A practical prod to help churches be places where young people flourish, my review of ‘Adoptive Church’ (2018)

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.

Adoptive Church (Chap Clark)

 

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[1], 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.

Outline

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.

Strengths

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:

  1. We (the church) is losing young people
  2. Students are unprepared for secular society
  3. 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.

You can buy a copy of Adoptive Church (2018) here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adoptive-Church-Youth-Family-Culture/dp/0801098920/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1544093694&sr=8-1&keywords=chap+clark

[1] Starting right, 1999, four views of youth ministry, 2002

Also

Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation, 2016

Root, Andrew Faith Formation in a Secular age, 2016

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Youthwork is good for young people and society , heres 50 reasons why (#yww18)

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:

  1. Believe in them
  2. Support, encourage and cheerlead
  3. Trust them
  4. Love them
  5. Deal in hope
  6. See potential, not problems
  7. Meet the needs that teachers struggle due to the formality of their jobs
  8. Guide, support and enthuse
  9. Start where the young person is at
  10. Be there
  11. They are trained listeners
  12. Advocate rights
  13. Helps young people develop real life skills to cope as adults
  14. Transforms young peoples lives through meaningful mutual engagement, allows young people to fulfil their potentials
  15. 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!
  16. Gives spaces for young people to throw off pressure to grow up too fast & be young, have fun.
  17. Gives vulnerable teens a place to be safe and access services that can help and support them
  18. Offers young people the chance to access a vast range of opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t
  19. The encourage growth and enhance their future chances
  20. 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
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. Because it offers safe relationships with adults outside of the family which is beneficial for young people
  24. 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
  25. A youth worker advocates and protects the interests of young persons
  26. Enables young people to build positive relationships with other young people and adults outside of their family
  27. It may make better adults!
  28. Providing valuable informal education that is not provided in schools and homes. This can be life changing for some young people
  29. 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’
  30. Give young people some time and space to be their true selves
  31. Empower them
  32. Actively inspires and enables self determination
  33. Takes support to them, in their community, in places they feel safe and people they feel confident around
  34. Offers a space for young people to develop their authentic self through an accountable social education programme, which allows for mistakes and growth
  35. Youthwork offers a safe space for young people to be themselves be heard be supported be empowered and treated with respect
  36. All young people feel respected and valued
  37. 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.
  38. Inclusive and challenges young people to explore their identity in society
  39. 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!
  40. 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.
  41. Youth work can be a place of political education and political participation of young people, with the aim of having social action.
  42. 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.
  43. To help with transition to adulthood
  44. 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
  45. Helps young people connect with their community and become valid members of it
  46. Youth work embraces and celebrates young peoples lived experiences without judgement
  47. 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.
  48. 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. 

 

Wow…

 

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.

Why Evensong vs Guitars misses the point, in regard to young people and church.

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?

Image result for style/substance

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. Image result for style/substance

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.

References

Jocelyn Bryan, Human Being, 2016

Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2016

 

‘Where have the young people gone?’ 5 ways to get the long lost young people back into church

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)   Image result for sunday school rally day 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.

Image result for sunday school rally day 1900

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.     Image result for assumptions

‘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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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’ …. 😉
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Church with no young people? 3 ideas to start ministry with them (without employing a youthworker)

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:

  1. What could you do to show young people in your town that you care about them? (how would young people know) 
  2. What could you do to value young people in your town?
  3. What cause might you be able to support local young people in?
  4. What talents do young people in your area have?
  5. What resources do you have that might benefit local young people?
  6. 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:.

  1. Where are young people already, during the day?  do they walk to schools, get buses, walk back through the town
  2. 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?
  3. 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? 
  4. 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 SpaceImage result for cathedral

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. Image result for indoor of church

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.

As a follow up, 10 tips for starting conversations with young people might be useful, once those connections have been made, or they might make the connection happen.

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

 

Is the biggest mistake in youth ministry to keep making presumptions about young people?

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.

Image result for generation sensible

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.

Image result for generation sensible

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:

Image result for arguing with parents

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.

References

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.

FYT Streetspace Gathering 2018; feeling the movement

The pressure was on.

After raving about it every year, writing blog pieces on it each year (including this post, my second most popular in 2017), This year, I, as part of the staff team was part responsible for planning the FYT Streetspace gathering, The national gathering of pioneer youthworkers. The pressure to make it work, or make it better, or make it more original, more radical, more provocative and be what people needed, wanted and would want to come along to. Before as a punter, a project leader i could come along (and bring my son) for a ‘ride’ take part and enjoy it. This year, it was going to be different.

