Is ‘Pioneering’ in danger of becoming an overused buzzword in the church?

It used to be (when i was growing up) that people in churches were told that they were scared of evangelism, for the decade of evangelism, then people were told not to be scared of the Holy Spirit, either during Pentecost or as a backlash from the heady days of the ‘toronto (or whatever it became) blessing’. And as a result there was a reassurance given about these things, before then the experience was given of them. Both ‘Evangelism’ in its day (is it standing on the street corners or door knocking) or the Holy Spirit ( will i speak in tongues) had a fair share of bad press and ambiguity about them at the time, and so, reassurance was probably needed, and at times still is.

But now there is another ambiguity that seems to be creating the same scared overtones in the church, (no its not GDPR), but Pioneering

The dictionary defines pioneering as ‘involving new ideas or methods’ . Which may be as simple as it need to be as a definition. However, that hasn’t stopped it being used in a plethora of ways in the christian community, notably in the last 5-10 years;

There’s pioneering practices, pioneer youth ministry, pioneer approaches, pioneer course, pioneering clergy, pioneer curate, and probably a whole host besides, there’s probably a pioneer church administrator and pioneer PCC secretary out there somewhere. Some job descriptions ask for ‘pioneering’ people to fill what boil down to the same role someone was doing before (and would take immense culture shift to change)

So, in an attempt to gain insight into the current thinking, frustration or creativity around pioneering, i asked the following question on twitter:

Has ‘pioneering’ become the buzzword no one knows what it means? What might you say it means?

These were the responses:

I’ve just finished my MA in pioneering mission and I still don’t really know what people mean @timgoughuk

Is pioneering the new emergent? @mcymrobin

Getting new stuff done in a place no one is doing it – now define ‘stuff’ @jakesk2

Go to the margins, experimenting, loving, listening, co creating and ultimately annoying the hell out of the centre. Been told many times if they don’t want you dead then you probably aren’t doing it right! @gemmadunning

To pioneer is to go where the church isn’t or hasn’t been for a long time, to journey alongside people and grow a Christian community that is relevant to those people where they are @markrusselluk

Do you mean “innovative stepping out in faith to create something in new wine skins that isn’t encumbered by institutional hierarchy but need to be given permission by same to flourish in their fresh expression of this mixed economy approach to being a witnessing community?” @alicampbell_68

To me pioneering is the Ministry of not fitting in… Never feeling fully comfortable in any church setting because God is always doing something new so churches ‘should’ be open to change but humans are change resistant so pushing for change is a hard place to be in; @JHOsborn

For me pioneering is about ‘stepping off the map’, going to the new place to which God calls me. Laying down my life & agenda.Listening to the community & God. Unconditionally blessing & serving those outside the church context. Sharing God’s love. Joining in with what emerges…@revaliboulton

To break new ground for the kingdom / with the gospel… To take the church to places it isn’t flourishing & cultivating it afresh. @Drmarkscan

Pioneering is living life on a knife edge of not knowing, with no certainties (of establish church) and in everything you do stepping out in faith that God/Jesus is going with you and before you. Pioneering is leaning how to readjust, change and adapt when things don’t work @monty_blog

To pioneer can be a lonely journey being with the people walking alongside people in their natural environments in the community but always showing Jesus ! @suziqvk

Prioritising the cultivation of Christ’s kingdom in unchartered ground over maintaining institutional church practice @greenP

A Pioneer, someone who sees future possibilities and works to bring them to reality, not only dream up new strategies, they implement them, ‘dreamers who do’, seeing prophetically and rightly navigating the edge lands in mission out of love, for Jesus Christ and for the Church.@mummymcalister

Going Before: leading @rachel1946white

Image result for pioneering

Heading out into unchartered territory which gives the freedom to succeed or fail, and both are accepted. When it goes well it forges a path for others to follow, with understanding of the lessons learnt. Pioneering: Trying out something not done before.@piglets4mum

I thought Christian pioneering was taking Christianity to places devoid of faith… isn’t that what pioneers are?? People that are the first ones to occupy an area and make it into a community that is living and thriving before moving on somewhere new to replicate the experience? @artsytype_83

To boldly go where the Christian presence is least and virtually non existent. @stalbansdyo

Contextual mission that, in the manner of Star Trek, “boldy goes….” @revjonbarrett

a self- confessed minority opinion was given, they stated that they thought pioneering meant;

I say pioneering /ought/ to mean “Ministering the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion in such ways as to make sure that the Church is doing what she always has done” 🙂 (@Osacrumcorlescu)

this person also said: I’ve a half-baked theory that when people say “pioneer”, they ought to speak of “permanent deacons”. The ordinal for Deacons states “deacons are to… search out the poor, weak, sick, lonely & those who are oppressed & powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world”

In effect, it might argued that to pioneer is christian ministry is to do what was supposed to be done, and not be consumed by the institutional stuff it has become. In a way its not really pioneering at all, just reclaiming, and reverting to what original practices might be.

