20 alternative commandments for zoom worship services

After the proliferation and emergence of zoom worship services this weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to issue a set of guidelines for anyone who attends a zoom church service for the first time, just so that these service are appropriately respected for all.

  1. PDA (public displays of affection) is particularly awkward if you dont appear on the same screen, and the vicar can still see if you’re making extra glances at the person you fancy even if you’re not in the same room.
  2. The eucharist problem is now solved, agreed, whether it is the real blood or not, is less of an issue because you can now choose the drink of choice, so ribena, red wine, Bloody Mary, cranberry juice, whiskey with added raspberry, are all options, you can now choose.
  3. Yes you can sit in the same seat every week, its your couch.
  4. The welcoming team consists of the oldest son shaking hands with the whole family as they sit down on the couch
  5. alternatively type ‘welcome’ and ‘yes ive had a good week’ in the text box, as you sit on the couch- just to make it authentic.
  6. Commenting on the service needs to occur in text ‘private mode’ (preferably so that the vicar can’t see it) , mistakes here could be awkward, and rely on there grace of the vicar which at this time shouldn’t be tested.
  7. By all means when the vicar is preaching you can play your own background music, suggestions including comforting jazz or instrumentals are advisable, it is less so to use death metal or the eclectic somewhat underrated music of Eminem to accompany the exegesis of this weeks passage.
  8. During the grace, please all stand with your hands wide to look like we’re holding hands, then move your head to look around the room at no one in particular, dont ask why, but this is what we do during this.
  9. If going to the bathroom- please respectfully use the mute button.
  10. Please note; we can all still hear you snore.
  11. If you would like to wear provocative, suggestive or even no clothes; for the benefit of other parishioners, please select the ‘no video option’, you are all welcome to come as you are. Or do wear respectable upper clothing and select video, be mindful of the needing to get up and toilet option, and dont forget to select no video. The church, even on zoom, probably should not have to deal with that.
  12. Please no pets , we have some people, who even on zoom have allergies.
  13. Songs that require a round, please participate as your box turns yellow. Songs will soon be written for the requirement of zoom speaker view. So do join in, one screen at a time, maybe even take one line each. We are inclusive, and do sing loud at the back, give it your best. Family rounds will be the new thing.
  14. Please be mindful of the background that you decide to sit in front of, not everyone needs to see your drying laundry on a radiator, or the slightly awkward family photo on the book shelf. Sitting in the study is probably slightly too pretentious for many congregations, just a simple sofa in a conservatory overlooking a pond, and the birds, gives a perfect backdrop to worship it also mean the vicar who can see you all, has actually something interesting to see on the screen.
  15. During the talk, the children can especially take part in a range of activities on the kitchen table, and we do hope that they can show these pictures at the end of the service showing them to the screen, we would like all to use the reaction button to indicate whether you actually can tell what any of them are.
  16. Do turn up on time, although we do realise than even with one less car jounery some families will still struggle to get to the sofa on time, after all its always the nearest who are late, please refrain from marital argument on the couch, during the service, it was both of your fault that you were late, no, actually, both of your fault, no not the devil either, but both of you. If you cannot refrain, then zoom marital counselling can be offered, and please do indicate this using the ‘help me button’
  17. Do drink coffee, tea and eat snacks during the service, we would prefer that you have non noisy snack, so not crisps or nachos, preferably a soft roll with cheese, or meat, muffins, cakes, no noisier than a noise of a soft biscuit , such a Jaffa cake, or garibadi, but not a rich tea, or cream cracker- and be mindful that you may have sing soon and we do not like singing with your mouthful.
  18. There is no notice sheet during the service, so do check the website, but we realise for many of you the notice sheet acts as distraction from the sermon, so on this basis, feel free to instead of focussing on the sermon do click a link to the latest veggie tales instead .
  19. At the end of the service to replicate the movement of the church to the back, each person must stand synchronised, and then walk 5 times around the coffee table, as Mum waits at the front door, and thanks them all for coming as you all proceed out of the front door, and drive to the local coffee shop (take away only) – alternatively head back into the kitchen.
  20. After the service there will be a faith lunch, to take part all you need to is move the laptop or phone onto the kitchen table, where we will participate in zoom fellowship, zoom sharing of food, zoom quiche, zoom sausage roll ministry followed by zoom comparing who has made the best desert this time. Yes its often the pavlova do join in the chat , have a lovely time.

I am hopeful that adherence to these guidelines will significantly aid you in the ongoing worship during this difficult time for us all. This post is in no way to discourage zoom worship at all.

Young people; What would you like the church to do for you?

The original title of this piece was going to be ‘The Future of youth ministry..who decides?’  because it was what I was thinking about as I was reflecting on a number of conversations, conferences and meetings that I have been involved in the lot few months. They all seem to go like this:

We need to decide on our Aims and objectives and go from there

Young people aren’t attending churches, we need to ensure that there’s more faith taught at home

its great to gather a whole load of professionals into a room to decide how we might reach _______ people

Maybe our next step is to raise some funding for a role

We need to get back to the gospel

And however, worthy these conversations are, and they are many. Far too often, far too regular, the decisions about the future of any faith based ministry are conducted by the gatekeepers of the faith, rather than the participants and receivers of the provision themselves. The future of youth ministry is in the hands of those who benefit from it, survived it, became leaders within it, and are now invested in it maybe financially, or those who represent the agencies of faith – the church.