This year, the gathering was also different, for me at the end of challenging month, with the job itself ending, my wife having an operation, and then also at the same time the dog getting ill.  Head and Heart space was severely distracted away from doing the last minute, stuff, (and I am so thankful for John and Dan for picking up alot of my slack on this) , this year i struggled to want to go to the gathering, because I knew it occured at the end of a month that i was already shattered, being practical all day every day in the house, and trying to do work, and even apply for new jobs. I neednt have worried. But i was, worried too about the awkward conversations like, so what are you going to do be doing on monday? when theres nothing in the diary. The pressure, though, to make something good, still good, make something meaningful, still meaningful, was kind of on.

 

The themes of the weekend were to reflect on the current strategy of FYT, create a Home for pioneer youthworkers, improve practice and encourage risk taking with practice and be prophetic raising a voice to challenge structures, oppression and stand up and stand with those in the margins. It had also been agreed, and pushed that we wanted to continue the conversations that had started in 2017 (and before) on gender, sexuality and inclusion/participation, pinning the colours of FYT to the rainbow coloured flag both metaphorically and literally.

Thats the background. The reality was that everything, and more that was good about the previous weekends happened again and more.

A place of home was stated and created, with cushions and lights, and coffee and comforts. Like crumble and custard, and board games and mealtimes. Yet that held a space of challenge, of hurt, and reality. We should be sick of pretence, when the real is far more beautiful. The pretence might want to be bouyant and hopeful, but it is false hope. Real hope is found in the ditches of the margins. When compassion meets determination. The cross is where hope is found, and that cross was dug deep into the ground. In the dirt and soil and mud. Hope goes deep. Starts deep. Foxes have homes, ‘I have friends’ said Jesus. His friends were his home. Friends make homes.

A place of family was created, as the home had practical things to do like cooking, and washing up, outdoor spaces, the sound of babies, toddlers, children and a couple of teenagers. Not grumpy sullen teenagers, but people who raised their game for the occasion where they were given the space in the home to be able to. Space to raise their game, space to try and fail, space to take a risk. Not excluded, given something ‘instead’ teenagers. But young people given the chance to be youthful and adult, to dream the possible. Space to share a personal story, a personal prophetic challenge, or to play the comic at the evenings entertainment and hold an audience. Teenagers who could raise their game, and at 15 weren’t barred from a youth workers conference. (fancy that) A place of home where toddlers has space to be free, and parents kept a long ish lead and a watchful eye was maintained, by 35 other surrogate aunts and uncles for the weekend. But the noise of a joyfilled toddler filled the room that they occupied.

The real got shit real

The youth participation cranked up considerable notches.

The provoking came from the young people.

The needs of the oppressed was told by their voices

The provoking came from being present.

A session to learn about LGBT and diversity, wasnt enough.

For ‘theyre’ not a token. ‘Theyre’ not an ‘other’.

they needs to become we.

 

It was a place to cry and dream

A place where the magic happened in interactions

Where the movement took off its masks

and shoes

and was served by those used to being pushed down.

The young, the queer, the female, the new

but that wasnt enough. no it never is.

 

For the movement of friends is not service and served

and many are missing, who we want to include

in the home of the movement, the pioneer dreamers

make the movement not ours, but yours to be part of.

Im not sure I could do emotional this weekend, friends. Many did. And many who grieved, and wept, went deep. A movement of pioneer dreamers, with feet in the mud. With hearts made of soft stuff, the clay of the earth. A group of youthworkers whose default chip wasnt frustration or angst, or pie in the sky. But dealing with tough stuff, the stuff to ignore. The stuff to push down on and hope it goes away. So the corks were opened. The bubbles emerged. Shit got real.

There was just empty space. No music or drums. No carrion call or manipulation. But silence and space. A place to grow up in, to grow out in, to grow deep in.

Like the seeds in my shed, that on thursday were nothing and today: 

Just space, silence, food, light. Growth happens. In the dark, with light poking through, and warmth.

From the deep came the song, the poem, the voice. The margin spoke, and not spoken for, and it felt.

The movement was felt.

Step up was the call.

That rose from the deep.

Do better.

Take risks.

Stand with.

Love courageously.

Step up.

Step was was the call, the rose from experience

and called us do better.

And say that we mean it, and take risks and challenge, ourselves to a new place.

 

And as we tidied away, the yurt was folding down. The kitchen was a mess of left overs, and the plan for take away lunch was crusting at the edges (though i dont think anyone went hungry all weekend, just death by midgie bite). Nature came knocking, reminding, provoking. As from the distance, one by one, three Red Kites started circling above us.

