#NYMW19 – A weekend of great conversations – but which important questions does youth ministry need to ask?

Its almost 48 hours exactly since I got back from Youthscapes (www.youthscape.co.uk)  National Youth Ministry weekend and so I thought I would put pen to paper on a few reflections from it, with a few added and notable caveats.

The first is that this was the first time I had attended an English Youth Ministry conference. yup. Well aside from YFC’s own staff jamboree, my own youth ministry journey was too embryonic to go to the early incarnations of youthwork the conference back in 1997, and from 2004-2012 I was in Scotland (and why travel to england..) and since being back in England I have largely gone to conferences that i have prioritised in terms of learning and specialism, or where i felt it would be important to have an input from a faith perspective, such as In defence of youth work, Federation of detached youthwork and a few others.  Though I did attend Deep Impact a few years running in Scotland.

The second thing, in terms of reflecting on the NYMW19 is that i spend the great total of 0 (zero) minutes in any seminar, talk or workshop. With the exception of three workshops that were being presented from the room that i was part of with my lovely colleagues at FYT. Ill include only a small part of this , as they will show more of these on the FYT website soon along with a few graphs and pictures (http://www.fyt.org.uk) 

So – what have I actually got to say about the National youth ministry weekend, if i wasnt at a seminar and didnt hear a single thing from the stage. Well maybe thats the point, what is the essence of a conference? How much is it directed by whats on the stages, or what happens in between?

The bits in between were fun.

Thats all i can say really. I was tempted to wear a T shirt that said

yeah, i did write that blog – sorry if it upset you

But then i realised that actually, though a number of other ministry leaders, organisation leaders, and twitter followers knew of this little blog of mine. 750 people at the NYMW really didnt. And i already knew this.

For, whilst the twitterati of christian youth work, some engage with these reflections, the reality for me is that i get far more responses from the more critical, more open spaces in ‘secular youthwork’ than the youth ministry world. If such a world exists.  Thats not to say that this has no impact – but bring 850 people involved in youth ministry into a room for a weekend, and id imagine that the echo chamber of those who engage in theory regularly, theology even, or who have the time to read the stuff i write, or know about it, or search it out is few. But that didnt stop the fans of this blog searching me out. (blushes) .

The other reflection – is that there are many people who i would regard as being important in the conversation about youth ministry – who were absent from the conference, and some are very important – whether DYO’s, Clergy, Bishops even, representations from other denominations, and not many people involved in christian charities such as YMCA’s and very few from YFC – two from different ends of a youth ministry/work spectrum, but largely absent in the conversation.  Is youth ministry so confident in itself that it has any clout to speak to power, and those who make powerful decisions that will affect the future of churches working with young people in the UK. Because, if it isnt doing that, its merely speaking to itself. (which i know is also a criticism of the echo chambers of social media of which this blog is a part)

But what of the question… what of UK youth ministry in 2020?  or the long term 2030?

What is it going to be able to do – if the organisation it serves.. the church is 11 years further into the decline its currently in – and youth ministry itself hasn’t got much of a track record of stemming this overall tide – and churches themselves are recruiting family and youth workers, community and youthworkers (with more of a missional/outreach focus),. Has the church given up on youth ministry or young people? And if not – what is the core of youth ministry and what has it got to say? – if its discipleship.. have we even thought about what this is, and how this occurs? And – what about youth ministry and theology, and worship, church, mission, spirituality, poverty and faith, and then – what about thinking about youth ministry and other disciplines like sociology or psychology, all are important. At least I think they are.  These conversations need to happen not just in the centres of academia. Young people are far too important to not do this.

Having a conference next year is one thing. Systematically putting young people right at the heart of the UK church’s focus is another, and not just to save the church – but to enable communities to flourish too.

However, It wouldnt be unusual for me to get sidetracked down a rabbit hole of reflective purposeful questions, and yet at the same time say that I really enjoyed the weekend, but thats probably because I love having conversations with people, and there were 100’s of them in the FYT room and in the market place area, conversations that went deep, conversations about critical aspects of youth ministry, conversations where I learned things, conversations with others who are in the midst of the challenge, the midst of trying to do some great youth work, conversations with other ministry leaders and friends, and these conversations are completely life giving, energising and positive.

Honestly – I genuinely loved the weekend – it was great to catch up with and meet so many people – far too many to name. But does having a fabulous weekend, mask some of the difficult questions, and conversations that need to happen?

And gathering 850 youth ministry people – what conversations do they think need to happen – is there space to hear and listen as a process?  or are they to be sold ideas too?

Ultimately youth ministry (like youthwork) itself is a conversation anyway, shaped by those who experience it, see it and narrate it, so did NYMW open up new conversations, or shut them down, do the difficult ones need to be asked in the next few years, and work towards the responses. So, yes i loved the weekend, yes i love the conversations, but then again, you know i love a good conversation, whats important is that the conversations continue, and not just on twitter….

‘But when did we see you?’ A sermon for poverty Sunday

For those of you who are interested here is a summary of the sermon that I preached this morning at St Aidans Church, Chilton, County Durham, as part of poverty Sunday: (and yes it was a bit longer than 7 minutes)

Good morning all, today we are going to look at poverty, and thank you for inviting me to share with you, I hope to bring to you stories from a variety of perspectives to help us look at poverty.

