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…
I have written a number of pieces on detached youthwork, most of which are on the archives on my http://www.jamesballantyneyouthworker.wordpress.com site , many top tips, top tens, and pieces on specific issues. But I have never tried to write an A-Z, and do so with the aim of collating a definitive guide to detached youthwork.
So, at the beginning of 2019, I have tried, with mixed success on some letters to write one. wondered what an A-Z of detached youthwork would look like. So, here, with a sentence or so for each, is my A-Z of detached youthwork – see what you think:
A. Available. This is one key essence of detached youthwork, that workers and volunteers make themselves available in the spaces where young people are. Its obviously but its key.
B. Bravery, and courage, is required for detached youthwork. Bravery is required, not because of young people necessarily, most most young people are chatty, lively and amiable. Few aren’t. There’s bravery in being in the public spaces in the evening, often drunk adults or dog walkers can be more abusive than young people. There’s bravery in trying something new. We didnt call the book on detached work ‘Here be Dragons‘ for nothing…
C. Context is key. Every context shapes detached youthwork, a housing estate with a park causes detached youthwork to feel much different to a city centre, as does a rural space or village environment. All have an impact on the background of young people and their social interactions, it makes every context different and important when it comes to detached.
Another ‘C’ is Cold Contact, this seems to be the key marked difference between detached and other youth provision, and the aspect most likely to provoke fear and trepidation. Its an important aspect of detached – that first meeting with young people, and where you ‘warts n all’ try and engage in conversation with them.
D. Dialogue. I would have said conversation, but i think C should be context. Dialogue is conversation that leads to action. Most times on the streets conversation is the aim, beyond banter, where there might be some disclosure, some amiable chat where a transfer happens.
E. Education. Much youthwork, but i think detached more than most is about constantly learning. Also there is education involved constantly in helping young people understand our role, and the dynamics of this, in the informality of the space of the streets, there is transferal of knowledge. it is an educative experience. (its also why R= research)
F. Freezing cold nights. Its a fact of detached life. Yes there are pleasant spring afternoons, but some of the best chats are at evening, and in autumn, and these can be cold.
G. Groups of young people. Its the meat and drink of detached. Detached is about finding, identifying, listening to, learning from, groups of young people. How they operate, what they do, what they like, the leaders, the core and the purpose. The task of detached is to find a way of gaining rapport and acceptance with that group, to have conversation and develop group work.
H. Hopeful attitude, is what is needed at the beginning of each session, and every conversation, to try and be positive and help young people towards an individual or collective dream, to ask the ‘what if’ question.
I. In their spaces. Detached youthwork happens in the context of young people. it changes the power, responsibility and duty of care issues considerably. It changes the nature of the relationship created. Improvisation is another I that is part of detached work, it involves thinking on your feet.
J. Jousting. Sometimes the conversation is more of a jousting match of random banter. You might just be present whilst young people are in their zone doing their thing communicating with each other in the contextual codes of banter, grunts, comments and expressions. Detached youthwork gives you this insight. It also gives an opportunity to be questioned and be challenged, it can be a joust. But that might be the kind of adult/adult conversation that is possible where the power dynamics are so different.
K. Killing time. Or Keeping up morale on quiet evenings. Quiet nights could be opportunities for doing informal supervision and training with staff, to learn about the context, to take a breather.
K is also the Kit bag. After all: what do you take on the streets with you? – This could include, games, toys and activities, torches, first aid kits, hand warmers, hats gloves, bottles of water, confidentiality policy, referral sheet, organisation business cards (ie ‘the project’) , spare change, and probably a few other things besides. All neatly packed away in a small kit bag. That now weighs a ton.
L.Long term. Detached youthwork is a long term game. It requires patience, it is counter cultural to the quick fix mentality operating in much of support services. Detached is a long term venture that when done well requires time, time to learn, identify and work with groups.
M. Money is tight even if the budget is low. Because it can be difficult to get funding in the first place, because although usually very needed and worthy, fitting detached into outcomes and funding requirements is still tricky.
N.New. Even though its been around for 100 years or more. For many people who have orientated their youthwork or ministry around buildings and institutions, detached youthwork always seems new. Strange.
O. Opportunities. Most youthwork is this to be honest. But detached youthwork gives you opportunities to
see young people in their chosen space, doing their chosen activities, with their chosen people
to converse with young people where they may be more at ease
to be in a place where young people have more opportunities to deny adult engagement & conversation
to work with and develop conversation with young people not in other provision (not that there is much other provision)
Opportunity to have conversation with young people without worrying about buildings, materials and equipment.
P. Policies. You must have them, even if they need to be specific to detached youthwork. And another P, planning. Detached youthwork still needs it, its different planning, but it involves getting volunteers trained, observing in the local area, identifying which area, contacting and discovering other agencies, creating ID badges, safeguarding, team building, contacting the police (possibly). There is planning involved, it just looks different
Q. Quiet. It can be. But not always.
R. Research & Reflection . Detached youthwork hones the skills in a really good way. Its as if you start to develop young people awareness goggles, trying to observe, listen, and discover them, how they react in the community context, what the community is doing, what might be learned through the context, research is continual as groups change, activities change and communities change. Then of course, from research comes reflection, thinking and asking the critical questions of those observations. R for ‘risk’ also works, young people might be doing ‘risky’ behaviour, young people might provoke us with risky questions, we might push young people to new actions which might be risk taking on their part. Risk is unavoidable – but lets do what we can to minimise actual harm…
S. Supervision. Either you need it, or you need to give it to your team, volunteers and staff. Some good guidelines and ideas for it are included elsewhere on my other site.
