No matter what the seminar leaders at the latest conference says
No matter what the trainers at Christian ministries explain.
No matter what the latest generalised view in a book is
No matter what the latest research on a lost generation of young people says.
All youth ministry is local.
Youth ministry is only effective when it is in response to local needs guided by local convictions in the hands of young people. When community convictions and concerns, financial and leadership resources, theological and moral values when tied to ministry vision and passion, shape strategies for reaching young people.
All youth ministry is local.
I bet you thought I wrote this. That these are my words. I bet , probably aside from the reaching young people comment, that you thought that I have found another youth work book that fits a ground-up, community development approach to youth work, a community view of ministry.
These aren’t my words.
Well.. not quite..
These are written by an American youth ministry expert.
Really?..( I hear the 4 of you who will read this blog say…)
When did they say this.. when did American youth ministry realise this..? … is it recent?
Well it is ‘new’… a ‘new’ direction in youth ministry.
A new direction… in 1998.
A voice of American youth ministry, going against the tide (Mark H Senter III) . Criticising the generalised view of youth ministry, cultural assumptions and may be the macdonaldisatuon of youth ministry programmes, resources and faith. Staying that. All youth ministry is local.
Shame books don’t get read much. Or affect the practice of youth ministry much. Shame this book didn’t even get chance to leave the RRC in 20 years.. (yes no one took it out)
So what happened in the last 20 years.. has UK youth ministry recognised this.. ? I wonder..
Of course 20 years later.
I’d go further. Beyond needs to gifts. Beyond programmes to participation. And what does local youth ministry look like… well it looks like conversations, group work and developing and emerging from what you have.
But that’s for another blog.
All youth ministry really is local. So look for the beauty, possibility and spirituality in the young people you have.
New directions in youth ministry. 1998. Rice, Clark, eds
In his book ‘Faith Formation in a Secular Age’ (2017) Andrew Root suggests that the biggest motivation in society, that has infected the church – especially in youth ministry , is what seems the influence of the avoidance of boredom. And in the church this looks like:
Must make this event exciting – or no one will come along
Our new youthworker must be excited and innovative (always thinking of the new)
What will make the programme lively and attractive?
We cant be doing the same songs, we must do new ones every now and then!
Young people wont be interested in coming to sunday church, they must have their own meetings
And, some of this also plays out in worship songs, using screens, countdowns and smoke machines, even in an avoidance of reading the bible or meetings (these are deemed boring).
Is Andrew Root right?
in Faith Formation he tells the following story:
‘ A famous bible scholar was meeting up with a young muscle bound man who expressed to him his deep deep love for Jesus. Judging from his passionate excitement, the professor believed the young mans commitment, so they talked about faith and the bible. When the topic of sunday worship came up, the young man explained that he rarely went, telling the professor that it had none of the adrenaline of the workouts, that ultimately Sunday worship was just too boring.
‘I thought you loved Jesus’ the professor asked
‘i do’ said the young man, and said with genuine authenticity, I really do!”
So, the professor asked, ‘do you think you would be willing to die for Jesus?’
Now more reserved, the young man said ” Yes…yes, I think i would, yes I would die for Jesus’
‘So let me get this straight, the professor continued, you are willing to die for Jesus, but not be bored for Jesus?’ (Root, A, 2017, p7)
The point that the scholar would try and make from this is that is the importance of co-orporate worship. The inconsistency of boredom vs commitment.
But Root seeks a different point in Faith Formation, because in an age where the authentic experience is sought… think not adrenaline junkies of the 1990s, but the authenticity of the farmers market/homebaked bread/real music – then in such an age, anything is deemed disingenuous if it lacked connection to the depth of subjective desires.
Therefore to be bored in an age of authenticity is not simply unfortunate or unpleasant it is to be oppressed and got rid of. if we have responsibility for our own individual journey of spiritual life then why would we consider anything boring to be worthy and part of it? if its boring our needs are unmet… arent they?
On one hand is Root right?
Well hang on just a minute. He goes on:
Because if on one hand the church’s pursuit of youthfulness (see this post ) has created churches that are having a juvenile tantrum (Roots words not mine), then what an age of authenticity also reveals is that churches are criticised not for too much spirituality and depth, but not enough. It is as if they have somehow lost what they are meant to be. The depth of experience (found in the gym, or found travelling the world to ‘find oneself’) is not found in the church.
There are two issues here, and Im not sure even I can do both justice in the remainder of this piece. So, i will focus on the first of the two.
Has the church, in regard to youth ministry played the ‘avoiding boredom’ card far too often? and what has been its response..
Make everything louder than everything else? Ie bigger and brighter music, churches, buildings, more attractive – keep up with the entertainment
Work out what it might mean when people say that they are bored of church..?
Boredom might mean actually not being involved. Boredom might mean that it is too simple. Boredom might mean that it is not challenging enough. Not that it isnt loud enough. Boredom might mean that it isnt real, or authentic enough. And what might make church authentic… authentic relationships, authentic involvement, authentic respect and faith formation, authentic opportunity to make decisions. (see my post here on developing these) So often boredom has just caused a reaction of adopt technology, adopt fun, adopt noise.
Whats strangely interesting is that the churches that have fared better over the last 50 years are those which retained something of the youth movement of 50 years ago. Possessing the spirit of youthfulness is equated to authentic, because being and staying young is exactly that. In and amongst this is a pretty non existent space for what church is or isnt actually meant to be about. But is that to be the case today? im not too sure…
The possibility of divine action is somewhat minimised for the sake of authenticity, faith is not connected to divine action but meeting in an authentic way. In short, is God more present when im not bored..?
The challenge for those of us who are involved in ministry and youth ministry is not that we cave in to calls to make churches and meetings more youthful, not to cave in to the cries of ‘young people arent going to come to church, its boring’ . The task is not to cave into church being more entertaining, for this will, or has already caused significant problems, where faith formation has almost completely been abandoned for youthfulness.
The challenge is to try and develop opportunities for ministry and gifting, usefulness and meaningfulness, not just a bigger brighter, louder, more colourful experience. If young people want that, they can get it at a coldplay concert. And that might be more authentic. For a coldplay concert does exactly what it says on the tin.
