If you thought teachers were disappearing, try finding a youthworker

The BBC today ran this piece:

England’s schools face ‘severe’ teacher shortage

with the full text being found if you click the link. Some of the headlines include that

In poorer areas outside London, 17% of physics teachers have a relevant degree – compared with 52% in affluent areas in the rest of the country.

There are particular geographical cold spots, where schools are rated as least likely to have teachers in shortage subjects with a relevant degree:

  • Portsmouth
  • Hampshire
  • Newham
  • Barnsley
  • Doncaster

London and the south-east of England, and Bath, north-east Somerset, Rochdale and Darlington are among the areas with the highest levels of teachers with a degree in their specialist subject.

Recruitment targets for teaching have been missed for five successive years – and the report calls for cash incentives to make teaching more attractive.

It calls for “salary supplements” in subjects with shortages and says extra pay should be considered for areas which are “hard to staff”.

Anecdotally, I know of schools in the north east which find it incredibly difficult to recruit for new teachers, and teachers are leaving schools, retiring early, changing to somewhere else or giving up altogether. It wasnt that long ago when reports were circulated that about 1/3 of newly qualified teachers dont make it through their first teaching year.

A few months ago I posted a piece on the declining numbers of youthworkers, and the increasing amount of unfilled youthwork posts across the UK, a comment on this post yesterday prompted thinking around the broader profession, or field of working with young people. That post is here, with the comment below: Youthwork jobs staying vacant . The point being is that whilst teachers are disappearing, since 2010 there have been a substantial cut to youth services across the UK, which whilst each local authority has responsibility for its budget, these have been first to go (it seems) in many areas as each local authority has had its finances from national government reduced due to ‘austerity policies’.  More that 1/3 of all youthworkers in the UK paid for by statutory authorities have lost their roles, or are now in departments that have almost nothing to do with the practice or philosophy of youthwork. And, as I pointed out here, from a situation in the North East, there is still great need for the practice of youthworkers in communities, just that schools are picking up the pieces, and youthworkers are round holes in the social work square peg.

There is a much broader question here. No it is a statement.

Growing up in the UK is tougher now that it was 10 years ago.

And, there are now less adults around, who are paid to be supportive and educate young people than there was before. Those who are around are either fantastic volunteers, or voluntary or enterprise groups who themselves are struggling to raise the funds and may be using every engagement with young people as a target a measure for future funding. But Im not going to repeat all the issues that austerity has brought upon young people.

But if you think the situation with lost teachers is bad, and I know this grabs the headlines for at least an hour. (by the time I wrote this, the above news piece had already been taken off the bbc news front page and replaced by something more newsworthy or readable, Prince Harry singing) Then what is also evident is that the joined up collective act of supporting, educating young people and helping them flourish in society is in need of systematic and collective new thought.

Taking into account;

The breadth of education possibilities and multiple intelligences

Poverty and ensuring equality of opportunity, especially of creative subjects like drama, music, philosophy and languages

The use of data as a way of determining the future for young people and how this restricts growth

Testing and examinations that induce stress for children as young as 7.

League Tables and the whole issue of competition between schools and schools run as businesses

Support for young people that exists outside of school time, and making this universal across the UK

Valuing informal and young person led education processes

And i am sure there might even be experts in these fields who would add more to these things.

The effect of the employment market on education, ie solely preparing young people for work ( – what about the rest of life? )

But an issue about the reduction of teachers, coupled with the only rare sighting of the even lesser spotted youthworker, is a grave cause of concern for the health, education and well being of young people in the UK. And a reason why growing up in the UK is tougher than it was 10 years ago. There has to be serious questions about the field of working with children and young people and the education (both formal and informal) that they receive and are part of.

Its not a competition to see who has the fastest shrinking profession. The great loser is young people themselves. And no-one in education, whether formal or informal should take their eyes off this.


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

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

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


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

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

Fortunately the answer is already being practiced.

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

It’s asset based entrepreneurial youthwork.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

We know asset based community development 

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

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

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

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


From churches of praise & protest to churches that engage and educate. 

Youth Clubs, Community Centres, Pubs, Clubs, Parks, Libraries – all closed, reduced or only provide targetted services in the last 7 years. 

If im being generous I would say that all of these spaces were spaces of gathering for people not just in families, but across families, where young people held discussions with youth workers, where exchange of opinions occurs in the community centres, and maybe even in the pubs and libraries, these were places for conversation about the topics of the day, and they still do exist in some areas. Conversations where people might disagree, conversations where people might be challenged. If i was to be critical, id say that these places only perpetuated the gathering of people who were of a similar view, but at least in the space there could be conversational reflection and challenge. Most of these spaces have been reduced, and replaced by the coffee shop, the coffee shop where people who already like each other go and drink coffee with each other, so families or friends. There may only be fleeting interactions with those outside the family unit or friendship group and often, depending on the culture, its not necessarily welcomed.