The first is a short quote from Darren McGarvey, Darren was brought up in Pollok, Glasgow, not quite Easterhouse, but still, an area of Glasgow renowned for significant challenges. In his award winning book, he says the following:

(poverty) ‘Its the belief that the system is rigged against you, and that all attempts to resist or challenge it are futile. That the decisions that affect your life are being taken by a bunch of other people somewhere else who are deliberately trying to conceal things from you. A belief that you are excluded from taking part in the conversation about your own life. This belief is deeply held in many communities and there is a good reason for it. Its true’ (Poverty Safari, p37)

Another quote, Gustavo Gutierrez says the following

Image result for gustavo gutierrez quotes

In our reading today what does Jesus say?

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,[f] you were doing it to me!’

41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.[g] 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

When we hear any of these words, we may want to ask the questions;

  • What surprises us?
  • What do we notice?
  • Whats going on?
  • What provokes us?
  • What makes us think?.. or
  • Why doesn’t it? if it doesn’t..

So – what might surprise us about this passage? For me, the following

I notice the complaint from those who gathered  who after Jesus made the separation, they said ‘But we didn’t see’ – yet all that was asked by Jesus was to do something – but they didn’t see.  Not seeing is equated with refusing.

What else might we notice in the passage. Something else. Notice the language Jesus uses. He doesn’t say that the poor are out there, some where else. The outside of the walls, ‘the other’ – He says ‘ I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger’. Jesus identifies himself in the poorest, the most vulnerable. He says, when you see the poorest, you see me. When you see, and give, and share, and respect – you give and share and respect me. It makes it the gospel of the weak.

We notice as well that, taking the whole gospel, this is not just about basic human needs, or at least not just the tangiable. Someone hungry and thirsty requires food and water (but how), but also the stranger is felt welcomed. This is about social poverty. As a youth worker, one of the most important things is to always try and talk to the young person who looks like they are on their own, they might be travelling through life on their own, and an opportunity to listen and give them time and space is often most needed.  But I was a stranger – says Jesus. A Stranger, in need of community, a stranger in need of belonging. A stranger, outcast. The whole gospel, its not about fixing, its about dignity. To blind Bartimeaus, Jesus doesnt assume that he just wants to see. Jesus asks the question; ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ – Gives the person dignity, respect, and yes is healed – and yes this healing is so key for that person at that time for their whole being. They make the possibility happen that a person can be fully human, can contribute, can have a say in their future.

It is ‘Poverty Sunday’, and in working for Communities together Durham, we think of poverty in three ways, Poverty of resources, Poverty of relationships and poverty of Identity. Now, poverty of resources might be the easiest to think about – yes its food, water, housing, money, employment and getting access to these things – as well as health care. Poverty of Relationship – is about who we are connected with, the support structures, people, family breakdown – and families do breakdown, thats life it happens, but it is who is around to support, listen and help people through these things. Poverty of Identity.;  I come from Hartlepool, which is a fabulous place to come from, and fortunately it has middlesbrough just down the road to think of itself better than (Ha), and we all have those places, whether its Ferryhill or Gilesgate, Hartlepool or wherever, its as if the ‘Nothing good can come out of Nazareth’, that Jesus heard about himself, has been an identity curse ever since.  But identity is more than town, its being uprooted and having to travel half way across the country as a refugee, its being part of a community or age that is often deriled – like a young person, or someone from the LGBT community. Bullied for being someone, and being true to yourself.

So – we might want to ask ourselves questions? like

what does poverty look like in ____________ ?

What does poverty look like in County Durham?

What is its name?

Poverty could look like a statistic, this might be one way of seeing. Here I have brought copies, you can easily get hold of them, of household population, employment, qualifications of Chilton – but you can do it for anywhere. You can see through the lens of these figures, and you can keep them because i dont need them. Being able to see, doesnt just mean that we read data from surveys. But it is one way.

One of the things the communities together Durham team do, is help churches to see, yes using some data, but also to listen, learn and gather insight into poverty, and then ask the questions, the same as we shared earlier:

  • what surprises us about poverty?
  • What have we learned?
  • what is provoking us?
  • what is really going on?

Because it might not always be the best thing to ‘respond’ by doing something practical – even if there is the urge. A compassionate urge. As a team we try and help churches to realise that there is a difference between a foodbank and a food community meal, where many people serve each other and contribute. There is a difference between a coffee morning and a place of welcome, where people are involved and participate, and not just in receipt of service. And, there is nothing wrong with these things – but how do they provoke us – if the foodbank has been growing in the last 5 years. Yet people are still living in complex poverty – what else hasnt been seen?

The first step is to see –

The second is to reflect and ask questions

Questions we also ask as a team are : How might a response promote human dignity, how might the gifts of the person be utilised, how might this response challenge injustice (as we read in our Isaiah reading) – and where is God in the response?

An additional one – is – how might the response build community – build conversation, build participation and help people be involved – like we read with Darren earlier, be involved in decision making in at least something that is with them. They are not just a user.

