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.

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12 Questions to help a church get to know its local community

At a time when the church is looking for the next quick easy to implement idea, the call to connect and engage with its actual local community can be a tough one. Its is far easier to ‘host’ events, or to ‘communicate via noticeboard’ rather than create and connect in a local situation. Beyond the noticeboard there are ‘one stop’ shop programmes that can be easily implemented, again using events as a starting point. So, by way of helping, why not take this test to see how well you know your local community. So here are 12 questions, that if you dont know the answer to – might be worth reflecting on how well as a church congregation the local community is known.

  1. What is the population of the ‘Parish/Parliamentary ward’ that your church is in?
  2. The nearest bus service to your church building – what time is the last bus?
  3. What are the names of all the head teachers in the primary schools in the area?
  4. What proportion of children are obese in the local community?
  5. What time does the local supermarket shut- and how much higher are the prices there compared with tescos?
  6. How many people are described as ‘very’ unhealthy as determined by NHS figures?
  7. What is the life expectancy in the community?
  8. Whats the figure for anti-social behaviour in the community- and where are the ‘hotspots’?
  9. Is the employment figure for the area – higher, lower or the same as the national average?
  10. How many people are regarded as ‘smokers’ in the local community?
  11. Whats the average rainfall for the local area?
  12. How many people who live within 1 mile of the church building – attend the church?

 

How well did you do? Of course, there are no right answers to these questions, because every situation is different. But how many of these questions do you think you know the answer to – or more specifically – know the answer to. Because it is important to know this kind of information in order so that the church can focus on what kind of ‘services’ it can provide, what kind of needs there are in the community, and how it can be useful and serve. Whether its foodbanks, youth clubs, meals, reading or job clubs – getting a handle on this kind of data is crucial for enabling a church to do mission well in a local community.

But actually it isnt. 

Its because, nearly all of the answers to the questions above can be found by barely leaving an laptop. Most of them are found on government websites, in order that services, departments and resources can be allocated – is that the same game that the church is looking to play?

So, instead – these are the 12 questions that might help a church congregation know its local community? 

  1. There was a birthday celebration in the pub down the street on friday night – what was the name of the persons birthday?
  2. What is the name of the favourite book of the child in year 5 who is often missing school due to family issues?
  3. The person who runs the newsagent, what football team does he support?
  4. The people who moved into the local area in the new houses just built, one family has a dog- what breed is it?
  5. Theres a group of residents campaigning for a local issue, whats the name of the fundraiser?
  6. Where do groups of young people sit and chat quietly together after 7pm?
  7. What do people say is good about the area, what makes it strong?
  8. What is already going on, and how might people want to contribute to make a difference locally?
  9. What brings the community together- apart from crisis?
  10. Who are the people in the community who act as its ‘helpers’ and contributors?
  11. Who brings colour and life to the community?
  12. Where might there be signs of faith already in the community?

Instead of responding to need, and becoming like another service, or projecting a view that people are projects to be solved. Being known in the local community is about being knowledgeable in the informal moments, the conversations and gathering points, the cafes and walkways. How might a church get to know its local community, and build connections within it, it needs to be present and communicate at the point of being present. 12 questions to help a church connect with its local community, and 12 that sadly can judge it from afar, and look at it through needs rather than human story perspective.

Why daily life, not data is more important knowledge for the youth worker

Early in youth ministry for me it seemed to be implied that being a good youthworker was about maintaining an ongoing knowledge of popular culture. This was reflected in youthwork magazine (circa 1997) suggesting ‘what was hot’ and what was not. A tool to ‘help’ the beleaguered youth ministry volunteer ‘stay relevant’  by being up to date and have a knowledge of popular culture. That youthwork magazine was printed bi-monthly then, by definition it was already out of date, but never mind it suggested a view that learning is required from popular culture. And as cultural workers who connect with young people this is true. To an extent. But its tiring trying to keep to date. As this photo shows, knowing about David Beckham and Teletubbies was crucial youthwork knowledge in 1997. (and yes I have kept old youthwork magazines..for such a time as this..)

Popular culture has developed a new more recent tool. For a significant energy is invested in the cumulative report and research from culture. It is from this that more general assessments are made, such as generation X, Y or ‘millenial’ . Image result for generation xThere may be learning that can be gleaned from these, though often it is little more than general knowledge, it gives an insight into a culture, if a general culture actually exists amongst young people/people.

