In safety first cultures; risk taking is more required in youthworkers than ever before.

It comes as almost no surprise that there has been a backlash to the cultural messages of safety, harm and avoidance of risk that have been prevalent in culture, and also I might add the church over the last few decades.

Talk now in youth ministry is of taking risks with young people. 

Or maybe more pertinently, talk is of ensuring that risks are important in the relationships with young people.

It was the focus of last years Youthscape conference in which 1000 youth workers attended. Its been the focus of FYTs resources also. But – is it ever the subject of clergy conferences?

This risk provoking goes against one of the key principle cultural and organisational implicit drivers of organisations, notably church based youth ministry, which has, as said by Pete ward in 1997 – been more about safety and conformity within the church, than the kind of radical discipleship offered by Jesus. (Ward, 1997, Youth work and the mission of God, p16)

It is a theme I have spoken of before in this post ‘Young people will go elsewhere if youth groups are too safe’ and Why a risky church might be the right one for young people?

Taking risks was a key aspect of Jesus’ ministry – don’t you think?

Taking a risk with us as humanity was a risk taken by God overall – don’t you think?

Pushing the disciples to risk taking – and even exposure to difficult situations- was a key element of how Jesus pushed the disciples- agreed..?

At the end of this piece I will refer you to a resource which has been collated by Frontier Youth Trust to help you develop risk taking in your youth ministry, do take a risk and have a look at it – the link is here: (and no I don’t get any commission)  101 Risky Ideas for your youthwork

But before you do that, Id like to offer a short reflection on risk taking within youth work and ministry, basing this on two principal ideas. The first is a chapter in ‘Youth work Ethics (YE)’ by Howard Sercombe, the second is the 9 stage process of youth work as developed by FYT a number of years ago. I hope you find both useful.

In ‘Youth work Ethics’ Howard Sercombe identifies 19 areas of youth work practice that he gives insight and reflection to, on the basis of suggesting that youth work itself is an ethical endeavour based upon itself as a profession, and a definition of youthwork as a ‘professional relationship in which a young person is engaged as a primary client in their social context’ ( YE, p 27, 2010). What this does, is form the basis of youthwork as a negotiated, limited, yet professional relationship – that transcends the plethora of activities, venues and delivery agencies- but frames it as a relationship. Something i think that is music to the outcome bleeded ears of the youth worker.

Before going further with Sercombe, here is the 9 stage group work process that once and still is core to the FYT Streetspace community, note especially the element of Risk, that its needed and where it is located.

You can download the whole document here: http://www.fyt.org.uk/downloads/

The logic being that, over a period of time developing the relationship that you as a youth worker (especially as a detached worker) will be able to take a risk with the relationship that you have with a group (as you may by then have developed small group work, gained their trust etc) and been able to make suggestions to enable them to do something they maybe wouldn’t have done other wise. A push too soon may indicate that the relationship has been perceived differently from youth worker and young person/group. But note, that from the process of developing spirituality – a ‘test’ is whether ‘risk’ can be taken with other maybe easier concepts – like travelling to watch a football match, trying to raise funds for an activity, undergoing a personal change like quitting smoking (as an example) – gauging how risks in these areas might be seen as some kind of indication of how risk taken to think spiritually might be perceived. For more explanation of these – you might want to buy the Here be Dragons resource, in which all 9 stages are explored further. This is here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-4t

But lets just say from this example that Risk is needed in the youthwork relationship, and possibly even that Risk is needed for faith.

Back to Sercombe. Helpfully in a chapter on ‘taking care and managing risk’ , Sercombe identifies that in the main there has been a confusion about ‘harm’ and ‘risk’, but also that a number of risks are needed in youthwork, more so, there are a number of hidden risks that we would do well to help young people avoid.

A few summary thoughts from the chapter:

· Because we want to develop, transform even, the lives of young people through the relationship we seek to have with them , and they to some extent put themselves in our hands– this is an engagement that is inherently risky because we could get it wrong, create defensiveness, create exclusion or be a disappointment

· We expose young people to other relationships with other adults, professionals or services – there is a risk here, as these too may end up being destructive.

We are as youthworkers responsible for the intervention in other peoples lives and have a duty of care, and Sercombe goes on to describe the influence of a number of legal decisions and oaths that have an impact on how youthworkers are responsible, and ultimately states that:

‘The first responsibility of the professional is to make sure that nothing worse happens to the person than has already happened’ – though this is obviously difficult to promise – especially in medicine.

This is key ‘we need to do the best we can to help a young person in their journey. That may involve harm. It may involve greater harm. We don’t know that our assessment of that, even in consultation with the young person will be accurate’  We might want to avoid it, but harm is almost always a possibility in any intervention we might take, whether its helping them across the road to the ‘safety’ of the bus shelter on detached, the football or table tennis match, the cookery group, or game of pool. All can be harmful, and minimising harm is key, but it cant be avoided completely.

Whilst a few high risk activities have reinforced a tendency to avoid risks due to fear and litigation (such as PGL disaster over 20 years ago), and insurance companies dictating which activities youthworkers can and cannot do, there has become a tendancy, as i stated above, for risk avoidance. The real issue is being sued and avoiding harm to the organisation. 

often it is our job to increase risk’ (YE, p110)

Whilst the risks that get banded around for young people are the usual list of subjects; drugs crime, unemployment, homelessness etc and these get the usual attention. There is a range of risks for young people that don’t: passivity, resignation, fatalism, cynicism, low expectations, isolation, and you might add a few others here. Like lack of political engagement or community participation. Our role, according to Sercombe, is to help the young person assess the risk as best they can and help them decide through the possibilities. In the short term there might well be harm for the young person, a better life might, controversially, not be a safer one. (YE p110)

The role that Sercombe suggests we take in this risk manoevering profession is that of a guarantor. We manage the risk, think about it, we assess it, and consider it. But what we also do is hope, believe and project. We want to believe that young people can do, will do, and might just rise to the risk, because we see them as capable, confident and want to give them the opportunity to be the adults that they want themselves to be. By treating them as adult – they become adult. Right? Isn’t this a risk in itself? – but not an entirely non altruistic, positive one?

For despite the best interests at heart, best support and best conditions – there is still a chance at ‘failure’. This is the guarantor, and our role. We hope and help to provide the best conditions, resources and buildings in the hope that this will help young people develop agency, confidence, to be adults to make decisions. This is why this puts us at risk.

Thats why we take risks in youth work – because we still believe in the possible, we still have faith in the potential, we still dream. We take risks, and need to receive good management on their risks. ‘Risk is a key resource in youthwork’ (YE, p111).  It frames the logic of our intervention. Without it there would be no change, no transformation, no improvement, no new reality being explored. Whilst young people ‘at risk’ can be seen as an issue. Many of these occasions are when young people themselves do not have the capacity or resources to prevent being exploited, exposed or manipulated, by populist politicians, tabloids, sexual predators or extreme faith groups.

It is our role to defend young people, and take risks in preventing what might be a default pathway into these risks. Yet, risk is not the same as harm, it is not our role to decrease the risks, as arguably young people need risks so that they can exercise sound judgement, and we need to push young people to new experiences for their learning. We take responsibility for the process, we might consider ourselves lucky at times for the risks we have exposed young people to and the lack of assessment thought through. When young people enter into a relationship with us, it is a risk in itself, they entrust us, the information we give, and for them to push back on it. We might do well to recognise where we might have failed young people and their development because of our own reluctance or avoidance of taking risks, we need to be skilled enough to know and make the possibilities open, and resourceful in encouraging young people to take the risks. We might need to take risks to challenge barriers in organisations which hold young people back, we need to be as brave and courageous. We need, as this suggests, not to be content in only bringing young people to our beautiful place – but pushing them through the barriers we create to the somewhere new.