So over that yurt was a pocket of air, that was thermal and warmed. Where Kites came and played. For a while, then they soared. Stopped off for a breather, then went back on duty. Our eyes looked above, we stopped all the rushing. And paused. Again.

Our path from gathering was not feathers and flight. Though step up to the plate is the task that we might. The kites did not land, for their task was too great, to stop off too long.

They felt the movement, the warmth in the air. And us on the ground. Our flight path all wonky, and broken and beaten, But homes are all messy. And risks can be taken.

I write this on Monday, and life does not stop. The future still blank and open, uncertainty raging. But back to the living and dealing and busy of coping. May was a tough one. But im not alone. Our kites felt the movement, and are now soaring away. And Jesus, he washed the feet of his friends, their feet full of sand, taking the mud and the dirt with a cloth, and making them free, clean and able. To step up to the challenge. Yet its love that cleanses.

And this love is not selfish. It gives it away, and away and away. It gives and it gives. It loves from the deep, and the tough and the real. It loves in the risk.

What is Frontier Youth Trust? and what does ‘Frontier’ mean? lets not get stuck in the wording, stuck in that mud, but be a movement of dreamers who love to the depths – of our faith and our being.

Thank you all, in the small, in the significant and stupid.

Now to Step up.

 

To read of Streetspace gathering 2017 click here: Gathering 2017 , and FYT click the link above.

To buy Gemma Dunnings resource on Pastoring LGBT teenagers click here: http://www.gemmadunning.com/p/4-views-on-pastoring-lgbtq-teenagers.html?m=1  as a way in to start thinking about LGBT and young people, the language and develop understanding, start here. Step up might be your call too.

 

‘its got nothing to do with the cuts to youth services’ – or has it…. ?

‘Its got nothing to do with the reduction in youth services’

At least that has been the governments response to recent news items such as;

The increase in County lines in the last 4 years report 9th feb is here. But its their response after today’s news on radio 5 thus morning.

The increase in knife crime in London

The increase in young people referring to mental health provision the guardian this week, this report this week: camhs figures

and these are just the things in the public media domain…

Anecdotally anti social behaviour is on the increase, especially in areas where the youth clubs have closed down. And where voluntary groups are trying to raise the money to fund a youthworker.

None of these issues have anything to do with the cuts in youth services.. apparently according to every statement on these issues by the current government. They have to say this dont they and its becoming a more than frequent response as every new issue that affects young people comes to light, but …..

The government may have the tiniest slither of a point.

Only a tiny slither.

For it is difficult to say whether cutting youth services would have prevented any of these things happening. All existed before to some level. And measuring open youth work and its preventative possibilities has and still is notoriously difficult.

But what has been removed has been a safety net layer.

But what has been removed was on the ground intelligence (though in the case of Rotherham abuse scansal, the reports by youthworker to services about the scale of the problem were deemed excessive and ‘over-egged’ thus ignored)

But what has been removed was the persons on the ground.

But what was removed was a person who was trying (even in the midst of managerial targetting) to put young people first

But what also happened when the youth services closed down was that young people realised that they were the first to be targetted when priorities of budgets were set.

Young people realised that the government really does not care about them, that society doesn’t care and they were merely pawns in a bigger game they have no control over. No voice and no autonomy.

Maybe none of these things matter to the young person carrying drugs around the counties, or waiting to be seen by a mental health provider (again if there are any dedicated young person mental health provision left) , or the young person carrying a knife.

But what’s also been taken from many communities is the person who might facilitate a coordinated response to these issues who has a young person focus. Someone who not only contributes but for whom it’s their job to coordinate and facilitate. When in some cases a police, health or education perspective might not cut it (at least not always).

It would be disengenuous to say that youth services would have prevented any of these things happening, that as we know would be difficult to prove, but then not everything is easy to prove especially preventative work with young people, still far cheaper than reactive and targetted work, that has limited if only short term results.

If the reduction in youth services isn’t the issue, say the government, then I’m so glad that NCS is having such a positive effect on the most needy of young people. Guess it went for the most vulnerable after all- just those who needed a confidence boosting few week programme. The NCS person or programme doesnt have ‘the whole community’ at heart, neither are they on the streets being involved. They, like many others are detached from the real action, and trying to get numbers for a programme.

We’re never going to know if cutting youth services contributed to the issues young people are facing. Whats done has bern done. What we do know is the cost for young people, in every family, every wasted day waiting on a list, every day travelling around as a drug carrier is a completely dehumanising and degrading experience that could be prevented.

