Reaching young people with the method of the Gospel (beyond Generation Z)

I have read, and re-read YFC’s latest research based on the responses of 1001 young people in Scotland, England and Wales (no one from NI) that brings to the attention of those involved in youth ministry a number of insights into the behaviours, actions and beliefs that these 1001 young people have. As I have written previously, we’re in a hot bed of release of youth ministry research at the moment, Youthscape, CofE, SU and a number of other large organisations have produced research into young people, faith, life and church in the last 2 years. There is an element of saturation point. There is also an element where, having read most of the other research, including Soul Searching by Christian Smith (2005) on the faith of USA teenagers, and a few other historical pieces, then not much of what is in the Generation Z report is particularly surprising or new, especially if you’re a youth worker who is in a school, a community setting and sees most of what this report says on a day to day basis.

What the writers of this research ask is whether this research starts a conversation about the future of youth ministry and new paradigm shifts, and what Neil suggests on the back is that the report might be for the internal audience of YFC more-so than those outside in other youth ministry contexts arguing that :

our commitment (YFC) to taking the good news relevantly means we are prepared to make major changes to our methods (Neil O Boyle)

This is not a dig at Neil, at all, these are worthy questions from the point of view of trying to change the culture and practices of a 70 year old evangelistic youth ministry organisation. He is also keen to know what others think, and whether others experiences match the report. So here’s a first piece on it…

Over the past 24 hours I have reflected on the report, and shared it with a few others, and whilst there are significant questions that arise from its content, the main questions i have are with it as a process and tool and thinking theologically about youth ministry and the gospel that YFC seeks to be witnesses of.

In one way, I thought about the information that Jesus would have had for his Ministry, where it came from, how he decided which disciples to resource, which towns and cities, places and lakes were important, and who might be good resources for him. I have come to the understanding that what Jesus discovered in the locality he was in for about 30 years was enough. He knew about workplaces, roads, farms, fields, temples, ceremonies, rituals, family, commerce, trade, and importantly who fitted the roles that he was looking for.

What he knew of the Roman empire and culture was from the point of experience. What he knew of people was from the point of experience.

The phrase that comes to mind, or shall i say verse is John 3 16-17. We know the first bit. The second speaks of Jesus method; ‘for i have not come to judge the world but to save it’ – and we already know that God loves the world (John 3;16)

The method of the Gospel was local, at the point of human contact and in a specific place and time. If that was all Jesus needed then its using the same lenses and discernment in our local areas that is also required.

What this research, and all the other research before it into youth culture (such as Rick Bartletts in 1998 on Gen Y) and also the similar claims of what Gen x, Baby boomers and Millenials that often get banded about, are times when Missiology, and the Christian church has adopted sociological thinking for the purposes of mass market appeal and universal, simplified marketing and resourcing. In a way it is amusing that one of the differences between ‘youthwork’ and ‘youth ministry’ is that youth work has meeting the needs of local young people in their space/context as a priority, and doesnt adopts generalisations or generations, it doesnt need to, and i would suggest that because Jesus didnt do this either ( except to be critical to the generations of sinners/hypocrites), then maybe this is the shift that needs to be made in youth ministry. But its too late.

Its not that there might only be so much usefulness in surveys of 1001 young people and disseminating youth culture from this, it is whether trying to determine a universal youth culture or a generalisation of a generation is useful at all. At worst it makes easy judgements (not what Jesus would do) , make a youth worker be relevant ( hey guys ive heard that you all like being on the internet, to a group all playing tennis at the time) or at worst to think that the young people are in any way deficient to what theyre supposed to be. But what the research also does is reduce the desire to learn long term in a space, as armed with a bucket load of research, the fresh faced youth minister (often a gap year student) can turn up and not bother listening and learning.

I have not come to judge the world – but to love it  John 3:17

In 1964 Rev Hamilton said this: “what we need to know about the strategy of action must be learned at the point of personal involvement‘  This was on the back of a 4 year study and research into a detached youthwork project in London. A 4 year study written up by Goetchius and Tash.  His conclusion and appendix, a sermon to the world christian youth commission in 1964, was that to engage with young people, for whom 50% werent attending youth clubs and were ‘on the estates’ causing havoc, the point of engagement was the point of research.

Fast forward not that long and the desire for different methods took hold, when Youth ministry practices starting taking root in the UK. Cultural studies became important, Christian youth culture was the alternative to mainstream youth culture, and young people who were on the estates were part of neither, shaping their own, but all the while being the ‘underclass’. Culture and generation studies continued.

Yet The method of the gospel – was to love the world, and meet it head on at the point of contact.

Even writers of Youth Ministry in the 1990s were starting to realise this:

‘To be heard, The word must come into the world of young people, presence preceds preaching and listening precedes speaking’ (Dean Borgman 1999, p19)

none of listening and presence happens by looking at research. 

We are called to waste time with young people – to be in the boundaries (Pete Ward, 1997, p25-29)

In a way, then, the Generation Z research might not cause a Paradigm shift in the culture of youth ministry, because it is in existence in itself. What it is, determines culture and a way of doing ministry within the dying embers of organised evangelical youth ministry. It makes perceptions of only a few young people – where actually not one young person is average. As Liebau and Chisolm (1993) have suggested, universal concepts such as youth should be questioned, as ‘european youth’ or ‘british youth’ or even ‘northern youth’ or ‘generation z youth’ actually do not exist. Young people in specific contexts frame their story and lives around much more local activities, behaviours, and circumstances, as well as how they interpret these cultures, structures. So what young people ‘do’ might have less bearing on how they ‘construct’ their ongoing circumstances.  This leads to questions about the socio- demographics of the Gen z study , the mental health issues that the young people had experience of, the negative experiences in life, the perceptions that they have of family, school, friends, religion and social media – beyond that some of these things were unhelpful at times. All of these constructions are more locally realised. It is in the space of helping young people make those constructions that we need to be. in the boundaries.