One response was a little on the nose, from a new-ish minister, with the title of ‘pioneer curate’: I am reseeding, restarting, refreshing, replanting (whatever the right word) a parish that was allowed to die, in decline to bring it back to a place of living and thriving – I must be a pioneer ! (remains anonymous)

Though talking of on the nose, this tacit response was directed at the systems: Pioneering: Basically, doing traditional parochial ministry, which parish clergy no longer have time and energy to do because they’re busy answering endless questionnaires from the diocese about why their parochial ministry isn’t working.(@fortonchurch)

From the discussion, a range of other questions emerged (see what i did there)

Any thoughts in what we used instead? Sometimes I use old school ‘missionary’ as it sort of says what it does on tin – but also has imperialistic implications, rather than laying down our lives & agenda to serve a new community/context?

Maybe it should be known as Church planting 2.0? (if pioneering has become over used)

Not many people directed me to articles in the field of pioneering at the moment, however, this one was brought to my attention: ”Pioneering Mission is… a Spectrum?‘ In which it looks like someone else has done the same kind of exploratory exercise, looking at the key writers and definers of pioneering. In a way, my survey has been less academic, and may have captured the mood from the ground a little more. However, it is a good piece and worth checking out.

Pioneering in some places might be as scary as ‘The Holy Spirit’ or ‘Evangelism’ might be said to be, it might be as confusing, or even as unheard of. Just a ‘new’ flangled thing’ that Millenials are doing to ‘wreck the status quo’ – when i say millenials, i mean those who grew up in youth ministry and are continuing to shake things up a bit. Pioneering might be too much of a step, or it might be what the church, thats just started a messy church, or a community event, might already be doing without the need to define it. The problem with defining pioneering is that it reduced it to something, the problem with overusing it is that what it could be about becomes lost in over use. There are also many images and metaphors around about pioneering.

as these people also said:

Absolutely a buzz word with a plethora of meanings….it is so over used that it has become meaningless…..!

whenever it works well it (pioneering) is fabulous, Whatever works well actually means!

I am not going to end this piece with my own definitions, as that in itself wouldnt be very pioneering. What is interesting for me is that when i was in the Scouts growing up, if you had said the word pionnering, i would have though you meant to create a structure using raw materials ( rope/poles) as a team in order that that structure did something. Ie was a bridge, a platform, a pulley. It was a team effort to be creative, and was a great way to spend 2-3 hours on a scout camp.

Image result for pioneering

Pioneering, in that sense was about ideas, creativity, using resources, planning and strategising. It was about making something from nothing, and it was about team work. Sometimes it was about competition. But it wasn’t about doing something alone. The problem in the elevated view of alone working in the church is that it creates many of the issues described in the definitions above. Maybe pioneering needs to be more of a team thing, a deliberate team thing.

Image result for pioneering

There is also much for the church in regard to pioneering, it needs to learn from those who do it, encourage it an be the team that gives it a go, especially if beyond the buzzwords theres a realisation that pioneering is just about doing what was authentically the mission Christ gave to the disciples in each local area. To go, make disciples, and to do good. The worst thing that can happen is that it becomes another catch all for everything, or derided as something just as a fashion a fad or business speak. If it captures the essence of going to the margins (because thats what might be needed to be pioneering) and planting, creating and developing approaches that are good, that might be new (in that context) then pioneering is the challenge and prophetic voice that the church might be in need of hearing and embodying in its good practical work in every local community.

Some of the definitions from the conversation were from those who are the real pioneers, so learn from them, reflect on their definitions and where their passions are. I thank them all for their honesty, insight and wisdom on this. I would so hope Pioneering does not become the buzzword everyone starts to hate, or the establishment derides as not needed. But language and its overuse might be a problem.

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If young people are offered a relationship with Jesus – should it be a working one and not ‘just’ personal.

All those who have put on Christ are equipped to play the part. To act out our being in Christ is to practice the new life and new covenant we have in him (Kevin Vanhoozer, 2014, based on 2 Peter 1:8-10)

There were many distinguishing elements in the way Jesus ‘discipled’ his 12 disciples, as opposed to the order of the day, the discipleship in the Rabbinic tradition of Israel of its day. Not just that Jesus chose his disciples (invited them), who he chose (often those rejected by Rabbi’s already) and these two are key. Jesus discipleship if offered to all, the condition is to accept the invitation, and it is free.