This occurs in the local and national levels. A charitable organisation, that delivered detached Youthwork in the north east of England only governed by church volunteers/clergy (organisation now closed btw) , a charity deciding on its future direction has only clergy making decisions, all influenced by other factors, and not the 1000’s of young people whom it has met with in the last 20 years. By the way, this isn’t new.

As Naomi Thompson illustrated in her expensive book, Young People and the church since 1900, churches made decisions on the future of Sunday schools based on a number of factors, but not one, was on the effect on the local community, or the long term of legacy of closing the door on swaths of the local community. Largely it was based on a retention statistic. If only 2% of attendees of Sunday school kept going to church, then Sunday school itself needed to be adapted. And, individual churches made a change. That statistic increased to 4% over the course of 30 years. Why? because Sunday schools stopped being available to everyone on a Sunday afternoon, and moved to Sunday mornings to be ‘creche’ for the church going families.  Churches didn’t change and adapt to accommodate the 2 million chidden in Sunday schools in 1900, Sunday schools changed to try and improve a statistic. And largely, this was achieved successfully, 🤔;

If an element of disharmony did exist between churches and Sunday schools, then the move to the ‘family church’ model provided a way for then church to seize power or even to sabotage or bury their affiliated Sunday schools. Cliff emphasises that Hamiltons observation that 80% of Sunday school members were from non church background were reversed when Hamilton died in 1977 to 80% from church backgrounds. This was not due to any growth and thus highlights the failure of there strategy to retain non-church young people. Cliff attributes this to the failure of the church members to become mentors (to non church families/young people) that Hamilton proposed. A church of England report (1991) report acknowledged, if viewed as an evangelistic tool, ‘family church’ was unsuccessful. However it argues that it helped to retain young people in churches longer (7 1/2 yrs from 6) and doubling the % of those children becoming church members 2.3% to 4.8%. Arguably these changes in figures were more likely due to the decline in numbers of non church scholars in Sunday schools, than any growth in actual numbers of young people attending church. (Thompson, N, 2018, p49)

A few things to note here. Family church was a reaction to a statistic and was catastrophic in changing the dynamic of Sunday schools, it was also strategically implemented by the church with no consultation to the Sunday school and… damningly, done to bury Sunday schools which churches wanted rid of. The Statistic was improved, but at what cost…. and did it focus the church on spending more time with the most likely young people… ? Though if in 1977 young people spend 7 years in Sunday schools… I wonder how long this is 43 years later…

The example is particularly telling in that for Sunday schools we could replace this with ‘faith based youth work activities’ that exist today. The gravitational pull can be exactly the same ; ‘how many of the 1000’s of young people do you see in school, ever come to church’ and if there are decisions to made about funding – what part might the same statistics play. Recent church attendance statistics have formed the basis of many a blog post and discussion recently.

Who decided the future of youth ministry /faith based youthwork in the UK?   – the reality is that the same culture of statistics and church attendance affects the decision making today – still 50 years or more on. The thing that has barely changed is the church. (there were guitars in churches 50 years ago- as if that makes a difference)

So – might we ask a different question – from who decides on the future of youth ministry – and leaders within holding the proverbial keys – might there be bravery and ask instead:

Young people ; what would you like the church to do for you?

For- the future of UK youth ministry is barely going to reside in the organisations and colleges, neither is on twitter on blog post clicks. If the church is actually serious about young people – it will bend over backwards to not only hear their voice but also make changes and receive young people as contributors. Maybe also the future of youth ministry is less about service to the organisation and its numbers – members – but about young people.

Its also the Jesus question. If the begging man, bartimaus is on his knees, and Jesus asks him this question out of respect – then maybe surely , if young people are cast at the powerless party in their provision- then maybe this is a better question, that trying to do something, and keeping doing the same something, or doing the same something but trying to be bigger than last weeks something. Without actually giving young people the same dignity and respect that Jesus actually would. Come to me he said.

What might young people want the church to do for them? 

And if they say to **** off, then fine. But why might they say that – what’s the hurt? 

And if they say – we want a safe space… then… create it with them?

And if they say – we want you to help us with changing the world – then develop this together

And if they say- can we just sit and chat – then bring out load of activities, games, talks and ……. no just sit and chat….

But what’s the point you say? will it preach the gospel? will it bring young people into church?  

Im just not sure numbers and statistics and strategy have the greatest of track records in their influence of youth ministry, and neither church as the destination or presiding decision maker in the process.  Maybe those that hold power need to give it away…

Dear Young people – there’s a few thousand empty church buildings in the UK, and a group of people in churches who have no idea that you even exist at times, and presume a whole load of things about you. But they do often mean well, and would love to begin listening, and have a building, and sometimes a heart and time – what would you like us to do for you?  Could you tell us what we could do, with you, to help your life be better, to develop your passions and gifts, to build a community where you and we feel safer, to respond to the things that you’re struggling with? 

We might be small – but could you trust us with your answer and be part of making it happen together? 

#NYMW19 – A weekend of great conversations – but which important questions does youth ministry need to ask?