Then there is written knowledge, the theories, research and thinking behind youth work and ministry, from education to sociology, politics, from theology to Mission and psychology even. Youth Ministry adopts knowledge from a number  of sources, even business, entertainment and advertising, all wrapped up in Books. Books that are sometimes read, sometimes written essays on, and so, one form of knowledge is that from the books. Books though require time, and considerable reviewing before being published, not all are useful, but at least time has gone into them. Unlike the bloggers. Like this. Just whip out a blog in an hour or so. It is still the sharing of knowledge in written form though. Bloggers might provoke, the odd question maybe.

However, though some of the knowledge might fore-arm you for the task of youth work. There is no hiding the reality that knowledge of the local context is also required.

That local knowledge can be in the form of Data. From Nomisweb.gov.uk. to the NHS and Police, you can find many pieces of data about a local area. From obesity in the under 5’s, smoking in the over 65’s, employment, population and households, again, some of this information is revealing. Some concerning. Some, when shared in churches might actually cause congregations to realise that at times they might know very little about their local area. And as a youthworker, all this information is critical for being able to do fantastic youth work in the local area isnt it. You know find out what the community needs, see where the gaps are, think about anti social behaviour from the police stats, alcohol consumption from the health ones, and there you go, project up and running.

But data, doesnt give the full picture.

It points to the consequences, not always the causes. It points to the deficiencies not the desires, the needs not the personalities. The only data found is usually negative. There is no data for musical instrument use, or drama classes, or number of books read ( just literacy issues), or games of football played, jokes told, friends who did something caring.

We need to build up knowledge of the context, from within the context. We might learn the name of the shop keeper by actually using it, the favourite colour of the boy who is on the obesity statistic. What that 15 year old girl who does smoke, what does she dream of, hope for and care about? – what might she be good at? What is her story? what is all their stories? And so – from the streets and in our churches, communities, we need to hear and share stories, hear the buzz of life. Statistics might tell us one thing, stories involve us in another, the heart of the community. There is no such place as no place (apart from the ‘no place’ in county Durham) – because community and society is where people are and interact. There are a myriad of stories every day. As Freire said, all the theoretical knowledge he had was nothing compared to the knowledge of the community that every person living there had.Image result for stories It was only from there, and with people that he was able to create the possibility of change. It is this kind of knowledge that we need, of what is actually happening. No amount of strategising with statistics, consultation without concrete collaboration, planning without people will do anything other than provide a service that people might only reject or reluctantly accept (as a user). It is back to the strategising from the context and shaping possibilities through conversations, thats the knowledge we need. Its knowledge from people, with people and of people. As they really are.  As youthworkers, we need to leave spaces to be trusted to be told stories. Often i hear more stories of life from young people on the streets, than those in schools or churches, the environment doesnt always lend itself. Yet that doesnt mean that we dont keep trying at listening, hearing and provide spaces where we value stories as knowledge more than anything.  As youthworkers we need to be in the heat of the action, and attentive to learning from it.

After all,  Its not as if anyone said – thats the greatest data ever told.

And who is my neighbour? – A locally outward facing church – notes from todays sermon

Despite an attack of the ‘Theresa May’s’ ie waking up with a bit of a cold, I preached this morning on the subject of ‘a healthy church is an outward facing one’ – based on the Peter Scuzzero resource  ( which i did not have the opportunity to read) . So- with the theme and title in mind I then had an empty page to reflect and share on the theme.

At the base of this post is the slides from the talk, which might make only a little sense. I have  feeling that i ended up doing a ‘best’ of and skimming a whole host of really meaty subjects in just one sermon, or what felt more like a seminar.

I arranged the session into three parts, thinking theologically, thinking context and thinking mission.

In the first section I gave people several printed bible verses, and the pictures to spend time in small groups responding the the question:

‘What is God like?’ – and what has he called us to do? 

As the groups returned, I shared the following quotations

‘Mission is Gods yes to the World’ – David Bosch

‘The church is to be the theatre of the Gospel’ – Kevin Vanhoozer

There was then a break for coffee.

After which there was a quiz on the local area. In which i found lots of historical and statistics from the area.

However, the point I made afterwards is that looking from a distance to strategise is irrelevant via statistics. The important information locally are names, interests, gifts, and people behind the statistics. Going on to say that gifts rather than needs are a better starting point. 

As youll see from the slides, i then developed the idea of church as prophetic, as involved in the action, and church being involved in following the coat tails of God already at work in the world – and how might we find him/her in action? (if we’re not present ourselves…) 

In putting the above together,I suggested that pioneer, new churches, have it somehow easier, as they can start from scratch. However, they can often fall into the same huddles of gatherings, formation and still place expectations on the relationships created. Yet an established church – how might this become pioneering, and outward focussed and missional at its core? When it might have organisation, or status anxiety as a problem. It might have lost its status of importance culturally, and might fear the worst in a specific situation, but it still has resources, a story and hope for any local situation. Image result for frederick buechner

At times i used stories of vulnerability – to go and be on the streets – the story of the Women who Visited and conversed with women in the brothels – this post is here: https://www.christiantoday.com/amp/these.city.women.took.a.bible.into.their.local.brothel.what.happened.next/115447.htm.  If the darkest, most easiest place to have a moral opinion on can be full of hurting humans who responds to the welcome call of hope and love from God. Then no place is too dark. Not even the north east of England.

