Harnessing the power of young peoples ideas; the future of youth ministry? 

What if the role of the youth worker was to harness the power of the young persons ideas?

Whenever there’s discussions about young adults conceptually we might put them in sociological context, as teenagers or adolescents, in a victim or voiceless context such as ‘youth crime’ and innocent/precious context ‘young love’ . Two others are young people as deficit, somehow distinct from society (as determined by adults) or gifted and contributors in social change (abcd, see nurture development site in the menu). Often youth workers might say we’re working to address needs, create safe spaces or  develop their interests.

But what about being catchers, harnessers, and facilitators of young peoples ideas?

As Friere said “There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope”  this isn’t about dreams, though dreams & ideas are similar.

As Ted Robinson said in a TED talk on education, from an early age children have divergent thinking that due to more controlling environments in school and other structures like church (sunday school classes) their divergent thinking contracts and becomes convergent. Converging on expectations and the boundaries in formal education settings.

What if the role of the children’s and youth worker is to provide spaces and opportunities for young peoples ideas and the environment to follow them through? To try not to waste them.

Ideas that might be about;

The structure of groups,

Leaders roles,

Content of teaching

Responses to their problems (eg bullying in school )

Responses to faith community issues

Responses to local community issues (food poverty, obesity, limited exercise opportunities, literacy concerns, social inequality)

Residential planning or special events..

The list could go on…

I often hear youth leaders say, ‘we ask young people and they don’t know what they want.’ Then it’s a question of how young people are asked, what the process is to gather ideas, ‘brainstorms’ aren’t always best. Neither are consultations when the plan is already set.

A youth worker friend of mine said that they once took 3 months talking with a group of young people to help them plan their programme. They loved it, engaged with it, led and shaped it. The church hated it. When the worker moved on , new leaders used predetermined programmes. The young people left soon after. A healthy space where ideas were realised was created. When it was shut down. Young people voted with their feet.

What if working with young people was about seeing then as persons with ideas. Ideas that might change their local world. Ideas that it is our role to uncover and help them make them happen.

I was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of young people as presented by Kenda Creasy Dean (see previous blog), where young people developed food kitchens and resources. But young people can often find a way to be entertained with just a football and a kerb. They have ideas. And if they don’t then it’s because we’re not trusted to be in receipt of their ideas, yet.

We might hear ideas in conversations, so we need to have conversations with young people and listen.

What this might mean is that young people and children become creators of their own provision. The skills of the voluntary or pro youth worker are then in negotiation and creating mechanisms for accepting or reluctantly blocking the offers of the ideas. In short to be attuned to the skills of improvising in the moment and having access to resources to be part of the acceptance.

If the question is what might the faith based youth worker do that no other professional might, yes support or education or faith imparting might be in there, but a person that seeks out, accepts and realises young children and young peoples ideas might make the role unique.

In a room of 3 young people how many ideas might there be that they have? 30, 300? How many times have these same young people attended the group or club or event and all those ideas for local or group transformation have laid dormant? What a waste.

Oh and if persons are made in God’s image, then so are imaginations, dreams and ideas. It’s our responsibility as youthworkers to create the environment to receive them, to work with young people & children to realise them.

You might never need a ready made programme again.


Vulnerability as the starting point of community transformation

“But that might mean we have to be vulnerable”

I was at a gathering of people this week, mostly clergy, and the subject within it was about conversations, and creating opportunities to have conversations with people. The kind of thing that detached youthwork is pretty much uniquely and solely about. Ideas flung across the room, such as chatting to people who were waiting at the bus stops, or travelling on the same bus. It was recognised that people at first would think this was odd, but after a while there would be a process of acceptance, rapport, trust and then the capacity for conversations to occur. Again, its the kind of process that is visible in detached youthwork. It was suggested in the meeting that Clergy ‘just dont have the time to do this’  which is fair enough, though is only an excuse and realisation of other priorities. What was more revealing was the comment given, and said with more feeling:

‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’

On the positive, the statement recognised that vulnerability felt difficult. And that as a member of the clergy their role came with it many associations of power. But in a split second of a statement, the light dawned – for real conversations, to be trusted by people, and to really connect authentically in unusual spaces, meeting people in theirs, requires vulnerability.

Detached youthwork, and even to a slighly lesser extent open access youth club work that I have been involved in in the last 10 years has given me a regular experience of vulnerability, or at least giving me the possibility of vulnerability, as at times I choose not to let go, not to commit fully, protect myself. Though for others looking at it, it is risk taking, unpredictable and requires vulnerability. Yet in a different way, I have felt even more vulnerable in the last few months, one to many family related health scares and worries, which include a fair dose of fear and worry – and vulnerability – combined with the dawning reality of redundancy from my current job at DYFC, these have, if im honest, caused me to feel a different sort of vulnerability, to just a vocational vulnerability, a vulnerability of not being in control, a vulnerability of emotions, even though I am used to trying to give others power, and meeting them where theyre at, having almost no power in situations gives this a new meaning. I wonder whether at the heart of genuine mission is that same sense of lost it all vulnerability, or leaving as much of it behind to not just go, but be present in the space. What might it mean to be vulnerable?

