Can detached youthwork be ‘asset based’ and develop young peoples gifts?

We’ll not speak to those young people – they’ve not got alcohol on them

They appear to be ok, we’ll leave them alone

I doubt if its them who are causing the anti social behaviour calls

These are all phrases I have used on detached youthwork. Its that thing where you go out, of an evening, to try and talk with young people on the streets, develop contact and relationship, and all of sudden in the heat of the moment, a whole load of baggage arises to the surface that kind of stops me from doing what i might be meant to be doing.

In a busy environment like a city centre where i did detached youth work a few years ago, it may have been possible to make those filter judgements because it was always busy. On a smaller community estate where there might only be a few groups of young people having this in built filter might mean it could be a quiet evening.  At least quiet because all the young people we see are being normal decent young people, playing in parks, kicking a ball around, and not really need us. More importantly, that we in those moments dont see that they are worth working with.

Because they dont display needs

Because they dont show us in their actions that they fulfil funding criteria

Because they seem sorted

Because we might not be able to tick boxes in working with them

Because its not what we’re about.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of delivering detached youthwork training to a group of sessional staff just north of Inverness. The feedback from them was really positive and it was a great 2 days. One of things that shaped the planning of these sessions for me was how focussed on ‘needs’ the teams, and communities were in relation to developing detached youthwork. There were kids playing near railways (single track lines with one train per 2 hours- not intercity lines, ((and even the intercity line has 2 trains per hour, hardly busy.. however) , young people starting to gather near to some town centres, vandalism and stone throwing. Whilst none of these issues are in any way pleasant, positive and they cause significant harm, and fear and isues about safety, of course. Often detached youthwork starts off from a perspective of need. Though to be fair also, much reactionary youthwork in buildings has done the same .

Conversations about moving from needs to gifts have occured in community development practice, and in youth work generally.  Peter Harts article in Youth and Policy 117  does identify that asset and needs based approaches do run concurrently in youthwork at times, he argues that

However, I would argue that as a general framework in which to understand the differences in
approach to out-of-hours work with young people between secular and Christian organisations is
through their occupational paradigm, model of youth work and assumptions about young people,
approach to risk, and dominant philosophy of ethics. (Hart, 2015, Youth and Policy 115)

Saying that needs and gifts are both part of the equation.

One of the recent new books I have been given for free from the North East Resources centre  is the following one : ‘Dont Shoot I’m a detached youthworker’ by Inez and Mike Burgess. Im reading the first few pages and see the following:

  • The service we provide is ‘needs‘ led (page 8)
  • identify groups of young people in patch and record any relevant dialogue linked toissues and needs…….(page 10)
  • listen carefully to young peoples thoughts allows a good detached youthworker to develop a while range of dialogue, as well as gaining information about the basic picture of young persons needs (page 12)

Now,  this is one of the few recent detached youthwork books that i hadnt read, and its why i lapped up a free copy. However, I am acutely aware of how influential this book is. I am also aware that issues and needs get youth workers to the streets  (i feel its like fascists bring citizens with milkshakes to the high streets) . And Peter Hart may be on to something, and my experiences, not just in Inverness but with FYT are that detached youthwork that is not primarily funding or community police set up can have a more positive footing.  It meant that to talk about young people and their gifts, their assets and use detached youthwork to focus on their was refreshing and powerful to the group of workers in Inverness.

Yet, I wouldnt be sticking my neck out too far to say that developing detached youthwork on the basis of the gifts of young people might be rare. To start with viewing young people with more dignity and humanity. To start by enabling young people to be part of the decision making process about any youthwork provision, to have conversations with them about their passions, their dreams, their abilities and how they might contribute to enable these to occur. And that could be all young people.

Somehow sadly, detached youthwork may be stuck in a needs orientated paradigm, created by those who need it a soft way of addressing community fears ( by the police) and this, as Peter says above, will shape the approach, or at least be the guiding lenses within which to develop practice into. Have predetermined issues, discover needs and then bam!, problem solved. But it isnt is it.

It is almost as if detached youthwork really isnt caught between the two stools of assets and needs, more that it is caught between a rock of funding and reaction – or none at all. Because of this, the many young people who are just being around, who are still victims in a society which has cut services to them by a staggering amount, are even likely to be given opportunities to thrive, to participate and to be decision makers in their own provision.