We have to take risks. Faith is about taking risks. Life is about taking risks.

Whilst the section above is less about faith, and more about risks in general. It is not difficult to make connections about barriers in churches and providing the support for young people to develop an adult faith.

As a reminder: Those 101 risky ideas for faith based work are here

At random – these are numbers 41-50 on the list and are aimed at helping to develop spirituality in young people, if you like these, why not download them all..for free. i mean what kind of risk is that, even…

41. Rewrite a parable and base it in your local context. Tell the story to young people without revealing its biblical origins. What are their interpretations?

42. Get up early to watch the sunrise and pray for the day ahead.

43. Ask young people to write a new parable.

44. Go to a cathedral or ancient church. Do some research about the the faith communities that have been there over its history.

45. For an experience of awe and wonder, sleep out under the stars.

46. Identify some of the metaphors used to describe God (ie Lion, Teacher, Tower, Rock). Ask young people to come up with some new metaphors based on the local context.

47. Cancel youth group or church in order that young people might find God outside the spaces you can control.

48. Arrange a visit to the building and community of a different faith. Use the time as an opportunity to dialogue about what values are important to you all.

49. If you meet with young people to explore and discover God start calling it church rather than Bible study or youth group. How do young people react? When is church, church?

References
Sercombe – Youthwork Ethics, 2010
Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997
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A practical prod to help churches be places where young people flourish, my review of ‘Adoptive Church’ (2018)

I have had a copy of Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive Church’ for over a month now, sent to me to write a review of it, for this blog, its a bit of an odd book to try and write a review of, that’s not to say that it is without merit, some very interesting points, but I guess for me, a book that only has a few references, and only 12 Authors are listed in the Index (though they do include Barth, Bonhoeffer and Calvin) then you might understand why this is a book that I have struggled with. I had hoped in one way that the last three books I had read on youth ministry were bucking a trend somewhat ( Nick Shepherds ‘Faith Generation‘, Roots ‘Faith Formation in a secular age‘ and even the ‘Theological turn in youth ministry’ by Root and Dean) towards attempting more thorpugh examination of youth ministry practices. This book makes no mention of these previous pieces (or Root/Dean/Shepherd/ as influences) In comparison this is skin deep, and possibly why I have struggled with writing this review.

However, that’s the pre amble for the review, and possibly reveals my own prejudices. As I said this book is not without merit.

Adoptive Church (Chap Clark)

 

Chap Clarks ‘Adoptive church’ is the third of his ongoing series on developing family orientated churches in which young people can flourish. Previously he has written in two publications the importance of family for the nuturing of young people[1], and in Adoptive youth ministry this approach was developed further. In Adoptive Church, Chap Clark changes the focus from developing a nurturing youth ministry, to providing guidance for the whole church as to how it be adoptive in doing so be an environment where the nuture of young people occurs. This book is squarely for those youth ministers who are working in a church context, little is mentioned of mission activities and outreach work, but despite this it does ask pertinent questions and gives practical suggestions on how a church, a faith community might develop an adoptive way of being that can be of benefit to all, and not just young people.

Outline

In part one Chap Clark explains what he means by an adoptive church, in addition he suggests three crises that he identifies are befalling the existing programmable approaches to churches working with young people , chapters three four and five describe further the requirements for creating an adoptive church including what this means for discipleship, and how a church might develop a strategy for being adoptive, and then the goal of what an adoptive ministry might mean for young people and the church itself. The implementation of an adoptive church is Chaps main concern in part 2, a number of case studies, questions and processes are considered and primarily these relate to the nature of leadership required , with two different styles considered. The final section describes the characteristics of an adoptive church and how to encourage churches to develop an adoptive approach. The main shift for chap is that he directs most of this conversation to the whole churches rather than the specifics of the youth ministry departments. His passion is that the whole church is the soil for the nurturing, empowering and participation of young people and a culture of family who adopts young people is what is required for this to happen.

Strengths

Universality of context – Chap suggests that an adoptive church approach can be considered for churches in ‘Atlanta, Ontario and Nairobi (p21)’ and in the main I agree with this sentiment. Describing how churches to have a better environment for nurturing young people in the faith community is critical for all churches, yet I cant help but think that the setting of a large church and the challenges that this proposes shape Chaps thinking and concerns in the main. Its almost as though Chap is responding to the problems in large church youth ministry where young people might well be cyphened off into age groups and never to be seen again by other supportive adults in a church, almost.

That discipleship is described as a process, rather than an end game, is another strength (page 49) – and Chap challenges the notion of ‘a mature’ disciple – when as he says, it is a movement and trajectory towards maturity that everyone in faith is undertaking. It is from this sense of movement that Chap orientates the solution to the three problems he suggest that are at the root of the issues in youth discipleship (stated below).

His solution to the three problems (and which encourages the movement of discipleship) to use a biblical analogy, is to focus on the soil.  The solution isnt the programmes, professionalism of youthworkers, the excitement of the residential. It is the culture of the church. For Chap, the solution is that the soil – that is the culture of church, which all of us are part (whether paid, clergy, laity, congregation) is in need of a rethink.

we need to create environments where seeds can grow and shoot down deep roots that will last a lifetime (Clark p50)

For Clark, creating the right environment for the flourishing of disciples (the seeds) – involves cultivating the following:

  • Knowing Christ leads to following (p51)
  • Love for God increases knowledge (p51) (Quoting Tozer)
  • Knowing about God so that they (young people) can know God personally (GF Hawthorne) (I might critique this ‘knowing God personally’ relationship notion, and Root does this already in 2007 Revisiting Relational youth ministry)
  • Keeping the content about Jesus, using every opportunity to use a Jesus phrase..(p52)
  • Loving God/Christ back – in how young people express love back – ‘Teaching young people to love Christ is not about introducing more content, but rather providing environments and experiences that enable young people to slow down their lives and receive Gods love. Instead of taking prayer requests devote more to times where young people can be drawn into a tangible sense of Gods care and presence’ (Clark, p53, last sentence paraphrased)
  • Following Christ – Helping young people use their gifts, helping young people be generous, helping young people do Gods work in the world

Student leadership may be fine for the youth ministry but rarely actually leads young people to feel like they are contributors to the body. (the main church) The same goes for singing and teaching four year olds. Whilst these are sound expressions of using a gift in the body, to truly feel important and valuable contributors, the young need to connect to adults while they are following Christ as he brings in his kingdom (Clark, p55)

Whilst I can agree with the sentiment, I am not sure practically how the latter might occur, if as in many churches, there might be a discipleship deficit amongst adults, who spend more time maintaining churches through meetings, that being as active in ‘following Christ as he brings in the kingdom’ – young people might in effect be doing more of this themselves than adults are anyway. The learning might need to be the other way. Though the sentiment of greater participation/contribution is definitely valid, but in the UK, talk of participation and contribution is barely new. Neither is using the gifts of young people in Ministry – in fact this is the crux of Roots Faith Formation (2017) – though the repeated call for cultivating a better soil, for the seeds to grow is one that is particularly important.