I closed with a reminder of Vincent Donovan – of going to new places, being courageous and making new beautiful places of hope and faith.  So, it was a bit of a hotch potch of a few themes to do with mission. From Mission dei, to asset based community development, with theology and ecclesiology thrown in too, each could be a three hour/day seminar on their own. But for the local baptist church in Hartlepool, a skimming of and reflection on what being outward focussed, present and performing the gospel might be all about. I suggested that churches should not be missional/outward looking just to satify a book, but because the church’s walls should be thin,  and closer to what we are called to be, as we follow the way of Christ, to walk humbly and love mercy on the stage of the world. A world that we need not be afraid of.

An outward facing church? – that might be risky, dangerous and challenging. But what an adventure…

an outward facing church_

When we meet young people – what do we say to them?

This is one of the most common questions people ask me about working with young people, especially young people who are encountered on the streets or public places.

When I meet young people what do I say?

And it is not just young people on the streets.  When we’re youthworkers in schools, churches, clubs and groups, the most essential aspect of it is the conversations we have with young people.

One of the key arguments in my recent dissertation, basing youth ministry as theatre is that as youthworkers and volunteers we have a responsibility to create the right kind of stage for the drama of interactions to occur. It has to be a healthy place where conversations can happen and are valued. On the streets we might not get chance to create the space, but in reality as young people are in their chosen space it shouldn’t matter. All we need to be is approachable.

What we then say is affected by our intentions and values.

Do we focus on what young people are doing? (That they shouldn’t be)

Or what they could be doing? (That they aren’t)

Are they a tool for our ministry or project?

 Or a person in their own right? 

Is the relationship I want to create just a means for something else? Ie has it become strategic?  

On paper many questions we might ask- even those in this excellent post below by nurture development http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/abcd-practice/good-life-conversation/ can be inappropriate depending on our tone on the setting and how authentic we are. A curious question might be nosy. A young person may be suspicious if we want their ideas. But we persist because we want to listen to their views and give their voice value.

What we say might be nothing. Or just to encourage them to say more so ; ‘that sounds interesting tell me more about…. ” , but its as always an art, a drama of conversation. One that there are many prompts and tangents possible. One where we might do well to actively listen to what young people bring to it, what the context brings to it, and what God prompts we hear in it too.

At least if we have the intention to listen. The intention to focus on young peoples strengths, resources, dreams and possibilities we might be treating them with respect. We continually learn in the conversation as we also give into it. It’s that thing about improvising all over again. And I still think this has value;

On feedback for a recent youth club, a young person said ;”we like coming here because the leaders actually talk with us,  we’ve been to other clubs and they just stay in the kitchen”.  Without conversation our youth ministry is just another activity club. Without conversation that seeks to respect and support young peoples dreams, ideas and learn with them.  It is just another distraction but has limited meaning for them . They know when they’re just a tool being used by us.

What do we say when we meet young people?  Whatever we think might help us understand them more.

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 https://www.youthandchildrens.work/  )  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.

 

Vulnerability as the starting point of community transformation

“But that might mean we have to be vulnerable”

I was at a gathering of people this week, mostly clergy, and the subject within it was about conversations, and creating opportunities to have conversations with people. The kind of thing that detached youthwork is pretty much uniquely and solely about. Ideas flung across the room, such as chatting to people who were waiting at the bus stops, or travelling on the same bus. It was recognised that people at first would think this was odd, but after a while there would be a process of acceptance, rapport, trust and then the capacity for conversations to occur. Again, its the kind of process that is visible in detached youthwork. It was suggested in the meeting that Clergy ‘just dont have the time to do this’  which is fair enough, though is only an excuse and realisation of other priorities. What was more revealing was the comment given, and said with more feeling:

‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’

On the positive, the statement recognised that vulnerability felt difficult. And that as a member of the clergy their role came with it many associations of power. But in a split second of a statement, the light dawned – for real conversations, to be trusted by people, and to really connect authentically in unusual spaces, meeting people in theirs, requires vulnerability.

