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…

Image result for salad

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!

Image result for strategy

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.


Maybe in an outcomes focussed culture, it’s pioneering to visualise only the way.

I was out running the other day a combination of getting fit, and winter training. I have have a number of routes around the edge of Hartlepool, nearly all are loops of some kind. Apart from the first few runs, most of the time now I start by heading left out my house, up the main road and then I have several options which I decide when I get there what I do next.

The other day my mind as I was running took me back to cross country running when I was at high school, we sent all team of runners including me to a destination somewhere in Leicestershire, to compete with others in our age group. We’ d leave early to arrive early on a saturday morning to the venue, via a long coach ride which was probably less than 20 miles from south leicestershire to somewhere else south east or west leicestershire. The reason to arrive early was so our little 12 year old legs could walk around the course ( a feat in itself) before we then embarked on running the course.

From memory, Burbage common had the woods and stiles, Hinckley had the ditch – (did you jump it or step it and get one foot wet?) , either way it was at the beginning of the course and there was no waiting at the time, shepshed was embankments (i think) but i dont remember any of the others. I just remember that there was something to be gained about visualising a route. Even if it meant getting up at the crack of dawn to get there early. I hear that many tour de france riders do the routes by cars often. The same maybe for marathon runners, though there’s no advantage if everyone knows the route but a disadvantage if you don’t in those examples. It’s even more needed in rally car racing.

When the apostle Paul says to ‘run the race’ he doesn’t refer to the exact route, neither does it seem as though he visualises either the route, or the destination. Just the prize. Knowing an outcome is big business. Whats the point in having church or business vision or strategy if it isn’t accompanied by what it is meant to achieve? Outcomes orientated funding and strategusing took over youth work practice to one of its downfalls. Outcomes predetermined, rather than negatived practices through relationships shifted the power dynamics in youthwork.

Many of the time under the guise of organisation survival and effectiveness. But as Giroux would argue; reducing the education process within youthwork to one where a young person is merely a consumer. We need to know the outcome before we start. Then we need to justify why it didnt work out. Or lie and say otherwise. That’s not every practice of youthwork, and some youth ministry that has institutional outcomes might be the same.

Step forward the church. Step forward practices of faith. Leave behind trying to visualise the route and outcome and faithfully take cues and prompts from the context.

Goetschius and Tash said it was about strategising from the point of contact.

Freire says it’s about ‘making the road by walking’

Two disciples after Easter sunday could visualise their 7 mile walking route south of Jerusalem. What they didn’t plan for was Jesus interrupting and them choosing a new path. . And to run the route back. (Luke24) When Jesus told the disciples to go two by two, it was to a place and find and welcome. It’s what he showed them with the samaritan woman (John 4) , it’s what Paul does when he meets Dorcas. There is something unpredictable in both these scenarios.

Visualise the route? Maybe only Jesus could.

What if we cant visualise the route – whats the alternative? feeling it as we go? taking all thats required.

My Dad was a bit like that, his Van was full of tools whenever he turned up at a plumbing or heating job, he’d never know what he might need till he found it, that was until he would get some of his tools nicked from a full van. However, having plenty of tools ready, just in case, is no bad thing, putting tools in the box is what we talk about in Here be Dragons ( see above link), tools that might never get used.

Jesus talked about taking tools too, but not to overcrowd the van with equipment- travel light– the real tools are to spot the people who offer hospitality, who have gifts willing to give and share, and be a good guest in the house. Sometimes when I am tasked with a lecturing job, or training opportunity, I do the same visualisation process, Its something I learned from Training to Train courses, and something to do to that i used to need to overcome nerves and pre public speaking panicking. Not that i dont still get nerves. But Visualising what, where and how something might happen is a positive skill- especially in those moments.

When Pioneering, or in Youthwork (same difference at times) – is it possible to visualise the outcome? or better to visualise the way? The theological position that Vanhoozer urges is that theology is one of many prompts in the midst of the action, and God’s voice is another. We are still free agents to respond as it is an act of obedience in the moment.

We do visualise the way, it’s the way of hope, love and goodness and create pathways for young people to participate in the same. What we can’t do is visualise the route, that’s what faith is for… But its counter to outcome funding culture, counter to institution saving through strategy culture.

It’s why improvising the route might be pioneering in this culture.


Paulo Freire – we make the road by walking

Goetschius & Tash – working with the unattached

Vanhoozer , The drama of doctrine.

‘We thought we’d be ok’; The most dangerous words in Youth work & Ministry

I am sure many organisations, businesses and charities suffer from these five dangerous words, and so it pains me to suggest that they are less dangerous within the field of youth ministry and youthwork, only to say that in the past 10-15 years of being involved in various forms of youth work, i have realised that these five words are some of the most dangerous. Whats surprising is that from all sectors of youth work, from the large scale organisation, the ‘council youth club’, the small project or the church group – these five words when uttered portray something about the nature of youth work in those settings and how it is expected to function.