Its almost 48 hours exactly since I got back from Youthscapes (www.youthscape.co.uk)  National Youth Ministry weekend and so I thought I would put pen to paper on a few reflections from it, with a few added and notable caveats.

The first is that this was the first time I had attended an English Youth Ministry conference. yup. Well aside from YFC’s own staff jamboree, my own youth ministry journey was too embryonic to go to the early incarnations of youthwork the conference back in 1997, and from 2004-2012 I was in Scotland (and why travel to england..) and since being back in England I have largely gone to conferences that i have prioritised in terms of learning and specialism, or where i felt it would be important to have an input from a faith perspective, such as In defence of youth work, Federation of detached youthwork and a few others.  Though I did attend Deep Impact a few years running in Scotland.

The second thing, in terms of reflecting on the NYMW19 is that i spend the great total of 0 (zero) minutes in any seminar, talk or workshop. With the exception of three workshops that were being presented from the room that i was part of with my lovely colleagues at FYT. Ill include only a small part of this , as they will show more of these on the FYT website soon along with a few graphs and pictures (http://www.fyt.org.uk) 

So – what have I actually got to say about the National youth ministry weekend, if i wasnt at a seminar and didnt hear a single thing from the stage. Well maybe thats the point, what is the essence of a conference? How much is it directed by whats on the stages, or what happens in between?

The bits in between were fun.

Thats all i can say really. I was tempted to wear a T shirt that said

yeah, i did write that blog – sorry if it upset you

But then i realised that actually, though a number of other ministry leaders, organisation leaders, and twitter followers knew of this little blog of mine. 750 people at the NYMW really didnt. And i already knew this.

For, whilst the twitterati of christian youth work, some engage with these reflections, the reality for me is that i get far more responses from the more critical, more open spaces in ‘secular youthwork’ than the youth ministry world. If such a world exists.  Thats not to say that this has no impact – but bring 850 people involved in youth ministry into a room for a weekend, and id imagine that the echo chamber of those who engage in theory regularly, theology even, or who have the time to read the stuff i write, or know about it, or search it out is few. But that didnt stop the fans of this blog searching me out. (blushes) .

The other reflection – is that there are many people who i would regard as being important in the conversation about youth ministry – who were absent from the conference, and some are very important – whether DYO’s, Clergy, Bishops even, representations from other denominations, and not many people involved in christian charities such as YMCA’s and very few from YFC – two from different ends of a youth ministry/work spectrum, but largely absent in the conversation.  Is youth ministry so confident in itself that it has any clout to speak to power, and those who make powerful decisions that will affect the future of churches working with young people in the UK. Because, if it isnt doing that, its merely speaking to itself. (which i know is also a criticism of the echo chambers of social media of which this blog is a part)

But what of the question… what of UK youth ministry in 2020?  or the long term 2030?

What is it going to be able to do – if the organisation it serves.. the church is 11 years further into the decline its currently in – and youth ministry itself hasn’t got much of a track record of stemming this overall tide – and churches themselves are recruiting family and youth workers, community and youthworkers (with more of a missional/outreach focus),. Has the church given up on youth ministry or young people? And if not – what is the core of youth ministry and what has it got to say? – if its discipleship.. have we even thought about what this is, and how this occurs? And – what about youth ministry and theology, and worship, church, mission, spirituality, poverty and faith, and then – what about thinking about youth ministry and other disciplines like sociology or psychology, all are important. At least I think they are.  These conversations need to happen not just in the centres of academia. Young people are far too important to not do this.

Having a conference next year is one thing. Systematically putting young people right at the heart of the UK church’s focus is another, and not just to save the church – but to enable communities to flourish too.

However, It wouldnt be unusual for me to get sidetracked down a rabbit hole of reflective purposeful questions, and yet at the same time say that I really enjoyed the weekend, but thats probably because I love having conversations with people, and there were 100’s of them in the FYT room and in the market place area, conversations that went deep, conversations about critical aspects of youth ministry, conversations where I learned things, conversations with others who are in the midst of the challenge, the midst of trying to do some great youth work, conversations with other ministry leaders and friends, and these conversations are completely life giving, energising and positive.

Honestly – I genuinely loved the weekend – it was great to catch up with and meet so many people – far too many to name. But does having a fabulous weekend, mask some of the difficult questions, and conversations that need to happen?

And gathering 850 youth ministry people – what conversations do they think need to happen – is there space to hear and listen as a process?  or are they to be sold ideas too?

Ultimately youth ministry (like youthwork) itself is a conversation anyway, shaped by those who experience it, see it and narrate it, so did NYMW open up new conversations, or shut them down, do the difficult ones need to be asked in the next few years, and work towards the responses. So, yes i loved the weekend, yes i love the conversations, but then again, you know i love a good conversation, whats important is that the conversations continue, and not just on twitter….

Should discipleship be ‘action’ first?

Does anyone still use that phrase ;

its always the 20% of people in churches that seem to do 80% of all the work?

It got banded around for quite a while, though I’ve not heard it recently. It was, at best a passive aggressive way of encouraging people who only sat on pews every week to make more contributions in the life of churches. It neither rewarded those who did get involved, nor was much of an encouragement. However. We’ve moved on… haven’t we?