  1. It takes vulnerability to realise that we might be wrong. Everything we know about a community, about a group of people is one form of knowledge, but it is only one perspctive. It started to blow my mind when after only a few weeks of detached youthwork, that young people were choosing to drink alcohol, it wasnt because they were bored. It was choice. ‘Bored’ was what i was told was the reason. Escaping other realities was another truth. Paulo Freire said that after he had started talking to people in a community in south America, describes it like this: “that was my second learning experience, but i still didnt know what i knew. Just like they (the community)  didnt know what they knew, I didnt know what i knew. The question for me was exclusively to understand what were their levels of knowledge and how did they know. It was a beautiful experience. I learned how to discuss with the people, i learned how to respect their knowledge, their beliefs, their fears, their hopes, their expectations. It took time, and many meetings” (We make the road by walking, Freire, Horton, 1990, p56,p67) It takes vulnerability to be truthful about the prejudgements, the preknowledge and to listen to the knowledge of someone else, to have these challenged.
  2. It takes vulnerability to give. Over the last few months I have witnessed the slow processes of collaboration taking place, small tentative steps between people of different organisations trying to work at something of bigger goodness. Each collaborative moment of conversation is vulnerable, requiring either trust or faith, and vulnerability to leave something behind. Heading out on the streets to talk to young people, leaves alot behind, but in the moments of conversation and connection there is vulnerable giving of time. A Spiritual leader who lacks basic compassion has almost no human power to change other people, because people intuitively know he or she does not represent the Divine or Big Truth” writes Richard Rohr, change that requires law “does not go deep, nor does it last” (Rohr, R,  Eager to Love; the alternative way of St Francis, 2014, p28)  It is not that people don’t associate a representation with divine truth, they just smell a rat. If it looks forced, manipulative and quick- its not likely to be deep, heartfelt and lasting. Image result for vulnerable
  3. It needs vulnerability to take risks. Because this takes us out of our comfort zones. Even on the streets, which could be always risky places, actually its possible to ‘go through the motions’ and be almost blaze about being there, the street becomes a new comfort zone. Kevin Vanhoozer uses the metaphor of theatre to describe the church (as do others) and in Faith Speaking Understanding (2014) suggests that in the great theatre of the world, the church in its mission is to break through, nay, collapse the invisible fourth wall that exists in the theatre between stage and audience, and often between church and its own view of the world outside. What this calls for is less of a prepared script for performing the Godly script – but an interactive one. (Vanhoozer, 2014, p34-35) 
  4. Vulnerability to trust in interactive conversations. Trusting in conversations as a source of education is one of the bedrocks of informal education – or youthwork ( See ‘Here be dragons 2013, or ‘Informal education, by Jeffs & Smith, 1998) , yet it might seem just a ‘waste of time’ to chat with people at a bus stop ( when there are 101 other things to be doing instead, like arguing with Ian Paul on Twitter, for example). The reason it takes vulnerability is that it breaks all the moulds, it is not a programme, a service or a pre ordained script.Image result for vulnerable It is interactive trusting, of listening and letting the conversation flow, with tangents, stories, warts and all, by letting it flow, its in the hands of the other, yet this will take time. Because people tend to expect that the vicar, or youthworker might be ‘doing conversation for a reason’ ( theres probably an event on to be invited to.. sigh) Being vulnerable in conversation is to trust it, nuture the relationship that develops from it, have faith in it and the genuine sense of humanity that might exist in it. But its vulnerable, because ‘vicar has conversations about peoples gifts’ doesnt write its own poster, neither is it social media friendly. PTL. Image result for vulnerable
  5. It takes vulnerability to invest in the ignored. It is always easy, it is part of Human nature to be liked, to seek people out who might like us, who might fit in with people we also like. Who dont upset the apple cart. So in this way, being vulnerable to connect, and actually invest in ( not just give food to) is a vulnerable step, and one that others have to be educated about in the church, worship might have to become a collective journey to a place of welcome for all – but it takes vulnerability to connect, converse and provide space to the usually ignored by church in society. Even on the streets, I know i have ‘favourites’ the young people who might be chatty, easier to talk to than others, even those I know from youth groups – far far easier than those who might give nothing except crudeness, so its not easy to be vulnerable, yet no one said vulnerability was easy. If theres relationships to build from scratch then nothing structurally sound gets built on the first assessment of the site.
  6. It takes vulnerability to provide opportunities for those perceived with needs, to enhance their gifts, use their strengths and develop what they have that’s good. Image result for vulnerableFrom community gardens, to Sharing food, to bike recycling, to forums and groups, many are examples of using and sharing gifts, strengths and being in receipt of the goodness and beauty of others, the almost least expected. But theres a vulnerability to let it happen, when usually those who have great power find it difficult to relinquish all the responsibility.
  7. It takes vulnerability to resist conformity. An interactive Theatre production might have a theme, and the sense of the director or authors intention, but how it gets there, using what props, and finding its feet along the way, as offers and gifts are accepted into the story and others are rejected – its is less of conformity and more genuinely about faith, faith as process, faith in process. The message is in the performance. Some conformity is good, conformity to the overall story of Gods redemption, Gods giving grace, yes, conformity of how this is enacted in the interactive theatre might be challenged in all vulnerability.
  8. It takes vulnerability to invest emotionally, truthfully and authentically. Yet people orientated presence is akin to Jesus heading to the well at noon. We go to where there are people who might be lost looking for conversation, and leave it at that, no strings or expectation. Just to be in the space.

As i was thinking about this theme today, I encountered this awesome article by Wendy McCaig, someone doing asset based community development from a faith perspective in Richmond, Virginia. I nearly wrote a piece entitled the same quite a few years ago, when i was sensing that people not programmes were the order of the day in youth ministry back in the 1990’s, but Wendys article below, spurred me to think further about vulnerability, and how this is core to the start of deep missional practices, also deep & real understanding of others, and a recognition of our own power. Here it is, as a reward for reading all of my article, heres a real treat:


‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’ – well, yes. Its not something the disciples or apostles had to do, it was their core practice, they barely stood still enough to regard comfortability as the norm. “For he made himself vulnerable… even to…..what was it again…?’ 


