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.

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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..

12 responses to the question; what is youthwork all about?

What would you say the basics in youthwork are? what is it all about even?

One of the things that has tormented many a youthworker is to establish what ‘youthwork’ actually constitutes. It may, constitute only as a conversation, being defined by youthworkers in their ongoing practice (this is also a view shared by Kerry Young, though this is not one her more popular concepts when she talks about the youthwork as an art, 1999) However, beyond what youthwork actually is, there can be a need to reflect on what the basics of developing a youthwork practice actually is.

This need can sometimes be realised when we forget what we actually do as youthworkers, as it has become ‘normal practice’ default in our brains but and we have to then share this with others, maybe even ‘young’ leaders, or teach others on an academic course. And so, for your benefit, I have tried to come up with 12 commandments of basic youthwork practice.

  1. Youthwork is about young people – but its not just about them, but putting them as the primary recipient and creating participatory agendas around them as central is part of it, yet it is about them in and part of their communities and how young people access, reject, use and change aspects of their local community for their or others good.
  2. Youthwork is about creating spaces for education through conversation – it is about conversation with them included and respected in them.
  3. Youthwork is about developing relationships –that help young people to learn, to use their talents and pursue collective and community action
  4. Youthwork is about negotiation and participation – with young people who are principle dialogue partners in the negotiated conversations
  5. Youthwork is about respecting young people and also the communities they are in and choose – it is about group work
  6. Youthwork is about challenging young people – not about just giving them what they want – its about negotiation
  7. Youthwork is about politics, because it in itself is political and young people are politicised- young people are given respect and trust – this is political in itself. Young people are marginalised through media derived policies and taregtted through an underlying current of neoliberalism. Challenging this is political.
  8. Youthwork is about opportunity- not outcomes- our strategies are to create spaces that expand possibilities, not reduce to youthwork to a process of enabling young person to get from A to B.
  9. Youthwork is about Hope and belief – that young people and ourselves collectively can and do enable something new to occur through the relationship.
  10. Youthwork is about taking risks- it is not risky in itself – because that says something about the believing the narrative of young people (to be dangerous etc) – but it is about taking a risk with young people.
  11. Youthwork is about being a youthworker and being a role model – not perfect, but persistent in ongoing learning, and maintaining a critical awareness of the world around, that young people themselves are also part of. Its about temperament, attitude and also about modelling professional boundaries, personal boundaries especially time off.
  12. Youthwork is about improvisation – its about the being ready for anything – but also being ready in the opportunities created to enable young people to take positive steps and changes. If we have a toolbox of resources that are to be ‘ready to use’ in case – not pre determined to use at all costs.

 

I have avoided, or at least tried to avoid using words that have become acknowledged as the ‘Values’ of youthwork – such as equality, as participation, as empowerment – because whilst they are implied in nearly everything ‘basic’ youthwork is all about – they are open to considerable interpretation, and at times need themselves to be challenged and critiqued, and their current use might not be what the intention of them was. Empowerment a case in point. So, instead, I have tried above to focus on the practices of what basic youthwork might be about, so that these are the starting point for developing further practical ideas, and activities for training others, optimistically so that youthwork has a conversational future.  Each of these 12 things might need breaking down further, and often things like communication skills, group work development, conversation, risk assessment, strategy, power, leadership and management are all part of all of these in different ways. It is not always the case the if we get the basics right we get everything else right, because sometimes in youthwork there is no one ‘right’- and why 12 basics might be better than 6, because youthwork practice can be broad, unwieldy and open. It is after all in many ways a continual conversation that includes conversations.  Critical conversations, hopeful conversations and inclusive, participatory conversations, but conversations none the less.

Anyway – Starting right- or at least trying to put words to what we might already do, What might else be included in the 12 basics of youthwork practice? – what are we trying to be about?

Youth workers take heart – you’re trying to do the (almost) impossible!

Over the last few weeks my Son and I, have been playing a game – I have also used in leadership sessions on strategy that I have facilitated as part of my role for Frontier Youth Trust. The game is called ‘Forbidden Island’  and it involves setting up the pieces iin a formation, to form an island, and then using each others abilities, and the game play to collect treasure and escape from the island before it becomes flooded. We have had the game a while, and when we got it aside from a few scrapes we managed to do it fairly easily. However, last week I played it in a group of 4 at the leadership training, and according the way the island formed – and doing the game with ‘new’ people we lost. Last night my Son and I played, and though we changed the settings from ‘novice’ to ‘expert’ we still lost – twice.

