Are youth ministry books all saying the same thing?

The last 4 books I have read on youth ministry have started sounding like a bit of a

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or reading them, has been like

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its as if there is nothing new under the sun, or maybe with a twist that:

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Now, it could be that I read the same kind of youth ministry books, and to a large extent that might be true. However, I have also benefited from receiving a number for free, so that i can write reviews of them on this very site. So Nick Shepherd, Naomi Thompson and Chap Clark I am looking at you. But I will also add in this conversation Andy Root as well.

Heres what I mean. The only conversation in town is how to keep young people in churches. It is second to the fact there isnt any in church at all. But lets kind of go with the flow.  See what you think from the quotations below:

Naomi Thompson in her 2018 book ‘Young People and church since 1900’ writes

Young people today view their engagement with organised Christianity as a two-way transaction. They do not wish merely to serve church needs, nor do they expect to be passive consumers in accessing the youth provision on offer.” 

Nick Shepherd in his 2016 book ‘Faith generation; retaining young people and growing the church’ writes

The first area we might consider is the way i which young people move in churches from learners to deciders‘ (p156)

Chap Clark insists that: ‘Sometimes it is not a question of whether students and young people have the ability to serve, but a question of power. Adults have the power. Empowerment is a theological and sociophychological one. We need to transcend participation, and go all out for contribution. A participant is allowed to be with us, a contributor is with us on equal terms, a coworker who is taken seriously‘ (Chap Clark, Adoptive Church, 2018, p146-7)

And from a different angle, Andrew Root suggests that:

Andrew Root in ‘Faith Formation in a Secular age’ (2017) writes that faith in a secular world requires that : “study after study in youth ministry seems to define faith primarily through institutional participation. The youth with faith are those conforming to the youth group through affiliation‘ (p30)  The issue is that faith=conformity.

What all say is that participation is both essential, and yet it is not enough. All four writers identify young peoples decision making, creativity and desire to be part of the proceedings, not just a token gesture. Root and Shepherd also suggest that participating in the church structures really isn’t enough.

Young people want the church to be the place where they can be ministers in the world, and be agents of change in it. Institutional participation isn’t enough, but if this in itself isnt there well.. . Faith is to be Plausible (Shepherd), it is to involve ministry (Root) and it is about developing gifts (Root) in a place where faith can flourish (Clark).

But ultimately. I think they all say the same thing.

Its about identifying young peoples gifting, and created supportive places where young people can use these and decide how they want to minister using them. Its about moving from consumerism to contribution, and giving, or allowing young people to shape the roles they can rise to in the church, and develop faith that is risky, loving, generous and transforming.

Its great when four books say the same. Dont you think…. I mean its not as if youthwork hasnt been about participation for many a decade, has it…

It might be worth checking out this piece, on Youth participation, I wrote in in January last year, and includes Harts ladder on youth participation. ‘What role do young people have in church?’  given that this was a question posed by Danny Breirley in 2003, the same question is still being answered. We know that evidence and research is proving it, so why not any change?

Youth participation – the broken record – well it might be until its fixed…

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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

Practicing thankfulness in the midst of the storm – 2018 into 2019.

You’ve probably seen the end of year lists. You know the ‘list your 10 achievements in 2018’ or ‘ your 10 films of the year’, and whilst sometimes excruciating hearing the achievements or interests of others can inspire and provoke. It can also be therapeutic and useful to name and remember the blessings and moments of a year period into another.

Unashamedly this piece is inspired by the many people who are an inspiration to me. This was going to be a ’10 things to be thankful for’ in 2018, as I am constantly inspired by Becca Dean who publishes thankfulness on a regular basis. I’m also thankful to Diana Butler Bass who has published a book on practicing ‘Gratitude’ in the face of the Trump era. In the storm, whether political or personal or both practicing thankfulness and gratitude is tough. But at the same time. It’s what as Christians we and I are called and commanded to. So, and I mean this, through some gritted teeth and possibly even tears for the pain of many storms, stresses and situations, here are a number (maybe not 10) things I want to say that I am thankful for in 2018.

1. The North East Sea Coast Is just Beautiful, rugged , haunting and majestic. I’m writing this with this view as I sit on a large rock.

I’ve probably walked 50 miles this year along parts of the north east coast. Using the space to thinking, praying, running after the dog, being renewed by the crashing of the waves, the glory of the sunrises and sunsets.

If you’ve never been north of Sheffield and enjoyed the best beaches in the UK.. then next year… Oh and todays sunset was pretty special too

2. Books. This year I’ve not read many new ones, but even re reading Friere has been a joy. The one that stands out was ‘Falling Upwards’ by Richard Rohr. Reading this at a difficult time was like reading cups of fresh water being poured upon a weary soul.