A follow up to this post is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-TO; and entitled ‘ does status anxiety prevent the church from being vulnerable’. This was in part after the various questions, comments and feedback this first post generated.

How spiritual are young people on the streets?

I have spent the evening putting together some slides for a training session I am leading tomorrow with a group of detached workers in Newcastle. One of the topics they would like me to cover is that of ‘developing spirituality with young people during street based work. A few years ago i posted the following article ‘The Street as a context for Theology -which was quite popular, its here if you would like a read (http://wp.me/p2Az40-5w). But this evening i was reflecting on developing spirituality with young people and it caused me to reflect on a few questions:

Are young people spiritual – and how, as detached youthworkers, would we even know?

Of course the answer is yes, but without the building to be a guide ( ie young people attend a church space, therefore they must be) , being confident that young people are articulating spiritual thoughts, reflections and ideas might only emerge in conversation – or as they react to things happening in the world, such as creation, or loss, or celebration. As i was thinking however, I wonder whether in regard to matters of faith, there needs to be a new typology describing them.

  1. The ‘Opting-outs‘ – these are the young people who have been part of church culture through family links and are ‘mostly in’ but could ‘opt-out’ – and a huge amount of energy is put in to ‘keep’ them in.
  2. The ‘Opting – ins’ – This could be a great number of young people who are ambivalent but could be interested in faith – and they go to open youth clubs, attractive after-school clubs, or messy church type activities – they could ‘opt-in’ and might not need too much convincing if there is a healthy place, positive relationships and they fit within the culture via friendships. Yes, they have friends who are ‘in’ – so these young people might ‘opt in’
  3. ‘Distant Opting-ins‘  – These young people have few faith connections, aside from statutory provision, such as RE in school, and have attended a few ceremonies in churches, their friendship groups have no faith adherents, neither do their family. They may have tried to articulate faith, but haven’t been given a space to do so. To become ‘religious’ they would have to go ‘against’ family and friendship values and would have to explain themselves.

Generally, young people I have ever met on the streets have been in category 3. They are ‘Distant opting in’, not through any fault of their own. Often churches have abandoned the estates they live in (or are only a gathered community in the estate), they have no connection with a local church, or faith community, through even a friend, or family member. The opportunity that detached youthworkers have on the streets is that they get the opportunity to connect with young people who are left aside by most churches, deemed too hard work, or ‘disengaged’ – and so the task is to give ‘distant-opt in’ young people opportunities to opt in. Image result for curiosity quotes

By raising awareness & curiosity, by engaging in conversation, by listening and meeting them in their space, by listening to the faith they already have in the world – such as gambling, or consuming, or competition – what might be their religion already? what do they worship? phones? friends? football? how is it displayed – in clothes, technology or tattoos?


Image result for tattoos of spirituality

Christian Smith in ‘Soul Searching’ (2005) says that “The religion and spirituality of most teenagers actually strikes us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations and structures of the larger adult world in which adolescents are being socialised”

It stand to reason then, that a young persons situation in regard to faith and spirituality is most likely to reflect their parents. It could be presumed that a young person might rebel against these to join a faith community – but if this is what faith communities are encouraging without conversing with parents also, then theres something to reflect on. But if their parents have limited experience or sympathy with faith then its as likely the young person may not either – this isnt rocket science – but as we encounter young people on the streets and begin to explore and raise awareness of spirituality it is worth reflecting on further. But how might this happen? – well none of it happens without creating positive safe supportive relationships with young people – the basics of detached.

It might be possible to rely on the same ‘methods’ used for categories 1 and 2 above – but usually these look like programmes and buildings, and so these are less likely to be successful – they also tend to be packaged with high levels of expectations- ie ‘if you do x, then young people with think y’– so, we might need a whole new tool box of items for spiritual exploring on the streets.

  1. Trust in conversations – Young people will often , if they trust you, and are wanting to, take the conversation to a place where they are comfortable – if this starts to include matters of faith, of personal opinion, of religion, of ceremony – then organically prompt and provoke through questions and listening.
  2. Redeem spaces – Often the case is made to take young people away from their environment to explore faith, the residential, or the ‘event’ to be invited to – alternatively What we can do on detached is to help young people think about faith and spirituality in the space – in the urban landscape. Can we light candles on the footpaths, or create intentional spaces of silence, or something else appropriate to the space. From red lights in the traffic lights, bus shelters or barbed wire – all can be used in conversation to enable reflection on humanity and something about God.  Can we hold open ‘services’ in a place during an evening and see if young people who are also there might opt in.

Whatever we do to help young people to explore spirituality on the streets it will involve us taking a risk. We take a risk by being there in the first place – and to be receivers of young peoples curious or boundary testing questions, it is usually unlikely that faith and spirituality is the first thing on young peoples minds – unless we set the agenda for this- so, its going to take time, patience, listening and also be ready to take or pose an opportunity through a question or conversation, we learn first, and become attuned to young peoples spirituality first.

Developing Spirituality on the Streets – what ideas might you have? Theres more on developing Spirituality with young people on the streets in ‘Here be Dragons’ details of which are the menu above.

From churches of praise & protest to churches that engage and educate. 

Youth Clubs, Community Centres, Pubs, Clubs, Parks, Libraries – all closed, reduced or only provide targetted services in the last 7 years. 