As a team, we would love to help you in your responses to poverty, to help you see, and help you reflect on this. Theres leaflets at the back (and for the rest of you theres our website  http://www.communitiestogetherdurham.org.uk

I then read the story of Lucy’s Flowers, which can be found in Mike Mathers book ‘ Having Nothing, possessing everything’.

after wards; i recounted a little of my experience of hearing, seeing and being alongside a young woman in the town, who shared of her situation, being homeless, and how it wasn’t just money that helped her, but support, time to meditate and have control, and also to feel like she had choice, some self determination.

Poverty is not out there, we need to see. Human dignity and poverty.

For, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was thirsty, I was in prison.

Thank you.

And that was the end of my sermon this morning.



The personal bit – i didnt share – but reflected on in the car on my way home:

But what do I know about poverty.?

I didn’t grow up on a tough estate. I cant write like Darren McGarvey can.

I went to a decent school, in the midlands. The posh bit of it. well, it wasnt bad…

I didn’t have that much of a challenging family life- though not without its issues. So, am I a fraud?

Well maybe its a realisation that at any point, a decision, a moment of conflict things can change. And though i didn’t say it today in the sermon,events that started from one year ago today, meant that i was about to need to rely on needing to stay in a friends house for 6 months with barely any money. I felt alone, confused, broken. As one friend said at the time, my whole life had fallen apart.

One year on, I count as blessings that decision and those times. I realise how friends, and not money, but care, hospitality and dignity supported and rebuilt me, from a pretty dark place.  And yes I did get a new job, underwent counselling, and now have my own new home, and I feel blessed, loved by friends, confident in who i am, at peace, and have gained so much through it all.

I am able to reflect back, and look forward, knowing how blessed i have been, grateful i am. Just one year on and still in the midst. So, poverty isn’t out there. Its so close to each one of us, and decisions I make, we make affect all of this. Sometimes we hide it well. Sometimes we don’t see it, before it hits us. I was a stranger, thirsty and hungry – and so many people gave to me.


What makes a good conversation with young people?

In the past I have given many hints and tips on how to have a good conversation with young people, I have also reflected sociologically and theologically about conversations, and suggested ways of valuing them (Ie ensure they feature in review sheets) but I wonder;

‘What makes a good conversation?’

Think about for a moment, whether you were in a pub, a coffee shop, in your home, out walking the dog even, walking in the countryside or at a beach.. what was it that made the conversation you had with someone.. a good one?

A sense of sharing?

Time flying, yet every moment being precious?

Personal disclosure?


Good body language and eye contact?

Shared understanding?


No fixed ending?

Equal power dynamics? Or at least awareness of these but respecting each other through it with boundaries..?

What might you add?

And whether we’re 14 or 41, 30 or 60, we sort of know intuitively when we’ve had a good conversation with someone, we felt it, we learned something, we gave something away, maybe there was a spark of life, of hope and of support or care. But we just know.

So, thinking about the dynamics of the youth group setting, the club, the school group or street..

How can spaces, become places of good conversation?

The responsibility is on us, the practitioner, the volunteer to make it so.

Though we might meet a friend in a coffee shop – the conversation with a young person might be less deliberate.. only that they might be looking for the moment

Though we might pass a conversation off as insignificant (we have loads in every session..) young people might have treasured them, or felt an emptiness without one.

The culture and setting is important for conversations. I remember that the best place for conversations was on the door of the open music night, where the young people were smoking. Inside was too loud and dark.. yet, outside was good for conversation because it was an extension of the informal space inside. How might conversation be had in the space of your setting.. I’ve seen homework clubs recently where the leaders have some great conversations with the young people, whilst they’re doing their homework. But also seen very stilted conversations with young people about a theme not of their choosing. When I say I’ve seen, it’s because I led them. When urgency to educate overrides participatory culture that is for young people.

Trust. Agreed, not only being trusted people, but as Jeffs and Smith also say, trusting in conversations themselves. Investing emotionally, in the connections, relying on the conversations for learning, for themes if any to emerge, to let tangents happen, to trust in ourselves as practitioners and volunteers to hold on in conversations, to listen and ask, not try and direct or shape..

Then again, whilst we might want to fixate on the good conversations, we might do well to treasure all the conversations and interactions we have whether it’s banter or chat, or something deeper, all are important. When doing detached work I used to have different categories of the interaction, from ‘acknowledgement'(a quick hi and bye) , a social conversation (about the local context, evenings activities) , a detailed conversation (about a subject in depth) or even a personal one (where disclosure occurred or a personal opinion shared) .. these helped us to value the nature of conversations and recognise that all had value and occurred at different points of a detached evening.. the same group might have a social chat early on or an acknowledgement and later it’s more of a detailed one, once they have found a space to settle in.

I guess if we value conversations, we might do well to recognise their variety, the changes, and their nature. But what makes them good?

And whilst we might have an idea.. sometimes the most naturally good conversations are the ones that just well, happen. We just have to create the right kind of space where young people feel at home and safe.