3. The support from friends and strangers who have heard my vulnerability. When I say strangers I mean social media now friends and community. The friends who follow this blog, the strangers who also do, and those who have helped me financially through donations or asking for training or consultancy in the last 12 months, thank you.

4. My church family a small group of people hartlepool who have road tested a number of my seminars, heard a few sermons and witnessed a 40 year old fall in love with playing the guitar again. I will also add the streetspace family, a group of people who did vulnerability and joy in bucket loads at the national gathering in June. Thank you fellow travellers.

5. Coffee. No words. Favourite cups of coffee include York station, Seaham harbour, and at Tyneside Cinema. Craft beer at York station too.. the times to stop and read a book, or to chat.

6. The sacking of Jose Mourinho… Sorry, but it was needed. Not sure what this says about me. But if there’s a confessional for being a Man utd fan (since I was 6), then..

7. The NHS who for a fifth time worked wonders in operating on and then helping my wife Lynn to recover. We need to remember that there are many many good stories about the NHS and it needs to be valued.

8. My Family, it’s been another tough year but I’m thankful for all of them.

9. My Faith in God, maybe even God’s faith in me. Something that’s been a constant for me since childhood and this year has been a source of hope, life and support as well and even more so the inspiration to want to fight for injustice to care for the needy, to love and transform the world. Daily prayers, evening and night time prayers, discovering that rhythm is important as a discipline. And being honoured to pray for others, thank you.

So not quite 10. But an end of year 9. There are many many people I could thank, and you know who you are if you’ve encouraged me this year, listened, sent a message and prayed for me. I’m not joking that 2018 has been really tough and I grittily write about next year being a ‘happy’ one. But in a real sense and true sense I can still be appreciative and thankful. And despite alot I can still have a thankful and grateful heart and attitude into 2019.

Maybe that’s what we should practice more, thankfulness in the midst of the storms.

Is ‘Ministry’ a problem for Youth Ministry?

Image result for youth ministerI am pretty sure that I’m not going to be the first person to wade into this discussion.  There are a few aspects of why I shy away from the term ‘Youth Ministry’ where I can, but at the same time realise that its the common descriptor for working with young people in christian church contexts, so I do have to use it.

But I think there are a number of problems with it. It might be semantics (an argument about words) – but words do have power and influence, and the ‘ministry’ aspect of ‘youth ministry’ need a few questions asked of. Whilst we’re at it, the ‘youth’ aspect is awkward too, and a seminal piece by Mark Smith on ‘the problem of youth for youthwork explores this. You can find it in the link, on the Infed website. Youth is contested and often negative. Even the ‘youth’ aspect of ‘youth ministry’ has issues.

But the ‘Ministry’ aspect of youth ministry might do too.

In his book ‘The Pastor as the Public Theologian’ Kevin Vanhoozer pronounces a crisis of role identity for the Pastor/Minister. Now on one hand ‘crisis’ is strong a word and often crisis’ are used to set the scene for a major point or new perspective that deals with the issue. So I take it lightly. But in effect what he suggests is that the Parish Ministers role has diminished in society, because other people related professions have over taken the role – so the psychologists or counsellor are called upon sooner than the clergy, so might a social worker or school teacher for therapy or education, where once a church might have been the centre of these things. He goes on, but I wonder whether that same crisis that the clergy might feel, is a luxury not even afforded within youth ministry, yet youth ministry aligns itself with ‘church ministry’ oh so quickly.

The reason I think its a crisis that would be a luxury for a youth pastor/minister – is that whilst there might be a historic association with what a Pastor/Minister might be/do (sometimes a curse) and they can often find the roles that are expected – such as funerals, ceremonies, visits etc – the opposite is often the case with a youth minister who job description apart no one has any knowledge of what the role should be, (but strangely many expectations) and so much of the time the new youth minister (if minister is the right word) spends their time carving out what space there might be for what it is they are supposed to do. At least, if I look back to a time when I was based in a small town as a youth worker/minister or based in a church in the same role – much of the time was spend trying to establish either myself or the role, within the established patterns and trying to find either importance or need. Because there wasnt a defined gap for the role.

Goffman in ‘The Presentation of the self in everyday life’ says that it is very difficult for a person not just fit into the role before them, when everything is already established, so it may be easier to be the person who defines a role from scratch – ‘oh yes a youth minister is like ______ its how they did it’ – and the dye it set. But if there isnt a gap – what then? The gap might be an easier place to define a role – but what if there isnt a gap – because being tied up to being a ‘minister’ doesnt help in a post christendom world where young people arent looking for a minister or have counted out the regard for one.