Before moving further into the book, and developing Clarks key theme – creating an adoptive church. I want to mention critically the assessment of the state of churches that Clark identifies in Part 1. Not unlike many youth ministry book, there has to be a stated problem in part 1, to then be given the response and solution in parts 2-9. Where many youth ministry books have focussed on MTD, and the UK happy ‘Midi-narrative’ – (Root & Shepherd respectively) as the problem, Clark avoids both of these issues completely, and puts no work into thinking about the contexts in which the churches find themselves. Clarks focus is purely on the church as a whole. And church that is existing almost without any recognition of the context around it. On this basis, this is why the three issues that Clark raises as the problem with church youth ministry are:

  1. We (the church) is losing young people
  2. Students are unprepared for secular society
  3. There is more hurt than we realise. (pages 25-30)

He is right on one hand to suggest that strengthen what is broken is a good way to start. However, I cant help think, that from a UK perspective, barely any church in the UK would be immune to the hurt in the students that they have, or the students/young people it is doing mission with, given the effects of austerity, young peoples mental health, etc etc – a church that doesn’t get this, especially in the UK must have its blinkers on. And to think that its own young people aren’t facing these, well…  On the point that Students are unprepared for secular society, then again, this possibly represents something of the culture of a type of youth ministry that in the UK might only be a dream.  Yes, there is much to be done of creating flourishing youth ministry and churches so that they balance a distinctive following of Christ, whilst ensuring that young people are world ready too. But not many churches in the UK offer the kind of 5 nights a week youth ministry that might shield young people from culture and the world around them. Yes preparing young Christians for following Christ in the long term is an ongoing real task – but in the UK im not so sure that many of them are non-world ready. However, giving them tools for mission and doing Gods work in todays world agreed, this is almost lacking. Especially if MTD (Christian Smith, 2005)  is still pretty much the order of the day in regard to teaching, hearing and attendance is the one thing valued. For the US audience, these 3 issues probably ring true. Though there is minimal research into the causes of this problem given by Clark, albeit reference to some research by Fuller institute, one example of a young person, and a reference to David Elkinds work as a total sum of source material for making these three statements of the problem. Whilst they may be accurate assessments of a problem, and many might agree, they do lack the rigour of an academic piece. I guess in a way thats part of the problem with this book, where Root asks the question ‘what is faith’ and how might faith be formed in a secular age/world? Thinking about the nature of the secular world and its influence, Clarks finger is pointed more towards the church without too much of a deep diagnosis of the secular world that the students will be trying to face. Its as if the church on its own can sort out the problem. It will help no doubt, but if you’re looking for a stronger argument about the nature of the secular world, and how faith and ministry can be meaningful in it, then its Root that gives the answer to this, and not Clark. 

The response by Clark is for church to do better, and be better at enabling, encouraging and supporting young people to flourish. I can get this, I honestly can. But if churches arent made more aware of all the issues that this is about, including the effect of the secular age on young peoples faith, then its only a one-directional solution, to what is a complex problem. Fixing discipleship is going to take more than creating good spaces for discipleship, though there’s no doubt (and dont mishear me) that this is definitely a step in a right direction. Because its complex, i might suggest that this is why Clark largely ignores the issue, compared to Faith Formation, Adoptive church is definitely a practical book.

And a practical book, Adoptive Church continues to be, in Chapter 5, Clark begins to address the ‘church’ with a number of questions: ‘Is it a warm or a cold place’, is it a place where young people are given eye contact? is it a place where adults know the names of young people? (again i think the majority of small churches in the UK, this isnt an issue- well maybe not the warm/cold issue) , and then chapters 6-8 share further the practical ways (a process not a programme) of being an adoptive church. In chapter 6 this feels like using a business model of using ‘outcomes’, ‘intentions’ and ‘goals’ to create adoptive churches, and this is translated into sharing vision (p71), communication and training and creating opportunities where people can outwork the commandment to ‘love’ . Analysing the context is seen as important, so that churches intentionally work harder at being more welcoming (nothing worse than a church that says ‘all are welcome’ when actually no one is aside from those who know people already) – yet Clark is right in that even the most welcoming church that seeks to be ‘youth friendly’  rarely reaches out to young people, walks alongside them, or actively seeks to adopt in community young people as siblings in ministry. (p73). As he says, every church is unique, and every church might describe themselves in a certain way- but in analysing the context ‘how are churches for young people?’ . Clark then goes on to talk about resources, structures, reflection and evaluation- and much is useful, though it is worth being reminded of the American church context in which much of this is directed.

Clark then looks at the leadership style required for developing Adoptive churches, and whilst I can picture the kind of ‘Im in charge’ type leadership he describes (to avoid) – I think, generously, that many UK church leaders (whilst there might still be ego etc) are closer the the partnership models that he describes, given the rise in ecumeicalism in the UK and profligate attempts to share resources across churches for a variety of mission and community practices. Though what Clark is also getting at is trying to encourage an ongoing learning partnership approach to discipleship within a church instead of ‘hear me I have the answers’ , is the alternative ‘thanks for joining in this great and glorious effort, we’re all in this together’ (Page 86) – this might appeal to the ‘High School Musical’ generation who have, through Disney been exposed to the miracle of team work thanks to Troy, Gabriella and co, there is a deeper sentiment here, that developing adoptive churches requires an ongoing humility and respect for each persons worth, value and contributions (Ministry in the whole body). (p87) Clark then considers how a journey might be made from a managerial style to a partnership style. I can see the benefits of this, and wonder personally whether community approaches might be increased in clergy and ordination training to enhance partnership and educative approaches to leadership. However, that is not for today.

In the final section (pp129-176)  Clark describes the ‘fundamental practices of adoptive churches’, these are said to include :

  • Nurture and the Ministry of going – Chap describes a sense that Ministry occurs between the programmes (even though its a programme leader that most churches want to employ as a youthworker) , and that Ministry is as a result of the programme. Stating that ministry is to be relied on to help with young peoples participation in Gods work/ministry and his Family. Adoptive church is also about Going, about following God in the travel, the journey and the mobility of God, the kind of mobile, travelling ministry evident in the Biblical narrative (p134-135)
  • Nurture is about Familiarity – creating a place where young people feel at home. It is gentle, caring and loving, involves sharing the gospel of God and sharing life experience (p137), it is also Communal, therefore more than a mentoring (121) approach which is sworn by in many situations (p137) an adoptive approach is a community one and is akin to the family and all need to nurture each other (p138)
  • Nuture is strategic. It does require effort and intention, as though Clark doesn’t admit it, the default is not necessarily communal but individualistic (because of wider culture and individualism) so, some strategy is required to create communal nurturing spaces, to use language of community, sharing and encouragement.
  • It is about building trust, building warmth and gathering to explore the gospel together. But lets do this, as Chap Clark says, to build community and family, not just to ‘hear one person tell lots of people something’ but to create places of warmth that encourage learning together and learning spaces that encourage warmth. (p141)

Chapter 10 is about the Golden rule in most of what Youth Ministry has been all about in the last few years, at least in the UK (and the last three books mentioned above virtually say the same) – Youth Ministry, and in this case Adoptive churches, are all about participation. Or at least, Empowerment, which is beyond participation according to Clark, and in the main it is – for Clark it is about participating and contributing, and going beyond the ‘just getting the kids to do something’ type of participation.