Detached youthwork- An A-Z Guide

I have written a number of pieces on detached youthwork, most of which are on the archives on my http://www.jamesballantyneyouthworker.wordpress.com site , many top tips, top tens, and pieces on specific issues. But I have never tried to write an A-Z, and do so with the aim of collating a definitive guide to detached youthwork. Image result for a to z

So, at the beginning of 2019, I have tried, with mixed success on some letters to write one. wondered what an A-Z of detached youthwork would look like. So, here, with a sentence or so for each, is my A-Z of detached youthwork – see what you think:

A. Available. This is one key essence of detached youthwork, that workers and volunteers make themselves available in the spaces where young people are. Its obviously but its key. 

B. Bravery, and courage, is required for detached youthwork. Bravery is required, not because of young people necessarily, most most young people are chatty, lively and amiable. Few aren’t. There’s bravery in being in the public spaces in the evening, often drunk adults or dog walkers can be more abusive than young people. There’s bravery in trying something new. We didnt call the book on detached work ‘Here be Dragons‘ for nothing… 

C. Context is key. Every context shapes detached youthwork, a housing estate with a park causes detached youthwork to feel much different to a city centre, as does a rural space or village environment. All have an impact on the background of young people and their social interactions, it makes every context different and important when it comes to detached.

Another ‘C’ is Cold Contact, this seems to be the key marked difference between detached and other youth provision, and the aspect most likely to provoke fear and trepidation. Its an important aspect of detached – that first meeting with young people, and where you ‘warts n all’ try and engage in conversation with them.

D. Dialogue. I would have said conversation, but i think C should be context. Dialogue is conversation that leads to action. Most times on the streets conversation is the aim, beyond banter, where there might be some disclosure, some amiable chat where a transfer happens.

E. Education. Much youthwork, but i think detached more than most is about constantly learning. Also there is education involved constantly in helping young people understand our role, and the dynamics of this, in the informality of the space of the streets, there is transferal of knowledge. it is an educative experience. (its also why R= research)

F. Freezing cold nights. Its a fact of detached life. Yes there are pleasant spring afternoons, but some of the best chats are at evening, and in autumn, and these can be cold.

G. Groups of young people. Its the meat and drink of detached. Detached is about finding, identifying, listening to, learning from, groups of young people. How they operate, what they do, what they like, the leaders, the core and the purpose. The task of detached is to find a way of gaining rapport and acceptance with that group, to have conversation and develop group work.

H. Hopeful attitude, is what is needed at the beginning of each session, and every conversation, to try and be positive and help young people towards an individual or collective dream, to ask the ‘what if’ question.

I. In their spaces. Detached youthwork happens in the context of young people. it changes the power, responsibility and duty of care issues considerably. It changes the nature of the relationship created. Improvisation is another I that is part of detached work, it involves thinking on your feet.

J. Jousting. Sometimes the conversation is more of a jousting match of random banter. You might just be present whilst young people are in their zone doing their thing communicating with each other in the contextual codes of banter, grunts, comments and expressions. Detached youthwork gives you this insight. It also gives an opportunity to be questioned and be challenged, it can be a joust. But that might be the kind of adult/adult conversation that is possible where the power dynamics are so different.

K. Killing time. Or Keeping up morale on quiet evenings. Quiet nights could be opportunities for doing informal supervision and training with staff, to learn about the context, to take a breather.

K is also the Kit bag. After all: what do you take on the streets with you?  – This could include, games, toys and activities, torches, first aid kits, hand warmers, hats gloves, bottles of water, confidentiality policy, referral sheet, organisation business cards (ie ‘the project’) , spare change,  and probably a few other things besides. All neatly packed away in a small kit bag. That now weighs a ton.

L.Long term. Detached youthwork is a long term game. It requires patience, it is counter cultural to the quick fix mentality operating in much of support services. Detached is a long term venture that when done well requires time, time to learn, identify and work with groups.

M. Money is tight even if the budget is low. Because it can be difficult to get funding in the first place, because although usually very needed and worthy, fitting detached into outcomes and funding requirements is still tricky.

N.New. Even though its been around for 100 years or more. For many people who have orientated their youthwork or ministry around buildings and institutions, detached youthwork always seems new. Strange. 

O. Opportunities. Most youthwork is this to be honest. But detached youthwork gives you opportunities to

  • see young people in their chosen space, doing their chosen activities, with their chosen people
  • to converse with young people where they may be more at ease
  • to be in a place where young people have more opportunities to deny adult engagement & conversation
  • to work with and develop conversation with young people not in other provision (not that there is much other provision)
  • Opportunity to have conversation with young people without worrying about buildings, materials and equipment.

P. Policies. You must have them, even if they need to be specific to detached youthwork. And another P, planning. Detached youthwork still needs it, its different planning, but it involves getting volunteers trained, observing in the local area, identifying which area, contacting and discovering other agencies, creating ID badges, safeguarding, team building, contacting the police (possibly). There is planning involved, it just looks different

Q. Quiet. It can be. But not always.

R. Research & Reflection . Detached youthwork hones the skills in a really good way. Its as if you start to develop young people awareness goggles, trying to observe, listen, and discover them, how they react in the community context, what the community is doing, what might be learned through the context, research is continual as groups change, activities change and communities change. Then of course, from research comes reflection, thinking and asking the critical questions of those observations. R for ‘risk’ also works, young people might be doing ‘risky’ behaviour, young people might provoke us with risky questions, we might push young people to new actions which might be risk taking on their part. Risk is unavoidable – but lets do what we can to minimise actual harm… 

S. Supervision. Either you need it, or you need to give it to your team, volunteers and staff. Some good guidelines and ideas for it are included elsewhere on my other site. 