T. Team work. Even a team of two is a team,attending to the relationships between the team is crucial as you will almost always need to work together and trust each other in decision making large and small. All activities that enhance team are worth it, from before and after session reflection, conversation and debrief , team meetings, end of year dinners out. All build team. And young people see that a team is doing stuff for them. It may reduce dependency. And help young people develop relationships with many supportive adults, not just one.
another T is Training. Some get out there try stuff, and then develop it, some people prefer the before the starting training to allay fears and give staff and volunteers a sense of whats to be expected and how to deal with things, both are valid.
U. Undervalued well yes, detached may be cheapest, and be often able to reach some of the more difficult young people, but its hard to define, measure and manage, so because of this it gets undervalued and chopped easy.
Its also Unpredictable – and that’s a beautiful part of it. But no youth club night is the same anyway.. is it?
V. Visibility. A detached youthwork team needs to visible (and distinctive) and is different to the general public and other public space adults like police, street pastors or sales people for under age nightclubs..
W. Walking to where theyre at. Not just walking a drive might be needed. Yet alot of walking is often required and repeatedly so. We make the road by walking…
X. Hmm. Poetic licence required.. exit strategies? Detached youthwork is as much about being self aware (like much youth work) as it is being spatially aware, knowing where you are, the dynamics of the route, the cul de sacs, and alley ways are critical for knowing how to leave a situation if it starts to get out of hand and you need to extricate yourselves. Its a strategy and action, not just a reaction, leaving says something about how you might be being treated by a young person, you can leave, and so can they.
Y. Ymca/YWCA If i might be personal for a moment, Perth YMCA was where I cut my mustard as a youthworker doing detached work, and YMCA’s have in the past been good at doing detached work and sticking with it. It was a YWCA where Joan Tash and George Goetschius developed detached youthwork and researched it at the time and wrote ‘Working with the Unattached’ for me the Bible of detached youthwork. A review is here .Other organisations may have done detached work to. But Y standing for the Ymca seems to fit quite well.
Z. Zealous. Were a zealous bunch at times, us detached youthworkers, making ourselves out to be unique, ‘the only true youthwork left’ and defending the practice of it to the hilt. But then again, if youthwork itself it maligned then detached.. Someone might have to stand up for it..
There you go – an A-Z of detached youthwork… enjoy.. oh and I know that..
Even with a list of 30 or so aspects, this is probably not conclusive, i havent talked about outreach vs detached, or referrals and signposting, about partnership work or schools, about alcohol, sports or specific interest detached work, or faith based detached work. So there are more to add, definitely. Neither have i mentioned the few writers and theorists, like Graham Tiffany, Richard Passmore or the Federation of detached youthwork, or organisations like FYT which do alot of detached work too.
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.
Its Friday of National Youth work week and to celebrate all things positive and empowering about youthwork practices in the UK.
The NYA have run a campaign on describing youthwork, and the evidence of these can be seen via Twitter here are few of the images, from the twitter feed, to capture some of the sense of what youthwork means to many people involved in it:
But what does the sector and the many 100’s of youth workers say about themselves- for, it is one thing stating what youthwork is all about – another describing the good it does for young people and society. Over the last 24 hours I have shared on twitter and facebook
(via the In defence of youthwork page) the question as described above:
In what way is youthwork (or ‘are youthworkers’) good for young people and society?
These were the responses to this question, unfiltered and unsorted:
Believe in them
Support, encourage and cheerlead
Deal in hope
See potential, not problems
Meet the needs that teachers struggle due to the formality of their jobs
Guide, support and enthuse
Start where the young person is at
They are trained listeners
Helps young people develop real life skills to cope as adults
Transforms young peoples lives through meaningful mutual engagement, allows young people to fulfil their potentials
Provides young people with a safe space where they are able to be themselves and realise their potential – coming from someone who has been youth worked since she was 11 and loved it so much that 10 years later she’s a youth worker!
Gives spaces for young people to throw off pressure to grow up too fast & be young, have fun.
Gives vulnerable teens a place to be safe and access services that can help and support them
Offers young people the chance to access a vast range of opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t
The encourage growth and enhance their future chances
To give young people a voice and give them a listening ear to hear and reflect issues that are important to them an not the system
Enables young people the opportunity to develop unique relationships, where they can question, be heard and feel valued. These relationships are different to parents, teachers and peers, being based on mutual trust and respect, with the young person at the centre.
It’s a relationship which the young person chooses to participate in, in which the young person is valued as a whole person. This relationship is a safe space to explore and the only agenda is around the young person’s growth and development as a whole person.
Because it offers safe relationships with adults outside of the family which is beneficial for young people
It’s the only service that has a voluntary relationship with young people for me it was the first time I ever felt listened to and valued inspiring me to become a youth worker which I feel is a privilege
A youth worker advocates and protects the interests of young persons
Enables young people to build positive relationships with other young people and adults outside of their family
It may make better adults!
Providing valuable informal education that is not provided in schools and homes. This can be life changing for some young people
Youth work provides at least one example of an adult who can empathise with and think like a young person – bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood. An example of how you can continue to be yourself even into adulthood, rather than change to ‘become and adult’
Give young people some time and space to be their true selves
Actively inspires and enables self determination
Takes support to them, in their community, in places they feel safe and people they feel confident around
Offers a space for young people to develop their authentic self through an accountable social education programme, which allows for mistakes and growth
Youthwork offers a safe space for young people to be themselves be heard be supported be empowered and treated with respect
All young people feel respected and valued
I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve met now “grown up’s” who tell me how brilliant a youth club session/residential/activity was which they took part in and others who sought me out for support as adults because they remember what we did as youth workers.
