‘But we ‘only’ have a few young people..’ – is youth discipleship better done small?

Only this, Only that, Only the other, If we ‘only’… 

It is one of my pet hates, got to admit it. As I travel around and have conversations with church leaders, ministers and volunteers. When describing their project, their groups, their young people, there is a tendency to use the word ‘only’.a painted marking on a roadway "only"

It can occur in ‘ we ‘only’ have a few young people in our church , or ‘we’ve only been going a few years’ or ‘we ‘only’ run a few sessions a week’ . And in Ministry more generally ‘only’ is something of a self imposed curse. I think, and it extends to ‘we only have _____ coming to church’ . It especially extends to when people in the same ministry get together. And have a weekend conference where each defines their group as ‘only’ compared to someone else, or that the amazing, mega large youth group is the default ministry size.

Its not about the only. Its about the who. But on the ‘only’- Is ‘only’ a symptom of both a comparative culture – where we assume that everyone else is doing far better than they really are or say that they are, and also a symptom of the dream and desire for something different or more than what is existing. Talk of ‘only’ sort of devalues the actual young people who do attend, the actual families who have taken the effort to make it to the activity, talk of only indicates that numbers not people seem to be the markers of success.  It also means that we stop looking at what is, what good, and the precious that is present. I think we do need to be careful that a desire for more, might cause young people to think that they are only valuable if they have friends and bring them.

Does the use of the word ‘only’ already mean that we have succumbed ourselves to the perils of a numbers game? If so, sadly, our ministries will undoubtedly suffer for it. And so will we, facing personal trial of our ministry by numerical indicators alone.

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Might there be something more with wanting more ?

Of course there is a problem with only having a few young people in a church, the resources dont seem to fit very well. Well guess what, thats the problem with the how of what were trying to do. Maybe because of a few young people there are questions to be asked about materials based youth ministry provision, and finally there needs to be a shift to something else instead. And thats not easy, none of this is, especially with a church only having 1 12 year old, 1 8 year old and three under 5’s. What to do then? good point. But the answer wont be found without a change in attitude and probably a change in approach. First we stop with the ‘onlys’ and probably second we developed practices of higher participation, less teaching, more conversation. Less input, more involvement. Yes a small group might be difficult, so discipleship might need a different form, mentoring, participation in faith practices, training/apprenticeship.

I asked a number of youthworkers around the country to share their experiences of what might considered ‘small’ youth group experiences (under 6 ppl) , in small churches (under 40) – and dont mishear me, I am desperately trying to resist using the word small there. These sound large compared to other churches. So, again, apologies for falling into the same comparison/descriptor trap. In such a culture of comparison, stories of the ‘small’ can be ignored, when ‘ministries’ that have large numbers can dominate and create a gravitational pull towards, and sometimes thats an actual pull. The actual pull of the small youth group thats doing something beautiful, that has to be disrupted so that they attend en masse as the audience in a large gathering which causes them to feel anonymous – just to support the ‘large’ – and the large can influence the small.

Can the small be beautiful – well of course it can be, why am i even asking the question?

Here are some of the benefits of ‘only’ having a ‘few’ young people- as said by those involved in making these beautiful things happen:

They get to know adults well, who aren’t their parents, and therefore explore a different understanding of faith. They get to know a small group of peers better. They can do social activities to form strong bonds and can do life alongside each other.  (Laura P)

They become full active participants in the life of the church. Involved in everything inc. the “not youth” elements normally reserved for adults. Which in turn adds to a sense of belonging (pet topic is small church youth work ) (James Y)

Deeper relationships, learning to rely on one another, hearing true stories of faith, loss and redemption. Intimacy that fosters trust (Kat)

It certainly means you get to know them better as individuals rather than ‘the young people’. And it’s easier therefore for their individual gifts to be used in the church. Labour intensive though!    (why is ‘having an easy situation’ preferable?) 

Interestingly when we asked our young people at __________ if they wouldn’t rather join the Deanery youth group they said no, they liked being in a small group of 4-5. It felt safe and cosy. (Miranda)

The key for me is connection. A small church provides opportunity for connections that is hard in a big church. (Aaron)

They are known and as leaders we can be more responsive. I’ve never led big youth groups as a regular part of my ministry   (Alice)

you’ve got a lot of room for growth? 🙂 i’d say if 15-25% of the church is youth (as above), getting them involved in the life of the church will have huge impact (Andy)

Our church is this size and intergenerational community feels easier. 2 of our teens pick up an old lady each week and wheel her to church. 1 says it’s the highlight of his week and he just loves being with her even if they don’t chat much. Brings my heart joy thinking about it! They always want to pray for her in youth group. (Pheobe)

commenting on the above.. I love this. This sort of community is lost in larger churches, but replaced with a community where most yp only know their peers (Sean)

we’re a small church with great youth, but only after years of perseverance and encouraging the older members of the church to believe in them. Definitely find that yp build great friendships and therefore work much better as a team and are fired up for mission! (Mhairi) 

these are beautiful, significant moments – dont you agree..?

Convinced? Can we quit with the ‘only’ talk?  It is about the who. 

On the other side of the coin, I know of large group church leaders who would swap for something smaller. So, the comparison trap is on both sides, and reading the above from a larger church might enhance the same view.

One of the key values in youthwork, is that we ‘value the individual’ – its noticeable that when we talk about ‘only’ we stop valuing the individuals, their gifts, abilities, and contributions – and place more value in the unknown young person who is absent. Small is beautiful only goes some way. Small as a word is too patronising and still emphasises size.

Having a few young people does not mean they all need to be clumped together in a large group – as the example above showed, young people themselves expressed their own desire for something homely, cosy and comfortable – and whilst I am one for making discipleship more dangerous and risk taking – it might be risk taking enough to have asked the young people for their opinion, and also to decline the strategic approach for ‘larger mixed up groups across a deanery’ . This also emphasises a participative conversation being important, and giving young people more choice, autonomy and respect for who they are  (really?…;-)). Extending this a little – culture and fear are so evident, and young people arent all extroverts – so discipleship for the introvert, thinking, reflective young people might be deeply appropriate (who knew).

What other opportunities might there be with ‘only’ a few young people?

The above examples wouldn’t work if a church wasn’t giving its young people spaces to participative , but clearly where this is happening (and I think we need to challenge the barriers where this doesn’t happen – like young people not allowed in kitchens, or near to PA equipment) . Recent;y i heard of stories of young people joining in ‘church days out’ and getting involved in local mission/volunteering practices. All far easier than trying to get a group of 40 to help at the soup kitchen on a friday night – easier when its 4…

If Sunday school, groups and activities that require large effort is the default – then we might need to change approaches to accommodate the young people and who we have – not the young people we once had (but then moan that they didn’t stay anyway). Living in the present might mean valuing the young people for who they are, what they can contribute, what they might create and the community of faith where they are part of. After all, all young people can be participants in the ongoing drama of Gods mission – does it matter the size of the production they are involved in?

Can we ban the term ‘only’ – not just stop comparing? but stop comparing in what seems an upward direction to the increased number activity?  Talking of building bigger barns was something Jesus rejected, instead being present, and valuing the faith of the woman who gave little, the picture of the mustard seed. If ministry has become a numbers game, a money game and an attraction game – then has it lost all sight of the gospel? If we need to ask the question about How did Jesus do discipleship with just a few people? – the answer is that he just did discipleship with a few people.  But he ‘only’ had 12 in his youth group, and one of them was loud mouth Peter…. 

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‘Where have the young people gone?’ 5 ways to get the long lost young people back into church

One minute you have them, all neat and tidy in rows upon rows, in small groups of small groups doing sunday school – the next minute theyre all gone! 

And, theyve stayed gone.

Remembering that this situation isnt new (the drop off from the 2 million young people who attended sunday schools at aged 8 verses aged 12 was large, and that was pre 1900)   Image result for sunday school rally day 1900

So you are going to need a very long memory to remember those days.