T. Team work. Even a team of two is a team,attending to the relationships between the team is crucial as you will almost always need to work together and trust each other in decision making large and small. All activities that enhance team are worth it, from before and after session reflection, conversation and debrief , team meetings, end of year dinners out. All build team. And young people see that a team is doing stuff for them. It may reduce dependency. And help young people develop relationships with many supportive adults, not just one.

another T is Training. Some get out there try stuff, and then develop it, some people prefer the before the starting training to allay fears and give staff and volunteers a sense of whats to be expected and how to deal with things, both are valid.

U. Undervalued well yes,  detached may be cheapest, and be often able to reach some of the more difficult young people, but its hard to define, measure and manage, so because of this it gets undervalued and chopped easy.

Its also Unpredictable – and that’s a beautiful part of it. But no youth club night is the same anyway.. is it?

V. Visibility. A detached youthwork team needs to visible (and distinctive) and is different to the general public and other public space adults like police, street pastors or sales people for under age nightclubs..

W. Walking to where theyre at. Not just walking a drive might be needed. Yet alot of walking is often required and repeatedly so. We make the road by walking…

X. Hmm. Poetic licence required.. exit strategies? Detached youthwork is as much about being self aware (like much youth work) as it is being spatially aware, knowing where you are, the dynamics of the route, the cul de sacs, and alley ways are critical for knowing how to leave a situation if it starts to get out of hand and you need to extricate yourselves. Its a strategy and action, not just a reaction, leaving says something about how you might be being treated by a young person, you can leave, and so can they.

Y. Ymca/YWCA If i might be personal for a moment, Perth YMCA was where I cut my mustard as a youthworker doing detached work, and YMCA’s have in the past been good at doing detached work and sticking with it. It was a YWCA where Joan Tash and George Goetschius developed detached youthwork and researched it at the time and wrote ‘Working with the Unattached’ for me the Bible of detached youthwork. A review is here .Other organisations may have done detached work to. But Y standing for the Ymca seems to fit quite well. 

Z. Zealous. Were a zealous bunch at times, us detached youthworkers, making ourselves out to be unique, ‘the only true youthwork left’ and defending the practice of it to the hilt. But then again, if youthwork itself it maligned then detached.. Someone might have to stand up for it..

There you go – an A-Z of detached youthwork… enjoy.. oh and I know that..

Even with a list of 30 or so aspects, this is probably not conclusive, i havent talked about outreach vs detached, or referrals and signposting, about partnership work or schools, about alcohol, sports or specific interest detached work, or faith based detached work. So there are more to add, definitely. Neither have i mentioned the few writers and theorists, like Graham Tiffany, Richard Passmore or the Federation of detached youthwork, or organisations like FYT which do alot of detached work too.

But then again, theres always more to add…


Church; Be thankful that being young and trendy isnt the starting point to developing good youth work

Which is quite a relief. Isnt it.

The amount of times I hear, ‘but we’re just a bunch of old people, no young people will relate to us’ – or ‘we’re just too different from them’ or ‘we’re too old’  … And it makes me sometimes want to scream.

The fact may well be that unless youv’e been blessed with an eternal youth or maybe even decide that you didn’t want to grow up since being a teenager, then the chances are that in a number of ways you will be distant from the exact goings on in the lives of young people. Even this year all the exam grading changed again, so yes, GCSES are 1-9, not A** to F. Not to mention that they don’t buy singles anymore. (i know..) They use words like woke, and sick. Image result for trendy

So, when it comes to working with young people an ageing church could feel like it is unable to , because it feels out of touch, only ‘in touch’ because of the ad hoc moments with grandchildren, or ‘what they see on the news’ about young people. That distance keeps widening. And at the same time as young people are into well, who knows what they are into, you’re more likely to be found in the garden centre than the shopping centre.

There have been two competing strands in youth ministry, and they seem to be at loggerheads. The first is that youth ministry has strived to be relevant. Which can mean trying to keep up.

The second is that there is a call for those who work with young people to be authentic.

I dont think it is possible to have both. And young people normally see through the former, and ultimately prefer the latter.

The problem is that in churches we have convinced ourselves that the former is more important, trying to keep up, trying to ‘entertain’, trying to ‘keep’ and ‘attract’ young people will take a certain kind of youthful looking energy driven relevancy. But will it? Of course the problem with this thinking is that the numbers of 20-30 year olds in the church has dropped so significantly (because the previous generation of young people in the church escaped by 1/3) – then its left to the few 40-60 year olds to do youth work. Including the retired teachers, the clergy, the volunteers, the mums and dads. And there is no point in all of them trying to be cool. Because for them cool was wicked. Cool was the 80’s. Cool may have even been the Beatles. And so, if this generation of people thinks that they need to be cool, trendy or relevant to work with young people – then frankly there wont be any youth work done by churches in the UK. or at least not soon. And trying to be trendy is hard work and counter productive, because its fake. Its also not hugely respectful of young people and the space they might be trying to create for themselves.