Inclusive and challenges young people to explore their identity in society
An adult yp can laugh/ have fun with but also be safeguarded by! Without youth workers referrals to early help services and social care would be higher!
when a young person see’s that a youth worker doesn’t hold the weight of judgement in their eyes when they look at them it makes the young person lighter, they feel that they can shed the weight of years of being taught they are worthless.
Youth work can be a place of political education and political participation of young people, with the aim of having social action.
It’s a place where young people can test out ideas around identity, belonging etc and open up their world view by meeting people they may not normally come into contact with, trying new things and having their viewpoints challenged.
To help with transition to adulthood
Youth work changes young peoples lives for the better. It plays a transformative and educative role in the personal and social development young people. It helps young people explore and understand their own and others identity and gives them the skills knowledge and tools to positively impact, change and shape the world around them
Helps young people connect with their community and become valid members of it
Youth work embraces and celebrates young peoples lived experiences without judgement
Youth work enables young people to grow in understanding of themselves, those around them and the society in which they live. In addition, to having their own space to have fun, free of judgement.
Despite the overall feel of some of these statements, I think it is also important to note that youth work as a practice does not see young people as victims or in need of ‘saving’ as such, unlike many other professions working with young people. Youthworkers work with young people to empower them, and believe they can source their own power. Youth workers aim to understand the world from the young person perspective, respecting their choices, feelings and views, and providing accurate information so young people can make their own informed choices. This also means sometimes (often) we have to watch as they make, what we believe are mistakes, and be there, without judgement when they are ready to engage.
With two from me:
49. Youthwork give young people the opportunity to build a relationship with an adult in which they can choose to say no.
50. Youthwork provides a way of helping communities think better of young people through social and community activism, narrating a positive story of young people.
At the end of youthwork week, lets endorse, celebrate and cheer for all the good that youthworkers do, in all the many places where voluntary relationships occur between themselves and young people, in organisation buildings, on the streets, community centres and churches, lets remember how much of what we are all doing and trying to do for young people we share many values, dreams and desires for the discovering of young peoples gifts, abilities and exploring with them places in the community and the future orientated , youthful fight and frustration we need to accomplish this. For all who stand in the gap, who take on the fight of funding bids, trustee meetings, community hostility and pressure from systems, outcomes and managerial expectations for the sake of young peoples rights, participation and welfare, be encouraged, and thank you.
Is the tide turning ? We hope so. And if these 50 reasons aren’t good enough to convince policy makers and funders of the value of youthwork, then Im sure we can think of 50 more.
Thank you for all you contributed to this piece with your comments and responses to this question. It would take another piece to credit you all individually, so thank you.
How much is relevancy the reason why young people attend church?
If its about relevancy – then what does this say about what we think about young people? just carried along by a crest of a wave, but what If, and I realise only readers of a certain age will get this , that young people are thinking, ‘So you have a guitar band- that dont impress me much?’
Substance over style is also the conversation when quite a bit of research is being done that is showing that young people are finding faith in the spiritual practices of liturgy, evensong, choirs and these more traditional forms of church. This tweet was doing the rounds:
Church army report asked unchurched teenagers what worship might attract them, the result it may surprise you, is not soft rock but candles and incense’ (Prof. Alison Milbank) @markrusselluk @ChurchArmy
One response to this on my facebook page was: ‘Somebody asked me about this just earlier today, and I referred them to the case studies in Marilyn Haskel’s book ‘What would Jesus sing?’ What I hear from young people is that you can get soft rock music at any concert, usually better music than the church version, but candles and incense take you into a different universe. I think a reason for this could be that candles and incense offer a contextualized spirituality inasmuch as they take some elements that we enjoy at a concert (lighting, smoke) but transpose them in a way that creates a space for transcendent meaning.’ (John Drane)
There is probably more to it than it being radical to be traditional, a look at culture will reveal a heightened nostalgia. Retro is in. We are living in nostalgic times, where Baking and Craft are popular, and the Churches of liturgies, gowns and choirs represent a long lasting, safe and possibly escape from a world of hustle, bustle and speed. Long live a wifi free zone.
But it could be more than this. Is it more substance over style?
Young people in a big city told me that whilst they were interested in going to the large, new church plant in the town which for the purposes of this piece, rhymed with ‘Mill gong’ – they went along for three months, but then returned back to their home church, the one in their local area. Guitars and Drums didnt captivate this particular group of young people. What did?
It was that they felt at home in their local church.
It was where they connected
It was where they felt belonging
It was where they could make a contribution (and as volunteers in the sunday school/youth club) they were.
It was where they were significant – not just one of many.
It was as though the grass wasnt greener, or more sparkly.
There is another conversation happening, much more on a local level. It is that local churches feel that they have nothing to offer young people, in the face of the bigger churches, brighter buildings and, again, the drums and guitars. On one hand this is defeatist. The other is that there is no evidence that any young people who a local church does missional youthwork with, ends up finding a home in a church, that isnt the one that helps them find faith in the first place. The market for the bigger brighter contemporary churches is the christian young people spoonfed on a diet of consumerism and the attraction of a christian youth music scene. They may have young people – but theyre often a completely different group of young people to those who live in the flats opposite the church, or the ones you work with in a mentoring programme in a local school.
And thats half of the point. Young people are different. Breaking it down to two basic, and horrible mantras, keeping young people from leaving church, and creating an environment of belonging, hope and meaning where they want to be and stay, and start from scratch, makes for two different challenges. And these are crude. but you get my drift.