But maybe you can remember when you were part of a thriving youth ministry scene in the 1960’s?

That thriving youth ministry scene – was also the same time in which according to church statistics, young people were leaving the church at a rate of 300 per week between 1970-1980.

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So, its not an ‘all of a sudden thing’ that there are no young people in the church you are sitting in. Theres an element of rugged determination probably on your part that you’re still there. The survivior, the last warrior emblazoned with the leadership and pcc or retired elder badge for long service. Well done good and faithful servant, and I do mean this.

But if we’re only asking now – where are all the young people – we also have to ask – what happened to them in the 70’s and 80’s and to some extent the 1990’s – for as ive said before, even I represent one of only 3 people from a youth group/club in a church of 30 who are still involved in church – and sometimes that is clinging on by the fingernails.

The questions we have to ask about young people and the church have got to have different answers to them that was being given in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. And I think that might be a different piece. For – though we have to find young people – we also do have to have some idea of what it is we expect, or want them to do, or how they are to experience faith once indeed we might have found them.

How might churches find their long lost young people? especially when theres none at all to start with?

The first things is to begin with reality not assumptions. But churches are full of them. So here is a picture of a warning sign.     Image result for assumptions

‘there are always young people on the streets being a nuisance‘  Find out the facts, how many, is it the same young people, are they from the area, how old are they, are they in the same group, what do you they like doing, what are they interested in, what schools do they go to. Also is it always? or just on a friday night, or just through the summer holidays?

young people are so busy, being taken to after school clubs, having to ride buses, they’re too busy for church’  Is that ‘all’ the young people who are in your community – or just the ones that you have connections with – and might they be too busy with other things, because these other things are seen to be more important & meaningful (maybe thats a challenge, to make the local church a space of meaning and significance) – but legitimately, even in areas where there are high attendance of mostly children going to swim clubs or brownies, there will be many who cannot afford these things, or have transport or parents at home to take them. When we start from a place of 0 young people, creating a place for these few who dont have opportunities – seems not only a good idea, but a godly one too – doesnt it?

‘young people find the building a barrier’ this is an assumption we make – then we need to make the space safer, but then not spend decades improving a building only for there to be now no connection with local people who then have disregarded a building as irrelevant however much of a conference centre it now looks like.

but we have nothing to offer – we’re an ageing congregation, young people are more likely to go to the (insert name of contemporary church) church down the road’ no, only the kids from christian parents who value style and entertainment in worship practices will go there. The young people in your local area who find meaning and connection in the space you offer, will continue to do so. And the person, usually a trendy youth pastor from that trendy contemporary church or youth ministry who suggests the existing church is boring should be shot.

These are all assumptions that at some point of another someone in a local church has made about the reasons why young people are not involved in the faith community, or the advent of sunday trading, sunday football or some other cultural entertainment reason.

So how do churches find the young people – where are they hiding?

  1. Discover the reality of life for young people, spend time in the local areas, communities and be present in the spaces. So, walk the dog around estates, grab a pint of milk at the corner shop, take up running – all with the additional purpose of being around in the public spaces of a local community at times. So, when school buses come back, or after tea, or at the weekends, do young people walk home from school buses, do any of them play football in the park from 7 (and is it the same ones every night) . Just any real picture is helpful.
  2. Schools. Schools are tricky, as they are becoming an even more compressed space of formal learning, and almost sadly just exam factories. School staff also have had good and negative experiences of faith groups either personally or professionally, so all the stuff about building trust slowly applies, or trying to connect in a way that helps the schools out, such as offering lessons on challenging topics like relationships, drugs and alcohol – or help in some way like mentoring some of the young people who are struggling. Or chapliancy for the whole school (especially in the peak stressful times in a school, ie between the inservice day in september and the end of term in july 😉 ) The days of ‘just doing assemblies’ because this topped up what the kids were learning in sunday schools or was a way of attracting them to the church’s activities are over. As i said here, To disciple young people, we need to quit assemblies.  though it might still be a start – there are other ways of being meaningful and connecting. But the school is just the school, its a place socially constructed in a way, and where young people perform in a way to thrive or survive, and/or be popular or to be invisible. And thats not rocket science, just one reality of the context of trying to be present in, its an already established culture and community in which you might be trying to find some kind of acceptance and respect in.
  3. The public spaces of the town and village centre. This wont be all the young people – no where has ‘all the young people anyway’ – but are there places and times when young people do congregate – is it the town centre on a saturday, the bus shelter on a friday, the village green on a tuesday  – if these are places young people choose to be in (as opposed to school where they dont choose) – then this, with the right approach and training, can be a way of making connections in places where young people have already considered safe.  Or it might be that this is the time to have the church open for hot chocolate, or take some out with you to the bus stop and spend time just chatting with young people there. If you’ve got a dog collar on, honestly its far easier to do this that try and be some kind of youthworker doing it. Not easy, takes bravery and vulnerability – but much of that is because weve made too many assumptions about young people that make us feel scared of them. Oh and by the way, any abuse from a distance when they see you coming, take that as the ‘mating call of the needy young person’ …. 😉
  4. What if young people are in their homes, doing their homework, playing on computer games, on social media? And for many this is the new normal, the new reality and the new majority. Maybe for this family, it is not about trying to connect with the young people at all, it is about trying to connect and become meaningful with the whole family. Also the young person is not in their room all day every day. But – What might mission to middle class families look like? And that is not my specialist subject…  – churches should be able to offer an alternative to the depression of eastenders or the business of commuter life – a place of hope, quietness, community?
  5. Attracting families to church with children has been easy, from sunday schools, messy church and every thing else inbetween, and at the moment summer holiday clubs are on, but they are plummeting in terms of numbers, and delivery. But that doesnt mean that in your local area, in your local space an after school group, messy church, themed club (movie/craft/sports) might be just the thing for families to be involved in that you as a local church can do. Forget any national picture or statistic – yes i mean forget it – if a small group of families want to set up a kids club (that you though was old fashioned at what you were doing in the 80’s) then let them. If its what is most meaningful and causes the church to be a space of community and conversation then make it happen. Family work with children isnt necessarily going to bring the young people back. But it at least could cause the church to be looked on favourably locally.  At least with 8 year olds coming to a craft afternoon, there is at least the possibility of some group work with them, and having conversations with them and creating a longer term space for their community and conversation to continue.  We may need to invest in the potential group work of the 8 year olds and believe in it as a long term process. Telling them theres ‘nothing’ after messy church when they get to 10, is only because we have wasted 2 years in not talking to them about what they might like to do next or continue to participate in.

These all feel like whats been tried for the last 30 years. And yes, thats probably true.

I kind of wish that there was some magic answer. Some new answer. And in my last post I did put forward a few new ideas (see previous post)

The reality is that though it is easier to say why churches should involve themselves in working with young people for social and definitely spiritual reasons, actually doing it is going to be quite hard work, and a mixture of looking for opportunities, and also making the most of opportunities that may already be happening, or being in a place where opportunities may emerge (such as the bus stop over a mug of hot chocolate) . Its going to take vulnerability and spirit of collective pioneering and action, and thats not easy. The responses to the question of how to get the young people back into church doesnt need some kind of magic dynamic answer, and not from me anyway, the answer to that question will only be found in your local area, through making spaces to connect, through being present, and through listening to whats already happening, and trying to find a way of being meaningful to all, especially those for whom the normal way of life is leaving them behind, making them stressful, pressured and pained.  Churches that want young people for their own survival, might be better placed to think about how other people are trying to do survival and get alongside them. I dunno, seems like Jesus met people in the margins, in the borders and healed those who needed to be lifted up – guess that could be the heart of the gospel, and the heart of Gods mission for young people and their families, its just a hunch. There isnt a new answer to that question, its the same old answer, the story of faith that we’re participating in in our local contexts, and asking how might we present Jesus with young people and in our communities?

