Why young people arent the answer to the church’s status anxiety, they deserve better.

My most recent post highlighted the problem of developing practices of youth work due to the social or moral Anxiety about young people. The fear of young people being victims of crime, the fear of anti social behaviour, the fears of poor education or the less than specific ‘life outcomes’. These fears perpetuated by the media, create a narrative and cause policies and initiatives, often knee jerk and short term to be done ‘to’ young people and communities, the majority of which dont work.

In the piece I suggest an alternative.

A part of me hopes that the desire of faith groups and organisations to work with young people has a purer motive, for the good of young people, to develop their gifts and social capacity, to help them become contributors and participants in a local world that they are game changers… however, though knife crime, or poverty, or loneliness do not feature highly in the anxious attitude churches especially have about young people,

it is often the status anxiety of the church that causes them to regard working with young people as a necessity

It is not the anxiety of the young person that a church might develop working with a group of young people, it is more often the anxiety regarding the status of the church itself. Its very existence might be at stake if young people are not involved in it.

There is also another subtle anxiety that a church may develop.

If a church does not have young people in it, and neither does it act in a youthful way, then it begins to be regarded as inauthentic. This is the conclusion of Andrew Root, who suggests that one of the reasons that churches are embracing contemporaryness is that it stops them feeling old, and old is not a marker of authenticity in todays secular culture. I have written extensively on this on a previous post, and this is here: Have churches embraced youthfulness – but given up on young people? .

The danger of an anxiety ridden church, is that young people become the feel-good factor. It can often be the case that people comment ‘its nice just to have the young people’ churches. Understandably so, as it can help an older congregation feel as though the baton is being passed on. There is significant mourning of the closure of a youth ministry practice, or heightened memories of when ‘there were 50 kids in the sunday school’ – because thats when it seemed there was the energy and ‘feel good factor’ through the presence of young people.

Status anxiety is currently rife in the church, and young people can often be viewed as the solution to that anxiety. No doubt younger people can give energy to a faith community, vision and creativity. But status anxiety and using young people as the solution immediately casts a strain on the ethics and motives for developing working with young people.

If its Status anxiety of the institution that is one of the motivating factors for developing work with young people, then this is more selfish than being anxious about young peoples welfare themselves. It’s an internal worry, an existence worry. It’s trying to alleviate institutional pain through developing practices with young people, they are pawns in a strategy.

But anxiety cannot be the principle reason, and to be fair it isnt all the time. Yet it can often be.

It would be better if a church community did at least have social or emotional anxiety about young people and this spurs them on to work with them. The tragedy is that, as Naomi Thompson identified in ‘Young people and the church since 1900’ the church is guilty of farming out the work with young people to professionals and only gaining from it by chucking money at their own problem. There’s no doubt money is still needed in spades. But accompanying this is systematic change. And the deep stomach clenching compassion for young people across every community and town. Have this and make disciples first. Make this the primary worry and anxiety.

It’s status anxiety that affects the church’s performance (Vanhoozer, 2014 p186) a desire for success might cause marketing to be deployed and hope for creating an attractive church. An attractive church is one that is low in status, vulnerable and follows the way of the Cross. Subversive ministry with young people values and respects them in a world that markets and targets them.

Young people might not be the answer to the church’s status anxiety. In that way they become nothing better than an outcome or target and our objectives relay a selfishness. Young people deserve better.


Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age

Thompson, Naomi, Young people and the church since 1900, 2018

Vanhoozer Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding , 2014


Compassion fatigue for the plight of young people? they barely got compassion in the first place…

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

Fast forward the hundreds of years since Socrates said this. And the plight of young people has been described as the scourge of the status quo ‘of adult society’ ever since. From Moral Panics when young people had income and didnt need to do national service in the 1950s, to the ASBO and surveillance cultures today. In the same way that in previous decades, the younger generation was labelled ‘baby boomers’, today it is millenials. What hasnt changed is that a younger generation has to adapt and struggle to survive within an adult controlled society, and each generation is labelled in a similar way to before.

Most Millenials get labelled with the same things as Generation X did. And Baby boomers before them. So its not a matter of cultural understanding, it is cultural control. It is judgement. And as the following article suggests, the game of typecasting is never more popular. http://insidestory.org.au/the-generation-game/

The article goes on to say: “Millennials, we are told, “reject traditional career paths” and care less about money than about fulfilment. Yet they’re also entitled, lazy and narcissistic. This might sound convincing enough on the basis of casual acquaintance with today’s young adults. But anyone who’s been watching generational analyses long enough will recognise that they are exactly the same traits imputed to the “slackers” of generation X when they were the same age, and before that to the baby boomers in the 1960s.”