The method of the Gospel is not to judge the world, it is to be involved in it, and learn from within it, and be part of helping young people construct their worldview, helping them reflect, and develop meaning about faith that resonates with them. I am 1/2 way through a piece on myth making and how this is important in developing faith, though my previous articles refer to how we might help young people find meaning in the space of church – this is also a theme picked up by Nick Shepherd in ‘Faith Generation’ (2016). 

If making an understanding of young people in our local contexts is done via extrapolations from samples and assessments of culture, then we have missed the point and method and process of the gospel. Telling good news happens after being present, learning, listening and creating safe space, rapport, and relationship.

We might need to meet the 32% of young people who meet their friends on the street where they’re at. on the streets. Back to detached work again… i wonder… maybe Goestchius and Tash in 1967 and their christian mission work with YWCA were on to something…. 😉

Getting in the midst of young people in the boundaries, might end us up where Pete Ward reflects we might be in a place where ‘we bleed for others, not for art’ It is costly sacrificial and long term, emotional and in the midst. The gospel is in the costly presence.


Working with Unattached Youth, 1967, Goetschius & Tash

Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997, Pete Ward

Rethinking Youth, 1999, Wyn & White

When Kumbaya is not enough, 1997, Dean Borgman

Faith Generation, 2016, Nick Shepherd

A copy of the report can be accessed, (or bought!) here:


Dreaming of youth ministry that is relevant from the point of interaction

Its time for a rethink in Youth Ministry.

Over the past three days I have ended up watching Ken Robinsons seminal TED talk on Education from 2006: The transcript of which is here:  and the 18 minutes of your time are easily accessible on YouTube. The question he poses in this relates to education, but he asks:

We have a huge vested interest in it, partly because it’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp. If you think of it, children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065.

and, then says

What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original — if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.

and then

And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this — he said that all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. (Ken Robinson, TED)

The questions that these pose for me arent as straightforward as to relate these specifically to the church and youth ministry, although that is possible, it is to ask the following;

What are the influence of the creativity of TED talks on the wider policy makers in UK education?

Probably not a lot. Given that since 2005 the capacity for creativity and breadth of learning in English education has shrunk rather than widened. Though attempts in Scotland had started as I left there 5 years ago. But what TED does is to promote ideas, to try and and explore the possibilities, to dream. To not be tied to the culture of current practice, but to look beyond, to look to the humans that are being formed and educated in education, not just the subjects that are assessed to enable industry to get its share of workers.

It takes an amount of guts to make bold claims about a culture and practice that has become so embedded.

So, let me put this one out there.

Have we ever asked the question to young people –

What is it you like about being involved in Youth Ministry/groups?

It may be that some young people articulate that ‘its something for them’ in the church – and in that way being relevant to that age group could be important – though youth groups have to retain relevancy as the persons get older. But other than that – the main things tend to be:

It is safe, it is social, it challenges me, Im forced to go by parents, i get to have experiences, I connect with adults, I get support.

More to the point, relevancy to the prevailing culture tends not to be what young people find fulfilling in youth ministry. It is consistency, challenge, a safe place , broadening of experiences and meaning.

Youth ministry need not to copy the world, to keep up with the times, to try and develop new strategies, policies, shapes and forms – unless they develop upon these five things, consistency, challenge, safe , experiences and for YP to find meaning in them. Without one of these there will be something lacking in youth ministry practice, for young people and they will find it elsewhere.

The problem with keeping up with Culture is that culture surrounds so subtly that we dont know we’re swimming in it. We dont also realise how the cultures in churches also affect what and how things are done. The church and youth ministrys role is not to keep trying to keep up with culture. It is to involve itself in the culture of young people, understand it from their lens, at the point of interaction, and then help them through it, help them challenge it, and also do the same. We need our theology and youth ministry to meet young peoples culture head on and be present in it. Trying to keep up with culture means that culture wags the churchs tail. But at times were all swimming in it anyway.

The reason, is that culture for every community is different, and so listening has to prioritise over previous known knowledge. Previous known universal knowledge about ‘culture’ isnt to be the benchmark – ‘all young people have iphones’ is not true and makes ‘trying to be relevant’ youth ministry look foolish.

It is to be distinctive in culture – to view our young people as creative and talented – so lets build cultures that help them thrive

It is to be distinctive in culture – to view young people as continuing to be artists – and creators – not just learners – so build a culture for creativity and construction

it is to be distinctive in culture  – to view young people as anything other than thugs – so lete create spaces where their talents are not being wasted, as education might be pushing them down a medicated/troubled pathway.

To be distinctive in culture – to regard them as saints not a problem, as Promise and not at risk.

If the church was asked the same question – how are we preparing and forming young people who have 65 years of the christian life ahead of them – what would we say?  How is what we do in youth work & ministry valuable in itself but also to prepare children and young people for the long haul?

And not unlike TED talks where there are many ideas and no policy makers watching, blogs, videos and facebook statuses have almost as much effect on youth ministry practice. But that doesnt mean that dreaming isnt possible, for the sake of young people long term discipleship in churches.


Want to engage and keep young people? Make youth ministry more dangerous.  

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Thank you for your patience, and thank you for reading,



10 Tips for creating a Healthy Youth Ministry

For a moment, stop and think about what it is like for a young person in the present day. If reports are to go by, then incidents and reporting of anxiety amongst young people are on the increase, as a result, young people may just have their self protection antenna switched to a firm on. But then again thats the same for most of us adults, for it is usually in our own self protection to avoid situations that are unhealthy, or damaging, if we can help it. In the recent report from the Fuller institute, 1400 churches were interviewed who had kept young people from the age of 14. One of the key findings was that young people stayed when church was a healthy place

Healthy churches are the subject of Peter Scazzeros books, it was also what Rob Bell was talking about on a recent Nomad podcast – it seems that burned out ministers are now making ministries out of preventing others from burning out too. Cynical or not, the questions about the health of our churches, and ministries have to be asked. Would it be possible to say that the church space where young people go is emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy place to learn, to become responsible, to flourish, to be accepted in the church community, to be treated as an adult at the appropriate time. How might we work towards this?