I wonder if it is more difficult to do ‘asset based’ detached youthwork out on the streets, because the setting is already so politicised and deemed ‘anti-social’, ‘frightening’ – that its difficult to see past all of this when trying to talk with young people. This may be different to when young people are in buildings that are youth orientated, its only a guess or a thought. Can young people show their gifts on the streets – of course they can – it is just up to us to look and maybe intentially look and find them.

Maybe any detached youthwork in the UK is better than none, and it wouldnt take a university study to reveal how decimated detached youth work has been in the last 10 years. But, if detached youthwork is to come back – and there are signs it might do – can those of us who develop it do their level best to shape it in a way that is about not identifying groups and problems, but discovering the gifts, abilities and good things about young people, and enabling them to explore their dreams, potential and how they want to make a difference. In this case, we have to sort out our langauge, our questions, and how we start from scratch. What if detached youthwork could enable young people to develop their gifts?  What might asset based detached youthwork look like?  (and im sure its happening, please if you do this, share details below)

Might a community profile help churches develop a new approach (rather than initiative) to mission?

It can feel as though there are two competing paradigms in the world of christian mission. They could be summarised by a ministry approach and the other by a community approach. It wont surprise you that I favour the latter. Though if both are needed, then it is worth exploring them both.

The ministry approach tends to ‘work’ from the institution outwards, with the institution in mind. So, the church decides on the mission, implements the mission, expects people to be attracted to the church, and a church grow from a gathering or attracting mindset. It is the thought that governs in the church planting paradigm. Make churches popular again, by inserting popular contemporary church into setting. It can often have no regard for actual people living near the church as the starting point, but insert in a church of a type, and then people, generally already christians of that type who like that type then go along. Whilst often the intentions of it are good – its reality is that it only survives because christians who were already going to church elsewhere drive their car in a new direction. Sometimes this is needing to happen. It feels like this is what aspects of church that have been shaped by the narratives of attractiveness and relevency from youth ministry have inherited. Talking up church planting is to say that may churches of certain types are planted, but digging deeper, is the who of those numbers, and the cost. In this mindset, ministry is tinkered with with many initiatives to make it attractive. Its the proverbial sorting of the deckchairs on the titanic. Church planting, might just be adding a new deckchair.  Image result for deckchairs

But everyone dreams of full churches, of vibrant churches as these are measurable, these are signs of growth, these are positive and bouyant, arent they? Well possibly yes, but should church planting accelerate other churches decline? Alot of the time though theres ministry initiative-itis. Looking at the world from the inside of the building and working out what initiative to do next. Nearly all with the expectation of success, or growth, or something.

Instead, what if it wasnt an initiative, but a new approach that was required?

What if, instead of starting from the in, mission started from the out. It was those who were outside who poked and provoked, and it was from the community where those are already that faith was formed, shaped and acted upon? Much of the time, local knowledge is blank by those who attend churches. They go into the community to ‘do a project’ then leave. Or go in, live, and hope people who are in it, find a way out of it to go to church. Having said this, the starting point is not another initiative, but it is being armed with greater knowledge – in partnership with an explored and opted in view of faith.

One of the tools banded around in community work is the ‘community profile‘. Many of us youth workers in christian colleges put one together for an essay especially in the second or third year of practice. Its a report with a focus to bring peoples opinions, ideas, conversations together to build up a picture of a community from a number of different perspectives. In a way, its a more community orientated version of the parish profile, and its certainly not written as a sales pitch for a new clergy… , the community profile asks questions and builds up a picture of the community and encourages many from within the community to make a contribution. Though this aspect is not easily done, it can be easy to just focus on other professionals like the teachers, police or community leaders – and still get a different institutional view. But at least those institutional views might be different to just the one of the church.

The community profile, if used correctly, can also be a good vehicle for getting those involved in church to listen to other voices, and hear what others say is going on, and what they say about the church. It does more that just collate the data from the various websites on an area, as these usually only accumulate the needs, the issues, the problems and the measured aspects that government and policy makers require to make decisions about provision, schools and services. Or at least they would if there was any funding.

What a community profile might also do, is give people in the community opportunity to tell the positive stories. The moments of hope, of beauty, of strength in each community. We might in church say that these are moments where God is already on the move, but it is where courage, community, determination, colour and creativity might already be present, not to mention character, resilience and compassion, none of which are measurable on the government website.