Maybe like God himself, we interrupt the norm, with a conversation of love that brings meaning and hope. Bringing young people back to church? a challenging task, especially if we cant find them or have lost them over the years.

God hasnt lost them. God doesnt need to find them either, he knows where they are.

And on many occasions she already hears their cries of help, anguish and pain. They might be closer to God than we already think. We as churches might be closer to being able to offer something, a God to believe in, than we think. Hiding faith behind the package has been one of the approaches, because God has been deemed boring, irrelevant or old fashioned. The mysterious thing is is that God might already be meeting young people where theyre at, the Spirit might be already moving in our towns and villages. And if young people need a story to believe in and participate in when the story of materialism, consumerism or achievement isnt giving hope, connection, autonomy or wholeness, then the story of Gods redemption for the world that we present offers a genuine alternative. Young people rebelling against consumerism by going to church and taking up a simple life… will it happen? If it did would churches know that this might be the authentic narrow way of the gospel that was possibly what was intended..?

Try all the magic methods in the world. Its be difficult to keep young people if theyre done without the mystery of faith and presenting a way of the gospel that is rude, provocative and dangerous, and discipleship as an ongoing active working relationship with Jesus to be experienced.

Globally; where does detached youth work happen? (plot yourself on the map)

Who goes out in the coldest weather? Does detached youthwork happen in america? Is any one doing detached in the UK at all?

Have you ever wondered any of these things? or do you think that you’re the only detached youthworkers in your whole country or country for that matter?

Even though much of the field of youthwork has taken a knock in the last 10 years, one reason or another, well austerity policies or another. And usually detached youthwork, historically, has been the hardest to be hit. It fell away in the 80’s when buildings needed replacing, and has nearly always played second fiddle to centre based work. However, this does not mean that detached youthwork is not happening across the UK, or across the world.

I thought it might be a good exercise to see where detached youth work is still happening around the world, it might encourage those of us who feel like it is shrinking in the UK, and also help all of us realise quite how extensive the practice is still. We might find out the answer to all these questions, and a whole lot more.

So, if you meet the following criteria, plot yourself on the following map

  • Your intention is to deliberately meet and connect with young people (under the age of 25) – and not the ‘whole population’ where young people may be part (ie street pastors, street pastors/angels/lights – you do a great job, but please do not add yourself to this map- thank you)
  • You do not have the sole intention of selling to or persuading young people to go to an event
  • You do/could take resources and materials with you, even as large as a bus, or a mobile resource, tent, games, etc
  • It tries to meet young people where theyre at, whether individuals or groups and have conversation with them, that they and you can voluntarily end.
  • The project and delivery happens in public places – parks, streets, outside schools, beaches, under railway bridges, somewhere public and to stay in the public place, unless young people negotiate otherwise.
  • It can be voluntary or done by paid youthworkers
  • It happens at least on 2 sessions per month basis.
  • It can be linked to faith or ‘non’ faith organisations
  • It can be one aspect of your role, ie if you do detached youthwork on two evenings, but other occasions are in schools or a centre. This is just to plot the detached youthwork, not the youth worker, and where detached youthwork takes place.

So, if you can sign up to pretty much these , then plot yourself on the map – link after the instructions:

Heres the instructions – please read

  1. On the left of the map (link below) you will see the different layers depending on the continent that you are in. Click on the continent that applies to you. Ie Europe or Australasia
  2. Then click on the ‘pin’ symbol which is the middle button below the search field
  3. Then zoom into the area your detached youthwork happens, and drop the pin.
  4. You can say who you are and the name of the project if you want to, but that is completely optional.
  5. Click Save
  6. Hopefully your pin is now featured in the layer for the continent that it occurs.
  7. EXIT the MAP. I mean it, it will crash if people stay in for too long watching the pins be uploaded.

Link to Map is here

So if you are doing detached youthwork, for a council, organisation, church please do put yourself on the map, so that we can build up a picture of all the detached youth work still happening across the world.

NB You do not have to name your council, project or centre, just pin where detached youthwork happens.

Likewise, do not pin all the streets that you go to, just ONE pin on ONE town/city/village that the detached youthwork happens. If you go to many villages, or areas over a wide spread, then do add one pin per location if at least 2 sessions a month occur there.

The map is for public view, so if you do not want to locate where your work happens specifically, make a pin on the council building or centre building from where you start/finish from.

I know that Dynamo International, represent and produce resources for detached youthwork across the globe, and produce some excellent materials (link in the blog roll also) , and the federation of detached youthwork in the UK have a whole load of resources, please do check them out.

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Towards the end of 2018, there will be the federation of detached youthwork gathering in the UK, and I am hoping that by then I might be able to share some of the data from this map for interest, conversation and reflection. To give us all as detached youthworkers a sense of where things do happen.

There is more on detached youthwork via the menus on this site. Please do share this post, and map, to try and get as many areas, countries and continents covered as possible.

The work of this site is done for free, if you would like to make a contribution, you can do so via the menu above. Thank you.

10 tips on starting and developing conversations with young people in the youth club

In my recent piece I wrote about how good conversations with young people turn an activity venue into a space of youthwork. Maybe this is a stark claim to a degree, and usually one of the more difficult aspects of working with young people, and frequently asked questions to me is ‘How to developing the conversations?’ , and often that issue resides in us, ie it is our fault young people dont talk to us. Especially if we fear young people or believe the negativity around them.

Whenever I do detached youthwork training for groups and organisations, ‘starting conversations’ in the cold contact moment on the streets is something that we spend ages on. If we’re just setting up activities for young people to do, whilst we stay to one side, or in the kitchen cooking for them, then its no wonder young people leave. On one hand conversations on the streets could be seen as one of the more scary aspects of that type of youthwork, on the other it makes it easy. Why? because Good Conversations happen in an environment where young people feel at home. It is a space that they trust, and we are people they can trust. Young people choose the streets, therefore they’re more likely to feel at home, the youth club or group.. thats a different matter … 

So – in the youth club environment – How do you start conversations with young people?

  1. Good conversations happen when young people feel at home, this includes safety, but it also includes participation, can they treat the place like home, can they make themselves a drink of coffee? Do they trust leaders who stick around (for longer than 6 months)  The environment is key. Giving conversation space is important. How many times do young people ‘just want a space to chat’ whilst we want to make it a space of activity programme and distractions?  What if we heeded this request… what are young people saying..? Image result for conversation
  2. Rely on the context. Starting a conversation with whats in the room and what a young person has brought to the room is a good place. So, What is already happening, what are the young people talking about? Whats the local news, gossip, whats the craze? But also – what might be different about the young person, have they changed their hair? try and notice. The context in the moment is a good key starting point.
  3. Get them involved in a task (not just an activity) and spend time doing that with them, helping set up, deciding on the food, setting out the games, in a club environment the resources themselves can be the setting for the conversation, it helps as it does make it too intrusive or personal.
  4. Opinion Questions;  Try and get an opinion on something – recently this has been easy ‘who do you think will win the world cup’ is an opinion creating question, generating answers and also detailed analysis or a ‘dont care’ – but ‘who do you think’ or ‘what do you think’ type questions are great at getting a response, and giving young people space to share their thoughts and ideas about whatever topic – whether its a local community issue, about an ethical issue, about faith, about future, about something topical. Finding out their opinion and listening to it and using it to reflect on is crucial. Image result for conversation
  5. Dream questions. These are the ‘If you could……..’ type questions. so ‘If you could run the country – what flavour ice cream would be banned’  or ‘if you could have a special power what would you do with it’ or ‘if you could only have cheese or chocolate in the future, which would you keep?’  yes some more open than others, but you see what i mean – questions that pose a possible scenario, or captivate a dream, such as rule making, money spending, world changing – are all positive ways of developing conversations. And hearing about young peoples ideas through these dreams.
  6. Resources can help. The FYT starter cards with pictures and quotations on them might help – used in a way that create conversation and develop thinking. Pip Wilsons blob trees  also work well.
  7. On the Nuture Development site, they have uploaded 25 questions that could be used in a community setting to help develop conversations, these include:

What do you do to have fun?