Image result for trendyFortunately, and thankfully, there are ways of making youth work not about those who lead it. Its not about us, thankfully. Its about the young people. (and its about God, but thats for another piece). Very early in my youth work vocation i realised that the sooner we realise that youthwork is about being interested in young people, rather than them being interested in us, the better. We do have to be interested in the lives of local young people. That just takes some hard work, listening, learning and being present. What is going on?

What is going on with young people and how they communicate, how they travel around the local area, how they use local facilities, how they cope with situations, how some have access to opportunities compared to others…

What is going on in regard to young peoples mental health, well being, fitness, spirituality?

What is going on in regard to pressure, expectation, fears, dreams and ambitions?

What is going on in regard to helping young people use their gifts, skills, abilities not harnessed elsewhere?

If we can re-tune our thinking to think about young people and be interested in them, have empathy with them, connect with them then this causes any youth work to be about them, not about us. And ask – what might we be able to do to help young people? to be practical in their situation? What if the church can provide spaces and resources for young people to develop their own space, activity and community action? Rather than be ‘leaders’ of it?  Running a youth group is tiring, energy sapping and sometimes feels a lost cause, but – from the outset why not develop a participative approach where young people gather to make it happen using the safe welcoming space that could be in the church hall or main building.

If were interested, and have a desire to do good, and desire to show empathy – a desire that might be counter cultural in todays polorised generational society where young is pitted against old, and vice versa- this isnt Biblical its the Daily Mail remember. Then this might go a long way to trying to be authentic. It may well also be relevant, but in a more meaningful way that ‘just trying to be trendy’.

You dont have to be trendy to empathise, or trendy to listen, or trendy to walk alongside a young person, or to help them flourish, or to build rapport with them, or to mentor them, disciple them.

Maybe we do have to be youthful though, a kind of youthfulness that believes that young people can dream, can hope, can make something of themselves in the community their are in, a youthfulness that has hope for the future. A youthfulness that wants to still make a difference, however corny that sounds, and accompany that with a state of mind that doesn’t want to be the person who takes the credit for being that ‘difference-maker’. If we’ve given up on youthfulness and a that state of mind, then it might be argued that we’ve also given up on God and his redemptive transforming power, and lost sight of the eternal goal.

Be thankful you dont have to be trendy to start working with young people. And there are countless ‘un-trendy’ people who are being the saltiest salt and brightest light in the light of young people across the UK, but by providing places of welcome, conversation, listening and hope. Someone to talk with, a person who is there. Something this seemingly insignificant to our large ministry or weekly activities is hugely significant to every single young person, lets not forget this.

That doesnt mean to say you might not need advice, or guidance or support in trying something new – remembering that you may have survived the type of youth ministry you were subjected to – but others didnt and that might not be the best starting point today. But start with young people now, not history, or programmes, start by listening and learning in the local and the present. Shake off the shackles of falseness and attraction thinking and build from the ground, and build with young people not just in mind but present from the outset.


In Christian youth ministry – is God conversational?

‘Conversation is central to our work as informal educators, yet we often undervalue it’ (Jeffs and Smith, Informal education, 2001, p27)

I appreciate sometimes that keeping up with my trains of thought is a little on the random scale. I do sometimes think I say the same things over and over again, on other occasions I jump from one serious topic to another without too much reasoning. A few weeks ago I published a piece that gave 10 ideas for developing conversations with young people in the youth club , before that I wrote a piece that showed how using reviewing and evaluation, conversation could become more meaningful and encouraged,  turning the activity space of a youth venue into a place where the magic of youthwork can emerge from . I have recently led a few seminars with volunteers on developing conversations with young people. Conversation is clearly on my mind.

I then thought. If I want to develop thinking and learning about conversation in youth ministry – where do I turn to?

I began to look.

I confess, I dont have many books that I would say are on youth ministry, probably no more than 10-15. With the addition of some grove booklets, a few journals.

In ’10 essential concepts for christian youth work’ (Grove booklet Y40) – is one example where conversation is not mentioned, not even as an essential concept.

In ‘The Theological turn in youth Ministry’ (Root, Dean, 2011) there is a small section that contrasts the conversations between people as the space where theology develops – rather than the ‘God talk/epilogue’ (p79-82) But its hardly valued as concept in itself, more a reality of ministry.

Ashton and Moon suggest that communicating is done through relationships and shared experiences (1996, p54) Which i kind of get as it, like Root below, contrasts to the evangelist who communicates like a scatter gun (their words not mine) yet conversation is not explored further.

I could go on. And I know there are gaps to my survey, I am not sitting in a university library right now, but scanning the books on my bookshelf… What is promoted instead, and pretty much all the writing in youth ministry is about is on ‘relationships’.