A community profile might help a church find a better way of being in the local community. Find out who might be already present, find out who to work in partnership with and join up with, but also to discover opportunities, not just gaps, but opportunities for partnerships. It can kick start a whole load of new ideas and possibilities, and can also give a whole load of new insight.

But it is not enough, a community profile on its own can be useless in a ministry mindset, only serving the already dominant pattern. The problem of a community profile is that it can often be the justification for a way of working, not the vehicle to start shaping a different way. Another problem is that it can be deemed extra information that can stay at the bottom of the cupboard.

A community profile without a community approach is like an electric car without the charge sockets. It needs the infrastructure and systems to make it work. As eventually it will run dry. However, there is no point waiting for a national infrastructure change, because electric cars dont go that far – its needs local charging sockets connected the grid. Local system change is enough. Waiting for dictum from on high defeats the purpose. A community approach by definition wont be dictated from on high, it will emerge out of community observance, and trying to change culture within one setting. It needs those with the power controls at times to create the spaces for the new technology to run. To pioneer something different.

We need to start from the community, be in the community, and enhance faith in community. We need to meet God where people are at. Why not give the opportunity to hear the voices in your community today, what they actually think, say and the stories they have – how might it inspire you to develop  sorry i mean start from understanding and listening and promote participation, rather than developing ministries and projects for people.

Over the last 3 years I have helped 3 churches in the beginnings of developing pioneer work, using a community profile that I have spent time with them creating and shaping. If this is something that interests you, then please do get in touch. There are costs involved, which work out at £250 per day for research and then writing up + travel. But do be in contact if this is something that you might benefit from. See the menu above for the contact form.

Does the church need a mixed economy of approaches – yes- it needs to be ministering in communities using a community approach.

Theology needs to be done in public, and we need to interrupt other peoples lives by being present. (a bit like my story yesterday, a tale of two new pictures) .

Theres enough churches, none of them are all full. Its not style, but significance, meaning and depth that people are looking for. Thats what people say in the community profile, they’re not bored of church, they almost wish it was better. A community profile might hear those voices and stories, and not reduce ‘people outside’ to a generic mass of ‘non church goers’ whom an initiative is going to work its magic.

Youth work: Focussing on the strength of the rope, not its knots.

A rope is 1/3 weaker when it has a knot in it. 

Or at least thats what I was told in Scouts many years ago. I havent googled it to confirm it. Image result for rope knots

A rope is only two thirds effective when it has a knot in it. It is less strong.

On Sunday I preached at Headland Baptist Church, Hartlepool, on the Subject of the churches in Revelation, The church in Smyrna. It is known as the suffering church, and it was also a church that thought of itself as poor. It was was a ‘not’ compared to others.

It caused me to think and reflect on young people. ‘Not’ just the 10% that might be deemed ‘hardest to reach’ but even more than that, and think of the ‘nots’ that they hear, from a range of people, parents, teachers, sometimes friends, from society at large, things like;

You’re Not allowed to play in there

You’re not allowed to take those two subjects

You’re not clever enough

You’re not tall enough

You’re not sporty enough

You’re not as good as your older brother

You’re not thin enough

You’re not pretty enough

You’re not going to get a job acting like that

You’re not capable

You’re not resilient

You’re not confident

You’re not calm

You’re not fulfilling your potential

You’re not able to control yourself

You’re not going to make it in life if you do this.. 

You’re not welcome here

You’re not important

You’re not………


Add to this the lists of the messages that appear in all the advertising and media that young people hear, like you’re not something unless you have this thing. This might make you attractive – but by default you’re not without it. Being not something is part of culture, part of growing up.

And for every ‘not’ the rope gets weaker and weaker. The young person has to prove the adult wrong, or give in. ‘But Im not tired’ ! says the child – knowing full well there isnt a right answer to that one. 

Likewise the rest, the young person fulfils the prophecy, or kicks against it (and is then rebellious) – nay angry.

The nots keep adding up, weakening the rope, and denying the young person to fulfil their purpose.

The Message given to that Church in 120AD, was that ‘They were rich’  They were not to think of themselves as ‘not’ something. Their perspective needed to change of themselves. They had riches.