The five most dangerous words in youth work and ministry are..

We thought we’d be okay

‘We thought we’d be ok’ should be a phrase that strikes fear into any organisation, and it might be said that in the pending decline of youth work and ministry in the UK, there is a chance that it is beyond saving beyond its ‘we thought we’d be ok’ moments. But some of the really serious issues that have arisen do so because of the uttering of ‘we thought we’d be ok’.

Just think for a moment on how, even in your context and situation these words get banded about. Things like:

  • We Thought ‘youthwork’ would be ok – its always had council funding and we have a new building
  • We thought we’d be ok to not bother doing child protection procedures – after all we all know each other/we’re all christians
  • We thought we’d (our organisation) be ok – because we employed a youthworker to solve all our problems
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we got funding for three years
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we put policies in place
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we all prayed about it – that was all the planning we needed to do
  • We thought we’d be ok- we’ve employed a really good youthworker who doesnt need much managing
  • We thought we’d be ok – our youth group has run like this for ever 
  • We thought we’d be ok – because we’ve got a great new resource
  • We thought we’d be ok – not to train our staff or involve them in decision making
  • We thought we’d be ok- we’ve always done it this way
  • We thought we’d be ok ___________________________…. fill in your own here… 

We thought we’d be ok‘ indicates that a lack of past action that could have occurred, that didnt, has affected an organisation in a negative way by its lack of happening. On another hand, after decades of cuts, restrictions and the effects of government policy shifts on the provision of youthwork I dont think may statutory youthworkers had the confidence or luxury to think they were ever ok or secure, but there may be instances even then where there may have been opportunities where a complacency might have set in.

We thought we’d be ok‘ is probably more rife in the voluntary or faith ‘sector’. Its when an organisation relaxes for too long with a large amount of funding one year, and doesn’t think ahead soon enough. Or is naive in regard to acknowledging its own culture and failings & challenges, and hopes someone else can sort it out, or substitutes planning, critical thinking and management for ‘prayer or blind faith’ .

We thought we’d be ok‘, is less about strategy and stagnation – but more about assumptions and self limited agency. It makes assumptions based on the present and doesn’t think ahead to what might be, or might be opportunities and possibilities, let alone threats and weaknesses. It assumes things will always stay the same. It also suggests that actions in the past could actually have made a difference. Of course, uttering ‘We thought we’d be ok‘ is more likely to occur in the after the event, after the catastrophe, after the crisis – and yes might be part of critical reflection and honesty to ascertain what did or didnt happen when a crisis occured, but by then it might be too late. The young people have left and found somewhere else, the youthworker has undergone a personal crisis, the organisation has closed down – may all stem from a time when ‘we thought we’d be ok’ might be said.

Yet ‘we thought we’d be ok’ – might is about personal or organisation efficiency, when doing something the easiest or laziest way and ‘hoping to get away with scraping by’ . It makes me wonder whether, culturally we might be too far down the efficiency culture to a point where it takes too much effort to ‘do the extra thing’ or to revere quality over quick and ease. Of course, big corporations employ people on £1000’s to foresee risks, foresee the competition and plot preventative measures, managing in a way that means that ‘we thought we’d be ok‘ becomes only the stuff of legends and corporate fables, but trace the downfall of an organisation and ‘we thought we’d be ok‘ will be in there somewhere. ‘We thought we’d be ok, people will always buy jeans’ or ‘ we thought we’d be ok‘, people will always shop in bigger supermarkets’ and then theres a change for the worse.

So, it might be that the managing of strategical risk is something that youthwork and ministry might not be great at, especially as ‘We thought we’d be ok‘ can be common. (Or it just occurs in places where i visit or have worked). Not every meeting, not every management group, not every organisation includes managing organisational risks within its planning, because often the day to day and immediate takes priority. Steven Covey suggests that more time should be spent doing the important/non-urgent things in a ‘to -do’ list, how often is this the case not just in individuals within organisations who are employed, but also the governance itself – to do the important tasks, that arent urgent that includes risk detection and management.

Now, at the risk of shifting the blame to organisations within the assumption/efficiency culture of youth work and ministry. A case can also be made that individuals, even employed youthworkers (yes i know- perish the thought) can be as guilty of ‘we thought we’d be ok syndrome’ – especially in regard to professional or personal boundaries, especially in regard to prioritising tasks, or creating space for reflection and learning, or constructing suitable management around them. As as youthworker in a management role previously – the temptation and reality is that not everything can be done every day, it is endless, and at the same time the temptation can be to make assumptions that the worst might not happen and not do anything about it.