A friend of mine, Jenni Osborne, saw my previous post on the Fuller research and asked a colleague in a local church for 5  top tips to keeping a church based youth club healthy and thriving, and came up with these:

  1. Plan in advance. I know, we youth workers are all fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants types (I’d bet we’re not actually) and love to plan on the fly because there’s just not enough hours in the day! Well….Image result for plan
  2. Look after your team. Invest in your team, find out what makes them tick, uncover their strengths and encourage them to play to them. DO NOT EXPLOIT THEM…
  3. Look after yourself. If you are going to be in this job for more than a metaphorical 5 minutes then you absolutely MUST MUST MUST look after yourself. Eat well, sleep well, rest well, manage others well, be managed well, go on training for the latter two, ask for some help with managing your diary for the middle two, learn to cook for the first! It’s too easy to give in to the stereotypes of late night eating of mostly brown food, burning the candle at both ends with Friday night youth club and Saturday morning Prayer Breakfasts or whatever your picture looks like! It’s too easy to allow the thing that yp have said to you or about you to prey on your mind, refusing yourself sleep or rest. Much harder but much more worthwhile to learn how to cook, to rest, to recharge, to say NO. You’ll be around for many more young people!
  4. Don’t be afraid to challenge your young people. Youth clubs are not all about eat-as-much-as-you-can with a side ordering of table tennis/Wii Sports Resort/pool/Jungle Speed. OK maybe they are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also make room for challenge about how they live their lives: use fairtrade fortnight to challenge their consumer habits; use a ‘sleepover’ activity to highlight homelessness; get them raising money for a local charity or one that sponsors a child/village/cow (providing a cow for a family rather than sending the cow to school!); give them space to ask Big Questions about the existence of God, why things happen the way they do, or what happens when loved ones die; sit with them while they try and process painful stuff. Pray with and for them, the effects will surprise you!
  5. Invite your Church Leaders onto the team or along to a regular ‘Q&A’ time. Young people want to be listened to, not only by you but by others who say they care. If your church leadership has invested their time and money into you to work with their young people, then they are saying they care and yp will want to see that in action and be listened to by them.

I might add a few others to this list to make it a total of 10; which relate more broadly to the culture of the church, and the youth leader themselves:

  1. Working at 80% might give you the energy for 2-3 more years. Strategise the odd session off to train and supervise volunteers. Not every week has to be youth club night.
  2. Provide yourself with the kind of opportunities to be challenged that you also give the young people – so do a course, study, write or read
  3. Delegate. ‘Wait’ is an acceptable response to a request, delay a yes or a no, if you can.  ‘Yes’ might add to your ‘to do’ list, it might also take the opportunity away from someone else. It might also take you away from family time, time off or doing something that actually was important. like phoning a young person or spending time with someone. Image result for delay
  4. Ensure as much decision making about the nature of groups, curriculum and events and activities is given to young people. A healthy place is one where there are no sudden shocks, that might affect them, like all of a sudden their younger sister is allowed to join the group. (what a night mare!) Young people will opt out if they smell a rat, a fake or fear. Though this doesnt mean that risks arent taken.
  5. Balance space with activity, activity is space. Leave spaces for conversations for young people to have conversations with themselves but also with the leaders that seem as young person directed as possible. Every week neednt be 100% high energy, high adrenaline mega programmed to its final 2 1/2 seconds.  Trust in conversations, and keep trusting them, its a basic human need to be listened to, listen intently to your young people. Just give space. Have a weekend away, just to be on a campsite, no talks, no activity, just space to walk, cook, explore, spend time together. Brave. well why not?

So – develop the practices of a healthy youth ministry, be aware of your health, spiritually, emotionally and physically, and then also regard the health of your young people. Challenge practices in the church that become of high anxiety, stress and pressure, whether this is the ‘numbers game’ the ‘success’ game or the growth one. Cultivate health, depth, gifts and participation instead. You never know, it might produce longer lastingness.

any other suggestions? – please share them here for others:

7 not-so-Deadly Sins in Youth Ministry


The film Se7en came out in 1995, I watched it when i was 18, i think, just. Or i may have been nearly 18. And it was pretty graphic and shocking for me at the time. Unlike Trainspotting or Aliens it isn’t a film i have given a re-watch to ever since. If you’ve not seen it, IMDB describes it as “A film about two homicide detectives’ (Morgan Freeman and (Brad Pitt) desperate hunt for a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. The movie takes us from the tortured remains of one victim to the next as the sociopathic “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) sermonizes to Detectives Somerset and Mills — one sin at a time.” Whether the film is in any way successful at telling this story is difficult for me to remember, but throughout its main story line is the effect of an ignorance of the 7 deadly sins:  pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

So, for some strange reason over breakfast I was wondering – probably because theres two conferences on youth ministry happening this weekend- is to think about what would be ‘the 7 deadly sins of Youth Ministry’ and focus on these 7 original sins, and i think there would be some merit in doing this to highlight areas of ministry that are prone to envy ( the successful ministry down the road), wrath (after the leadership meeting) , gluttony ( too many cream cakes during YF tuck shop) or Pride (‘its all about my ministry’). But I thought that would be a little obvious, and its likely that in the depths of time that Youthwork magazine probably did something similar.

So, instead of focussing on these 7 original sins, as I was out walking this afternoon, I thought about a different sin, linked to them all, ‘Ignorance’ and wondered if Youth Ministry, in part, or more in full, has been found to be guilty of ignoring the following aspects that have a real impact on the nature of youth ministry, the depth of engagement in young people, and how youth ministry might be threatened by what it accepts from the culture around,  in 7 key ways.

