Five paradigm shifts of Christian youth ministry

A Paradigm is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field. (wikipedia)

Its a commonly used word in the world of Christian youthwork, because often there are shifts to be made, when new information about a culture is assessed in light of previous information. . So when there is a need to change approaches and patterns of work, a paradigm shift is often the rallying cry. A turn to culture may affect the need for these, a turn to full gospel might also too.  But what are the oft talked about paradigm shifts and can they happen without shifts in the church?

Here are some of the commonly talked about paradigm shifts, and a brief description:

  1. From an Attractional to a Missional mode, then from Missional to emerging (yes 2)

This shift goes like this –

It goes from an inside-out model (young people ask their friend to your event), to Outside-in (you work with young people outside to bring them in) to Outside-out (you work with young people to create church amongst them).

Its a tricky one to navigate, given that there are plenty of road map distractions along the way, and what seems gravitational pulls to previous models, there may even be gravitational pulls to the newer practices that might not be as relevant as first thought.  For more on this check out ‘Here be Dragons’ (see above).

2. From Youth Ministry to Youth work

I’m not sure youth ministry ever got its head around what youth work is all about. Especially given that at its heart its about a Christian educator, Paulo Freire trying to liberate a community in Brazil – why youth ministry doesnt seem to get it i’m not sure. Borrow from it yes, but get it truly for the sake of young people who are very much oppressed in society, nope not really. Thus it still feels like its a paradigm shift. Because to embody youth work as a philosophy in the context of churches and established youth ministry organisations is an ongoing educative process, another walk along a pathway with many pulls to embody the pre-existing, or dominant methods or practices that maintain often a banking teaching, or entertaining practice, rather than a holistic liberating one. Danny Brierely did a good job of arguing that youth ministry needed youth work to give it ethical and a young person centred methodology ( Brierely 2003) , paying lip service to actual youth work values, that include anti discrimination, equality, informal education doesnt do youth ministry any good.

3. From Ministry to one person to community flourishing.

A paradigm shift would be to encourage groups and communities to flourish and thus young people will do to, rather to try and change communities by going for the youngest first. If the community has a low view of its young people then how on earth will it all change through that one young person? Yet often this is the narrative of youth specific methods.

It doesnt work , especially when there are so many powerful structures at play to inhibit the desire for any change. Good youth work will only occur in good community work. Its the same in faith communities. The whole church needs to evolve around the discipleship of all from all ages, only then will adults and emerging adults thrive.

4. From Needs to Assets

This is one that requires theological and practical paradigm shift, though some of the others also require ecclesiological reflection too. Its easy to consider young people to be in deficit in one way, whether spiritual, social or emotional, and thus be the acting saviour to help them, through teaching, activity or programmes. Its a correct theological view of Humanity as well , isnt it? Even if it is, the being saviour to young people is one that puts them in deficit to us.

What if instead Christian youth ministry actively recognised the gifts, abilities, character and skills of young people in all its contexts and built from this. Its asset based work, build on what young people have and contribute, facilitated by, rather than rescued by the youth worker.

5. From attendance to discipleship.

If all young people do is occupy a space that we provide- what benefit is it to them ? Whether its the youth club, event or service. Framing youth ministry as a discipleship activity negates numerical assessment of it, and focusses on investing in young people along a process of faith exploration over a long period of time, where events, clubs and services are secondary or even optional marker points. Focussing on discipleship might mean that gathering young people to renew conversions or commitments at events is a thing of the past, instead young people are given spaces to be Christians, be discipled, learn, copy and develop at such events, discipleship becomes part of the culture for youth ministry, and shapes its direction, actions and performances.

The interesting thing is what prompts the need for paradigms, how do they become validated, and why are old paradigm patterns of work so difficult to move away from. It is sometimes as if Christian youthwork has been able to let loose some of its former paradigm ways, but yet had to become distant from the organised church- and thus resides more comfortably in non specific church, Christian organisations, such as FYT, the local centres of YFC (some of them) , and other independent Christian youthwork organisations. These are spaces to explore the road map of the world and take different tools to use depending on what is found, with more freedom to use them.  Learning from these organisations should be filtering back to the organised churches, to educate and shape thinking, in some places it does, the edge shaping the core, and hoping the core becomes the edge. (Brewin)

Whilst then Youth Ministry is required to undergo paradigm shifts and might manfully try to do so, the problem is that its been unable to do this whilst the local church stays in the world of some of these old cultural paradigms.  Until this changes there will always be paradigmatic tension in UK youth ministry, given that some of these paradigms have been talked about for 20 years or more.