And it is free. That in a way is the point.

In a re-read of the gospel records, another interesting aspect is the level of functionality of what being a disciple of Jesus was all about. There were undoubtedly tasks that any potential disciple of a Rabbi might have needed to do to curry favour with a Rabbi in the temple, in order to become acceptable, but this was an ongoing burden of slavery. But being a disciple of Jesus also involved practical work. From getting donkeys, arranging room space, rowing, crowd control, and probably a myriad of other tasks unsaid. There must have been, because effectively 13 people and entourage were on the road for the best part of 3 years. The point being, that discipleship was practical, the ongoing formation and learning was done through the practical. But it was practical in the walk, in the journey discipleship. And work was done within a relationship that promised much, that gave the disciples acceptance (even though theyd been rejected previously). In short accepting the invitation was free, but discipleship involved work.

The task of the disciple, according to Jesus, for every one who identifies as a disciple is to ‘make disciples’ (Matthew 28:18) it involves participating.

One of the features of youth ministry in the 1940s and 1950s with Billy Graham, was the offer of an intimate relationship with God, an intimate relationship that in particular young people at the time, and ever since craved and lapped up in their droves. Though ironically, as Andrew Root writes, what the large rally lacked for young people was also the intimate relationships of others. If the mass Rally of Graham lost its cultural signicance by the late 1950’s (Andrew Root) – what wasnt lost, in some quarters, is the influence of the Billy Grahams theology and simple message, that reduced faith to a moment, that would make measuring numerical success easy to do.  What was offered to young people (specifically but not exclusivey) was a ‘free relationship’ and acceptance into the family of God, sins forgiven and a ticket to eternal life. All free.  Salvation was offered without much of a catch, all that was needed to was accept and believe. Christian faith became an individual free-will choice that was presented through a self-chosen relationship (Root, A, 2007;58)

The problem was then, and still is now, is that this is not what the great commission says. It says ‘make disciples’ , and disciples are those involved in the tasks of God, are on an ongoing process of learning and doing, or forming and performing.

Salvation was offered by acceptance. What is needed instead is Salvation as participation.

A personal relationship with God is not enough, it makes faith too easy, it also doesnt tell the full story. If we’re going to offer anyone the opportunity to have faith in, and an ongoing relationship with God, then we at least need to say that it is a working relationship. We might as well have a 28 day cooling off period as the original ‘contract’ doesnt give all the details.

In this way, from the outset, any who take up the challenge, know that they are taking up a challenge, and that they have work to do, or at least have some responsibility to be joining in with or doing the practical (often in the normal day to day life). They know from the outset that it involves work, effort and dediction to a cause. It is not a free ride. Or a free ride than then has unexpected effort required afterwards. Oh and neither is it ‘faith by works’ – it is accepting a working relationship with Jesus as a disciple, not just the offer of belief (with less strings attached). The oft-quoted research by Christian Smith, that reveals MTD (moral therapeutic deism) rife in American protestant churches, showed that belief was evident, though this belief was in a deism who didnt have any direct impact or involvement on a young person. Faith was a useful add on to current existence and a confidence giver in case of trouble.

Salvation as participation changes the dynamic. What is offered is a part to play. A working relationship with God changes the dynamic, from free personal relationship, to having practical tasks to do anf fulfil as part of an ongoing ‘job’ in the kingdom. If the workers are indeed few – then at least it should be workers who sign up knowingly to being one. Lets make ‘signing up to Jesus’ more difficult, more challenging, and something that might realistic, communicating the costs, and the work involved. Making faith easy, when it is nothing less than an ongoing drama, shoots it too low, and gives an unreal expectation.

It might be easier to declare that the good news is good news to all, especially good news to the rejected, and marginalised.  It is of course a free gift to be accepted, yet faith is more than belief, or at least, belief is more than cognitive, it is something that is done, and acted. The difference between the wise and foolish builder was ongoing obedience. It was obedience that experienced fisherman Peter led him to toss the net over the boat on its other side. It was practical obedience in the every day.

In his recent book the American Youth Minister Andrew Root talks about Faith acceptance being a process of deduction. Saying that in Union with/in Christ, St Paul himself realised that this was a process of denying himself, and personal death to life experience. A part played in the divine action of God is to deny oneself, for the other, to deny possessions for simplicity, to deny the pull of selfishness. All of these require work, as in they are not easy. They are not done alone, but that still doesnt make them easy.