If im being generous I would say that all of these spaces were spaces of gathering for people not just in families, but across families, where young people held discussions with youth workers, where exchange of opinions occurs in the community centres, and maybe even in the pubs and libraries, these were places for conversation about the topics of the day, and they still do exist in some areas. Conversations where people might disagree, conversations where people might be challenged. If i was to be critical, id say that these places only perpetuated the gathering of people who were of a similar view, but at least in the space there could be conversational reflection and challenge. Most of these spaces have been reduced, and replaced by the coffee shop, the coffee shop where people who already like each other go and drink coffee with each other, so families or friends. There may only be fleeting interactions with those outside the family unit or friendship group and often, depending on the culture, its not necessarily welcomed.

Churches have become places akin to the coffee shop than the community centre, the cosy place to spend with friends , the social group of people who generally in most places are of people of a similar mindset. And if im brutal, the environment or culture of church is rarely the environment to have heated discussion, more pastoral and polite than political.  Though to be fair sunday church isn’t for that. It’s for praise. For displaying a new reality. For worship.

Along with praise. Churches have become good at protest. Marches this week are testament to it, marches for poverty before also, and social media has created communities of faith to gather and organise. It’s been needed and a statement of desiring change.  The problem with only protest and praise is that is not in public. It’s only amongst people of the same mind the same protest.  There’s nothing, absolutely nothing wrong with praise, and protesting is definitely needed. Outside the echo chamber of the church and social media of similar types are churches creating opportunities of engagement?

At a recent conference on detached youthwork Graeme Tiffany, a community educator, showed how in community groups and gatherings people begin to have their opinions changed in groups. Psychologists have produced evidence to say that people start to question opinions and even fact in groups when one or two in the group give a different view. This was all done in forums, community gatherings and debates that Graeme was facilitating in community centres and groups.

The Brexit vote might have been a wake up call. If theres one word that occurs its that churches need to engage with people it doesnt know and might not agree with. If there have been a demise of public spaces of conversation, might it be that local churches create opportunities for community education. Places of conversation, places to tell and share stories, places to question, converse and share opinions. It could be that once a month a church holds a local debate on an issue, safety, education, ethics, future, and there are deliberately people of different opinions,  presenting viewpoints, discussions in the open public for structured and  safe conversations. During which new realities are being realised as people think, share and converse.

In a way on an evangelism point there’s no point trying to talk about Jesus if the church isn’t hosting conversations about anything. In a way also it’s not to change peoples minds or opinions but to learn and engage, but to create space and trust the space. The church is to be a community building project (Vanhoozer,  2014) and it starts by creating spaces for engagement.not for its own sake but for the good of local communities the common good. The church groups that have coffee mornings and drop ins in community spaces are doing more for people in terms of social improvement, reduced loneliness, conversational skills and also spiritual awareness. Just by having open shared space.

If church only invites people to the praise thing, or being involved in the protest thing, it maintains the dynamic that church is only in private or with its own. Engagement and involvement in community education might be how churches become agents of common good, of human flourishing and give others the opportunity to join in with kingdom building.



Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2014 Faith Speaking Understanding, p174-5

Are young people more perceptive than we realise?

About 10 years ago I was asked to help out with a friends research on their MA course. Ill keep it a little confidential, but the remit in the task was to prepare a session in 30 minutes or so with a group of young people in a room, whom I had never met beforehand.  There was no inclination of theme, of age of the participants or anything, but that in 30 minutes I was asked to prepare using a range of materials a session.

What I didnt know is what my friend was looking for. Neither did I know what she would be asking the young people about it afterwards.

I think she asked about 6 people to contribute and do something similar.

What she discovered that the young people appreciated the most about any of the sessions was that the youthworker had made them feel welcome, had created an atmosphere (with someone who was a stranger) given them opportunity to talk, be heard and respected and all of this led to them as young people appreciating the session further. The young people perceived the tone of questions, welcoming handshakes, body language, eye contact, confidence and also spaces to contribute. In short, what I didnt realise was how perceptive the young people were in these sessions. What I also realise now is that the culture that is created in the spaces of youth work are far more important to the ongoing flourishing of young people and their education informally, than we might imagine.

As youthworkers we are maybe told to be authentic, to be real, to get young people to accept us for who we are as adults – ie they spot a phoney. They do, but their level of perception doesnt end there. It continues into how we welcome them, how we greet them, how interested we are in them, how we open up the space to let them contribute, how we respond to questions, how we let them have questions, how rushed we might be when we talk to them- these all create an impression and form a culture within a setting.

If young people notice the minute things, then theyll even more notice the following:

  1. unkept promises, big ones and little onesImage result for perception quotes
  2. frequent changes of youthworkers
  3. limited participation
  4. no control or decision making
  5. high tunnelling into activities with limited choice
  6. youth leaders not interested in them
  7. changes to programmes and clubs and groups without consultation
  8. being judged.

and many more. And these things are fairly obvious, of course, young people will notice these things, but more to the point it becomes even more important to create an appropriate culture within youth

These things are fairly obvious, of course, young people will notice these things, but more to the point it becomes even more important to create an appropriate culture within youth ministry, so that young people in their faith exploring and journeying, as well as personal and social development can be encouraged. The effect on little things is noticed, what about things that we as adults might not think is big, but a young person is huge – like splitting up a group or changing its time, made even worse if young people have had no control over it.  Creating the right kind of culture in a youth ministry setting might be counter cultural to the church – but thats ok if youth ministry has to take a prophetic edge, so what if youth ministry creates a culture where:

  1. Having a question is ok, having good questions is commended
  2. The decision makers are the young people
  3. It trusts in conversations
  4. Leadership is open to everyone
  5. It is a space of welcome and acceptance
  6. Mistakes are acceptable consequence of taking risks
  7. Young people become creators of programmes and participants of them
  8. Young people are adults in the making, youth ministry needs to project the next stage with young people, not hold them back to a previous development stage.