What would you like to teach others?

if you could start a business what would it be?

Some of these might be more appropriate than others in settings with young people, but I would recommend you have a look at the whole list at this link The good life conversation , there are some good ones like ‘ if you and three friends could do something to improve the lives of others in this area, what would it be’ – and from these types of opinion/dream scenarios the group could develop and make plans.

8. The activities help, of course they do, board games, table tennis and craft are what solid youth clubs have orientated around for decades, all with the triple aims of helping develop competance and achievement, develop skills and social development and also to be a space of conversation in the process.

9. Follow dont lead. Let the tangent happen if thats where the young person has taken it, they might have taken it to that tangent for a reason. Follow it through. If its heading personal and personal for them then thats ok, its being directed by them. If its avoiding issues, then again thats where young people want to go with it. Young people in other settings get used to directed conversations, this may be a space where they can develop their own with adults and be more in control. Let it happen, and then see where it takes. Prepare to improvise, and prepare to listen and hold back. Image result for conversation

10. Phrases like ‘tell me more’ , or ‘describe what that was like’ or ‘you must have been ______ (excited/scared/worried) when that happened’ and other similar ones can be helpful as they take us out of questions, and into listening and trying to give more opportunity for the young person to use the space to talk about something and recognise their feelings in it.

 

So, there we go, much of this stuff is interchangeable from the streets to the clubs, with resources easier in a club setting. Id say that there are a number of things that we may be should try and avoid like, talking about school (if its out of context) , or even talking about ourselves ‘when i was 15 this kind of technology didnt exist’ type of thing as usually young people dont want to talk about school (unless they mention it) or are that bothered about us as adults at all. It takes a bit of guts to really do this conversation thing, because sometimes natural instincts get in the way like ‘how was school today?’ or interrupting or trying to control the conversation, yes maybe avoid subjects unsuitable, but on other occasions following and not leading will help no end.

So, 10 tips to help conversations in youthwork practice- anyone else out there want to add their own for others to share and develop practice? – use the comments below… thank you

 

Other Resources to help:

TED talks on conversation: https://www.ted.com/playlists/211/the_art_of_meaningful_conversa

Valuing conversation in Youthwork; http://www.infed.org

Developing Cold Contact conversations is in two chapters of ‘Here be Dragons’ – Link above.

Is it time to say goodbye to the ‘gathering of young people’ worship style event?

I had tried to put off thinking about it all day, all week in fact, it was something that i wasnt that looking forward to being involved in. But, and this part stays anonymous, i was asked to go along to a 2 monthly youth-worship event in one of the local churches in the town, and maybe have a conversation with some young people afterwards. Given that I have and had no prior contact with any of these young people, the request itself was odd. However, I went along.Image result for youth worship event

I arrived late, as i had taken my son to a friends house. There was no one on the door at the front of the church, the door looked closed but was open, so i went in to the church building, and found myself a seat near the back. I rarely do ‘making a scene’ in public.

On stage there was a 5-6 piece band, male musicians, one female singer, all young people aged 18-21 ish, all from local churches. Great, at least there’s some young people participating. Of a crowd of about 25, a generous 30 maybe, only 8 were actually young people, maybe there was 10.  I felt like I needed to check that this was the ‘youth event’ and not just young people doing the music for the ‘normal’ Sunday service in the church building. But it was, at least i think it was.

I could be really critical here, but im not going to be. Because underlying that criticism is two questions, and one overriding feeling. The feeling is guilt, but ill get to that later.

The questions however, are ones that we have got to really wrestle with, because, with the pending closing of Soul Survivor, there is a distinct possibility that the youth-gathering-worship-event is limping along on its final death march, dragging a few people along with it as a final fling. Yet with the growth of the Australian version of the youth worship scene in the UK, its evangelists are quick to put on the same, not learning from the journey of its existence in the UK over the last 50 years.

Though it never was the great act of rebellion, the youth worship scene in the UK once stood out as something different from the sunday church, and this was before my own time in it. A discussion with a pastor yesterday revealed that they did church as an act of rebellion, back in the day. But today – youth worship as an act of rebellion? its conformity to the hilt and why its not dangerous enough for young people to take a risk with.

Image result for youth worship event

There is no doubting that the youth worship scene catapulted to the mainstream in a swaith of relevancy and contemporaryness, has at its best revitalised singing and worship in churches, or at least created more opportunities that sunday church worship looks as much like a youth worship band (in instrumentation and style) that the youth worship service.

For many, there might be no difference, even the same songs, sang and performed by a similar style of folky, U2/Coldplay style music. The youth worship gathering is as least distinctive as it could ever be. By virtue of its own deemed success. Apparently its what cool churches do, but it barely attracts anyone except those who’d be in church somewhere else.

So, thats the first question – Is it time to say good bye the ‘youth gathering worship style event’?   

Alot of effort was put into the latest incarnation of one that I saw yesterday, the band were talented, the message cool, though the room was almost unbearably hot.

But questions about genuine participation leave me hanging, as do questions of faith, learning, discipleship and mission. Its not just about substance, its also about style, and as a young person said to me yesterday, they dont like singing, so why go to a singing event. Yet whilst young people are attending and participating in choirs in greater number in the UK, standing in a row singing along to a band wasnt something they would actually want to do. Its one reason they wouldnt go to church in the first place.

It is the participation and power stuff that gets me.

Last night wasnt so bad, it was summer, the room was light. But on other occasions beautiful churches are blackened out and mega watts of lighting are focussed on a stage so that one person, and a few musicians can stand in the light. And everyone else watches on from the sidelines, and can just watch as the stage entertains. Greater participation might not be possible if there are 100 young people, but reducing their involvement to singing, watching and putting their hand up if they pray a prayer, seems to be at least possible.  But the level of power is as worrying, and ego. Especially if its just adults on the stage. (and last night at least wasnt)

But participation. What role are young people in such events? Where are they on this scale – and which young people are highest on it?  its a youth event where youth well, pay (if theres a charge)

to have the pleasImage result for harts ladderure of being entertained – but is this appropriate. Giving this money to charity would be a better kingdom use for it – surely? So, if they dont pay – should they ‘play’ instead, and give through doing and participating? maybe this would be more valuable.

Where does participation occur in events that are primarily ‘for’ young people – rather than develop with them?

But the youth worship event itself can look like many sunday services already, so is it just a young person congregation of what already goes on? Does that means it needs to end? not necessarily, but then again, just singing new songs isnt making it that much different.

Yet why do I feel conflicted? 

Because this was me.

It was me, in the same town, 22 years ago.

It was me trying to be the lead guitarist, me trying to save a town, one gathering of young people together in a larger group at a time, with a venue and speaker. It was me. It was me, even though I had heard the warnings from others ‘yes we had so and so, but didnt get many people’ – though I though I was different, or ‘we ‘ were, because we could sing the latest delirous song, and could book Steve Chalke as the speaker.  Then we wanted to make History, sing of Jesus love forever and sing unending songs cos we’re so happy, the only difference now is that the mountains have to be climbed and counted, then we were trying to knock them down, youthful urgency and world changing has turned to God as therapy for difficulty – world changing and expectation of God moving because the mountains are trembling has mellowed to something far less urgent, confident and hopeful. So underlying the criticism is guilt. Guilt that this was once me, guilt that in the same town at 20 odd i maintained the status and dream and style of the same thing. I did to others what i knew was failing to me, because of my own ego, or lack of imagination to think of something different. Guilt that these young adults with all their creativity are following this same path and I could be slightly responsible- even though some of them werent born. I had been to soul survivor in the south and thought i could take this to the north and see the masses arrive.

