Detached youthwork- Starting conversations, building from the context

A common question in detached youth work training is ; ‘how do you start a conversation with a young person we meet on the streets?’

Now of course,  the conversation doesn’t happen without due preparation, or without having done some observation of the area and even the groups of young people, but when it comes to the crunch moment – what do you say?

It’s made a little more difficult as there isn’t an activity in a building to start conversation, or being in a school or youth club so then this could restrict what could be said. However in the space of the streets, and parks – young people are more likely to have actively chosen to be in this space, at their discretion and doing activities they want to do and have planned – rather that whats in a building. (and to be honest with the staff shortages in centre based work, having conversations with young people can be fleeting anyway)

The easiest way is to respect the context of the conversation and ask about what is in the space.

If I was being Biblical id say it was like Jesus walking with the disciples on the Emmaus road, he hears them talking and he asks them what theyre talking about ( Luke 24:17), or when Philip catches up with the Ethiopian in Acts 8, the man is reading aloud from a scroll, so Philip asks him about what he is reading. Both conversations happened in the public space, both seem to follow a pattern of inquisitive but respectful questioning based on what the receiver hears.

As Calvin argues ‘the church needs to become more accustomed to hearing’ (Calvin Commentaries, 1958, p7)

What is heard is in the space. So is what is seen. So taking the cue from Philip example, in which Philip respected and took his cue from the context, the detached youthworker who also interrupts the space of the young person is to do the same. or at least as I’ve found starting in this way is the most effective, as it shows that you are respecting the young person and being interesting in them in the moment.

Being in the space as an interruption means that we have to respect the context, what is already going on, find ways of interrupting respectfully to earn respect back, finding something to build on a conversation.

It can be common for the conversation to close up when something from outside of the context i brought in, and it risks the moment. For many young people thats the school question, but i have had fights on a high street when i mentioned football. It wasn’t something the young people wanted to talk about, and it proved to be something that they didn’t share in common.

The other thing is that the environment, of the two biblical incidents above, and most of the times on detached, is determined by those already in the space. It differs from an example of street preaching or street evangelism, as often the environment is dictated by the evangelist, with an activity, a stall or shouting from the text themselves, it is then for the passer by to react , reject or refuse (or ring the police, depending)- now it might be that a message is shared in these experiences, and thats fine – but it is much more provoked in terms of the environment – and can be uncomfortable.

Maybe in the context of a public park or community estate, the context of this space determines a difference than a more neutral communal space of a town centre, the space for the usual evangelists and other sales type people. In an activity space there is space for activity.  Only seeing people once might force the hand – this isnt the case on regular detached. So how you start is important – and respecting the context of the space that you’re joining the young people in is.

And so if it is a case of building what is already there- its a good idea to keep your senses open to take things in, to listen to the context, to witness the events, to enquire, to ask, to receive gifts that the community gives.

After the opening questions, then theres often the banter and testing, the challenges and sparring. There will also be further cues in those questions to talk about further things, again thats where the listening is, to build on the script being spoken and respond appropriately.  The important thing in starting out is to respect the space, respect it as that’s where the young people have grown up, where they play, where they find meaning, where they have

The important thing in starting out is to respect the space, respect it as that’s where the young people have grown up, where they play, where they find meaning, where they have identity. It’s not our role as detached youth workers to destroy that by judging it, it’s to be accepted within it.

Starting right is so important, and respecting the context is usually the best way to do so. Taking a lead from it and improvising the script as young people realise that you have respected them is the best way to go – then challenges can happen…






Millenials dont exist

Millenials dont exist

Millenials don’t exist – People do

A Generation doesn’t exist – People do

The poor doesn’t exist – People do

Post-moderns dont exist – People do

Generation Y doesnt exist – People do

Christendom cant be reacted to – People can

Secularism is only grasped at – People are real

The lost arent anywhere – we’ve lost them.

No one is reached- people are met and encountered

Let’s collapse the language. All attempts to know about people before knowing people. People are given to us in God’s world, so are their gifts. Lets make spaces to meet people an open up places where God is found with and in them. Call it engagement, call it love.

