘church time’ and 80% young people left as a result. (though the ‘church success rate only increased to 5%). But even in the 1960s, there was a recognition that activities that occured at a different time to sunday church, needed more involvement in them by church people, as any ministry needed relationships to form. Or, that people in churches needed to be more active in the ministry in some way.

Fast forward 50 years. What has happened since the 1960’s?

Youth work is done by the select few, by the trained, – but how are ‘whole churches’ involved? 

Initiatives like ‘Alpha’ create tons of interest in the late 1990’s – but if church wanted this to be the silver bullet for attendance – how successful was it? 

Then theres all the toddler groups, Messy church families, and every other week day activity.

Churches might want these activities to lead to ‘church attendance’ but how is the whole church active in the whole activity? What is the church doing about it?  Opening up and ‘using the building’ isnt enough.

The direction of responsibility for ‘getting people into church’ has felt as though this has been the ministry leaders, so- for example – it is the sunday school or youth leaders – but shouldnt that be ‘two-way’? So – Youth leaders have had more training, more resources, more professionalism, more books, articles, learning, methods, approaches.

Yet – how much time has been spent educating the whole congregation that they have responsibility to the task of connecting with and developing links with children, young people and their families?

So, not only have churches stood accused of strategising ministries that have led to the abandonment of children and young people in communities, but – even when churches have got the opportunities to make positive social and relationship connections with people involved in ministries already going on- this has been lacking.

It might take a whole village to raise a child. It’ll take a whole church to respond to the churches need to deepen connections with people. If churches expect ‘sunday attendance’ without being part of the solution (not just creating opportunity) then it is expecting only a few to make that possible. The whole church has to be involved in messy church, in youth ministry – and it is that direction that change is needed.

The condition of the church is such at the moment, that it has got no choice but to do everything possible to make positive, purposeful connections with those it has created welcoming spaces for. It is relationships with the whole church that the whole church will benefit.

A few ideas to start off – how does the whole church get involved in (for example) Youth Ministry? (toddlers or other activities might engender different ideas)

a) confidentially – voice the needs of young people in prayer times

b) Develop mentoring/adoption schemes between young people/families- a few are happening, but only a few..

c) Have ‘open nights’ at the youth group – where parents, and church people can come and visit and see what happens ( church people use this opportunity)

d) Church people need to go to events/fundraisers that the young people put on

e) restrict the moaning about chairs, tidiness, all of that. it All adds unnecessary tension.

f) Are there ‘good things’ the church congregation can do for the youth groups? thinking of you cards during exam time, or other equivalents.

These are only a few suggestions, but….

Regardless, none of these should be seen as strategic, or certainties, but if a congregation does nothing but moan about young people, and expect just a few committed people to ‘look after the young people’ then is this fostering community- a healthy community that a young person might want to be part of. They’ll spot tension and disingenuity a mile off.

Ok, so if ‘getting young people to attend church’ isnt the main thing – then great – but when it is, church as a whole has to do more. Just funding a youth worker, or giving the young people a budget to do activities says something about how much it values them, and values their own process of being involved in it. Of course, the other thing is that discipleship and faith might need to bypass sunday church altogether, if it is such an unwelcoming place. Yet faith is being cultivated via conversations in midweek ministries. Then theres a different form of pioneering to be done… If the whole church isnt involved in the people of the ministries, then it might be a better option. Prepare people for confirmations and baptisms during mums and toddlers anyone?

It isnt Youthworkers that need more training to push young people into church – it is the church that needs to be educated in making the most of the opportunities already being presented to it, and create a culture where the whole church is responsible for everyone who is being connected with through its activities. Yes it requires work, but the church has agency and responsibility in making changes to cause this to happen. But who said the activities of faith, and discipleship were easy anyway….


Where is Jesus in your practice? & 9 other difficult questions to reflect on in Youth Ministry

At the beginning of the week, I wrote probably my most dull, but most important article. No witty banter, ironic title or clickbaity picture. It one reason no one read it. Also it is summer holidays and so no one is really wanting to read a reflection on, well, reflection. In that piece I asked the question ‘‘Where has reflective practice gone in youth Ministry?’ and click on the link to give it a read. Warning it is a little long, but could be of profound help in your youth ministry practice.

This is a follow up to that one, where that suggested that reflective practice was needed more in youth ministry – in this one I put out there a number of questions that might help you reflect in your ongoing youth ministry, for you as a worker, team or volunteers or even more so, for the young people themselves.

The first one is taken from Andrew Roots book, Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry; it is 

Where is Jesus in your Youth Ministry? 

How might Jesus be ‘with’, be ‘for’ , be ‘against’ what your youth ministry is all about? Is Jesus a thing to be learned, an experience, a Spirit, a mystery or an activity far more predictable. Is Jesus in the persons present, or the persons absent, in the interactions and in the silence.

What am i learning about the young people? 

The ongoing learning in youth ministy isnt one-way. We as leaders and volunteers need to stop an be open to learn about, learn from and learn with the young people. So, it is worth asking – what are we learning about the young people – especially whilst we are with them in conversation. It might also be that conversation is the space of ideas. (stop press!) It might be that they have gifts, resources, and character that needs to be identified and not wasted in the life of the group, church or local community. When i say ‘might be’ i mean ‘will be’.

How will I recognise Faith?

More than just crying at the end of a worship session, think about how faith might be evident or found within your youth ministry practice over the next year, because if you start looking for faith in a variety of ways, then its likely that you will create spaces so that young people to show this, and that this will be what is found. It may involve young people leading, asking questions, taking responsibility – it may also be young people being disruptive and challenging, or young people getting passionate about social justice, or keen to learn more that a God -slot wont suffice. All indicators of desire for more, and desire that faith is important.

What Questions will i ask at the end of each session with young people? 

Ok, its a bit ‘meta’ asking a question about asking a question. But it is needed. You are the only person in your situation, in your church, with the young people you have. So, you are the right person to work out what would be appropriate reflective questions to ask in your team at the end of the session. The stuff that you put down on the review form ( i hope you do one) . The reason that these questions are important? – they embed behaviour. If you ask at the end of the session ‘did the young people enjoy the activity’ then our focus will be on ensuring young peoples enjoyment, which is fine, but it can be a continual spiral of meeting interests and keeping them happy. If you ask ‘did we have any conversations’ then the focus is on how your team connected in the space with young people – this becomes the driving force. So what you decide to ask is important, and worth spending time reflecting on.

Am i creating the right kind of space for healthy youth ministry?

What makes your youth ministry a ‘healthy space’?  are young people free to have questions, promote ideas and suggestions? are they able to explore dangerous topics (see, the latest issue of youth& childrens work magazine for a few to reflect on  )  Aside from the controversies, (though they are important) – If youth ministry is all about relationships and conversation , and not just relationships and conversation as a strategy for ministry, it is ministry ( Pete Ward, 1997) – then a healthy space is needed for conversations to be honed, created and nurtured. A space that had social boundaries, that accepts contributions, gives equality to voices, and allows for different spaces of conversation. From the conversation when a young person makes their own tea (if they’re allowed in the kitchen), to the conversation sitting at the edge of the hall when there a sports game, to the provocative one in the ‘teaching’ or learning activity. A healthy youth ministry is where young people feel safe in conversations, and it is in conversations where safety is possible. It isnt the building or what it stands for.

Is my youth ministry challenging enough?

In a post a while ago, What young people want in a church?  Research was done that showed that in 1400 churches in the USA, that for 15 year olds, the thing that kept them in the church was that it was a healthy space, and that it was a place of meaningful challenge – young people in effect said that church was a place that needed to mean something to them. What if tasking young people with the challenges of costly discipleship was actually attractive? ie it causes them to take risks, take a stand, create spaces of hope in the world, give, share and love their enemies. – more than a moral code of behaviour… So – what about making youth ministry challenging? And creating a culture where challenging, risk and helping young people use their minds, to learn, and also be given tools to explore further – rather than be ‘given’ answers. Young people will only be given space to develop challenges if we ourselves as leaders continually learn and be challenged. So – how are you going to develop in your own thinking/learning this year too?  any theology/youth work books needing to be added to your actual reading ? (not just the bookshelf so they look pretty)

In what way does the youth ministry enable young people to become learners who create & perform?