Though there is still a really ethereal conversation about discipleship that still happens, its as if there is a magical way that discipleship happens, that seems to be in need of being continually redefined, rejuvenated and energised. A cynic in me (yes there is one) might think that these attempts are to ‘sell’ the latest fad, model or concept, and with it a whole load of resources and practices. (and yes i do have an inner cynic)  The grown up in me might pose the question about whether there really is anything that can be humanly done about discipleship through churches. This is most pertinent when there are countless research on the ‘state of discipleship’ in churches (LICC have recently done one) . What they discovered that a significant number of active people in churches also self identified that they didnt feel that discipleship was happening. Yet, they were busy.

Maybe theres a few things to say here.

The first might be that a definition of discipleship that looks like Bible reading/prayer/study on a personal level might be genuinely not happening when a person is also involved in so much of the church’s activities. Its more group discipleship, than individual. Potentially.

So there may be a Definition problem.

There is also an expectation problem. Not unlike conversations about ecclesiology and models of churches (Healy 2001)- an almost impossible view of discipleship can act as a hindrance rather than an encouragement, its as if a ‘perfect’ process of discipleship is out there (though still yet to be defined) and until that happens there’s a striving, with often other metaphors like ‘whole life discipleship’ – that rarely about the struggles of life that include poverty, suffering, health and family issues – these can feel at times ‘in the way’ of ‘perfect’ discipleship. Almost that these are to be put to one side – God isnt in these… discipleship is somewhere else… at least that can be the implication. Discipleship doesnt = attendance or involvement – so what is it?  And theres nothing against the continual search – but the human search is for God, not for process or concept (Acts 17)

The problem with discipleship is not that we cant define it from the Greek (Mathetes) , not that we don’t see this as some kind of apprenticeship, or follower of Rabbi status (and i’m referencing Jo Dolbys PhD here) , or looking at Gospel discipleship – because thats been the church for 2000 years effectively – how to follow Jesus model/practice of it – but do it in the institutions of the church created since 70AD. The packages and resources have been written with every new discipleship package being better than the one before. It feels as if maintaining the church as an institution – with all the voluntary giving of time to enable this – doesn’t necessarily equate to the definition of discipleship – yet church maintenance is still good right?

We are urged to be disciples and witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth – (Acts 1:8) – the Wednesday morning community project may have all the semblance of the ‘ends of the earth’ compared to Sunday morning. But theres only a call to stay in those places not move people. We may have to reflect on what discipleship in the ends of the earth may look like. It probably wont look like what Jerusalem discipleship did. So  what might that be.

I’d like to end this piece with three thoughts that hopefully add something to this discussion. Practice, Theory and Theology.

One significant thing comes from my practice.

A number of years ago i was the project coordinator of a detached youthwork project in Perth, Scotland. Because of the nature of the role expected of volunteers, they underwent training, on the nuts and bolts of detached work and also, we spent time looking at values, principles and thinking theologically through a practice of being out on the streets, being vulnerable, and how this might be mission. What i didn’t realise, or at least, what was a great joy, was that in the months and years that passed of walking and participating in the practice, how often each of the volunteer reflected on how being involved in the project was a place in which they were doing discipleship, doing mission was discipleship. It shouldn’t have blew my mind, but that it came from the participants and not me, sort of made it real. Did it help that I had framed the action as a missional/theological one.. yes. Did it continue to help that there were spaces for theological reflection ongoing in team time, session reviews and in the growing of this community, well, i guess so. But still, i wonder if there’s just something to be said with how ‘volunteering’ is made a discipleship activity. I think.

From Theory, I wonder where the discipleship conversation converges with the Faith Formation conversation. Are the two the same. Maybe. Its not often a conversation about discipleship from the platform of a UK conference also includes reference to faith or spiritual development (fowler/westerhoff etc) – but neither, does it look beyond a glimpse of the need, to the culture and a few biblical principles. What Andrew Root (in faith formation in a secular age)  does is look at how Spiritual and faith formation needs to take root in the culture that we are in. I cannot in this piece go into his detail, and I have written 5 pieces on his book Faith formation in a secular age (2017) already (links at the bottom of this piece) – but Roots suggestion is that Faith formation is a process of ministry, and ministering and participating in the tasks of God. Where he argues consuming church, spiritual experiences, and personal faith journey all meet culture that is looking for authenticity that is found wanting. Simply put, every one wants authenticity, and there’s nothing more authentic than a real church that transforms the world rather than creates enclaves and avoids it, equally, its not just a current age thing, or Generation Z thing, its everyone. Look at micro breweries, farmers markets and bake off, the desire for the authentic pint of ale, the real news is there, its not just an adrenaline experience… but a real one. A danger, Root argues is that Churches have embraced youthfulness in an attempt to be authentic, culture has won, they have stopped being actually authentic. Practical faith formation for Root is a process of ministering and ministry. Is practical faith formation discipleship? Its not far off… but forming is for performing, and performing is also forming…