‘Adoptive churches seeks more than minimal participation’ (Clarke, p146)

However, this is the sting (for many) . As Clark says, Empowerment is about realising that young people have a wealth of gifts, abilities, resources themselves that currently churches (and I will also argue schools) are not making the most of or are overlooked. Empowering contributing young people (in the task of Gods ministry) will enable these gifts to be used in ministry, and be ministers themselves. ‘Empowerment is the goal’ states Clarke, ‘we want teenagers and emerging adults to be embraced not only as younger siblings but also as valued ministry partners’ (p147). To achieve this, Clark suggests that churches need to be intergenerational, particular, incremental and intentional. Im not going to elaborate here on these, as they make sense. Though each of these might be counter cultural to what has gone on before, and even against attempts for universalism & quick fixes. However, his one idea of a ‘Youth Advisory Board’ is pretty weak as an idea, though not because having young people form a group to guide and advise in the ongoing preaching styles and content wouldnt be a good idea, but that it feels like the participation and contributions are merely to be Gods ministers within the institution. This is something he himself has argued against earlier in the book, and something Root certainly does, however, it would be a bold first step in many churches as to give power away to young people to help shape the preaching rota and content does require initiative, courage and risk taking. Its a step beyond creating a committee to help run the youth club, its participation and making contributions in the whole church. (I guess where there is a lectionary, this is going to be a challenge…)

Clarks final chapter considers the resistances and challenges awaiting those who take hold of these ideas and want to make steps towards creating adoptive churches, especially in organisations like churches who can be notoriously resistant to change, even in the face of decline. (if anything this brings about more fear and an entrenchedness). And do you know what, there are some gems in this chapter about language, persuasion and confronting the need to change in a church, and the effort it takes. So, again, on a practical level, Clark gives some sound advice, even in a UK context, the stuff on history, ownership and belonging is relevant, as is trying to be an agent of change even if you’re not in charge, youth worker and clergy might be united in this common cause. Clark does suggest that experimenting, and taking risks on the edges is one way, including family or community meals (something popular in the UK) . He contrasts family meals as a time for being together and sharing, and the deemed ‘inter-generational’ trade of having drums in the service, something that strategically doesn’t bring people together or relationally connecting people, its almost a trade off to ‘keep people happy’.. His tips for experiments, and cautions are worth a read. Its why change might be incremental, and working from the edge inwards might be key.

In effect that’s how the book ends. There is an appendix and a few bit n pieces in the index. But there isn’t really a conclusion, a final rallying cry, or some lengthy stories of how this worked in a few situations. Its a curates egg of a book, good in parts, an idea that has appeal, and a few practical hints and tips as to how to make it happen. His ideas are described simply and accessibly and will appeal to many, and I think for churches who want to do better ministry with young adults, and children, thinking through the culture of the church as a place of nurture, flourishing, family and learning are important, especially if the end goal is to help them be participants and contributors in Gods ongoing ministry. For me it lacks some of the depth and rigour, and even research that other recent books has, but thats probably unfair to judge it in this way. Overall I would recommend this book to the UK audience, even if there are aspects in which might not apply, there are churches who might not want to answer some of the questions truthfully that Clark asks, and this might not be a bad think, for the sake of young peoples ongoing discipleship.

You can buy a copy of Adoptive Church (2018) here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adoptive-Church-Youth-Family-Culture/dp/0801098920/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1544093694&sr=8-1&keywords=chap+clark

[1] Starting right, 1999, four views of youth ministry, 2002

Also

Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation, 2016

Root, Andrew Faith Formation in a Secular age, 2016

‘But we ‘only’ have a few young people..’ – is youth discipleship better done small?

Only this, Only that, Only the other, If we ‘only’… 

It is one of my pet hates, got to admit it. As I travel around and have conversations with church leaders, ministers and volunteers. When describing their project, their groups, their young people, there is a tendency to use the word ‘only’.a painted marking on a roadway "only"

It can occur in ‘ we ‘only’ have a few young people in our church , or ‘we’ve only been going a few years’ or ‘we ‘only’ run a few sessions a week’ . And in Ministry more generally ‘only’ is something of a self imposed curse. I think, and it extends to ‘we only have _____ coming to church’ . It especially extends to when people in the same ministry get together. And have a weekend conference where each defines their group as ‘only’ compared to someone else, or that the amazing, mega large youth group is the default ministry size.

Its not about the only. Its about the who. But on the ‘only’- Is ‘only’ a symptom of both a comparative culture – where we assume that everyone else is doing far better than they really are or say that they are, and also a symptom of the dream and desire for something different or more than what is existing. Talk of ‘only’ sort of devalues the actual young people who do attend, the actual families who have taken the effort to make it to the activity, talk of only indicates that numbers not people seem to be the markers of success.  It also means that we stop looking at what is, what good, and the precious that is present. I think we do need to be careful that a desire for more, might cause young people to think that they are only valuable if they have friends and bring them.

Does the use of the word ‘only’ already mean that we have succumbed ourselves to the perils of a numbers game? If so, sadly, our ministries will undoubtedly suffer for it. And so will we, facing personal trial of our ministry by numerical indicators alone.

Related image

Might there be something more with wanting more ?

Of course there is a problem with only having a few young people in a church, the resources dont seem to fit very well. Well guess what, thats the problem with the how of what were trying to do. Maybe because of a few young people there are questions to be asked about materials based youth ministry provision, and finally there needs to be a shift to something else instead. And thats not easy, none of this is, especially with a church only having 1 12 year old, 1 8 year old and three under 5’s. What to do then? good point. But the answer wont be found without a change in attitude and probably a change in approach. First we stop with the ‘onlys’ and probably second we developed practices of higher participation, less teaching, more conversation. Less input, more involvement. Yes a small group might be difficult, so discipleship might need a different form, mentoring, participation in faith practices, training/apprenticeship.

I asked a number of youthworkers around the country to share their experiences of what might considered ‘small’ youth group experiences (under 6 ppl) , in small churches (under 40) – and dont mishear me, I am desperately trying to resist using the word small there. These sound large compared to other churches. So, again, apologies for falling into the same comparison/descriptor trap. In such a culture of comparison, stories of the ‘small’ can be ignored, when ‘ministries’ that have large numbers can dominate and create a gravitational pull towards, and sometimes thats an actual pull. The actual pull of the small youth group thats doing something beautiful, that has to be disrupted so that they attend en masse as the audience in a large gathering which causes them to feel anonymous – just to support the ‘large’ – and the large can influence the small.

Can the small be beautiful – well of course it can be, why am i even asking the question?

Here are some of the benefits of ‘only’ having a ‘few’ young people- as said by those involved in making these beautiful things happen:

They get to know adults well, who aren’t their parents, and therefore explore a different understanding of faith. They get to know a small group of peers better. They can do social activities to form strong bonds and can do life alongside each other.  (Laura P)

They become full active participants in the life of the church. Involved in everything inc. the “not youth” elements normally reserved for adults. Which in turn adds to a sense of belonging (pet topic is small church youth work ) (James Y)

Deeper relationships, learning to rely on one another, hearing true stories of faith, loss and redemption. Intimacy that fosters trust (Kat)

It certainly means you get to know them better as individuals rather than ‘the young people’. And it’s easier therefore for their individual gifts to be used in the church. Labour intensive though!    (why is ‘having an easy situation’ preferable?) 