  1. Ignoring Theology for pragmatism. – Good theology helps give young people connection with a world story that they can assimilate as their personal story (McAdams 1997), Challenging Theology is what helps to keep young people in local churches so says recent research here: .  Settling for an easy night, of fun and distraction from the concerns of the world, might only be so helpful. Neither is settling for what Christian Smith calls is Moral Therapeutic Deism (2005) – connecting young people with a God who is ‘there for them’ to give them confidence, however, as a personal myth to believe in it will go so far, just it might need changing when it is tested.
  2. Ignoring young people. This seems strange as youth groups are full of them, but how many youth group evenings are judged as successful by the quality of conversations between youth leader and young person, and not by who and how many turned up? Young people can be ignored if they’re just to take part in the activities. What they need is a healthy place to be where adults take interest in them, listen and shape activities around their needs, interests and gifts. And that is on just a local level, and the local church.  Where do young people feature in the shaping of area strategies, of national programmes. Its also apparent when young people are counted as just numbers.
  3. Ignoring History. A bit like the Premier league, which only provides statistics of games back to 1992, as if football didnt exist before then. An understanding of History reveals christian youth work practice that nowadays would be seen as innovative, more risk taking and politically active. Meeting young peoples needs was core philanthropy in 1830, for example. Its what Sunday schools were developed for.  What might be one persons innovation might only show a blind spot for history, or good practice down the road.
  4. Ignoring the effect of culture.. What I mean here, is not the effect that culture has on young people. This is extensively researched, and if not the Guardian usually has something on ‘Millenials’ to reflect on most weeks. What I mean is the effect of the prevailing culture on Youth Ministry itself. The Sociologist Wolfe said:

In every aspect of religious life, American faith has met American culture, and American culture has triumphed… the faithful in the USA are remarkably like everyone else (Wolfe, 2003)

An example of this is in the marketing and programming of youth ministry resources, that are described as ‘almost Fordian’ (ie representing the process of making one size/colour fits all, mass produced motor cars) by Danny Brierley (2003) – It is an example of where the influence of Managerial theory and practice is inserted into the church. The same could be said for any youth ministry programme that claims to be efficient, calculated, predictable and be able to be controlled, for these are dominant tenets of the business model of Macdonalds. Without realising it, the prevailing culture wins, if a youth ministry seeks growth and transformational leadership to do this, then this again is from the management guru handbook, more so than Theology – however biblically justified. Youth Ministry is undoubtedly involved in the culture, it creates culture, but is also subject to it – it is worth being critical of the sources, methodologies and ideologies of practice – having filters set to ‘on’. Being predictable and efficient – might give 4 spiritual laws, but maybe not the complexity of a deep faith, and young people exploring difficult questions. Keeping up with culture isnt making Youth ministry more theological or relevant, its possibly only turning it into efficient organisations that are cost effective.  Managing a good youthwork organisation or it being managed well might not actually be having the best effect on young people.

5. Ignoring Youthwork (& Education) philosophy. What the Values and practice of Youthwork can bring to Youth Ministry is an increased focus, not only on young people and their needs, but processes shaped by values that are in their favour, such as empowerment, voluntary participation, inclusion & anti-oppressive practice, and informal education, what it also can provide, again according to Danny Brierely, is an ethical yardstick for youth ministry. Youth Ministry will only be improved by encompassing more of the discipline of youth work. Not only that but a refreshing of different concepts of education especially as young people participate in youth ministry in a voluntary way would be critical.

6. Ignoring Pioneers. For too long the biggest conferences are sponsored by the same people who select the same people to be the experts. Critical and Pioneering voices, generally are put to one side, unless they have been youth ministry flavour of the month in the past – and can still retain ‘Hero’ status. But in the main, those who are known for good, solid local practice are ignored. Those who lead ministries and have several lead responsibilities in organisations are the heralded experts. Some are the pioneers, but others are selectively ignored. Organisations, cultures and practices are only developed further through critical thinking, questions and dissent. Yes people will only keep the hamster wheel turning, critical thinking will ensure the hamster is travelling in the right direction. Pioneers are what the Disciples were, lest not forget, improvising in the new spaces what they had been taught.

7. Ignoring ourselves. Not unlike the film, the final twist is played on the main character and the audience. The final ‘deadly sin’ in Youth Ministry is when we forget about being honest and kind and generous to ourselves. We help define youth ministry and youth work through our very actions with young people, our communication with churches, partnerships, agencies and schools, we also define it as a practice through the cultures of the settings we create, the young people we invest the most time in, creating healthy spaces for young people also starts with being healthy ourselves – not perfect- just healthy, self-care is important, and probably the most ‘deadly’ of them all on an individual youth ministry level.

Could I have included others, possibly. But what might be yours? Excluding obviously ‘critical blogging’….


MTD & 10 other findings about Young People and Religion from ‘Soul Searching’

There were 10 main points in the conclusion to ‘Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers’ by Christian Smith, but the main headline from the book referred to the concept of MTD.

Product DetailsBetween 2001 and 2005 , the National Study of Youth and Religion in American undertook research into the Spiritual lives of young people aged between 11-17, they conducted interviews, focus groups, and telephone conversations with young people all across the USA.

Whilst MTD got the headlines, and has been referred to in a number of publications, it is some of the other conclusions within the research that might be of equal interest to Youth Ministers, clergy, volunteers and parents of young adults, especially in the UK.

Ill get to MTD later.