Young peope, like us will not possibly learn everything. So theres no point waiting until that magic moment happens so that they ‘are ready’ to act or perform. If they have the idea, or desire or given space to create opportunities, such s those above, then young people also need space to create and perform. Beyond what theyre told they can do. Imagine how they might run the church website… or the media channel, or develop a community resource, or serve the local community, or write to their MP about an injustice… They need leaders who say ‘you can’ – and provide resources and space. And if you give young people space to develop their own, then its likely that as a church you will keep them in the space. Become facilitators, as part of leading. Still lead, just change style. Young people will only stay consumers of the product of your youth ministry for so long. It is not their fault it hasnt changed as their needs for it to change have occurred.

How am I going to look after myself this year?

This is tough work, especially if you do this as a volunteer, have family, full time job and also try and have a social life. It is tough if youth ministry is full time. So, looking after yourself and sustaining yourself is important. Make sure that if you do give yourself the odd evening off the rota that it is used to sustain yourself and sharpen the sword. Keep a hobby going that is distracting. Do exercise. Experience faith from a different perspective and learn in the space. Keep learning. And take time off. And not forgetting how your own faith is to be honed in the ongoing.

How will i avoid classic youth ministry temptations? 

Like Joseph – run away from the unhealthy stuff of ministry or challenge it head on – like the ‘comparison’ game, the ‘numbers game’ ‘ the success game’ and the ‘growth game’ – all take away from the value of the young people in your group, in your space with which you have been given to do ministry. Your young people are unique, and what you do with them is create memories, and opportunities for them to enact goodness in the world. Nothing else. They’re not your success story, or to be used as a trophy to display on your travels. But also avoid comparing yourself to others, and this goes for ministers too…  there is also the ‘safety game’ – in which you have to fight against the role you have in making the young people ‘moral conforming citizens’ which is often what the parents think your role is. Its been the watchword for youth ministry for decades.

What do I hope for young people by the end of this academic year? 

We all know youth ministry is about to start again after the summer. But if you had a hope for the young people you have interactions with- what would it be – and what would it look like for each of them individually – the young people in school, after school clubs and churches. They wont all make it to a universal point, but could you dream something for them, hope and desire something for them, to help? maybe its to harness one of their gifts? maybe it is that they ask questions? maybe it is that they challenge us? maybe it is that they desire to explore further? Yes it might be about ‘following Jesus’ – but what might that mean in your context so its a challenge?  So what would you realistically dream for, and dream with your young people from this term..? What about for young people you dont know yet…?

None of this is easy to reflect on, but doing real life, proper ministry with people is difficult, the fact that the people you do ministry with are under 18 (probably) , is no way to think of it as any less valued (even if there is still that tendency in some churches) . If we value the young people in our churches, then they deserve it of us that we think deeply and meaningfully about our practices, about their faith, and about how we form them in the place of the world. So 10 questions to get you thinking about the practice of youth ministry – to begin and continue reflecting on throughout your ministry.


Youth Ministry stuck in a rut? try this resource, reflective practice (Part 1)

Its the new academic term, and my guess is that you’re beginning to think about developing new programmes, topics and activities for youth work for the new term. Excited much? probably, tired of the same old ideas and need a spark? possibly. You could pick a resource off the shelf, like every year. However, why not do something different, why not try developing reflective practice instead?

This is the first part of two, maybe three, posts on developing reflective practice in youth ministry. For the simple reason that i have a feeling it is something that is given lip service at best in practices of youth ministry.

Yet, Characteristic of all courses in youth & community work is the ongoing prerogative to get into the habit of reflective practice. There are rumours that go around that students pick courses on the least frequent reflective forms that need to be submitted. Yes its that popular, usually. especially as many students are die hard activists.

However as Characteristically, many many conferences that appeal to volunteers, student and non academic youth work/ministry people is the lack of any time devoted to reflective practice. Seminars are on action, programmes, experts appealing on behalf of their chosen ministry, or ethical subjects like lgbt, diversity and gender, which in themselves are all perfectly good and needed. But ‘developing reflective practice’ as a seminar topic at a youth ministry conference? maybe the odd one, and is it ever well attended? Something this important requires more than lip service.

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But as a volunteer, as someone who attends youth work conferences to get some training and refresh skill or get some new resources – when was the last time you had the option to go to a seminar on ‘developing reflective practice’ ?  when was this a tool or resource in your youth ministry ‘kit bag’? 

There might clearly then be a gap. 

The gap might clearly be felt when the new youthworker turns up at the local church group or youth project and suggests that all the volunteers start filling in ‘review forms’.

or when the professional youthworker suggests that in regular supervision that a volunteer ‘reflects on the situation’ – and theres a blank response back from the other side of the desk.

Up until now the volunteers had got on with what they needed to do. Up until now the youth worker had possibly presumed that facilitating reflective practice would be welcomed with open arms.

However, often ‘reflective practice’ is not always part of the culture of the church in which the settings of youth ministry occur. And without it being featured at conferences, in youth work magazine – where else might volunteers begin a process of this- with personal external help.


Image result for reflective practice

The question is ‘ whatever happened to reflective practice?’ 

If the concept of reflective practice is something new to you, then I am afraid I’m not going to write a long piece to educate on what it is.

Instead here are a few links for you to explore yourself, developing your own knowledge and resources on reflective practice:

A beginning page on reflective practice, for you then to explore further is here:  This is on the excellent encyclopaedia of informal education site ( In the piece i link to there is a discussion on reflection in action, and reflection on action. It is worth looking at the difference.

Grove books have produced a couple of dedicated pamphlets on reflective practice. which are here.

Theres also brief descriptions of some of the key aspects of reflective practice and professional development in their ‘Ten essential concepts for Christian youth work’

And, whilst there are only a few dedicated books on the subject, what you will find is that many core titles on youthwork, informal education, supervision have reflective practice embedded within them.

The problem with this is that for many of us, we want something instant and a ‘how to do reflective practice without having to work at trying to find the resources to do it’. It is also faitrly evident that it feels like in youth ministry we are borrowing from other disciplines like education or social work, and ‘borrowing’ from other disciplines seems wrong, if its not in the bible, then why do we need to do it?

Of course, the other thing about developing reflective practice, is that it is counter cultural, it challenges the way of the thinking & acting already established in the culture of the church, in the organisation, and even, sometimes in the vague overarching umbrella that is ‘youth ministry’. Stopping to think, ask questions, might be provocative. It is so much better to just keep the ‘hamsters on the wheel’ and if the hamsters fall off, well its only their own fault. Just get on a different wheel. That the wheel is faulty…

On one hand, doing reflective practice is part of who we are. We make interpretations of all the information around us all the time. As the philosopher Paul Ricouer argues, we are interpretative beings. So on one hand we are making assessments and reflecting all the time. We will have some intuition during the time that something isnt right, something is, or that there is something under the surface that needs pinning down. So, to talk about ‘reflective practice’ is only, on one hand to give space for these questions and scenarios to get an airing, as they are thought during the time spent with young people.

Reflective practice done badly, it to reduce it to scientific pragmatism, and reduce the practice of youth ministry to ‘sessions’ , ‘activities’ and ‘programmes’.  It will become a consultation exercise for volunteers on the ‘programme’ on the ‘activities’ – and this leads to questions like ‘ what do you think the young people enjoyed’ or ‘what went well’. It can lead to merely endorsing the leaders. And it is worth reflecting here on the power dynamic of the lead youthworker leading times of reflection on sessions of youthwork that they have themselves been involved in. Dare a volunteer speak up? Power within the room is worth reflecting on.