Whilst the game relies on a number of factors, each very changeable, and then some strategic thinking – how it is set up also contributes to how difficult it is. Making it virtually impossible for a group of newbies, or even more experienced players.

On a slightly different note, I once went for a job doing door to door sales for Gas and Electricity company, in the interview i was asked if i had done anything similar before. My response was that i had done door to door evangelism (dont judge me) as part of working for a church a few years before. It was, i think, the only part of the interview 20 years ago that i got full marks, for the interviewee said; ‘well if you can sell people religion at the door, you can sell them gas’

The point being – some times we dont realise quite how difficult – almost impossible the work we do actually is. And if we stopped to think about it – many of the conditions around make being a youthworker considerably difficult – and almost impossible at times to think that we might have ‘succeeded’ or ‘reached an outcome’, yet that doesnt stop us believing, trying, and being determined that something could be different for a young person, their family or the community around them. 

Now of course, there are other ‘impossible’ jobs around. Many in social work, the NHS and education might feel the same. Undervalued and Overworked, and under resourced. But some of those roles carry with them a large weight of political or organised will to make things different, unions, or the general public favour (especially for the NHS). And for many even in these professions they are under resourced and busy because of lack of nurses, for the youthworker under resourcing looks very different, it is no money. There is no shortage of work or even vacancies for employment in some of these sectors, and they are in the current climate still very much impossible jobs.

In regard to clergy, there is a fair amount of challenge, following vicars on twitter, and acknowledging the high issues of stress and mental health problems in the role is a sign of it becoming significantly more difficult, demanding and discouraging a role that it might used to have been. But again, there are vacancies for clergy, and long term contracts for clergy- its not the only thing – but security in a role can go a long way.

In another example, within Youthwork practice, whether we like it or not, theres a big push to help young people with ‘developing resilience’ that youthworkers are involved in through clubs, groups and activities. Yet at the same time theres not really the same push in society to create a better environment for young people to grow up in, especially the stressed out schools, the target driven teachers, or ofsted orientated outcomes. So, the youthworker ‘trying to build resilience’ is in a way trying to push against a heavy weight that is playing the game against the individual or group of young people. None of which is in its favour – just neo-liberalisms way of trying to get value out of education. So, the youthworker is almost trying to do, or measure, or actualise the impossible. But in a small way, its better to keep trying at the impossible, to keep believing that a young person might still flourish within or outside the ‘system’ and create those opportunities. And there are many other barriers, including poverty.

For the youthworkers in a faith context, or dare i say it in a faith-evangelism context- your task is as impossible. It is difficult to get anyone interested in the church, in the christian faith at the moment – let alone young people. You might only have a year contract to do the miracle, or be employed by the church without actually any other human resources or volunteers to ‘do the miracle’ – and theres no wonder its proving difficult and challenging. Because its virtually impossible (even with faith as an inspiration or motivation). But again, thats not to stop, its to realise that what you’re doing is not the game on an ‘easy’ level. What you’re trying to do isnt solved in a quick win, a short game – its long term. Nothing in faith based youthwork is about making something sustainable happen in the short term. Getting the church to ‘change’ though they pay you to get young people into the church (without saying as much) – impossible- almost… 

The youthwork manager – often forgotten in ‘youthwork blog posts’ – you know your job is impossible. Theres 28 plates spinning, from fundraising, to a child protection issue, to planning an away day, to writing a strategy, to recruit and train volunteers and everything else besides, you dont need me to say how impossible it can all feel. And everyone wants to tell you how they prioritised and organised, sometimes one dropped plate makes a heap of mess. And at the same time theres a longing for just ‘easy’ face to face action with young people – which isnt easy at all. Its not a completely impossible job – but it can feel like it, especially when funding gets tight and decisions about employment, contracts, activities and resources need to be made (including your own). But as a manager, you try and create an environment where others have the backing to do some of the difficult face to face stuff, create space to talk, training and supervision, try and eek out some funding for a trip, or a resource, or create an atmosphere of reflection, of determination and also support for the staff, the young person and the volunteer, and you fight, fight to keep the noise about young people to be more positive, to try and change the narrative about them. You galvanise and work in partnership, you gather and organise, you campaign and push for justice. All against the tide. The media tide, or local community opinion about young peoples place in society. It is an almost impossible task – but keeping on keeping on is what you and we all need to do. Image result for youthwork

