‘Are you looking forward to your sabbatical?’ and 19 other unlikely phrases said by youthworkers

Picture the scene, theres two youth workers chatting together at a conference, and you’re listening in to their conversation, I would put a fair wage on none of these statements being mentioned by either of them:

1. Your sabbatical is coming up, what are you planning to do?

2. I’m off next week for my annually organised cpd to help me on my designated career progression training programme.

3. Oh yes, there’s a problem with the damp in my flat, but I can ring the diocese and they’ll sort it.

4. It’s great that the church decided to keep me on instead of the vicar, showed real pioneering spirit and value of young people.

5. Oh good, nothing energises me more than the thought of obtaining funding for my own salary.

6. Nowadays, there’s just so much positivity about young people in the press.

7. I love the security of my role.

8. Nothing pleases me more than trying to justify my job as a youthworker and try and get young people to attend church (or an employment programme)

9. Working in this denomination _______________, they really know how to support their lay youthworkers and provide sustainability.

10. I was so pleased that my church or organisation gave me a £100 budget to spend on books for myself, and continued it even when money was tight.

11. Its great that when i have a problem with my management i can chat with a union rep.

12. Honestly I have so many volunteers I don’t know what to do with them all.

13. Writing funding bids really is the highlight of my year

14. Administration, I’m given loads of time for this.

15. Do you know what, im pretty sure Ive got all the DVDs ill ever need

16. Theres nothing better than reading Shakespeare or Jane Austen to inspire my youthwork practice

17. It never ceases to amaze me how many people respond positively to my youthworker communication letter.

18. Shawshank Redemption, now theres a crap film.

19. No, actually I dont drink coffee (sorry, but i know there are a few non coffee drinking youthworkers)

20. Im just so encouraged to see each local school and church re-order itself around the needs and gifts of children and young people. 

Ok, so may be a few are far fetched and portray the inner frustrated dreamer in me, and yes Satire may well be the last known tool of the powerless. And this may be just that, a little sunday evening Satire. Yet, at this time, youthworkers are probably placed in the most powerless than they have ever been, and as my previous post suggested that although on a better footing, youthworkers have never been in positions of power. So, maybe satire it is one of the best ways to see the lighter side of being a youthworker.

Lets get Theological! On making Theology, not models & strategies first in Youth Ministry

You wont read this post. I guarantee you, no one will read this post. Even with a sneaky reference to an Olivia Newton John lyric in the title, you wont read this, because its got Theology in the title as well. I should have put sex, or masturbation, or something witty, clever or clickbaity, but no, in the spirit of honesty this piece is what it says it is. It is about theology and youth ministry, and I am aware no one will read it.

So, in that case I am going to go full on, deep and thoughtful, safe in the knowledge that it wont be read. I know this because nobody attends seminars on youth ministry and theology. Or conferences on theology and youth ministry. Very few people talk about theology when it comes to solving the problems of young people ‘leaving the church’. Instead its about practices, making practice better, trying to find a missing piece, a magic formula, a new way, or method. It can be that there isnt a conversation about theology, that doesnt only exist in place of formal theological conversation, the college. And for many others thats where it often stays.

So, because there is no grafting, searching and desire from the ‘top’ to do theology about youth ministry, there can be very little appetite from the ground to see it as being worthwhile. Its easier to drag a resource off the shelf, or do what we think works, or uptake business models like ‘develop strategies’. If you want to read the part one to this post, it is here in which i suggested that youth ministry needed to turn to performance theology, rather than business strategy. This is the long awaited, and probably grossly under-read, post that follows that one.

We have inherited a practice of trying to get things right to save and keep young people, and this puts practice and strategies first over and above theology.   Image result for theology?

Youth Ministry needs Theology first. – and that takes work.


The first thing to say is that we are all theologians. Thats every volunteer, youth pastor, helper, leader involved in youth ministry in a church/faith setting. We are all theologians already, because, and this isnt the only reason, young people are reading us and our practices to glean theological insight through them. What we do is a theological act – it is being performed as youth ministry is done. Theology is transmitted in the way we operate.

So think about that for a second. Everything? yes…

In the way we talk about young people behind their backs, in the way we give responsibilities, in the way we decide, in the way we hold or give away power, in the drive to the bowling, or how we stay in the kitchen and dont get involved, in everything to do with youth ministry, every act is theological already. Our beliefs are already affecting our behaviour, but regardless of those beliefs, young people are reading us as if we’re the book. Our Theology is implied in what we do.

We are already in one extent performing it.

But that doesnt mean we get away with just acting it out. For, how do we know we’re acting out theology appropriately, or fittingly?  (its not about effectiveness, effecacy is a reductionist business term that we should ban in churches)

Thats where at least ‘thinking theologically’ about youth ministry also is important. If we’re in the ‘business’ of doing theology. The two go hand in hand. Theres also the theology within our institutions… however,

So, what do we need to thinking theologically about?

We need to think theologically about young people. Who they are in the sight of God, how they are created and loved, accepted and made in his image. And so much more besides….