There may well be research conducted on young people attending evensong. There may be research conducted on young people attending contemporary guitar worship services. But both become a style war, when a substance war is much more complex. For both there can be meaningfulness and relevancy in bucket loads. But scratch behind the surface and theres something deeper often going on.
Psychology might help, the Psychologists Deci and Ryan propose that people gravitate to situations where there is a measure of one or all of these three things; Connection, Autonomy and Challenge/Competance (Bryan 2016). For a moment, think through then how young peoples experiences of churches as a people group, a faith community and as an organisation relates to all of these things. I would dare to suggest that these three things play a significant part in the decision making of young people and their continued attendance in churches.
When the church community doesnt know how to relate to young people – then they’ll find more connections elsewhere
When the young person feels like theyre a new person every week – then theyll find home in somewhere more familiar, and where it doesnt feel they have to make an effort every week to connect with someone
When the young person is one of a crowd and the only challenge is to try and stay standing for a long period of time – is barely mentally challenging, or involving. The same is said for the Evensong.
When the young person is not given opportunities to make decisions – about their youth provision (‘look we’ve employed youth leaders to do this provision for you’) , about faith, and about being involved, as contributors, creators not just consumers – then why stay? Maybe the rise in young people attending choirs, has nothing to do with glee culture, more to do with being part of a community that respects them, and gives them opportunities to contribute through choosing songs or the challenge of using talent.
If we think its ‘just’; guitars or evensong, we might be missing the point.
The point is, is that young people arent as superficial as we want them to be or make them out to be.
If we offer space for conversation, space for community and space that respects – and create opportunities for belonging, participation and decision making, this will be more than enough in a church for young people to want to be part of it. If we can be these things, and make young people significant, then, and there are no magic answers, it is more likely that young people will make their home there. So dont worry if this is what you’re doing, that young people will leave, it will take a huge sacrifice for them to do so and effort, given what theyre giving up on. Would they do this for soft rock? – probably not.
Substance over style matters, and I dont just mean a lengthy sermon. Substance that equates to values, community, acceptance, challenge and participation are featured more in reasons why young people stay part of churches, and an absence of these as to why young people leave, than anything else. Young people leave churches because the youthworker leaves – why ? because no one else connected with them. Young people dont go to church because theres no one from the church willing to help with the youth group. Thats a connection question. The same for autonomy- at least having some opportunity to have some decision making, and also challenge.
What about the transcendent? If worship is about helping young people connect with the grander story, this might happen in both settings, but one might create more meaning than the other, or help a connection to a grand story where a young person feels part. Both could feel alien or cold. An ongoing regular connection to the God of the creeds, the Lords Prayer and regular confession, cleansing, prayer and silence might facilitate personal and spiritual connection and challenge. It makes it tough, not boring.
How might substance over style be the conversation within youth ministry? might we recognise the complexity of young people and their increased perception of the faith community and how it is accepting, empowering and respectful of them as people, and wanting them to be participants, disciples and prophets. There is space for many styles, but can we stop assuming that young people only want one style, and focus on creating faith communities of substance instead?
if young people do value substance over style – then might we be thankful thats how God made young people in his image..?
How churches view young people is crucial. In my next post Ill be building on what a number of youth ministry specialists are saying at the moment. That youth ministry, needs to be about helping young people do ministry, not just be ministered to. So, keep an eye out for this maybe about Tuesday.
One minute you have them, all neat and tidy in rows upon rows, in small groups of small groups doing sunday school – the next minute theyre all gone!
And, theyve stayed gone.
Remembering that this situation isnt new (the drop off from the 2 million young people who attended sunday schools at aged 8 verses aged 12 was large, and that was pre 1900)
So you are going to need a very long memory to remember those days.
But maybe you can remember when you were part of a thriving youth ministry scene in the 1960’s?
That thriving youth ministry scene – was also the same time in which according to church statistics, young people were leaving the church at a rate of 300 per week between 1970-1980.
So, its not an ‘all of a sudden thing’ that there are no young people in the church you are sitting in. Theres an element of rugged determination probably on your part that you’re still there. The survivior, the last warrior emblazoned with the leadership and pcc or retired elder badge for long service. Well done good and faithful servant, and I do mean this.
But if we’re only asking now – where are all the young people – we also have to ask – what happened to them in the 70’s and 80’s and to some extent the 1990’s – for as ive said before, even I represent one of only 3 people from a youth group/club in a church of 30 who are still involved in church – and sometimes that is clinging on by the fingernails.
The questions we have to ask about young people and the church have got to have different answers to them that was being given in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. And I think that might be a different piece. For – though we have to find young people – we also do have to have some idea of what it is we expect, or want them to do, or how they are to experience faith once indeed we might have found them.
How might churches find their long lost young people? especially when theres none at all to start with?
The first things is to begin with reality not assumptions. But churches are full of them. So here is a picture of a warning sign.
‘there are always young people on the streets being a nuisance‘ Find out the facts, how many, is it the same young people, are they from the area, how old are they, are they in the same group, what do you they like doing, what are they interested in, what schools do they go to. Also is it always? or just on a friday night, or just through the summer holidays?
‘young people are so busy, being taken to after school clubs, having to ride buses, they’re too busy for church’ Is that ‘all’ the young people who are in your community – or just the ones that you have connections with – and might they be too busy with other things, because these other things are seen to be more important & meaningful (maybe thats a challenge, to make the local church a space of meaning and significance) – but legitimately, even in areas where there are high attendance of mostly children going to swim clubs or brownies, there will be many who cannot afford these things, or have transport or parents at home to take them. When we start from a place of 0 young people, creating a place for these few who dont have opportunities – seems not only a good idea, but a godly one too – doesnt it?