Detached youthwork, and even to a slighly lesser extent open access youth club work that I have been involved in in the last 10 years has given me a regular experience of vulnerability, or at least giving me the possibility of vulnerability, as at times I choose not to let go, not to commit fully, protect myself. Though for others looking at it, it is risk taking, unpredictable and requires vulnerability. Yet in a different way, I have felt even more vulnerable in the last few months, one to many family related health scares and worries, which include a fair dose of fear and worry – and vulnerability – combined with the dawning reality of redundancy from my current job at DYFC, these have, if im honest, caused me to feel a different sort of vulnerability, to just a vocational vulnerability, a vulnerability of not being in control, a vulnerability of emotions, even though I am used to trying to give others power, and meeting them where theyre at, having almost no power in situations gives this a new meaning. I wonder whether at the heart of genuine mission is that same sense of lost it all vulnerability, or leaving as much of it behind to not just go, but be present in the space. What might it mean to be vulnerable?

  1. It takes vulnerability to realise that we might be wrong. Everything we know about a community, about a group of people is one form of knowledge, but it is only one perspctive. It started to blow my mind when after only a few weeks of detached youthwork, that young people were choosing to drink alcohol, it wasnt because they were bored. It was choice. ‘Bored’ was what i was told was the reason. Escaping other realities was another truth. Paulo Freire said that after he had started talking to people in a community in south America, describes it like this: “that was my second learning experience, but i still didnt know what i knew. Just like they (the community)  didnt know what they knew, I didnt know what i knew. The question for me was exclusively to understand what were their levels of knowledge and how did they know. It was a beautiful experience. I learned how to discuss with the people, i learned how to respect their knowledge, their beliefs, their fears, their hopes, their expectations. It took time, and many meetings” (We make the road by walking, Freire, Horton, 1990, p56,p67) It takes vulnerability to be truthful about the prejudgements, the preknowledge and to listen to the knowledge of someone else, to have these challenged.
  2. It takes vulnerability to give. Over the last few months I have witnessed the slow processes of collaboration taking place, small tentative steps between people of different organisations trying to work at something of bigger goodness. Each collaborative moment of conversation is vulnerable, requiring either trust or faith, and vulnerability to leave something behind. Heading out on the streets to talk to young people, leaves alot behind, but in the moments of conversation and connection there is vulnerable giving of time. A Spiritual leader who lacks basic compassion has almost no human power to change other people, because people intuitively know he or she does not represent the Divine or Big Truth” writes Richard Rohr, change that requires law “does not go deep, nor does it last” (Rohr, R,  Eager to Love; the alternative way of St Francis, 2014, p28)  It is not that people don’t associate a representation with divine truth, they just smell a rat. If it looks forced, manipulative and quick- its not likely to be deep, heartfelt and lasting. Image result for vulnerable
  3. It needs vulnerability to take risks. Because this takes us out of our comfort zones. Even on the streets, which could be always risky places, actually its possible to ‘go through the motions’ and be almost blaze about being there, the street becomes a new comfort zone. Kevin Vanhoozer uses the metaphor of theatre to describe the church (as do others) and in Faith Speaking Understanding (2014) suggests that in the great theatre of the world, the church in its mission is to break through, nay, collapse the invisible fourth wall that exists in the theatre between stage and audience, and often between church and its own view of the world outside. What this calls for is less of a prepared script for performing the Godly script – but an interactive one. (Vanhoozer, 2014, p34-35) 
  4. Vulnerability to trust in interactive conversations. Trusting in conversations as a source of education is one of the bedrocks of informal education – or youthwork ( See ‘Here be dragons 2013, or ‘Informal education, by Jeffs & Smith, 1998) , yet it might seem just a ‘waste of time’ to chat with people at a bus stop ( when there are 101 other things to be doing instead, like arguing with Ian Paul on Twitter, for example). The reason it takes vulnerability is that it breaks all the moulds, it is not a programme, a service or a pre ordained script.Image result for vulnerable It is interactive trusting, of listening and letting the conversation flow, with tangents, stories, warts and all, by letting it flow, its in the hands of the other, yet this will take time. Because people tend to expect that the vicar, or youthworker might be ‘doing conversation for a reason’ ( theres probably an event on to be invited to.. sigh) Being vulnerable in conversation is to trust it, nuture the relationship that develops from it, have faith in it and the genuine sense of humanity that might exist in it. But its vulnerable, because ‘vicar has conversations about peoples gifts’ doesnt write its own poster, neither is it social media friendly. PTL. Image result for vulnerable
  5. It takes vulnerability to invest in the ignored. It is always easy, it is part of Human nature to be liked, to seek people out who might like us, who might fit in with people we also like. Who dont upset the apple cart. So in this way, being vulnerable to connect, and actually invest in ( not just give food to) is a vulnerable step, and one that others have to be educated about in the church, worship might have to become a collective journey to a place of welcome for all – but it takes vulnerability to connect, converse and provide space to the usually ignored by church in society. Even on the streets, I know i have ‘favourites’ the young people who might be chatty, easier to talk to than others, even those I know from youth groups – far far easier than those who might give nothing except crudeness, so its not easy to be vulnerable, yet no one said vulnerability was easy. If theres relationships to build from scratch then nothing structurally sound gets built on the first assessment of the site.
  6. It takes vulnerability to provide opportunities for those perceived with needs, to enhance their gifts, use their strengths and develop what they have that’s good. Image result for vulnerableFrom community gardens, to Sharing food, to bike recycling, to forums and groups, many are examples of using and sharing gifts, strengths and being in receipt of the goodness and beauty of others, the almost least expected. But theres a vulnerability to let it happen, when usually those who have great power find it difficult to relinquish all the responsibility.
  7. It takes vulnerability to resist conformity. An interactive Theatre production might have a theme, and the sense of the director or authors intention, but how it gets there, using what props, and finding its feet along the way, as offers and gifts are accepted into the story and others are rejected – its is less of conformity and more genuinely about faith, faith as process, faith in process. The message is in the performance. Some conformity is good, conformity to the overall story of Gods redemption, Gods giving grace, yes, conformity of how this is enacted in the interactive theatre might be challenged in all vulnerability.
  8. It takes vulnerability to invest emotionally, truthfully and authentically. Yet people orientated presence is akin to Jesus heading to the well at noon. We go to where there are people who might be lost looking for conversation, and leave it at that, no strings or expectation. Just to be in the space.