We need to think theologically about discipleship. If this is the game of the church – to make disciples- then its not a bad idea to think theologically about what being a disciple is all about, and how a disciple is ‘formed’ and what a disciple does ‘performs’ .  What kind of discipleship? Action first or learning first, or both? So we need to think theologically about learning, about study, about actions (and the actions of God in our actions) Theres some stuff of discipleship in the categories section, and resources below.

We need to think theologically about Culture. About the place of the church in the culture, and what the role of young people is participating in the church in the culture – for, against, within, above or to transform it (Neibuhr) or something else – to offer an alternative, creating something new… What is Christ offering young people in discipleship? (and how might the church follow this)

We need to think theologically about Mission – and what we do and what young people do, what is Mission, What is God like if she is missional? How might young people play parts in mission, and who decides whether they can or cant?

There needs to be thought around theology of worship – what is it? Is only ‘christian’ worship worship? What worship doesnt need a band, a stage or a PA system, what worship is pleasing to God? What worship creates opportunities for young people to transform the world? Is worship a gathered experience or an emerging one, a public one or private one?

We also need to think theologically about how young people have faith; What is faith, how is it tested, how do they use it, act on it, and practice it in the every day, – where do they do faith?Related image

We need to think theologically about sex and relationships, about gender, about LGBT, about mental health, depression,  about drugs and alcohol, about education and ambition, about power, greed, globalisation, about politics, about technology, communication, about inclusion, money and fame. Because young people arent looking to us for the answers anymore, because half the time these are difficult subjects that we leave to one side. It is not and never enough to pick stuff up on these subjects off the shelf. Young people also dont want us to give one answer, and presume that culture has another answer, theyre far too clever for that. We need to know how to answer these things, and give tools for interpreting and navigating. There is no ‘one thing’ the bible says, or ‘one thing’ the world says about these things. To say this to young people would be patronising. But that doesnt mean to say we dont have responsibility to think theologically, biblically and ethically about these things to help young people share in and lead us in that exploration of learning.

What about what we do with young people? Might we stop and think about the activities and think theologically about these? About Residentials, gatherings of worship, games, gap years, funding, about festivals and the like, about group work, if everything we do implies theology, then what kind of God is being transmitted through these – what kind of church is? God of attendance and watching? God of large groups (where God is communicated as ‘always being’) God of challenge and risk, God that is ‘felt and experienced’ away from home, away from the local church – Thinking theologically about these things might mean that taking young people to an experience might create a view of God that might actually be unhealthy or even unbiblical. But then, if theology isnt important, then it doesnt matter..does it?Image result for theology?

Thinking Theologically about youth Ministry, might mean more than being motivated by the faith. Though its a good start. Working out how Faith and Beliefs motivate us in youth ministry is definitely a first step, we can spend too long busting a gut to get this bit right, and in reality, we’re never going to get this perfect (theres no such thing). What we need to do in youth ministry is live with the imperfection and the ongoing drama of it, but theologically thinking about youth ministry, given that as youth ministers, volunteers, pastors, workers and leaders, we are urged to be both theological and practical, reflecting and active. Part of the tool kit for us is Theology, our story, our church’s story, and the story we are called to live, the story which we perform and encourage others to. It shouldnt just motivate us like a bad head teacher with a stick (thinking Miss Trunchbull in ‘Matilda’) – but well at us from the deep, call us to something higher, take us (and others) to the margins, where likeness of Jesus is an ongoing task.

Theology emerges from the deep, from the margins. Theology might emerge through conversation between friends (Emmaus), might visit unexpected to give peace, might be present in space of the unlikely. We dont need to try and think theologically if what we’re doing is already good, loving, kind, faithful, generous, and working towards peace, wholeness and restoration – these marks of the kingdom need no law. But we might need to develop new theological language, reflection and resources for the road on which these travels take us. Theology from the streets, like St Francis’s ‘Sidewalk Spirituality’ or Ignatius, or other Saints of the Past. Thinking theologically about ministry might itself call us in new directions, new learning, new faith, thats where we might need to take risks, having experiences of God in the space of the margins, might cause us never to go to the gathering to find God – and thats ok. Youth Ministry is, like any ministry, an ongoing dramatic act. And in the drama, what kind of God is needed for the ongoing walk? One that Speaks and Acts – one that is present and urging, as Kevin Vanhoozer describes – is the holy author in our midst. 

Always speaking. Always giving us reference points. Always giving us things to relate to. Always prompting and provoking.

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Where is the space for the Holy Author in the Midst of Youth Ministry? In every conversation – possibly, in every approach – possibly, in every action – maybe. The truth is we cant model our Youth Ministry on God – we’re not perfect enough for this. God isnt a model to be copied. God is a mystery who speaks, a creator who does as he pleases (Daniel 4:35) and is not restrained. We need to think and act and listen theologically. Its that Holy Author who will communicate and save. Its that Holy Author who is happy for an ongoing communication, whether this is ragged or poetic, praiseworthy or problematic. Its that Holy Author who is present in, with and amongst. God who might, just might not be white, distant and male – and that might change everything.