Catch yourself in a situation where there a temptation to think ‘ we’ll just be ok for a while in that area, im sure everything will be fine..’ and genuinely it might be. Maybe organisations need critical friends to ensure that the questions are asked again and again. Something ‘fine’ now without action might not be fine later.

We thought we’d be ok’  Five dangerous words for any organisation, five words that we need to avoid saying, because we’ve acted to do something about the issue, in youth work, in ministry and mission, we dared to look into the future, dreamed possibilities, and given ourselves the chance to avoid preventable pitfalls along the way. Not very much is so left field that it couldn’t be thought of. Though meteor attack on detached youthwork nights might be one.

Are we on Red, Amber or Yellow warnings for the end of Youth Ministry in the UK?

If we’re involved in the business of youth ministry we need to ask ourselves this very difficult question. Are we the last generation of youth ministers, and are the current young people involved in youth ministry the last generation of young people who are?

This might seem a world away to you.

You might be reading this in a large city or mega church with 100 young people – so it cant be an issue here

You might be reading this in a movement of youth ministry that attracts 10,000 young people to a summer festival – so it cant be a relevant question

You might be reading this question as a leader of a large youth ministry organisation – that connects with 100’s of young people a week – so why ask this kind of question to prick an otherwise flying bubble? 

It is a question that needs asking, because it is a question that might be true. Of course, we dont know if its going to be true, we dont in youth ministry know what is going to happen in a year, (even if we have signed up to the national youth ministry weekend!) , so – most of the time we dont spend any time thinking about 3 years ahead, let alone whether 15 or 20 years ahead what the state of UK youth ministry might be like.

For a moment, lets look at some evidence.

The Peter Brierley Consultancy – ‘Have Youthworkers worked’ said this :

“If one assumed that the overall trend of losses experienced in the 1980s had continued in the 1990s, then the actual count shows that many more children left than expected and also adults aged 30 to 44 and 45 to 64, many of whom were probably the parents of the children who left.
The number of teenagers who left was less than half what might have been expected, and the number in their 20s leaving was also less (some of whom would have been in their teens in 1989).Youth workers by definition work with “youth”, not always interpreted identically, but usually meaning those 15 and over in many churches. The number of youth who left the church in the 1990s was far fewer than would have been expected from the 1980s data, suggesting that youth workers,who largely began working in churches in the 1990s, were making a real impact in their churches and enabling more young people to stay on in church life than might have been the case.
If the constraining mechanism used in Table 14.5.3 is ignored, and one just looks at the actual full results given in , it may be seen that the actual number of teenagers who left in the 1990s was still much less than would have been
anticipated from, the 1980s data.Youth Workers work!
The conclusion is that the employment of youth workers was successful, if “success” means young people staying on in a church fellowship. That this was also the result on the ground is evidenced by the fact that many churches seeing this success, but also observing in experience the appalling loss of children under 15 in the 1990s started to appoint Children’s Workers as well as Youth Workers in the hope that they too would see similar success. Some churches have gone further and appointed Family Workers to take account of the loss of parents as well as children.”

You can read the full report here: ‘Have youthworkers worked’  at http://www.brierleyconsultancy.com/where-is-the-church-going

The conclusion that Peter Brierley arrives at is that Youth workers work!  The same conclusion is reached in the Fresh Expressions, church growth data, or at least, what it suggested was that a Youth worker based in a church is likely, or a cause, of a church being able to grow numerically.

However, Peter Brierely is quick to say that no attempt was made in 1989 to forecast the numbers of young people attending church into the future – ie the then next 10 years. Since 2005 ( the last set of figures)-then- what are the current projections for 2015, 2025 or 2035?

The university of Wales suggested that, using similar data, that each generation of young people 1/3 is lost, many young people leave the church, and never to return. For some, the best that can be hoped is that when they have their own children they will want to bring them back. And there is a little evidence to suggest this happens. But what if even this reduces by 1/3 each generation.

The other issue to contend with here, is the decline in FT or Paid youthworkers in churches. And at the same time, the decline in church based youth groups, ministries and house groups across the UK. With less resources, and less investment in young people (because less are visible on sundays) then whole swaithes of opportunities to develop working with ‘unknown’ young people is lost. If its likely that when FT youthworkers are in churches, the church and its youth ministry is likely to grow – what happens when there isnt a FT youth worker? its children ministry with volunteers, and then ‘the kids all leave by 11’- the common complaint…

Without an investment in training for youth ministry from central sources, there might be no qualified theological youth ministers in the UK within 20 years. The rate of closure of courses, colleges, the shrinking of year groups, and value placed on youth ministry as a vocational career is tangible. For those who qualified in the last 15 years, it can feel as though we (and i mean we) were sold a promise, and ended up with a dud. There are less courses, less opportunities and less investment in working with young people, and ultimately then less youthworkers, and if youthworkers did work on a national basis – then will youth ministry in one generation die out?