So, after listening to and dissecting the information from the research, these were Christian Smiths conclusions regarding the spirituality of American young people:

  1. Religion is important: Religion is a significant presence in the lives of young people. Most have not dropped out of the religious congregations they were raised. Many profess religion to be important and has influence over moral choices. They might not be able to articulate their beliefs that well, but they do have some kind of religious identity.
  2. Young people arent as rebellious as we think! The Character of most young adults is extraordinarily conventional, they follow the religion of their parents in the vast majority of cases.
  3. Religion or no religion – spirituality is not the question; As part of religious conventionality, very few young people express a desire to be ‘spiritual and not religious’ many grant others right to persue religions, but  few would be interested in doing this themselves.  What they were raised with, religion or no religion is what they are most happy with.
  4. The USA is still predominately Christian; The shift in religious observance in 2001-2005 was of no significant difference to the previous 20, 30 or 40 years. Any claim to the alternative – ie the influx of Muslims, is simply overblown.
  5. Some religions are better than others at ‘helping’ young people; From a sociological perspective the young people who score highest on self esteem, and life choice factors were Mormons young people, conservative protestant and black pentecostal teenagers. It was identified that consequance and causality are reasons not to make astute claims, in this regard, and religions cant be compared like for like, however, from the data these three religions had a more positive effect on young people.
  6. Parents, Parents,Parents! The single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual life of a young person is their parents.
  7. Invest in training youth leaders! The greater the amount of religiously grounded relationships, activities, programmes, opportunities and challenges available to teenagers, the more likely teenager will be religiously engaged and interested. Religious communities that invest in training their leaders, teach adolescents are more likely to draw youth into their religious lives. The opposite is also the case, less investment by a church (not just financial investment) then young people are less likely to invest in their religious faith.
  8. I cant explain what i believe – I just do! Most US young people have difficulty articulating their faith, what it means and the implications of their faith on their lives. Many say they have no religious beliefs. Religion may play a part in a young persons life, but it seems confused, un-focussed and in the background, valued but not invested in, praised but not describable. Research pointed to a view that teaching and educating beliefs was weak.
  9. MTD has taken root! It is the new religion that is now worshipped within many of the main religious traditions. What is MTD? – it is Moral Therapeutic Deism – The belief that God merely gives, God expects moral behaviour, and that God is distant. MTD is covered in more detail here: –  If ‘God’ helps a person ‘feel happy’, or ‘confident’, or ‘helps me do what i want’- then these are possible symptoms. God exists and watches, God wants people to be nice, fair and good, being happy and feeling good is central to life, God is only required when theres a problem to take care of needs and good people go to heaven – these were all central beliefs of young people and form the basis of MTD.
  10. Religion takes place in a social context – and these are powerful influences. The choices of a young person are very powerfully influenced by forces outside of religion, and where religion is adhered to is still marginal then it becomes v difficult for a young person to see these powerful influences and the influence they have. Expectations are that young people go against the flow, half the time they are powerless to even swim.
  11. Religious life is important and has a positive effect on YP; religious young people are not the same as non-religious, there are differences in life outcomes between adherents and non adherents, as religions ( nearly all religions) shape and influence a young persons life. The culture of religious practices has an effective influence.


  1. Adults to help to understand to socialisation process a young person is going through, including the socialisation process in a faith community – rather than see the young person as controller of their own desitiny, more often they are being shaped by forces outside of their control
  2. Young People are not alien creatures, are less dissimilar than like adults. They are more unlike their 3 year old younger sister than us their parent. The continuities are far more prevalent than distinctions. There is no need to research youth culture.
  3. Adults need to be reminded of the similarities with young people.

These recommendations are squared at adults in churches where there can be unseen but said barriers to working and involving themselves with young people.

“Religious organisations and congregations are uniquely positioned to embrace, connect and strengthen links between adults and teenagers, though it will require intentionality and investment “- concludes Christian Smith.

What might Christian Smith have highlighted that might be of relevance to the UK youth ministry, the North East Youth Ministry, 12 years later in 2017?

Does it represent a different culture that of the USA and so some of this is barely relevant at all?  –

How might faith be something young people receive as being something ‘good for them’ but it not require sacrifice, a change in lifestyle, or discipleship.

How well to UK young people articulate faith and beliefs? What they actually believe about God? not just a moral opinion on gay marriage or abortion?

Just a few further questions from what was a fascinating read. MTD may have got the headlines, but theres at least 10 other helpful conclusions from Soul Searching that are good discussion starters in UK youth Ministry.




‘They’re just kids’ and 11 other reasons for not giving Young People responsibilities in Churches

When religious communities do not invest in their youth, unsurprisingly their youth are less likely to invest in their religious faith (Christian Smith, 2005)

That investment, is not just financial, though it helps. There was no paid youthworker in my church growing up, but If you read my story about how I grew up and stayed in the church (it is here: ) you will have noticed that from the age of 12 I was given responsibilities in the church community, these included teaching young children in the Sunday school, helping with the music on the overhead projector slides, the PA and sound recording onto ‘tape’ – I was given responsibilities.

One of the recommendations from ‘Soul Searching, by Christian Smith (2005) is that he suggests that attention needs to be given to help young people away from a strong inclination to an individualism of their faith, one way I suggest might be is to give them responsibilities within a faith community/church in order that they play a collective part in the practice of the community. However, as Nick Shepherd writes in Faith Generation (2016), young people can be perceived primarily as learners in churches, as opposed to participants, deciders or creators. Now, it might be that these two publications have described a world alien to you in your church, significantly alien if there are no young people, or one where young people are key contributors and participants, and that would be great. But I wonder whether what the key reasons are why young people arent given responsibilities in churches. When, as a comparison, in schools, another learning community, they have many opportunities in committees and group work to have responsibilities.

So, what might be the reasons for not giving young people responsibility in churches?