In conclusion, Theology needs to go first. Not just because we’ve tried everything else, but because thats where it should be, and not even because by doing this ‘it will work’ – no- because ministry is a risk taking endeavour not an exact science. We dont need to just ‘get on with the job’ of youth ministry, and neither is theology ‘just for the college’ and no one can avoid being theological. Putting this off does a disservice to young people, it does a disservice to ourselves. We can try and find a perfect method, strategy, model, process and practice. And that could consume us (and we can nearly always ‘do’ better) but that search is a painful one and full of frustration, comparison and frailty. Lets ditch the models, and have meaning, mystery and mission first.

Oh and some of this is only the tip of the iceberg….. directions to start, not journeys of discovery along the way hence some resources below:

References and Resources

Talking about God in Practice (2010) by Helen Cameron

Youthwork and the Mission of God (1997) by Pete Ward

What Theology for Youthwork?  by Paul Nash (Grove Booklet Y8)

Faith Formation in a secular age by Andrew Root (2017)  

When Kumbaya is not enough by Dean Borgman (1997)

Models for Youth Ministry by Steve Griffiths (2013)

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root (2007)

Starting Right – Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry by Dean, Clark et al (2001) 

Remythologising Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (2010) (more on theodrama in the categories section)

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (2014)

The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean/Andrew Root (2013)

Faith Generation by Nick Shepherd (2016)

Here be Dragons; Youthwork and Mission off the map by Lorimer & Richard Passmore (and me) (2013)

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf (2007) 


7 Steps to a better youthwork strategy

You dont really need to do much research to discover the various business decisions and strategies that have deemed to have failed, as they have lost money, caused the closure of a business or shown to have lacked the foresight required in determining the future. One example of the company Kodak, who spend £millions in the 1970 developing a prototype for the digital camera (delivering a mighty 0.1 megapixels), only for the company to shelve the plans for mass production deciding instead to focus on developing the print arm of its camera sales, an area that was a huge profit making arm of its business in the short term. However, as other companies joined the market and speciailised in digital cameras, and their sales rose Kodak gradually faded from existence.

Another example might be the fast food giant Macdonalds, who decided upon selling Salads and healthier foods about 10 years ago, but this has largely been an unqualified failure, only 2% of its overall sales have been from salads and healthy ranges, though it gained publicity from trying to be healthy at the time. It is also very quick i notice today at giving publicity to the governments plea for healthy eating as of last week, their publicity now has reference to calorie intake recommendations at meal times ( 400, 600, 600 – respectively). The culture around macdonalds for its key customers was not salad orientated, and also quickly news spread that its salads and dressings were unhealthier than the burgers. Hmm – great healthy eating strategy that one…

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Developing Strategies in churches and in youth ministry has become, dare i say it, almost the norm. Examples like the above can be used as a way of encouraging the need for strategies. One of the operant viewpoints theologically in the adoption of strategies is the verse ‘Without vision the people perish’. What is also often said that developing a strategy is a way of bringing together disjointed activities under one umbrella or approach, or to make targets. Having a strategy might be used to develop vision and an aim, and then scope out the steps along the way to get there. However, Strategic management can be used as a tool for conformity, control and containment- and might be a way of management that suits churches, which often have a default culture of conformity within them anyway. And as we know, Culture eats Strategy for breakfast anyway -doesnt it?

Whilst the church, at times as opted in to Macdonaldisation and its key tenets of control, efficiency, calcubility and repetition, and not always in a good way. What might be learned from the example of Macdonalds and its salads for strategy development?

There are a a couple of different learnings we can take from the McDonald’s salad adventure, one of its worst business strategies. The first is simply the fact that as a general rule – companies should decide on what their core competencies are, and stick to them.

Whenever you embark on a new strategy – you need to clearly articulate why you’re doing it, and what problem you’re trying to solve. This shared vision needs to be so well embedded in the strategy that the people involved can recite it easily and quickly, and that it permeates everything around the execution of that strategy.

The McDonald’s strategy with salads started off as trying to mitigate reputational risk. Then it changed to trying to drive extra revenue. That’s fine – strategies are meant to evolve. But the problem is that in moving towards making extra revenue – they forgot entirely about the original reason that they launched salads in the first place! And thus, they’ve come full circle and are once again defending themselves about how unhealthy their menus are – only the products they’re defending are the very ones they introduced to try to solve this problem in the first place!

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Problem is, is that we’re not dealing with customers, with products and with turnover being the key operational features of the organisation of the church. (even if the treasurer of the diocese says so) And even in a charitable organisation as one delivering youth work and provision – its charitable focus should be its aim, and not profit – although this can be more difficult to focus on in the deep water currents of neo-liberalism, cost cutting, and competition between organisations and churches for survival and the attraction of the few christians around. What is as easy is to talk about the bad strategies, and whats wrong with them – too vague, too broad, too nebulus as they refer to values or goals, and these are said to to be strategy deficiencies in the business world – yet at the same time, churches and youthwork talk up goals, mission, values , vision and principles within strategies – as values, principles and overall vision are core to (it is hoped) the ethical practices within youth work.

So, after dissing the bad ones, thats the easy bit – what might a good strategy need to do?