This can happen when there is no flexibility for the reflection to make any difference, the culture, style and nature of a programme is set, so reflection merely acts to conform volunteers to the way of thinking within the practice. At worst. This rigidity is the main inhibility for nursing, teaching and possibly social work to develop reflective practice. even if its recommended as such, the main issue is that the market drives practice. It is not from the ground up with practitioners.

My next post will provide a few helpful hints for developing meaningful reflective practice in youth ministry. The remainder of this one will suggest 6 reasons why reflective practice is needed in faith based youth ministry.

  1. Reflective practice acknowledges that we are on a similar learning process that young people are. Although we might want to define ourselves as ‘leaders’ or ‘ministers’ we are also ‘disciples’ and ‘learners’ too.  Imagining what we ‘do’ in youth ministry is a ‘performance’ then we also need to cultivate space to ‘form’ as actors. We ourselves are on a process of similar formation, even an old dog has to learn new tricks. Youth ministry might seek relevancy, but it is only in the specifics of the young people that we are connecting with that we can be truly relevant, learning of their culture, needs and interests, groups and social dynamics. In youth ministry we need to be open to learn and reflect in the context we are in and maintain this.
  2. Reflective practice helps us to stop and recharge ourselves. It validates that youth ministry practice is not just about activity, it is about education, about thinking and learning. And that needs spaces in conversation to be cultivated. Time for us to splurge out stuff thats on our minds. It helps identify training needs, gaps, opportunities, and also with building a team out of ourselves as we reflect together.
  3. Reflective practice might help us develop new ways of practice, through new ways of being. We might spot things, acknowledge needs and gifts of young people and adapt accordingly. It isnt always about change, but it might be part of it.
  4. Are you seriously telling me that Jesus didnt do reflective practice?  For a good amount of time, what might have Jesus and the disciples talked about on the roads, in the upper rooms, in the fields – we only get a snapshot. Helping the disciples to learn from the parables, helping them develop similar ways of ministry would have required asking questions, thinking about experiences, and developing other ways of being.
  5. If reflection is part of our being, and we believe that we are created in the image of God, then we need to attend to the space where our imagination, where our questioning being, where our interpretations get an airing. In the same way we create interesting spaces in working with young people to help them learn, we also create suitable spaces of reflection in youth ministry for ourselves to reflect in an appropriate way. God might be speaking to us through the conversation with young people, and this needs space. We should expect God to be speaking to us all the time. Reflection gives us space to collectively acknowledge this, share it and discern.
  6. If poor reflective practice is to focus on ‘the tasks’ – then developing Theological reflective practice is in order. I will expand this in a later piece this week. However, if we’re serious about theological reflective practice, and also enabling youth ministry to be actions that reflect God, his mission and the faith we hold to, then the question will be less:

how do we make this activity even more exciting so that young people tell their friends?

and more

What is the Mission of God, and how do i embody Jesus’ call to minister to ‘the least of these’ in this work with young people? 

Where do young people encounter God in our youth ministry? 

If Jesus is here, what role is he playing in the action? 

Good theological reflection prompts us to start with our Theology. The God we shape in our own image can always be fitted into our own practice. And that goes for ‘just praying’ about something. It doesnt make it theological, just becomes an abuse of power.  If you’re serious about Thinking Theologically about youth ministry then try these books, theyre not cheap, and the questions within them are similarly not cheap or easy either. Product Details

Without giving time to reflect, and do this outside of the power structures of organisations, of churches, where we need to distance ourselves from ‘outcomes’, ‘power’ and ‘money’ then we might miss the glorious riches of God speaking to us through reflection, our imaginations and young peoples intertwining on something amazing, on developing practices that embody Gods call for us in the world.

The alternative is the hamster wheel.

Whatever happened to reflective practice in youth ministry?  

Its probably worth reflecting on, and make time, in our new season of youth ministry, starting in August and September, to give it priority.


Why outcomes in youth ministry exclude the poor

Yesterday i wrote a lengthy piece on why it isnt new that the church has abandoned the poor, because youth ministry has struggled with working with young people deemed ‘underclass’ , ‘poor’ or disruptive/challenging, ever since the dawn of Sunday schools. Youth Ministry’s struggle to work with the poor Since writing it i wondered if there was a simpler way of describing the issue. And there is. It is as simple as looking at the outcomes that have deem youth ministry to be successful.

Have a think about all the measurable outcomes that are part and parcel for youth ministry over the last few years and months….

so on..

you have a go….


heres some of them…

  • Keeping the group going?
  • Growing the church?
  • Telling young people about Jesus?
  • Giving them opportunities to share faith?
  • Helping young people mature in the faith?
  • Helping young people participate in the life of the church?
  • enabling young people to be ‘university ready’?
  • Discipling young people?
  • Helping young people be good citizens?
  • Shape young people into good christian leaders
  • Teaching them and helping them be aware of issues in ‘the world’ – sex, porn, racism, ‘the media’ etc etc
  • Safety (ive done this before its here:

I bet you can think of several more.

Can anyone see the problem? 

We could make the argument that all young people are oppressed in Society, even the young people given the opportunity of private school are victims of oppression due to their age and also being part of the same targetted demographic that sees young people as a problem. But i think this is a weak argument to make in regard to young people and poverty. Thats not to say none of the young people who have the benefits of private education are not in need of faith. Again, its not the point. The point is that when it comes to taking seriously the oppression and poverty of young people in society, outcomes orientated youth ministry cause only the cream to rise to the top, and be focussed on.

For any outcome to be seen to be successful it needs to be measurable. And this involves numbers and indicators. What this means is that as a result the success of doing youth ministry is based on young people, groups and activities that enable the above to occur. And what becomes outcome orientated becomes focussed on.

As result, even in something as unpredictable as youth ministry, having outcomes, targets and strategies for these, causes a inevitable to turn to enabling these things to happen, in a way that might be efficient, controlling and predicatable. Its a turn to aspects of what Macdonalds has made famous in its managerial and working processes.

Turning to efficiency – will inevitably mean that working with challenging young people might be seen as a ‘waste of time’

Turning to predictability – might cause a shift to manage audiences that are less disruptive ( see previous post)

Turning to control – well if we can get away with the using similar materials year on year itll mean we know what we’re doing.

It mean that something like detached youthwork, an open youth club, chaplaincy, schools work, community work all face the axe, as they arent able to fit within such a neat organised ordered outcome system, at least not very easily. They need to be viewed as counter this culture and good for what they are, especially if they are moments of genuine interaction with young people who actually are poor. It is almost not enough to invest financially in something because it might be ‘good’ anymore.

Thats a complicated way of saying that having outcomes favours working with compliant young people.

Outcomes for youth ministry show that its a numbers game

The bums on seats argument is one that is not going to be repeated here. But Measuring church by numbers is the pastime of the church. Its new appointments within youth ministry are evangelists, and thus concerned with growing a dying church, and looking for models of growth ( again efficiency/outcomes) – not goodness.  Meeting the needs of an institution mean that a numbers game is played, and that reduces completely the value of the human existence. Empty churches and ‘praying for those not here’ dominate. Having a ‘church growth’ midset ( all business speak) , developing ‘leadership’ are all monuments from an outcome orientated agenda, one fixed more on institution that intuition and improvisation, strategy not community salvation.

But if we’re serious about church growth – we dont care who attends – just cause them to come, create an audience, put it on social media!

If we’re serious about youth ministry continuing – keep the numbers up and entertain the young people – its those who fit in..

if we’re serious about young people participating in the life of the church – then we’ll give the opportunities to those who can thrive in that setting.

If we’re serious about teaching young people – then we’ll shape the audience accordingly.