  1. There arent many jobs to do, and the best people are already doing themThis may be the case, and thinking about it, the technology might have changed, from OHP and Tape to digital, but its fairly difficult to make a case that a young person cant master the current technology. Other jobs, well im sure there’s gaps on coffee rotas, sunday school teaching, collection, welcome team, interviewing the new youthworker, a forum for young people in the church to suggest ideas. Young people might just need to be asked, or alternatively have conversations with adults to discover their gifts and how they might contribute. Having spoken to a few young people recently, they were enjoying having management responsibility in a task at school – how might they ‘manage’ a situation/task in a church at 15?
  2. We’re scared the young person might fall flat on their faces and fail – Im all for not giving young people the kind of responsibility where their ‘failure’ is public, so public speaking for example.Image result for failure success Whatever the task is then manage, guide, show, let them shadow, follow, copy and learn, and so that they arent exposed or alienated to fail, by giving them opportunities to fail and help them through this will actually develop resilience and character, far more than them being fearful and avoiding the task or the adults being fearful of the consequence…. the alternative to this is;
  3. We dont want them to be successful either , then they might get prideful – , like above this is a projected fear that hinders creativity in the young person, if a young person is good at something, then treat it as a gift they have been given, and help them to develop it further, for the glory of God, and also recognise their ability or character in a positive way. If the church is afraid of a person being successful because of a gifting honed in the church then this needs to be reflected on. Image result for success clipartA young person may need that opportunity to show responsibility in your faith community and gain personal confidence through it, its not the ‘end game’ but it might really help them. If there are signs of pride, over confidence then fine, have a conversation and continue to ‘supervise’ guide and coach, but that shouldnt stop it. For both 2 and 3 – a culture of ‘preventing participation’ needs to be challenged.
  4. They shouldnt do jobs here, we have to make church an easy place for them, life is complicated enough for them In a way this is a creditable reason. Some young people may 100’s of things to do in their lives especially after school, and sunday might be their day off. But that may not apply to all the young people, and it might be that even in those groups they dont get the opportunities of responsibility that you as a church can give. Yes they might play for a football team, but only one gets to be captain, you can give them responsibilty, and as per 3 this might give them a type of confidence or enhance a skill that lay dormant.
  5. Why have young people do things, that’s what we pay a youth worker to do. Most youthworkers would, i think, rather help young people participate than have to ‘do it’ themselves. They could do themselves out of a job, but youthworkers have plenty to do Mon-Sat usually.
  6. They’re just kids. Yup thats right. They are just kids. Just precious persons to be kept safe. See my previous post on young people as a separate species, Nick Shepherd highlights this when he says that young people are principally regarded as learners. A similar point is made by Christian Smith when he argues that young people are often treated as an alien species, when in reality as he says they are pretty similar to most adults, though most adults wouldnt dare to admit it. They are more like adults that children given their mental, physical, emotional and conceptual awareness, so this is how to treat them.
  7. Because of needing a DBS they cant help out until theyre 16Nope, because of needing a DBS they dont need to be checked for criminal actions until they are 16, if you’re happy that they dont pose a danger, and they are supervised throughout then they can be given responsibility. It would be Health and Safety gone mad to not let an 11 year old help with the creche – though yes let them be trusted gradually.
  8. We’ve always had adults do that jobAnd as a result adults continue to participate in the church, maybe that baton needs to be passed on!
  9. The Place for the young people is in the youth group – In the same way the place for the adults is just the pews perhaps?
  10. They dont know enough yet to be able to do that! – Teaching takes a number of forms, but thats rocket science, I learned as much about stories I had to teach others in Sunday school as what id remembered myself, it gave me a reason to learn more and ask questions. How much do young people need to ‘know’ before helping on the powerpoint, or music group for example?
  11. Why would young people contribute, their parents don’t?All the more reason to provide different expectations and new formation possibilities for a younger generation. 
  12. We don’t know what they’re good at?  – Maybe the young people dont either and so provide a number of opportunities to let them try and discover, without it having to be the ‘one’ thing, in the process they might discover the thing that they’re good at. Alternatively, work with the young people to discover their gifts as part of the youth groups and find ways of building these skills into the wider faith community, create their shaped hole, and not just for them to fit into something pre-existing.

I am sure these are not the only reasons that young people arent given responsibilities in churches, you could probably add more below in the comments, it may be that the easy life is plumped for, it would take time to help and guide young people, but equally it might not either. It is for those who see young people as gifted individuals who can contribute (and that neednt be a youthworker), but supportive adults and parents, to create opportunities and shape a culture in a church where young people are key contributors and participants.

Not all young people want to take on responsibilities in local churches, sometimes ‘being a leader’ is not what they want to do, and for the love of asking might be worth asking alternative questions to giving young people tasks that seem less responsible (they might fear making mistakes) – or that they have bigger dreams and want to contribute in wider society to do something for them that might have even more meaning, ie to make the world a better place – if this is what a young person wants to do instead than ‘help in sunday school’ then as church in the business of creation restoration we might and should find ways to facilitate this.

Why I didnt leave the church

Last week you may have noticed that I posted an article that described what kind of churches in the USA were able to keep young people engaged, that post is here:, the research is from the Fuller institute in the USA, and worth reflecting on. In the last few years there has been a plethora of articles saying : why millenials leave the church? or why the church has lost a ‘generation’ – whatever a ‘generation’ is, none of them help, they just brow beat and demoralise further. Because there are some very good people in very challenging places spending time with young people. Since I posted it i have been thinking about what kind of things kept me engaged in the church I went to and stayed in as a young person between 1988 and 1996, and i thought they are worth sharing.

It might be that my experience was completely unique, and yes that is philosophically accurate, it was unique. The challenge that I think there is, is whether it is right to think that the same things that kept young people engaged 20 or more years ago, will be the same today. My hunch is not, but throwing out the baby completely with the bathwater might be a mistake.

So, Why didnt I leave my church in my teenage years?

I think there was a number of reasons:

1. It was my church. 

For, although it was a church I grew up in, and therefore by default my parents and sister also went to, for a number of reasons my parents left the church when I was about 12. After that point, though i was given the opportunity to leave, I continued to go, to be part of the youth groups and what then happened is that It became a safe place, a place away from my parents, almost a place where i felt at times as if it was slightly rebellious to go, rather than rebellious not to. But it became my church. I know of other young people who felt they had to find an identity of going to church which was a different one to their parents, especially those whose parents are in leadership or important, but that neednt be so. I realise this might not be a possible scenario for many young people, but this scenario for me, enabled me to have more of my own identity in the church.