As i was thinking about this theme today, I encountered this awesome article by Wendy McCaig, someone doing asset based community development from a faith perspective in Richmond, Virginia. I nearly wrote a piece entitled the same quite a few years ago, when i was sensing that people not programmes were the order of the day in youth ministry back in the 1990’s, but Wendys article below, spurred me to think further about vulnerability, and how this is core to the start of deep missional practices, also deep & real understanding of others, and a recognition of our own power. Here it is, as a reward for reading all of my article, heres a real treat:

http://wendymccaig.com/2016/07/26/presence-not-programs/?utm_content=buffer7e6d0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’ – well, yes. Its not something the disciples or apostles had to do, it was their core practice, they barely stood still enough to regard comfortability as the norm. “For he made himself vulnerable… even to…..what was it again…?’ 

 

A follow up to this post is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-TO; and entitled ‘ does status anxiety prevent the church from being vulnerable’. This was in part after the various questions, comments and feedback this first post generated.

The Evangelical Youth Ministry dream may be over, but is meeting needs innovative?

Every now and again, an article or blog post gets written in the social media world of youth ministry that needs to be both applauded for its honesty and at the same time have a few questions asked of it, or look slightly below the surface. Martin Saunders recent piece on Innovation in Youth Ministry; ‘Innovation: Starting before the idea’, from Youthscape is one such piece.  Though it is not that long a piece ( and certainly not as long as some of the ones here) its worth a read, ive included it below. But when you do read it, it is worth asking the question:

  1. What is implied about Evangelical Youth Ministry that only now its thinking innovatively about young peoples needs?
  2. Does this represent a real shift of focus and innovation?
  3. Why might focussing on young peoples needs not be that innovative anyway?

So, heres a link to the piece;  https://youthscape.co.uk/research/innovation-starting-before-the-idea

And here it is in full.

“So many Christian youth initiatives have started in the same way. Anyone who’s ever been on the end of a pitch for funds will be familiar with the terminology: “God has given me this amazing idea.”

I don’t want to downplay the possibility of the Creator of the Universe handing out templates for the next great youth resource in the middle of the night; I’m sure he can and does. But for most of us, the ideas we develop for programmes and projects usually have a more earthly genesis; a moment of inspiration while we’re in the shower or out walking the dog. What we can then tend to do is retro-fit the element of divine intervention. It reminds me of a story Matt Redman once told about a young man who played him a song, which he liked. The young songwriter was delighted and told Redman that “God gave it to me”, to which he apocryphally replied: “it’s not that good.”

In the majority of cases, we’ve just had a great idea. And it probably is great. But that doesn’t mean we should just go ahead and develop it. What I’ve learned from looking at some of the most innovative companies and organisations in the world over the past few years is that they don’t develop ideas in this slightly random, scattergun way. They don’t walk into funding pitches claiming that the ghost of Steve Jobs has just visited them with a great idea; in fact they don’t start with the idea at all. 

Good innovators start before the idea.