But whilst all of these outcomes are common. None reflect an awareness or desire to genuinely work in areas that might be deemed ‘hard to reach’ , ‘ working class’. Its an outcomes and numbers game that causes those to be left behind. Any numbers game causes a shift in working practices. the evidence of this is in schools who shift around at huge cost the young people who struggle. Because no one wants to invest in young people from the bottom to get to the first rung of an academic ladder, its about a-c. Its also the problem in youth ministry that has a bent towards enabling leaders – leadership looks like what the church regards as leadership, and character, wealth and influence seem to make a greater case for what this should look like. Leadership is not only mostly male, it is also mostly middle class, or post oxbridge.

None of the traditional outcomes for youth ministry have any serious attempt to recognise that the dynamics of mission within abandoned estates, with families facing food bank or debt relief looks substantially different. Outcomes focus on maintaining an institution. Being present and loving a local community, family and struggling young person is what Jesus might have us do i know what youll say, But that doesnt yield results?  **** the results.

We do what we do ‘for the least of these’. So let have youth ministry that has a heart for ‘for the least of these’ and practices that are shaped around this.

Youth minister – get over yourself, you’re not the hero!

It has gone slightly out of fashion. But it is still kicking around…

Young people need some good role models!’ 

or, ‘‘if we as youth ministers are not good role models – who else have young people got’  

And so, enter stage left. The youth Minister is called for , parachuted in from the mysterious world that is the jobs pages in Youthwork magazine. Selected through a process of refinement in an interview process and there you have it, one Superhero youthworker, come to save young people from earthly peril. You can be their Hero!

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It would be easy to blame individual local churches for perpetuating this. Often they are merely repeating the societal fears about young people and hoping, often well intentionally that someone can help young people in their local community. Though its often only the young people already known in the church that are in need of rescuing as for as churches are concerned, rescuing from being contaminated by the world. Its not often that the superhero employed by the church can get time to actually do mission (see my previous post on ‘why youth workers leave the church’= a link to it is here:

So its bad enough that local churches perpetuate the Hero status of the incoming Youthworker. However, it is as perpetuated in the ‘affiliations that could know better’ – when everyone who has ever done anything for a church is a ‘legend’, someone ‘who needs no introduction’ , and is lifted up high on a platform in order that their ministry is proudly propogated. In addition, each and every youthworker receives the same myths as above. Especially as they are going to work with ‘lost’ young people, that if ‘they’ dont rescue them, no one else can, that ‘they’ might be the only person who will ‘tell’ them about Jesus. Hero status is foisted in the youth minister or volunteer from a number of directions. The gravitational pull to be ‘hero’ with a ministry is common.

But what a let down, being a youth minister doesnt feel very heroic on a dreary wet November evening and no one turns up to youth club. It doesnt feel very heroic when the last young person left the church a year ago and none of the kids in the primary school want tickets to your holiday club. It doesnt feel very heroic printing off the church newsletter week by week because theres nothing else to do. You thought being a hero and just being around young people would help rescue them. It was meant to be all action, superhero stuff…

or, the opposite…

Your Hero status gets elevated. Young people flock around you, you walk on water in school assemblies, the kids run to you in the playground. The church promote you in the local newspaper, you are the celebrity. The expectations start getting higher and higher. And everyone knows what your job is, you have to bring the kids into the church. You’re the hero. You create out of your past, the great event that you can play guitar, juggle and preach at, AND IT IS AMAZING…and young people LOVE it. You are their hero, you are succeeding and your ego is running through the roof. And it gets better and busier and better and busier, until all of a sudden the wheel starts spinning off, one too many platforms, presentations, ministries to run, projects to up keep and the cracks start to open up. Burn out is looming being a hero is proving too much, and the wall is hit with a bang.

There is clearly a problem with Hero status youth ministry. Talk of legends of the faith is cheap. But it isnt Biblical, it isnt Theological.

In ‘Improvisation’ (2005) , Samuel Wells draws on Aristotle view of Heroes in Stories and fables such as Tolkein to say that,

  1. Heroes make decisive interventions when things are looking like they might turn out to be wrong. The saviour complex is what this is sort of known as, think Sandra Bullocks character in the film The Blindside, and there are many equivalents. The Story is from the Heroes perspective, it is Bullocks neck on the line, her journey to save the situation and change it.  The story of how the creative music and entertainment affected so many, many lives were changed by Bowie, by Prince and George Michael, they became savific heroes, their music intervened. Thats your job, Youth Minister… intervene… save… rescue…
  2. A Hero’s story is told to celebrate the virtues of a Hero. The Hero has the qualities, whether strength, resilience, determination, wisdom or courage to enable their heroism. Oh how the length of your job description and person specification….
  3. The Hero’s story, presumes that in a world of good and evil, the Hero will risk death for good in their own fight. So Tolkien’s Aragon for instance, or the valiance of the Disney Prince charmings to fight the evil power to reclaim not only goodness but also the trapped or tortured princess. They risk it all for the fight. you hero, going without food or sleep for three days on a residential. (when i say food, i mean showers)
  4. In the Hero’s story, when things go wrong, they can put it all right again, yet their flaws and failings also turn a story heading for tragedy into a fatal disaster  It is ok that Sully can redeem the situation in the Plane heading out of the airport as it hit flying birds and lost control, he is the hero who saved many lives by landing the plane in the waters (see the Film Sully) -but what if even he, the supposed hero wasnt able to cope with the situation, would blind panic turned that moment into even more of a tragedy..
  5. The Hero stands alone in the world. They are the put alone on the stage, and held aloft by the community by their creative excellence or virtue, the decisiveness of their action – or to have the simple right to have their story told. As Rimmer in Red dwarf ( Series 3- Marooned) was quick to say, History is written by the winners, the survivors, those with the power to narrate it – in effect the authors.

However, the Biblical Story is not about Human Heroes. We mistakenly give Abraham, Moses and Mary heroic status. They were no more heroic than Tom Hanks Character Sully, in Miracle on the Hudson.

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Ordinary people given a glimpse of Heroic status, because of the immediacy of the task given to them, and their response.

Who is the true Hero in the Biblical story?  yup… its that right answer.

It has been said recently that the heroic status bestowed on a youth minister might only be because the church itself might think of itself as Gods hero on the earth, the principle and sole agent of goodness, love and mercy in the world. Well, if the early church had anything to go by, especially the letters to churches in revelation, it is as clear within each of these who the Hero is, whose image is to be reimagined, and dwelt upon. Anyway, if the church isnt the hero, it has merely been empowered to act out the goodness of God in the world, and witness to the story of Gods redemption. It is not the story itself. Then you as the youth minister are not the hero either.  It is good theology that helps us to know who we are in the story, and locate our true role in the story in the everyday.

Going back to Sam Wells, he suggests that instead of Hero. Our ongoing role in Gods story, toward its final conclusion, is that of Saints.

The challenge with Heroic status in the Christian faith is one of positioning not necessarily of projection. Imagine if you will the concept that Kevin Vanhoozer and NT Wright talk about, in terms of developing an overall plot structure of the Biblical narrative. Bear with me on this. But if you imagine that there are five scenes to the play, and critically, the play is Gods play. Then these five scenes might look like this:

  1. Creation
  2. Covenant with Isreal
  3. Christs incarnation, death and resurrection
  4. Church, its emergence
  5. Consummation, Revelation and Christs return.

From the Bible story, it is clear to imagine clear moments as acts of God in the ongoing events that unfold. For Vanhoozer, and Baltasar before, they use the term Theodrama, – literally the Drama of Gods actions in the world. The clue in terms of positioning is that the current status of the church, of the whole world in fact, in that it is playing out the scenes in the fourth act. Which, as Wells suggests; ‘reminds the church that it does not live in particularly significant times. The most important things have already happened, The Messiah has come, has been put to death, has been raised, and the Spirit has come’ (p57)

It is not necessary then a time for Heroes.