Visualising Paulo Freire’s world

With my Christmas book vouchers I have purchased a number of titles, one or two linked to youthwork management, a few others, and one or two written by Paulo Freire, including the one in this picture2016-01-11 23.42.28

Most of it is like refreshing water on the dry one track educational method soul of some theology or management reading, lengthy discussions on dialogue, freedom, faith and hope. Just wonderful. However, I was getting a bit bogged down with his descriptions of the state of oppression in Brazil, and not wanting to make light of the challenges in that context, I needed something to relate it to. All the talk of oppressive structures, people as objects, limitations of freedoms, and I was struggling.. then I realised…

what about The current Tory Government- if I picture them as the  oppressors – but who shall be the oppressed?

Well first i thought of people in Hartlepool. A place shafted because, well it just gets shafted.

Then people in the North in general. Northern Powerhouse, my arse.

And Junior Doctors -theyre on strike today.

And anyone in the NHS in fact. some of which who can strike, others who cant.

Or public sector workforce having reduced pensions, pay and redundancies in the last 6 years.

Young people- yes young people, theyre oppressed too, reduced housing benefits, costs of university, decimation of youth services, ore services for them, unable to vote, but can still be prosecuted.

in fact anyone who works with young people, youthworkers, mental health workers, social workers, teachers, special needs teachers, careers advisers (who dont exist) anyone who has relied on funding from the government to work with young people – will have experienced something like policy that has shaped influence or working practice, or reduced funding, and their job changed not for the benefit of young people – but for an ideological view that influences practice.

What about those in families that are deemed ‘Broken’ by the government? – nice use of language to determine power, normativity and oppression there Dave..

Or British Muslims, or Muslims at all, and if you’re a young British Muslim, then triple whammy.  If youve fled war, hatred or oppression, only to find it here.

If you’re out of work, not sure the stacks are in your favour either, with sanctions which cost the government more to enforce than save money at all.

for the rest of the time reading the book, contextualising oppression might not be too much of a challenge. Ill just exchange oppressors or Brazilian government for  ‘Current British Government’ or Neo-liberal agenda. And for oppression,  Ill settle for young person, or youthworker, as its closest to hand. Maybe ill visualise a young person in Hartlepool, or a young british born muslim person who lives in Hartlepool with a Dad out of work and mum in Prison. Thatll do.

But it could be any one of the above.

The challenge is for the people seeking to transform the world where people are oppressed is to not maintain the oppression that others have already placed upon them. The oppression created by narratives that as Freire argues sub-merge people in a reality, and dullen the critical to challenge the oppressors. Liberation might not just be through education but a form of education that is awakens the consciousness, and seeks freedom, to be creative, to make and to be active subject. (p11)

Thanks Current government, youve given me a glimmer of insight into Freires world.




Entering the 10th Year

14th December 2006, that was the day I did my first detached youthwork session for the Sidewalk Project in Perth. Aside from a couple of observation sessions around the town with Allan Clyne two years previous, and one or two outreach ones for Perth Council, that was my first dip into the world, the vocation of detached youthwork. It wasn’t until the end of the January 2007 that the team of us actually spoke to young people on the streets

2015-11-28 17.58.27

Although i took this picture only 3 months ago, Perth City Centre 10 years ago, looked fairly similar to this, Just near Christmas, dark, wet, and i remember pretty cold for several weeks in a row. Just perfect for breaking in to the world of detached youthwork .

Last night, it was our first night out on detached after the Christmas and new year break. Not in Perth, but in Sherburn Village, which amusingly was the place i lived in before heading up to Perth in 2004. So on a cold foggy evening this evening i started my 10th year out on the streets, almost every week since 2006. If you’d have asked me even 3 months before this journey started id have thought you were crazy that id do detached and love it for this long, and what might you say is there to love? The main thing , aside from the unpredictability, is the freedom because of not having to make controlling decisions about the young people. You can just walk away.

And the fact that they wonder why you’re there, unlike school or state functions they don’t know why someone would spend time with them.

And that you walk the same path as them, not just in their shoes but in their time.