‘young people find the building a barrier’ this is an assumption we make – then we need to make the space safer, but then not spend decades improving a building only for there to be now no connection with local people who then have disregarded a building as irrelevant however much of a conference centre it now looks like.
‘but we have nothing to offer – we’re an ageing congregation, young people are more likely to go to the (insert name of contemporary church) church down the road’ no, only the kids from christian parents who value style and entertainment in worship practices will go there. The young people in your local area who find meaning and connection in the space you offer, will continue to do so. And the person, usually a trendy youth pastor from that trendy contemporary church or youth ministry who suggests the existing church is boring should be shot.
These are all assumptions that at some point of another someone in a local church has made about the reasons why young people are not involved in the faith community, or the advent of sunday trading, sunday football or some other cultural entertainment reason.
So how do churches find the young people – where are they hiding?
Discover the reality of life for young people, spend time in the local areas, communities and be present in the spaces. So, walk the dog around estates, grab a pint of milk at the corner shop, take up running – all with the additional purpose of being around in the public spaces of a local community at times. So, when school buses come back, or after tea, or at the weekends, do young people walk home from school buses, do any of them play football in the park from 7 (and is it the same ones every night) . Just any real picture is helpful.
Schools. Schools are tricky, as they are becoming an even more compressed space of formal learning, and almost sadly just exam factories. School staff also have had good and negative experiences of faith groups either personally or professionally, so all the stuff about building trust slowly applies, or trying to connect in a way that helps the schools out, such as offering lessons on challenging topics like relationships, drugs and alcohol – or help in some way like mentoring some of the young people who are struggling. Or chapliancy for the whole school (especially in the peak stressful times in a school, ie between the inservice day in september and the end of term in july 😉 ) The days of ‘just doing assemblies’ because this topped up what the kids were learning in sunday schools or was a way of attracting them to the church’s activities are over. As i said here, To disciple young people, we need to quit assemblies. though it might still be a start – there are other ways of being meaningful and connecting. But the school is just the school, its a place socially constructed in a way, and where young people perform in a way to thrive or survive, and/or be popular or to be invisible. And thats not rocket science, just one reality of the context of trying to be present in, its an already established culture and community in which you might be trying to find some kind of acceptance and respect in.
The public spaces of the town and village centre. This wont be all the young people – no where has ‘all the young people anyway’ – but are there places and times when young people do congregate – is it the town centre on a saturday, the bus shelter on a friday, the village green on a tuesday – if these are places young people choose to be in (as opposed to school where they dont choose) – then this, with the right approach and training, can be a way of making connections in places where young people have already considered safe. Or it might be that this is the time to have the church open for hot chocolate, or take some out with you to the bus stop and spend time just chatting with young people there. If you’ve got a dog collar on, honestly its far easier to do this that try and be some kind of youthworker doing it. Not easy, takes bravery and vulnerability – but much of that is because weve made too many assumptions about young people that make us feel scared of them. Oh and by the way, any abuse from a distance when they see you coming, take that as the ‘mating call of the needy young person’ …. 😉
What if young people are in their homes, doing their homework, playing on computer games, on social media? And for many this is the new normal, the new reality and the new majority. Maybe for this family, it is not about trying to connect with the young people at all, it is about trying to connect and become meaningful with the whole family. Also the young person is not in their room all day every day. But – What might mission to middle class families look like? And that is not my specialist subject… – churches should be able to offer an alternative to the depression of eastenders or the business of commuter life – a place of hope, quietness, community?
Attracting families to church with children has been easy, from sunday schools, messy church and every thing else inbetween, and at the moment summer holiday clubs are on, but they are plummeting in terms of numbers, and delivery. But that doesnt mean that in your local area, in your local space an after school group, messy church, themed club (movie/craft/sports) might be just the thing for families to be involved in that you as a local church can do. Forget any national picture or statistic – yes i mean forget it – if a small group of families want to set up a kids club (that you though was old fashioned at what you were doing in the 80’s) then let them. If its what is most meaningful and causes the church to be a space of community and conversation then make it happen. Family work with children isnt necessarily going to bring the young people back. But it at least could cause the church to be looked on favourably locally. At least with 8 year olds coming to a craft afternoon, there is at least the possibility of some group work with them, and having conversations with them and creating a longer term space for their community and conversation to continue. We may need to invest in the potential group work of the 8 year olds and believe in it as a long term process. Telling them theres ‘nothing’ after messy church when they get to 10, is only because we have wasted 2 years in not talking to them about what they might like to do next or continue to participate in.
These all feel like whats been tried for the last 30 years. And yes, thats probably true.
I kind of wish that there was some magic answer. Some new answer. And in my last post I did put forward a few new ideas (see previous post)
The reality is that though it is easier to say why churches should involve themselves in working with young people for social and definitely spiritual reasons, actually doing it is going to be quite hard work, and a mixture of looking for opportunities, and also making the most of opportunities that may already be happening, or being in a place where opportunities may emerge (such as the bus stop over a mug of hot chocolate) . Its going to take vulnerability and spirit of collective pioneering and action, and thats not easy. The responses to the question of how to get the young people back into church doesnt need some kind of magic dynamic answer, and not from me anyway, the answer to that question will only be found in your local area, through making spaces to connect, through being present, and through listening to whats already happening, and trying to find a way of being meaningful to all, especially those for whom the normal way of life is leaving them behind, making them stressful, pressured and pained. Churches that want young people for their own survival, might be better placed to think about how other people are trying to do survival and get alongside them. I dunno, seems like Jesus met people in the margins, in the borders and healed those who needed to be lifted up – guess that could be the heart of the gospel, and the heart of Gods mission for young people and their families, its just a hunch. There isnt a new answer to that question, its the same old answer, the story of faith that we’re participating in in our local contexts, and asking how might we present Jesus with young people and in our communities?