Even though the world might invoke hero status on its idols. A hero in the church or youth ministry is invoking the wrong sense of who they are, their role and their positioning. To invoke the wrong position might inevitably lead to heroism. To feel like having to act as creator in a situation, then the person is in act One, instead of God having done this act, there is in this a desire for independence, to rename, to discover for oneself (like Adam with the animals). Similar mistakes are made, if the Hero or we the church position ourselves in acts 2 or 3 – to assume Christ hasn’t come at all – and so we play battles of good/evil, or try and teach people lessons, or that we are being Christ as act 3, then we confuse our own role with trying to be as significant in the world as Christ was, and is.It would also be a mistake to think of ourselves in act 5 – as if the ending is set in stone, has already been determined and that our fate in inevitable on the runaway trolley in the temple of doom.

By realising that there are 5 acts of the play, not just one, and that the current position of the church in the world is act 4, then this brings both a freedom and liberation to the church, and also those who minister within it and act in mission in local communities. It leaves Christians free, in faith, to make honest mistakes. It leaves the space open for creative imagining of continuing the story, it leaves the Hero of the story to have already been played, and where God will end the drama as he sees fit. So, the role of the Christian, is then not the Hero, or the anti- hero, but the Saint.

Drawing from Aquinas, Wells describes the characteristics of the Saint, compared to the Hero:

  1. The Saint is almost invisible in the story  and certainly not the crucial character, is easily missed, quickly forgotten. In a way, Tolkeins voice seems to be through Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, yet there are times of great absence on Galdalf, certainly in the books. The Film projected Gandalf as more of a present hero. Was Gandalf the ‘saint’ ?
  2. The Saint may not have great qualities such as the Heros Valeur, – but the Saint is faithful. The Story is the saint is one of persistence and faithfulness.
  3. The Saint needs not to fight for good over evil, they know that battle is secured  the goods they have are in abundance and that matter are in unlimited supply – love, joy, peace, patience – goods which do not rise with the stock market, or need violence to protect them. The battle has already been won, yet their reward is not the Heros, who has his own, but in God’s who redeemed it all
  4. If the Saints failures are honest but go wrong, they highlight God’s greater victory. Though a failing of lesser integrity brings to the fore the receiving of Gods forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. ‘A Hero fears failure, A Saint knows only light comes through cracks’ (Wells, p 44)
  5. The Saint is never alone. They assume, demand and require community. In thinking about St Francis recently, he is rightly commended, but his work was not alone, his wife with him, and he formed community of faith as he travelled. The same for St Patrick who developed communities in Ireland. They call for a communion of the Saints, of other fellow travellers. It is noticeable that those called into key positions in the Christmas narrative are not alone; Mary shared her pregnancy joy with Elizabeth, who can also vouch for angels, and then journeys with Joseph. The Shepherds and Wise Men are both collectives. It is only Herod who stands alone.

Young people do not need you to be their hero. The church does not need you to be its hero. Jesus does not need you to be his hero. That is not your role, your responsibility or the burden you are to carry. 

You are to be a disciple. You are to be a witness. You are to help others in their performance of also being a witness and disciple. Hero might be what an expectant church or youth ministry culture might bestow on you. But hero you are not, person and human you are, saint and disciple, learner and searcher is your ongoing role. Lets also do our young people a favour and not favour those with heroic potential in them either. Theologically we should favour the weak, the quiet, the ignored and the isolated. 

Good Theology will help us as youthworkers to know our place, it may even help us to relax, chill, and look for signs and wonders of God being heroic in our communities, and not us to be his/her principle agent. We cannot do everything, we need community, to take other with us. Lone wolf youth ministry is as dangerous as Hero youth ministry.

You are not anyones hero. Be their saint instead. Have the right perspective on your role, your relationship as a disciple and then being involved in the lives of others. Gods ministry that he has given you a glimpse of (not ‘your ministry’) . The world is looking for a hero. But it isnt you.

Thinking theologically about youth ministry – does a 3 way Drama help?

Much is made of Stories in youth Ministry. Lets get it out there. Stories communicate a message through appealing to imaginations. We connect with character, with script and with narrative arc. Jesus told stories. Story telling is key in the communication of the Gospel, often stories illuminate when proposition disengages. From a theological and philosophical perspective Paul Ricoeur, the french philosopher, is credited with bringing narrative interpretation of the Biblical text into the conversation, although using narrative to understand the Biblical text goes back further.

Image result for storyWe understand story, because stories are everywhere, from Disney to Doctor Who, Breaking Bad to Big Bang, in Books, comics and magazines. Stories invoke passion, provide an empathetic outlet for us, and cause us to relax about our own circumstances for a little while, or be inspired by another.

Story comforts and settles, like the bed time story, the camp fire story or the primary school story time. They might distract, and they take us away. They are also abstract, the story is some elses, some one else has lived it, written it, and all thats being done is reading it out aloud. And no one reads a story that hasnt been finished, or do they?

The problem with story as it gives no clue. It is a pretty neutral word. It needs a descriptor, such as ‘poignant’, or ‘long’, or ‘childrens’.  If you asked me to a tell a story, i could regurgitate about my trip to tescos, my holiday in the cotswolds or about how I saved a young persons life, all might be correct as all are stories, as there was no way of gauging what king of story it would be from asking about story.

Back to youth Ministry, the Gospel story might be one that is told.

Theres many ways of doing it, some that relay its complexity better than others. And we tell a gospel story so that young people might believe it. Adopt it, and cause it to be the ideological story that they shift their personal life narrative to coordinate around. So it forms their identity. Which is great. Job done. Marvellous. And we can go home then.

But if story is just about telling, and belief is just about accepting, then what happens next? Believe in the story of God, seems to make light of participating in the ongoing mission of God. It doesnt seem much, to opt God into our story. Feels a bit, well short changed doesnt it?

In Short – we need to change the metaphor from story to drama. But not throw out the ‘story’ out with the rest of the bath water. 

Regular readers here will know a little about Theodrama ( Gods Drama) but if this is the first post you have read from me, then heres a bit of a reminder. In this post I asked the question: What does Theodrama mean in Youthwork? (and this is kind of a part 2 to this):

Various Theologians, Von Balthasar, Vanhoozer, Sam Wells, Trevor Hart and Wesley Vander lugt have proposed that the metaphor of theatre and drama is a suitable, if not vastly illustrative and informative lens to use for the Gospel, a eucatastrophe, a tragedy that brings about Good. They, and NT Wright, make the proposal that drama, rather than story is helpful.

Lets go back to basics, what Drama there is in the Biblical narrative!Image result for drama

In each moment of the Biblical narrative there is tension and drama, from Act 1 where Creation breathes life, Human made in Gods image, expulsion from the Garden

The Covenant and ongoing communication of God to Moses, Aaron and Joshua, right through to David and the prophets, Kings, and just before the arrival of the Christ, there is silence. Nothing.

Then Christ in Flesh. A life of drama, unease in his surroundings, the rabbi who asked others to follow, the leader who served, who listened, included and healed. Who voluntarily went to Jerusalem, died, and then rose. The greatest story ever told, the most dramatic of drama in 33 years.

Then emerged the church, foretold in Peter, and emerged from the Resurrection, the organisation of the disciples, yet God still spoke, prompted and gave cues for the action, from Philip on the road to Gaza, to Paul in Jerusalem, and the disciples deciding their routes. That God spoke in creation, and to Moses , as Jesus and in the church is key.

Story might mean that Gods story is finished, and that there is no intersection with ours. The metaphor of Drama, allows Jesus to play alongside, all the way. But it is not finished. It is not a 4 act play, but 5.

For the last part has yet to be played. It may have been predicted, and illustrated in the last book of the Bible, but is yet to be played. There is an immediate tension. There is a Drama in the Drama. Yet knowledge of what might be, even metaphorically in the future, is enough to give hope. As Kenda Creasy Dean says, often in Youth Ministry we have an ascension deficiency disorder. Without Future hope, the present is more anxious. Without a concept of the future, and the imagination of the future Kingdom, how might we enact hope with young people, how might they be hopeful themselves without purposeful metaphorical direction?