For many reasons then, youthwork in its variety of forms, practice and approaches is an almost impossible job. It tried to act for justice and equality, tries to hear and respond to the voice of young people and give them trust and dignity, it flies in the face of those who write off young people in education or health systems. But think for a moment how much more impossible life might be or feel for that one young person you meet today without the conversation, question, activity or support that you are able to give them. Be encouraged, you’re doing an impossible job, yet for many young people you are making something positive more possible, and thats a beautiful thing and an impossible thing all at once.

The times we think it might be ‘easy’ in youthwork – hmm i think they are long gone…. ‘novice’ setting doesnt really exist. Take heart over Easter, have a break if you can, and deep down reflect on how you’re trying to create the beautiful in the places that can feel like the impossible.

Forget Millenials; Why does barely anyone in Hartlepool go to church?

I am picking on Hartlepool for a reason.

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It is because it’s where I live.

But the question could be asked of Altrincham, Barnet, Chester, Doncaster, Ely, Framlingham, Godmanchester, Harrow, Ilminster or anywhere else in the UK, and its the question we’re scared to ask.

For, its far easy to speak in the universal, the general, and label culture, people groups or generations, and use these as excuses. But we need to get real, and get local.

Its not just young people who arent involved in churches , who get the forefront of strategy.

Its everyone.

Because, it’s desperately easy to only talk to church people or previously church people (the moaning millenials) as to what we’re the reasons they left and why they’re so important that church should listen to them. The fact is that in the UK there are no millenials who left church, because even 20 years ago there were barely any then 25 year old in church. It’s not the voice of disenfranchised millenials that the church in the uk might respond to. It’s the everyone else who’s barely been connected.

And, if you want to see evidence of the moany millenials, see this post : https://wp.me/p2Az40-1eP and responding to, sharing and receiving this learning is popular (this post alone got over 100 views, my biggest in 2018) – but keeping and re-attracting millenials is futile in the UK, regardless of what they say. On the other hand, creating the kind of church that might keep christians going to it, is no bad thing, whatever age those people are.

But its reality, and local (ity) check. Barely anyone goes to church in the places that we might still go to church. And it doesnt matter if its a university or non university town, a place with many churches or a village with just the one left.

Not everyone is the same in each situation, , and why (as a critical friend of mine says) universal and general solutions dont work. Yet, nearly every church in Hartlepool is situated in a parish, or a housing estate, and surrounded not just by a cloud of witnesses, but a people group who witness and observe its very actions, or non actions. But also a people group of 100’s or 1000’s within walking distance of most churches. And churches in Hartlepool would be full if the people living near to them would go to them.

The same is true in most rural situations, and probably most suburbs and cities too. Yet again, this is too much of a generalisation. But think about it, church leaders – forget the millenials, forget generationalisms, and sociological diagnosis, and get local. What did Jesus say, love your neighbour as yourself. Love your neighbour, love those closest who you might not know yet. Love those in the vicinity. Dont judge, pre judge, condenm, or drive a wedge between, but love.

What does love your neighbour look like in Hartlepool? (and insert the name of your town/city/street here)

Love is more than the loud clanging gong of our worship services, but the moment of kindness on a Wednesday.

Love is not just the prophetic words – but the fighting for and not giving up on people who feel lost and ignored. And believing in those whos gifts arent recognised.

When Jesus said Love your neighbour, its so that we wouldnt worry about things that shouldnt concern us, but prioritise the local, the next door, the persons and families who are literally next door and in the same street. I mean, what if all the people in the same street as the church building, went to every church in the country?

In asking ‘why does barely anyone in Hartlepool go to church?’ – so that in the areas of growing churches there isnt complacency. And that the church that is growing has a positive spiritual footprint in a local area. (and not just be a building that creates unwarranted traffic problems once a week).