From where I sit right now, there are almost 0, Full time youth ministers based in churches north of York. It is not quite 0, but as a % it would be less than 0.5% of all the churches in the North have a full time youth minister just for their church. I dread to think how many youth clubs, groups, and ministries have closed in the last 5 years in the North east. And, Im not saying a FT worker is the answer to everything, but without time for young people outside of ‘the youth group’ it becomes difficult to do anything other than ‘invite your friends’ type events, without being present in schools, on the streets or developing vision, and investing in young people sun-sat.

So, what if the reality, is that the North East will be first to predict that on current estimates, due to resources, investment in young people, that any young people currently involved in the traditional youth groups type ministry, will be the last – what plan, strategy, process and approaches (not to mention theology) might be needed for the future? Not to plug the gap – but to start again. Sadly the plague of absent young people & youthworkers in 15 years time, might catch on elsewhere. What could be ascertained in the demise of Sunday schools was the rate of closure as there was recorded data. Without any mechanisms, we have no idea the rate of closure of groups, clubs and ministries with young people in churches across the UK. There may be headline figures, like less young people attending festivals, or less young people in churches on sundays – but theres nothing on youth ministry itself. Yet, other signs of closure are occuring, such as YFC centres (that start to receive less an less ‘church’ funding).

So, might in youth ministry is it the right time to ask the difficult question – has youth ministry only got one generation left?  I dont think im going early on this. There will not always be young people in churches. There may always be young people and their families living in the vicinity of churches, but young people in churches at all? What if there are no youthworkers based in churches in 10 or 15 years time either?

Maybe in the North- we’re ahead of the game, this question is a current reality and there;s something new to be developed- and it isnt whats happening in the south (we dont have the resources).

In the South- some areas of it- and university cities and city churches – be blessed by a continual incoming group of young people via education, and do what you can with them, because more and more of them will have had less and less connections with churches, outside of an assembly or attendance at a messy church up until the age of 9. In the South it might not be time to ask the difficult question. But if nothing else, someone involved in youth ministry needs to be thinking 15 years ahead. If this was about to be true – what difference would it make? Would there be more investment in working with young people?  Would there be a national conversation within church affiliations about training for youth ministry? a joined up approach perhaps? or something else…

Youth Ministry in our time, might be the Sunday School in our parents time. Theres Red, Amber and Yellow warnings around the country, the question is, is it like for like replacement, or is something more pioneering required to as a replacement, where youth ministry has failed and about to be extinct… There might be a chance to do something about it before things get to that stage….

Youth Ministry’s path to strategy…. & failure (part 1)

The desire for the quick win within Youth Ministry is all around.

Google ‘Youth Ministry resources’ and youll find the following; Image result for youth ministry books

Making your talk count when you only have 10 minutes!

The Ultimate Youth Ministry resource kit!

3 Crucial practices that fuel unstoppable growth in youth Ministry! 

How to build youth Ministry from scratch! 

Building a better youth ministry 30 Ways in 30 days! 

The desire for the instant formula. The perfect Model. The quick win is all too apparent. It sells books. It sells resources.

It reduces a ministry that involves young people and their families to a strategy. Strategic thinking dehumanises.

But how did we get to this in Youth Ministry. When did trying to formulise, create methods and models come from?

For arguments sake, in the UK, we might say that the birth of Youth Ministry might have started with the Sunday Schools in the 1700’s. In the USA the most powerful form of youth ministry might be traced only as far back as the 1940’s and possibly up to only 40 years previously. But as Andrew Root picks up the story, by the time Sunday Schools had crossed the atlantic, their key function was to regenerate the US nation away from cultural distractions and the spread of modernity, rationality and to protect adolescents. At the same time, between 1940 onwards the world progressed in technological, industrial and managerial fields. The advances in science and technology paved the ways for new languages and new statements of values. People became an asset, a user, a client, a customer, even less than that, a number. Technology also brought risks. Things also replaced relationships for spaces in which meaning was found. If a person could choose things for meaning, then they also could choose relationships, on their own terms.