It will take a huge amount of effort to stand up in a culture that prioritised youthfulness as authentic to say hang on, lets do something meaningful, real and faithful. That might take guts to do, yet the hamster wheel of continual youthfulness is only going to have one winner. And it not faith formation, or long term discipleship. It is not experience of God, not the kingdom experiences of generosity, giftedness, gratitude and rest that permeate in church and discipleship, and ministry of the kingdom (Root, p 202) .
Making church less boring again, may well be a legitimate question. The response to it is one that will shape church for the next 50 years. Yet strategy will kill essence (Mather) , so we might as well get on and do the work of the kingdom, that looks like the ministry of God in the world. Being authentically inauthentic in a world of youthfulness. Do the essence of God.
Oh… and making church meaningful, hopeful and dangerous. A sub cultural movement of justice seekers called by God towards peace and reconciliation, generosity and gratitude. Now – who might find that boring..?
Or at least, that’s what we want to pay a youth worker to do.
Harsh? Or deep down is this what churches are really thinking?
Twice in the last year I have heard the word ‘feral’ used to describe groups of young people.
As many times more have I heard that getting young people into church is the only answer to solving their problems.
Forgive me for just a little over sensitivity.
But WHAT THE ACTUAL F***?
Has brexit unleashed a whole new generation of intolerant uncompassionate baby boomer/late retireds who have a compassion and humanity chip missing?
Have church leaders forgotten what love and ‘people made in the image of God’ looks like?
Has personal blame, rather than community responsibility and societies ills been sidelined?
Or is church still set in Victorian ways.. still happy to feel colonial and superior and retain this by the use of Victorian language.
So I’m bloody mad.
But if this is actually what we’re thinking as churches when it comes to working with young people, then churches and the congregations in them have got to own this.
Own that this is how they actually feel about young people. Own that working with young people is only code for ‘bringing them into church’. Own that they are scared and frightened of young people, and where these feeling originate. Often from the media, and when powerful leaders in churches use negative stories of the world outside and young people’s actions. Own it and be honest. Own it and challenge i. Own it and be collectively self aware.
I just don’t think the problem is with young people.
It’s with us.
It’s with the us who know better
It’s with the us who still believe
It’s with the us who hope that change is possible
It’s with us if we have any desire to realise that God’s love is inclusive.
It’s our problem. It’s our problem as church if this is our starting point. Or what we actually mean, but try and hide it.
It’s our problem if we believe some young people are worth more in the kingdom of God than others.
It’s our problem if the culture of church favours the behaved. Or people only like us.
It’s these expectations that cause challenges with employing youthworkers. But if it’s out in the open. We have to own it.
I may be critical and angry. But this is also heartfelt passion.
‘Sorry and We have got it wrong’ have to be the starting point. We will not provide reconciling spaces if we’ve already judged.
Whole communities do need restoring, encouraging, loving, understanding and being present in.
Those feral young people might be the key.
Those feral young people have had their life opportunities restricted by austerity policies that weren’t their fault.
Those feral young people are angry. Those feral young people need compassion not criticism.
Those feral young people are creative, determined, passionate and resourceful, and God is provoking us through them. They are the visionaries a dying church needs.
Those feral young people, and not other, they are not scum.
Those feral young people… are not other, they are us.
Maybe we do need to understand before were understood.
Maybe hearts need breaking first. Ours.
Maybe anger is a good thing.
God, please one day might there be a church where ‘those’ young people are welcome, understood, loved and cherished. And I hope it is in my lifetime and I am able to play a part in it happening.
And I haven’t started on the ‘getting them into church bit..’…
Not for the first time I find myself pondering a football and faith crossover piece. In the past I have written about a youth worker transfer deadline day, and also thinking about the theatre of football as a performance.
This time I’m heading to the slightly sensitive area of church attendance and growth statistics.
But first, a reminder, for those of you who aren’t sport inclined, what the ‘away goals count double rule’ actually is. It’s particularly relevant today on the day of the UEFA champions league quarter final draw.
The logic of the rule (And I’m not going to give you the official line) is that in some football competitions, mostly games where teams play other teams from a different country, there has always been and will be a home advantage. The home team don’t have to travel, they play in their own stadium on a pitch with dimensions they know, with all their home fans, their dressing room etc etc. It has long been recognised then that an away team (especially after long distance travel) is at a disadvantage.
For this reason, where a two game the is level on goals, any away goals scored by either team count as double. Their value is worth more. 1 goal counts as 2.
An additional meaning is attached to the number.
It crosses my mind that a similar weighting or value might be useful in thinking about church attendance, growth and mission statistics and success.
Put it this way,
The middle class already Christian family who move into the area and start going to the church might be recorded as ‘5’ on the figures.
And almost no effort might be made to find, work with or accommodate them, except being welcoming and hospitable. (Yet there are many churches/parishes where this is an unlikely reality)
The same 5 might be said for the family who start attending who have become known to the church via the foodbank. And whilst the same hospitality is recognised and evident, the effort and investment required might be more intensive.
If young people are really anti church and a youth worker has been employed- do the 5 young people who start attending chug h, also going as 5?
We may have real incentive as churches to do mission, youth work and community work in our churches, parishes and deaneries. But it might be as equally said that results by numbers might only implicitly cause churches to go for the ‘easier’ groups.
‘If we can get 1 of our friends to come along’
‘If we can attract a few Christians to come along by changing our service’
And that’s not to in any way suggest that this is easy. Not at all.
But if homeless people from hartlepool are made to feel welcome and attend because of years of effort changing a culture in a church to be more inclusive.. Then that ‘5’ of them has to represent and mean something more..
It might take 10 fold extra effort to encourage hard to reach groups (to be welcome in a church that often implicitly excluded) , and yet they’re counted as just 1.
It’s far easier if there’s a numbers game to go for the assessed easiest. It would almost be change in culture to intentionally advocate mission to and with the leastest in society.
So could ‘away goals count double?’ Or triple, or even ten fold?
I don’t mean to sound trite, or to try to dismiss the value of persons as numbers, the reality is that this already happens. I’m just highlighting the inadequacy of a numbers orientated system for measuring growth and attendance.
If there was church plant in Hendon, or Burbank, or moss side or fairfields, tulloch or the east end, shouldn’t a church plant of 10 people who became indigenous leaders have higher meaning and value than a church plant where 20 already Christians turned up because they liked the new worship style?