Interestingly when we asked our young people at __________ if they wouldn’t rather join the Deanery youth group they said no, they liked being in a small group of 4-5. It felt safe and cosy. (Miranda)

The key for me is connection. A small church provides opportunity for connections that is hard in a big church. (Aaron)

They are known and as leaders we can be more responsive. I’ve never led big youth groups as a regular part of my ministry   (Alice)

you’ve got a lot of room for growth? 🙂 i’d say if 15-25% of the church is youth (as above), getting them involved in the life of the church will have huge impact (Andy)

Our church is this size and intergenerational community feels easier. 2 of our teens pick up an old lady each week and wheel her to church. 1 says it’s the highlight of his week and he just loves being with her even if they don’t chat much. Brings my heart joy thinking about it! They always want to pray for her in youth group. (Pheobe)

commenting on the above.. I love this. This sort of community is lost in larger churches, but replaced with a community where most yp only know their peers (Sean)

we’re a small church with great youth, but only after years of perseverance and encouraging the older members of the church to believe in them. Definitely find that yp build great friendships and therefore work much better as a team and are fired up for mission! (Mhairi) 

these are beautiful, significant moments – dont you agree..?

Convinced? Can we quit with the ‘only’ talk?  It is about the who. 

On the other side of the coin, I know of large group church leaders who would swap for something smaller. So, the comparison trap is on both sides, and reading the above from a larger church might enhance the same view.

One of the key values in youthwork, is that we ‘value the individual’ – its noticeable that when we talk about ‘only’ we stop valuing the individuals, their gifts, abilities, and contributions – and place more value in the unknown young person who is absent. Small is beautiful only goes some way. Small as a word is too patronising and still emphasises size.

Having a few young people does not mean they all need to be clumped together in a large group – as the example above showed, young people themselves expressed their own desire for something homely, cosy and comfortable – and whilst I am one for making discipleship more dangerous and risk taking – it might be risk taking enough to have asked the young people for their opinion, and also to decline the strategic approach for ‘larger mixed up groups across a deanery’ . This also emphasises a participative conversation being important, and giving young people more choice, autonomy and respect for who they are  (really?…;-)). Extending this a little – culture and fear are so evident, and young people arent all extroverts – so discipleship for the introvert, thinking, reflective young people might be deeply appropriate (who knew).

What other opportunities might there be with ‘only’ a few young people?

The above examples wouldn’t work if a church wasn’t giving its young people spaces to participative , but clearly where this is happening (and I think we need to challenge the barriers where this doesn’t happen – like young people not allowed in kitchens, or near to PA equipment) . Recent;y i heard of stories of young people joining in ‘church days out’ and getting involved in local mission/volunteering practices. All far easier than trying to get a group of 40 to help at the soup kitchen on a friday night – easier when its 4…

If Sunday school, groups and activities that require large effort is the default – then we might need to change approaches to accommodate the young people and who we have – not the young people we once had (but then moan that they didn’t stay anyway). Living in the present might mean valuing the young people for who they are, what they can contribute, what they might create and the community of faith where they are part of. After all, all young people can be participants in the ongoing drama of Gods mission – does it matter the size of the production they are involved in?

Can we ban the term ‘only’ – not just stop comparing? but stop comparing in what seems an upward direction to the increased number activity?  Talking of building bigger barns was something Jesus rejected, instead being present, and valuing the faith of the woman who gave little, the picture of the mustard seed. If ministry has become a numbers game, a money game and an attraction game – then has it lost all sight of the gospel? If we need to ask the question about How did Jesus do discipleship with just a few people? – the answer is that he just did discipleship with a few people.  But he ‘only’ had 12 in his youth group, and one of them was loud mouth Peter…. 

Voluntary participation; The perilous pathway for the youthworker and minister to navigate

A couple of questions to start off with:

Why do young people attend youth provision?Image result for perilous pathway

and

What keeps them there?

In all the afterschool, weekend or evening youth provision that occurs outside of the remit of the education or justice system, these are crucial critical questions to ask about young people and why they attend the youth group, the club, the football team, the music or dance group, the theatre or drama group or faith or environmental group. Understand why young people attend, and why they continue to attend are crucial for us all to reflect on. Because as those who create these spaces to happen, we face the ultimate reality that young people do make a voluntary choice to attend.

On one hand it makes it all a bit of a perilous adventure knowing that at any time a young person could leave, on the other its still an adventure, but that when a young person does respond to something and participate they do so because they want to. Now of course, there are occasions when the young person has stopped wanting to attend something but does so for reasons like their parents want them to, drive them to it, or to be compliant with their parents, but in the main they actually dont want to stop going – and so blurring the lines as to what participation is, yet on other occasions they might be being rebellious of their parents by attending.

Thinking further about the reasons why young people keep going to activities, beyond their attendance in the first place, and they might, and do, say:

  • Its where I meet with friends
  • Its a place to learn new skills
  • Its a place where i get experience
  • Its what i want to do when I’m older ( cadets, drama, music- it has career potential)
  • Its challenging
  • Its where I feel safe
  • Its a place to be myself
  • Its a place where I can talk to adults
  • Its a place where I am respected
  • Its a place where I can contribute and have my voice heard

In a way, then these might be some of the incentives for all of us involved in youth work provision of any kind. For any of us in youth ministry we should continually reflect on the reasons why young people continue to attend the provision, as if some of these things arent met, then it is likely that young people begin to leave. Actually, I ran this exercise with a group of older teenagers a few weeks ago, and the reasons that they left youth provision were as follows:

Their friends left, They got too old and there was nothing for them, it got expensive, they got bullied, they got ignored, it got boring, there was an injustice and not just the opposite of the things in the above list, but being unsafe, non participatory, non challenging, no long term purpose – but some of these things too.

Parents also get the benefit of the young person attending something, whether its an evenings free time, a hope that the youth group will do the sex talk, or help with socialisation, or hope that that young person will be safe, and become an upright moral citizen, just by attending a faith group. The parents of a young person may get more out of it that a young person themselves do… (might) .

All of this kind of means that there is a perilous path of voluntary participation that a youthworker/minister has to travel.

Yes there are a number of tactics that are used to keep young people – the carrot of rewards in the future, ongoing payment and subscriptions, rewards through attendance, and even trying to give young people roles, ownership and leadership can be strategies to help young people stay part of something. However, all fall flat if a young person feels unsafe, ignored or bored.

Which becomes doubly perilous in a culture in which outcomes and value for money are key drivers for funding both externally, and internally in groups, clubs, charities community groups and churches. We may have always prided ourselves with creating voluntary groups and spaces, but its a perilous path of maintaining an interest beyond this. Value for money seems to be about attendance, not the glorious treasure that could be unveiled when young people become participants, creators and contributors within. Measuring for participation, rather that attendance might help create the kind of staying environments, means that we have to work doubly hard to create these opportunities, challenges, and raise young peoples. And celebrating that young people participate and that they choose to is rarely done.

It is genuinely the case that young people like to be challenged. To have their game raised, and to be given an opportunity to have their opinion and voice heard and to participate. These arent just great sayings and ideals. But yet, when it comes to thinking about longevity and discipleship or programmes in youth ministry provision – relevancy is more often connected to attraction and entertainment – rather than relevancy because it is meaningful, challenging, and involves cost.