The setting for discipleship though, is not the church though is it. Church is the place for the faith formation, discipleship happens on the stage of the world, in which the church is also a part. And this is where the third thing, Theodrama, for me comes into play. Understanding the theological, physical and social context of discipleship might reveal that being in ministry in the world is closer to discipleship.  Theodrama provides a metaphoric platform to imagine/realise that the whole of the worlds timeframe is Gods, that the whole world is a stage in which all are participating in a Holy redemptive drama, just that not everyone is aware of it. From those drinking in the wetherspoons that i am sitting in,  to the drivers on the bus, and the market sellers in the shopping centre, the teachers in the schools and youthworkers on the streets. The framework  of theatre, and drama, takes the notion of connecting stories further, and to consider the artistic and dynamic view of participation (which is Biblical) in God drama, as the context of discipleship. So therefore the church is a principle actor, guided by spirit, to act on the stage of the world in accordance with a number of prompts past(trinity, kingdom, bible etc), and present (spirit) to act in the future. Personal discipleship, may well be a community venture. Personal discipleship is about be more fully aware to these prompts in the every day. It is not the amount of bible studies, prayer times, daily reading notes that have been completed, its being aware of these to act appropriately in the every day. To act in the world where there are competing values (Von Balthasar) where there are prompts to do so and goodness, truth, love and peace to be appropriated. Discipleship may well be a process of awareness and a new reality. Its being able to respond to the voice of God in the midst of the action. Not avoid the action and head to the nearest 5 evening  a week bible study and avoid the world.  (Theres more on Theodrama in other pieces on this blog, see the categories)

Coming back to the 80/20 thing – there is a new issue in town. Its that because of a lack of volunteers, and also the exponential growth in community work projects and ministries in churches – 100’s of volunteers for these things are being grown from within them, food kitchen receivers become servers in kitchens, young people in youth clubs become junior leaders – all in the name of good empowering community practices. The question could be said that these are good ‘social action’ and ‘not mission, or discipleship’ and it could feel as though the powers, and the 20% who’ve gone through the ranks properly and have a mission/discipleship resource to sell, cant conceive that there might be another way.  We might ask a question – how might people be already disciples through the ministry of serving in a community that they feel home in and welcome (and want to create for others) ?  and not that all this serving is only a step to a ‘real’ discipleship elsewhere, that can look like ‘going to a study group’ or ‘alpha’ – the real discipleship could already be happening – from a point of action.

A task of the church, might be to develop practical theological reflection and participation through these serving moments at the time – because im not sure any church has a luxury of increasing barriers to faith – when clearly there are many who want to participate in the good that a church can do.

I would hope there is a space, or a awareness that an action first discipleship can sit alongside a ‘traditional church attendance discipleship’ – because for one thing, people are joining in the action of the mission of God because it looks like something that heals, does good and is something to believe in – because it is making a difference. They are already participating in Gods mission before knowing full well who God is. Well, to be blunt, none of us know who God fully well is. For some people they might be closer to the actions and drama of God in their participation of it in a food kitchen than hearing about it and the stories of those before them.

The task might be to increase theological reflection – not import a model view and make discipleship  unachievable. Root may be right, thinking of discipleship as a faith formation process causes a shift to think of people as ministers and helping people to ministry, and this can start from the food kitchen, the holiday club or the social enterprise. Real discipleship is practical and takes place in the world, that where the tensions and drama takes place, the choices and prompts by the spirit occur. When we talk about discipleship otherwise its often more about faith formation and learning. Discipleship on the stage of the world might be less about doing more faith formation (something measurable by attendance and vocational calling) and more about becoming more attuned and aware of God in the midst of the whole world. Being aware that God might well be in wetherspoons right now, and asking me to have compassion on everyone drinking here at 10 in the morning. Can hearing God in the midst and acting on it in the improvised moments, in the participation of conversations of ministry be measured as discipleship?  I hope so. But discipleship is also volunteering, and starts with the provoke to be part of building Gods kingdom in a place. I cannot argue otherwise that this isn’t the person who has relied on a food bank, a youth club, who is now participating in making this goodness happen for others. God is active and on the move. And its risky and challenging.

References

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Hans urs von Baltasare – Theodrama Vols 1-5 – 1980

Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Wesley Van der lugt – Living Theodrama, 2016

Nicholas Healy, The church, the world and the Christian life , 2001

Mental Health and Young people in the Church – Guest Post by Jenni Osborn

Mental Health and Young People in the Church

If you were to send a message to your younger self to reassure or encourage them or even to tell them something that you think they need to know: what would you say?

I start my training with this question because it’s important to look back at the way life was when we were a young person and remember just how uncertain and chaotic that time was for all of us, even if we didn’t have additional struggles with our mental health at the time!

Scientists define adolescence as the period of life that starts with the biological, physical and hormonal changes of puberty and ends at the stage when an individual attains a stable independent role in society. We often define adolescence as roughly 11 -18 but this definition makes a good case for including ages up to roughly 25!

There’s a lot happening in the teenage body and brain. It used to be thought that our brains were fully developed before adolescence kicked in but since the use of functioning MRI scans (that is the ability to scan the brain whilst performing various functions) we are finding out more about the adolescent brain in particular, discovering that there are significant differences in the functions of the adult brain. It used to be thought that the reason teenagers didn’t weigh up risk or pay much attention to another person’s point of view was because of a flood of hormones, now we know that the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain which helps adults make decisions, plan for the future, inhibiting ant-social or inappropriate behaviour or speech and take another person’s point of view into consideration, is not yet fully developed in the adolescent brain meaning they are simply unable to do these things. Adolescents have to rely more on impulse and pleasure seeking because these are the functions of the parts of the brain – the limbic system and the amygdala – which ARE fully functioning.