Skip forward a decade, and post war America was flagging spiritually. The sunday schools were losing young people. and american nationalism was taking effect post WW2 , as the US discovered its strong leadership in the world. The middle class evangelicals were rising, but needed a way of reconnecting with the broader US public. In a age of emerging technology, and nationalism, step forward a former wheaton graduate, Billy Graham. What is less known about Billy Graham this side of the pond is quite how much Graham tapped into the US culture and psyche for its message that feared modernity, and heralded a type of patriotism through his confidence and preaching. His message was more well known. Not only could individuals choose their own relationships in society, they could also choose a relationship with Jesus. A one step in or out decision.

It was a simple message. And it appealed to the culture of its day, it was also influenced by the culture of its day.

Pick up any book, journal or article about Billy Graham, and you cannot fail to notice that numbers of people attending his rallies, talks and events are widely known. What is also widely reported is the numbers of people who make ‘commitments’ at these events. What im not questioning is legitimacy. It is that it was measurability. Measuring success by numbers was a scientific and technological invention. The process of faith became a production line, rally, talk, prayer, follow up, church and discipleship.

Not only was practices affected by scientific reductionism, but theology was too. Reducing the Bible to appeal to teenagers has been common place. Since the four spiritual laws (invented because youth ministers needed something ‘quick’ to share with young people) were invented, various other similar simplified, reduced formula have been used for explaining the gospel. ‘The bridge’, or one of the things from the 1990s was the chair diagram. There have been attempts to explain the whole bible in 3 verses, or ‘the 10 verses you only need to know’ . The desire for simplicity, is not accidental. Again it is a reaction to culture. If we have to tell young people something, it needs to be quick. and simple. It is reductionist thinking in culture being applied to theology. To make something easy , quick, measurable and controlled.

what might that mean for the Gospel?  well its complicated. Actually its not complicated at all. It and God itself has become trained in our image. The God of effective youth ministry is that can be fit into a 2 minute talk. 

But thats not all. The influence of broader culture has not only had an effect on the nature and content of the Gospel.

It has also affect the practices of the relational Youth ministry.

If the reaction to the quick sell evangelism and large scale rallies of Billy Graham was to develop low profile but as locally renown youth ministers into schools, college and churches to begin ‘relational’ youth ministry. Because very quickly, the desire for relationships (as befalling the culture of the day) was not being met through Billy Grahams technique, then on the ground relationships became a new strategy with Young Life. 

Relationships became a strategy in Youth Ministry because the aim of developing a relationship with a young person was for it to ‘do something’. To Invite them to a ‘thing’, to ‘earn the right to tell them about Jesus’, and to use a relationship to help a young person find a relationship with Jesus. The relationship was strategic. 

In a culture of self chosen relationships this became very popular. The simple strategic relationship has dominated US and UK youth ministry. Think about ‘friendship evangelism’ and you’re not far off.

Ill stop there with the history lesson. If you want to read further, check out Andrew Roots Revisiting relational Youth Ministry (2007) or Joined up (2003) by Danny Brierley.  But can you see the trajectory. As the broader culture emphasised modernity, measurability and calcubility, this had an effect on the way in which the Gospel was honed and presented, and then strategies of influence emerged including talks and the development of relationships.

It starts with the effect of Scientific and Technological thinking on Theology, how in youth ministry we read and interpret, and use the Bible.

Let me give an example. If i said to you that ‘Jesus is a gate’ what would you be thinking?

a literal gate? a garden gate? edge of the field gate? sheep-pen gate? iron gate? castle gate?

which side of the gate are you on? what is the terrain like? what is the weather like as you picture the gate?

is the gate open, or is it closed?

The gate is a metaphor.


If i said that ‘God is Good’ – what do you think then good vs evil?  good behaviour? common good? its not so easy is it.

Strangely Jesus seemed to use alot of metaphors to describe himself.

What a metaphor does is expand thought.

It allows us to travel along it exhausting many possibilities, even finding cul-de -sacs – but there is something joyous about the travel, the thinking and the playfulness of the ride. Its as if it teases.

For too long Theology has been restricted to the straight jacket of understandability, of reductionism and simplicity. There has been too much speed in defining a word, and reducing it to one meaning, or avoiding the playfulness of metaphors, poetry and symbol that might expand thought. Even the christian life, so frequently described as a journey, seems to only a be road with very few turn offs.

Youth Ministry within a reductive faith, has become sold as a practice that desires strategies, formulas, quick wins and results. In short it has been sold a package, led to disappointment and used young people as a customer. Becoming more concerned with a strategy, and the outcome, a package and a formula. Finding the perfect method and model has been the key search. Finding what ‘works’ and copying it. Youth ministry as a universalism and package started with the Sunday schools, no not the first one. But the famous one. Raikes had access to a printing press, and now everyone could have the same resources.

The second part will explore further how a non scientific view of theology might be needed as the starting point.  But in the meantime, it is worth thinking of how scientific, consumerist and managerial language, so dominant in the last 100 years has affected theological thinking and youth ministry as a result.