So, Drama helps to describe the Story. The Whole story. That bit is fairly easy, thats a framework von Baltasar created. The Biblical narrative is dramatic. The Human plays parts, God speaks and directs. Yet that is not all.

The drama above helps us locate ourselves in the story. Helps us, and young people know our place. As Sam Wells says, we are not the Hero, the church is not the hero. It is merely the vehicle and witness, the place of the saints, not to be heroic. The flawed but gatherer of community, the one who projects the action onwards, the wise sage.  (see this post for more on Heroes and Saints in the Theodrama

Drama also secondly describes the ongoing search. For the current action might take place on the Stage of the World, and we might be in the middle of participating in Gods ongoing story of redemption towards the final fifth act. But within the performances, certainty, control and consistency are often absent, instead even the search for God, in a world of distractions is dramatic itself. It is hard work even to communicate with God at times, that is drama itself. This is where story really doesnt help does it?  Story might give us the impression that discipleship is like Disney, when the reality is that it is more like a live ongoing play that takes place every day of the year with different challenges , distractions and cul-de-saqs that prevent even resting and meditating on God a challenge. So, not only is the Gospel Narrative a drama, the search for God is a drama too.

But thirdly, and maybe more importantly, Drama and Theatre appeal to our imagination, just like Story. Drama is live and present and unique – often unlike story, which may be read with different voices, or shown in different cinemas, but the story has a fixed element. Drama is open, creative and responsive. Our part might be to respond to the offers of others, or create performances for others to participate. For young people as theologians, (see previous post) it is that they are attuned, like us, to hearing and responding to God in the midst of the everyday situations, and to not perform a moral play, but a hopeful, intuitive one that loves the world. And yes, Drama rather than Story envokes performance. Story might just seem to cause God to fit into our story (and we do what we want), Drama implies that we participate in Gods and perform it, whilst still retaining human freedom. 

Theodrama is an adventure into the unknown scenes with God speaking and where we might fit ourselves into his tasks to walk humbly, love mercifully. A dangerous prophetic act of rehearsing and practicing acts of the new kingdom. Not just see where we fit God into our lives and story.

Theodrama causes us to have an imagination to see God , hear God and make a response to God in the Midst of the action.

Maybe in Youth Ministry we need an imagination shift, a metaphorical picture of God continually at work, of ourselves a humans performing along with others ( for it is not a lone performance) on the stage of the world. It is a performance that is inclusive to all to perform to the best of their formation. (Forming performers is what ill write on next). In wanting to help young people make their story connect with Gods, we might omit that they might already be performing, and how they might continue to do so. Salvation might be to hear that ongoing call.

So, some of that might make a dramatic difference for young people. Drama gives us the expectation of what discipleship is like, what the story is about and what we are tasked with doing, once we begin to participate. It is story in need of improvising and acting, with a hopeful but dramatic ending, present and past. Drama is what it is. Disney is what its not.


Hart, Vander Lugt – Theatrical Theology, 2014

Ricoeur P – Figuring the Sacred, 1995

Root, Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 2011

Von Balthasar – Theo Drama – the Prolegamma, 1980

Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Vander Lugt  Living Theodrama, 2014

Wells, Samuel,  Improvisation, 2004




What if young people are viewed as Theologians?

When it comes down to it, language is a powerful tool. How the church, amongst other organisations constructs practices and policies is often due to the implications caused by the descriptive language of people, from disabled people ( people with a disability, thus need ‘special help’ to be ‘able’), people deemed poor, or specifically Young people. In a previous post here: I critique the more common language descriptors that young people seem to have inherited in churches, these include ‘learners’, the ‘not there yet’ and the ‘deficit’ or ‘development’ theories. I conclude in that piece that young people should be considered as Saints in the present church, not only heroes and leaders for the future one.

What descriptors like ‘anti- social’ or ‘adolescent’ do is provide the church and youth ministry with a whole host of descriptors or views of young people. From Sociological, educational, psychological, social, economical, generational ( Gen x, that sort of thing- sigh), these seem to be common in trying to understand young people, or be common disciplines to draw from in the pursuit of trying to find the next best strategy, model or method for youth ministry and endless search to find the one way to keep or prevent young people leaving the church.

Much from a faith perspective is made of creation verses like Genesis 3, which describe the making of man in Gods image. But that seems to be regarded in substance and soul, rather that it inform the practices of youth ministry, which seem to use the above disciplines as the starting point. Within youth ministry also, there are a whole host of task orientated descriptors, when it comes to tasks that are expected of them, they are often to ‘evangelise’ to their friends, to go on ‘mission’ trips, to ‘attend’ groups, to ‘lead’ sessions, to ‘learn’, to be ‘disciples’. Yes often they are to be ‘disciples’. And this can be contentious. The discussion about the order of  salvation & discipleship is tiresome, but relevant, as it often just means that young people are subject to shallow messages to reaffirm a conversion, rather than experience something actually deeper. Discipleship is a complicated concept, one to leave for now. but one that can often appear absent in the drive to reach and connect with young people. Or even in the pursuit to enable them to conform in christian practices.

What i want to suggest is that a theological view of young people, might conclude that young people are theologians. 

Whoa, hang on a bit, am I serious?  Young people as Theologians? 

Theologians are the geek guys who do dull sermons, theyre the book writers and the academics. Image result for theologianThats who the theologians are, and we dont need them, ‘we just need a simple faith’ , the easy stuff, something relevant, attractive… and theres no way young people want to be theologians, no they want to be nurses, sports physios, teachers and artists, not theologians… 

the trouble is, young people are already theologians. Its too late. 

Thats the problem. Theology is deemed to be for the experts and the geeks or clegy and academics. Theology is in everything we do in churches in youth ministry, we operate as theologians, we speak theology, it is in the every day.

But not only from a creative point of view are young people made in the image of God, but those made in the image of God, as part of the human condition is a continual striving for searching, finding out and curiosity, this is borne out in Pauls speech in Antioch, in Acts 17;27, where Paul reiterates that there is a continual searcImage result for theologianh after God in the hope that he might be found.

A person is on a continual search. They might not study God, per se, but be consciously and unconsciously studying the world to find a source of meaning, a crumb of comfort. Or a way to make sense of the purpose in their life, to adopt a story that enables everything they know to fit together, and this might be a God story ( a sacred myth) or a different one. It is where sacred myths are helpful for young people. But what it means is that young people and all of us, are on the look out for something to believe in to help us make sense, or in a continual state of denial of the need for a story, and be possibly deeply troubled, confused and be struggling.

So what I want to suggest is that it might be more helpful to reflect on the possibility of young people, not as disciples, or converted or evangelists, but as theologians. 

If in working with young people in our churches and organisations we consider young people to be theologians, what might that mean to how resources, programmes and practices are for and with them? How might they be treated differently as a result? If nothing else it means that forms of youth ministry are a theological, and practical task.

It is worth breaking it down a little bit, when I suggest that young people are theologians, they could be one of or all of the following, and what I plan to do over the next few weeks, is to expand further on these concepts of young people as theologians, some I have mentioned above. They might be a combination of the following, rather than these in linear development.

Children as innocent theologians, for whilst age might be a social construct, there is undoubtedly an innocence to the curiosity and intuition of a child in their spiritual awareness, it is from their pure heart that often truths flow out of innocent connections with God.

Curious Theologians, This might be all of us, but maybe most notably in those who deliberately search, who ask questions, who find God in the process of the search, the depth of the soul. This ties in with the references above, but curiosity is part of being human, ongoing life long learning, ongoing life long theologising and being brought into new understandings and expansive understandings of God. Image result for curiosity

Intuitive Theologians;  This thought is common in youth ministry, and my next post will develop this further. So, in the mean time, it might be worth thinking about the creative spaces where young people are intuitive, make intuitions and interpretations, and have the desire for deep meaning, of sense made in the world, for something to believe that might be true. But also that it is in the ‘how’ of something being done that young people might discover the ‘why’.  Anyway, this is a teaser for a post on young people as intuitive theologians later in the week.