That the relationships are truly voluntary and negotiated

That it happens, truly in the borders in between the regular functions of the young person ( home, school, work)

I have got a lot to be thankful for what has occurred since, even to mention all the learning, and reflecting that all the young people, volunteers and organisations have given me. Since then I have had the privilege of sharing the joy of detached with quite a few volunteers, trained 50 volunteers or students, delivered the BAYCWAT module on Detached & outreach for ICC (now SCCM), been involved at the FDYW, and got to know the most determined, passionate, artistic people at FYT/Streetspace who deliver 52 detached projects in the UK, and been able to write up some of the reflections from Perth and other materials in the ‘Here be Dragons’ book.   So I have an awful to be thankful for in the last 10 years, thankful to the amazing volunteers, students and young people for those 5 years in Perth, and the dedication of staff here in Durham for their work here too.

So, i bet you’re asking, what happened this evening? anything to remember my 9th into 10th year by? – well no, a very quiet evening, not surprising, its -1, foggy and damp. Young people were too smart to be out where only mad detached youth workers dare to walk.





Detached youthworkers; being present when no one else is

2015-09-27 19.02.26

Levi-Strauss in his book ‘Myth and Meaning’ considers the view that as humans alive on this planet of earth that we, per generation, use less and less of our sensory perceptions. Recalling the story of the ancient tribe who could see the planet Venus on a clear day from a desert, unbelievable nowadays, but not just a myth, but a reality for that tribe who trained their senses in the world to engage with the world in this deep mythological sensory way.

Detached youthwork starts off on the streets with a retraining experience. No longer are the streets no-go areas, you’re in them. No longer are they a space to drive through, to walk through to get to the chippy, they are a space to be present in, and stay. Because of this the retraining is to become acclimatised using our senses to the space. To view the streetlights, and shop fronts as glaring interruptions of light on dark nights, to listen for the distant obvious sounds of groups of young people, with slightly higher, fearful/loud/shrieky voices (than adults), the smells of food, take aways, car fumes (depending how busy the roads are). These are all important sensory experiences, and because of our intention, to be in the space, maybe its only detached youthworkers, who become regular, who become attuned to the space take in these things, maybe more than others.

Levi-Strauss may have a point, but in his book he talks about the skills required , instead of looking for venus, we now turn on the Radio or television, and we are able to make technology such as cars safer, but the personal sensory interaction has shifted somewhat in the less used direction. However, as i watched the GBBO final this evening, it was, not unlike lots of of popular TV or Sport, the TV is now only the sideshow to the online community of commentators of it, all who glance up and down at the TV, just so they can write tweets about it, myself included. The community gathering in separate homes is as much the attraction as the object of the attention itself. The Twitter generation clearly is craving community, and is it using TV as a means to share that experience. So what does that mean for being on the streets?

Well, because of our own guidelines of practice, and personal safety, we, as detached youthworkers are likely to be seldom on our phones, we are present in the space, as i said above, we have one task in mind, one focus, and generally, aside from the team banter, want to give young people our full presentness. Which is likely to be very different to everyone else who a young person is going to encounter, or even the young persons own motivation for being there. No one else in that space is likely to be present focussing solely on the space; it a jogger with headphones on, a dog walker listening to a podcast and picking up poo, people going to shops. The space to everyone else is to travel through, and if anything to be as ignored as possible. Even for the young adult, their focus may not be their actual friends in the space either, they might be all away from the space itself connecting with those not present. Not always, but sometimes & often. And so young people are so likely to wonder why we are actually present in the space, being there in the actual moment, not as distracted (maybe sometimes), and valuing the presentness of being conversation in the space with people face to face might almost be a rarity, a valued and never to be underestimated rarity. One that requires many senses, one that requires being very present.

(Levi-Strauss ‘Myth and Meaning’ 1978)

What are the biggest influences in (your) youthwork?

Its the time of the year for the Summer festivals, some to take young people to, some camping, some creative, some evangelical, some like big fun church services, some a creative space of energy, art and politics.