Faith is about being called to participate in the life and saving activity of God by becoming ministers (Andrew Root, 2017, p130)

What we need to offer is not a free ticket to heaven on a free ride of belief. And not a personal relationship in which God can dangerously be reduced as a concept who meets the needs of the human, the divine Santa claus who gives only abundantly to satisfy the greed of human requests. But as Volf describes, God also makes demands as he also gives generously ( Volf, Miroslav, 2005: 28). Whilst God gives, writes Volf, he gives in order that others might flourish through us, again, they involve work on our part, to share, to give ourselves. Not only that :

But we were created to be and act like God, participating in Gods gift giving is what Gods gifts oblige us to do (Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 2005, p49)

Of course there is human freedom to choose to give a gift away. But the intention of God in giving is that we do so, and its that costly obedience, and practical and mental effort to do so that is the task of the disciple. Merely keeping a faith to oneself, is impossible for the christian, even more the disciple. But again, it is disciples we are called to make. A movement of disciples being prepared for the hard graft of kingdom building, through acts of grace, love that cause the denial and deduction of themselves.

But participation in the activity of God, through a working relationship with God, who prompts and guides and acts in the ongoing Drama of Redemption.  (yes that Theodrama gets in here again). Salvation as participation suggest that everyone arrives having a part to play, and part is to be performed and discovered, and involves the process of ongoing learning and formation. Preparing like any actor- by understanding the plot, script and developing an attuning to the likeness of Christ and playing likewise. Working for the Kingdom of God requires both understanding and action, and these aid each other. Formation is also about being ready to act, ready to participate in the tasks a position that Vander lugt describes as Disponibilite – the awareness of the action in the present needed to be made. Being ready to work as well as being at work.

As Bonhoeffer said:

‘Our Task (as disciples) is simply to keep on following, looking only to our Leader who goes on before, taking no notice of ourselves or what we are doing’

If one of the tasks of being as disciple is to be encouraged to make disciples, then it stands to reason that we should do everything possible in all that we do in youth ministry, in churches to create spaces where discipleship, the radical, propehetic, dangerous discipleship can occur. If our young people are hoping for an easy ride in a culture so consumed by technology that  makes things easy, then we might just have to be blunt and say that being a disciple of Jesus just isnt for them, as they’re not ready for the practical and costly work that is involved.

To follow Christ is to go after Christ along the way of Christ (Vanhoozer, K, 2014, 1)

 

References

Root Andrew, 2007 – Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry

Root, Andrew, 2017, Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Vander Lugt, 2014, Living Theodrama

Vanhoozer, Kevin, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding.

Bonhoeffer, D The Cost of Discipleship, (Taken from Vander Lugt, 2014, p139) 

 

10 myths that need busting in Youth Ministry, 10 that need to be circulated

Over time, stories become myths and legends are created, and there are stories of people, and good that is worth fighting for, or something like this says Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings. And over time, tales become myths, become legends in youth ministry. And there is still good worth fighting for, but even some of the those myths especially within youth ministry might need revising and busting, or new one created…

So here are 20 myths in Youth Ministry that need busting:

  1. There were golden eras in Youth Ministry. Some eras had large attending sunday schools (1700’s), some created ministries (60’s), some managed to get young people to festivals (90’s) – but golden era?
  2. Youth Ministry is easy. Its not. Think of it as an ongoing drama.
  3. Youth Ministry is well understood by the church.
  4. In youth ministry you will be valued, and regarded just like a minister (hahahahahaha)
  5. Youth Ministry is all up front, being witty and funny to a bunch of impressionable (ahem gullable..?) young people and singing songs. Nope, its emails, admin, planning, and getting stuck into the grind, youth ministry needs to work on a wet night in november, not just the summer festivals and gatherings.
  6. Your resources will work.
  7. Young people will change a generation – nope the cultural impacts with dilute these as soon as a young person leaves the gathering, and even if they did – how would you measure it? 
  8. Generationalisms – if we understand a universal culture (gen x, Y, Z, millenials  aarrgh, ) then youth ministry will be able to adapt. Nope, young people are context driven, and thats where research should be. if at all.
  9. professional is better than voluntary. Nope, professional help to help volunteers maybe. but unless you have more than 15 young people and have resources to help the youth worker connect in the local area, then stick to volunteers, however old they are.
  10. Bigger is better. Nope. Small churches with the right culture create far more opportunities for young people to thrive, as they have more space to ‘do things’. Its the culture not the size that matters.

From a different angle, the following are 10 myths that need to be circulated a little more…..

  1. Parents are still the most important people in a young persons life, even when friend might be said to get as important

  2. You are not the only person to help a young person think about spiritual matters. You arent. You might want to think you are, but you’re not. And even if you are, there might be a next person, so make it easier for them. 