Maybe like God himself, we interrupt the norm, with a conversation of love that brings meaning and hope. Bringing young people back to church? a challenging task, especially if we cant find them or have lost them over the years.
God hasnt lost them. God doesnt need to find them either, he knows where they are.
And on many occasions she already hears their cries of help, anguish and pain. They might be closer to God than we already think. We as churches might be closer to being able to offer something, a God to believe in, than we think. Hiding faith behind the package has been one of the approaches, because God has been deemed boring, irrelevant or old fashioned. The mysterious thing is is that God might already be meeting young people where theyre at, the Spirit might be already moving in our towns and villages. And if young people need a story to believe in and participate in when the story of materialism, consumerism or achievement isnt giving hope, connection, autonomy or wholeness, then the story of Gods redemption for the world that we present offers a genuine alternative. Young people rebelling against consumerism by going to church and taking up a simple life… will it happen? If it did would churches know that this might be the authentic narrow way of the gospel that was possibly what was intended..?
Try all the magic methods in the world. Its be difficult to keep young people if theyre done without the mystery of faith and presenting a way of the gospel that is rude, provocative and dangerous, and discipleship as an ongoing active working relationship with Jesus to be experienced.
Theres no point being a youthworker in this church, we dont have any young people
Only 8 churches in this diocese have a paid youth or childrens worker, and less than 6 have more than 10 over 12’s who attend at all
They caused too much damage 30 years ago, we’re not having young people in our building today.
Just some of the indicators, or reasons, why it feels as though churches have given up on young people. A church in a smallish town whose minister stated to me that there isnt a need for a youthworker in the church because theres no young people in the church. But theres a high school of 1200 pupils within a mile of it. But thats not enough of a reason for a church to develop something from scratch. It may be ten times that school will attend soul survivor over the next two weeks. But if there are about 40,000 churches in the UK (rough estimate) then that is only 1 soul survivior attending young person to 3.5 churches. And that’s just the soul survivor attending young people. Vast swaithes of churches have no young people, but I guarantee there are young people living in the parish, in the local area.
So – why have churches given up on young people? How did this happen?
One minute theres hundreds of young people, and then gradually one by one they disappear. Theres churches currently full of the over 60 yr olds, and its not just the under 14’s they dont have, its the under 50’s, 40’s and 30’s. Not even the generations of people these 60 year olds were nurturing when they were young leaders in their twenties have stayed. Generation vibrant youth ministry lasted only for only one period of time.
Those who possibly tried to engage in youth work – found that the buildings did get damaged, or young people loitered. In other churches the volunteers ran dry, and decisions were made that caused young people and communities to leave, such as changing sunday school times, youth group age bands or closing groups all together, because, well, it wasn’t worth it for 10 young people. It wasn’t worth it because the kids didnt come on a Sunday. It wasn’t worth it because the leaders would prefer to be in the service. Gradually, as the evidence about Sunday schools at least indicates, churches made decisions about groups and clubs without any consultation with participants and children and their families exited in their droves. And for many churches, they just carried on growing older and older. The families didn’t stay, and neither did the teenagers. And Peter Brierleys stat about 300 young people leaving the church every week between 1968-1980, well, that’s where all the 40-50 year olds left.
So, you’re an aging church, with only the grandparents left, the Baby Boomers – and there’s no one under the age of 40, let alone 14 who is part of the church on a regular basis, aside from a few who attend during the summer holidays.
Assessing the cause of this problem is relatively easy, though it is more complex than the quick assessment above.
The encouragement of this piece is to think about what one thing you can do in your church to start thinking differently about young people, to start thinking about young people at all, and begin again. It is possible. Trust me. Three ideas are included below, but first theres a few challenging questions:
Is there anything you can do?
The first thing you can do is pay for a youthworker. Because they will immediately solve all your youth absence problems. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Thats like paying for someone else to deal with your problem. Nice attitude. But the reality is more complex, as I have said before, youth worker jobs in the UK are staying vacant, there is a supply and demand problem as the colleges and courses are closing, and housing costs multiply. So getting ‘a youthworker’ is not a straightforward option. It never was anyway.
So, no thats not the first idea. So, starting from scratch in thinking about working with young people, as a church congregation what would be your responses to these questions:
What could you do to show young people in your town that you care about them? (how would young people know)
What could you do to value young people in your town?
What cause might you be able to support local young people in?
What talents do young people in your area have?
What resources do you have that might benefit local young people?
In what way might you need to make yourself vulnerable to young people?
Can you answer any of these questions as a church congregation? Would you be brave enough to try and work out responses to them, and responses from reality, ie real young people, speaking to them, consulting with them?
One of the main issues is that the way churches used to try and work with young people didn’t work, and the trying to attract young people and teach them stuff still hasn’t got a huge fondness amongst young people (ie they sit bored in the ‘god slot’). So with that method not worked, it becomes difficult to think about the alternatives. So, if you’ve got no young people, then you can afford to think differently, and start differently. Even Americans are saying that programme based youth ministry is broken, so why bother starting with it? If you want to start theological then head here for a really long post that i dare you to read, but has resources in it to help think theologically about young people and ministry. But then, on a practical level could you think about these questions?
What about thinking of these:.
Where are young people already, during the day? do they walk to schools, get buses, walk back through the town
Where are there connections already locally – do young people congregate in places at certain times, or where are families active in dropping off and picking up young people?