Its easy to have a set of ground rules for youth groups, sometimes easy to get stuck into normal patterns of behaviour, and these start to set the culture of the group, and only when something is different might people notice. But young people – especially if Wyn and White are right – at a time of ‘youth’ they are making constructions of the dynamic between themselves and organisations ( Wyn /White 1999).

Image result for culture

So all the while in every moment, they are beginning to and are making interpretations of what is going on. Such as ‘ do these people like me?’ ‘ why is no one actually listening to me’ ‘ does this youthworker or church care about me’ – young people are fundamentally hugely perceptive. And it doesnt stop at groups inside buildings, they are doing it all the time on the street, and so as we meet them there we create a culture in the interaction we have sometimes in the fleeting moment, because young people are ‘reading’ us all the time.

Young people are highly perceptive, its part of their nature and development. Its something to treasure and make good use of and develop. Its in the little actions that they will notice so much of what we believe and value about them, not just what is said.

Conversations on the streets – 4 things to say to young people (and maybe 4 not to)

In an article in Youthwork Magazine, Ali Campbell describes how as youthworkers (he is writing to the faith based youthworkers) should where appropriate say the following things to young people:

  1. I Believe in You
  2. I dont know
  3. You are loved and forgiven
  4. What do you think?

The full article is here: Youthwork Magazine. Give it a read, it is well worth it.

For me, theres a couple of things to reflect on further with this short list of four things that faith based youthworkers should say to young people. The first, and most obviously is that context is a huge factor in this- as is the relationship that a youthworker has with a young person – ie its depth, and because of the depth of the relationship – how genuine then any words we actually say then have resonance. If, for example, the high tempo, at the front type youth worker proclaims on a regular basis to every assembly of 500 young people that he believes in them, then these words are just a tiny bit shallow. Likewise, on the streets, if i just meet a young person for the first time, then to say that i believe in them, might be received as a bit weird, actually its quite a risky kind of statement, certainly risky in the world of detached, where supportive relationships are created in the margins in groups.

Thinking about detached a little further and its power dynamics, as well as its context- there are only 2 of the above list that i would transfer as ‘essential for the streets’ – though i would agree that in essence detached workers should act as though they believe in young people, and act with values that might be accused of ‘loving’ and being ‘for’ young people too much. The two i would place in the detached youth work vocabulary tool kit would be; ‘I dont know’ and ‘What do you think?’  – purely because on detached an awful lot of questions usually head in the direction of the worker (and if there isnt its because young people have given up, cant be bothered to trust in the worker). I dont know, and what do you think – are good, as Ali suggests, and bringing in honesty to the conversation, and a point of reference for collaborative exploring, and the kind of dialogue where both parties learn from each other. (Check out Paulo Freire).

But to make a list complete of four for the faith base detached youthworker- what would be good to add?

so if 1 is I dont know, 2. What do you think?    then what for number 3…


3. You’re good at/ naturally good at……..

– this for being on the street focusses the mind of the youthworker on the tangeable positives of the young person, from the skills of the ball they are kicking around, to the heated discussion they are having (which they might be eloquent in arguing!), defending a point of view, supporting their friends, maintaining friendships – If we do nothing else on the streets, to be the kind of youthworkers that recognise a positive in the young person might just do more than make their evening, it might just start to help them think differently about themselves. It might help them raise their game. Nothing better than being encouraged for what you’re good at, nothing better in recognising young peoples gifts especially when others might have judged them for their ‘needs’.  This is also a risk, in that a young person might not want to hear compliments, or might allow a person to have the power to proclaim not only ‘goodness’ but also ‘wrongness’ – so this can be a risk- but often a risk worth taking…

(If we say to young people that they might be good at things even more often in the church – and shifted ‘ministries’ suit their gifts…. – but thats another reflection – see ABCD)

and what is number 4….

Is the tone we use to convey to a young person that we are listening. So all the phrases like … tell me more… its ok, go on…. that must have been tough… no, i am here to listen, say what you need to help… In a way its that we almost say nothing, just allow a young person to speak. Maybe this is one of the key differences on the streets, as there is an unending time for lengthy conversation – its why we are there. 4 might be the spoken word that invites their story.  There is no programme to rush through, in a public space, with their friends,

There is no programme to rush through, in a public space, with their friends, conversation is key, and giving away that space for young people is crucial. What we can say will have more resonance, not just if we acknowledge the power shift in the space of the streets, but we have listened to the actual young people, and acknowledged the particularity of their experiences. Only then might we get chance to speak with authority, reality or confidence.


And just for fun ; these might be four things not to say to young people, but its so easy to…..

  1. “when i was a young person” ……………….
  2. “Stop being silly and just grow up”……………..
  3. “with all this technology, you young people have got it all so easy”…………
  4. “we’re having a special service on sunday with a great speaker who likes to talk to young people, why not bring a friend to the service”….

But im sure we dont say things like that to young people in churches anymore do we….





Detached youthwork: Having faith conversations on the streets.