The easier response to barely anyone attending church in Hartlepool is that:

its not relevant enough (so changing pews for guitars, or books for screens, has seen the buildings combust with people?) all that happens here is that christians who like contemporary go to a contemporary church.

people dont know about us (so we communicate, websites, posters, noticeboards (some very judgemental slogans included)- but neither these have caused much of a shift)

what might be the problem is that

actually very few people used to go to church anyway – just a slightly few more than today -and buildings were built 100 years ago for growth in mind.

people in general are busier than they used to be – and church hasnt found a way that it has become meaningful in the everyday of peoples lives.

people have been sick of being shouted at via a notice board. If thats the voice of the church locally as people walk past, then why bother going in.

But memories of what the church used to do (and caused offence) may still be in the memory

Yet even these are generalisations, there are specific things relating to the people in every street, family and community that mean that they dont go to church, believe or even want to. But if we dont find out in the real sense, through interacting, our strategies are only based on projections.

Practically and Prophetically what might loving our neighbourhoods, streets and families be like, it has got to start with us, our attitude, our actions, our adaptability.

It is uncomfortable to ask – Why do barely anyone go to church in Hartlepool? Relatively speaking only a few millenials in the UK left the church, those that do often go and make their own church in their likeness. For many churches there’s still vast numbers of other people who might appreciate being involved in a loving and positive faith community that offers support, time, space and a connection to a world view that disrupts the rat race, or proclaims a view of humanity that isnt just the economic.

The local situation is the one that every church finds itself in, but love as a general principle is message of the gospel, and the proclamation that God loves the world is the purpose of that Good news.

Who cares what millenials think about the church. What matters even more is that in many towns and cities 199 out of 200 people dont even bother with it.

Those who left the church might be encouraged to come back, and they have a loud voice at times. Loving our neighbour locally might mean listening to voices who dont get a say, an influence and often hidden from view.

Why is The Greatest Showman is providing joy to young people?

Whisper it quietly, there is a new ‘youth obsession taking over’ , as every week since Boxing Day, 1,000’s of young people in the UK  have been hearing a story of hope, of life, of inclusion, dance and controversy. No they haven’t been attending churches, or signing up to ‘old labour’ , it is not a superhero film, or Pixars latest, no, many young people in the UK are in the throngs of a ‘Greatest Showman’ obsession. More young people (i think) saw this film on its opening night, than go to church in the UK – probably.

Maybe it is the ‘High School Musical’ Generation finding its feet again with a new outlet, that was satisfied with repeats of Glee for a few years, maybe its that the film has managed to pitch itself delicately in the middle ground, so that fans of Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron go home happy,Related image

maybe as a film it has developed its own rise above the ashes and beaten back where critics ahead of its release were casting doubt on its success. What i do know is that for the first time a film has gone back to the No1 in the ratings (we 9/2/18), in its 6th week of release, something unheard of. What is also known is that the soundtrack has been nominated for awards, but also downloaded and streamed in its millions. And the sing a long showings have sold out.

 

 

Image result for the greatest showman

So – What is it?

What about The Greatest Showman that has thrilled and delighted. It has (and I have seen it) many redeeming charming features, yet at the same time, where critics have labelled it as fake or hollow , because in an age of authenticity i guess, we have become used to the failings of lead men trying to sing ( Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, or Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman (again) singing in Les Miserables (2012)), and be authentic in doing so – The Greatest Showman is instead slick, and gives off much more a whiff of a series of music videos. So it is not that it is in any way authentic that gives reason for young people to be attracted to or love it so much. It isnt as real, and that, actually hasnt mattered.

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For all its fake-ness, it doesn’t lack charm. But also doesn’t lack edge. The flawed genius making something against better odds or judgement (or his wifes permission), who used the weird and wonderful in humanity to initially be pawns in his business, yet through the opportunity find themselves strong together, and with abilities able to delight and provoke reactions in an audience. The class war that ensues pits the view of art from the upper class against the lower class, yet those who perform for the bourgeoisie are shown to be more needy, fake and hollow, that the genuine band of ‘freaks’ clumsily assembled in PT Barnums Theatre.