What are the rhythms of the day in terms of young peoples activities, and what about the weekends? do young people use the shopping area, parks, or prefer to be in small groups in neighbourhoods?
What might make the church both a spiritual space and practical space for young people?
(if you want a fuller community profile, then get in touch- see menu above)
One church i visited recently had almost no young people involved in its sunday activities, but over 200 used the scout hut during the week. Another realised that the local sixth form kids sneaked out of school to smoke in the grounds of the church. Another church had young people in its porch on a friday night. Another church had young people playing football in its adjacent car park. These are all ‘already’ used spaces that young people are in. One step would be to involve ourself in those spaces. Accidentally on purpose. Just to say hi, or have a conversation whilst needing to open up the church for no reason.
This isnt the only way, but these are opportunities to start making connections.
Idea 1 – Spiritual Space
There is a rise in spirituality in young people, there is a growing recognition of the positives of mindfulness and quietness in the culture of today. Does your church have a large open space thats often deathly quiet that can act as a place where young people can be quiet, reflect, think, pray even and just ‘be’ for a moment? You know, just like you might like to when you visit a cathedral. Would it be crazy to open up the church as a place where young people could ‘be’ during 4-5pm as they walk past the church to head home from school, or especially during mock and exam season as a space to help with stress, worry and anxiety. Forget the activity type of working with young people, lets treat them as humans with needs, and create a space thats respectful and open. Maybe even a space where they encounter God in the silence, or the lighting of a candle, or the reading, writing of a poem that they do in the space.
Recently i heard of a story of two young people who just wanted to sit in the back of the church whilst the evening prayer was being read. It was a safe space, and also a quiet space.
It may connect the church to young people as a place where they can church weep and rejoice when young people weep and rejoice? Celebrate exam results, or commiserate – mark the anniversary of the death of friends, or relatives in tragedies.
Its one option – but why not give away spiritual spaces for young people. It may take time. Its taken cathedrals 400 years to be popular again…
By the way, no need for the high energy, flashing dancing well lit trendy youthworker – just an open space thats safe, regular and meaningful. hmm.
But what if lots of young people come – well then theres a nice problem to have
But what do we do next? worry about that afterwards
But ow will they come on Sunday ? theyre meeting God on tuesday – is that not enough?
Idea 2- Church valuing young people
Another option might that the church congregation could find a way of supporting a local cause that young people are also passionate about and join in? Its good to give church money to missionaries, of course, but what about the local football team strip, or the music club, or a young persons bus travel or something else where the church could go out of its way to give to a cause that affects young people. Not for its own gain, but because it would be good to do. What if this equated to giving of time, support and fundraising activities over a year? What if the church helped to fund the much needed resources that the schools are desperately short of, or where the church could help subside school trips so that even the less well off young people can go on them? Sounds bonkers, but what might it say in the community about who the church is for? exactly. Yes its embarrassing for the school, but its got the government to thank for its funding crisis.
Idea 3- Practical space
I was struck recently by the story of Boaz, and Ruth and Naomi. That Boaz left one side of his field open for anyone who needed it to work the land and take the crops. What if this principle was replicated, and that the church in the local area ‘leaves the land’ in order that local young people can work, earn or learn their trade? Can the local college hairdressing apprentices do everyones hair during the coffee morning? How might young people in the additional learning timetable learn gardening skills in the church garden and make a community allotment? what about getting the mechanics at the college to help fix the minibus? The list could go on. But what if the church was a place of work and learning for some young people, learning catering in the kitchen, or hospitality in the scheduling and event organising, or media in the PA/tech systems? Could there be gaps in the church where young people gain work skills? Is there a relationship to be had with schools and colleges that could generate this kind of offer or opportunity? Again, it might be too much for some, or not even a reality. But one of you reading this might think that its a possibility. You have no young people currently, youve got nothing to lose…
Of course all of these require work and effort and a change in priorities. But they dont involve trying to entertain young people, or trying to keep them, but to try and give them a space where they can find meaning, or usefulness in the church and faith community. If theres no young people in your church, then trying something different, from a place of thinking differently about young people might begin developing something of value, of respect and that could be significant for young people. Making church spiritual for young people, making church significant and meaningful.
Maybe we might be surprised at how spiritual young people are and how spiritual they want the church to be. Got to start somewhere, and i think got to start differently. In short, we need as churches to do the things we should be good at, being spiritual, valuing people and offering practical space. Our place in the world as christians might be just to be prophetic and practical, so why not try this with young people.
Thank you for reading, and sharing, theres more ideas on this site, click on ‘youth ministry’ or ‘church’, if you want further training or conversation on starting right, or starting at all, then please do get in touch. Thank you
I was at a conference on Saturday, and, you know that thing where you’re listening to someone from he front, or in church involved in something, and what you know you forget, and you kind of get stuck in the trap of agreeing with the perspective of the person, and not engaging critical mindset, because youre thinking No No No – but you get stuck in with the flow, and cant stop yourself?
Well that was me. Critical guidance system off, trying to be slightly but only slightly provocative on.
Before the series of seminars about to take place, I was leading one on ‘having risky conversations with young people ‘ (if you’d like to book me to repeat it, just send me a message and arrange) – we as a large group were hearing a main plenary talk by one of the local Bishops in the North East, who, after sharing his own story, and his own love of youth work in the church – and imploring us all to think about ‘why should churches work with young people?‘ a great question by the way , one that gets wrestled a bit on this blog sometimes (just look up ‘church’).