But i was the masses, I was the paying christian who would travel to watford, and make soul survivor look good by being there and adding to the numbers – how many young people from watford really did do the soul survivor thing anyway? yes probably lots, but not because of the worship, but the years of grafting before hand. Turning up to do the worship without the grafting doesnt necessarily work, unless what you have captures a real niche. – anything else is christians travelling. Im back onto moaning and reflecting, rather than those feelings of guilt. Its guilt that I could have done something different to try and change the culture, make a shift and challenge the gravitational pull, that was stronger then, when soul survivor was on the crest of its early wave, and youth ministry was in the middle of its hey day and I was only late teens then myself, so who and what was I thinking.

Maybe my own criticism is deep down hiding a sense of guilt, that i probably shouldnt feel, but do, So….

If there is still a space for the ‘youth gathering’,  whats the alternative? 

Its not new but how might a youth event – become a youth church- and do so with the energy and participation of young people driving it – it might just rustle a few feathers, but churches are so dead that to ban a ‘youth church’ might send it underground and rebellious, being just what it needs. But i fear this is barely imaginative enough. It might do very little other than change its name. Though it would be a start.

The worship-gathering-youth event might be less the space as the outcome, but that the space for ideas for the next thing to emerge from.

The Spirit of the love of God might cause real action to become manifest and awakened, and not just social action, but Godly love action that might be social, or it might be a space for young peoples ideas, imagination and entrepreneurship to occur- as they do meet in a larger group, or their space to reflect on ‘worship’ or ‘mission’ or something else. Young people will only grow into the size of the space thats opened up them.  But that lack of emerging ideas and conversation space is not just a problem for the youth event, theyre only copying grown up church.

The alternative has to look theological and work – which is bias, because the youth worship event gathering is barely theological and barely works but is still the dominant paradigm, the gravitational pull of 30-50 years of youth ministry. But if attempts are made that the new thing is grounded in the love of God for the poorest, or freedom for the oppressed or Gods care for creation and hell bent on trying to worship God in spirit and truth thought loving the world, then it might have a chance. It might pull up the weeds literally and figuratively. It might not need some guilt ridden 40 year old moaning youthworker to provoke it, but id love to be part of a solution. Young people, yes even the christian ones, deserve better. They have much more to contribute.

So, maybe it isnt quite goodbye after all.

Maybe as a launch pad for something else, the youth worship gathering might act as a catalyst or melting pot for ideas and action, for a space of participatory discipleship for all those involved, maybe its got some legs as a method a process rather than the outcome. If they are going to be started – can they not be judged on noise or numbers, but discipleship, and loving action for others, and participation. Maybe make youth worship dangerous and risky again. After all, if young people want safe and conformity, they can buy a coldplay concert ticket. If they want to change the world, they join amnesty international. If the church is a movement of transformation, then it songs are written with passion and freedom in mind – and young people must lead the charge again.

A note in point though; We do have to deal with the lack of females in the bands. We have to deal with the lack of young people preaching. We have to think about power, about the space and about inclusion. If it was something young people could believe in then they would be inviting their friends, it would get a dangerous underground following that would challenge the status quo. Then the Spirit might be really on the move.

How will we find the good in youth ministry, if we don’t even look for it?

Oh well at least no one died tonight. 

This can often be the mantra at the end of a crazy out work session. But its not setting the bar very high in regard to evaluating or reviewing a session. Duffy Robbins in a piece on Youthwork Magazine 12 years ago wrote a piece on evaluating youth ministry, describing how for some volunteers, a good youth programme or activity or weekend event occurs when ‘young people cry’ at the end of it, and this was something that in the piece was manipulated by leaders though ‘inserting appropriate music’. Crying or not dying? are these the only factors that we’re looking for in youthwork practice? I would hope kind of not. The other measure, i hear very often, by clergy more than anyone else is well ‘if young people came back, then you’re doing something right’ this however also has its limitations for what constitutes appropriate or good practice, leaving little other than the unpredictability of attendance as the key marker.

If having successful youthwork is what we crave, then what we measure is critical.

There has been a trend to develop good reflection in youthwork and ministry practices (a trend, more a core component in youthwork, but hey), and yet, reflecting after a youthwork session can still feel like a painful delay, and pointless exercise in the midst of putting the chairs away and I wonder whether this is for a number of reasons, firstly that we’re asking the wrong questions, well at least we’re asking questions that have little context to them. For example, we might want to ask, and legitimately so, ‘in todays session, what went well?’  this is a great question. The problem with this question, is that without knowing what ‘went well’ looks like, and volunteers have an understanding of the identifyers of ‘went well’ then this ends up being the ‘nobody died, someone cried, or we had young people attend’ response.  ‘What went well, is a great question, if those involved know what is being looked for.  The opposite question, is then usually asked, what didnt go well. And this section can take ages to fill. Reflective youth workers can nearly always fill that box, as we’re never more than a footstep away from the precipice of doom that always finds ways to do things better, or on a bad night finds faults in everything or everyone. But this needn’t and shouldn’t be the way. We need to ask ourselves better questions. More to the point, youthworkers themselves should decide upon the questions, and not have questions imposed from above, which doesnt work.  (Sue Cooper, 2012)

Asking these 5 questions at the end of every session will transform your youth provision. Related image

It is a bold claim.

But I am willing to make it. If you’re as serious about young people in the ministry as the ministry itself, then these are the questions to reflect on at the end of every session with young people. If we ask these, and have responses to them, then we will know that a ‘session went well’ or didnt – because these happened or space was created for them to happen. The other claim I make is that it doesnt matter what your youth provsion is – these questions will transform it. It could be a youth worship event, an after school club, mentoring or youth fellowship group. More to the point, i am willing to also suggest that if we cannot put a positive answer to these questions on a regular basis in the youth provision, it is likely to not be enjoyed or attended by young people after an initial buzz or excitement of it existing. So, what are the questions? 

1. What were the quality conversations between leaders and young people?

A youth provision in which there was no conversations between young people and supportive adults is just an activity centre, a creche, a place to be entertained. Developing conversation turns a place of activity into a place where life happens, where shared understanding happens, and is the basis of purposeful relationship building. Our role is not to watch young people do an activity from the comfort of the kitchen, but to be involved in it, not youthworkers are not observers of young people, they are involvers with, and this is about conversation. So its a good idea to ask a question about conversations.

None of the conversations need to feel deep or meaningful – but thats only ‘to us’ they might be deep and meaningful to the young person

They dont have to feel significant- but they might be

It might be just a short chat about football with a young person who hadnt spoken to anyone for a few weeks, but its still of value.

Yes, for recording purposes we dont want to write down names of young people and who said what, but we can record initials, and general content like school issue, or family, or health, or sports, or housing or hobbies, and then any tangents that this took us into. If we’re good at creating a space for conversation, then this might take time. But thats a good thing right?

We could do stuff with all the subject matter and upload into charts or graphs, but more importantly is that these conversations are happening, and continue to do so. They represent that young people trust that the space is safe for them, because the people in it are safe to trust with the daily stuff of life – or the personal stuff of challenge. So, the first question, is about conversations – are they happening, who is having them (to develop training) and what are they about? and are they of quality – not just abusive banter (though they might be the start) .

2. In what ways did young people increase participation?

I am indebted to a student who I was delivering training to yesterday for this question. This was theirs. And so thank you. It is too good not to share.

During the activity, session or club – in what ways did young people increase participation? Is an absolute gold gem of a question. I have written on Participation before, so am not going to repeat myself here (see the ‘participation’ tag in the menu)

Participation can be seen in a number of different spheres. Young people may increase their participation in the current club – through helping with something, suggesting an idea, responding to an instruction – that sort of thing, but they may increase in participation as they take part in something of their own choice that they wouldnt normally (and being a volunteer in the god slot activity doesnt count), they might participate in deciding future activities, or decision making in the style of the group. I remember once when a group of young people who didnt like a youth event, went round as a group to the leaders house, shared their ideas, and the event changed direction completely as the ideas were responded to, and from then a open youth music cafe was started that gave young people space to play their own music, that ran for 7 years. (It was about to close otherwise) . The participation from young people at this venue went from merely observers in it, to high participation almost overnight. At their call.  Image result for participation ladder

This ladder might help in thinking about what increased participation might look like. It doesnt help us think about where the areas are in the activity we run where participation can happen. It may be easy to create spaces for participation in the areas such as food, or games – but can we increase the space for participation in areas we as adults prefer to be more in control of? There are a few examples here, in a journal piece ive recently written for CMS.