Just a thought.. what would church planting amongst the least communities and areas shafted by successive governnents be measured and justified ? If at all? But maybe not on the same measures of middle class suburbia who shape policy and expectation..
What might a good church look like, rather than a successful one, of a faithfully loving one in such a community. Why would that one need to be measured by numbers at all? And if so, could they count double?
Every new persons or families attending churches takes effort, agreed, but shouldt the extra resources required for the least likely, unchurched, abandoned by churcv/society, but warranted extra value..?
For the majority of churches, the idea of having any young people being part of the church is a bit of a luxury. The task for many is to find them, attract them, and often this task has seemed to have fallen to the ‘christian organisation’ such as YFC, YMCA or FYT – the challenge where this happens is how the integration from organisation to church occurs.
But thats not the subject of this piece. I raised the question about the role that young people play in the church in a piece last year (here is this piece) , a piece that since April has been read by at least 10 people worldwide per day since. The role of young people in church is clearly crucial and something widely needing a discussion on.
So, what about progressing the conversation on a bit:
If its one thing to state ‘What current role do young people play?’ – and consider how passive, consuming, entertained they might be – the progressing question is :
What Role do you want young people to have in the church?
Because there is no point just assessing what kind of role they currently have, its what kind of role those who work with them want them to have, and how this might happen is key. So, this is yet another piece on young peoples participation. So, it might be worth thinking through why participation is important, and what might need to change, from the point of view of the cultural norms of church, of youth leadership and the perception of young people in the church which proceeds the development of their role. I have written before (and so have others) about the various historical perceptions of young people in churches, that needs to be changed in order that participation is increased. From the social rescue of the 1800’s, to the ‘protection and safety’ and creation of alternative culture youth ministry subsequent to the 1960’s. Throughout it all, there remains a high expectation of young people being involved in church to ‘learn’. Nick Shepherd in ‘Faith Generation (2016) suggests that shifting culture from learning to deciding is key. And I agree.
But why is increasing participation required?
On one hand, Theologically, participation is core to faith and the gospel itself. But I dont think I need to expand this here. Just look up ‘Bible Gateway’ and search participate or participation. And where there are no references, think about how God involves humans in the task of his mission, or loving and caring for the world, and developing the work of the church. Participation, and increasing it is core.
I want to look at this from a psychological basis as well. The psychologists Deci and Ryan have suggested that all of us are motivated by, and seek out continued spaces in which they feel they have:
And, to be reasonable, developing relationships has been one of the key principles of youth ministry over the last 30 years. It may be something that still needs work, but ask a whole load of young people who have had the same leaders for more than 3-4 years, and they will remark on the depth of friendship and the value of them. Developing connections and relationships is undoubtedly key. From a young persons point of view – they will also be seeking out opportunities to create and have these connections – its worth bearing this in mind.
The second of these things is competence. It can take a number of facets, but essentially, being good at something, being confident in it and then also receiving the feedback for it. So think about it – in what ways do young people ‘do’ something in the church, that they can be praised for – that is quite meaningful? Colouring in a picture and showing it, really isnt competence inducing for a 12yr old. (especially when they’ve been in a committee in primary school)
The third is Autonomy. Which on the face of it might infer that they want to be independent, and this is partly correct, but it is a sense that they have responsibility and possibility to make decisions on aspects of things that directly affect them, having influence in the important. So – what about the youth group, or the church that young people might be important that young people could or should have influence over? Well if theyre an integral part of the church, then i might suggest almost everything. Only having a say in whether to play table tennis or indoor football may be a start, but its barely an important one. Chap Clark (Adoptive church, 2018) suggest that young people could have a say in the content or subject matter of the sermons in church. Maybe with that level of participation, young people might invest in church further. With a direct line to my youth pastor as a tennager, the youth group would make some suggestions to him, back in the 1990’s. It was great to hear on a sunday what he knew we thought was important. And not be patronised or ignored.
Think about all the aspects of the youth group, or the aspect of church – what role do you want each of the young people to play?
What might you need to do to open up the space so they can? challenge barriers? challenge assumptions? create spaces where young peoples voice can be heard? (and this not be a one off) If any church is serious about young people being more than token, more than passive consumers, then as adults, youth leaders and volunteers our role is to create the space, it is also to provide the support for developing the risk taking.
As a reminder, here is Roger Harts ladder of youth participation, which helps to give the rungs and grades of participation for young people.
It might be said then, that increasing young people’s participation isnt just a nice to do – its actually what they need. Beyond connection, competence and autonomy are shot through the participation ladders higher rungs, decision making, doing stuff, creating things, taking risks – all deeply connected to a young persons needs (whether they know it or not).
Naturally, there are some areas in a youth group in which young people can have more participation than others (the games rather than the faith content..often) – it can also be said that some young people are more likely to be given roles than others – its usually the:
ones with the leadership potential
Right gender, race or ability…
those known the longest
the most well behaved.
But what about the others? might a church be setting itself up to be accused of favouring the strongest (rather than the less visible) for participation, – is this theological ? After all – who did Jesus prefer. The irony is that ones who are likely to have participation opportunities in church, are as likely to be those who have them in school. So – the least get left out twice. The opportunities for participation might need to be adapted to the persons in the group. fancy that.
So – what kind of role do you want young people to have in their local church? or their youth group?
You might be content with them only having a token role in the life of the whole church, then dont be surprised if they only seem to have a token faith, or a token investment back. ‘The more we invest in young people the more they are likely to invest in their faith’ is a paraphrase from Christian Smith seminal 2003 book. Do you, does the church have increased and full participation as a main aim – but what kind of participation is actually possible for the 11 year old or 14yr old?
If you want young people to stay, and children beyond messy church and sunday school – then increasing participation in the local church is crucial. Its almost the only way. Its why when they have experienced it, ‘just going’ to a ‘event or festival’ might seem boring in comparison. Its participation free.
Without participation young people might get bored. And thats not because they need greater entertainment, its that they need greater respect and involvement. Relationship, Competance and Autonomy – might churches, and youth groups be places where these deep needs of young people are met? They might only be met through increasing participation. So – what role do you want them to play in the faith community? – what role do they want?