All appearing after an academic year full of conferences, network weekends, gatherings and summits, most of which have been disseminated in 140 characters to on twitter or less to the wider public, some independent, some aligned to affiliations, some academic.

And then there are books, not alot, but a few that have been published this year, youthwork magazines, journals, and articles, as well as blogs, online articles and news.

But what are the biggest influences in your youthwork?  – is it any of these at all?  and can ‘general’ information disseminated to a wide, and thus anonymous audience be directly influential to you, in your particular space, with your particular young people?

Does the universal – ie conference, network, and resource – help to act as a benchmark, or model to copy and follow but does this cause us to relate the young people in their group who we work with to expectations we create for them based on others? (i wish we could be as creative as so and so, or as musical etc)

If the large corporate is setting the tone- creating the narrative and shaping the discussion around a national space for youthwork/youth ministry – then what might that cause the small, isolated group to feel if its not got access to or able to challenge this. Its as isolating as it might be ignorant. I guess at the summer festival this year, think about who isnt here, and what kind of voice is being represented in terms of youth ministry.

One of the challenges of youth work is that the local is often the driver, the motivation, it sets the scope of the project or work, employs the worker or trains the volunteers, and also has shaped the theology & ministry of the local church in which the youthwork occurs. This is all hugely influential. Its is not dissimilar to the ‘ecumenical projects’ which can be borne within /or counter to, the prevailing culture in which they sit – but are influenced by it none the less.

In the same way does the conference for the youthwork act in a similar way to the large gathering/festival for the young person? does it have the potential to give the young person an amazing summer experience , almost holiday romance with Jesus, which causes the rest of their year, and the rest of your work with them to seem invalid, boring and like the longest break up until the next summer. I know, I grew up evangelical and did Spring Harvest and soul survivor..twice. So, is it influential? should it be so influential?

But what are the biggest influences on your youthwork and ministry?

And how influential are the large-scale, universal resources, publications, events and festivals – maybe not directly, but significantly indirectly too?

It would be really boring if these resources included sections on doing good youthwork method, or a ‘what is the theory of youth ministry’ session at soul survivor, or – how to do mission in contexts that your local church cant cope with like, ethnic minority young people, LGBTQ young people or sofa surfing young people, or dare i say it – the people who cant afford to go to the festival itself. Yet the problem with the diversity of contexts of youth ministry and i, and the influences of local theologies upon the context is that youth ministry is locally defined and thus there is no ‘one method’ or ‘theory’ for it – its just been morphologically translated into a variety of spaces – with some influence, maybe from a visionary person, some academia, some local research, maybe even the needs of the community. And because of its limited definition, everyone is able to shape it as they like – from putting evangelism/social action/discipleship back into youth ministry it has no argument against itself to defend it.

Should we have the space to critically interpret the influences on the life and ministry of the church, and the youthwork that sits within or in the margins of this influence, and at the same time make an active choice whether to accept, reject, choose or use the culture created by the national players in determining its culture – who have an influence on youthworkers, ministers, churches alike.

So, is the local – or the national that has the biggest influence on your youth ministry? – honestly- deep down?

And how does the culture of a ministry affect its local performance?

In the 1960’s and 1970’s there were lots more case study story books in youth work, from ‘working with unnattached’ (1967), to Jude Wilds tales of detached work in Toxteth, Liverpool. In those episodes, the local was celebrated and given the space to be celebrated as a process – in a way those case studies was something we had hoped to put into the ‘Here be Dragons’ book – but they didnt have the length or narrative feel, or give the fuller pictures that some of those more ancient texts did. In an age of wanting instant success, models that work, and something universal, the story from the local context, the small group, the pioneering worker, has been lost somewhat in the universal theory on one hand or how to resources on the other.

What does influence your youthwork, or your young people the most, within the practice of youthwork that you facilitate?

how might you go about channelling, challenging, reflecting, or navigating your way through those influences to enable young people to explore life, faith and hope, interdependently together in community?

And anyway, the correct answer is Jesus, or Jeffs & Smith, or The Shawshank Redemption.


Shaping church for the non church likers – why not ask people?