But what about where young people want to make a positive step to have greater participation in the organisation, school, charity or their local community? Through positive action and decision making, can this be facilitated through this youth provision – when we hear this is what young people want to do? Facilitating young peoples participation in the wider society, might be our role as purposeful adults – especially when we are trusted (via conversation! ;-))

But hang on, what if you’re thinking ‘our group isnt about participation, its about giving young people a fun space and telling them a story about faith’ – well if it isnt about young people developing participation in the faith community, and in the story itself, and this is modelled by participation in the group or session – then the story will remain only a story, and not one that young people can or would want to involve themselves in. No participation, will also mean eventually, no young people. Or at least none of the same ones after 6 months. And none very interested to be there at that. (its then we resort to bribery, ‘if you dont keep coming, you wont go on summer camp’.. shudder) . If young people are bored, then its not better entertainment they require, usually it is more meaningful participation.

Participation is key to everything, and so creating spaces for increased participation (even if it is counter cultural to the rest of the church, or organisation) is essential and as is a question at the end of every session to encourage it to be continually important.

3. What did we learn?

Young people are key to youth work – agreed? Good, thought you’d say yes to this one. And youthwork and ministry is about education – agreed? lovely. Therefore, one of the questions we need to ask at the end of every session has to have something to do with education, or learning to do with it.

In asking the question we put ourselves in the role as continual and ongoing learners, a place of humility and discovery, a place of wonder.

We might learn something about ourselves – our strengths or limitations (and think about how to enhance both) we might learn the same about young people

We might discover a gift, an ability and unseen talent in a young person (or volunteer)

We might learn about an attitude, a belief or a desire in a young person

Who’s voice have we heard from? 

We might learn to change our own views about something – because we’ve been open to learning from a young persons perspective

or something else…Image result for learning

We might be tempted to ask what did young people learn (because we tried to teach them something) but thats a path fraught with difficulty, because, what they heard and what they learned might be completely different, what they learned and what we wanted them to learn again very different. Young people may have learned who to get attention from in the session, yet we hoped they learned how to behave better. So the question is for us – what did we learn? 

The fourth question is this:

4. How did we take a risk with young people, or encourage them to take a risk? 

Unchallenging youth practices are boring. Or at least they will be fairly quickly. But you really dont need me to tell you this. If we’re not careful though, youth ministry takes the relevancy route and makes faith as easy to believe in as technology is trying to make everything as easy as possible. Making youth provision challenging is counter cultural. But challenge is what young people need.

If you ask any number of young adults in their 20’s why did they attend youth provision in their teens, aside from social friendships and fun, they will nearly all say learning, new experiences and being challenged to try new things. Challenge is part of the risk taking. Challenges are good for the self esteem of young people ( Baumeister, in Jocelyn Bryan, 2017 Being Human). It is good for young people to be challenged, therefore – we need to take some risks.

We might need to ditch the programme for the evening and host space for conversation, listen and learn. We might need to do an experiment in regard to discipleship, or had over an activity to young people for their participation in running it, bottom line, we take a risk, and do so because we want young people to be challenged and to raise their game – and we give over to trusting them. A risk might be to try and talk to a young person who doesnt normally say anything, or to create space for the quiet ones to participate, or something else… Risk taking and encouraging it turns us into the kind of youthworkers and volunteers who are still dreaming for something better, we havent given up. Trusting in young people to rise to the risks and challenge we offer causes what we do to stand in the face of prevailing opinions about young people.

Asking about risk taking – is question four of five. We should be thinking of taking risks each time we meet with young people. Even if that feels like we took a risk to try and talk with a young person at the pool table, well done, even if it was just a game of silent pool, you did at least put yourself in the place.

5. What do we need to do before the next session? 

This might sound intensely practical, and it is. But this session with a group of young people may have caused a whole host of things that need to be done to be done, so, write them down, and decide who and when they need to be done.

Is there a referral to an agency needed to be done?

do we need some training on an issue young people are raising?

is someone going to contact that young person the day after their job interview – see how it went? 

what about a talk with the leaders of the church about that idea the young people had – or creating a space for the leaders to meet with the young people directly? 

is someone going to fill in that funding bid? 

how might we change something about what we have always done, and need to prep for it this week? 

not just ‘practical’ but this could also be an opportunity to develop ongoing learning and reflection, training might be needed, but it could be that before the next session everyone of the leaders reads an online article or blog, or chapter from a book (if it can be photocopied) , or watches a film, listens to an album. It is about the ongoing desire to keeping learning and doing this collectively. So – what to do before the next session might not be to ‘plan’ the next session, or follow up pledges or promises made to young people (which are definitely needing to happen) but an opportunity for reflection.

It will transform your practice, sounds like it is hard work, but if we’re serious about helping young people take risks and developing learning, then its to be part of our own culture. (Even if, again, its not part of the wider church or organisation culture) As volunteers and workers developing provision for young people, its our game that we can take responsibility for.

So, there you have it. 5 essential questions to put on the after youth session review form. That will transform it. 

Why?  Because if these questions are asked, they become important, and what becomes important becomes part of the culture, and creating a culture of conversation, learning and participation is core to youth practice. If youthworkers are setting the tone for what makes a session ‘successful’ then young people will benefit. Success or failure is not part of good youthwork, its about conversation, participation, education, reflection and risks. A session that went well, will be because of these things. Not because someone cried or didnt die.

So – why will these questions transform your youthwork practice?

If we ask them at the end of every session, and make time to do this, not running home quickly after volunteering, then these become core to what the group is all about, and volunteers and leaders will be focussing on doing these things during the session, knowing that its whats going to be asked in reflection later. There is no magic quick formula to better youth provision, but I would hazard a guess that using these 5 questions, and in each session trying to work towards these things will make a significant difference, transform it? it may well do. Take it out of your comfort zone – almost certainly, hang on and enjoy the ride.

 

References

Jocelyn Bryan, Being Human, 2017

Jon Ord, Critical Issues in Youth work Management, 2012 (Chapter by Sue Cooper on Measurement)

Youthworkers today arent speaking from a position of strength, in society or the church – but then again have they ever?

Theres a bit of a recurring conversation going on in a number of different places at the moment, that is building a conclusion that Youthworkers today arent speaking from a position of strength.

On one hand there has been the decimation, or virtual obliteration of funding from local councils (brought about from national government funding reductions, excused by ‘austerity’ as a narrative) towards statutory youth services.  This has had a knock on effect almost everywhere in regard to youth and community work, and for young people themselves. Much ink has been spilt on working out all the effects. From loneliness, knife crime, mental health on an individual and social level – but also where schools and other institutions have been subtley charged with filling in the gaps – making a mockery of funding cuts and also trying to ‘do youthwork’ without the agenda less approach of youthwork. (That post is here: The effect of disappearing youth clubs )  This reduction in youthwork, then has an effect on those seeking to be employed and qualified in it, and the reduction in courses, funding and applications for these. Yes, the voluntary sector and social businesses may have been given the open book to fill the gap, but they do so with orgainsational survival and competition as core objectives – stuff which flies in the face of partnerships, collaboration and community which underpins the very nature of what youthwork is all about. Anyway. Thats one conversation.