  1. Realise what the problem is that the strategy is trying to solve. Sometimes a strategy has no purpose in its inception other than to assert power and control to the strategy creator. Its is management fluff and flim flam as they might say. But a strategy that has a purpose to increase our fundraising possibilities or something that solves a problem (rather than creates them) is going to be more beneficial. However, if there are problems within the organisation – then these need to be faced. In the sometimes ‘passive aggressive’ culture of churches a strategy wont avoid the problem.
  2. Determining the Culture – but not afraid to try and affect it; And back onto culture. If the organisation or church has got established patterns of working, established environments and actions – then it has culture. There is culture internal and also culture external to organisations – all of which have a effect on it. So understanding what the cultural norms are that will affect culture is important, but also so is working out the effect of change upon it. You might have a great strategy for discipleship that doesnt take the young people to a summer festival – but this might have an impact on parents (who got a week off from their kids, the church (which liked the reputation of sending kids to it) and also the young people themselves (who got stuck in the same repeated rut), culture had already been set.
  3. Knowing the resources. This is where strategies can as easily make or break. Many a good youthwork strategy becomes affected by a lack of resources. Many a poor strategy is created because there are under used gifts and resources not known to those creating them. We might create a good strategy that is about the people we are trying to ‘reach’ – but what about developing strategies that involve them and give them space to use their own resources? (and not for our gain – but theirs in negotiation)

4. Not forget the principles! If our strategies dont also reflect the principles, ethics or theology of our belief systems, then we should question what they are about, and what direction they are taking the organisation in. And dont give me ‘we prayed about it, so its what God wants us to do’ when its about saving up £millions for a building construction or branding exercise when people in the parish go without food. The ethics and principles are almost pointers to helping faith based organisations have some kind of rudder or plumbline, if a strategy doesnt reflect the same compassionate values – but embraces and encourages it somehow – then its likely to be given disruption along the way.Instead of having values, and putting these aside for the sake of strategy aims that seem to be at odds with them and the culture of them that are already core to the organisation. Strategising through principles may engender more motivation and coherency. But a strategy of only values and a mission statement is too vague.

For example – a church that wants to ‘grow’ through being efficient and developing new services – may sit at odds with congregants within it who ascribe less to the services, but want to do more of what the Gospel says – helping the poor, and mission in the community. An alternative series of questions to frame a strategy is to discover what the core values and principles are of the organisation – what Cameron may describe as its ‘operant theology’ – what is revealed through its practices, but also the points in which there are tensions. But a church growth strategy – might sit at odds with the overarching values and implicit actions required in the gospel – which seem to shift the established view on its head and promote vulnerability, sacrifice, minimalism and reduction/avoidance of self gain. It may go against the grain, theologically or principally to desire successful or profitable organisation , but at the same time the beaurocracy of organisation is now an established part of British philanthropic culture.

5. Put the how into the why; One way that might encourage positive strategy, is to put the ‘How’ to the ‘Why’. For, many people know why they are part of churches or youthwork organisations, the personal motives and values, in voluntary organisations these can usually align with the organisational values and motives (especially when the person is a volunteer within it or a supporter of it) Therefore, putting the how to the why – becomes less about organisational survival (growth, loss and profit) and more about organisational purpose – why its in existence, what it is good at, how it does more, or creates more opportunities that continue to fulfil its reason for existing. So – we might ask:

How might we encourage more participation in young people?

What opportunities can be created so that people are more fulfilled?

How can we love people more?

How might we put ‘loving mercy’ into action?

How might we be more inclusive?

How might we be more aware of our own blind spots – and hear the voice of others?

How might we allow for risk taking that looks like people trying to use their gifts to love others?

I remember being part of an organisation who said that they wanted to help its volunteers to thrive and use their gifts – but in reality that boiled down to shaping them in a way so that they would be consistent and regular in being a volunteer leader in an ongoing weekly youth club – not a bad thing in itself, but its strategy for voluntary participation, empowerment and gifts wasn’t matched in its culture, necessarily. In a way a culture of conformity desires regularity and avoids risk. At the moment the culture of organisations is set in to risk adverse mode. No one wants to be the next scandal, or organisation collapse. Yet this can negates the risk taking that caused the organisation to exist in the first place.

6. Think better- not perfect; The title of this post is steps to a better strategy and this is deliberate, because Im not sure whether there is such a thing as a perfect strategy within the kind of work that involves developing relationships with young people. Rev Hamiltons mantra of developing strategy from the point of contact remains true. A good youthwork strategy is one negotiated at the point of action – but that doesn’t mean to say it doesn’t require plans to recruit volunteers or some help financially. However, it is still a strategy that is participative in itself- and one that is about creating opportunities for further action, an thoughts about further action with the people involved. It’s a better thing that strategizing to work with young people, doing so without young people.

7. Creating strategy is revealing; There are better strategies that others and There are really interesting ways of developing ideas for strategies, however, as organisations, cultures, values and principles can be as much at play within them, sometimes a culture will eat strategy – and that might be a good thing as it says something about the ignorance of the culture of the strategy, other times culture itself needs a shift. There is another way, is what Jesus kept saying. You heard it was said is what Jesus kept saying. Macdonalds may be saying to us one thing – but Jesus might be saying another.