Churches have become places akin to the coffee shop than the community centre, the cosy place to spend with friends , the social group of people who generally in most places are of people of a similar mindset. And if im brutal, the environment or culture of church is rarely the environment to have heated discussion, more pastoral and polite than political.  Though to be fair sunday church isn’t for that. It’s for praise. For displaying a new reality. For worship.

Along with praise. Churches have become good at protest. Marches this week are testament to it, marches for poverty before also, and social media has created communities of faith to gather and organise. It’s been needed and a statement of desiring change.  The problem with only protest and praise is that is not in public. It’s only amongst people of the same mind the same protest.  There’s nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with praise, and protesting is definitely needed. Outside the echo chamber of the church and social media of similar types are churches creating opportunities of engagement?

At a recent conference on detached youthwork Graeme Tiffany, a community educator, showed how in community groups and gatherings people begin to have their opinions changed in groups. Psychologists have produced evidence to say that people start to question opinions and even fact in groups when one or two in the group give a different view. This was all done in forums, community gatherings and debates that Graeme was facilitating in community centres and groups.

The Brexit vote might have been a wake up call. If theres one word that occurs its that churches need to engage with people it doesnt know and might not agree with. If there have been a demise of public spaces of conversation, might it be that local churches create opportunities for community education. Places of conversation, places to tell and share stories, places to question, converse and share opinions. It could be that once a month a church holds a local debate on an issue, safety, education, ethics, future, and there are deliberately people of different opinions,  presenting viewpoints, discussions in the open public for structured and  safe conversations. During which new realities are being realised as people think, share and converse.

In a way on an evangelism point there’s no point trying to talk about Jesus if the church isn’t hosting conversations about anything. In a way also it’s not to change peoples minds or opinions but to learn and engage, but to create space and trust the space. The church is to be a community building project (Vanhoozer,  2014) and it starts by creating spaces for engagement.not for its own sake but for the good of local communities the common good. The church groups that have coffee mornings and drop ins in community spaces are doing more for people in terms of social improvement, reduced loneliness, conversational skills and also spiritual awareness. Just by having open shared space.

If church only invites people to the praise thing, or being involved in the protest thing, it maintains the dynamic that church is only in private or with its own. Engagement and involvement in community education might be how churches become agents of common good, of human flourishing and give others the opportunity to join in with kingdom building.



Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2014 Faith Speaking Understanding, p174-5

For detached – why context matters

For 10 years now I’ve been involved in delivering detached youthwork in a number of settings, and not just city, rural and suburb, but also neutral space, community , school and college. For me the two key factors that enable quality conversations to happen are the following;
A. The geographical distance from adults who control the space, and B. The  Aims and intentions of the work.

Let me explain A. Because B is more obvious.

In Perth we as a project delivered street based detached for 3 years before we ventured into the schools, we’d built good relationships with young people and we’re well known.
Our first attempts at detached in what was an old school was pretty successful.  There were plenty of open spaces, grass areas and the playground. Even though young people had limited time and it was their time away from lessons/adults were generally happy to talk.

This all changed when the school updated to a new campus. Young people gathered in tables inside, rooms were locked, only a few young people went outside, and they had a greater desire for their freedom. They frogmarched to asda and back instead of staying in the vicinity of the school. All we could do was walk and wait as they gathered outside the school vicinity. So it was like street detached for about 15 mins when they gathered in groups anti socially to smoke.

Conversations inside the school were almost impossible. Too many allowed spaces, too much control, too many other teachers walking around. We became no different to teachers. The further outside the school the more young people to choose to be there the better the conversation with the detached team.

We tried doing detached in an FE college with similar results. Only young people we knew already would be up for conversation and even then it was rare.
The question is why are young people in the space? There are a myriad of reasons when they’re on the streets in the evening, these are reduced considerably during a school lunchtime. Theyre there to have a break, space away from adults, socialise with friends and unwind from the morning. The space is constructed by adults, for young people have permission to be there. Given a choice they wouldn’t want to be there at all.
Being on the streets at night is more often an active choice and decision.

Some of the same issues may happen in the community as is often the case when we deliver detached near to the houses of young people. There are conversations yes but there can be a reluctance for young people to divulge too much as adults can be around and near the front gardens.

In my experience, and it’s only my experience, where young people have more choice and their own reasons to be in the space then conversations are more likely and more likely to develop & deepen. Where the space is most neutral ie park or space away from adults who are deemed to control it (by the young people, teachers for example) again my experience is that the same benefits occur.

None of this is to say detached doesn’t work in a school. It all depends on the space and the gathering spaces for young people.