This could have been an article on how churches compare and think of themselves as ‘nots’ against other churches, in the competitive market place of church growth and the numbers game. But it isnt. This is about how a church, how we as youth-workers provide the kind of opportunities for young people to enable some of the tight ‘nots’ to be begun to be undone. In the metaphor of the rope, it would take two hands, one at each end to begin the process of undoing the knot.

Itll take a community of people to undo the knots that young people store as part of them. 

In the metaphor of the rope , a bit like the headphones cable in the pocket which automatically knots when not in use, it is less likely to become reknotted whilst it is being used for its purpose. 

So in thinking about developing the assets of young people – the sooner they are being used for the purposes, gifts and abilities that they have and in the right supportive environment, they might be more able to withstand the ‘nots’. With many young people, it is that so many are being used in society at so less than what they have to potential to be. In the restrictions of the education system (you’re not welcome here, the talent you have is not valid here)

If it true that churches are only working with 5% of young people (and i would suggest that with these 5% there is still significant wastage with the talents/skills and gifts of young people not being used), this is according to Scripture Unions recent research. Then it is worth reflecting on what kind of approach a church or youth ministry practice could take – when it engages with young people who are tired of being ‘nots’ in the world. It is one thing working out what a ‘generation z’ young person might look like, believe and be influenced by to make the gospel relevant. It is more significant to provide churches, groups and youth work projects with the tools and approaches to begin the process of undoing the ‘nots’ that hold them back. To not give them confidence by telling them so. But to gradually, painfully undo the nots. It is doing that heartfelt ministry, that painful searing physical mental acceptance in love of young people (Hamilton, 1964). It is also identifying the gifts and abilities in a young person that thus far had been hidden deep, that needs a little excavation, and tender nurturing. It is telling a young person that they are human, that they are of worth, and that they have richness.

As youthworkers, we may not ever be able to undo the knots, some will be tight, but even a 2/3 effective young person can be given the opportunity to flourish, to use their gifts and contribute, participate in society, and in our faith communities. It was said of Jesus, a bruised reed he will not break. We might be able to prevent the nots from being there, though we might try, focussing on what makes that person strong, even if hindered might be what is required.

By way of an epilogue: Many of you will have listened to Ken Robinsons TED talk on education, 11 million of you would have done. In it he describes the story of Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of ‘Cats’, here is that story: Thinking of education and talents; It’s really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who maybe most people have never heard of; she’s called Gillian Lynne — have you heard of her? Some have. She’s a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

It was asked of Gillian, how did you get to be a dancer?

And she said it was interesting; when she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the ’30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate; she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. People weren’t aware they could have that.

Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat son this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people; her homework was always late; and so on, little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me, and I need to speak to her privately.” He said, “Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her.

But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

“What happened?” She said, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me.

People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet; they did tap; they did jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary.

She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

Even Americans are saying programmable youth ministry is broken…reviewing an evening with Kenda Creasy Dean. 

But fortunately in the UK the answer is close to hand. 

I have just arrived back from an evening with Kenda Creasy Dean in Leeds, (hosted by the Yorkshire plus region of the Methodist church). Kenda is an American youth ministry specialist, writer and academic. It was probably the first time I have heard directly from an American youth ministry person and an academic at that. That’s outside of the many books or articles I’ve read or reflected on. In a way I was curious about what might be the next trend in UK youth ministry given that it’s usually 10 years behind America,  or decides to ignore it completely. 


Kendra admitted that American youth ministry is broken, it’s programmes and franchises ineffective and that an image of the church as a ship heading for a shipwreck was her opening metaphor. 

Though like the wreckage from the ship, some of its raw resources are still needed to help it’s voyagers still reach the shore. Even as a floating raft.

Fortunately the answer is already being practiced.

So we’re ahead in the UK. There’s practices, thinking and an emerging history of it UK already. 

It’s asset based entrepreneurial youthwork.

Kenda contrasted ministry ‘done to’ young people, suggesting that young people in churches needed to be given space to have their creativity and ideas harnessed. So, not the programme but the person and their gift. Create the right kind of culture in a church that harnesses young peoples ideas, a space that is able to accept their improvised offers.