  3. We dont need to be on the internet to find young people. 

  4. The church is not a barrier.Its history might be, the people inside it might be, its reputation might be, or what happened there that scared young people off might be. But on their terms young people might opt in to going inside one. 

  5. Events with posters work. 

  6. Theology is important and young people might quite like to be challenged with it. 

  7. Being Managed by a vicar is not a bed of roses, it takes work. 

  8. The more you give young people the more receptive they are. Nope, the more you give them, the more they want. 

  9. Being a youth worker must be fun because thats what being in youth group was all about. 

  10. Young people need someone young to relate to them. 

As a youthworker ive heard many of these, or certainly words to this effect. Usually they’re said to justify how important the ministry is; like ‘if we dont tell a young person about Jesus, no one else will’ or from churches who repeat the same thing about getting a young person in to relate to young people. The thing about myths is that they get circulated around easily, and at one point in one situation they might well have been true, or interpreted as such. In the christian faith, some circulate without a shred of evidence, or even with any realism, because its been a myth for so long. Like the one about parents not being important to a young person beyond 14-18, is simply not true. And the events with posters, even events with facebook event pages – have been known for ages, all posters are are a reminder for those who were coming already. There are a few exceptions.

So – any other myth in Youth Ministry that you think need to be busted? or what about myths that need starting?  like positive ‘chinese’ whispers amongst youth workers…

 

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.

References:

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

 

Performing Evangelism at the Anglican Diocesan Youth Adviser Conference. (Slides included)

Today I have had the privilege of being able to make a contribution at the Annual conference for all the Church of England Diocesan Youth Advisers, on the subject of Evangelism.

I was part of a four header, in which 3 others also contributed to the discussion. All shared of their experiences, their projects, their trials and how they related what they did theologically. It was fascinating.

What was fascinating was that all of the pieces of practice emphasised working in the specific context. as a contrast, none spoke of culture. All spoke of how faith with young people became something organic, and occured when the environment was right for young people to take a risk. Very few talked about evangelism that is outside of the ongoing process of facilitating spaces for young people to opt into faith, often in a very everyday manner.  Its as if discipleship & evangelism & church all sort of combine, and thats ok if young people are contributing, participating and becoming of faith.

The sessions didnt include many of the buzzwords like ‘lost generation’ , intentional, or ‘reaching’ – the practice of contextual youth work provision, of developing conversation, groups and the slow generation of faith in a specific place seemed to be at the core. Long term presence accompanied by meeting needs, showing interest, faithfulness and acting in love with young people, and along the way taking the odd risk with spirituality or waiting for the moment.

It was also great to have conversations with some of the diocesan youth advisers and be inspired by the work of others in the projects.

On my drive home I started to ponder a number of questions from the day, some prompted by the sessions given, and also the questions directed to the panel of the four of us, keep an eye on my next few articles over the next week to see whether my train of thoughts on working with young people in a faith context might be useful. The theme of performance is interesting as this was something raised twice, as are concerns about Faith, the kind of faith that young people have, and also how to evaluate success. They may all feature in further discussions here. (you can click the follow button to receive these)

However, in the meantime, and at the end of a long day of travel and talking I here is a link to the powerpoint slides for anyone interested: click this link: Diocesan Youth Adviser Conference presentation 2017 – not sure anyone who wasnt there could make sense of them. Theres a good conversation of the themes and discussions via twitter on #dyo17 if thats something you want to engage with too.

Anyway, thats all for now. Thank you to all in the room for the inspiration, conversations and stories.

 

 

Why the church needs to love Evangelism

On Wednesday I am heading to the gathering of Anglican Diocese youth leaders as they want me to do a talk on evangelism, what I think it means and how this might be applied to the practice of youth work & ministry. I have got to be honest, thinking about Evangelism ties me in knots, and brings me out in a cold sweat.

But you say, youve been involved in youth ministry for 20 odd years – how can that be?

Someone who works with young people must be pretty clued up and effective in Evangelism right?

A problem I have with evangelism, is when it becomes disconnected with what i know about God, or to use a technical term, Theology. If God so loved the world, why is an evangelistic venture into the world loaded with proficient sales techniques? Is that what God’s love is like? And if God didnt come into the world to judge it ( John 3:17), then surely that might be the response of the church to the world in how it lives in it. For too long theres been thoughts of separation. Church is here, world out there, Sacred and Secular, very little of this is truly Biblical. If anything the Incarnation of Jesus causes this to be in question, the presence of a person in the living history of the world, approachable, touchable, in full flesh and senses. God sent his son because he loved the world, loving the world despite the vulnerability & sacrifice this would need. The sacred and secular was met head on, persons in relationship. It was the religious leaders that couldnt cope with the way Jesus loved the world, how now might this still be the case.

what would the ending of that famous verse be like if it started:Image result for john 3 16

‘what if the church loved the world, so much that….

it gave sacrificially?   It become vulnerable? It listened to ‘lost communities’? It offered space? It prioritised activities that love the world, over maintenance?