Maybe in a more contained space the approach has to change, in a space where young people arent actually bored (they rarely actually are bored on the streets) they need to be entertained to be distracted from their chosen activity, so sometimes the mobile bus, or sport cage, or other lunchtime club could be the thing that creates interest, and conversations can happen in those spaces. But its the thing of interest that attracts and then starts to drive the practice, not just the possibility of conversation, of interaction, that detached is all about.


What game should the Church play, if its in a relegation scrap?

“Changing our world depends on changing our hearts, how we perceive, name and act in the world” (Labberton, 2010;23)

It’s that time of the football season. Sir Alex Ferguson called it squeaky bum time, but that was when for him and the Man Utd team he managed were fighting for the Premier league title. A trophy and a title at stake. Though as any sportperson would concur with the final points to get to the win are the hardest, just ask all those Tennis players and Golfers who have crumbled in the last round or at match point. And that’s when the winning post is in sight.

At the opposite end of the table, when the trap door of relegation is on the cards, a whole new level of fear grips the team. Fear grips so much that mistakes are attemped to be avoided, but are then more likely. The skill of the manager is to try and get the team to ‘play their natural game’. For when this happens the team are freer to use their skills, passing and taking the risks to make attempts at goal. Hans George Gadamer describes the difference between play that is conscious, and play that is natural. stating that “Play fulfils its purpose only if a player loses himself in play” (1975:107)

For the team, the best thing for them to do is forget everyone telling them that they’re in a relegation battle. and get on with playing football. However hard that might be.

I wonder, does the church, especially in the UK act as though its in a relegation battle?

Not a day goes past without a number of pieces of small sample research published by academics stating that church attendances are in decline. Or that in Census data that those whom ‘ticked Christian/CofE’ is decreasing (down to 51% apparently in 2011). Then there’s those ‘people who leave the church’ blogs and articles, sharing why theyve left, and how they now represent a whole generation of used to be church goers.

All of this might have the church believing its in some kind of relegation battle.

Maybe thats the problem. Its bought into the notion that it is. Not only might it believe its in a numerical relegation battle, but due to rose-tinted spectacles of a long forgotten past – also believes its status is society (Christendom) is under threat.

The problem with being in a relegation battle for a football team is that its becomes pre-occupied with its status, and forgets what game it should be playing.

Reactions to ‘church in a relegation battle’ have been numerous.

  1. Employ a youthworker
  2. Back to basics courses for the ‘in-churched’ and friends of (Alpha and others)
  3. Services which look more like contemporary soft rock concerts.
  4. Powerpoint screens.
  5. Not being like ‘boring’ churches
  6. Reshaping church style ( Cafe church, youth church etc)
  7. A turn to business strategy thinking and efficiency targetting. (the equivalent of employing Sporting directors in football clubs who have no idea of the game)
  8. The younger players in the game leaving one church, to start one only for them.
  9. Various initiatives, Years and decades of evangelism. Turns to prayer.

Dont mis-hear me, this is not a dig at what these things are or have been,  but often they have been seen as the great hope for growing and sustaining the church, in the midst of its own fears of the future.

The problem with some of these is that church has become for the church’s sake. Like Mission isnt for missions sake either. Neither is Mission for the sake of the church. Its as if the team only try their new tricks on the training ground, and not in front of the live audience. As Gadamer attests “The audience only completes what the play as such is” (1975:113)

Status anxiety is potentially gripping the church. On a local level, with ageing and declining congregations, and as a result on a national level. The only exclusions to this are the city centre churches with an obvious incoming congregation of students/young families to fight over & keep.

But status anxiety has caused a problem, or at least might cause a problem in which it threatens the faithful performance of the church. Worrying about its existence, its reaction could be to forget its actual purpose, that is to join in with Gods ongoing redemptive drama of transforming the world, doing so walking in love, mercy and humility.  (for more on this see Vanhoozer 2014)

This morning I preached on the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22 & Col 3:12) which are well known, and provide the essence of the game-play of the gospel. But in asking the church this morning, what would church look like if it played according to these fruits, and did so outside of its walls?  The response from the congregation today was that it would be inclusive, it would be radical, it would change and transform the world. What kind of church right now is going about doing this?

If as church we are to be players in the dramatic game of the gospel, then the game is played as an action to be socially subversive and bring a new reality into existence with Christ, to be an integrated way of life that enables flourishing of persons, of communities and of all creation.

In short the game of the church is to present Christ in the world not to extend christendom, or worry about growing the church.

If the church believes it is in a relegation battle, then its play will be affected by the status it wants to hold. If the church forgets the status it wants to hold, and plays the game its meant to then, the world might just be changed as a result. It might have to rethink how it plays its game, and do so so that it can become players of the game in a new natural way.  Maybe it might escape the relegation battle, and like Leicester City this season only worry about playing a simple game taking the world of football by storm.