As a collective, Millenials are getting the blame. Like every generation before them, the stereotypes of unruly, wild, lazy and disaffected get spouted about them, as they do every ‘younger generation’ since , well since Socrates. So it might be part of the majority society to need a scapegoat for ills. And the younger generation can have it, as the adults left them behind. And at the same time, for every article and conversation ‘about them’ drives a misunderstanding wedge about specific young people into the gap between adults and young people. It shapes young people as a collective. Couple this with every other news story about young people, which is often about negative issues, pregnancy, housing, crime or anti social behaviour, and the though that young people might actually need compassion seems a hard stance to make.

But they do.

For everything a young person – or millenial- can be blamed for – usually becuase they are trying to fight consumerism, commercialism and universal uncreativity, there are many things that they are in need of or devoid. That might actually involve a community, society and government doing something about. It was said that the millenials are a ‘F***-all’ generation, having been shafted by the ‘have-it all’ generation. Though this is not the time to drive a wedge into inter-generational conflict. It might be to think about how young people have had services, opportunities, future choices, housing, further education budgets, housing benefit, all cut, reduced or become ‘means tested’ in the last 8 years. Whilst at the same time the battle for young persons finances, time and distraction goes on – through advertising, through targeting young people s pocket money, through technology and gaming , they are pulled in a variety of directions, by businesses with often the morality of sewer rats.

Oh and talking about technology. Its not the fake violence in the video games i worry about. And neither do they. It is the real violence on the news, that they see. on their phones, in their rooms. The fake and fictional in games, they can deal with. Its the fear that is exacerbated by news media that is worse. because it is real. And who creates the news, who selects the news, who makes the devices, apps and encourages them to be used by young people – adults. Adults who want young people to be politically more engaged , are at the same time causing young people to be afraid of the world.

So, on a quiet news day a story like this emerges.

‘Quarter of 14-year-old girls ‘have signs of depression’ –

read it here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41310350

and stories that are similar go on and on. There is at least 4-5 a year that say the same thing. The same could also be said about the mental health state of those in nursing and teaching. 

But given the lack of attention that these stores get, and also their low priority on the news. News which is written and editted to reflect its audience, written to ‘entertain’ and keep people coming back to watch more- these stories barely register.

It is not as if Young people are the victims of compassion fatigue. It is more accurate to say that as a people group in society, they have barely registered to receive compassion in the first place. The only exception is children, and children in need. If it was known as ‘Millenials in need’ its raise about half a years subscription to the Guardian. Its as if children can evoke sympathy, young people. a different story. but even with children in need, it is only the most vulnerable rightly receive this kind of attention. 

Stories that young people struggle with mental health dont surprise youthworkers. Stories that young people were abused and ignored in Rotherham didnt surprise youthworkers. Stories that young people struggle to find work, and rebel against interventionist programmes dont surprise youthworkers. Stories that young people feel lost and afraid in the world – when they might have vibrancy, dreams and positivity – do not surprise youthworkers. Yet most of the time even youthworkers have been ignored, (especially in Rotherham), their voice silenced through cut backs, and so even those who might promote and fight for young people have had their wings clipped.

If the UK had any compassion for its children and young people – none of this would happen. They have never had compassion – so theres no chance of the UK suffering compassion fatigue on behalf of young people.

Could the church act differently towards young people in its local community? possibly- what would compassion look like…

Could adults in communities do the same- of course.

What might society look like to help everyone – including young people flourish?

If we dont ask these questions now, i wonder what our grandchildren, their children will have to deal with.


Mission in the edges; developing a Sidewalk Spirituality

Following on from my recent reflection, in which I considered the possibility of decorating St Francis of Assisi as the Patron Saint of Detached youth work ( see http://wp.me/p2Az40-KD if you understandably missed it in the pre-Christmas festivities) , I was reflecting on one of the phrases that Richard Rohr used to describe St Francis and his way:

Franciscanism is truly a Sidewalk Spirituality for the street of the world (Rohr, 2014;4)

In the remainder of the book Eager to Love, Richard Rohr describes the life and considerable impact of St Francis, and how the franciscan movement derived from St Francis himself. As someone who has spent alot of time being a detached youthworker over the last 10 years, even working for a project called ‘The Sidewalk Project’, its seems wholly appropriate to glean some of the principles from St Francis in the honing of a Sidewalk Spirituality.

The Infinite in the Finite

Francis believed that the finite manifests the infinite, and that the physical the doorway to the spititual, then all that is needed is right here and now in the world. Heaven thus includes Earth. Stating that there is no Sacred and Profane, places or moments, there are only sacred and desecrated places, where humanity has caused the desecration.  The mystery of Christ becomes specific, because everything is a revelation of the divine – from rocks to rocket ships, or on the streets, grass to graffiti.