Kenda suggested that young people need to be supported, empowered and listened to. That a ministry of youth leaders deciding programmes has finite appeal. It’s what the values of youth work look like. Young people first. Young people as the primary clients. (Sercombe 2010)

Kenda then showed case studies of young people using the resources of the local churches to develop their own social enterprises. From cakes and pies, to aids for ppl with disabilities, from cafe churches with also host sewing to make fun capes for children in hospital. All as the result of ideas young people had, their creativity and the support of a church community to try, to be brave and to support the young people, being courageous, not taking over but providing resources as required. Yes there’s an element of long term investment. But quick instant wins don’t change communities or young people.  And most enterprise didn’t make money, but enough to be sustained or set aside for other ideas. 

In a way it’s using entrepreneurial skills in the church and young people to develop young people themselves. It’s something the church has always done. It’s philanthropic entrepreneurs started sunday schools or charities or housing organisations. Entrepreneurial asset based youthwork only gives it away as an approach to empower young people to be community changers themselves, and be church creators themselves through their connectability. 

If I was cynical I’d ask about theology and faith within this. What this provides is opportunities for sharing gifts,  apprenticeship and task orientated discipleship. But who needs teaching about doctrines if they are being performed? I might also ask whether it is an adoption of the ‘ways of business, and commercialism’ by the church, church accepting culture, but i think that might be trivial given the good that it is doing. 

So. When Key American youth ministry practitioners are having doubts about the inherited patterns of ministry, in the UK we should take notice.We should think twice about Doug Fields and purpose driven programmes. Americans have started to cotton on to youthwork as an educational process, of values of empowerment, of community participation and of justice. As well developing gifts of both the young people and the resources of local communities including what the church has already got. Fortunately in the UK we have the experts in this field. There are 100’s of trained christian youthworkers who understand youthwork, there are emerging areas of churched adopting asset based approaches, and ‘who hasnt got business skills’?

Maybe it just takes the Americans to gift wrap it, to make whats already going on valid in the eyes of those who look to america for the ‘next great thing’ – when it is here all along.

Kenda suggested that churches discover local needs and gifts, something uk community workers, detached workers and pioneers have done for ages. It is local church. Local process and local transformation. It is not a sellable universal programme.


What is coming out of the US as innovation and the innovative answer to young peoples participation in the long term life of the church in action in its community, is what in parts is already going on here in the UK.  We’re already doing it folks or at least weve got the barebones, it’ll be putting it all together.

We know youth work and it’s values and educational process

We know asset based community development 

We know entrepreneurial church. We know church as process through emerging church and fresh expressions. 

We just need to trust young people and open up spaces for them to be creators, leaders and deciders, through which they’ll also be learners. 

Young people to be the solutions to other problems, not the problem to be solved

It is quite literally, going to a place whether neither us or they have been before. But with tools we already have practice of using. 


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:

‘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:; 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.

Into 2017; Replacing fallen Heroes with Theodrammatic Saints

2016 saw the loss of many heroes. Bowie, George Michael, Prince to name but three from the Music world, Victoria Wood, Liz Smith and Terry Wogan to name three from entertainment, but there were countless others. Local heroes were lost too, people who became national heroes through their death than their life, Jo Cox being one. People, like these and others are placed in the position of Heroes, others are thrust there. But Heroes none the less.

As 2016 ended, and 2017 begins, I have been reminded in Samuel Wells book ‘Improvisation’ about the role of Heroes in the grand stories of the world.


Within Improvisation, Wells argues that there are five characteristics of Heroes when thinking about Heroes in an ongoing story or narrative, and in thinking not just about the real life heroes above, but the fable story heroes of Disney, of Tolkein and Enid Blyton, they are relatively straight forward. Drawing from Aristotle, Wells describes these as:

  1. Heroes make decisive interventions when things are looking like they might turn out to be wrong. The saviour complex is what this is sort of known as, think Sandra Bullocks character in the film The Blindside, and there are many equivalents. The Story is from the Heroes perspective, it is Bullocks neck on the line, her journey to save the situation and change it.  The story of how the creative music and entertainment affected so many, many lives were changed by Bowie, by Prince and George Michael, they became savific heroes, their music intervened.
  2. A Hero’s story is told to celebrate the virtues of a Hero. The Hero has the qualities, whether strength, resilience, determination, wisdom or courage to enable their heroism
  3. The Hero’s story, presumes that in a world of good and evil, the Hero will risk death for good in their own fight. So Tolkien’s Aragon for instance, or the valiance of the Disney Prince charmings to fight the evil power to reclaim not only goodness but also the trapped or tortured princess. They risk it all for the fight.
  4. In the Hero’s story, when things go wrong, they can put it all right again, yet their flaws and failings also turn a story heading for tragedy into a fatal disaster  It is ok that Sully can redeem the situation in the Plane heading out of the airport as it hit flying birds and lost control, he is the hero who saved many lives by landing the plane in the waters (see the Film Sully) -but what if even he, the supposed hero wasnt able to cope with the situation, would blind panic turned that moment into even more of a tragedy..
  5. The Hero stands alone in the world. They are the put alone on the stage, and held aloft by the community by their creative excellence or virtue, the decisiveness of their action – or to have the simple right to have their story told. As Rimmer in Red dwarf ( Series 3- Marooned) was quick to say, History is written by the winners, the survivors, those with the power to narrate it – in effect the authors.

All of this challenged me alot.  Though I spent all day yesterday reflecting on what Wells was saying about the Heros in the story, I realised that before I asked critical questions of the practice of community work, the church and youth ministry – I also had to look at myself. I have to be honest, I like to be the hero. I kind of always have done. The person who rescues, it was said that from a fairly young age I has a compassionate spirit to try and help people, especially those who might, as wells identifies above, have a story that is heading for challenge or trial. So its the young person addicted to alcohol, or struggling at school, or colleague in ministry needing help or a hand.  I guess i wouldnt be involved in community or youth work without the feelings, desires or determination to want to transform peoples lives, to be a positive intervention in their story, without them, but i guess that doesn’t mean i have to be a hero.

Yet on a broader note, has the notion of Hero been too easily accepted by the church, or community work? Maybe the clearest evidence of it is in the job descriptions for new posts:

Are you the person this dynamic church needs to transform the lives of people in our community?


Eager to pioneer a new ministry to save the lives of many?


________ church requires a dynamic, creative, inspiring individual to lead a ministry amongst young people to transform their discipleship


_______ is a community near to the church, in an Urban Prioirty Area, have you got the skills and exeprience to turn it around?

All requiring and appealing to the Heroic status. Possibly all hoping that the dynamic person will have the credentials, and lead heroically to save. What if the Hero in the situation cannot, as Sully could, steer the plane to safety? The personal plight of the Hero is not just the only problem with this. Neither is it the problem of the church, or ministry that devolves heroic status to the ‘saviour’ – for this is what psychologists tell us is what we do in groups, devolve power to those who assume leadership and thus heroic positioning.

As an aside, in a Faith Culture that possibly reveres heroes, whether heroes who ‘have large ministries’ or ‘have pioneers great changes’, a fascinating change has been taking place. It has been in film, the rise of the anti- hero. The hero that isn’t the successful, dynamic, go-to person who affects change. So for example – Shrek usurps Prince charming – the story isnt about how he slays the dragon to redeem the princess (see shrek 2) the anti- hero who is an ogre bumbles his way to the heart of Fiona, the princess by faithfulness and different virtue, though maybe Shrek is less the anti-hero, than that unlikely one.  This is distinctive to the story of something like Deadpool, the anti-hero in the comic book superheros, who has heroic status but ultimately has a vacuous purpose only to deconstruct his own status leading to humour but nothing to replace it. The Anti- hero has given Hollywood a new range of stories and films.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If the world has lost some of its Heroes recently, there will always be others who take their place, either created, manufactured or positioned. As a youth and community worker, even on the streets, it can be easy to fall into being the heroic one, it is possible that the structures of ministry and the church even create the platform for Heroes to exist, or fall from platforms so created in the first place. Yet though it seems as heroic, the call is not for new heroes, the call for the church is not to provide the world with new heroes, but to provide itself and the community around it with saints. Saints who delight in the resources in the world, the goodness already there that points to Jesus being active, saints that listen and hear, saints that aren’t positioned in the centre ‘with a dynamic ministry’ but who direct and guide from the fringes, leaving others to thrive, Saints who shape and form community and not go it alone. Saints who are the church, who fall and fail honestly together knowing that battles have already been on and performing and telling the story is their main purpose. In here is a helpful analogy with developing the assets in communities- rather than be the saviour for them, acknowledging that the gifts are already present. The Saint might just act with more asset tendencies, than the hero.