Root, Andrew, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, 2007

Brierley, Danny, Joined Up, 2003

Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997

Hart, Trevor, Between the image and the word,  2011


Why ‘what works’ shouldn’t be our motivation for mission with young people

“We need to do (insert ministry here) because that works with young people”

or the more precious statement: “Show me where this works”

The search for the silver bullet to solve the problem that young people cause adult society continues. Disruptive young people ‘are given interventions’ , young people who dont attend church are ‘engaged with’ . But more specifically, schemes, initiatives, projects and services are realised. What has become common, especially in Faith settings, working with young people, is that there has become a drive to focus on, or discover the things ‘that work’.  It is to this audience that i now write, though the drive to ‘do what works’ and can be seen as ‘working’ is universal in youth work & ministry.  And it is an exasperating task to find the perfect model to appeal to stakeholders, senior Pastors and funders – to do the proven. Image result for business models icon

It is the ‘finding things that work’ that needs to be questioned, and you guessed it, thats what I am about to do.

But lets start with the realisation that there is the premise, in youth ministry , things do actually work sometimes. Do we ever stop and think about ‘why’ something works, and what that ‘working’ is? At times, and in a social media savvy culture, often the thing that ‘works’ because it looks good, is photographable and tweetable for the website. ‘It looks good’ – but is even this a statement even of something ‘working’ even on that level. Might this show that the church is ‘about young people’ when the work is for and with young people?  Young people might smile on the photo, but what is working about that moment? That young people are happy to sign up to do a thing, and go to a thing with other young people doing the same thing, or to watch a thing happen, in the main those there doing the thing, might usually be the same young people doing the thing anyway. But it looks good, because they are there. They didnt enjoy it, they didnt come back next time, but it looked good. And it ‘worked’ – but did it? Forgive the slight cynicism, and its more the issue about the media frenzy about how the church presents itself as a working machine via social media.

Going back the ‘things that work’… I would like to tentatively suggest that any model of practice that ‘works’ is the result of many trials, reactions and improvisation to get there. Not to mention endurance, backs against the wall perseverance, and the long term trust of young people. Especially when working with young people ‘outside the church’ – where a ‘model’ works, it cannot be separated from the conditions for it to be successful in a particular context, and have strong believers in it, and for people to be valued to persevere with it – often despite having limited support from other churches. So – when something ‘works’  – is it the model, the people, the culture or the strategy that enabled it to do so? (not to mention that unpredictability – ‘faith’) 

For Chap Clark, writing in 2001, comments that, we need in youth ministry to be “theologically and sociologically committed to Gods unique movements in different places” and that we need to be people who look beyond what works, and learn how to think, act and live theologically and let go of a copy & duplicate tendency”. (Chap Clark, The myth of the perfect youth ministry model, 2001, Starting right, Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry) 

So i want to challenge the ‘doing what works’ culture: 