That young people are free to leave the youth provision could scare the living daylights out of us, but yet again that they continue to attend and participate is also a deep joy and privilege, it is a fine line, a tightrope, and one that we must acknowledge and be thinking ahead all the time, to how might the group or activity be maintained in such a way that young people want to stay. Or alternatively, how might the young people within the group or activity be able to create the environment themselves in a way so that they dont want to leave. When young people do participate, when they do contribute or develop conversation and relationship then its almost as though this should count as double, because we take into account that this is something they want to do. Its like the conversation with us on the streets, they could easily walk away or tell us to F off, though they rarely do, and so through choice they converse.

Voluntary participation and engagement causes us as youth workers and ministers to be continually walking a perilous pathway. Im constantly amazed by the amount of churches who say that young people dont attend, but as children they did, well often thats because they now have a choice, and we havent made being a young person in a Image result for sunday school rally day 1900

church a meaningful experience for them, just an extension of Sunday school.  And attending Sunday school, cant feel anything like school can it… (though by this poster there was some strong tactics used to keep children)- its no wonder that young people when faced with the choice didnt.

There are no magic answers, just a realisation, that thinking about why young people attend groups, clubs and organisations is a much shorter list than the many reasons why they stop going. That thinking through reasons why young people stay in groups, some reasons get elevated and thought about more than others (entertainment vs meaningfulness though both would be good), and trying to pre-empt ‘boredom’ by thinking ahead to create new opportunities, new places of participation and develop young peoples voices, creativity and contributions in a way that takes some suitable risks, is within a safe and trusted relationship space might be helpful ways of helping young people along the tightrope.

Have I missed out faith? well, yes. But strangely, when even asking christian young people what kept them or what caused them to leave a group, even a church group – faith wasnt even mentioned. Reflect on that as you will.

 

Is our concept of participation, in youth ministry, too small?

Why is it that young people are often involved in committees at schools, as young as primary school, given responsibility in ‘anti-bullying’ campaigns, tasked with being peer mentors, and encouraged to have their view on school councils within school – and yet in churches they’re often just given a picture to colour in and an activity to do? 

Thats a statement I say alot. And it is not completely true of course. Sometimes children and young people do have some responsibility in a local church. But it must be dis-orientating for them, and or the rest of us, that they are respected and given space to have participation in one space, and then a group of adults in their social gathering ( who aim to be even more righteous/holy) close the spaces down. It must feel weird. Thats just the introduction, and if you havent thrown your device against the wall so far, then great, the rest of this piece asks whether our view of participation in youth ministry is too small – or at least- there is a view of participation that encompasses something mysteriously large to fathom, that has been chosen to ignore.

The situation above one of the key moment in youth ministry where we might have a conversation about the role young people have in the faith community, I have written extensively on this before, (just search ‘participation’ in the categories) and the common framework for this theoretically is Harts Ladders of youth participation, (again not to be repeated here – see other posts), in which the sliding scale from token participation (or non participation)  to ‘young people decide, adults follow’ is at point 9. But this is classic and basic to the practice of youth work, and so these other posts might be worth your time (theyre in the references below). Its when only token participation is repeated and young people find meaning they can participate in elsewhere, that they leave any form of non-participatory faith group/event for something more meaningful elsewhere.

But I wonder – is our view of participation too small?

For, its one thing thinking about the way in which a young person ‘participates in’ the culture, structures and process of an organisation, to the point in which they are influencers, creators and contributors (in no particular order)- but is this enough?

Andrew Root puts the nail on the head when writes this, in faith formation in a secular age (2017): 

‘we seek strategies and practices that plug the drain in the sink, hoping that there are pragmatic actions we can use to keep young people from subtracting church participation from their lives’ (Root, 2017, p98-99)

In short, the dilemna faced in the church is to prevent the leakage by keeping young people involved, helping young people not subtract church, leaving it. For the church is that these strategies enable us to experience less loss. Yet in reality, the issue is not, as Root says, that people have a God-gap that needs filling. Participation has become the plug, the ultimate aim of all the faith forming programmes and activities – get them in, belonging and so they can be involvedParticipation becomes the end game of a strategy, (if it exists). But as Root discusses, what does this say about Faith – and for us, here, has this made participation too small? 

There used to be a book (its still around) titled is your God too small? – I wonder if this is the same with the use of and concept of participation.

From the very beginning, the human person was a participant in the actions of God. Tasked with naming the animal and tending to the land, creation pictures involvement in the divine action and a need that God had, or at least space within the action of God for human to be involved. This continues throughout – from conversations between Abraham and God, then Moses, David, Ruth, Mary (spoken to by an Angel no less), and then the ongoing participative requirements that Jesus gave the disciples. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the drama of the Biblical narrative is about the ongoing participation of humans in it, to the point in which they may be involved in as a fourth person in the trinity. But these thoughts are not new.

Both Pete Ward, and Danny Brierley pick them up in their work, Youthwork and the Gospel (1997), and participation in ;Joined up, (2003). An attempt to understand participation theologically is not new, but it might be worth reflecting on further if it is new for you reading this. What might be new is to think of faith as participation, and develop what this means for young people. (and us all)

A way of thinking about the ongoing narrative of the Christian story, is that of a drama, and as continual ongoing performances within the closing act (4) of a five act play that has the prophecies of revelation as the fifth act to be played out. Again I have written on this before, and the resources for this are in the ‘Theodrama’ category, but unlike story which only has tellers, drama has participative performers – who in word and deed perform interpretation and improvisations of the gospel in the every day, doing so along with God who participates in the ongoing act. Drama ‘just’ adds a encompassing level to the ongoing need to be involved and participating.

Roots view of Faith, is taken from emphasising Paul who emphasises not subtraction, but deduction of a personal nature to participate ‘in Christ’ – Faith is an act of deduction, of giving up. It is not just about participating ‘in’ the activities of a local church, (as these culturally have been negated, (p134-140) , faith is about being a participant in the ongoing story of God (Root, p145).

Participation then, is something far far bigger that institutional involvement.

Faith, true faith, for young people is not sufficient if it is about an add on to their lives (back to MTD)  It is that they become deducted of their own life, giving up, to become performers and participants in the actions of God in the whole world. 

In a way, this is no different to what Pete Ward was saying in 1997.

But what we’ve tended to focus on is how to keep young people in church through participating activities – and not think for a moment what faith is about, and how this has a larger view of being a participant in Gods ongoing actions.

So – what might all this mean? – If young people are given the keys to unlock the stage, and realise their role and ongoing performers, what might this look like for being faithful in those actions. For Root, this about helping people be ministers and be ministered to. And this then includes, for us, about how we might help young people be ministers in the kingdom, how we might help them ‘reduce’ their reliance on the stuff of daily life (and fasting/monasticism/meaningful faith is becoming more popular), giving up prophetically in a world of stocktaking and increasing – and ministering to others – all activities planned or spontaneous being prompted to by God in the midst. Faith formation and participation is about recognising the voice of God in the midst, who has the ongoing speaking part, and acts alongside. We participate in, as God participates in us.

Young peoples acts of social justice are not an aside to faith – they are faith. 

Young peoples response to God in their context might mean risk taking and be dangerous and prophetic – and who knows what it might look like. 

What would it be like to give this away – to help young people see themselves as meaningful performers in Gods drama, and that their participation in the world (and the church in the world) is the task of faithful meaningful performances of the gospel?