The myth of relevance is that presentation has become more important than substance. Though to be fair, its also what society often judges people on, so its an inevitability. However, the myth of relevancy means choices are made about how a service is presented in a church become more important, and argued over, than how a church community sacrificially loves it community from saturday to saturday. Churches should love its community during the week, so much that the presentation of sunday morning doesnt matter, because within sunday morning is an engagement of a loving God who inspires and shapes the loving mission of the church. Genuine love monday to saturday for people should shape the acts of worship. No-one hungry on a tuesday is going to worry about which song is played on sunday morning. It is not how church services are presented, ie relevancy, its is how the service continues in its showing and sharing of Gods love for and with people.

In a way i have strayed, to think about how knowledge of God, as trinity, love and community might also shape the practices of church – an inevitability i guess, as the evangelism and how it is linked to church growth & discipleship seem to go hand in hand. The problem with relevancy, is that so much energy is spent at tweaking the collective end of worship. How often do people suggest that its in the nature of the music group that will attract people. Yeah, as if on sunday morning theres people who walk past a church service and hear a deep bass note and a drum beat in a church and think ‘ill just go in there’ – no, they’re more likely to if they know it is a place of genuine welcome, and they have been fortunate enough that week to have connected with someone who has acted in the same genuine love to them.  But even then that might be a long shot.

if the church loved people so much that they wanted to opt in to the believing of the source of that love.

Maybe the only evangelism i can believe in is in the way Jesus loved and acted in the world. The crowds need access, stories and opportunities for questions, time and respect.  Disciples need access, privacy and teaching on guidance and no small amount of patience. And the religious leaders…. they got back what they threw at him.

What might loving the world look like in your local area? with young people in a school? with groups of people ‘forgotten’ by the church for a while – and i still include young people, people with mental health, physical health needs, people whos talents and gifts are wasted in the systems of education? And every sunday why not celebrate and encourage the ongoing love of the world as a priority.

Some churches are doing this already – and often its charities doing these things on behalf of churches – great – but might this be a call of the ‘whole’ church, to be active in loving the world.

Theres times when the church might love the world, a bit like the primary school ‘show and tell’ – so by showing love, gives then the opportunity to ‘tell’ however. However, the car sales persons shows me their new car, only to tell me about it. So the problem with ‘show and tell’ is that it implies permission. Show and wait, might be better. what happens if people dont ask?, then it might just be that we havent loved the world enough. Only doing so in our opinion.

As church we do need to be prophetic and practical – I see no other practice to do this that to radically love the world. Going the extra mile, not presenting a love for the world, but that deep compassion, deep love that forgoes culture and expectancy, and sits down with the person who needs it and listens and loves.

The Church is to enact the love and justice of God at all times, in ten thousand places and to everyone” (Vanhoozer, 2014, p132,133)

Implications of Young People Opting in or Opting out of faith

In Youth Ministry, there have been 3 main schools of thought in regard to the approach taken, and these have centred on the nature of the role of the youth minister or ministry. Pete Ward in ‘Youthwork and the Mission of God’ (1997) describes them as ‘Inside-out’ and ‘Outside-in’ – and so depending on the starting point of the place of being ‘in’ – ie the church or faith – this determines which approach is taken. Both views have ‘church’ as the central point of it, so either the worker and young people start from the inside and connect with other young people ‘outside’ or start on the outside ( ie in a school) with the hope of gradually causing young people to become closer to the ‘inside’. A development to this has been in the last 10 years or so, as detached youthwork and fresh expression/pioneer practices have become more common, and also the realisation that faith, discipleship and even forms of church can occur ‘outside’ the walls of existing church – and so ‘outside-out’ has been added to the mix. Though it is a minority, it challenges to much of the establishment and centrality of church within the walls.  The Introduction chapters in ‘Here be dragons’ discuss these in more detail, follow this link to buy a copy http://wp.me/P2Az40-4t, However, in the main – these wordings and phrases, inside – out etc, are more about the nature of the approach – rather than what is going on in for young people.

In regard to Faith – what are all young people doing all the time?