  1. It is not Biblical. When Jesus sends the 12 or 72, there is no model. It is just a way of being. Travel light, receive the gift of hospitality from others, stay in the village until rejected, find a person of peace. Be on your guard. Crucially also, Jesus says – “when you are arrested, do not worry about what to say or how to say it, at the time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking but the spirit of your father speaking through you” ( Matthew 10:19-20). Why is this crucial? – Because what it suggests is that there is no ‘right model’ – even in the way Jesus gives instructions, arrests and challenges are likely. It is also apparent that scripted mission work seems to be ‘not the Jesus way’ – far more appropriate is to act in an appropriate way, to seek a welcome from others, and improvise with the ongoing speaking God when challenges arise. It wasnt a ‘model’ , and it had ‘not working’ built in – but this was the Jesus way. It is a way of life. 
  2. One Problem with what ‘works’ is that this is based on our experience of the ‘thing’ and how it ‘worked’ in the past in a different situation, in a different moment in time, with completely different young people. As Heraclitus said “nobody can step into the same river twice” . The river has demonstrably changed since the first step. Water is in different place, the river bed disturbed, banks changed. It is only the same by name only. In a desire to do ‘what works’ – what weve missed is that where a raft was needed and built, the river has dried and only a pair of wellies is needed to cross it. The Greek term Phronesis causes us to think about practical wisdom – doing the right thing in the right current context- thats what Paul was talking about in 2 Corinthians 3 1-6.
  3. Another problem with ‘doing something that works’ is that scientific thinking has overtaken artistry. Without realising it, talk of the market has become the driver in the conversation. Usually if something works it is because it is efficient, calculable, measurable and repeatable. For something to ‘work’ it is usually because it entails that it meets on or more of these things. Again, this is far from a Biblical method of discipleship, or how the church spread. It experimented, then received direction. Of course, it would be easy at this point to align ‘doing something that works’ with the underlying principles of Macdonadisation, John Drane (2000) has already done this. At this juncture, though, the ‘doing of something that works’ has a business feel to it. It means that we’re thinking ‘ if we do this, and then do that, and get this, then something might happen- it might work’. The problem is that people, especially young people are more likely to be unpredictable and see through what be corporate inauthenticity. Young people are not like the raw materials in a technological model, they can and do opt out- especially when they feel as if they are being worked with strategically, rather than authentically. As Gilmore and Pine argue, “the more that we realise that experiences are staged, the more we require assurance of the real” and so even in a business world, it is perceptions that need to be managed, not people. Hence all the ‘authentic’ friendly branding, which is beginning to wear thin, and if young people are just to be marketed to, or ‘sold’ Jesus in a model… The language of Faith, is less about strategy, than it is about sacrifice. It is a way of life, not a package holiday with a itinerary down to the last minute.
  4.  If our ‘work’ with young people, is to do things that ‘work’. Then forgive me for saying this – but is that all young people are to us? Do they become pawns in our ministry of gatherings and activities? All the advertising might cause me to go to tescos to buy my groceries and so ‘it worked’ but if three local shops lose my custom and go out of business, has something that ‘worked’ actually been ‘good’? Doing something because it works, has got to be lower down in the pecking order than doing something because it is inherantly a good thing to do. It is conceived with purer intentions, it is created within a process of supporting people to thrive, it is the result of treating people with respect, in short – it is of value, and virtue. Young people simply deserve better in our communities, in our churches to be pawns in our ministry game. If God is good, then we need to perform and act in goodness with young people. Values, whether Christian values or even youthwork values ( often the same thing) must and should trump needing something to work. If something doesnt ‘work’ maybe its method wasnt good enough. Young people saw its fakery a mile off. Or those who attended needed coeercing to be there. And i dont care if your ministry needs early ticket sales to exist. If its that good for young people and is ‘for’ them – then it should be free.
  5. If something did work somewhere else – is this not a prelude to over expectation and then disappointment in a different time and place? After all its not the approach that is fallible is it? (it worked elsewhere)

Some things may work with young people. But do they because of a ‘model’ or the long term creation of an appropriate environment? If It takes 7 years to begin to do good community work in an area. That isnt a model, that requires a way of life. Reducing, for reducing is what it is, the ongoing faith of young people to a model, is to say that God can be simplified. This is same accusation of those who reduced the complexity of the christian message to ‘the four spiritual laws’ (just so that youthworkers in the 1960’s only needed to remember 4 sentences (Pete Ward seminar at Youth work summit)). Reducing the mission activity and ongoing process of unpredictable community gathering to a model, devoid of values, artistry and contextual thinking, is to do the Gospel of Jesus, one of incarnational good news a major disservice. It does matter how it is performed, and the intentions behind it. Improvised goodness might be more appropriate in every context, than prepared strategy.

Faith is a movement, not a model. It is a way. If it is a method it is an artistic one. Whats good might be what works. What works might become something good. But doing something just because ‘it works’?

Oh – and where, as the Black eyed peas once said, is the love?  Is doing what works about loving our communities and young people at all?



Drane, John, The Macdonaldisation of the church

Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed (where the Heroclitis quote came from) 

Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014. (Gilmore and Pine) 

Forget growth strategies for church & youth ministry; meet (young) peoples needs.

I am happy to be corrected by this. But I am struggling to remember an occasion in the last few years where a church or youth ministry organisation who has adopted or created a strategy for growth, has included the notion of ‘meeting peoples needs’. I wonder if this has been bypassed somewhat; for the sake of ‘evangelism strategy’, or ‘social action project’ or ‘organisation objectives’ , i only wonder as i am happy to be corrected. But it feels a little as if meeting peoples needs has got out of fashion. Especially in a climate of organisation survival of the fittest.

Before a few of my esteemed colleagues point out that meeting peoples needs has been usurped by ‘developing their gifts’ , ie Asset Based community development. I am already there, as you might tell, this isnt about developing work from a needs based approach, this is about what it actually means to meet peoples needs, at least getting that part done might be a minimum requirement, or at least recognise that developing gifts and meeting needs go hand in hand in meeting peoples psychological meaning. And this isnt just spiritual needs, I mean human ones. Meet their deepest psychological needs and their gifts might also be part of the equation.