Its not enough that God loves young people, but that God might also think them worthy of participative parts in his play- and for many young people, they might not have had the opportunities in school to be ‘special’ or involved. Our task is as acting coaches to help young people find their parts, to find their location in the drama, and to recognise the voice of God prompting in the midst. Faith is about participation, and Gods drama is mysterious and massive, and young people, all of us, are invited into it as participants.

If our view of God is too small, then the stage needs to be expanded,

If our view of participation is too small, then young peoples faith suffers as a result.

Theres an expansion of Godly participation required in Youth Ministry.

 

References

For all my other posts on participation click here  if you’re interested in Theodrama click the category above.

Root, Andrew, 2017 Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Shepherd, Nick, 2016, Faith Generation

Ward, Pete, 1997 Youthwork and the Mission of God

Brierley Danny, 2003 Joined up; Youth work and Ministry

Vanhoozer Kevin, 2005, The Drama of Doctrine, 2010 Remythologising theology, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding.

 

How might space be created for discipleship growth in our churches?

I dont do gardening. At least I am in denial that I might be ‘doing gardening’, its more ‘being self sufficient’ trying to live closer to nature, and a whole host of other things that it might be known as , but it isnt gardening. So, that thing that I have been doing the last few years, not gardening, came about as I in herited a whole load of fruit trees and bramble in my garden (great free food) and, I wondered if there was a way of creating some kind of space in it, that the dog wouldnt destroy (she digs) that would mean that not only fruit but other stuff as well would be grown. The first year i got a load of large plastic containers and tried growing peppers, chillis and tomatoes, and ended up with about 90 green tomatoes.

The following year I played safe and instead of tomatoes put salads in the containers and ended up with lettuce, spring onions, beetroot, some herbs and with a few exceptions managed to grow most of them. The same the next year, with the addition of a few potatoes.

But I was given a seedling chili plant from my sister in laws parents, which i put into our sunroom, and watched it grow and grow. It gave us three seasons of chillis during the year, about 100 in all. So this year I am trying out the chillis and peppers again. (and have planted garlic in the pots – so basically I am after the base of a good curry)

Its not remarkable. But what I noticed this time, trying to grow plants from seedlings was that as the seedlings start to grow and expand, you have to increase the size of the pot they are in so that they can expand into it and grow a little bit more. And thats it.

Seedlings will only grow if you expand the pot they grow into. To stop my chili plant growing last year i left it in a fairly large pot – but didnt keep increasing it.

What if this process of ‘pot-expansion’ is the one that we develop with young people and their discipleship? It becomes a process where we as workers/leaders/volunteers continually seek ways of creating a slightly larger, or even much larger ‘pot’ for them to grow into for them to expand.

A Seedling might last if put in the Garden, and in a new phase of ‘not gardening’ I have spend the easter holidays making a raised bed.

It now has several seeds in it. For a young person, that might present having a space expanded too much – for others they might rise to such a challenge of growing into a space that demands that they fill in to.

If Discipleship is a process of ongoing learning (the greek word Mathetese)

and Empowerment a process of ongoing participative competence (the community writer Keiffer)

Then in our work with young people- actually – given the state of the church- in our discipleship with everyone – empowering leadership, that doesnt just tend to the plants (and not bruising the damaged reed) but empowering the competence of others to grow into a larger space might be what is required. What we have is a one-size-fits-all approach with gatherings as large groups or smaller groups – what eah need it not more sprinked water from the top, even plant food, or sunlight (though all are helpful) – but space in which the roots are given the opportunity to grow. and How do we do that? The how is easy. We get to know where people are and create spaces for them to be challenged, why dont you do that? or can you go away, read that and talk to me afterwards, or what are your ideas on that? What difference could you make here? How might we use you better, and your gifts?

If i had a pound for everytime someone said we need to have a culture shift in our churches, on discipleship or mission, then id be able to buy at least a few more packets of seeds. If the farming and growth metaphors Jesus used were good enough for him, then they might be good enough for us now. I think in youth ministry, we are better at ‘pot’ expansion than elsewhere, young peoples horizons are hopefully opened up constantly and are given opportunities at times. It would be very wrong to say that young people are kept in small pots. It would also be wrong however to say that this is the case everywhere. Though sometimes the pot is only slightly bigger, and young people go elsewhere to be challenged.

Whole life, empowering discipleship, believing in the Human person to rise to the challenge, to have their ‘pot’ enlargened, is something i think we need to be doing, and keep doing, and keep asking. How might this church grow- is the current question? – well it needs to be given a larger pot to grow into. How might all the individuals within it grow? you get the picture. When we empower people , sorry, that isnt possible, when people are empowered it is because they are given space to empower themselves, space to grow. If discipleship is about growth, then we have the responsibility as leaders to keep discovering ways, real ways of expanding the pot size. The space for them to grow into. And its not just our responsibility, its also about trying to help the whole church to encourage the potential growth in each other.

By the end of three years, I would be pretty certain that Jesus disciples had had enough, every day presented new challenges, new scearios to act, new learning to take in, new directions about what to do. Constant expanding the space for them to grow into. Hey Peter, heres 5000 people – you feed them!. There seem to be times when Peter and only a few of them get given the opportunities to grow, at least thats what we hear anyway. But the 72 are sent out, as are the 12. They are not just given the ‘opportunity to do mission’ they are given challenges to enable them to grow as disciples.

Why did Jesus’ practice of telling parables disappear?

I was reading through the passages in Matthews Gospel that tell us a little about the goings on during Holy Week in Jerusalem all those 2000 odd years ago. What I was hoping to was write a piece on something to do with Holy Week. What I noticed instead, was that in the midst of the week, there seemed to be good deal of story telling going on that Jesus was still doing with the disciples and others around him.

Theres the Story of the two sons (no not the prodigal one)

Theres the story of the evil farmers

Theres the story of the bridesmaids

Theres the story of the great feast

Theres the story of the 10 bridesmaids and also the Three servants

All of these occur, notably in Matthews account between the Palm Sunday narrative and then the lead up to the arrest and betrayal of Jesus in chapter 26. On one hand we might deduce, accurately that Jesus was a great story teller, and these stories have sacred value (as well as make pertinent points). But the question I ask – is where did all the story telling go?

Image result for parables

From a missional perspective – Jesus doesn’t tell the 12 or 72 to ‘tell stories about the kingdom’ when they are given instructions to go into the villages. Neither is story telling part of the deal for the great commission. But at the same time, after three years of watching Jesus – you would think that there may be records of the disciples developing story telling as part of the emergence of the early church. But it seems to be almost completely absent.

A clue might be found in Luke 24 – When Jesus meets the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, his revelation to them, and their great surprise is that he told them how Jesus’ own story was now fulfilment and part of the whole of Gods bigger story ( Luke 24:34) – The story they needed to tell was that Jesus was the Messiah, and this was the one they were guided to. And then throughout the description of the early church, there is the chronological retelling of this one story, at least this is what we hear from the lengthy public discourse by Stephen (acts 7) and then Paul (acts 17) they preach theology- the story of the knowledge of God.

Image result for parables

It is almost as if priority is given to this one story (and probably rightly so) and then the functions of the early churches as a community of many small organisations across the middle east of the time. But it still seems strange that one of the principle teaching methods of Jesus is barely mentioned again. Its not as if Paul or Silas are documented telling stories, neither Peter or John.