At this point the line, made by PT Barnum to the theatre owner up the road is key; ‘You sell virtue to the burgoise, whilst we provide joy to the poor‘ was a particularly apt one, and one not as popular in the craze of turning movie quotes into pictures (see above, left).  And, for young people, joy is what they find in the greatest showman itself. It is unabashed, it is loud, proud and confident. (NB what is it churches offer…? )

It would be sniffy and patronising to say that young peoples attraction to this movie is because it a popcorn veneer of real life, an escape of caleidoscope images and sounds, and Zac Efron. This misses the point. It misses the point because young people are cleverer and smarter than this, yes even those who have seen The Greatest Showman 8 times. For what it is is as much as story of inclusion, of hope and fulfilling dreams, that many many young people are not finding elsewhere.

It would be easy to rail off where young people have lost hope in the world today, The Greatest showman isnt just an escape, it is a place of hopes, of dreams, and where many people who had been written off for their ‘weirdness’ found a space to dream, be united and redeem their weirdness into abilities and dance in the faces of those who scorned them.

The Greatest Showman is a story of liberation, it encapsulates some of Augusto Boals Theatre of the Oppressed and challenges the order, masks, and hypocrisy that entertainment and theatre became. In the current climate, it gives hope to the young person seeking to develop their own music ability (but told repeatedly that it wont amount to much), it gives hope to the young person afraid of what people think of them, that it isnt just the establishment that dictates the dream. It is a story about the risk taking required to cause something to happen, the imagination that goes against comfort, risk taking that is sometimes misguided. Image result for lines from the greatest showman

It is a story of inclusion, in an era where young people, who are growing up more inclusive than ever before, where those who are lost are included, where it is more than just the one talented person who gets to stand on the stage, but the many, the downtrodden and those who dont fit. And more and more, young people are not able to fit, not fitting for many reasons, through being misunderstood, maligned, politically, sexually, socially or spiritually.

The Greatest showman has given young people the opportunity to sing ‘This is me’ and be defiant, be confident and be brave and so it might be the song of the young person is more sure of who they are, rather than the questioning song of culture that wants young people to be afraid of themselves and sing instead ‘Is this me?’.

Is there something about Theatre, about Joy, about Community and about inclusion that The Greatest Showman that is delighting and encapsulating the imagination and dream of young people across the UK and beyond, yes. Might this be something that in youth work & ministry and the church that is reflected on? – this is not just a craze for young people, it is a revelation of what kind of community and world that they might just be hoping and dreaming for.

This is from the BBC, in its 11th week, TGS is still very popular! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-43385034

Sometimes you can’t make it, on your own. (On finding a tribe) 

This is going to be my last post for a while, for, as you may know I am hoping to host a number of guest posts during November. Please do send your articles to me, and follow/like this page so that you can read them as they arrive. Just 500-1000 words on anything, theme to do with youth work, mission, young people & youth ministry. All details here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-18a

I have written about feeling alone in youth work & ministry before, and I want to return to it again as a theme before handing over this platform to others for a few weeks.

I wouldnt be the first person to recognise the ‘loneness’ of being involved in an employed capacity in a church setting, whether its the clergy, volunteer youthworker, paid mission worker or in an other capacity. There can be many times, when it can feel like you’re out of step, or thinking differently, or saying things that receive only ‘blank faces’ or ‘thats not the way we do things around here’ type glances. And thats just in a church, let alone an association or diocese or organisation, where the status quo, even in terms of thinking differently about mission, or discipleship or church can be a place of trying to make it on your own.

As a youthworker in a church, there can be seminal moments. For me it was when i realised that as i connected with young people outside the building, that the expectations of those within, and mine became different. I was expected to shoehorn young people outside into existing events, and for this not to upset the applecart. At this point i was searching for a new way. At this point the limitations of the expectations and institutions became only too aware. In other places that might be that believing that the young people ‘off the estate’ might make good leaders in the church. Or that young people can create in a positive way aspects of their own future. Or that it is ‘worth’ spending time with young people who might be LGBT. It is sometimes these small but significant steps that might put us as youthworkers, maybe progressive youthworkers who have a deep concern for young people outside of just faith, to start to be standing against the institutional flow. It might be there where truth and justice might meet, but it might also be a space of feeling alone.