At this point, you might expect me to refer to Maslow. And, i will. Only to say that despite the criticisms of his hierarchy, there is something critical not to be overlooked in what he proposes. Forget the hierarchy for one moment, as these get us into knots. But what if the levels were summarised:

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs

So, consider them as these, starting from the bottom up:

  1. Survival and Security
  2. To know and to live
  3. Affiliation and relationship
  4. Achievement and purpose needs.

So, how many growth strategies for organisations start with ‘meeting the needs of people’, a bit of me wonders whether some initiatives dont get further than ‘base level’ – providing a social service, a valid and meaningful one – like food, or money advice or youthwork conversation, but there become a bottle neck, blockage or barrier to preventing persons starting from this point to have other needs met in the structure of the church or organisation. But what of the people who are already in our youth clubs, churches – in what way are their ‘creativity’ and ‘affiliation’ needs met – in more than status? 

However, moving on from Maslow, Over the last few months I have been writing an essay for my Psychology class on Myth Making, one of the books that I read during this was Jocelyn Bryans reflections on Christianity and Psychology book; Human Being (2016),  in it she argues that Humans develop a narrative identity that provide themselves with a meaning of life that has to consist of all four of the following for a person to consider their life as meaningful:

  1. Purpose – our lives have to have purpose, eg getting a job, raising family, buying a home, being successful
  2. Value and Justification – our lives must be in some way in accordance with a moral standard, and we can present ourselves as a good person, (often we’ll re narrate past events to assert that we have acted morally)
  3. Efficacy – This is where we have the capacity to achieve something, to make something happen, to be in control of that achievement, to contribute to society, a community
  4. Self-Worth – This could be in the achievement of something, the feedback of something, and having a stable sense of self which is evidenced by stories of others and their admiration of us.  (2016, p62, based on Baumeister, Wilson)

If theres an underlying reason that people go to church, or church related activities: that ‘it provides things the world doesnt dish up’ (Marschall, 2004, Youthworker magazine, US)  i wonder whether of all the summaries of human needs described here, that churches, youth groups and youth work organisations have focussed on to the detriement of others.

On one hand it would be easily argued that is the Christian faith that has the capacity to provide a persons needs (and Bryan suggests this) – and so the story that is told, the way it is told and how young people acknowledge their place and purpose in it is crucial. Yet it is not the Christian faith that young people leave when or if they leave the church, it is the organisation of the church, so which of the human needs of young people isnt being met and how might meeting peoples needs become a focus. In recent research, The fuller institute discovered that a ‘healthy place’ was where young people stayed in a church beyond the age of 14. I would be confident that a healthy place might be where young people, and their family and others needs are intentionally met.

This is not a selfish proposition. It is about how communities of faith act as community to enable all the flourish within in it. But we have to take into account in church that human drives, urges, motivations, personalities and goals play a significant part of decision making and being part of a social group. Its not about getting what I need, but being in a space to flourish so that I can contribute in a healthy way. Surely thats ultimately not selfish.

If i had a haunch, then most people leave churches or youth groups because 1 or more of their needs isnt being met. A disagreement leads to loss of belonging, being cast as sinful/guilty/shame doesnt endorse a personal morality, it doesnt fit with life purpose, or what I am beginning to think more and more. Church doesnt fulfil a need to be challenged (healthily), or to build on and use creative gifts for a larger purpose (with the exception of a few creative gifts/music being one). People will stay if church and youth ministry is able to give them meaning and purpose, you can fill in the blanks regarding the opposite. Church is to be a place of deep meaning and where people flourish.

So, if the church is serious about keeping people, or attracting people, our strategies need to include being able to meet peoples human needs in the functioning of the community. What might that mean

  1. Creating places of welcome and belonging
  2. Teaching that provides people with value and purpose
  3. Opportunities for meaningful and ongoing challenges appropriate to the person and for them to have some control over them (and not limited by age, gender, disability)
  4. People have positive feedback. yes thats positive feedback in a church. (uh oh, heres the impossible one, i think i was ok up to point 3 ;-))

There are tons more, that you could probably think of.  And I know this is completely impossible etc etc, but start with the small group you might already be involved in, the youth group, house group, knit & natter group – think ; in what way can we improve on helping people to flourish through meeting their life meaning needs?  do they need to be part of a challenge and stretched, or be commended, or just continue to belong and give them opportunity for this.. – the way that people belong… it when they make the tea in your house. 

Church might offer something different to the world – when it develops peoples needs, facilitates and fosters creativity, purpose and challenge – as well as create spaces of welcome. Its what people need.

Lets have meeting peoples needs, that enable them to flourish in their community as the church mission and youth group strategy. Lets have meeting peoples psychological needs so that the spaces are created so that their creativity is harnessed, their gifts used and as persons they are contributors.

Oh – and youll find Jesus did most of this with his disciples. So its pretty biblical too. He probably over worked the challenges, and that didnt do the worldwide church any harm from those 12.