Its one of the main criticisms levelled at detached youthwork from the ‘established’ christian community, or its youth worker contingency – ‘all that detached work is ‘good’ stuff, but when does it produce/become orientated around faith? ‘  and it is a valid question, it has to be a valid question as it gets asked often enough. Behind the question might be the drive that everything a ministry does is to communicate faith, or that every moment must have faith significance. It could be said that at times even in churches that people don’t talk about faith that often, they are talked to about faith, and in detached youthwork, young people are engaged with, in their space, so its rarely a talked to moment, in that classic adult/child psychological way (and if it was adult/child, the young person wouldn’t be listening) n – so in the moments of detached a different approach is probably required.  From the 1000’s of hours of detached youthork hours with/for faith based organisations, here are the most common examples that have arisen for me when faith becomes part of the conversation.

Young people may actually direct the conversation to something about faith when they ask ;

  1. Who do you work for? or Who do you represent?

The response you give might (though not always be) unavoidably – ______ Christian organisation/ group of churches/ YMCA/YFC – and then a description of what that means might be given. 

The young people might then make a comment, sing the YMCA song (as always) or ask a further question.

another one is:

2. Why are you here, you must be mad, paid alot or christians? 

Dont laugh at the back, i have had this very question thrown at me by a young person whilst on the streets. 

Again, a chance to say that probably all three are the case. ( I joke, but 2 out of 3 aint bad)- and then there’s a conversation about faith – one that technically they started…

From this kind of enquiry, I have had conversations where, when the young person has known that i am a Christian,  (which incidentally is a moment of honesty in the disclosure/power game of detached) then the young person may then have given away something of themselves – and these include:

I used to go to a Sunday school but i hated it as they locked me in a cupboard and made me sing songs

I was dragged on to a Jesus bus once with school and people plied us with sweets till we prayed a prayer. 

I dont ________ believe in God. 

My Gran goes to church. 

Because in the real space on the streets, and from a real space of genuine enquiry from a young person, being honest about having faith, is often enough to start a conversation. It may not be always the response you might want, but its to be taken if it is a disclosure of belief, or interest as a positive. Often RE lessons comes up – ie ‘In RE today my teacher said ______’ ;It is in that moment that they have been honest with you about faith. It is a starting point, and one to build on, in that moment – so ask a bit further – from what they’ve said.

I have written before about other questions young people may ask on detached, but the two above are the most common in relation directly to faith, and they can occur as you imagine fairly early on into the interaction when the young people are trying to suss out the workers. Actually, given the sussing out, they could ask the same kind of questions as a challenge:

3. I bet youre all christians just trying to tell us something to believe  or

4. I hope you’re not like those other Christians who made us do something or were ‘false’

These are trickier ones, because obviously the young people have made astute/incorrect/valid interpretations of the behaviour of other Christians, our brothers and sisters, and so, whilst it might be an opportunity to talk about faith, its starting from a point of being slighlty defensive, and apologetic on behalf of them. Its funny how astute young people are when they feel badly treated. The easiest thing is encourage them to talk about the scenario more, and empathise, as well as apologise if necessary.

These incidents above are when young people initiate the conversation, though in a way, it is our presence that has initiated it, as we arrive into their scene, they are merely asking our intention and trying to assess our authenticity in the space.

From the questions they ask- yes responses we can make can take the conversation back to them so we can hear about their faith. But in these initial moments usually only a few things are given away, but as the relationship between the worker and the group changes and develops, the opportunities might emerge. The cry for help from the young person might imply trust. acceptance is occurring, and if they’ve known about your faith from the outset then they have accepted you along with the faith that you have into the space of the group.

Once this does start to occur – what of faith then? 

If its not the response to the question as above – from the young people – then it involves a risk, a risk from us that the relationship is ready for it. Now this could happen in the course of one hour with a young person on an evening, or over a longer period of time drip drip drip feeding the relationship, nothing is the same with any young person. But the risk is to be the one to ask the question about faith, about thinking about faith, or doing something about a scenario that involves faith.

So, offering to pray for a young person and the scenario they describe, asking if a young person prays, or talks to a ‘higher power’ – or ask about them connecting with nature in the activity they are doing. Yes these might be vague spiritual concepts – but if there’s been no inclination of spiritual conversation thus far with them (ie they haven’t even asked one of the above questions) then you’ve got to start broad, or somewhere. Again, RE lessons in school, a ceremony in a church – ie a funeral/wedding, Christmas service are possible starting points, depending on whats been going on locally, faith of their parents, opinion about a faith news article (women bishops) are possible points of interaction.

In a way, faith emerges in the conversation , and involves a commitment to explore with young people their starting point, from a point of honesty that isnt preachy, but is responsive to questions. Remember you might be the only christian that young person has had the chance to ask questions to about faith, in their terms. Remember also the young person might also have experiences of faith, of church and memories that prevent them being of faith that they want to share. Remembering also that you might be a starting point, meeting them where they’re at. Faith from point zero.

There is faith on the streets, its faith that God is in the conversations, faith in leaving the building to go and spend time with young people in the open spaces. Faith in God ahead of us, and ahead in the lives of young people. Its for us to discover God in their lives already. If young people talk about their faith on the streets, or lack of it, its honest and real, no holds barred. Its real and dangerous, its risky for them. They deserve a way of being discipled further from that honesty, curiosity and risk. Where might God meet them as church – where they’re at ?, I wonder… – where, unless you journey with them, in that faithful, relationship you have started.