This sums up some of this.


Creating a national approach to disciple the high hanging fruit

There was some high hanging fruit on my apple tree this year that was a nightmare to reach. Even more so in that not far from our apple tree a bramble branch and rose branch draped across. So not only were the apples out of reach from me standing on my ladder, there’d be considerable pain trying to get close to them .
The low hanging fruit was easy in comparison. And id be able to see it drop.

It got me thinking. How much of the church’s national mission strategies, including that of organisations, is aiming for the low hanging fruit?

The fruit thats ripe for harvest and easy to get to?
Some of that harvesting includes a brighter, noisier more relevant method,  friends of friends at events, church based activities, even youth groups, or work in the institutions such as schools. For those who might be already interested, linked by friendship or family to others within, of similar upbringing or academic or social standing. Or even the lapsed christians, the previous youth ministry attenders.

Does a national mission strategy for picking and discipling the high hanging fruit need to be fundamentally different?

If there is pain and stretching in the reaching and picking, let alone the finding, identifying and nuturing – then how might all the learning, resources and support of the church be aimed in this direction?

The high hanging fruit need not necessarily be the stereo typical working class estate long forgotten by generally middle class church, but it might be, and there are swaithes of families, young people and children abandoned by the church in these estates. It might be the very articulate academics,  or very wealthy on gated estates, or just the millions who have no interest or connection.
To be deemed successful, ministries and programmes, projects and churches are justified by numbers , but how many actually make transformational disciples of the high hanging fruit?

A national strategy for the high hanging fruit might have to reconsider the locations of, methods of, approaches of church, as it recognises people as gifted (abcd), gatherings as informal, and starting not from the church with church in mind, but in the meeting places of people with presenting Jesus in mind. To transform communities of high hanging fruit the process will be to be specific in intention, to be ready for climbing, to recognise the pain, cut through the thorns and barriers with tools of love, of freedom.

If the church aims for the high hanging fruit, the fruit often forgotten by the world, too out of the way to be put to good purpose, what kind of mercy, love and Christ is on our side in that mission?

What might a national mission and discipleship approach for the high hanging and forgotten fruit, look like? and maybe more crucially how much resource might the church nationally provide to see it start to happen, until then only the low hanging fruit might be in reach.


Gift Encouraging Youthwork

Last week I had the undoubted please of having Lunch with Mike Mather, a Methodist Pastor from Indianapolis, USA. Beforehand I had read the article about the way in which his church community had shifted its focus, largely from focussing on community needs (and acting to serve) to recognising the gifts in the community (and seeking to encourage), in terms of approaches, shifting from needs focussed to Asset focussed. (thanks to Val Barron at Communities Durham for setting this up) – the article is linked above.

It got me thinking, as youd imagine it would, about whether predominant trends in youthwork & ministry have an encouraging gifts as a main focus?

As we discussed over lunch, we shared some theology about where gift encouragement is Biblically and theologically; from the feeding of the 5000, the sending of the 72 into welcoming hospitable houses, ‘you are’ (salt and light). Then thinking about the work of Friere, Boal, and Boff, as encouragers in community to use the resources already there- to liberate.

During the conversation i shared a story about a young girl we’d met on detached the evening before, and whilst it was a powerful experience in and of itself, Mike used the story to name the gifts that this girl naturally had.

It caused me to realise that at times I get caught up in the amazingness of the interaction itself, (ie; isnt it great that we’re in their space and they want to talk) and how i might make a intentional and conscious change to use the space of the interaction to identify positives about the natural gifts that the young people are displaying. Id be challenged if i could do this in real time, ie in the moment, but I imagine that’s what building good habits are about in the space of the streets.

And so, on a broader note, i reflect on the values on youthwork; such as empowerment, valuing individuals, democracy, informal education – and reflect that these can , just as ‘incarnation’ can be for Christian youth ministry, as definers of the approach, not necessarily what it we actually do with young people.

When we value young people- for example- yes that means treating them with respect, listening and empathising – but how might we value them by encouraging and facilitating their gifts and abilities in their families & communities?

The same could be said about empowerment- yes dissolve power in our actions, but for what purpose? to give young people a chance to get a pre determined job? or genuinely empower them in the natural gifts that they might have – person gifts, artistic ones, intellectual ones.

So often the powers of organisations, and university departments, churches and funders will determine that people, compared to themselves have deficits. and thus have needs have to be addressed. But might there be a better way to develop community, instead of focussing on need. It’ll take a mindshift change, but including myself, we have much to learn, about people and learn to build from what they already have. We have power to lose and share.