Joined up – Danny Brierley, 2003 ( a chapter on participation)
Human Being, Bryan, Jocelyn, 2016 – On personal motivation/goals and a consideration of Deci and Ryan.
The last 4 books I have read on youth ministry have started sounding like a bit of a
or reading them, has been like
its as if there is nothing new under the sun, or maybe with a twist that:
Now, it could be that I read the same kind of youth ministry books, and to a large extent that might be true. However, I have also benefited from receiving a number for free, so that i can write reviews of them on this very site. So Nick Shepherd, Naomi Thompson and Chap Clark I am looking at you. But I will also add in this conversation Andy Root as well.
Heres what I mean. The only conversation in town is how to keep young people in churches. It is second to the fact there isnt any in church at all. But lets kind of go with the flow. See what you think from the quotations below:
Naomi Thompson in her 2018 book ‘Young People and church since 1900’ writes
“Young people today view their engagement with organised Christianity as a two-way transaction. They do not wish merely to serve church needs, nor do they expect to be passive consumers in accessing the youth provision on offer.”
Nick Shepherd in his 2016 book ‘Faith generation; retaining young people and growing the church’ writes
‘The first area we might consider is the way i which young people move in churches from learners to deciders‘ (p156)
Chap Clark insists that: ‘Sometimes it is not a question of whether students and young people have the ability to serve, but a question of power. Adults have the power. Empowerment is a theological and sociophychological one. We need to transcend participation, and go all out for contribution. A participant is allowed to be with us, a contributor is with us on equal terms, a coworker who is taken seriously‘ (Chap Clark, Adoptive Church, 2018, p146-7)
And from a different angle, Andrew Root suggests that:
Andrew Root in ‘Faith Formation in a Secular age’ (2017) writes that faith in a secular world requires that : “study after study in youth ministry seems to define faith primarily through institutional participation. The youth with faith are those conforming to the youth group through affiliation‘ (p30) The issue is that faith=conformity.
What all say is that participation is both essential, and yet it is not enough. All four writers identify young peoples decision making, creativity and desire to be part of the proceedings, not just a token gesture. Root and Shepherd also suggest that participating in the church structures really isn’t enough.
Young people want the church to be the place where they can be ministers in the world, and be agents of change in it. Institutional participation isn’t enough, but if this in itself isnt there well.. . Faith is to be Plausible (Shepherd), it is to involve ministry (Root) and it is about developing gifts (Root) in a place where faith can flourish (Clark).
But ultimately. I think they all say the same thing.
Its about identifying young peoples gifting, and created supportive places where young people can use these and decide how they want to minister using them. Its about moving from consumerism to contribution, and giving, or allowing young people to shape the roles they can rise to in the church, and develop faith that is risky, loving, generous and transforming.
Its great when four books say the same. Dont you think…. I mean its not as if youthwork hasnt been about participation for many a decade, has it…
It might be worth checking out this piece, on Youth participation, I wrote in in January last year, and includes Harts ladder on youth participation. ‘What role do young people have in church?’ given that this was a question posed by Danny Breirley in 2003, the same question is still being answered. We know that evidence and research is proving it, so why not any change?
Youth participation – the broken record – well it might be until its fixed…
It comes as almost no surprise that there has been a backlash to the cultural messages of safety, harm and avoidance of risk that have been prevalent in culture, and also I might add the church over the last few decades.
Talk now in youth ministry is of taking risks with young people.
Or maybe more pertinently, talk is of ensuring that risks are important in the relationships with young people.
It was the focus of last years Youthscape conference in which 1000 youth workers attended. Its been the focus of FYTs resources also. But – is it ever the subject of clergy conferences?
This risk provoking goes against one of the key principle cultural and organisational implicit drivers of organisations, notably church based youth ministry, which has, as said by Pete ward in 1997 – been more about safety and conformity within the church, than the kind of radical discipleship offered by Jesus. (Ward, 1997, Youth work and the mission of God, p16)
Taking risks was a key aspect of Jesus’ ministry – don’t you think?
Taking a risk with us as humanity was a risk taken by God overall – don’t you think?
Pushing the disciples to risk taking – and even exposure to difficult situations- was a key element of how Jesus pushed the disciples- agreed..?
At the end of this piece I will refer you to a resource which has been collated by Frontier Youth Trust to help you develop risk taking in your youth ministry, do take a risk and have a look at it – the link is here: (and no I don’t get any commission) 101 Risky Ideas for your youthwork
But before you do that, Id like to offer a short reflection on risk taking within youth work and ministry, basing this on two principal ideas. The first is a chapter in ‘Youth work Ethics (YE)’ by Howard Sercombe, the second is the 9 stage process of youth work as developed by FYT a number of years ago. I hope you find both useful.
In ‘Youth work Ethics’ Howard Sercombe identifies 19 areas of youth work practice that he gives insight and reflection to, on the basis of suggesting that youth work itself is an ethical endeavour based upon itself as a profession, and a definition of youthwork as a ‘professional relationship in which a young person is engaged as a primary client in their social context’ ( YE, p 27, 2010). What this does, is form the basis of youthwork as a negotiated, limited, yet professional relationship – that transcends the plethora of activities, venues and delivery agencies- but frames it as a relationship. Something i think that is music to the outcome bleeded ears of the youth worker.
Before going further with Sercombe, here is the 9 stage group work process that once and still is core to the FYT Streetspace community, note especially the element of Risk, that its needed and where it is located.
The logic being that, over a period of time developing the relationship that you as a youth worker (especially as a detached worker) will be able to take a risk with the relationship that you have with a group (as you may by then have developed small group work, gained their trust etc) and been able to make suggestions to enable them to do something they maybe wouldn’t have done other wise. A push too soon may indicate that the relationship has been perceived differently from youth worker and young person/group. But note, that from the process of developing spirituality – a ‘test’ is whether ‘risk’ can be taken with other maybe easier concepts – like travelling to watch a football match, trying to raise funds for an activity, undergoing a personal change like quitting smoking (as an example) – gauging how risks in these areas might be seen as some kind of indication of how risk taken to think spiritually might be perceived. For more explanation of these – you might want to buy the Here be Dragons resource, in which all 9 stages are explored further. This is here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-4t
But lets just say from this example that Risk is needed in the youthwork relationship, and possibly even that Risk is needed for faith.