I wonder whether in youth ministry we have fixated our glance on relationships because for many that is the heart of the gospel. Dont mishear me, there is undoubtedly a relationship aspect to salvation, but the question is whether in youth ministry fixing our eyes on relationships has meant a neglection of something other. For example; Steve Griffiths ‘models for youth Ministry’ (Learning from the life if Christ) is almost pained to go against the flow of relationship thinking when he says; ‘ it is clearly a myth that Jesus spent three intensive years with his disciples. He did not’ (I can hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth now). Its as if there needs to be a justification that there is an alternative to ‘relational’ youth ministry, given it prominence. To have a look at why it became prominent, have a read of the first chapter of Andrew Roots, Revisiting relational youth ministry , whilst having an american emphasis its is worth engaging with.

So, where does that leave my thought process. Where might I go to next to contemplate, from withing youth ministry, something about conversation.

Before thinking theologically,  I must disclose that I have managed to find two references to ‘conversation’, the first is in ‘Joined Up’ by Danny Brierley . On pages 89-91 he at least, gives some reference to Jesus being in conversation with many people, 125 recorded incidents, in which other people he claims initiated 54% of these, he then goes on to reference Maxine Greens work on the Emmaus road episode as a classic example of conversation and informal education. I quite agree, But I think it deserved more than 2 pages. But maybe more than 2 pages on this is enough in a book of 200 words for the youth ministry audience. And given that Brierley has been provoked by having to think about conversation as he is dialoguing with ‘youthwork values’ its almost though it has to be included.

I discovered also that there is 4-5 pages on developing conversations in ‘Here be Dragons’ (Youth work and ministry off the map) – which isnt surprising as a) its all about detached youthwork and conversation is a key focus, and b) because I wrote them. (you can buy a copy in a link above)

Instead, what if I looked at the theological writing within youth ministry, again, from the books that I have – could there be some hidden gold dust on the subject of God and that he/she spoke and continues to speak, in conversations?

With the exception of Brierley above, there are few.

In Pete Wards ‘Youthwork and the Mission of God’ God is many things missional, is incarnational, crucified, immanent and transcendant , God is all knowing, – but when it comes to God speaking – the only mention of this is that Jesus spoke Arameic (as an example of being incarnational, being ‘with’ the culture) and so whilst Ward is right to suggest that our faith is based upon our revelation of God in Christ (p34) – that God written in this piece is relatively mute.

A similar pattern is repeated in  ‘Starting right’ (Dean, Clark, Rahn, 2001) and a few others, including Griffiths (above) – Developing an incarnational youth ministry, or a relational one, that follows the path of Jesus, seems to be all about being located in a space, like Jesus was located in a space, At least in ‘Starting right’ there is reference to the disciples ‘listening’ to Jesus – therefore he did at least speak. (p130-131), but that Jesus spoke, seems to be a rare event.

It is as if youth ministry focuses on methods of trying to do ministry, or places greater significance on other aspects of Gods nature and character, promises and blessings, such as ‘God is there to forgive young people’ or ‘God is urging young people to develop eyes of the kingdom’ all phrases I have read in these books above, though cant remember which ones. Or whether its assumed that communication and conversation was happening, and so this is undervalued, or ignored. What does seems to be is an inclination away from communicating outside of relationships, as though it was done a few times, Jesus ministry seemed to be recorded as being more about the few, the individual or small groups of conversations. But there is a reluctance to focus on conversation itself – because its as if there has to be something more.

This is a pretty lengthy piece, I realise, that is a bit of a splurge of my thought processes so far, and a little bit of research. If you think I have missed something somewhere in a youth ministry book, that I havent got, then do tell me. From where I have got to, it appears to be that the speaking God doesnt figure much in the formalised accounts of what youth ministry is all about, and yet, for many young people and ourselves – I repeat the addage that Kevin Vanhoozer exclaimed – ‘Only the speaking God can help‘ – and it is from this point that I will be focussing this week on a few pieces. For, I am wondering some of these questions:

  1. What might a theology of conversation look like?
  2. How might a speaking God, a conversational God, be needed in Youth Ministry?

These are fairly large questions, and so not for a Saturday morning (today) – they will be what I am going to try and write about over the next few weeks. A warning, they will, or they might go deep. So if you want to raise your game, click the ‘follow’ button so you can peruse these pieces as they are published. We have a responsibility to think theologically about our youth ministry practice, as Pete Ward has urged for quite a while, and unless I am much mistaken, an understanding of the God who spoke, who speaks and communicates seems to have been maligned in youth ministry, and valuing conversation as a result has been as undervalued for the sake of relationships. Which kind of seems odd, doesnt it, for i know that relationships do not always need conversation for them to occur – but some kind of communication, affection and connection is required (outside of family bonds).

So, thats my thinking process, how I have got the edge of the pool, ready to dive into thinking theologically about conversation, about God who speaks and communicates in conversation with humans, created beings. As you might imagine, these might take a bit of time, so be patient with me on these. I am also aware that theres a part 2 on the LGBT story piece to write. It is on the way, but taking a bit of time.

Whose up for a conversation about faith and conversations?

10 tips on starting and developing conversations with young people in the youth club

In my recent piece I wrote about how good conversations with young people turn an activity venue into a space of youthwork. Maybe this is a stark claim to a degree, and usually one of the more difficult aspects of working with young people, and frequently asked questions to me is ‘How to developing the conversations?’ , and often that issue resides in us, ie it is our fault young people dont talk to us. Especially if we fear young people or believe the negativity around them.