If we really want to develop new models, programmes and projects that meet the needs of today’s young people, then we need to start with those needs. At Youthscape, we call it the “opportunities” phase of development; the practice of listening intently to the culture and context that young people find themselves in, and the issues, needs and problems they’re dealing with. More positively, we also look to see the ways in which culture is creating new avenues for communication and change among young people.

Practically speaking, looking for opportunities means keeping your ear to the ground that you’re seeking to serve. Talking to teachers is one way to do this (and one that we’ve found particularly helpful), as is meeting with parents, and having formal and informal discussions with young people about their lives – even to the extent of focus groups. Keeping up-to-date with developments in youth culture as reported by the media is also crucially important, and of course, listening to and reading the latest relevant research is vital. By keeping all of these lines of communication open, you will naturally build up a picture of the opportunities and needs in your community – which are different and distinct in every location.

Once you understand the opportunities, your ideas will suddenly be a lot more relevant. In our experience, it means that the resources and programmes we’re developing don’t just fit with our imagined or gathered perception of what young people need, but with the reality of life in 2017. It’s not rocket science, but does mean a change of method for all of us. 

And to end where we began, part of your opportunity-listening should involve asking God for wisdom and discernment. What is he already doing in your community? What might he be calling you too? If we commit ourselves to listening both to our communities and our God, then maybe he might just decide to wake us in the night with that amazing idea…

I actually quite agree with almost all of what this article says, theres very little to actually disagree with it on one hand. I have worked for two youth ministry organisations whose dreams for a project were larger than their grasp of reality for the young people, local community, and also the resources offered from the churches to commit to a piece of work ( sometimes the culture and community of the church needs its own ‘needs assessment’) . And neither has gone well. I compare this to the piece of work that was build up from decent community research of an area, with young people and lasted for 5 years. It was embedded in a reality and had the resources to adapt to new opportunities as needs of young people changed. However, thats my story, back to the article. Therefore, what Martin is recommending is that the days of the evangelical dreaming are over in regard to pie in the sky youth ministry, even if that dream is accompanied by wads of money or powerful church leaders suggesting it because a church down the road is doing the same… At this point I am in full agreement, and from personal experience, bear the scars.

So, what Martin is advocating is ears and eyes on the ground. Do your homework, gather information. He says:

If we really want to develop new models, programmes and projects that meet the needs of today’s young people, then we need to start with those needs. At Youthscape, we call it the “opportunities” phase of development; the practice of listening intently to the culture and context that young people find themselves in, and the issues, needs and problems they’re dealing with.

Anyone notice anything familiar here? Remember, this on a blog titled ‘Innovation: Starting before the Idea’ – This is the innovation. Start with discovering young peoples needs, issues and problems.

Let me share with you this:

“Raikes was influenced by the lawless behaviour and the squalid life of the children engaged in the industry of Gloucester. He testified that “the farmers and other inhabitants of the towns and villages receive more injury in their property in the Sabbath than all the week besides, this in a great measure proceeds from the lawless state of the younger class who are allowed to run wild on that day free from restraint” (Taken from ‘An introductory History of English Education since 1800’ Curtis & Boultwood, 1960)

With this is mind Raikes opened the first Sunday School in 1780.  Now, Whether Raikes was looking at the needs of young people, or the needs of the community because of the effect of young peoples behaviour, and young peoples boredom after 6 days hard labour, is probably open to question. However, what is clear is that it was because of a combination of feeling and experiencing needs in the Image result for sunday schools in victorian timeslocal community that Sunday schools originated. (seems a far cry from the sunday schools of today :-))

But that was Sunday schools… that doesnt sound like Youth work? you might say.

Well, then there’s the pioneers of Christian youth work in the 1960s, George Goetchius and Joan Tash – never heard of them?’ – well because they suggested something innovative that didnt take on. So What did they do in 1958? this is on the first page of their 1967 book:

“During the pre-project period and the first year of reconnaisance, a good deal of the field work consisted of collecting information about the young people, from where we were able to build up a series of profiles about them as individuals and in groups. Following discussion of this information amongst ourselves, with the project committee and with colleagues we developed observations from the unattached young people in our coffee stall grouping, from where we made assumptions about the nature Image result for ywca 1950's joan tash( which soon changed and adapted) and content of the service needed, the kind of programme possible and the approach and method most likely to be useful in developing these” (Working with unattached youth, problem, approach, method, Goetschius, Tash 1967)

What this piece of Pioneer Christian youth work did in 1964 became highly influential in the wording of the Albemarle Report, Lady Albermarle writes a forward in the piece, and so, what Goetschius and Tash were able to do in practice, and have the resources to write up 3 years of field work, staff reflections, processes, outcomes, trials and celebrations, was shape the direction of the Youth Service. It meant that the social needs of young people, the values in communities and the process of ‘reconnaisance’ were on the agenda. Though by 2000, the reconnaissance period had been maligned to be a luxury only detached youthworkers could really justify, and by 2015 this in itself was reduced to a 1/2 day look at a local newspaper or census report.