Throwing these challenges of brain function together with hormonal surges and the keen feeling of peer pressure, we begin to see the unique challenge that adolescents have to deal with.

Add to that the backdrop of the 24-7 news cycle, environmental issues that threaten natural life as we know it, increased awareness of the need to live healthily whilst being presented almost daily with contradicting messages about how to do this, the distorting lens of social media and the pressure to maintain an online presence, global political upheaval including the rise of the far right, the Austerity agenda which has led to family chaos, increased reliance on foodbanks and a whole host of other factors and it’s no wonder we are in the midst of a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions.

The good news is that belonging to a loving, caring community of people is a significant part of the answer for those struggling with their mental health. A church and/or youth group that encourages young people to be open and honest by providing a safe space for them, that discusses emotional health and the impact our emotions can have on our faith and our overall sense of wellbeing, that shows love and care through listening carefully and talking about deep issues of faith and life, these are the spaces our young people need in order to navigate this difficult time of brain development, identity formation, fluctuating hormones and potential poor mental health.

I ran a survey recently asking young people from within church groups what they had to say about their faith and their mental health and it was so interesting to see a really wide range of responses about how their church or youth leader had supported them. Some said their youth leader was amazingly open and honest, encouraging them to talk openly about how they were coping with life. Others said that they hadn’t ever talked to their youth leader about their diagnosed mental health condition because they didn’t feel comfortable enough to be that open or that they had a difficult experience because the church had not tried to understand the problem they faced.

Many of us in churches feel out of our depth when faced with statistics that say 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health struggles in our lifetime and the actual numbers of young people, which is likely to feel like more than 1 in 4, in our care who are either diagnosed with, talking about, or showing signs of a mental illness such as depression or anxiety. We need to equip ourselves to do the best we can to support our young people, recognising that we are not all psychotherapists or counsellors.

I have written a Grove Book with this aim, to help those who work with young people understand a bit more about mental health and the impact this can have on our young people. You can order copies on the Grove Book website here.

I also offer training in a number of areas of youth work, mental health is one area that is particularly popular at the moment and my latest training session on Mental Health and Young People is in East Sussex on Thursday 14th November. You can buy tickets for this here. If you’d like me to deliver training to your church or organisation then get in touch in the comments.

If you’d like to read the story of someone who struggled with depression and anxiety as a teenager then I can recommend Rachael Newham’s ‘Learning to Breathe’.

If you’d like a resource book which gives you, the youth leader, a set of sessions you can run with your young people on emotional health then I can recommend Liz Edge’s ‘Exploring Emotional Health’. (in the north east a copy of this is in the Religious resources centre)

Thank you to Jenni for writing this piece for this blog, If you have a burning issue, a challenge, a question or a reflection you would like to share, please do so using the details above. Youth work week is upcoming, so if you have something youd like to tell with the regular audience of this blog, then please do get in touch.

12 of the inhibiting myths that prevent churches from starting to work with young people

These still kick about a bit, so maybe its worth stating them, once for all, getting them out in the open and realising not only how ridiculous some of these are, but more damaging how inhibiting they are, for churches, congregations to work with young people.

None of these are true, and if you think they are, think about what you’re trying to say about young people;

  1. The building is a barrier for young people coming into the church – no it isnt, its that people from inside the building havent created a welcoming atmosphere, or that its only open for things that young people havent created or wanted.
  2. If only someone could play a guitar, and do modern worship songs, that will bring young people in to the church. Heard this one recently, not going to respond. Might implode.
  3. No one here is young anymore, young people wont want to talk to us – actually they will if you find a way to be interested in them, and create a place that is welcoming, supportive and for them.
  4. We’ll never get young people, theyll all go to the big mega trendy church with lights and guitars. Really, all the young people in your town go there? you mean, the few christians will go, theres more than those 6 though isnt there.
  5. Therell be a safeguarding nightmare working with young people – no more so than any other group
  6. We used to have young people here but they trashed the place. Shame then that a different group of young people 30 years later are being tarred with the brush of their grandparents. Maybe reflecting on new approaches might do it
  7. Theres no material to work with young people like the ones in our town. Agreed, but the resource of being yourself, listening and asking positive questions may be all you need. Or questions like ‘were from the local church, and have no idea about working with young people, can you help us out, what would you like to happen for young people here?’
  8. Were too busy. Only if young people arent a priority.
  9. Its a job for a youthworker. Nope. See point 7.
  10. Attraction is greater than significance and meaning. Because a facade of entertainment wont eventually wear off. It’s not just millennials that crave authenticity, every young person in the history of young people does.
  11. They just need a simple message; strangely young people might be up for being challenged, involved and co creators of their faith journey. Challenge and risk are needed more than ever.
  12. We dont have the space to do it. Create an environment where people are loving and interested, and young people participate and are respected. Then the venue is irrelevant. (Unless ministry with young people is still considered as entertainment)

Theres also the ‘we dont know what they’re into… ‘ myth.. it’s as if young people are a real mystery.