So, no new years resolutions from me, but thinking of Saints verses Heroes has got me challenged. How might it possible to be more of a saint, to knowing my place in the story, and less of a hero and what that might mean in being involved in ministry in churches, with young people and in my own family in the North East.

Does the world, and the communities around need saints or heroes? Can cultures of collective saintliness be created in ministries, churches and communities?



Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, The Drama of Christian Ethics, 2004

Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Rohr, Richard, Eager to Love, 2014


If Young people exist in community – should youth workers develop positive community approaches?

In  a few weeks time im delivering a workshop at the Federation of Detached youthwork conference, the title of which I am yet to finalise, but in readiness of the conference and its theme, i have asked around a few places to get a few definitions of ‘Youth work’ as well as gather some from the resources i have to hand on my bookshelf, or recent articles.

One of the themes of the Conference is – ‘Is community back on the Agenda?’ for detached youthwork, with the brief that aspects of partnership and community work seem to be more common place in detached youthwork at present, with the reason being that it might be other agencies, such as the police, that are in effect funding it, and so there has to be a community, or at least a community agency partnership focus to the work. The question i want to ask is

Why did ‘Community’ go off the agenda for (detached) youthwork practice? and as it has done – has the consequence been that young people have become isolated from a wider community in youth work (and youth ministry) practice?

From a historical perspective, the plight of the individual young person came to the attention of the philanthropist or voluntary organisation in the 1870’s or earlier. The Urban poor terrorised the streets, finding their way to the church – who provided Sunday schools, or for the rougher ones, the Ragged schools, where they were educated, and that is why this provison existed (it was never creche for young people who didnt stay in the service..) then organisations formed, such as YMCA, and Barnados. District nurses found the young people on the streets, as did Thomas Barnado, and services formed from this early detached work.  In its history therefore, the act of philanthropy was directed to the young person who was isolated from the community, and to be found in need on the streets, or bedraggled at a local church.

Where club based work had a natural bent towards spending time with young people away from their family community in the building – detached less so – still the primary interactions are with the young person first and foremost – though for detached it is not as if other people are on the streets in the evenings, dog walkers, pub goers, people who need stuff from a late night off license, people waiting for a bus. In a way the argument could be made that young people in all of these situations sought out provision and spaces where they can socialise, and be apart from others in the community. Though at times this might be a decision they dont get to make when they are asked to leave their home for an evening. They might have isolated themselves, so did youthwork focus too much on the young person as an individual distinct from community? , rather than as a social being constructed and in context of their community – and make means to develop community approaches..

Some of the isolation of the young person from their community is reflected in the small scale sample of definitions people have given about what youth work is:

Youth work is a way of giving young people the opportunity to feel valued, accepted and heard. (comment on Facebook)


Youth work seeks to meet people where they are at, engage them, identify their wants and needs and support them to achieve this. (comment on facebook)


‘Youth work is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context’ (Sercombe, 2010a:27)

As young people were considered as a distinctive demography in society (Griffin, C, p 18,1997) so then did the prevalence of practice that isolated them as an entity became common & justified. As the ‘problem’ in the society, they were the entry point, because they could be found, to help educate, to help transform the wider community (as some of the definitions above allude to) . Detached youthwork in the 1960’s realised that the community plays a significant part in the nature of the practice, Goetschius and Tash determined that The borough of London played a significant part in the setting for its detached work, and the young people they would be in contact with, yet though they specify a ‘work with community’ their predominant role in detached was to educate young people in the services that the community offered and suggest which to “accept, need or reject” (Goetchius & Tash, 1967;209), but they do recognise the need for good community work, which takes time, in conjunction with the detached youthwork they were offering.

Thus, the community of the young person is recognised as playing a significant part of the young persons life, and there is attempt by these pioneers of detached to enable the young person to retain a critical and yet close appropriate connection with it as part of their identity and development, they in this practice unintentionally it appears, developed community practice thinking in detached work, even though they met young people on the streets, often isolated from the community geographically.

What of the church…..?