In the imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis says: Whoever loves much, does much, whoever does a thing well, does much, and he does well, he (she) who serves the community before his own interests (p43). Much more doing may be required, and there is doing in the planning, but doing in the doing needs to happen too…

It might be practical for a church to have a strategy – but as ive said before- lets not lose sight of being prophetic too. Love is a verb, an action, a way of life- is this lost through strategizing it? probably. But what might be needed is more encouragement and the opportunities to be more risk taking in loving others and the charitable aims of the organisation which may be about the flourishing of people in communities. Spending less time on strategy may be better, or maybe action first, like theology first, is through its performance and action- strategy itself might be trying too hard to provide control in the divine chaos at times, and bring too much management into a movement of people guided by the spirit, and at other times in need of space and participative risk taking opportunity.


Cameron et al Talking about God in Practice 2010

Goetschius & Tash, Working with the unnattached 1964 (appendix)

Ive put many resources on management and community settings on this page here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-QV which might be of use to think about developing strategy – especially in the current climate of strategy development within a competative managerial culture.


What do we expect teenagers to be made of, a substance tougher than steel?

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I saw this quote doing the rounds on Facebook today. Excuse its language. But dont excuse its sentiment.

On one hand we could argue that young people in the 80’s and 90’s didnt have it too badly – and I should know i was one of them. Politicians got headlines for peace deals, climate change caused action, peace was a hopeful reality i large parts of the world. There were EMA grants, nearly free higher education, still a general reality that post university meant employment, house prices were going up, but a 2-3 bedroom house in areas north of sheffield might still be ‘only’ £40,000. And the rest.

And so, those who grew up optimistic in the 90’s, maybe had it too good. or too easy. Previous generations had it easy in comparison. Even those in the 1990’s, at least they had hope. In the main.

Fast forward to today. All the things that might have been an issue for teenagers in the 80s or 90s are still there, but multiplied. There’s double the advertising on TV with its 40 extra channels, online and on screens – with all the worry about life and expectation this causes. The News is an always open door to constant fear. The financial cut backs are extraordinary and yet the expectations on young people are higher – or shall i say the expectations on schools to be performing and have high performing pupils is greater than ever. To the point that those left behind and being actually left behind, left out and notionally excluded. When outcomes and targets rule, then humanity and inclusion falls way short.

Then there’s the cut backs on all the funding for young people to actually get support to cope in this situation. mental health and social work budgets slashed, and open youth clubs eradicated all together. And it is left to the voluntary and faith sectors to pick up the pieces, but doing so whilst also competing for funding and being in a similarly perilous state. (whilst the budget for HS2 or trident is secure seemingly).

So – where does that leave the young person? – Does society view them as the victim in all of this? the oppressed even. 

Nope. If anything the young person is to blame for all this. Those bloody millenials ruining it for the rest of us. Generalise and blame thats the strategy of the media, but initiate self reflection on the current holders of power….

Blame the phone, not blame society that created that need, or the adults who foisted it into existence and made implicit demands on parents to pay for ‘an essential’.

So – what do we think young people are made of to cope in all of this? 

Well – not enough resilience for one. (hence all the resilience classes)

Not enough confidence ( hence all the ‘self confidence classes’)

And yes, these are needed. And not just for the teachers.

as if its all an individual young persons fault. Young people are having to cope with so much more than ever before, and doing so without the hope that things will improve. Society expects young people to cope within all of this. Its not surprising that so many struggle. What if it wasnt just about coping and surviving as a young person.

I wonder if young people might collectively rise up and challenge, critique and get passionate about the systems that are causing so much damage to them and their peers.

Things that help a young person, Goals, Self worth (ability + competance), Purpose and Value (Bryan, 2016) – if any of these start to be affected, then they will start to struggle. So, therapy might help to help a young person talk through coping through these. But fundamentally the sources of these things need to also be dealt with. Blame Neoliberalism, but a new system needs to be created – one that is more human/humane, and the rest. But if a young persons purpose and value is wrapped up in ‘things’ or ‘image’ or ‘popularity’ – then its no wonder that they are stressed, worried. But that isnt new – the only difference is the current speed of change or intensity. The main difference is fear caused by the news, inequality between rich/poor, deficiencies in the education system (especially 16+) but also the efficiency drive, and also limited hope economically – where only the strong might survive…

What might young people be expected to be made of?

Filters that are sensitive to fake news

Resilience to cope with oppression, abuse and uncertainty

An internal buoyancy to be able to react positively to fear

An innocence of humanity to see beyond divisive politics

A Hopefulness of spirit to maintain motivation in school

A self confidence to be both an individual and like everyone else

To be able to glide effortlessly through being a teenager, ready packaged and prepared for the ‘breeze’ that is ‘being an adult.. or alternatively – does any of this really change that much…

Teenagers – Adults, we might need to learn about how they cope with it all, we might need the same lessons. Well pretty much anyone working within ‘people’ related jobs has had to sharpen up their armour in the last 10 years. Coping working with humans and enabling their flourishing in a neo-liberal world, from teachers, nurses, social workers, youthworkers (if any are left) – all subject to ridiculous efficiency, cuts and demands, outcomes – all to the exclusion of breadth, inclusion, time and care. All to the exclusion of the purity of professions and vocations and just bad management and policies. Its no wonder young people are blamed, for to say that society has a responsibility – might mean funding those who work with them properly.