Feeling like alone because the institution might doubt, feeling alone because the doubts become character attacks, feeling alone because others fear respectability (‘we cant have ‘gays in here’) or feeling alone because of reputation (what if someone goes to the papers) – feeling alone, because we feel tasked with compassion to go, to connect and spend time with young people, in ways or approaches that seem odd, or young people who arent ‘easy’ to cope with within an institution. In a way, being alone, can be in terms of thinking, it can also be in terms of doing, of acting in a way that challenges, and hopes that others might follow. But often the party line, the established practice, or ‘what we used to do’ becomes paramount the normative, and stepping out, taking risks, being ‘progressive’ is an alone step. And its not often called progressive, or radical, divisive or upsetting the status quo. Image result for risks

I have talked about being alone in what seems a church situation, but the path to feeling alone can happen elsewhere. Ive been in situations where the need for funding dictates a way of having to do ‘youth work’ – which then takes the practice away from ‘what the church expected- and so it can be ‘change’ or ‘lose job’ – and there can be little support when this decision needs to be made. So, going alone in a busy world of funding can be tricky, because then, usually theres very little experience in a church setting to also be involved in finding funding. You’re alone because you think young people are more important than institutions (and growth of them) and need a voice within them and in broader society. You’re alone because you think young people have been ‘sinned against’ more than sinners, and yet its the latter that they are told, or you’re alone for something else.

It means that it becomes really important to ‘find your tribe’ – and no tribe is perfect by the way. Sometimes there can be nothing better than a coffee with another youthworker who might just know what you’re going through. It might be a youthworker who offers critical thinking, challenging questions or ideas – someone different. On other occasions its not just one person who might be able to help, a friend might help in the short term, but being connected with a larger affiliation might then bring you into contact with a range of personal resources, support and guidance.Image result for tribe I remember when I first met a youthwork hero of mine, and they suggested that i could connect with them on a regular basis, and that they could learn from what I was doing. they learn from me! Wow. So, no tribe is perfect, but find one that pushes and supports you in the path that you are being called to travel with young people, find one that expects less conformity and tries to push and asks the critical questions, find one who is willing to be on ‘your journey’ and not just trying to fit into theirs.

Theres nothing worse than feeling alone in day to day youth work life, and also feeling alone in the place where you’re supposed to get support, guidance and help from and within. It might not take long to know if you fit, or it might take a while. As tribes can change, or be too static when you change and start to think differently.

Of course, at no point are you ever ‘on your own’ – for me it is about having people around who at least give me opportunity to receive questions, think about thinking, theoretical and theological on youth work, and pushing the possibilities of compassion beyond to challenge structures. But thats how i am wired. However, there is something biblical about ‘not being alone’ as being part of our make up and created identity. It is also well documented that Jesus send the disciples in pairs (a model of ministry that is rarely followed – gospel centred ministry can still be very hierarchical) , the early church met in groups, and only on a few occasions was lone ministry seen as good. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, because actually you arent alone, sometimes you cant make it even with support, because it can be that tough being different, being pioneering, or because the actual support cant take away really difficult or unbearable situations, like bullying, manipulation and/or power struggles. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, but sometimes you might have to go alone before you are joined by others who see a different way, forge the pathway, make the road by walking and all that. Find a tribe and take a few along with you, find a tribe nd have people cheering you on from the outside, along the road, find a tribe who you can share your joys and frustrations. Find a tribe that causes your alone work feel more like a community effort. Find a tribe that you can contribute to.

Sometimes you cant make it on your own, Sometimes you can. Sometimes you might need to. Taking risks and being prophetic might be a lonely place, but find the tribe that doesnt just validate you, but keeps you sharp, challenged and supported. In the grand scheme of things, you might just need it.

Of course at this point I might refer you to Frontier Youth Trust, who for over 50 years have been facilitating a Home for pioneer youthworkers, who needed to find a tribe that enabled them to have a space and voice within a paradigm of church serving youth ministry and ‘big’ ministries, if this appeals, as you face challenges of numbers, or attendance, and like me years ago was scratching for a different way, then please do check fyt Related imagehere: http://www.fyt.org.uk.  Theyre not perfect, no one is, but they might offer you a tribe and community that could help you not feel alone as a youthworker believing in young people, in faith and community, and where change is possible, another way is possible, a home for pioneer youthworkers, might be a place for you not to feel alone.

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