But then, in a packed room of volunteers and youth ministry organisation leaders, the speaker began a conversation about ‘whats different about culture and society’ and what this means about young people.
This didn’t include the recent stats on the BBC website regarding generation sensible, but this was voiced from the floor. But included aspects of culture, such as technology, planned obsolescence (something Andrew Root mentions in ‘Faith Formation also) , though this was described as a throwaway culture, there was stuff on social media, and instagram, on online shopping vs high street, and a few others besides. With the overall thought that if we begin to understand what life is like for young people looking at these cultural artefacts churches and youth ministry might prepare accordingly.
The problem with this is that its the discussion around nominal relevancy in youth ministry. But before then, this was the moment where i made a contribution, and going with the flow, rather than against it, I suggested that Austerity should also be included as young people have been oppressed by 8 years of budget cuts, a theme i pick up in this post; 8 years of austerity (and young people are still to blame).
What I could have done was challenged the notion of nominal cultural relevancy that pervades youth ministry, enhanced by contextual theology practices. These generalise the world of young people, and make assessments and judgements of young people before anyone has even met one. The thought being is that programmes and practices can be made relevant to the culture. But i didnt, i just added another category that of austerity to the mix, as another generalisation, a real one, that i think affects probably 90% of young people, if you include restrictions to school funding, target driven schools, loss of youth services and mental health provision, but it is still a generalisation. The best thing was that the younger people who attended my seminar afterwards were honest enough to share with me how being generalised felt. Imagine that – young people dont like hearing that they are being generalised!
I have written before about the problem with generalisations and generationalisms (millenials, generation z) , and so I am not going to go over these again. However, what I have done since is think about the many myths, many presumptions that adults make about young people, and even asked a few young people what they think adults presume about them. These were some of them:
The like going to large groups to meet other christians
They like singing at all
Young people are interested in different things to us.
They only want to listen to charismatic speakers.
They’ll do anything for a packet of sweets
Young people are always rebellious
Young people are all interested in sex and relationships!
Young people like loud noise and bright lights. And interactive sermons. But not “old language” or “old hymns”….
Young people only like loud activities, and loud music.
Young people are self-interested, rather than interested in the common good.
Young people always prefer to be using technology/screens.
There’s cultural readings and then the presumptions made about young people as a result of them.
Other presumptions are often also made in regard to adolescent, faith or moral development, and though these theories have undergone much research, we should call into question their adoption and usefulness to the practice of youth ministry, given that young people develop differently and poverty, family life, trauma all have a considerable impact to deem these things almost worthless. Some of the time, in Youth Ministry, there’s a pandering of these presumptions, to maintain the same kinds of practices, often because the youth leaders themselves were like that as young people. Maybe. Maybe its laziness. Maybe its about trying to sell resources to a general market, and thus about making money, surely not… 😉
This sentiment isnt new. Pete Ward suggests that incarnational youth ministry is about meeting young people where they are at. Because that is where Christ meets us (Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997, p 26-30), stating that
‘youth ministry contextualised in youth culture will see physicality and image transformed in Gods sight. We can sell out to relevance, we can drown faith in culture. The cross of Jesus calls us to prixe costly relationship over product. Being on the cutting edge of youth ministry means that you bleed for others, not for art’
He calls into question the reading of universal cultural signs and symbols, and instead places the emphasis on being in the midst, in the really physicality of the action of God and humanity. We can be lazy with generalisations and hope for the best with them, but they hardly offer the best way for connecting young people with an ongoing personal relationship in faith. Nick Shepherd picks up some of these points in Faith Generation. Nick, like myself is a fan of Wyn and White, who in Rethinking Youth, say that;
There is no such thing as an American Youth (Wyn and White, 1997)
Because there is no one specific young person who epitomises this generalisation completely. Just like there is no UK youth, Australian youth, every single one is different. This should be the starting point. There is also an imperative from the field of youthwork that is pertinent here. To ‘Value the individual young person’ having a respect for persons (Jeffs and Smith, 2005, p 96), this means that instead of making generalisations, respect for persons
‘requires us to recognise the dignity and uniqueness of every human being. It also entails behaving in ways that convey that respect. This means, for example, that we avoid exploiting people for our, or others ends’ (Jeffs and Smith, 2005, p95)
What might it mean, then for us in youth ministry to take this seriously. To value and respect individual young people. We might say we work in a non-judgemental way, but if judgements have already been made – what then. Carl Rogers says that
it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of anothers inner world if you have formed an evaluative opinion of that person. (Rogers, Carl, 1980, p154, ‘A way of Being’)
Does reading culture and making presumptions about young people offer young people the greatest level of respect? does it offer the best pathway to developing empathy for and with them? Does it instead try and maintain distances between adult and young person, when actually being in the midst, and as Rev H Hamilton, said in 1967, we need in youth work to develop strategies from the point of action. From in the point of being with young people, learning and exploring together. That in that moment offers, i think the way which creates open conversation, ongoing learning and a collective form of discipleship. We only, in youth ministry, work with specific young people, in our local community, we need to be with them, listen, have conversation and develop practices, encourage practices and display practices from a point of respect, a point of reality, and a point where we also trust God to be working in the midst already. If culture is there to be read and interpreted, then might we use it positively and ask the critical questions, and not make easy presumptions. There is after all no-one such young person. And God made all unique.
Pete Ward, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997
Rogers, Carl, The Way of Being, 1980
Jeffs and Smith, 2005, Informal education.
Nick Shepherd, Faith Generation, 2017
Wyn and White, Rethinking Youth, 1997
Goetschius and Task; Working with unattached youth, the appendix by Rev Hamilton, 1967.