If young people don’t trust adults, who could blame them? 

Young People might have a pretty odd feeling towards adults at the moment. If we’re honest just look at us, then think for a moment, that it would be much of a surprise if young people were more forceful in deciding that they would make a better job of it all.

Last week, young people it was said have started articulate that they hoped social media – a digital platform created by adults to communicate (and make money) hadnt been invented, this report was here, albeit the same size was pretty small. But even so, its a world created by Adults, that young people have to be taught to avoid its pitfalls. marvellous. I can see why some young people would want it not to be there at all. Image result for Social media

Then there is everything else in society created by adults, that young people have to ‘have resilience’ to cope with – so the pressures of advertising, body image, looks, wealth, fame and popularity. This is extrapolated in TV, Film and the Internet.

Then there’s the adults who have created the structures in society – not just ‘teachers’ – but that teachers themselves are subject to notorious outcomes, targets, inspections and policies on education in a 4-5 yearly repeated cycle of change upon change, that leads to favourite teachers leaving, uncoordinated new exam criteria, and pressure. Young people are well aware that it is adults in the form of the government, local school education trusts and local councils who decide these things. None seem to be in the benefit of the people of the institutions, teachers or pupils, just targets.

Then theres the adults who voted for Brexit. The chaos this has caused, costs and uncertainty, and the adults who made this a reality and pushed for it. From the perspective of many young people – some of this might have been the last straw. Many many young people were let down. On a differnent but as contentious issue, the adults who created a system that means that jobs and houses might be in short supply in 10 years time.

And speaking of adults in politics, theres a good few young people who think, and might be right in thinking that they could do a better job of being a human person in the role of US president right now.

Then theres the press, all run by adults, trying to make young people (aka millenials) also the perpetrators of all ‘that was good’ before. Creativity and boundary pushing is seen as rebellion. The press, who very rarely write or speak of young people in a positive way, and cause adults to belief untruths about young people. Image result for Millennials

Then there’s the adults closer to home. The parents who argue about finances because jobs are harder to come by, the parents who drink and get violent. The parents who find parenting difficult in this same age.

For some young people it is the adults who weren’t there, when the young person was in care, the adults who abused, neglected or rejected. The adults who couldn’t cope themselves. As a result, the only supportive adult might have been someone ‘paid’ to do it, well meaning but paid.

Its no wonder so many, including young people, and their voices of struggle are being heard on world mental health day yesterday.

If I was a young person growing up, I would find it hard to not make the point that adults have done a good job at making growing up in the UK a difficult task. Id wonder whether it would be worth listening to the next ‘well-meaning’ adult, when adults seem to have created a world to grow up in that for many young people is one to have to navigate, rather than enjoy.

As adults, even well meaning youthworkers, we might do well to reflect on how young people might view the world that they grow up in and how even as we might help them reflect on it, we might have to admit some culpability. From helping social media to grow, become important, from using the house price market ourselves, or not standing up to the challenges in policies that promote inequality, education formation and school direction.

If i was a young person i might find it difficult to fully want to trust an adult at the moment, theres not many setting a great example, or one they can trust. As adults, even yes adults in the church (who have created similar systems) have to acknowledge that these inhibit rather than help young people to flourish, yet at the same time created a world where it is acceptable to blame young people for society’s ills.

Its now wonder young people might just sigh, when we suggest a ‘new’ initiative to control, entertain or engage them. They might just not trust us for it to last, just like the last lot didnt work, stick around or last.

Fortunately young people will keep trusting, like we all do, until we find someone or a cause we can believe in, that offers hope and meaning. Until then, Im not surprised or wouldnt be if young people just formed their own groups, communities and societies and created their own world and only let adults involved when theyd built it in a way that an adult couldn’t ruin it. Its no surprise that I am seeing young people have a greater desire to vote, and a greater desire to volunteer, and to be politically involved. The tide might be changing and young people want a bigger say in the world, as they dont trust that adults are trusted to be able to. They might just take matters into their own hands, with the drive to want things to be different.


‘Its not you – its us’; How the church abandoned young people  

In no particular order here is a list, can you work out what links them all? 

Sunday Trading, Materialism, The entertainment industry, Sport, Increased spending power, a culture of choice, post-modernism, broken families, lack of discipline, feminism and the pill, The Sunday papers, lie ins, women, free love and the 60’s, the motor car, Millenials, increased working hours, Men, The education system, fear, the welfare state, post-Christendom, secularisation, commercialism. 

Any guesses? Ok it is an easy one… 

The answer is that these are the reasons given, and said in churches, in organisations, as to why there are considerably fewer children and young people connected to church activities than there used to be. And when i say used to be i mean, when Sunday schools had 2,000,000 attendees (1901) , a number that had already fallen by 500,000 in the 1960’s.

What is the problem with this list? 

All of these things place the blame of the church losing young people, at external factors. And put the church as somehow scot free from blame, or passively resigned to being a victim in all of this. The problem is that it is not. 