What is happening is that over professional services such as schools are spending their budgets on extra provision to back fill (see my previous post here, based on reflections from a small NE town ) so there isn’t a cost saving. It’s just money being shifted around.

Cutting youth services haven’t had any effect at all? Really, conservative government are you sure?

If nothing else the budget reducting austerity chickens are coming home to roost, and it’s not looking good.

Youthworkers may have disappeared from communities – but their legacy lives on (and is more expensive than before)

‘We have to find things that young people are interested in, and good for them, despite it not necessarily being profitable’ 

‘Recently we’ve been trying to challenge young peoples views on society and their contribution in it’

we have problems with the whole confidence agenda, its not a false confidence we want young people to have, but one based on competence, and being genuinely good at something’ 

‘its great to see young people contributing positively in the local community’

theres no point in putting things on for young people, those days are over, we need to find out what young people want to participate in

These are the kind of statements I might have expected to hear from a youthworker, or at least someone who had been trained as one. But they are not. What is more surprising is that they have been said to me in a town in the north east of England in the last few days, a town that hasnt had any paid youthworker involved in the town (from the council) since the cut backs. Cut backs that have desperately affected the town in a number of ways by the way. However, thats for a different post.

These were statements from either school teachers, representatives from the police, council or MP’s.

The unsaid white elephant in the room in many of the conversations with significant institutions in this town was that the best thing for young people in the town was to have youthworkers who were able to develop and work to youth work approaches and philosophies, of inclusion, participation, conversation and empowerment. What was revealed here, and probably occuring elsewhere is that the institutions were having to do themselves was fulfil the roles of a youthworkers , doing so without the disempowered status (one person was a integration officer for the police. another a school teacher) and try as they might, their intention was to ‘be’ or ‘act’ like a youthworker, but status, role and power and the ethics of the relationship prevented it. Despite knowing all the words, and having all the intentions.

But credit to youthwork.

Its what has been recognised as what is still needed in a town that has none, and its legacy lives on. And many institutions like schools have shifted towards it. Some might say trying to fill a gap, or having to, and doing so even more expensively than the youthworker previously. Or it might be said that schools have necessarily adapted for some young people, and common human values have been adopted, ones that youthworkers had as a badge of honour, such as value of the individual (not the system) and inclusion. However, being able to create the right kind of space for the magic of youthwork to happen is more than just words, its about the space being created that has integrity and an ethics that underwrites the relationship. However hard it might be to say otherwise a police officer is still one.

It is of course fascinating to see how a school has had to back fill and provide internally the kind of provision and support that voluntary or statutory youthworkers may have done so in the past (and not all schools had this) and police officers have removed the uniform and donned polo shirts to be ‘less official’. All done at the same time as when there are still youthworkers employed in the local council. But speaking to them they now say:

‘we’re helping out social workers by using our youth work manner to connect with young people social workers are unable to’

‘the youthworkers targets are about helping to support the broken families initiative’

Its as if the jigsaw pieces have been moved around and everyone is doing the back filling, but in the wrong places, and where square pegs and round holes and triangle pegs and square holes dont all match. Youthworkers are needed both in schools and on the streets, but theyre doing home visits for social work. And whilst they’re there, theyre not being youthworkers, when they could still be doing so, and the police and schools are paying double for the role. It doesnt make sense, economically or socially.

At the moment, not only are the services all losing out with the wrong people in the wrong places, but as are the young people, families and communities. Maybe the schools, police and others should just get together and employ youthworkers. Far cheaper than recruiting their own staff to try and do a ‘youthwork approach’ , which is currently going on, without the ethics of the relationship. Maybe the church or voluntary sector could pitch in too.

So, whilst youthworker have been one of the many great losses in many communities, what hasnt been lost is the need for the way in which a youthworker worked with young people, optimistically Id say that the ghost of youthwork lives on, as it is being realised that it is still what is needed where there are young people. Its just that it is all a bit blurred, and and the roles that adults are fulfilling in their lives lacking the clarity, going beyond the normal duty, but confusing the relationship and its nature. Youth workers are demised as social workers, teachers and police try and play less formal roles, some they might want to but its like playing out of position in a sports team. Itll take good management and support to stop trying to resume a default role into safety.

The sentiment of what young people need was captured by this person who said:

‘we can do as many short term interventions as we can, but its having a consistent presence with them them that’ll help young people the most’

Just a shame theres no youthworkers around then..

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