Practical Theologians. Young people not only want something to be true. It needs to be Useful. Faith mot just a crutch. But also a hope. Not a self help guide to doing anything ( MTD, Christian Smith, 2005) , but the daily encounter with God in the midst of the ordinary that directs, guides, prompts action and is in dialogue. Its not in the arguments over truth and apologetic where God might be found, but in the everyday spaces.

Performing Theologians. This is part of my subject for my dissertation, and ive written about this previously, follow this link: Helping young people perform, not just learn theology. But it might be worth exploring more, the concept that not only might young people be intuitive theologians and practical theologians, but that how might we enable them to perform theology. For what i am convinced we are good at in youth ministry is creating a whole load of christian practices, such as services, youth events, festivals and concerts, yet often these entertain, reach and make faith relevant. When it comes to performing the kind of life Jesus asked of us, and young people, what might that be like to perform, to perform acts of sacrificial love, mercy , justice – performing out of love for God and in the world to transform it. To be hope in communities, not hope in holy spaces. Young people as public performers of theology. Again, ill develop this further in the next few weeks. But safe to say, that performing theology is not the ‘end game’, performance enables intuition and formation and vice versa.

So, this might be teaser or a turn off. My concern is that even in Christian faith based youth ministry, a theological understanding of personhood, and young people is rarely talked about, or even the starting point for developing approaches to mission, church or youth ministry. Context often rightly does, cultural studies (less rightly), church growth ( less said the better) or ‘what we used to do, or have always done’ , and so the writing a few posts on these in more detail in the upcoming weeks will be to look at them from a range of angles, and consider their implications for working with young people. Thinking theologically about young people, might just enable them to be viewed as theologians. I think this is a better starting point. And lets develop language and ministry, mission and practice around the ongoing belief that young people are theologians first and foremost, and that spaces and practices are created to form them as theologians, who find, interpret and perform out of the faith in the everyday, in the practical and the prophetic. Young people as Theologians first and foremost in youth ministry, a starting point.



Von Balthasar, A Reader – (his reflection on Persons as searching)

Dean, Kenda (et al) Starting right, Thinking Theologically about youth ministry

Dean, Kenda, & Root A, The Theological turn in youth ministry

Shepherd, N, Faith Generation

Smith C , Soul Searching, 2005

Vanhoozer, K  The Drama of Doctrine (2005), Faith Speaking Understanding ( 2014) 



‘Your talk was great! – im sure the young people got ‘something’ out of it….’

How many times in youth ministry (or even any Ministry) might we either hear this statement, or say it to someone else with a little more hope and assurance than expectation in our tone?  You can picture the scene, crowd of young people, all a bit sweaty after playing games for a while. Or it the evening of a Summer Camp, and theyve all had a nice tea after a day of rock climbing, high ropes and canoeing. And it is time for the talk.

It is the talk that helps us to make the environment in our view something ‘more than just a youth club’ or residential experience. It is the talk that is a time for educating. For helping the young people learn something mentally and spiritually. It is time to ‘do theology’. Image result for boring talk

Yet how often do we, even as volunteers, start to lose focus when the person doing to talk is going on a bit, and we’re the volunteer!

Of course, theres the enthusiastic types, and theologically minded types, who have actually prepared ‘The talk’ . And drafted in greek words a plenty, atonement theories , and illustrations from the church fathers. Or theres the overly trendy types of talk, every latest technological gadget is a metaphor for salvation, and the film clips all contain Jesus somewhere. The young persons are very switched on, they get the cultural references, but at what cost to actual theology? God is as immediate as my whatsapp group? on these occasions, young people do get something out of the talk – but what..?

The temptation is that we continue the same practices until young people are grounded in a culture that they accept this as a way of learning, but in voluntary spaces, like the youth group they walk out with their feet. or ‘They get used’ to practice, and it asks young people questions and places expectations on them to stay and cope within our poor theological practices of youth ministry. 

If you have got this far and think, great, you’re now going to get some ‘how -to’s’ for doing a good talk with young people. Then I am afraid you’re mistaken. If you want alternatives to a talk, I put them on this article here: 

First things first:

1. we need to think of young people as Theologians! 

The question to be asked, is not what kind of talk do we do, but if young people are theologians, as well as disciples, evangelists and humans (my next post will expand on this)  – then we really do need to think about ‘how’ they construct theology from within the practices of the faith community. They might get ‘something’ from a talk, but is hearing someone talk to them, even with stories and anecdotes a way of developing young people as theologians?

Andrew Root relays a story of how after a pretty dreadful talk by someone keen on imparting theology for 40 minutes to young people, one of the elderly volunteers said: ” Maybe it is not that young people do not care about Theology, it is that what we gave them, this evening, wasnt theology” Image result for theology

The question then for us, in youth ministry practices, is the same ; “Is what we give young people in our faith practices , theology?” 

Andrew Root suggest that for too long the starting point for thinking about theology is Dogma or Apologetics, or on the other hand, where i might put myself, it starts with the social action or the community. So theology becomes learning about a Biblical theme, or becomes about finding God at work in the actions of the community as it cares. Andrew Root takes a different view;

2. Theology is constructed with others, it is not something we give

Theological construction that means that anything to young people is theology that dwells in questions with no easy answers – not a theology that provides answers to questions not even being asked. 

What this means is that we dont ‘do’ theology when we talk at young people. We do theology when we talk with young people. It is when we accompany young people on the walk, in the game of football, on the high ropes course, in the woods, and in conversation we create safe spaces in our interactions so that meandering questions of the crisis of life, the purpose of life and the reality of future are brought to our attention. We walk the crisis of their reality- and seek God in the questions raised. 

If you’re not sure, take your mind to the crisis confronting the two disciples who were walking away from Jeruslam late on Sunday that first easter, how did Jesus do Theology with them, by responding to their moment of crisis, their questions. He gave them tradition, out of conversation, he shared with them hope and purpose, in conversation. In the moment of existential crisis. So much of the reality of our ‘teaching theology’ in youth ministry might be uninteresting, meaningless, shallow or even boring – because it doesnt start in the perplexity and reality of the crisis. But this causes a problem, because we daredent go to the point of crisis with young people, because that in itself might challenge us and our own theology. The safe option is the program, and keep activity the focus that hopes that excites young people enough to stay, and the hook for our uninteresting theology.

So, how might we help young people and ourselves face the crisis, and develop theology from that point? Well, we have to give the opportunity, and create the spaces where young people articulate the things that they fear, the things that haunt them. The personal, societal, global, local fears and worries. Theology becomes from a point of reality, it is also itself incarnated, it is significant because it doesnt appeal to moral behaviour, or provide a bullet point of knowledge, but needs little case for its significance. It appeals because it has meaning. It might be judged as wrong, but it isnt benign or irrelevant.

For, it is from these depths and walking with young people through the story to enable it to be faithful and trustworthy in the intuitive crises that young people articulate. It is not about providing information that young people ‘make a decision’ it is that the Tradition is constructed theologically in order that young people can make sense of the reality of the world that causes crisis. McAdam suggests that young people start searching for an ideology to believe in and shape their personal narrative around from the ages of 10. Where I depart from Root is that Vanhoozers metaphor of ongoing Drama enables heightened interaction and purpose for the young person as a theologian, and not just that their story is yet to be written, it is also to be performed and added to the myriad of plotlines. However, it is in the historic and future story of Gods creation, covenant, incarnation, church and consumation that addresses questions of crisis and reality. Of hope, forgiveness and participation. Theology doesnt start with crisis just to tell young people that they can be successful in the kingdom, and winners for Jesus. It is that crisis and suffering are intrinsic to the call of faith, it is our context that is the cause often of the crisis.