But I am intrigued, as to why it seems to have gone out of view all together.

Other practices that occurred in the early church seem to be also at odds (with current moral view of faith) – but so soon after Jesus the disciples drew lots to see who would replace Judas as one of the 12 – was this seen as acceptable practice, endorsed by Jesus for decision making? If this was implicit from Jesus – why did story telling seem to not be in vogue?

What might be some of the reasons why parable telling seems to be absent post Jesus’ ascension?

  1. Jesus story telling was so unique – before Jesus and after – the story telling of the chronology of history is what seems to have been the norm. See for example the references to the story of Israel – or at least these are what is written down and recorded. It may be that the narrator was keen to record the facts in line with the theological chronology and not the incidental fictional stories – but in a way that doesn’t seem to fit with the story of Jonah which has more evidence that it is fictional than historic. So this may be a fable of novel like proportions that is told to reveal something of God – and referred to by Jesus as such. However, the story telling and sharing capacity of Moses, David, Elisha or Esther is barely mentioned- they are the story. With this in mind it might be as reasonable to suggest that this method of narrative story telling is so part of the Jewish culture that it continues post Jesus- so that it then includes Jesus within the chronology. Just as Jesus gives the permission to do for the two disciples walking along the Emmaus road Luke 24. But then is Jesus story telling so unique that it shouldn’t be copied? Only Jesus could tell such stories inn that culture – and so the task of the disciple was not to replicate Jesus, but fulfil the tasks that he set out for them, none it seemed to revolve around story telling.
  2. The context shifted. This response is from Roger Mitchell on Twitter. The fall of the church , because story I harder to control or contradict that historical accounts and so the church of the empire depended on control and conformity, rather than the expansive story telling that is implied in Jesus own stories. Jesus had to talk in parables – argues Mitchell, in this piece, because the entire church was under threat politically. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fall-Church-Roger-Haydon-mitchell/dp/162032928X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1522261353&sr=8-1&keywords=roger+mitchell

3.So maybe it was less that the disciples didn’t continue telling parables, than just that they didn’t need to. What about the possibility that the stories Jesus told, were the ones that were continued to be told by the disciples and so these were the ones remembered when it came to compile the 4 gospels? It may account for some of the variations – as some were more remembered than others. Also as Ricouer discusses, there may be some narrative building between the different accounts as each was written and then recollected, but essentially its at least 2-3 people remembering the stories, and some may have heard them again and again and others not so.

  1. What if the message and not the context changed? Post Jesus resurrection – talk of kingdom seems to disappear almost completely, from what is talked about in Acts, and then Pauls letters to the churches. There are 155 references to Kingdom in the New testament, but only 30 of these occur after the four gospels, and 8 of these in Acts, which isn’t surprising on one hand as there are 43 mentions in Luke itself (second only to Matthew ), in Johns gospel there are less than 3. The message has shifted. The elaborate explanatory stories of kingdom seem to have changed. OR alternatively, they have continued with the writers of 3 of the gospels and inserted into their narratives as they were commonly told and then needed to be attributed to Jesus as to give them their original authority – if it was indeed Jesus who told them originally. The explanations of the kingdom through pictures and stories needed to continue and was being continued through story telling, and it was the gospel writers who were the key narrators of this. This seems in contrast to Pauls more explanatory practical epistles, which barely have any mention of Kingdom at all. Did the objectives change; the early disciples had the job of proving to people who Jesus was in connection with the religious history of the culture – Jesus himself was merely proving himself to be God through how he had authority, through wisdom and pictures.
  2. Can we assume much about ‘how the early disciples evangelised?’ – This is the question posed by John Drane on the facebook conversation that I opened up on this subject. And of course to a point we cant. We can deduce that the early disciples met frequently, they shared belongings, miracles were performed and councils were had. Conversations with people seemed to be more confrontational (and leading people to be imprisoned) than how Jesus communicated. We can only deduce so far, or more to the point, only have the information to hand that include the epistles and written information. The tradition of oral story telling was part of the culture, and telling the dramatic story, both of Jesus within the Jewish tradition to the town squares, councils and in front of the judge, and also Pauls own story as part of the epistles is indicative of this. There is undoubtedly Dramatic retelling and embodiment of the story through its retelling. We cant I guess prove that the early disciples didn’t tell stories – maybe they told stories about Jesus to each other, and shared their collective wisdom about him – what he did, said and amazed – and so parabolic stories about the Kingdom faded from view at least they faded from importance in the task of evangelisation. Maybe stories were so embedded in the culture in the tradition, that it was taken for granted that this was how to do it, and it was uniquely rare to have the longer public discourse of the town square or market place (so these were written down as exceptions) – the story telling over food, fires and walking might have been so regular and repeated than it was barely mentioned. But its not as if at any point- there is a plea to any of the churches, or within the group to ‘carry on telling the stories Jesus told’ or to use stories in this way. Maybe because it just wasn’t needed to be said.Wells suggests that the role of the disciple is to be a witness to the story (2005) and acknowledge the place of the saint verses the hero in the story. Jesus as Christ is the centre of the story, and he creates the narrative – is the role of the disciple just to tell Jesus story? That may be the case.What if story telling was so apparent in the early church as the norm, that it wasn’t worth mentioning? It was taken as red that it was occurring? So it wasn’t needed to be mentioned. What if the reasons that these stories of Jesus have stayed the test of time is because the gospel writers themselves were hearers and retellers of them, and therefore they had been retained through theie ongoing audible use.
  3. What if the disciples were no good at it, and to preserve the dignity and sacredness of Jesus, only retold the same stories Jesus did. They didn’t get the metaphorical stories as Jesus told them, so it might have been easier for them not to maintain trying to use this method for the future. Maybe Jesus let them off the hook and didn’t make this expectation on them. The Wisdom of Jesus gave him story telling nous for the everyday stage – it wasn’t what the disciples could do. Words they did write down that were in any way poetic or metaphorical are attributed as prophetic ( Revelation) and so derived from God – rather than as a gift of eloquent methaphorical speech that the disciples have themselves.

Thank you to the social media communities of Facebook and Twitter for some of these recommendations from the original question.

It leaves us with potentially a further question, how are we expected to be witnesses of Jesus?

We learn so much from Jesus communication methods – from parabolic stories, that inspire, educate and confound their hearers, and create a expansive space for understanding the kingdom of God- but is it in our humanity to try and emulate, replicate or re-appropriate in the contexts we are in. It is said by Vanhoozer that Character (ours) is plot. We tell the story through our lives, but we also need to tell the story through our actions, provocative, prophetic and practical. (not just that we don’t swear) .

The sacred myth, story, narrative of Jesus within chronology has faded from popular view- and replaced by other myths that have a detrimental impact upon people – commercialism, materialism, capatalism and others- the stories of self indulgence that are never satisfied. The place we might have in the story is to know, just like the disciples did how the story all fits together with an ending that draws ever closer, that requires even more love, charity and hope more story. And not just a story to believe – but a story to participate in, as it participates in us ever prompting, ever guiding. The Jesus story is not just a story to live by, it is a story to perform – and that is something, there is no doubt, that the disciples did. To their own personal sacrifice and as they quite literally were martyred for the faith.

References

Wells, Sam, Improvisation, 2005

Ricoeur, P Figuring the Sacred, 1991

Kevin Vanhoozer, 2005, The Drama of Doctrine