Back to Sercombe. Helpfully in a chapter on ‘taking care and managing risk’ , Sercombe identifies that in the main there has been a confusion about ‘harm’ and ‘risk’, but also that a number of risks are needed in youthwork, more so, there are a number of hidden risks that we would do well to help young people avoid.
A few summary thoughts from the chapter:
· Because we want to develop, transform even, the lives of young people through the relationship we seek to have with them , and they to some extent put themselves in our hands– this is an engagement that is inherently risky because we could get it wrong, create defensiveness, create exclusion or be a disappointment
· We expose young people to other relationships with other adults, professionals or services – there is a risk here, as these too may end up being destructive.
We are as youthworkers responsible for the intervention in other peoples lives and have a duty of care, and Sercombe goes on to describe the influence of a number of legal decisions and oaths that have an impact on how youthworkers are responsible, and ultimately states that:
‘The first responsibility of the professional is to make sure that nothing worse happens to the person than has already happened’ – though this is obviously difficult to promise – especially in medicine.
This is key ‘we need to do the best we can to help a young person in their journey. That may involve harm. It may involve greater harm. We don’t know that our assessment of that, even in consultation with the young person will be accurate’ We might want to avoid it, but harm is almost always a possibility in any intervention we might take, whether its helping them across the road to the ‘safety’ of the bus shelter on detached, the football or table tennis match, the cookery group, or game of pool. All can be harmful, and minimising harm is key, but it cant be avoided completely.
Whilst a few high risk activities have reinforced a tendency to avoid risks due to fear and litigation (such as PGL disaster over 20 years ago), and insurance companies dictating which activities youthworkers can and cannot do, there has become a tendancy, as i stated above, for risk avoidance. The real issue is being sued and avoiding harm to the organisation.
‘often it is our job to increase risk’ (YE, p110)
Whilst the risks that get banded around for young people are the usual list of subjects; drugs crime, unemployment, homelessness etc and these get the usual attention. There is a range of risks for young people that don’t: passivity, resignation, fatalism, cynicism, low expectations, isolation, and you might add a few others here. Like lack of political engagement or community participation. Our role, according to Sercombe, is to help the young person assess the risk as best they can and help them decide through the possibilities. In the short term there might well be harm for the young person, a better life might, controversially, not be a safer one. (YE p110)
The role that Sercombe suggests we take in this risk manoevering profession is that of a guarantor. We manage the risk, think about it, we assess it, and consider it. But what we also do is hope, believe and project. We want to believe that young people can do, will do, and might just rise to the risk, because we see them as capable, confident and want to give them the opportunity to be the adults that they want themselves to be. By treating them as adult – they become adult. Right? Isn’t this a risk in itself? – but not an entirely non altruistic, positive one?
For despite the best interests at heart, best support and best conditions – there is still a chance at ‘failure’. This is the guarantor, and our role. We hope and help to provide the best conditions, resources and buildings in the hope that this will help young people develop agency, confidence, to be adults to make decisions. This is why this puts us at risk.
Thats why we take risks in youth work – because we still believe in the possible, we still have faith in the potential, we still dream. We take risks, and need to receive good management on their risks. ‘Risk is a key resource in youthwork’ (YE, p111). It frames the logic of our intervention. Without it there would be no change, no transformation, no improvement, no new reality being explored. Whilst young people ‘at risk’ can be seen as an issue. Many of these occasions are when young people themselves do not have the capacity or resources to prevent being exploited, exposed or manipulated, by populist politicians, tabloids, sexual predators or extreme faith groups.
It is our role to defend young people, and take risks in preventing what might be a default pathway into these risks. Yet, risk is not the same as harm, it is not our role to decrease the risks, as arguably young people need risks so that they can exercise sound judgement, and we need to push young people to new experiences for their learning. We take responsibility for the process, we might consider ourselves lucky at times for the risks we have exposed young people to and the lack of assessment thought through. When young people enter into a relationship with us, it is a risk in itself, they entrust us, the information we give, and for them to push back on it. We might do well to recognise where we might have failed young people and their development because of our own reluctance or avoidance of taking risks, we need to be skilled enough to know and make the possibilities open, and resourceful in encouraging young people to take the risks. We might need to take risks to challenge barriers in organisations which hold young people back, we need to be as brave and courageous. We need, as this suggests, not to be content in only bringing young people to our beautiful place – but pushing them through the barriers we create to the somewhere new.
We have to take risks. Faith is about taking risks. Life is about taking risks.
Whilst the section above is less about faith, and more about risks in general. It is not difficult to make connections about barriers in churches and providing the support for young people to develop an adult faith.
As a reminder: Those 101 risky ideas for faith based work are here
At random – these are numbers 41-50 on the list and are aimed at helping to develop spirituality in young people, if you like these, why not download them all..for free. i mean what kind of risk is that, even…
41. Rewrite a parable and base it in your local context. Tell the story to young people without revealing its biblical origins. What are their interpretations?
42. Get up early to watch the sunrise and pray for the day ahead.
43. Ask young people to write a new parable.
44. Go to a cathedral or ancient church. Do some research about the the faith communities that have been there over its history.
45. For an experience of awe and wonder, sleep out under the stars.
46. Identify some of the metaphors used to describe God (ie Lion, Teacher, Tower, Rock). Ask young people to come up with some new metaphors based on the local context.
47. Cancel youth group or church in order that young people might find God outside the spaces you can control.
48. Arrange a visit to the building and community of a different faith. Use the time as an opportunity to dialogue about what values are important to you all.
49. If you meet with young people to explore and discover God start calling it church rather than Bible study or youth group. How do young people react? When is church, church?
Sercombe – Youthwork Ethics, 2010
Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997
I have had a copy of Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive Church’ for over a month now, sent to me to write a review of it, for this blog, its a bit of an odd book to try and write a review of, that’s not to say that it is without merit, some very interesting points, but I guess for me, a book that only has a few references, and only 12 Authors are listed in the Index (though they do include Barth, Bonhoeffer and Calvin) then you might understand why this is a book that I have struggled with. I had hoped in one way that the last three books I had read on youth ministry were bucking a trend somewhat ( Nick Shepherds ‘Faith Generation‘, Roots ‘Faith Formation in a secular age‘ and even the ‘Theological turn in youth ministry’ by Root and Dean) towards attempting more thorpugh examination of youth ministry practices. This book makes no mention of these previous pieces (or Root/Dean/Shepherd/ as influences) In comparison this is skin deep, and possibly why I have struggled with writing this review.