2. I was given jobs to do

From the age of 11, ie just starting High school, i asked to and was given the opportunity to help with the Sunday school, I think it was the under 6’s group. And it was great. I learned so much, and had to think about doing games or crafts or reading or stories. I was, at age 11 trusted to help and make a contribution to help the younger age groups. Im not sure I attended the ‘meetings’ to discuss the sunday school, but that didnt matter, each Sunday i was a key helper in the particular group, and at the time, I think alot of other similar 11-12yr olds were given this opportunity. I would stake a claim that most of those who took on helping roles then, are more involved in churches now. I also remember the first time i had to ‘lead’ the group because the adult leader was away, yes i was terrified, and yes it probably didnt go that well, but again it showed a level of trust, and was an important part of being an apprentice. In a way, having this role, and then a few others during my teenage years ( learning to play the guitar, junior youth group leader from 16) all helped to give me responsibility, challenges, to grow up in a church and have quality time with adults, as much as quality time with other young people.

3. I was given opportunities to work things out. 

I think my youth leaders, and there is some massive credit heading their way, probably got sick of me asking things, I was curious, I asked about and was keen to learn about things like Creation, like Free will, like Suffering, at times i wasnt satisfied with simple answers, and Im not just saying that now, I remember having lengthy conversation with people in the church about these complex matters. I attended and at times enjoyed the lengthy sermons, because they caused me to think, and werent dumbed down- i was probably 15 or 16 by then. But i was able to work things out because most sunday evenings I would walk back to my youth leaders house and chat with them about the sermons, or something else ( their house was on the way back to mine), and I was given time. Sometimes the conversation would continue over a hot chocolate, or a longer walk with their dog – but time and space to be listened to and not have a stupid question belittled, or even to explore the answers together was granted to me. Deep credit to all those people who gave me time. They will remain nameless but you know who you are. Not only that, but they were there in the times of needing to chat, the life choice moments, and struggles.

4. I didn’t need the spiritual ‘special event’ because I  felt I had a Spiritual home. 

Dont get me wrong, as a church and youth group we went to some interesting special events. Nothing has changed that much. Some were dreadful. I remember once driving my car ( so I must have been 17) with a few others to a random hall in deepest darkest Leicestershire, to an event that had been ‘well promoted’ and told of a great band etc etc, only to find that out group of 8 who travelled 20 miles formed over 1/2 the ‘audience’ ( for me these experiences started to pose questions in my head even then of ‘event based’ youth ministry) , however, back to the point. And I think at least 5 times i went to Spring Harvest, which was the ‘grandaddy’ of all the events, all that Spring harvest did is put other events in the shadow. Because, looking back, the place that felt like a Spiritual home was my local church, thats where I was given opportunities to grow, be listened to and from 11 be gradually formed in a number of ways with adults, with time and with opportunities. What the events did was categorise me back into being ‘a youth’ and just with other young people – great for connecting a meeting others, but i could have been anyone in a sea of 500, or anyone in a small group of 20 and being just a receiver of what was being said.

5. I didnt leave because I didnt want to. 

I dont think that at any point between the ages of 13-18 I felt as though I wanted to leave the church. I had no need to because actually many needs and interests i had were being met by its community, and more than that, I was given responsibility and encouraged to think about developing being a leader, being helpful and contributing in a number of ways. Was there a youth group that i attended – yes. But I’m not sure a youth group alone would have kept me, though there was some fun and embarrassing moments, when someone thought that ‘four weddings and a funeral’ would be a good movie to show on a friday evening at the pastors house. Hmm, those 5 first words… In a way the group itself was a parallel to all the rest of the activity, people and support that was involved in the faith community and how i maintained involvement in it.  I wonder whether actually there are some young people who dont leave the church.

I realise the situation I grew up in was unique to me, I was probably very fortunate. Yet it is unique to everyone. In that place, in that time, I look back and think about what were the things that kept me in the local church. The question is – Can churches rely on the same things that kept young people as they did 20 years ago? 

Its kind of yes and no. It depends what it thinks those things are.

What the church needs to do is work with the young people it has today, right now, and give them responsibility from an early age, that will be different to each young person, the kind of support that gives them a culture of being able to talk, work things out, be heard and listened to and valued, deep. Provide opportunities for young people to become connected with many adults, doing adult things – ie music, or sports groups, so not just being kept with people of the same age. They also need to be challenged, or be given opportunities to find that challenge and thinking is good for them – i think this is different now – i think young people do want something easy, and easy is what they are given. Its that MTD thing (see ).

The research pointed to two things: Young people appreciated a healthy place, and also a challenge.  That hasnt changed. Most young people leave because it isnt a healthy place – they are judged, they are given high expectations, they feel inauthentic, it is not a place for them, it is emotionally unhealthy – they have to connect with more leaders than they do school teachers, unhealthy ‘when its all about building relationships..’  Equally young people leave if they are under-challenged – in responsibility, in being able to ask questions, theological and practical, in tasks of mission, of leadership and learning.

In what way might those who have responsibility of local churches enable young people to feel that the church is their church?


Has Status anxiety in the church affected the success of Youth Ministry?

A simple enough question, dont you think. For, in some areas of youth work it can be easy to measure ‘success’ – a young person reduces their alcohol intake, or starts a job, or gets back into school. These are possibly more transformational or behavioural focuses of the youth work, some might say that these arent as ‘pure’ youthwork, but they exist and often help, pure or not. But what is Youth Ministry aiming for? – or more to the point why doesnt it always hit the mark?