One of the key things that Wyn and White (1997) suggest is that ‘youth’ is a time of constructing. It is a time where people make assessments of, shape opinions of, and as Bryan (2016) , Macadams (1997) suggest from a psychological point of view – construct stories of – the world around them, including all the structures and people that represent those structures- so teachers, parents, schools, and ‘the home’. What Macadam also suggests is that young people want to, and start to adopt an ideology which best fits the story of their existence so far, and it needs to be a story that makes sense. This is interesting in a world where stories are told through films, through day to day vlogging, and through facebook timelines. Stories are being told. But this isnt about story per se. This is about the process of choosing story.

Are Young people making a series of choices in regard to Faith, Beliefs & Spirituality?

Of course they are. That point is fairly obvious. But I wonder how regular connections to faith shape this.

What about Young people who are ‘Reluctant Opt-outers’? 

So for example; Ben is 14 he has ‘christian parents’ who have encouraged him to go to church since birth, via sunday school programmes, youth groups and special residentials. All of a sudden, Ben starts asking questions, thinking about the faith story he had been told and accepted, and still does, but wants to know more. Ben has been ‘In’ the church – is he trying to find ways of ‘opting out’ – or is he trying to have a deeper more thought of faith that makes more sense to him from what he has heard and begin to tie together other stories in the world, maybe equality and wrestle with this in a church that doesnt allow women to be in leadership (for example) .  It could be feared that because Ben is ‘in’ – he could ‘opt out’. But this isnt usually what Ben’s want to do, but if they arent able to explore questions like this in a respectful manner, then they are likely to. (amongst maybe other reasons other young people might have for opting out) The sad thing is that, as according to Christian Smith, many young people who opt out dont want to, they just havent found enough reasons to stay. They have been socialised within a church setting and have formed an identity within it, and a story, they also know that this will annoy their parents, which isnt what every young person wants to do.

Therefore a large amount of energy is spent in youth ministry to prevent young people ‘opting out’. But what engages young people as the recent ‘Rooted in the church’ and ‘fuller instutute’ research indicates, is not relevant youthworkers who are taking photos on snapchat, but spiritually healthy places and opportunities for challenge. The links to this research is below.  Young people in the church want to make it their story, but it has to make sense when there are other stories in the world that vie for attention.

But do young people opt in too? 

Yes. And this is where the other main spending in youth ministry resides. It is in doing things that make faith attractive to people outside the faith. Anything from ‘youth events’ with flashy lights, to schools assemblies, to lunchtime clubs with faith content, church based open youth clubs. These will generally help young people to ;opt-in’ especially if they have a few good reasons to, ie they know a friend in the church, they are already inquisitive, they are asking questions of themselves in the world and want to adopt a ‘story’, or for the ‘less thinking ones’ it feels cool, energetic and exciting this church band youth event malarkey…

I know this is a simplistic portrayal, young people are more complex, and they are opting in and out probably all the time. There is a third category. But even with these ‘two’ categories in mind – what challenges might this pose for youth ministry?

For example: How does ‘group work’ work when there are ‘opting in’ and (potential) ‘opting out’ young people in the same club or event being treated the same? Yet the young people are needing something different from the experience.

Opting in young people and preventing Opting out young people has been where the lions share of investment has been in Christian Youth Ministry in the last 40 years. Big statement, but it is true. The focus has been on discipleship and evangelism, and not too long term hard graft evangelism at that – so friends or friends, those who might be interested after a one week rock school, or who would become interested after a school project. If they can be attracted by something interesting….

There is a third group of young people.

3. The Unknown ‘Opting ins’. These are the young people who have almost no familial connection with a faith community. So no friend, no family member, no neighbour, and no connection to physical church building in the vicinity – aside from the odd funeral or school carol service. The stereotype might be that these young people are on the ‘challenging estates’ but that neednt be the case. There are many many young people who are distant from opting in to faith. This week Scripture Union are holding a conference to think about the 95% of young people they dont connect with. Not all these 95% of young people live in areas of high deprivation. However, what is more likely is that there can be routes of engagement in such estates – such as detached work, or community based clubs and groups, as an example. But these young people are more distant from opting in, requiring significant time, significant resources creativity and flexibility. Yet at the same time, they are no less of a spiritual young person than anyone else. What tends to happen is that theres a presumption that because of factors which might include poverty, or family situation, young people who might be distant from opting into faith, do not want to, or are unable to, – when this is so not the case – it is more that the opportunities that they have to be able to have been prevented from occuring, because of circumstances, because faith has been shown in structures that they have been unable to cope with, or that the church has abandoned them, their estate and focussed on ‘other’ young people.  In an age of efficiency, calculability and effectiveness, that the church has also done so, working with the distant , the currently unknown young people who could opt in – in what might need to be pioneering, contextual spaces and communities as part of established peer groups seems a risk, a challenge and one not worth taking. Yet at the same time, it is where the Saints of the past would have wandered, and when a church with a bias to the poor might situate itself. If it serious about community transformation.