However, that’s the pre amble for the review, and possibly reveals my own prejudices. As I said this book is not without merit.
Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive church’ is the third of his ongoing series on developing family orientated churches in which young people can flourish. Previously he has written in two publications the importance of family for the nuturing of young people, and in Adoptive youth ministry this approach was developed further. In Adoptive Church, Chap Clark changes the focus from developing a nurturing youth ministry, to providing guidance for the whole church as to how it be adoptive in doing so be an environment where the nuture of young people occurs. This book is squarely for those youth ministers who are working in a church context, little is mentioned of mission activities and outreach work, but despite this it does ask pertinent questions and gives practical suggestions on how a church, a faith community might develop an adoptive way of being that can be of benefit to all, and not just young people.
In part one Chap Clark explains what he means by an adoptive church, in addition he suggests three crises that he identifies are befalling the existing programmable approaches to churches working with young people , chapters three four and five describe further the requirements for creating an adoptive church including what this means for discipleship, and how a church might develop a strategy for being adoptive, and then the goal of what an adoptive ministry might mean for young people and the church itself. The implementation of an adoptive church is Chaps main concern in part 2, a number of case studies, questions and processes are considered and primarily these relate to the nature of leadership required , with two different styles considered. The final section describes the characteristics of an adoptive church and how to encourage churches to develop an adoptive approach. The main shift for chap is that he directs most of this conversation to the whole churches rather than the specifics of the youth ministry departments. His passion is that the whole church is the soil for the nurturing, empowering and participation of young people and a culture of family who adopts young people is what is required for this to happen.
Universality of context – Chap suggests that an adoptive church approach can be considered for churches in ‘Atlanta, Ontario and Nairobi (p21)’ and in the main I agree with this sentiment. Describing how churches to have a better environment for nurturing young people in the faith community is critical for all churches, yet I cant help but think that the setting of a large church and the challenges that this proposes shape Chaps thinking and concerns in the main. Its almost as though Chap is responding to the problems in large church youth ministry where young people might well be cyphened off into age groups and never to be seen again by other supportive adults in a church, almost.
That discipleship is described as a process, rather than an end game, is another strength (page 49) – and Chap challenges the notion of ‘a mature’ disciple – when as he says, it is a movement and trajectory towards maturity that everyone in faith is undertaking. It is from this sense of movement that Chap orientates the solution to the three problems he suggest that are at the root of the issues in youth discipleship (stated below).
His solution to the three problems (and which encourages the movement of discipleship) to use a biblical analogy, is to focus on the soil. The solution isnt the programmes, professionalism of youthworkers, the excitement of the residential. It is the culture of the church. For Chap, the solution is that the soil – that is the culture of church, which all of us are part (whether paid, clergy, laity, congregation) is in need of a rethink.
we need to create environments where seeds can grow and shoot down deep roots that will last a lifetime (Clark p50)
For Clark, creating the right environment for the flourishing of disciples (the seeds) – involves cultivating the following:
Knowing Christ leads to following (p51)
Love for God increases knowledge (p51) (Quoting Tozer)
Knowing about God so that they (young people) can know God personally (GF Hawthorne) (I might critique this ‘knowing God personally’ relationship notion, and Root does this already in 2007 Revisiting Relational youth ministry)
Keeping the content about Jesus, using every opportunity to use a Jesus phrase..(p52)
Loving God/Christ back – in how young people express love back – ‘Teaching young people to love Christ is not about introducing more content, but rather providing environments and experiences that enable young people to slow down their lives and receive Gods love. Instead of taking prayer requests devote more to times where young people can be drawn into a tangible sense of Gods care and presence’ (Clark, p53, last sentence paraphrased)
Following Christ – Helping young people use their gifts, helping young people be generous, helping young people do Gods work in the world
Student leadership may be fine for the youth ministry but rarely actually leads young people to feel like they are contributors to the body. (the main church) The same goes for singing and teaching four year olds. Whilst these are sound expressions of using a gift in the body, to truly feel important and valuable contributors, the young need to connect to adults while they are following Christ as he brings in his kingdom (Clark, p55)
Whilst I can agree with the sentiment, I am not sure practically how the latter might occur, if as in many churches, there might be a discipleship deficit amongst adults, who spend more time maintaining churches through meetings, that being as active in ‘following Christ as he brings in the kingdom’ – young people might in effect be doing more of this themselves than adults are anyway. The learning might need to be the other way. Though the sentiment of greater participation/contribution is definitely valid, but in the UK, talk of participation and contribution is barely new. Neither is using the gifts of young people in Ministry – in fact this is the crux of Roots Faith Formation (2017) – though the repeated call for cultivating a better soil, for the seeds to grow is one that is particularly important.