Whenever I do detached youthwork training for groups and organisations, ‘starting conversations’ in the cold contact moment on the streets is something that we spend ages on. If we’re just setting up activities for young people to do, whilst we stay to one side, or in the kitchen cooking for them, then its no wonder young people leave. On one hand conversations on the streets could be seen as one of the more scary aspects of that type of youthwork, on the other it makes it easy. Why? because Good Conversations happen in an environment where young people feel at home. It is a space that they trust, and we are people they can trust. Young people choose the streets, therefore they’re more likely to feel at home, the youth club or group.. thats a different matter … 

So – in the youth club environment – How do you start conversations with young people?

  1. Good conversations happen when young people feel at home, this includes safety, but it also includes participation, can they treat the place like home, can they make themselves a drink of coffee? Do they trust leaders who stick around (for longer than 6 months)  The environment is key. Giving conversation space is important. How many times do young people ‘just want a space to chat’ whilst we want to make it a space of activity programme and distractions?  What if we heeded this request… what are young people saying..? Image result for conversation
  2. Rely on the context. Starting a conversation with whats in the room and what a young person has brought to the room is a good place. So, What is already happening, what are the young people talking about? Whats the local news, gossip, whats the craze? But also – what might be different about the young person, have they changed their hair? try and notice. The context in the moment is a good key starting point.
  3. Get them involved in a task (not just an activity) and spend time doing that with them, helping set up, deciding on the food, setting out the games, in a club environment the resources themselves can be the setting for the conversation, it helps as it does make it too intrusive or personal.
  4. Opinion Questions;  Try and get an opinion on something – recently this has been easy ‘who do you think will win the world cup’ is an opinion creating question, generating answers and also detailed analysis or a ‘dont care’ – but ‘who do you think’ or ‘what do you think’ type questions are great at getting a response, and giving young people space to share their thoughts and ideas about whatever topic – whether its a local community issue, about an ethical issue, about faith, about future, about something topical. Finding out their opinion and listening to it and using it to reflect on is crucial. Image result for conversation
  5. Dream questions. These are the ‘If you could……..’ type questions. so ‘If you could run the country – what flavour ice cream would be banned’  or ‘if you could have a special power what would you do with it’ or ‘if you could only have cheese or chocolate in the future, which would you keep?’  yes some more open than others, but you see what i mean – questions that pose a possible scenario, or captivate a dream, such as rule making, money spending, world changing – are all positive ways of developing conversations. And hearing about young peoples ideas through these dreams.
  6. Resources can help. The FYT starter cards with pictures and quotations on them might help – used in a way that create conversation and develop thinking. Pip Wilsons blob trees  also work well.
  7. On the Nuture Development site, they have uploaded 25 questions that could be used in a community setting to help develop conversations, these include:

What do you do to have fun?

What would you like to teach others?

if you could start a business what would it be?

Some of these might be more appropriate than others in settings with young people, but I would recommend you have a look at the whole list at this link The good life conversation , there are some good ones like ‘ if you and three friends could do something to improve the lives of others in this area, what would it be’ – and from these types of opinion/dream scenarios the group could develop and make plans.

8. The activities help, of course they do, board games, table tennis and craft are what solid youth clubs have orientated around for decades, all with the triple aims of helping develop competance and achievement, develop skills and social development and also to be a space of conversation in the process.

9. Follow dont lead. Let the tangent happen if thats where the young person has taken it, they might have taken it to that tangent for a reason. Follow it through. If its heading personal and personal for them then thats ok, its being directed by them. If its avoiding issues, then again thats where young people want to go with it. Young people in other settings get used to directed conversations, this may be a space where they can develop their own with adults and be more in control. Let it happen, and then see where it takes. Prepare to improvise, and prepare to listen and hold back. Image result for conversation

10. Phrases like ‘tell me more’ , or ‘describe what that was like’ or ‘you must have been ______ (excited/scared/worried) when that happened’ and other similar ones can be helpful as they take us out of questions, and into listening and trying to give more opportunity for the young person to use the space to talk about something and recognise their feelings in it.


So, there we go, much of this stuff is interchangeable from the streets to the clubs, with resources easier in a club setting. Id say that there are a number of things that we may be should try and avoid like, talking about school (if its out of context) , or even talking about ourselves ‘when i was 15 this kind of technology didnt exist’ type of thing as usually young people dont want to talk about school (unless they mention it) or are that bothered about us as adults at all. It takes a bit of guts to really do this conversation thing, because sometimes natural instincts get in the way like ‘how was school today?’ or interrupting or trying to control the conversation, yes maybe avoid subjects unsuitable, but on other occasions following and not leading will help no end.

So, 10 tips to help conversations in youthwork practice- anyone else out there want to add their own for others to share and develop practice? – use the comments below… thank you


Other Resources to help:

TED talks on conversation: https://www.ted.com/playlists/211/the_art_of_meaningful_conversa

Valuing conversation in Youthwork; http://www.infed.org

Developing Cold Contact conversations is in two chapters of ‘Here be Dragons’ – Link above.