As Jon Jolly describes, the church has been at the forefront of delivering youth work practice for a very long time, since the 1800’s. Since then, by and large there have been a range of motives for its practice; Jolly lists them as

  • Educational – Such as the ‘sunday schools’ of the 1800’s
  • Conversional – to pass on the beliefs of one group of people to others
  • Social Action – motivated to do good in society, to reduce injustice of young people
  • Safety – To provide an alternative to ‘the world’ (seen as dangerous) in order that ‘christian young people’ are protected (see also Pete Ward 1996:184, Brierley, 2003)

And in the main, various forms of youth ministry combine some of these aspects, or at least these motivations. There are times when there are extremes of approaches, flitting from ‘social action’ at one end to ‘proselytising’ at the other.

Status Anxiety

Before responding to the question ‘what is youth ministry aiming for?’ it is worth reflecting on the broader context of the question within the church. Jolly suggests that there is something of a generational half life occuring in churches. For every generation that passes, attendance halves ( Jolly, 2015, 30). While this could be a wake up call to change methods it also reinforces a protectionism to try and keep what weve got.  However, if Youth Ministry has some shoulder to carry in regard to Status Anxiety of its own practice, then the broader church and its culture has to acknowledge it is affected by its own status anxiety. The Status anxiety the church faces, in the UK is on a number of levels, firstly, it is reminded by statisticians and usually small scale surveys that it is shrinking. Secondly it faces competition from many competitors, not just a global-technological-consumerist worldview, but also other religions in the UK and thirdly, as a consequence the place of the church is society is no longer quite a dominant (ie post-christendom) though it is still quite amazing how interested the media is during synod, or other religious decision making.

So, because the church is reacting in its own state of status anxiety, or at least in local congregations it might be feeling defeated, under resourced, under pressure (to shrink clergy posts), churches at the same time are undergoing what i call ‘initiative-itis’. Trying the latest new idea to help ‘stop the rot’ whatever stopping the rot looks like. Its that generational half life stuff again. But the initiatives keep on coming, the latest event, the product, the promotion.

As Kevin Vanhoozer suggests : ” As in Philippi, so todays church struggles with status anxiety in the face of the new empire of popular culture, like status anxious individuals, some churches may be tempted to employ the tools of this empire, such as mass marketing (or social marketing), to achieve larger numbers and reckoned a success in the eyes of the world.” (Vanhoozer, 2014, 186)  How much of the activities of the church at the moment seem to be about solely numbers of people attending something? or getting people to ‘a thing’?  Or pressure to do ‘a thing’ so people turn up – even so it can then be celebrated on social media as a ‘thing’ that has been done. I might be too critical, but does it not emphasis what direction and effect status anxiety has had on the church – and it is this context that youth ministry finds itself.  The effect of status anxiety on the church can be frightening. Today Claudio Ranieri got sacked from Leicester city, acclaimed as the FIFA coach of the year, but threat of status anxiety created the environment for this decision. Is Anxiety the best place from which to even make decisions? 

Status Anxiety & Youth Ministry

The tragedy for the church, and for youth ministry, is that the practices that create the possibility of long lasting change, are the practices that are long term, and as the research this week suggested (see my blog (what do young people want from the church) – for young people they engage with healthy cultures, with depth of education and with challenge  – this is not a quick fix of ‘evangelism’ – but a seismic cultural shift of the church to be a healthy place, an educating place and also one where young people are challenged. I would imagine that these things would be the same for everyone not just young people- though it might depend who you surveyed.

However, because of the status anxiety of the church – and youth ministry, in the main, being determined and serving the local church – it can often be caught in the same trap. It becomes influenced not by theology, motivated by the actions and intentions of God loving mission in the world – but by the pressures put on the local church to increase attendances or ‘numbers’ using initiatives to do so. Acting not in a way to love the local community – but to keep itself from disappearing. Or as in Leicester citys case, fear that its one recent glory will turn into relegation.

So – What does Youth Ministry aim for?  not just numbers and attendance at events surely? not just numbers of churches who take up a programmed ministry or franchised project? though there are plenty of people who see success through these lenses or take up for products.

The aim of youth ministry in the next generation is to see through and beyond its own status anxiety – to use what it has learned about community, about theology, culture and discipleship and start to affect the culture of the church, youth ministry has to affect church culture change.  If the leaders of 1970s youth ministry are church leaders now, hopefully the youth ministry leaders circa 2000-2010 will soon be enabling churches to reshape around community practices, creative education and discipleship that is intertwined with responsibility and performing mission.  All too sadly at the moment, youth ministry is in its own form of status anxiety, and what it is doing in some areas is retract to founding values, some of the ‘safe/alternative motives’ , which may or may not enable it to survive in those states, a turn to evangelism and alternative culture creating.

Status anxiety might prevent the church, and youth ministry doing the kind of work with young people and in local communities that would be akin to what might be what young people themselves want – healthy and deep- and be involved in loving communities in a way that invests, loves and is present in them redeeming new places that were once only spaces, going back to what the Rev Hamilton said in 1967, to start to work in way fundamentally different with young people and communities off the radar and so disengaged.  Youth Ministrys effectiveness is directly affected by the extent to which protectionism and status anxiety has gripped the church. Youth Ministry generally has adopted missional and where effective, also educational practices which often challenge the static-ness of the church as an organisation. Youth ministry is not and was not a good initiative to be tossed aside because it ‘didnt work’ – like other flashes in the pan, one of the reasons it didnt work, is that it couldnt affect the culture of local churches, at a time when church itself is in the midst of its own form of status anxiety. However, its easy to underfund the youth worker role, or the ecumenical project locally when preserving the status quo and maintenance is of higher importance.


Hamilton, Rev H, Appendix – The churchs response – in Getchius, Tash ‘Working with unattached youth’ 1967

Jolly, Jon, Christian Youthwork, Motive and Method, 2015, in Stanton et al (eds), Youth work and Faith, 2015

Vanhoozer, K, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014


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