For me, its frustrating to be involved in the world of young people, as a privilege, and know that it would take huge shifts in a local church to accept, or be hospitable with them in order for the exploring of discipleship to occur. Until this can happen, Christian youthwork to save itself will reinvent itself. Church will occur elsewhere where young people and their communities are situated, where they are liberated, and they are encouraged to use their assets and gifts. I see no better place to encourage community discipleship.


The empty space in youthwork is our hands

“Here we touch on a type of acting which, as an art, is closer to sculpture than painting. Painting involves the addition of colours, whereas the sculptor takes away what is concealing the form which, as it were, already exists within the block of stone, thus revealing it instead of building it up” (Grotowski)

In his work on the Poor Theatre, Grotowski is talking about acting, in particular the combination of improvising and formal discipline. The comparison between the work of the artist-painter and the sculptor, or at least their use of materials is one that provides a useful metaphor for youth work, and especially youth and community work that seeks to be asset based.

There can be the assumption that the community of the young people is the blank space in which the creative sparky youthworkers are the brush tips of creativity and sparkle to add colour to what is deemed a bleak space.

For the Sculptor, however, aside from a few tools, the finished article is already present. just in the wrong form.

For the community, and for the community worker, there are many contributions to this block that already exist in the space, from the tight knit families, the informal parties, the friendship groups, gifts that are already evident, self care and regulation, not to mention collaborative history and experience. They all and much more create the block of clay, it is already there.

Yet to not feel like the creative spark, the colours in the bleakness might be an uncomfortable place to be, uncomfortable in that we like to feel needed, or to help, or to rescue, or that  our message transforms. The message still does transform, but it builds from what people already have. Like the proverbial ship in the ocean, the transition to facilitative enhancing, from leadership creativity in the blank space might take a while or a force to help it move slowly.

It goes further, I wonder if the block of clay in a poor set of hands is likely to have too much, or the wrong bits chipped off by the over zealous sculptor – keen to make their own finished article and take too much (metaphor for power) away from the existing people in the space. Yes the bits taken off can be reattached – but far easier to be more careful in the first place. The overzealous painter might just find a new sheet of paper and leave one mistake behind. The sculptor still has the rest of the block and can start again.

What if we treated people we encounter as full blocks of clay waiting to be shaped and moulded? Like the actor learning to improvise, the cues to the performance make up the block, it is an ongoing revealing through time, space, response and re-enactment.

The cues to the appropriate sculpture in the life of the community may already be there, its about discovering those in the peeling back process, the conversations of positive questions, its in the exploring of the gifts, abilities, drives, dreams and ambition, of local knowledge that the ongoing remoulding of the block takes shape.

It means that our hands are empty. the community is full.

All it might take is hands that are willing to get engrossed in pliable messy clay, in the thick of it, to build on what is already there.

Asset based communities & the gospel – according to My Little Pony.

Its a story involving One Messianic Figure

A group of disciples all with carefully selected gifts and abilities as identified by the messianic figure

A group of disciples who are joined in a gift of friendship

A series of many adventures

A Series of opportunities to work together to use those gifts and abilities to overcome darkness 

Sometimes the Messianic figure interupts the action when needed

Sometimes he leaves them all on their own to work it out using their friendship to overcome. 

Its the 12 disciples and Jesus isnt it ? , nope – but it could be

Its Lord of the Rings its always Lord of the Rings ? – nope- but it also could be

Its My Little Pony

or at least according to wikipedia, it is the 4th Generation series of my little ponies.

The Story of recognising gifts, of using friendship to use them to a common goal, of overcoming collective fear by collective unity behind the one common goal. All the ponies have gifts, and at different times they all use them in the pursuit of saving them all, and others in the adventures they face.

Thats what My Little pony is all about. (thanks to Laurence Keith for the insight – its not something i am well versed in since 1984 (version 1 and my younger sister collecting them))

Its asset based community in action. Its discipleship in the ongoing drama of kingdom where good overcomes darkness through goodness.

The story of redemption of community spirit, that acts to change the world- told out through the stories of cartoon ponies.

Yet it could be the Lord of the Rings, the story of overcoming the trials though using up to now unused abilities, character and skills, being pushed to explore, to adventure and overcome in the friendship between those who need to use them.