Most of those factors are universalisms, the cumulative effects of lots of individual churches and themes in churches starting making decisions that have a bigger effect overall. Blame the whole generation, or a system or structure – its not a local issue at all is it? 

In a post I wrote a few years ago, I suggested that the church had some apologising to do when it comes to young people: If you didnt read it the first time it is here: Dear Young People, we messed up . As a representative of the church in the UK, there needs to be greater acknowledgement of its own actions that have caused the 1,000’s of young people to leave it.

Before heading into that list, it is worth saying that there has barely been a magic answer to ‘getting young people into church’ even Sunday schools at their most numerical couldnt do this, and when they focussed on church kids, well the results havent been that great either. This is less about how the church turned young people away from sunday church, but more how it turned young people away from the church as a community in whatever form, such as the sunday school, youth club or other activity.

I grew up in a church, that met in a school, and had a large sunday school, lots of classes, groups, and many young people from the estate attended. So even back in the early 80’s I have a recollection of a significant connection made between church and community in the form of sunday school. And this was replicated across the country.

But it wasnt ‘post-modernism’ that caused Sunday schools to have to react to less leaders, or move sunday school to the ‘same time as services’ – a shift that excluded many, and enforced its provision as for ‘church attending kids’ . 

It wasnt the sports and entertainment industry, that excluded young people from weeknight youth clubs because churches were too protectionist over their buildings

It wasnt sunday trading that in a similar way churches focussed on their own young people, via discipleship rather than meeting the needs of young people locally

Neither was it The sunday papers that enforced a view that moral and good behaviour was the deemed norm for young people being involved in churches (although moral panics about young people might have stemmed from the papers!) 

It isnt post-christendom that causes churches to implicitly deny young people a voice, representation, consultation over how they participate in the life of church, and their own programmes

It isnt the fault of the welfare state that a church might decorate itself like a prison to stop young people attacking it, vandal paint and barbed wire adorned. 

Its not because of the motor car – that the church has got too hot under the collar over sex, and less under the radar is oppression, poverty. 

No, because, these are all decisions that churches make from the inside out. It is churches that change sunday school times, paint walls, have a change in focus (from mission to ‘keeping everyone safe inside’) and a whole host of other changes. And if each church makes these sorts of decisions, then the cumulative effect is that one.by.one children and young people, citizens of the parish, no less, are gradually being abandoned. And its too late.

But as long as from the inside out, whilst theres something else to blame….

And in the meantime we keep looking to the issues outside the church for reasons why young people dont connect, and surprised that issues inside are contributing factors. There may be a healthy balance between the two. But acting as if young people have abandoned the church and its activities when the relationship status should read ‘its complicated’. Being self critical, yes… but how to change things…. – thats another story, and the subject of my previous piece…

Now it has so few connections, it cant afford not to involve young people in practices, give young people responsibility, shape groups around needs, develop gifts and possibilities and dreams. And practice pastoral care with every young person.

There may have been a good old days, but theres been a catalogue of decisions made by churches since then that have caused those good old days to be a remote memory.

On Making and Managing Changes in Youth Ministry

A friend of mine said to me over the last few weeks ; ” James, I get what you say, in your writing and thoughts on youth ministry – but as a volunteer – how am I expected to put it into practice?” 

The old saying goes ; ‘Be the change you want to be’           The other saying goes ; If it aint broke, dont fix it! 

Making Changes within established patterns of youth ministry is one of the most difficult things to do, change requires a whole load of effort, and often is a prime source of conflict. When you try and change something in youth ministry, the change might affect a persons routine, practice, thinking and theology about how they do ‘youth ministry’ – and often the culture – which is the combination of actions, artefacts and beliefs – is already set. The sociologist Erving Goffman says that a new person being put into an existing role, in an existing culture is going to find it very difficult to do anything other than become moulded by the existing and work in accordance with it, being reactive, rather than challenging. In a previous situation i attempted to change the way young people took part in their youth group, from me doing it as their leader, to them participating in developing the programme, leading games, prayers, discussions and tuck shop, and after 6-12 months of this, and seeing how they grew in faith, you’d think it was established. Actually when i left, the adults as leaders took back over, and control again. And thats just one example, though i thought i had developed a practice, the broader culture of the particular situation defaulted back to what they knew once i had left.  If you are only in a place for a year, ie a gap year student, there is stuff you can do ‘new’ but making significant change…?

Sometimes it is easier going somewhere new. But no where is completely new. Not really. There might be a new role on the table, but it exists with a church or organisation culture, within a local community culture and practices and habits. Image result for managing change

When it comes to Managing changes, Fishers Diagram is helpful, as it tracks how people react to changes, and the change develops and situation goes on. How managing changes is about recognising anxiety, fear, threat and potential depression, guilt or/and gradual acceptance. And this can be in all manner of things in youth ministry, from how the young people cope with change in routine, the leaders, or changes in churches (*insert joke here about changes in churches)

In a way though, recognising that changes need managing is only half the scenario. The other is how do you actually make them?