If you’re reading this or my page for the first time, then you might not have heard of Goetschius and Tashs project. It was part of a YWCA in a suburb of London in 1958, at a time when only 50% of young people attended the local youth clubs. It was mostly delivered by evangelical christians, and not only did it become a key voice in the formation of statutory youth services, but attracted the attention of the church as a case study of practice back then too, Rev Hamilton writes:

“Young people are not openly rejecting either Christian institutions or organised youth work. They are simply not even accepting them as having any possible claim on them or anything to offer to them which they need…

then goes on to say:

“What we need to know about the strategy of action must be learned at the point of personal involvement, whether this is something we do ourselves do or something we inspire other groups to do”(This was in a paper to the World Christian Youth commission in May 1964)

Recognising individual, social and community needs is not new. So when I suggested that this type of work didn’t take on. I meant that it didn’t get taken on in what became the Evangelical Youth Ministry. If you spoke of ‘developing from young peoples needs’ or ‘doing a community profile’  – these were processes and practices that caused a christian worker to be categorised as a ‘community worker’ or ‘detached’ or ‘liberal’ or even the harshest of all ‘ Pioneer’  – Evangelical Youth Ministry took a different turn.

And though I am not qualified to discuss this turn, it became concerned with Evangelism and Discipleship, some of the story is picked up by Danny Brierley in ‘Joined up’ ( 2003)
stating that ‘The ‘Evangelical wing of the church was actively looking for revival to sweep away the corrosive effects of popular culture, one man attributed to this more than any other, his name, Billy Graham’. Using a methodology from the Business world, of efficiency and calcubility. It was large groups, music, prayer, and an ending which consisted of leading the audience through a formulaic prayer, the four spiritual laws, that reduced the complexity of the Gospel to easy sentences that produced intended results. (Brierely, 2003)

If this form of youth ministry, and it by no means was the only form of youth work and ministry by Christians since 1970 became dominant as a form of practice, then it is obvious to see why developing from a needs based practice is innovative in 2017. The Evangelical turn in youth ministry was influenced not only by the style, look and feel of big event, resource heavy ‘anti – cultural’ practice, but also efficiency, numbers and product – a model more closely likened to the building of Ford motor cars, or the fast food chain. Standing on the street corners for a year to chat with young people and gather evidence would be an anathema. It didnt produce results, it ‘seems a waste of time’ , its not about the needs of young people – but the need of the church for revival, for its own growth. Needs of young people has been second best, at best.

But in Christian detached work it has carried on, by those deemed ‘too liberal’ , ‘too pioneering’ – those who followed the Goetschius and Tash trajectory ( or did so without realising) – For most detached projects, observation is key, and before it community profiling. (see, Meet them where theyre at, Richard Passmore, 2003, or ‘Here be Dragons’ 2013 above, or any writing on detached youthwork since 1960, FYT have been using this formula since 1970’s, be incarnational, live in and understand young people in a local context, learn, listen and meet needs. See work by Bob Holman, Dave Wiles, Michael Eastman, Richard Passmore, Nigel Pimlott.

So ‘Innovation’ might just look like ‘forgetting historical’ or ‘other practice has always existed’ blindspots.

But catching up with meeting young peoples needs isnt that innovative either. What meeting needs does, and what the Ministry world has become good at, is finding the needs of young people that require the use of pre-structured projects.  Young people might need counselling on relationships and sex, for example, but is ‘Romance Academy’ the right process for this?  – Im not knocking RA – but just of the process that this can be often used. Something like romance academy isnt used because of the deep felt needs of young people – more than its a gap and an area of panic amongst youth leaders to ‘do something’ about sex & relationships with young people. Its often not needs met, but perceieved and pre judged needs met – without even a conversation with young people, or to have first hand evidence of young peoples thoughts on relationships, culture, identity, belonging, family and love. It is one evidence of a good programme, but another programme.

Meeting needs isnt that innovative, and it actually doesnt work. It keeps the giver of the service as the power, and dehumanises the young person and by default their community as a project to be fixed. Most young people dont need someone else to tell them that they need something. They need to be given opportunities to develop what theyre good at, what their gifts are, and they have them. This article is long enough without an explanation of ‘asset based community development’ – but what ABCD fundamentally does is ask different questions of and with young people, and it takes time. It doesnt have projects or programmes to sell, and therefore might not keep the franchises and projects of youth ministry going because many maintain a needs focus. More on ABCD on their blog there is much on youth & community work, is here: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/ – (and theres a few articles on abcd on this site, as there is on observation within youthwork.) ABCD is a challenge to the saviour complex.