Its only because I still hear these being said that I thought I’d put them together, so yes, this is unashamedly passive aggressive, I admit it. But there are two factors in play that mean that the church is needed more than ever to develop working with young people. The demise of statutory youth services, and the general acceptance that there are less church family young people in churches or staying per generation. The opportunity and determination should or could be there – but the opportunity is written off before the adventure even starts…

Church, you have the resources, the people and the connections with local communities, you can make this happen, if you really want to.

6 common defaults when churches start working with young people (to try and avoid?)

It never really surprises me how often when churches, (and when i mean churches i mean, clergy & some interested congregation members) think about working with young people, that a number of fairly common defaults are evident. In this post I want to share some of these, not because they are wrong necessarily, but it might be that you if you’re reading this didn’t realise quite how much of a default it is, when there might be other alternatives to how working with young people in a faith setting might take place.

Default No 1. The best way to start any youth programme is when a whole load of adults sit in a room and have ideas about what to do and hope young people want to do them. 

How often is this repeated? There’s young people. There’s adults. Adults have a whole load of ideas, look up a whole load of resources from (insert UK wide faith based youth ministry provider) , who is trusted because (the leader used to work for them/leader used to receive them/the organisation is credible/its easier) . Then Adults use resource to shape a programme that young people maybe want , or don’t want, or are encouraged to do because they feel that the church is making an effort . But the only option for them is to opt in, or opt out. And opting out makes them look ungrateful.

Or the adults have a ‘big idea’ – now ‘big idea’ – could be a rock cafe, a worship event, a youth praise group, a choir, a football night, cheese on toast for Jesus, graffiti artist, Rap artist (yes its still the 1990’s in some churches). And its a great idea that the adults spend ages. I mean ages. shaping, promoting, deciding in meetings, risk assessing, getting an MP to praise it, organising prayer meetings for it, getting it blessed by the elders or PCC…. but yet when it happens… not a single young person is involved at any stage, and three turn up, the same three who already go to messy church, the same three who would have turned up if you have offered tea and a biscuit instead.

One of my most read pieces on this website is this one. Titled ‘what role do young people have in your church/youth group?’  The challenge in avoiding the default above, is to be brave and give young people a different role in the life of the church and youth group. One in which their role from the outset isn’t just as a consumer of an idea that is foisted on them, but that they are engaged in ongoing conversation, planning and creation. As i say often, usually 11 year old’s in primary schools have some say in small groups about spending school budgets on improving it, via a school council. Meanwhile the same young people in a different institution, church, are just given shapes of Daniel and the lions den to colour in. Or spaghetti towers to make to illustrate a moral point. Avoiding this default might require an approach taken in which space is created for conversation, and ideas from young people, and trusting in them to be able to shape and create something with adults. You never know…

Default 2. Young people who are bored in church don’t always want bigger,brighter entertainment to keep them interested and coming back.   They don’t always like it when their youth thing condescends, patronises and makes them feel like children, by just looking like a school disco. 

Avoiding boredom may well be the curse affecting most of youth ministry   so there’s constant re invention taking place, constant new song, constant new material, constant make something relevant. Making the programme more exciting might be the biggest long term turn off for young people in their ongoing faith development. Because, when the programme runs out, or they get too old for it, what then? even more boredom when the only option is real church. Sod that.

But if the signs of boredom are beginning to be seen in the groups you have, and 2 years of colouring Daniel, is going to start wearing thin, then it might not be ‘Daniel colouring plus’ that’s required. It might be to actually talk with, respect and give young people the space to contribute, to be involved, to have their say. This is linked to point one above. But its also more than that yes young people might, in many cases want to have their say and voice heard and participate. But it might also be that what they are being offered isn’t challenging enough, isn’t controversial enough (talk about ethical issues) , isn’t real enough (talk about health matters, cancer, periods, mental health, the environment) , maybe even… isn’t spiritual enough. When their friends are into meditation and mindfulness, and the church is offering a prayer spoken by an adult and a god slot- where might their spiritual awakening or curiosity likely to go?  Yes i said it…. youth groups might not be spiritual enough. Young people might be bored… but why might they be…?  Work that out with real conversations and then see… don’t resort to making it louder or bigger as a default. Deci and Ryan suggest that challenge, autonomy and relationship are key factors in personal motivation. Work out how these can be part of developing youth ministry, not just smoke machines and drum kits.

Default number 3. The God bit is the God-slot

Oldest chestnut of a conversation this. Id reveal my bias here when i say I am encouraged that there are some fabulous interesting practices of youth work around that are starting to think differently about how young people learn, engage with, form, and become involved in faith – and have moved away from a God slot. In this piece i provide 6 alternatives. In a way it says something about how we as adults view education, and view discipleship if the only part that of a youth group regarded as ‘God’ bit is that God -slot moment.  Which is a shame… because that can often be the most challenging, boring, difficult part of the youth group evening and yet that’s the bit where young people receive instruction about God. Hmm… God explicitly is getting a raw deal there i think. Its also the bit in the group where young people can often have the least involvement – even if there is an attempt to give them options in other aspects like food or games – and its also the time when the power dynamics shift – and bluntly- it looks like school. Anyway. Old chestnut resurfaced, nothing new in this paragraph. But its a fairly common default. Disciopleship isnt one way and faith isnt formed by just listening. Check out the FYT experiments resource to flip that one on its head. There’s more on the God slot stuff in Here be Dragons. See link above.