Within this space of seeing God becomes mutuality of the one who sees and what can be seen. The ones who see Christ are those paying the right attention. Francis regarded the dignity of others he was in proximity with, and included also the animals, because he honoured his own dignity as a son of God. As Augustine said: what you seek is what you are (Augustines confessions).

As Francis commended to his followers; ‘we must remain in love’ for, it is only when we are eager to love that we can seen love and goodness in the world around us. The same for peace, hope, and beauty. To remain is not to remove, or to isolate, it is to encounter and to see.

I wonder what this sense of love for others compares with current faith based youthwork practice – thinking specifically of ‘values’ that are often retrieved, such as empowerment, and individual dignity. These are as inherently Christian, as they are professional, yet might any of them matter if there is not ‘love’ than is eagerly sought. On a personal note, I am so aware of the times I have felt that deep compassion, call it love, for young people on the streets, it caused me to take volunteers the extra mile, (literally) or to the next hour, because the conviction was there from feeling compassionate to young people, to want to be in proximity with them. I say this because I also know when i have felt like i was performing values but not that deep compassion or conviction.

As Francis Schaeffer said; “Our conscious relationship with God is enhanced if we treat all the things he has made in the same way he treats them”

One Sacred World

This follows on from the previous. In only a sacred and desecrated world, everything is potentially sacred if ‘you allow it to be’ . ‘Our job as humans is to make admiration of others and adoration of God fully conscious and deliberate’ (Rohr, 2014) . There becomes no centre if God is everywhere, and most paramount at times as far from the centres created by religion, in the weakest, in the fugitive, the frog or the freak, it is about looking for God. Its is how to look and be attentive in the searching for God.

Francis began to divert from the Bishops in removing from the dinners and gatherings, instead preferring to stay close to the ‘cracks in everything’ in the day to day social fabric of the proximity of people on the streets. As Rohr suggests ‘not only were we Franciscans not to be prelates in the church, but we should not hobnob there too much. you tend to think like those with whom you party’ 

Proximity Spirituality

Francis emphasised the identification with the suffering of the cross, solidarity with the poor, and with human suffering in general, this is the starting place for his spirituality – not the private introverted search or self help. Francis recognised that Spirituality without service of others was a prelude to ego inflation and delusion. The Franciscan Spirituality recognised the possibility of the divine in the everyday encounter with the other person, in the hard, soft or broken edges of life, and that suffering and tragedy might be the quickest doorways to encountering God, depending on honesty.

Image result for francis of assisi walking

It is the kind of Spirituality which allows commonality of suffering to be the human leveller in the travelling on the road. like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), the Disciples on the boat ( John 21) , Sidewalk spirituality places itself on the road, respects the other, and asks those it encounters to begin to recognise God at work. Starting by being in proximity.

As a result of holding , reflecting on a living in the reality of Christs suffering in everyday life in costly discipleship, the consequence will be to be much more compassionate and patient. ‘A spiritual leader, writes Pope Francis, who lacks compassion, has almost no power to change people, because people intuitively know he or she doesnt represent the divine truth’ (Rohr, 2014) A powerful Christ is also a weak one, and only those who join him there and come out the other side will understand, like Francis and his followers, for they ‘rule’ from the edges and reign from what is no longer the bottom. It is just where God already is.

Holy extreme disorder

‘He’s Wild you know’ So those who knew of Aslan described him to the children in CS Lewis Narnia Series. As humans we like order, things not necessarily simple, but ordered, systematic even. We even require or revert to order after Christ himself promised disorder post resurrection. Yet we like faith to be controlled, ordered even in the buildings and be able to locate Spiritual and Sacred in easily definable points. A Sidewalk Spirituality is chaotic, it is improvised, it is disordered. As GK Chesterton put it ‘what Benedict stored (in monastries), Francis scattered’ Francis approach is riskier, led to little discipline, clear direction or proper boundaries. This disorder is both a strength and a weakness, clearly. Gospel freedom is always a risk. There is vulnerability in the risky travelling, a cost to personal order, monetary possessions and security.

The Heart of a Sidewalk Spirituality

The Franciscan evangelization principle writes Rohr, is

‘not to preach at or to people, but just to make the truth beautiful, attractive and warm’

And this can only be done if we are eager to love, and look for God in the world, in proximity with others. We dont take something we take ourselves to find God amongst others in places. Jesus becomes someone ‘to imitate’ and not just to worship. Francis took prayer onto the road and into the activity of life itself. The whole world was his cloister! and the message of love and the medium of its message was the same thing.