For evangelical youth ministry, innovation isnt to develop needs based work – though I am all for leaving behind ‘dream based work’ – it shouldnt be innovative to develop working with young people through consultation and participation, these have been the hall marks of youthwork practice for a very long time. what it shows is that meeting the needs of young people hasnt been at the forefront of youth ministry. As Howard Sercombe suggests:

“ Youth work is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context” Sercombe, H 2010 “Ethics of Youthwork” p26

Then young people havent been the primary client of youth ministry. And Danny Brierley argued, Youth Ministry needs youthwork to have young people centred ethical practice.

What Evangelical youth ministry is thinking of as Innovative, has been Youth work all along. The Dream is over. If the church has a concern for young people it has to do so emerging from a painful, searing, physical and mental acceptance, in love of a generation which is painfully different. Painful acceptance isn’t an off the shelf programme or a quick win. If you think this is innovative, then these words were said in 1964. Problem is that the evangelical youth ministry has chosen, up till now, to ignore the youth workers in their midst.

References:

Brierley, D ‘ All Joined Up, 2003

Drane, J The Macdonaldisation of the Church, 2000

Geotschius, Tash, Working with the unnattached, 1967

Passmore, Meet them where theyre at, 2003, & Here Be dragons, 2013 ( a link to this is above)

Sercombe H, Ethics of Youthwork, 2010

 

Being Encouraged by Collaboration

Over the next 40 days of Lent, I am going to try and write a series of 40 encouraging articles on aspects of youthwork practice, of management of learning, people and the church. Not every one will start ‘encouarged by…’ but it might be a good discipline for me to do so. For those that know me, and have read some of my previous pieces, you will know that me and critical do go hand in hand, especially when things are challenging, and they are right now. So, this will be good for me, and hopefully you might enjoy reading the next posts.

Without giving many of the details away. I have started to realise how encouraged I am when genuine collaboration begins to take place. For one it is becoming more and more evident in some aspects of youth work when some of the barriers between voluntary and statutory sector , and even ‘faith’ sector, are being gradually eroded, though these are not helped in a competitative market for funding, outcomes or even young peoples attention.

Ive heard stories over the last few weeks of organisations that havent spoken to each other for decades, where suspicion between them, envy, ignorance and superiority complex, have had to begin dialogue, sharing time and space, sharing idea and giving time and space away to each other, for the semblance of more common goals.

In another situation Ive seen people in different churches work together to think about transforming a community, and because of relative common goals intentions and previous compatibility and relationship, this process has not taken too long, formed of genuine shared intention and being collaborative in practice and organisation.

Over three years, 5 organisations in the north east have been working on the Equip course ( see
menu above) yes its ‘only ‘ a gap year scheme, but its the fruit of alot of work, and is the beginning of a chapter of change for training in the north east amongst young people and for youth ministry.

I think what encourages me the most is that people and organisations might know that workImage result for collaborationing together might enable each to have more longevity, but also that greater goals might be fulfilled when this happens. Separate organisations and people do have give something away, their protectionism, and work towards common, shared goals and new identity. It is undoubtedly difficult, and might be easier when the task is new ( such as equip) – rather than to form something else.

The energy in the room is quite electric when the barriers start breaking down, when there are ideas and potential is such an encouragement, and this undoubtedly spreads into the culture of that organisation and project, sadly without dwelling on the opposites too long, broader cultures of unco-operation, or reluctant cooperation form only a mask in which it becomes more of a challenge to function in between.

In a way it is both a good youthwork value and Spiritual prerogative. To have reconciled relationships, to encourage community. It takes undoubted effort at times, and the process of breaking down barriers and seeking human and collective flourishing for broader goals is tough, but it is possible, the barriers are usually artificial and based on myth, fear and history, none of which is in any way helpful for developing community for genuine collaboration to occur. I would be a few pennies, that collective organisations that have failed have done so not only because of poor governance, but that the governance has had to navigate in a culture of noncooperation with other similar agencies. When protectionism and separation occurs, thats when to worry.

Image result for nature collaborationIn collaboration people are willing to give, to contribute, to share and be part of something, not for their own gain, it is in collaboration where people give of their gifts to make something happen, willing because the purpose excites and they trust the people.

So, today i am encouraged by collaboration, or the working towards this, as an essential future direction for both youth work in the North east, and the Mission activity of the church deep in its local communities.

Day 1 of Lent over – what will I be encouraged by tomorrow?

 

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