The why fix the non-broken youth ministry is one reaction to change, especially if we evaluate something by young people enjoyment, rather than their participation in faith, or long term discipleship. The other, be the change you want to be is first recognising your own role in the upcoming change. It is worth trying to work out what that change is, putting it down in some kind of detail, working out who is affected, and what the risks might be. It might be that changing the age bands in youth group makes perfect sense to the leaders, but splits up all the peer groups, upsetting young people and causing them to leave, or finding a reason to leave. Other times you might not know what the risks are.

Lets say for an example that the young people in the group every summer go to Soul survivor. For the sake of argument it costs £175 per young person including tickets, travel and food.

And you decide that because there are some young people now attending the group for whom £175 is a price too high to pay for this kind of event that you decide that it isnt something that these new young people are ‘ready for’ or can afford, and so decide that this year the trip isnt happening. It may not seem it, but this might be a big change.

Big for some parents as they have been used to a week without their kids for a dead cheap amount

Big for some of the leaders who have also been doing soul survivor since they were teens

Big for some of the young people who have enjoyed it previously.

Big theologically, because part of the church culture has been annual christian festivals, like spring harvest and others, so by not going this has implications. As a leader making this sort of decision, you could be accused of denying some young people ‘their annual Jesus top-up’ by parents. (says something about the quality of discipleship the rest of the year… ;-)) It becomes a challenge to the way in which church is for them. Church as the warm up to festival Jesus, and back again.

This isnt in any way a dig at soul survivor. It is just an example of the effects of making changes about youth ministry, and from what angles the challenges may come.

So – how might you make changes in Youth Ministry? 

Firstly, know what the change is. You may have read some new stuff about youth ministry, even here (!) and thought thats interesting information, i wonder what ‘asset based youth work’ or ‘treating young people as theologians’ might look like. What you are doing, even by reading this, is starting to reflect on your practice, and develop lifelong learning. Which is crucial. Otherwise, the ‘dont break what isnt fixed’ takes over. Or you’re ignorant of the options, because the hamster wheel of doing the same thing, over and over again, with different young people is what you’re on. With the result of young people still leaving the church, and many not being given an opt in to participate in it.

Secondly, from dipping your toe in the water, develop the ideas, by reading further, talking it through with a supervisor, colleague or line manager and see how the idea takes root. Reflect further but not alone. Line manager is important, you need people on your side. Image result for managing change

Thirdly, Consult. Genuine consult. Pose it with the youth group as a question ;  ‘ so, what if we didnt do Soul Survivor this year’ what are your thoughts (based on the example above)  – yes you might consult the young people before their parents. Have a conversation in a way with young people, and/or volunteers that gives all parties opportunities to ask, critique and disagree, doing so healthily.

Image result for managing changeEven after this, the enacting of the change might still need to be done, which takes effort, no shortage of bravery and the desire to take a risk and be vulnerable. there could be alot at stake. 

Think of the changes that could be more or less risky?

And there is more to it than just these things. Theres things like creating a vision, emphasising the benefits, planning and strategising. It is also worth remembering that change is a process and journey, which these graphs sort of help with.

Remember also, that you might be trying to make changes in a youth ministry setting which is in a context, like a church, which is like an elephant, it has a long memory, and resistant to making abrupt changes or doing them quickly. They say actions only take 7 occurrences to become habits, and then difficult to shift. Well think about how many sessions of youth groups or church meetings that your local church volunteers have been participating in. Any change might be gradual, so even try and work it out in steps. One of the best ways is through evaluation sheets/reviews, in some places it just a challenge to sit a review a session…

To make a change in youth ministry practice, id say is becoming very difficult. There are large players in the youth ministry game in the UK, that cause a gravitational pull into the type of faith and discipleship that young people in churches are implicitly drawn towards. Its charismatic, concert styled and linked very closely with entertainment. Its the pull of the large events and organisations, and the festivals and ‘youth services’. And whilst its popularity is fading, too many current church goers grew up in its culture to completely let go, and think – maybe something radically different is whats appropriate for young people today. It might be that the change you have to make in youth ministry is to resist this gravitational pull, and doing so reasons that might be both practical and theological, might even be putting the needs and gifts of young people first – or by instead taking the young people on a mission trip to ‘perform’ their faith – rather than keeping them be ‘learners’ of it… its not that you have to resist, but if and when you try to you might realise how strong it is. Being radical for Jesus might mean going against the gravitational pull of evangelical youth ministry. 

Making and Managing change in Youth Ministry is never an easy thing, for the reasons above. Sometimes, you have just got to go for it, and make it happen. In the main it is better to be collaborative. People might resist change for a number of reasons. People might, once the change has happened realise that it is better this way and they should have changed all along. On other occasions people dont even know why they do things in a certain way, they just do. Its the way it was done to them, its the way they thought was best, and it might still be the case, other times it might be you who has to have the conversation and help them rethink and do something differently, and volunteers and young people need to be re educated, trained and also experience the change and adopt it.

But – from ideas to making changes in youth ministry practice – im sure theres 100’s of positive and also horror stories out there…

If you’re into pioneering youth ministry, then you’re on the lookout for the new thing, then shifting local culture, organisation or church is part and parcel of that change, managing change is never too far away, when the new approach in a new context is required.