Before moving further into the book, and developing Clarks key theme – creating an adoptive church. I want to mention critically the assessment of the state of churches that Clark identifies in Part 1. Not unlike many youth ministry book, there has to be a stated problem in part 1, to then be given the response and solution in parts 2-9. Where many youth ministry books have focussed on MTD, and the UK happy ‘Midi-narrative’ – (Root & Shepherd respectively) as the problem, Clark avoids both of these issues completely, and puts no work into thinking about the contexts in which the churches find themselves. Clarks focus is purely on the church as a whole. And church that is existing almost without any recognition of the context around it. On this basis, this is why the three issues that Clark raises as the problem with church youth ministry are:
We (the church) is losing young people
Students are unprepared for secular society
There is more hurt than we realise. (pages 25-30)
He is right on one hand to suggest that strengthen what is broken is a good way to start. However, I cant help think, that from a UK perspective, barely any church in the UK would be immune to the hurt in the students that they have, or the students/young people it is doing mission with, given the effects of austerity, young peoples mental health, etc etc – a church that doesn’t get this, especially in the UK must have its blinkers on. And to think that its own young people aren’t facing these, well… On the point that Students are unprepared for secular society, then again, this possibly represents something of the culture of a type of youth ministry that in the UK might only be a dream. Yes, there is much to be done of creating flourishing youth ministry and churches so that they balance a distinctive following of Christ, whilst ensuring that young people are world ready too. But not many churches in the UK offer the kind of 5 nights a week youth ministry that might shield young people from culture and the world around them. Yes preparing young Christians for following Christ in the long term is an ongoing real task – but in the UK im not so sure that many of them are non-world ready. However, giving them tools for mission and doing Gods work in todays world agreed, this is almost lacking. Especially if MTD (Christian Smith, 2005) is still pretty much the order of the day in regard to teaching, hearing and attendance is the one thing valued. For the US audience, these 3 issues probably ring true. Though there is minimal research into the causes of this problem given by Clark, albeit reference to some research by Fuller institute, one example of a young person, and a reference to David Elkinds work as a total sum of source material for making these three statements of the problem. Whilst they may be accurate assessments of a problem, and many might agree, they do lack the rigour of an academic piece. I guess in a way thats part of the problem with this book, where Root asks the question ‘what is faith’ and how might faith be formed in a secular age/world? Thinking about the nature of the secular world and its influence, Clarks finger is pointed more towards the church without too much of a deep diagnosis of the secular world that the students will be trying to face. Its as if the church on its own can sort out the problem. It will help no doubt, but if you’re looking for a stronger argument about the nature of the secular world, and how faith and ministry can be meaningful in it, then its Root that gives the answer to this, and not Clark.
The response by Clark is for church to do better, and be better at enabling, encouraging and supporting young people to flourish. I can get this, I honestly can. But if churches arent made more aware of all the issues that this is about, including the effect of the secular age on young peoples faith, then its only a one-directional solution, to what is a complex problem. Fixing discipleship is going to take more than creating good spaces for discipleship, though there’s no doubt (and dont mishear me) that this is definitely a step in a right direction. Because its complex, i might suggest that this is why Clark largely ignores the issue, compared to Faith Formation, Adoptive church is definitely a practical book.
And a practical book, Adoptive Church continues to be, in Chapter 5, Clark begins to address the ‘church’ with a number of questions: ‘Is it a warm or a cold place’, is it a place where young people are given eye contact? is it a place where adults know the names of young people? (again i think the majority of small churches in the UK, this isnt an issue- well maybe not the warm/cold issue) , and then chapters 6-8 share further the practical ways (a process not a programme) of being an adoptive church. In chapter 6 this feels like using a business model of using ‘outcomes’, ‘intentions’ and ‘goals’ to create adoptive churches, and this is translated into sharing vision (p71), communication and training and creating opportunities where people can outwork the commandment to ‘love’ . Analysing the context is seen as important, so that churches intentionally work harder at being more welcoming (nothing worse than a church that says ‘all are welcome’ when actually no one is aside from those who know people already) – yet Clark is right in that even the most welcoming church that seeks to be ‘youth friendly’ rarely reaches out to young people, walks alongside them, or actively seeks to adopt in community young people as siblings in ministry. (p73). As he says, every church is unique, and every church might describe themselves in a certain way- but in analysing the context ‘how are churches for young people?’ . Clark then goes on to talk about resources, structures, reflection and evaluation- and much is useful, though it is worth being reminded of the American church context in which much of this is directed.
Clark then looks at the leadership style required for developing Adoptive churches, and whilst I can picture the kind of ‘Im in charge’ type leadership he describes (to avoid) – I think, generously, that many UK church leaders (whilst there might still be ego etc) are closer the the partnership models that he describes, given the rise in ecumeicalism in the UK and profligate attempts to share resources across churches for a variety of mission and community practices. Though what Clark is also getting at is trying to encourage an ongoing learning partnership approach to discipleship within a church instead of ‘hear me I have the answers’ , is the alternative ‘thanks for joining in this great and glorious effort, we’re all in this together’ (Page 86) – this might appeal to the ‘High School Musical’ generation who have, through Disney been exposed to the miracle of team work thanks to Troy, Gabriella and co, there is a deeper sentiment here, that developing adoptive churches requires an ongoing humility and respect for each persons worth, value and contributions (Ministry in the whole body). (p87) Clark then considers how a journey might be made from a managerial style to a partnership style. I can see the benefits of this, and wonder personally whether community approaches might be increased in clergy and ordination training to enhance partnership and educative approaches to leadership. However, that is not for today.
In the final section (pp129-176) Clark describes the ‘fundamental practices of adoptive churches’, these are said to include :
Nurture and the Ministry of going – Chap describes a sense that Ministry occurs between the programmes (even though its a programme leader that most churches want to employ as a youthworker) , and that Ministry is as a result of the programme. Stating that ministry is to be relied on to help with young peoples participation in Gods work/ministry and his Family. Adoptive church is also about Going, about following God in the travel, the journey and the mobility of God, the kind of mobile, travelling ministry evident in the Biblical narrative (p134-135)
Nurture is about Familiarity – creating a place where young people feel at home. It is gentle, caring and loving, involves sharing the gospel of God and sharing life experience (p137), it is also Communal, therefore more than a mentoring (121) approach which is sworn by in many situations (p137) an adoptive approach is a community one and is akin to the family and all need to nurture each other (p138)
Nuture is strategic. It does require effort and intention, as though Clark doesn’t admit it, the default is not necessarily communal but individualistic (because of wider culture and individualism) so, some strategy is required to create communal nurturing spaces, to use language of community, sharing and encouragement.
It is about building trust, building warmth and gathering to explore the gospel together. But lets do this, as Chap Clark says, to build community and family, not just to ‘hear one person tell lots of people something’ but to create places of warmth that encourage learning together and learning spaces that encourage warmth. (p141)
Chapter 10 is about the Golden rule in most of what Youth Ministry has been all about in the last few years, at least in the UK (and the last three books mentioned above virtually say the same) – Youth Ministry, and in this case Adoptive churches, are all about participation. Or at least, Empowerment, which is beyond participation according to Clark, and in the main it is – for Clark it is about participating and contributing, and going beyond the ‘just getting the kids to do something’ type of participation.