It is other stories in culture that try and write away the crisis. From materialism, to celebrity, and Tv and Film. However worthwhile, their common root is to distract from the crisis, but they all fall short, and ultimately lead to numbing of the crisis or believes it can answer to it. It is often why Ecclesiastes is helpful as a starting point with young people, they get helplessness and the void. 

Forming Theologians is the key task of youth Ministry, and that means forming young peoples theology. Christian theology is not about rightness and morality, it is about being encountered by truth. It is a call for faith to seek understanding, to love the curious search for the mystery, next to God who acts (dramatically) in the world of death, the thin spaces, and in the yearning.

The best Theology we do with young people is in the conversations with young people, for theology itself is a conversation, between where we are in the moment and the crisis and the overall tradition and the Theodrama.  I notice that after a period of time where Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber ruled the airwaves, and love and identity shaped songs, that the rage of society and personal purpose have found their root, as Fall out Boy, Panic at the Disco and singer songwriters are popular with young people. The tide might be changing that young peoples music is prompting them to think deeply about their existence in the world. But these might be avenues to begin the conversations with young people. How might their films, their music, their writing and artistry help them, or provide messages which help them deal with their crisis.

If we want our talks to do theology, then we might be off the mark. as per Root: “Theology can only be constructed within the lives of people yearning for God in a world of death, love, life and brokenness” 

Young people might get something out of ‘the talk’ – at best it might be moral guidance, but to kid ourselves that it is theology..? Boring young people in their pursuit of their knowledge of God and theological yearning is the greatest crime commited in our churches and youth ministry. Its in our talking rather than our talks where Theologising happens.


Andrew Root, Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 2011   

Dean + others, Starting right, thinking theologically about youth ministry, 2001

McAdam, D The Stories we live by, 1997

Vanhoozer, K, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014



Rethinking learning styles in Youth Ministry; Helping young people have an active faith

In Youth Ministry – How might we use Learning styles? 

I know, there has been some talk recently about the validity of learning styles and whether they actually exist and are of value. there are some fascinating thoughts here:   But for the sake of what might be an interesting read, stick with me on this one. It not that kind of re-think that i am proposing. I am suggesting when it comes to faith- learning styles might be helpful.

Lets start from the beginning. When i was doing voluntary training in youth ministry and education back in 1996 and even work based training courses in the early 2000’s, the principle learning styles were the following, as it was said that people learned in one of these kind of ways:

Activist – they needed to ‘do’ something to learn it

Pragmatist – ‘it needs to be ‘useful’ applied to a real life situation

Reflector – ‘they need time to process the information and chew the cud of it’ 

Theorist – ‘ they need to know where it came from, that it is proved and validated’ 

(Of course, any theorist is switching off now, as none of what i have said is proven…. ) – and so, in Youth Ministry, especially in ready to use guides and in most session plans, there has become an implicit need to accomodate these learning styles.   Theres a game (with a reference), a piece of information, a way of reflecting on it (through prayer usually) and then ways of applying the learning to real life. The same might also be said of the anglican service, aspects of which are active, reflective, theory (the sermon?) and pragmatic- how it all applies.  For those of you that like to be known as millenials, which is none of you, these old fashioned learning styles have been updated, they are now VARK, and include:





though a look onto the worlds most popular search engine, and theres images like this;

Related image

So Learning styles are pretty complicated, because, by the looks of things, each of as humans are pretty complicated.

I am aware that Nick Shepherd, in his excellent faith generation (2016) suggests that young people need to be considered as more than learners, and i completely agree. What i am about to say backs this up. The question that I have pondered is;  might learning styles help in faith & discipleship more broadly?  And this is not just for young people. Nothing ever is.

If I could use the older learning styles for the purposes of what I am thinking. Just to save a bit of confusion. So for example, in the ongoing process of discipling people how might

  • faith be an active thing
  • faith be a pragmatic thing
  • faith be a reflective thing
  • faith be a theoretical thing

Because, what it can seem to be, and going on with what Nick Shepherd suggests, is that a large proportion of the activities of the church and for young people especially, they are regarded as learners, and so a huge amount of energy is spent on increasing their knowledge of the faith – through games, activities, sessions – and even for them, going to a worship event, is still to a point a learning experience that is largely cognitive, and thus reflective. If I used the newer learning styles, then I might be suggesting that young people need to ‘see’ faith, to ‘act’ it out, to ‘feel’ it , picture it and use their imaginations’ and so on.

As an addition, if we conceptualise what young people are as disciples as ‘actors’ who are on the stage of the world, needing to be trained to act in a myriad of situations the fullness of the gospel. Then as actors, we wouldnt expect Matt Damon, or Kiera Knightly to only learn their lines. That is only reading, not acting. An actor in most productions, especially theatre, needs to use their whole selves in the productions, to read the cues, to memorise, to improvise, mind, body, spirit.  Church might be a great place for young people to rehearse, but that shouldnt minimalise the encouragement that faith and discipleship might be a complex thing, encompassing action, reflection, usefulness and theory. All of which is key in how it is seen, heard, pictured, felt and imagined. Young people as performers of the christian faith – how how might the forming of them change as a result..?

Here might be a few examples for each

How might young people act out their faith? 

  1. If the play is about goodness (not being good- Balthasar, 1980) – then they need to see that the goodness they do is part of their performance, and then this ultimately translates into acts of justice, reconciliation and hospitality to their friends & enemies
  2. They act out their faith when they speak up against the oppression of others
  3. They act out their faith when they use their ideas and initiative to solve a community problem – like litter, or food waste, or poverty,
  4. They act out their faith when they get chance to lead, decide and speak, being given the opportunity to how others their learning.
  5. They act out their faith when they are tuned to hear God prompting them in the everyday decisions and decide to follow.

In a way the reflective and Theorist aspects of faith are pretty well covered. From Prayer to bible studies. Reflection and theory takes up a large proportion.

What is interesting is that recent research shows that young people want faith, not to be ‘true’ but to be ‘useful’. Now, there are dangers with this, a faith that provides only usefulness for young people seems to stack faith solely as the problem solver for young people, and only an individual young person will know how ‘useful’ faith is for them. And Christian Smith in 2005 highlighted that a faith that ‘helped young people do what they wanted’ permeated in aspects of youth ministry. Leaving that aside, what might it mean for faith to be ‘useful’ for young people, and be something that on one hand might be ‘pragmatic’ .

It might be useful because it helps a young person conceive of a way of shaping their life story

It might be useful because it can help them answer some of lifes big questions, like personal purpose

It might be useful because it offers hope – the end of the drama, has an ending! 

It might be useful because God offers presence throughout all of lifes activities

On the other hand, useful discipleship might be like doing the things that Jesus asked of the disciples, like find out iif anyone has food, finding the donkey or preparing the upper room, or catching fish. In the every day usefulness, God is at work and needing things to be done. 

Practical young people might need a practical faith.

Yes, young people ‘act’ out their discipleship in the mid week – like the rest of us do (!). I am just wondering about whether re thinking learning styles for ‘faith’ not ‘just’ the content of a session might be appropriate. If we have child actors in the kingdom, what might be the methods of ongoing formation that encourage active performances of faith, of following the ‘way’ of God in the world. Of course, it will help, if in using the other learning styles, that they ‘see’ faith, ‘feel it’ and understand it logically. – Where do young people ‘see’ faith?  or be in a place where they see ‘God at work’? and join in.

What i dont have is the imagination to provide all of what might be creative ideas to develop this thought further, however, if i put the concept out there of young people as performers of the gospel, not just hearers, lets shape how the church might work with young people in a way that has action and usefulness as as much of a priority as reflection and theory. Image result for action

After all we want young people to have an ‘active’ faith. So – let them perform…

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