The other conversation is in the faith ‘sector’ , and it is similar. Though not starting from centralised funding cuts. It does have funding as part of its issue. The last 10 years has seen the gradual shift in youth work posts in faith organisations/churches in the UK.  Whilst there are still many vacancies in some areas , this is also coupled with the reductions in courses across the country. A conversation about the pay for youthworkers, isnt new, given the extortionate housing costs in some places means that this is only a profession for the single, the young, or with those with a decent second income in the family. Unless a position also includes accomodation. Some of the high water marks of youth ministry, such as Soul Survivor, and collaborative working on resources (see ‘joined up, 2003, and other resources) gave the impression of a growing impetus for youth ministry as a profession and the hope of a collective voice, that inspired and could encourage many. A look back at Youthwork magazine from 1999, and it reveals colleges and courses cramming up the pages with adverts to attract people to them, a variety of jobs and vacancies, a rhetoric of positivity and a belief that youth ministry was the future, and the church needed to catch on and up.

The conversation now is that Youth work and ministry is not in a position of strength.

The reality is that youth work and ministry never was in a position of strength. Position of ‘stuff’ maybe. 

Of course stuff was happening. The myriad of activity… But was the stuff happening that was in the corridors of the power brokers?

Youthwork slipped from the department for education (where it had sit for a considerable length of time) , but were youthworkers in that conversation. How might youthworkers affect education policy – rather than the other way around? Yet the place of youthwork slipped to crime prevention departments and now leisure and tourism…

At the same time were youthworkers in churches busy taking kids to soul survivor, were they also holding or furthering conversations at the time about increasing the status of youth ministry in the church, at a systematic level? Ensuring better pay, or housing, or stipend, or support, or recognition for the ministry within these settings? only a few, and that seemed hard work, easier to play the passive game. Not make a noise or fuss. Accept a low wage for the sake of calling. Contribute to a year out scheme that could be deemed like modern slavery. Then move on to not be a youthworker and represent young people for a stable role that carries a ‘higher calling’ (by others), but would that occur if the youthwork role was more stable?

Yes, as youthworkers we like to be in the thick of it, in the action, behind the scenes, getting messy in the margins, much of the time we’re trying to encourage young people to have a voice, and promote their voices (all fantastic) such as the recent youth parliaments and protests – all the time not realising or being able to do anything about the rug of that process and practice being pulled from under our feet. Empower others, dont do political. But thats not got anywhere. Youthwork is political. And the campaign groups continue, just. Though in youth ministry, its less a campaign group, more a few experienced youthworkers trying to get something done. Its difficult to make waves in a culture of compliance in a role that is paid for. Dont upset the payroll.

Systematic change is still required. All the stuff about young people in society requires and demands it. Imagine if loneliness is reduced because youthworkers (the same one) is present in communities for 10 years. Thatd be helpful wouldnt it? What about the same for all the activities youthworkers do, sports, social and spiritual – all things bereft in communities, where theres one crisis (obesity) to another (mental health) – so what if there was strategic and systematic commitment to youth and community work provisions in every community. How might that encourage the process of helping young people flourish, its probably immeasurable, and thats probably the point.

Would this be the same in churches? The best examples of where youth ministry works is where the persons have been around for more than 5 years. Not unlike the community, any community thrives on this kind of stability, and young people are no different. And I am guilty as charged, given up a role after 2 years, and struggle with another after the same. It would systematic change of thinking from funding and affiliations to commit to fund workers who are involved with youthwork for them to have significant long term contracts, and the stability equivalent at least to the minister. But this is not an argument from a position of strength, but then again, even at its surfing of the crest of its own bouyant wave, it was barely strength anyway. Strength implied that people were listening to youthworkers and their voice and enabling them to have increased participation in processes, methods and politics, that youthwokers were trying valiantly to encourage young people themselves to have. And whilst i write off the last 20 years in one fail swoop, there are and were some exceptions to all of this. But very little of that has lasted to the point where current decisions about youthwork and young people are made in the knowledge and collaboration with youthworkers or their approach. Theres dragons den meetings to decide funding, and consultations that appear relatively tokenistic.

What might it take for youthwork to actually be in a position of strength?  In both the government and the church?

and who is prepared to make a stand to cause this to happen, and how will anyone know when this has happened? 

Was youth work in a position of strength? Maybe it was just in a better place than it is today by a long way – but strength?  not sure about that one..

Lets get Theological! On making Theology, not models & strategies first in Youth Ministry

You wont read this post. I guarantee you, no one will read this post. Even with a sneaky reference to an Olivia Newton John lyric in the title, you wont read this, because its got Theology in the title as well. I should have put sex, or masturbation, or something witty, clever or clickbaity, but no, in the spirit of honesty this piece is what it says it is. It is about theology and youth ministry, and I am aware no one will read it.

So, in that case I am going to go full on, deep and thoughtful, safe in the knowledge that it wont be read. I know this because nobody attends seminars on youth ministry and theology. Or conferences on theology and youth ministry. Very few people talk about theology when it comes to solving the problems of young people ‘leaving the church’. Instead its about practices, making practice better, trying to find a missing piece, a magic formula, a new way, or method. It can be that there isnt a conversation about theology, that doesnt only exist in place of formal theological conversation, the college. And for many others thats where it often stays.

So, because there is no grafting, searching and desire from the ‘top’ to do theology about youth ministry, there can be very little appetite from the ground to see it as being worthwhile. Its easier to drag a resource off the shelf, or do what we think works, or uptake business models like ‘develop strategies’. If you want to read the part one to this post, it is here in which i suggested that youth ministry needed to turn to performance theology, rather than business strategy. This is the long awaited, and probably grossly under-read, post that follows that one.

We have inherited a practice of trying to get things right to save and keep young people, and this puts practice and strategies first over and above theology.   Image result for theology?

Youth Ministry needs Theology first. – and that takes work.

However.

The first thing to say is that we are all theologians. Thats every volunteer, youth pastor, helper, leader involved in youth ministry in a church/faith setting. We are all theologians already, because, and this isnt the only reason, young people are reading us and our practices to glean theological insight through them. What we do is a theological act – it is being performed as youth ministry is done. Theology is transmitted in the way we operate.

So think about that for a second. Everything? yes…

In the way we talk about young people behind their backs, in the way we give responsibilities, in the way we decide, in the way we hold or give away power, in the drive to the bowling, or how we stay in the kitchen and dont get involved, in everything to do with youth ministry, every act is theological already. Our beliefs are already affecting our behaviour, but regardless of those beliefs, young people are reading us as if we’re the book. Our Theology is implied in what we do.

We are already in one extent performing it.

But that doesnt mean we get away with just acting it out. For, how do we know we’re acting out theology appropriately, or fittingly?  (its not about effectiveness, effecacy is a reductionist business term that we should ban in churches)

Thats where at least ‘thinking theologically’ about youth ministry also is important. If we’re in the ‘business’ of doing theology. The two go hand in hand. Theres also the theology within our institutions… however,

So, what do we need to thinking theologically about?

We need to think theologically about young people. Who they are in the sight of God, how they are created and loved, accepted and made in his image. And so much more besides….

We need to think theologically about discipleship. If this is the game of the church – to make disciples- then its not a bad idea to think theologically about what being a disciple is all about, and how a disciple is ‘formed’ and what a disciple does ‘performs’ .  What kind of discipleship? Action first or learning first, or both? So we need to think theologically about learning, about study, about actions (and the actions of God in our actions) Theres some stuff of discipleship in the categories section, and resources below.

We need to think theologically about Culture. About the place of the church in the culture, and what the role of young people is participating in the church in the culture – for, against, within, above or to transform it (Neibuhr) or something else – to offer an alternative, creating something new… What is Christ offering young people in discipleship? (and how might the church follow this)

We need to think theologically about Mission – and what we do and what young people do, what is Mission, What is God like if she is missional? How might young people play parts in mission, and who decides whether they can or cant?

There needs to be thought around theology of worship – what is it? Is only ‘christian’ worship worship? What worship doesnt need a band, a stage or a PA system, what worship is pleasing to God? What worship creates opportunities for young people to transform the world? Is worship a gathered experience or an emerging one, a public one or private one?