I like yoghurt. I do. Its a small confession, but I each quite a lot of it. Especially the fruity corner, or light toffee ones. I even like the natural yoghurt, or greek and honey stuff. As I was eating a particular type of yoghurt the other day, one where it was greek in style, and had a layer of fruit on top, it struck me about how many varieties there are, and how many times the combination of fruit puree has moved from a side compartment, to below the yoghurt, to above it, and that the product designers must be running out of options soon, i mean, how many different ways are there to rearrange yoghurt (low/fat/greek/flavoured) with fruit , and yet carefully marketed and publicised and on offer – ill buy it every time.

I bet the product designers for that particular yoghurt company have a field day soon they be trying to put the fruit in the middle, or line it up vertically. Just anything so it can have a new name, a new catch, a new variety, and convince yoghurt lovers like me to continue to appreciate their yoghurty goodness.

Do you think they ever ask people who dont like yoghurt, what kind of yoghurt would you like to eat?  – thats probably not their main customer – oh no- thatll be the yoghurt lover like me, keep them happy- and for the unconvinced of the fruit variety- stick a load of chocolate in it, in small flakes, thatll soften the low-fat blow that is creamy yoghurt.

There doesnt seem to be a day go by without one of those – why dont people go to church type articles, or why are (especially millenials) leaving the church (this was todays; Yet without being too obvious about it – has anyone actually asked people who dont go to church why don’t they go? And what type of church might they like to be part of?

Can we have some actual research please into this? not just some guess work based on sociology, or generalisations of generationisms- (millenials, Gen x/y etc) , whether they are well attested theories of social demographics. Yes we can structure churches in the most perfect way for a certain generalisation of a generation – but does the average generalisation of person actually exist within walking distance of the local church?  I know – why doesnt each church do a survey of people who live in the 1 mile radius around it and find out what people would like to go to in their local church, or why they dont go – and then seek to address these local concerns, relationships, needs and interests. Every context is different, and church needs to learn and listen from the current non-church likers in their community. The danger of the generationalisms is that we provide material for an ideal generation type – not real people, in real communities.

What might be peoples responses? i dont actually know – why dont you ask people?

One way to get people to start liking yoghurt would be to have an event where people come to a yoghurt tasting show where the yoghurt is especially creamy, more fruity or chocololatey – or its just a tiny bit of yogurt on a chocolate bar – that way people get to see a special yoghurt, and hear from the yoghurty evangelist about the benefits of yoghurt in their lives. It wouldnt help if they were allergic, or lactose intolerant, or if they knew that they wouldnt like yoghurt so why even go to the event anyway. But isnt that what we often do – try and work out a way of rearranging or attractifying the substance of church – with no connection with people who have made a judgement about it already. Unlike us, They dont like church.

But have we given up on them too easily or given them the excuses- stating that sunday trading, sunday papers and sunday football is all in the way – well it might be – so if the people who we need to act towards have changed their sunday habits – then who needs to adapt to change?

There’s much research to say (see Phil Rankin 2007, or Passmore 2013) and we have found in conversations on detached, that young people are open to thinking about Spiritual things, and develop faith in local contextual communities, and that they dont grow up hating God or being completely antagonistic to church. But has any one actually asked/surveyed people (adults) about what they think about church, what theyd like about church (if they went to one) and what would encourage them to be part of one? and lets base the future shape of the church, and the connections people have of it in actual, in real life terms, not suppositions- until then we can re-allign the fruit and the yoghurt as much as we want to, but if we don’t know if people like yoghurt or not, and why theyre not already buying yoghurt,  then it seems a futile strategy. Well not be able to get people to like church if we dont know why they dont like it in the first place. Seems obvious doesnt it?

In ‘Church beyond the fourth wall’ Lugi (2012) states that “critical reflection on guest responses can produce creative methods of contextualising the story, relational connection with guests, thereby removing any unnecessary barriers to ecclesial mission” and i ask does the church engage with actual critical reflection with its guests, its supposed audience, and if it did- would that cause reflection internally to adapt, not dumb down, the method of audience participation into the performative drama?