Default number 4 : Young peoples faith will develop even more if we get them involved in christian youth culture.  

This is often a parental pressure thing. The default is that once involved in church, a young person must immediately only listen to christian music, wear tshirts, go to christian summer festivals (cheap holidays for parents to send kids away on, and their ‘safe’) , and become a leader in church, volunteer in sunday school. And basically show their christian faith and discipleship through countless attendances and involvement in christian titled things.  Nick Shepherd is onto something though, saying that these things do help with a young person creating a christian identity for themselves. But its part of something bigger in constructing faith… read his book.   Though I wonder… is this what adults do as well… well of course.. . I am not sure its as prevalent – and i also know I pretty much chose to go along to all the things i mentioned there in the 1990s.. however… what might have been ‘good’ in previous generations… might not be now.. but the default remains. Especially when young people more than any other group are bombarded with messages about being distinctive from the world, about almost avoiding the world, about only being ‘in the world’ to evangelise to friends, only having friends.. so they can be invited to youth group (I’m sure this doesn’t still happen) – but what do these messages do?  Create divide. And unhealthy them and us, and put young people in the most difficult positions in schools, communities and homes.  I am sure this isn’t the default it might well have been before, but worth watching out for it.

Default 5. Working with young people is for some one else

There is a magical human out there, who is so radically different from the humans in the church, who will be able to do something magical with young people that they don’t know, but you have known since they were 3 and been in messy church or Sunday school (and got bored colouring in Daniel), and this magical person is about to be transported in under the false pretenses of needing to be innovative, creative and experienced (with the reassurances of being underpaid, under supported and poorly managed) to round up the previously bored from messy church group, the alienated from church 12 year olds, the 15 yr old daughter of the vicar (chosen specifically because they had a young family 12 years ago, and they could be the previous magic person ) – but new magic person is now needed.

This default, creates a thought that magic external person is the best person to connect with young people. The reality is that if you know the young people, and have done since they were 3, then you are. You just need to re connect, maybe apologise (for too much Daniel colouring in) ask and listen and rebuild a relationship.  Young people value relationship, authenticity and long term integrity. You’ll get that if you take the time and listen. value them and re connect. A magic person is starting from scratch. If young people are important, you don’t value them by employing a magic person to rescue them, you value them by giving them space, time and opportunities. You value them by creating a culture in a church where they are important. from the leadership, organisation, planning and decision making down. Where they are welcomed and participate. Thats value.

Default 6. Young people are all______________ – they’re just a completely different generation to us, they so different. 

This is ‘Young people are alien syndrome’. All of a sudden there’s a default position taken that goes along the lines of ‘young people have just arrived from outer space, they’re weird, unruly, into things we have no idea of, unpredictable, different.. etc’ and then someone clever, will recite a piece of research, or the bloody guardian, that talks about ‘Meellenials’ and how in order to reach ‘meeelenials’ the church has to do X and Y and Z.  An invisible ‘them’ and ‘us’ is created. Young people are all of a sudden different, difficult, hard to reach, unique- and yet no one has even spoken to any of them. Just looked at generalised research to make an opinion. Then someone will say ‘its just helpful to do research’ well.. yes it is. But if you want to do research, ask the young people in the community you are working in, and build up knowledge from actions, from conversations, from reality. There is no one else in the world like the young person who plays football in your community park, or the young person who is bored in messy church, or is a bit lost in church, but comes along with his Dad. Research and thinking of young people as alien, really isn’t going to help with listening, learning, empathy, time.  As Carl Rogers said, we cannot empathise if we prejudge, and we prejudge all the time, so lets not add to it with extra lenses  from adopted sociological research (used mainly to justify programmes that we’ve already said… perpetuate a default) . There is no such thing as a millenial young person. Can we dump the universality research, and thinking of young people as aliens. They’re just people (Christian Smith, 2003) . Like you and me. Its children, ironically who are less like adults. Think about it.

Theres 6. I could of added a few others, and yet as i thought about it, they all nearly stem from the concept of participation, and lack of – and these are covered in the post i shared in the link above. its almost as though the key default in churches, is not to give young people any involvement in aspect of what goes on, for them, or for anything at all. Or that they wont be interested if its made too difficult, challenging. For the few young people left in churches…we have to do better. For starting work with young people, churches could start from a different place, and not go straight to these defaults. Expecting different results from the same actions.  I am sure you can think of others too. But these are the ones i see, and have also been guilty of doing myself too.

Some references and additional reading

Christian Smith, 2003, Soul Searching, his 15 recommendations for christian youth groups from research of 1500 church is well worth a look.

Nick Shepherd, 2016, Faith Generation. Still one of the best critical, thought provoking, books on youth ministry in the UK.

Carl Rogers, 1972, A way of Being. On person centred therapy.

Andrew Root, 2017 Faith formation in a secular age, isnt referenced directly, but some of the links do.

Chap Clark, 2018, Adoptive church. Chap suggests churches should be places of participation where young people flourish in the whole community. Id recommend this one.