(For more information about the faith conversations in the process of detached – see ‘Here be dragons’ -details of which are above and you can purchase it fro FYT – thank you)

#gb16, #notgb16 & following conferences via Social Media

This weekend its Greenbelt or #gb16 as its known, for those of us at the alternative Greenbelt its the #notgb16 festival, where we can through the virtue of twitter receive in our timeline – and retweeted by other attendees, snippets and highlights of the inspiration they have from the conference halls, tents and stages of the weekend. Its the same for all of the conferences during the year- especially in the week after easter rush of them (cant christians just go on holiday??) , there’s times on a monday that i head to work and have to remind myself that i actually wasn’t at the #suchandsuch conference for the weekend, it just felt like i was.

And from the comfort of my lounge, not in a muddy tent, or clinical conference hotel, i can relive the best moments from the festival that all my carefully selected twitter followers want to tell me.

Image result for twitter


Its a bit like the difference between actually going to a football match for the whole 90 + minutes, and just watching the highlights on Match of the Day (or the football league show)- all carefully edited to 3 minutes of goal mouth action, and if there isnt this in a 0-0 draw, the corners and a stray mouse that ran onto the pitch. And not unlike match of the day, this too now has the benefit of twitter (#motd), so that people can join in a conversation, about people having a conversation on TV about highlights of football matches, that theyve only seen on a TV in studio, only the commentators are actually at the matches, and they dont participate in the analysis.

So, as the meat and drink of #gb starts for the weekend, mobile phone signal & 4g will dictate the flood of twitter conversations- either to the audience watching on from outside, or internal communication on the site.

What Twitter does to a conference is broaden its audience, albeit it is able to speak to those who dont attend, and have influence amongst the friends and followers of those attending, in almost real time, yes it means the post greenbelt/springharvest/soul survivor ‘debrief’ need not happen, and the mystery is somewhat gone ‘yes we saw the picture on twitter’ , but real time audience brings watching world into the live performance. Or it does at the discretion of the present guests. Though its hardly warts’n’all – very few tweets from conferences include stories of preachers drinking their water, or the blissful time moving from room to room, they are the projected highlights in the main.

What does it mean to be active in the process of communicating – or as words carry actions- performing to the watching world? words and actions from the conference stage are replicated through another. How does the thought of a wider audience shape the story we project to it – does this mean that everything is a missional endeavour online?

In a way, the guest is not invited to the conference to be in and amongst it, they are receivers of its communication – they are spoken to – (and can communicate back) – but they are not participants who can affect changes in the performance – merely watchers and commentators of the social reality projected through the language. The live performance of the church is a truly interactive one – for those present in the local setting, where the local audience becomes part of the performance. Watchers on are to be intrigued and brought into the drama as it continually unfolds in its scenes.

The church as interactive community theatre: creating places of conversations

“Each conversation is like a small piece of Theatre” (Wardheugh, in Smith H, 2010)

“Dialogue creates a critical attitude, it is nourished by love, humility, hope, faith and trust. When the two poles of the dialogue are thus linked by love, hope and mutual trust, they can join in a critical search for something. Only dialogue communicates” (Freire 1974, p42)

Creating the right kind of environment and spaces for conversation has been a bit of a mantra in Christian faith based youth work, when I say mantra, I mean essence of its being. So whether on the streets, in the clubs or in a minibus, creating the environment, (an environment framed by mutual love, hope and trust) and then giving space for conversation is key for the ongoing personal relationship, the space of education and the space where the possibility of these critical searches take place.

The question is – why hasnt the church used conversation as a tool more in critical discipleship and evangelism?

You know the routine, the big evangelistic event is looming, invite your friends for a meal at the local Hotel, have some benign chit chat about the food, pets or childrens tv programmes, and then everyone shuts up having conversation to listen to someone at the front, someone with a gift in evangelism, do a talk. Or talk at people. Yes they may have a ‘gift’, yes they may have been successful, and a few may respond.

What usually happens though is that the chit chat is only the warm up, and any energy in the room, any quality conversations and moments of meaning are affected and dissipated by the change in the dynamic in the space, of one person talking, and several people just listening.

Going back to the days of Alpha, maybe one of its reasons for success, was not the videos, but the group work and conversations, that built, and relationships that formed, and developed over the period of time. Yet the success of Alpha tends not to be narrated as the conversations and group work, but the material. The material is limited without the environment being created to have conversations. The problem with Alpha was that the culture of the church didnt move with the process, and expected alpha disciples to fit in into a different educational and as seen below theatrical perfomance of church

The epilogue at the end of the evangelistic social feels far too similar to the games night at the youth club with the same kind of energy sapping moment of limited participation. though times are changing.

What am i implying? well maybe what i am implying is that when it comes to mission and evangelism, relying on the slow build of many conversations, and relationships, and the complexity that these take is something alien in churches. Yet it is something that should or could  be encouraged and embraced.

What would be the down side in creating regular welcoming spaces for people to do the same activity in the space of a church – be it food, or sport, or social action, and then in those regular spaces give people all the time in the space to have conversation, to essentially create community of their own accord. For church people to be posed questions by their friends in the space, to have to respond, to receive gifts and tools and actions from people from ‘outside’ because they invest in the community.

Then all become disciplers of others, all become gifted in conversation, all become witnesses. The community guided by the overarching story of the church, of redemption and hope creates the environment, and within the actors improvise, or to use the term above enact mini scenes of theatre in conversation.

“The Divine improviser thus shows himself to be both faithful to the movement of the play and creative with regard to new situations” (Vanhoozer 2005:341)

The possibility of conversations, or faith conversations, intrigue, action and reaction is only possible in the rightly created environment, if it is allowed to happen, and shaped in such a way. And for many churches, developing community in such a way has become part of their practice. It is especially true in types of group and community development work in faith based youthwork, which has developed these conversations further outside the church to find places where the environment can be created. One process of the development of group work conversations is details in ‘Here be Dragons’ above. Its not the only process, yet many relationships and conversations between people start with cold contact, develop in trust, and actions and challenge, and where possible discipleship from within the relationship. Its not only happening outside the church structures in missional youthwork, but some churches are embracing it too.