We also need to think theologically about how young people have faith; What is faith, how is it tested, how do they use it, act on it, and practice it in the every day, – where do they do faith?Related image

We need to think theologically about sex and relationships, about gender, about LGBT, about mental health, depression,  about drugs and alcohol, about education and ambition, about power, greed, globalisation, about politics, about technology, communication, about inclusion, money and fame. Because young people arent looking to us for the answers anymore, because half the time these are difficult subjects that we leave to one side. It is not and never enough to pick stuff up on these subjects off the shelf. Young people also dont want us to give one answer, and presume that culture has another answer, theyre far too clever for that. We need to know how to answer these things, and give tools for interpreting and navigating. There is no ‘one thing’ the bible says, or ‘one thing’ the world says about these things. To say this to young people would be patronising. But that doesnt mean to say we dont have responsibility to think theologically, biblically and ethically about these things to help young people share in and lead us in that exploration of learning.

What about what we do with young people? Might we stop and think about the activities and think theologically about these? About Residentials, gatherings of worship, games, gap years, funding, about festivals and the like, about group work, if everything we do implies theology, then what kind of God is being transmitted through these – what kind of church is? God of attendance and watching? God of large groups (where God is communicated as ‘always being’) God of challenge and risk, God that is ‘felt and experienced’ away from home, away from the local church – Thinking theologically about these things might mean that taking young people to an experience might create a view of God that might actually be unhealthy or even unbiblical. But then, if theology isnt important, then it doesnt matter..does it?Image result for theology?

Thinking Theologically about youth Ministry, might mean more than being motivated by the faith. Though its a good start. Working out how Faith and Beliefs motivate us in youth ministry is definitely a first step, we can spend too long busting a gut to get this bit right, and in reality, we’re never going to get this perfect (theres no such thing). What we need to do in youth ministry is live with the imperfection and the ongoing drama of it, but theologically thinking about youth ministry, given that as youth ministers, volunteers, pastors, workers and leaders, we are urged to be both theological and practical, reflecting and active. Part of the tool kit for us is Theology, our story, our church’s story, and the story we are called to live, the story which we perform and encourage others to. It shouldnt just motivate us like a bad head teacher with a stick (thinking Miss Trunchbull in ‘Matilda’) – but well at us from the deep, call us to something higher, take us (and others) to the margins, where likeness of Jesus is an ongoing task.

Theology emerges from the deep, from the margins. Theology might emerge through conversation between friends (Emmaus), might visit unexpected to give peace, might be present in space of the unlikely. We dont need to try and think theologically if what we’re doing is already good, loving, kind, faithful, generous, and working towards peace, wholeness and restoration – these marks of the kingdom need no law. But we might need to develop new theological language, reflection and resources for the road on which these travels take us. Theology from the streets, like St Francis’s ‘Sidewalk Spirituality’ or Ignatius, or other Saints of the Past. Thinking theologically about ministry might itself call us in new directions, new learning, new faith, thats where we might need to take risks, having experiences of God in the space of the margins, might cause us never to go to the gathering to find God – and thats ok. Youth Ministry is, like any ministry, an ongoing dramatic act. And in the drama, what kind of God is needed for the ongoing walk? One that Speaks and Acts – one that is present and urging, as Kevin Vanhoozer describes – is the holy author in our midst. 

Always speaking. Always giving us reference points. Always giving us things to relate to. Always prompting and provoking.

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Where is the space for the Holy Author in the Midst of Youth Ministry? In every conversation – possibly, in every approach – possibly, in every action – maybe. The truth is we cant model our Youth Ministry on God – we’re not perfect enough for this. God isnt a model to be copied. God is a mystery who speaks, a creator who does as he pleases (Daniel 4:35) and is not restrained. We need to think and act and listen theologically. Its that Holy Author who will communicate and save. Its that Holy Author who is happy for an ongoing communication, whether this is ragged or poetic, praiseworthy or problematic. Its that Holy Author who is present in, with and amongst. God who might, just might not be white, distant and male – and that might change everything.

In conclusion, Theology needs to go first. Not just because we’ve tried everything else, but because thats where it should be, and not even because by doing this ‘it will work’ – no- because ministry is a risk taking endeavour not an exact science. We dont need to just ‘get on with the job’ of youth ministry, and neither is theology ‘just for the college’ and no one can avoid being theological. Putting this off does a disservice to young people, it does a disservice to ourselves. We can try and find a perfect method, strategy, model, process and practice. And that could consume us (and we can nearly always ‘do’ better) but that search is a painful one and full of frustration, comparison and frailty. Lets ditch the models, and have meaning, mystery and mission first.

Oh and some of this is only the tip of the iceberg….. directions to start, not journeys of discovery along the way hence some resources below:

References and Resources

Talking about God in Practice (2010) by Helen Cameron

Youthwork and the Mission of God (1997) by Pete Ward

What Theology for Youthwork?  by Paul Nash (Grove Booklet Y8)

Faith Formation in a secular age by Andrew Root (2017)  

When Kumbaya is not enough by Dean Borgman (1997)

Models for Youth Ministry by Steve Griffiths (2013)

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root (2007)

Starting Right – Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry by Dean, Clark et al (2001) 

Remythologising Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (2010) (more on theodrama in the categories section)

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (2014)

The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean/Andrew Root (2013)

Faith Generation by Nick Shepherd (2016)

Here be Dragons; Youthwork and Mission off the map by Lorimer & Richard Passmore (and me) (2013)

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf (2007) 

 

Whats the point of youth work?

A pretty easy to answer question- isnt it? However, I was asked to do a 5 minute presentation on this question, and could have probably expanded it to a 150 credit module length of study. I imagine, knowing what the point of youthwork is is worth knowing so we know how to justify it and plead for its continuation. Here is what i think the point of youthwork is:

Youthwork is about young people, first and foremost, it makes it different from school, from social services and other institutions as young people are and should be placed first and foremost as the point for and at which the activity exists.

As a definition i would say that youthwork is a professional relationship with a young person who is the primary contributor in their social context.

Youthwork as a philosophy is geared towards and biased towards young people, being with them, not just for them, and has young peoples education, welfare and community as its core. Youthwork is about developing positive purposeful relationships between young people and adults, and learn, and create opportunities through these relationships.

Youthwork exists within the local community as it is affected by it, as young people learn to use, accept or reject the resources in their community, as youthworkers our role is to help young people navigate through these choices and also remove barriers that prevent them from participation.

The point of youthwork is to believe in young people and to work with them to use their gifts and accomplish dreams they may have for themselves and their local community.

  1. Youthwork is about values – empowerment, inclusion, participation, valuing young people
  2. Builds on what is already – turning open activity sessions in young person led and developed spaces of participation and empowerment
  3. Youthwork opens the opportunities for young people and their participation, from attenders and deciders to creators (and challenging the barriers that prevent this)
  4. Youthwork trusts young people and raises their game to take risks
  5. Youthwork is a place of fun, social relationships and creativity.
  6. Youthwork creates a safe space, a home for young people, where they can belong.
  7. Youthwork values young people individuals and groups in their community
  8. Youthwork challenges the narratives about young people and is inherently political
  9. Youthwork recognises that young people have needs, but focus on their gifts and positives in order to overcome them
  10. Youthwork creates a space for innovation and improvisation
  11. Youthwork is a space to help young people reflect on their place in the world and contribute within it
  12. Youthwork is also what people who do youthwork say that it is, it is an ongoing conversation. It continues and is future orientated.

The point of youthwork is that it strategises from the point of contact, it involves young people and believes in them to be better than what they may have been told about themselves. Youthwork changes young people, it changes all of us in the encounters we have.

You will notice a variety of influences here, from Howard Sercombe, Kerry Young, Jeffs and Smith, Goetchius and Tash, all deep thinkers and practitioners who have shaped the conversation so far and its our job to keep the conversation going. And help the conversation about young people be integral to other agencies and institutions.

What do you think – whats the point of youthwork?

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