Review of ‘Here be Dragons’ – Judith Sadler (DYO, Newcastle Diocese)

‘Here Be Dragons. Youth Work and Mission Off the Map.’ 

By Richard and Lorimer Passmore – with additional material from James Ballantyne and the StreetSpace Community of Practice. (Frontier Youth Trust 2013)

Available at the North East Religious Learning Resources Centre https://www.resourcescentreonline.co.uk/  (and also FYT at http://www.fyt.org.uk

This book about ‘detached’ youth work is published by the ‘Frontier Youth Trust’ which ‘serves to empower and bring about justice with young people, and to equip those working with young people on the margins of the Church and society…’ (P10)

Having been clear about the distinction between ‘detached’, ‘outreach’ and ‘mobile’ youth work, the authors devote almost half of the book to detailed practical advice on how to begin and develop detached youth work. Identifying 9 stages, the authors describe them in the context of their own long term experience, with quotes from practitioners and frequent references to behaviour modelled by Jesus.

A first element of learning is the reassuring reminder that no one wanting to work amongst young people never needs to worry about being ‘out of touch’ with youth ‘culture’ (ideas, customs and social behaviour)! The reason being that if we are honest, very few of us have any hope of keeping up with youth culture because it is shifting and moving all the time – and it does so as quickly as the sand in the desert!

Much more important is our willingness to engage fully with whatever is going on amongst young people, whatever their ‘culture.’ As with any other relationships that we hope might be meaningful, our genuine interest, humility, willingness to actively listen and learn enables us to venture into a whole new territory that brings as much change for us as it does for them.

If the Church is prepared to engage in youth ministry without an agenda or prescribed outcomes, but in the hope of discovering more about how God works through the experience of others – experience often beyond our own imagination, then maybe we will find ourselves noticing anew ‘something distinct and holy happening.’ (p13).

This apparently simple and agenda-free approach is not to be mistaken for non-intentional, unstructured and casual practice. On the contrary, it requires competent practice and effective policies. The hardest part is the requirement to humbly step out into an unknown ‘landscape’, confident in who we are – and in our story; but also prepared to look for and celebrate God at work in those with whom we are engaging.

It is all about mutuality and community – recognising that, since each one of us is created by God, we are interdependent on one another. My wholeness is dependent on the wholeness of others – and vice versa. To become whole together requires humility and respect; we have to be prepared to be vulnerable and to have the courage to let go of our individualism in order to embrace community. It also requires long term commitment for us to stay around and to be faithful to the young people.

Key themes of detached youth work described here may seem very obvious (and transferable to other contexts), but are so often overlooked. They include the importance of really immersing ourselves in the context and culture of those whom we hope to serve; the preparedness to give adequate time to build trust and invest in real relationships; the hard work of entering into ‘proper’ conversation; the willingness to take the kind of risks that give space for young people to connect with their spiritual selves.

We have to be willing to be part of a process that integrates a culture of mutuality within a properly prepared and managed structure, with policies and procedures; managing the tension of engaging in mutuality, whilst recognising boundaries and knowing where responsibilities lie. We also have to be prepared to balance a willingness to expect the unexpected at the same time as measuring how this practice leads to changes in identified capabilities of the young people amongst whom we work.

The authors are passionate about the potential for change and renewal in the Church when youth work practice is carried out in an attitude of mutuality, and they hold a confident expectation of the possibility of something unexpected and new emerging. This confidence is based on an expectation that the process itself is as important as any outcome, and that its effectiveness is measured as much by changes in us as it is in changes in those amongst whom we work. They truly believe that if we can take the risk of working in this way, a new kind of community emerges – a new shape of Church.

Judith Sadler