My Little pony, 4th Generation, a lesson in Asset based communities. A modern day metaphor of the discipleship journey, told day by day to children in cartoons.  The gospel according to My Little pony if you will.

If children are being asked to look for the good in others through their stories, how might this be encouraged of young people, of adults and in communities.  Its clearly a way of thinking capable in children, and can be encouraged as such, it is not pie in the sky thinking, its the real world of goodness and gifts being given and harnessed to overcome with the guidance of the Saviour.

Receiving community gifts from surprising sources

Theres a story in the Bible about a man named Elijah. He was someone whose life was characterised by some intense low points of self doubt, of questioning, and some high points where he took on those in the country and the king who decreed the worship of an alternative God (Baal). His life is often read through the lens of his faith – to whether the storms, or to counter the King, or of obedience.

At one point Elijah is in the desert, and God informs him of a pending drought & famine, and to feed him, Elijah is visited by Ravens who bring food, and he has a brook to drink from. However, neither the ravens or brook last forever. So, out of necessity, Elijah walks to the village of Sidon, a place known for the aforementionned Baal worship.  Ahead of the visit, God had already instructed a widow to feed him. (do we know how..? ) So Elijah went, and saw a widow arranging sticks and so he asked her for a drink, and then bread. Yet because of the famine in the land, and that this woman was a widow (had no income or social standing to have an income) she had very little, in fact only enough flour and oil for one cake, after that we are told, she and son will have nothing left and die. 

Elijah encourages her to bake, to give to him, and keep the remainder for her and her son, and true to Elijahs promise, from that day on, there was food in the house, enough to feed them all until the rains came and food was sourced.

You can read the rest in 1 Kings 17 in the Old testament.

Its a fascinating episode in the story of Elijah, yet this story isnt about him at all. He plays second fiddle to the widow, without her there would be no story, without her there would be no food for him, without God preparing her there would be no hospitality. Surely it should be read as the faithful widow gave gifts to the hungry man.

Yet, without the necessity of Elijahs survival from the desert, there would be no need for the widow in the story either.

This story is often one that is used when considering some of the theological resonances with what might be termed ‘Asset-Based community approaches’, and i make no apology for giving this airtime. On one hand Elijah had to be present in the village to receive the resources of the community, and this goes hand in hand with the resources of the community being given, being received by the prophet. It echoes Jesus calling the disciples to find the man of peace. It also echoes/foretastes Jesus receiving the gift of a drink of water from the Samaritan woman (another woman beset by social inequality, unemployment and derision for her marital status)

The faith of the widow to give, despite the obvious need to feed herself and her son, who are near to death is quite astounding . To feed a stranger in need. And yet she gave. She may have gave because she might have had to obey a man in that society, or because she had been guided by God to do such a thing, either faith is in the giving. What she gave, was added to, and miraculously multiplied. (feeding of the 5000 anyone?) For Elijah, and for us in Mission, how might we be attuned to the gifts and resources already present in the people, in the families, in the community in which our lives are connecting with as friends?

Notice too the sense that God has gone ahead of Elijah, God is one step ahead. I wonder, with a focus of the mission story so often reliant on the past heroics, do we in mission take seriously that God might be already ahead of us? – and if so how might we be attuned towards his revelation already in the world?

Whilst Elijah had to go to the village, when he got there he was openly present, at the main gates. He was not behind a wall, but physically in the space and place of the streets, the public spaces. By being present he was able to bring other people, the Widow, into the action, of not only his Story, but also the story of God acting in the world, as he acted in provision, and also in healing the widows son later. Maybe God acted to prepare the widow for the action, but it was Elijah who drew her into the action in the dramatic conversation and request.

If the place of resource, and the place of faith, and the place where the dramatric action resides is shown to Elijah through the actions of the hungry, socially outcast, but faithful Widow in this small backwater village – should that not be calling for the church as theatre of the gospel to encourage the gifts and participation in it by the leastest likely, and actively provide opportunity for the leastest likely to be givers in mission (not just receivers) , and humble enough to receive hospitality of strangers it wants to call friends.

The resources of the Kingdom might already be active waiting to be given. There may be too many needs to be met, but what if mission was about harvesting gifts waiting to be given. What if mission was about making the assumption that the resources for the kingdom are already there. What if in the world stage of the drama of redemption people have already been prepared to give? how might we accept their gifts? Where might the church recognise faith in the giving of them?




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