Last week there was an article which suggested that Young People in churches should be more included in the congregation and services. I referred to it in a previous blog. And so, but from a different perspective- retaining the separation since the early Sunday schools back in the 1850’s – the church in its style of youth work (am not going to go into the definitions discussion here) has retained a separation. Not only that, it has adopted language based on adolescence, and sub-cultures, or generationalisms, that enforce through language the separation of young people. If young people arent in church its because they are different, they need understanding, and they need something separate/relevant/’fresh’, they might be, but in all of those conversations the culture of the church retains normative. They as young people are the distinctly different, and therefore need isolating or treating different distinct from families, or the wider faith community, (let alone the community of a young person who doesnt attend the church). Isolating so that a youth worker can work with them.  The language of ‘family and childrens work’ and ‘youth and community’ work has become more common recently in job titles in faith settings where youth work/ministry once dominated, but that might be due to restricted finances than because of a shift in approach to develop whole community practices of faith – though i stand corrected where this occurs. But in the main the separation is retained.  And ministries are formed, conferences are had and conversations occur which maintain the distinctions, the differences and view of young people as isolated units- separated from the people of the organisation of the church – in the main.

External factors in Youth work have determined the shift to isolation, as Mark Smith identified, the problem of individualism and case study approaches to working with young people is not a new one , and in this government policy context, talk of resilience, personal development, employability of the individual became second nature in the conversations about youth work – fitting neatly with person centered therapy approaches of Carl Rogers, and taking the political sting out of a Freirean approach to education. The individual young person became valued and respected – and appropriately so, and this is reflected in some of the definitions, there is barely a mention of the young person as a social being or their social education in a community. But did they then as young people only become even more isolated from their community – as they became worked on. They formed new community in a club, a programme or a project – such as a YMCA or a Princes trust course – not knocking these, but thinking of how the young person is isolated from and it is not the whole community educated through such a process – they are individualised further with development plans or evaluations.

The question then is;  has Youth work isolated young people from their community too quickly?  did it narrate (was it forced to narrate) a discourse about young people that serves its own reason for existence as a practice. The government are reducing statutory youthwork, the church and voluntary services retain an element of youth provision. But how that youth work provision, and how young people are segregated from the wider community where it occurs is to be questioned. And critical questions of viewing young people in their community context remain.

So, what could be a solution?

Maybe the shift is first in the thinking around the language of young people, of young adults to start off with. As Sercombe identified- youth work might be able engaging with young people in their social context’ – A community approach to youthwork might consider that young people are to be engaged with, with their social context, not isolated from, but deliberately with those around them, in local groups and communities. Richard Davies writes that

At the heart of youth work as an activity is the development of young peoples ability to live better lives and in part this requires a grounding in community

Maybe this is a start, as often its not only that a young person is isolated from a community. But how the community is viewed is also important.  Not unlike the situation that befell the churches in the 1850’s, the community is often blamed for the state of the young person who then turned up bedraggled, but who now might be rude, loud, or displaying other behaviours. So, its not just that the young person is isolated by agencies away from the community, but that the agencies have a negative view of the community itself. Young person is the victim of the community  is a common mentality.

If you have got this far, (and you deserve a medal), then can i point you in the direction of this article on the Nurture development website:  . What Cormac argues for is that an isolated approach of Asset based community development is risky without a whole community approach, where a community is needed for its gifts, its resources, and its strengths, and to be a contributor over and above that of agencies.

In a way it is a picture of how an approach has isolated people to itself from a community and expected change to happen as effective without it. I wonder if forms of youthwork suffered the same. When individual approaches, or even group approaches with young people that provide distinction from a wider education (be it personal, social, spiritual) of a community, have occured, when community approaches, or the recently popular, intergenerational approaches have been whats required for long term understanding & change. Maybe it has been easy to isolate young people and work with them to enable them to a different future despite their community, but surely a whole community approach where gifts and resources are identified (circa ABCD, or Goetchius & Tash, 1967)  makes this a distinctly better path to travel?  The same could be said for the church as an organization – youth still feels a problem to be solved. 

Maybe community is back on the agenda for detached youthwork, given its proximity to a local community it never went away, but in addition maybe asset based community development & education should be on the agenda as a pre-requisite for all meaningful youth work.


Davies, R , Places to go, things to do, people to see, in Kraft P, Horton J, Tucker F Critical Geographies of Childhood and youth, 2013, pp 79-91

Griffin C, Representation of the Young, in Roche & Tucker, Youth in Society, 1997, p17-24

Sercome H, Ethics of Youthwork , 2012; p28