So, when there are conversations about Youth Ministry – or Young People and Ministry – who exactly do we mean? and what might be appropriate approaches to take depending on whether young people might be keen to stay but could opt out, are loosely connected and could opt in, and for the many young people who are unknown to the church at all, the unknowns. I guess the best thing with every young person, is to create spaces to have meaningful conversation, and let them guide us as youth workers to the places of faith, the questions of existence and opportunities of spirituality they want to go, and when we can we take a risk to push them further.

Oh and by the way, young people, can also mean people.

References

Bryan, J , Human Being, 2016

Macadams, The Stories we live by, 1999

Passmore, R, Meet them Where theyre at, 2003 & Off the Beaton Track, 2006

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2005

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

Wyn & White, Rethinking Youth, 1997

A link to the Fuller Institute research is Here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP

 

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

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

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

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

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

Status Anxiety

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

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

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

Status Anxiety & Youth Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Vanhoozer, K, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

 

Aiming for anxiety-free practices of evangelicalism. 

One of the questions i received in January, after i had written, and quite a few people read my previous post ‘ Trying to survive after falling off the evangelical cliff’ (a link is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Kz) ,  in it i posed the question that it was possible to maintain an evangelical faith, but reject the practices of evangelicalism. Theres no doubt that so many people i have spoken to since that article went viral, have said that they too cling on to a faith that looks very similar to an evangelical one, but its the practices of it that seem to be at odds with the essence of that faith.

I think its the kind of evangelical practices where these kind of sentiments become common:

You know that didnt work – because we didnt pray enough

or

By praying this prayer you’ll be avoiding certain death. 

or

Its part of your discipleship to make sure you come along to this meeting

If i was cruel i might suggest it was some kind of Evangelical guilt trip. But its worse than that, it is more of an Evangelical Anxiety. And it is this evangelical anxiety that is what i mean in the evangelical practices that are not only a turn off but also a reason for them to be called out and left behind. 

The reason it is worse is that it encourages an ongoing angst and anxiety about the status of a person in their relationship to God. Encourages and also endorses that anxiety can become a key driving force for the actions of church, or the actions the way in which evangelism is conducted.  I wonder how common this is, or peoples experience is.

 As an extreme I remember being quite shocked at the Spiritual abuse that was handed out in the name of ‘evangelical/deliverance’ ministry in the fictional account in ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ – a book i studied at A level. And, i wonder if the ‘hell fire and brimstone’ type of evangelism, as one aspect of evangelical anxiety, has shifted somewhat. That was the 70’s wasn’t it, but does youth evangelism still play on these fears amongst impressionable young people? 

 But how often or frequent have you heard or even vocalised or dare i say it ‘manipulated’ a reaction in others, especially young people, that played on feelings of anxiety? At some point the person at the front creates a situation to be fearful of, and a person hearing this because of self esteem has a pre requisite to want to avoid fearful situations is likely to sign up to what is offered. It’s the ‘if you don’t buy a new car, the old one might break next week, scenario’ it’s fear and anxiety. Most of the time it’s well intentioned, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be harmful. Or changed.  In reality the free car is ready to be picked up as a gift.

Whats the good news. A gift. A gift of the love if God given to the world to save it. A gift that is to be accepted freely and in freedom a relationship to participate in.  

The ironic thing is that the organisation and practices of the church can be good for people, from prayer as a calming moment, to groups as social connections, liturgies to help orientate a person to a higher goal and purpose. But the effect on mental health caused by evangelical anxiety might negate all of these positive effects. We have to question whether perpetuating anxiety is the appropriate motivator for participation and conformity in a church. Where it is used & what does it show? Lack of love? Poor image of God? Off key theology? Status anxiety and desperation to attract/keep people?  Misuse of power? 

If anxiety is the only way to attract or keep people in to faith, then something is seriously wrong somewhere.  If God is love. Even a church of fallen people might act with love as it’s intent to itself and to others, making well meaning mistakes, in a culture of  and intent to show the same love. 

So, rejecting the practices of the evangelical faith, is less the goodness that the practices of them but how cultures of anxiety often surround them, creating distortions of grace, of love and the character of God. Developing from covenant, conviction and choice. 

Can evangelicals do ‘guilt-free’ Jesus? 

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