Image result for francis of assisi

A Sidewalk Spirituality starts with the heart, a heart that takes feet to the places of people, is one that seeks God in all he created, respects those broken and builds community in and amongst them. That’s what Francis did, his communities developed from the roads, from the deemed edges.

What of a Sidewalk Spirituality for faith based detached youthwork – who’s up for this costly pilgrimage?



Rohr, R Eager to love, The alternative way of following St Francis of Assisi, 2014


Energised by Community

It was only 4 hours of my time. 4 hours where I gave up a bike ride, a dog walk, spending time with my family or playing football with George.  Turning up at a local church in Hartlepool with 4 pairs of scissors, a packet of cakes, the aforementioned George and my car.
Turning up the road to see it lined with cars, with boxes with people. And inside, this;


Mountains of stuff, donated, collected, waiting to be sorted;  people busying and organised community spirit.
In four hours I was privileged to be a tiny cog in a large engine that will have taken a lorry load of aid to the refugees in Calais. In four hours I was acting like others in community, acting in response to the plight of thousands of people for which four hours might be the time it takes to walk 15 miles across eastern europe, or travel across the med.
Communities of compassion, stoked by images, enthused by hope, gathered by one of most positive uses of social media since the dawn of facebook, determined and encouraged to make the lives of other humans better.
In four hours I sorted bags of clothes,  moved bags of clothes, and took 2 car loads of stuff to the depot awaiting collection.


This was one container after a days work. There’s so much more.

Compassion and the small acts of kindness from a lot of people is going a very long way.
Communities of compassion , energised by hope, in the UK.

Just incredible and thank you.

Thoughts on Compassion

Recently, along with thinking about culture, values and interpreting, ive been thinking on a number of levels about the subject of compassion – or more pertinently its been a subject that without deliberate intention has been hitting on me.

A few weeks ago i was asked to help out at the local high school at their philosophy day, during which i was working with one of the RE teachers and a group of 12 Year 12 pupils, the subject of the discussion, and subsequent presentation was on Compassion and in particular the http://charterforcompassion.org/ . It was a lengthy discussion with some very articulate pupils in which we tried to define compassion, and understand how appropriate it would be to be intentionally  compassionate, and how signing a charter would make being compassionate any more likely.                            

The Latin word compassion means to feel deep sympathy for someone, and accompany this by action to change their circumstances.  And so it is an both a feeling/emotion, and an action, motivated by that feeling.  The situation causes an effect on us, on which causes us to want to affect the other.

One thing required to have compassion is a requirement to have less pre-judgment of the social group, (and critique how this is being fed to us) “it is impossible to be accurately perceptive of another’s inner world if you have formed an evaluative opinion of that person” (Carl Rogers 1980), so by judging someone to be different to ourselves in often a negative way, we make it more difficult to have understanding of their concerns, from their perspective. It is thus important that we use language in ways that do not judge, condemn or objectify (challenge those that do), and thus where labels, stereotypes, or prejudices disable or divide.

For example, to say something like ‘American Youth’ is an objectifying statement, as there is no such thing as an ‘American Youth’ at least not in a perjorative, collective sense, as all young people in America are by definition different, there is not one but many, and they are multi-faceted. And so to use terms like ‘at risk’ , ‘Youth’ ‘Youth Culture’ may cover generalizations, but only objectify, not specify. Each young person, in every situation, context, family and community is different.

Yet as we engage with young people in the public spaces, we do so as outsiders seeking to understand, listen, accept and validate their life experiences for what they are– often defying our stereotyping, labeling or objectifying, and in doing so show both empathy, and in action, compassion.

We go to be with young people replicating the compassion God showed the world through his communicative action; “Divine compassion is an enabling power by which the triune God shares-communicates his own life, it effects what he communicates; the saving grace and goodness of God. Gods compassion is his active affection” (Vanhoozer 2010)

As we work with young people on the streets, in the parks we create new opportunities to see them for who they really are, to meet them  where they are at, meeting them head on, in their world, as they are naturally, as individuals, individuals part of groups, and using the situation of that context and developing relationship to listen and discover a person, whole, thinking, frustrated, sensitive, creative, determined.

Being compassionate, causes us to be there in the first place, compassion to see beyond the perceived need, but to put ourselves in that moment, and yet compassion/empathy are heightened as we learn more about the shit and injustice that may have befallen a young person.  It means that we also seek to alleviate, fight wrongs and feel their pain.

As an addition, in planning a sermon for the weekend i re read the Story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, being one of the clear moments where Jesus is said to have compassion for the people, the lost sheep of Isreal, yet though it was Jesus who had compassion, it was the disciples whom he asked to feed them – encouraging apostles to feed those who were lost in the lonely places.