The obvious issue with exploring faith through conversations in this way is their lack of predictability, need for flexibility, the reality that people are at different places even in one larger group, and that resources, aside from the intutition, guidance and support is going to be limited, as a one resource, or size fits all approach has been negated. Yet creating space for conversation that is appropriate does take into account everyone at different places, and trusts in people and conversations to move the action forward as these spaces continue. It is as if in those conversations between friends that Jesus joins in. At other times he might be hard to find, but thats also ok, the disciples on the Emmaus road didnt recognise him either. What if small groups form from a larger one as people ask, trust and want to learn from each other. well, great, and the rest. Community disciples community.  Maybe even the clergy is invisible- maybe they’re just there to help shape the action and guide the environment, to interject when appropriate.

What the mess of the conversations might look like is an interactive theatre – in which the script is yet to be played during the course of a gathering of the community, and yet the shared space of the food, the activity or sport is a starting block, is a commonality, and then the action between the guests and actors, (and there is sometimes limited disctiction) is a shared listening and learning one. Though the overall direction of the play is both the cue of the Spirit in the midst, and the desire for reconciliation & redemption. The contrast between the interactive theatre where all play parts in an improvised way not unlike the medieval theatre, and the current theatrical concept of the stage performing to the audience, often masked, distant and pretence, couldnt be more stark. The conventional theatre holds the audience captive, by imposing finished visions of the world and purging spectators of their tragic flaw, namely their ability to change society ( Boal 2008, p155)

At a time when the public places of conversation are being shut down, (click the link for a guardian article yesterday ) and the social poverty that this will cause, such as loneliness, mental health and less support and resilience – then its not just a faithful act to create open spaces of conversation, but a social, practical and provocative one. Mission begins with conversation, God is about conversation (more about that later) and so as churches creating places where the action of conversation happens appropriate for all ages, for specific ages or specific groups is what we need to do.

In the participative space of interactive community faith conversation theatre, The gloves in a sense are off, there are no lead actors and non participants, for all are on the stage as performers. The spectator is free to perform.

“The church as a theatre of the gospel, a theatre of community faith conversations is revolutionary, overturning idols and ideologies alike, as it displays the first fruits of eschatological reality” (Vanhoozer, 2005, p404) And if a church has enabled a community to be created in which all are welcome, from many faiths or none, young age or old, in which conversations are trusted and people share life, hope, stories and faith together, then as a ministry of reconciliation of redemption there is nothing less revolutionary, less politically challenging, less fruit displaying than that.

To trust in conversations, even as youthworkers, but let alone a pastor in a church with evangelism tendancies, might have to let go. The same youthworker or clergy might feel very alone or pioneering compared to their contemporaries who maintain an event based, programme based, or even pre determined group based ministry. The same youthworker or clergy might have to develop their own tool box for the trade, from community development, from liberation theology, from contemplation, or even from the metaphor of theatre. And to learn to become a different role in the space.

If the new spaces are being created that encourage faith conversations and essentially encourage curiosity, community and belonging in a church, then why might old forms of church seek to influence or discourage it if it is having a positive impact in a local situation. Where it is happening and the shoots of greenness are there, inherited church should learn from not rally against.  It might represent a change in method, but that should not be threatening, in a position of decline, nothing should be discouraged. This isnt a model for an old form, its a culture shift and a new way of being. Relationships and conversations are interactive and unscripted, not a quick win. Culture needs to be created, culture needs to shift.

After all there is nothing untheological about a small group of people sharing a meal together , having conversations and Jesus being there amongst them is there. Or for people to have conversations and then for one person to suggest in the community they would like to be baptised. These didnt happen in the Bible at all did they?

So, what about trusting in conversations and creating spaces of welcoming community in churches for faith to emerge through conversations, for community discipleship to occur within friends. And who gets the same credit – Jesus, and who is active and performing on his behalf, the church. The power of God might just move between the saints and wouldnt that be an exciting prospect – rather than the pre planned scripted performance of one whom the rest watch as audience. And yes at the moment it looks nothing like sunday, or spaces that still look like a version of sunday church but bigger. Old wineskins are hard to get rid of, or abandon completely, sometimes new wine has to be poured in to stain the wood into new ways of being. But cultural shift and paradigm shift to community interactive church is required.

“The church is a local theatre, a place in which Christ comes to be present. Christ is between the saints, in the dynamic interaction that characterises loving relationships empowered by the Holy Spirit” (Vanhoozer, 2014, 176)

Oh yes, and established church learning from the conversational practice of faith based youth work in developing spaces of community. learning from youthwork practice might just catch on…and youthwork practice was only ever about facilitating conversation whether in the club or streets anyway.



Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, Bloomsbury, 3rd ed 2008

Paulo Freire: Education for Critical Consciousness, Bloomsbury , 2013

Paulo Freire & Miles Horton: We make the road by Walking, Temple 1990

Richard, Lorimer Passmore, J Ballantyne,  Here be Dragons; Youthwork and Mission off the Map, FYT, 2012 (see link above for more details)

Heather Smith, Engaging in Conversation in Youth work Practice (eds) Jeffs & Smith, Palgrave, 2010

Kevin Vanhoozer, , The Drama of Doctrine, WJK, 2005

Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking and Understanding, WJK, 2014

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