‘Adoptive churches seeks more than minimal participation’ (Clarke, p146)
However, this is the sting (for many) . As Clark says, Empowerment is about realising that young people have a wealth of gifts, abilities, resources themselves that currently churches (and I will also argue schools) are not making the most of or are overlooked. Empowering contributing young people (in the task of Gods ministry) will enable these gifts to be used in ministry, and be ministers themselves. ‘Empowerment is the goal’ states Clarke, ‘we want teenagers and emerging adults to be embraced not only as younger siblings but also as valued ministry partners’ (p147). To achieve this, Clark suggests that churches need to be intergenerational, particular, incremental and intentional. Im not going to elaborate here on these, as they make sense. Though each of these might be counter cultural to what has gone on before, and even against attempts for universalism & quick fixes. However, his one idea of a ‘Youth Advisory Board’ is pretty weak as an idea, though not because having young people form a group to guide and advise in the ongoing preaching styles and content wouldnt be a good idea, but that it feels like the participation and contributions are merely to be Gods ministers within the institution. This is something he himself has argued against earlier in the book, and something Root certainly does, however, it would be a bold first step in many churches as to give power away to young people to help shape the preaching rota and content does require initiative, courage and risk taking. Its a step beyond creating a committee to help run the youth club, its participation and making contributions in the whole church. (I guess where there is a lectionary, this is going to be a challenge…)
Clarks final chapter considers the resistances and challenges awaiting those who take hold of these ideas and want to make steps towards creating adoptive churches, especially in organisations like churches who can be notoriously resistant to change, even in the face of decline. (if anything this brings about more fear and an entrenchedness). And do you know what, there are some gems in this chapter about language, persuasion and confronting the need to change in a church, and the effort it takes. So, again, on a practical level, Clark gives some sound advice, even in a UK context, the stuff on history, ownership and belonging is relevant, as is trying to be an agent of change even if you’re not in charge, youth worker and clergy might be united in this common cause. Clark does suggest that experimenting, and taking risks on the edges is one way, including family or community meals (something popular in the UK) . He contrasts family meals as a time for being together and sharing, and the deemed ‘inter-generational’ trade of having drums in the service, something that strategically doesn’t bring people together or relationally connecting people, its almost a trade off to ‘keep people happy’.. His tips for experiments, and cautions are worth a read. Its why change might be incremental, and working from the edge inwards might be key.
In effect that’s how the book ends. There is an appendix and a few bit n pieces in the index. But there isn’t really a conclusion, a final rallying cry, or some lengthy stories of how this worked in a few situations. Its a curates egg of a book, good in parts, an idea that has appeal, and a few practical hints and tips as to how to make it happen. His ideas are described simply and accessibly and will appeal to many, and I think for churches who want to do better ministry with young adults, and children, thinking through the culture of the church as a place of nurture, flourishing, family and learning are important, especially if the end goal is to help them be participants and contributors in Gods ongoing ministry. For me it lacks some of the depth and rigour, and even research that other recent books has, but thats probably unfair to judge it in this way. Overall I would recommend this book to the UK audience, even if there are aspects in which might not apply, there are churches who might not want to answer some of the questions truthfully that Clark asks, and this might not be a bad think, for the sake of young peoples ongoing discipleship.
Fast on the heels of last week’s piece on the 35 experiences of youthworkers comes this reflection on the superpowers that youthworkers are expected to possess, given the range of questions, reflections and comments about the last piece, it figures that youthworkers are expected to be superheroes? Doesnt it.. well at least they might have to at times possess all or some of the following:
1. To live off adrenaline after 3 60 hour weeks and a weekend residential at the end of them
2. To only take school holiday holidays but be able to find holidays they can afford without a teachers salary. Oh and plan 3 holiday club weeks and summer trips for the other weeks. And take that weeks holiday and switch off…
3. To become the manager of your own management group who may have 2 weeks youthwork experience between them. To manage upwards with no management experience (often)
4. To work with a smile even when there’s only 3 months funding left (a requirement for some funders who won’t fund projects with long term reserves)
5. To be able to take young people off the streets. Or get them jobs when there arent any.
6. To help young people like/persevere/cope with church* (*could also mean school) – or as one contributor suggested: ‘Be capable of fully explaining the reason why young people don’t attend church and fixing it without changing Sundays one bit’
7. To divert young people into being part of the capatalist system.
8. To be the only people left in the society who want to talk, sex drugs and alcohol with young people.
9. To provide young people with the tools for resilience, when they themselves might not be coping
10. To be able to retrieve information from every movie, song or sports event in the last 30-40 years and use it in conversation or for a session
11. To find the magic funder, that no one else has found , who will fund good youthwork and fund good salaries and core costs
12. To be amphibious and chameleonic – to be able to work in a number of settings whilst trying to be facilitative and almost invisible.
13. To be eternally youthful – even though they grow old – to never give up the fight for equality, against injustice and to maintain a view that transformation is possible – and not be resigned to fate. (though that doesnt mean trying to be like young people’) To keep pushing for something better…
14. To be ready to listen, to be ready with questions, to be ready with suggestions for conversations with young people – but maybe not ever ready with solutions and the ‘fix’
15. To empathise with those in structures like teachers and clergy who trust you in conversations – without thinking – ‘yeah I wish I had your problems that involved job insecurity and funding… ‘
16. To get stuff for free on discount, like trips and activities – be the great convincer or bargainer – then the great apologetic when the young people trash the venue.
17. To have the endless time to commit to your own ongoing CPD, further reading, studying, career development and fund your own retreats.
18. To be able to say no to a young person without offending them and maintaining the relationship
19 To do all what you do that young people and volunteers see, with next to no need for any planning (at least thats what your timesheet says)
20 To manage other peoples expectations of what you’re actually able to do
and an extra…
21. To have the ability not to get caught reading this blog during your work day
What ones do you have? Which ones do you need right now? Which ones might help see you through this weekend?
You are a superhero, regardless if you dont think you possess all of these things, as what tends to happen if that you’ll find a way to be able have these superpowers and grow into them. Its just sort of what happens. You rise to the next level, in the new situation you find yourself, whether that’s managing volunters, staff, funding, or strategising, or working in schools or developing a project. Thats the true mark of the superhero youthworker, you rise into the roles, and well, as Freire said, make the road by walking them.
what superhero powers would you add?
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