Being a youth ‘worker’ doesn’t quite share this – saying that you work ‘with’ young people – as opposed to trying to do ministry with/for them – is a subtle but significant shift. Just.

So- Ministry is starting to have a problem.

The Language of ministry is barely recognised in society. Except government departments. And this conatation is probably best avoided. Or the Ministry of Sound. So, its pretty dead in the water except for an association with dominance, power and dis organisation – or a compilation album of dance music. The language of ministry as a concept is limited. But its not youth ministry’s only problem with Ministry.

do young people recognise ‘ministry’?

I’d say this was hardly likely, in a book entitled ‘Your first two years in Youth Ministry’ Doug Fields in the very first chapter uses the terms youth worker to describe the person, and youth ministry to describe the role/context . Even in Evangelical USA, minister was replaced by worker.. Maybe this is helpful, given that Arkle Bell, commented on a previous post the following:

The other big moan is the recent trend to talk about Youth Ministry – do the young people recognise that jargon, so are they already excluded. As I said to a Canadian visitor at church today – youth work is my ministry. A denomination wanted to ordain me as a youth minister, I turned them down saying God had already ordained me as a youth worker and wider society had recognised that.

Its difficult enough trying to find an establish role ‘with’ young people, but I wonder whether trying to do that as a ‘youth minister’ is more difficult than ‘youth worker’, neither is easily defined, but one at least has less association with an organisation such as a church, the other locates the venue of the profession as being where young people are. A shop worker works in a shop, a youthworker, well, where young people are. And Kerry Young has already said that youth work is defined as it is practiced (1999)

However, the main concern, i think, with youth ministry, and being a youth minister is, is the notions of power that are associated with it. Or more accurately, how through default within many churches, minister is associated with authority – the ministry of the young people is the ministry of the youth minister – young people are their ministry. Young people as a result can be viewed as little more than pawns in the activities and programmes, a number.. A group of people done to, with the youth minister acting in a way similar to the senior pastor.  With an image that looks like this;

Kids bored. Not listening, and someone talking at them.

However, It has taken quite a while, not just in this piece, but quite a number of years (150?) for someone to come along and say the brutally obvious.

Youth Ministry is about enabling young people to be ministers.

This is what Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean suggest in their recent two books (references below). Up until then, keeping young people entertained, or hearing ‘nice’ therapeutic/moral messages might well have been the order of the day. (Smith, C)

But helping young people develop their ministry?  Not only ‘what might that look like? – but what might that mean? 

For a start if working with young people to develop their ministry  makes the task more like youthwork as a process of supporting, encouraging, challenging and guiding – rather than leading from the front, so much. It has empowerment and participation as automatic bed fellows again more a youth work concept (just) .  In the next part this week, I will explore further what it might look like for youth Ministry to be about developing the ministry of young people. Given that this causes a need to understand what ministry is in the life of the church, and the churchs place in the world. Aspects that both Andy Root and Kenda Creasy Dean do touch on.

What if youth ministry was about faith shaping young people as ministers?

But i think there is more to the play than whats been said so far.

Image result for youth minister

Is ‘Ministry’ a problem for ‘Youth Ministry?’ – Well it might be if the ministry we have for young people, limits their involvement in the ministry as attenders and being entertained, than enabling them to become ministers themselves, including ministers of the word, sacrament, ministers of mission, justice and love in the world. Ministers who participate in the church and the world.

If its just a ministry the youth minister has – not a ministry that they are being encouraged into also having – then its no wonder that many young people find other places to be entertained instead. Ministry might be a problem for youth ministry in a number of ways, its even more of a problem if the youth minister is the blockage that prevents the ministry of young people thriving in a church. Or where the youth minister is employed to keep young people contained in the church, rather than enable their ministry potential be encouraged. As this picture infers, its the youth minister who is called, the ministry that they enable young people to participate in seems secondary.

What role do young people have in the church?  – maybe they should be considered as Ministers – will be the theme of my next piece.   

References

Goffman Irving – The Presentation of the Self in everyday life, 1960

Vanhoozer, Kevin, The Pastor as Public Theologian, 2016

Creasy Dean, A Root, The Theological Turn in Youth ministry, 2011

Root Andrew, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 2016

Smith, C, Soul Searching, 2003

Young, Kerry, The art of Youthwork, 1999, 2005

 

‘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…. 

Why Evensong vs Guitars misses the point, in regard to young people and church.

How much is relevancy the reason why young people attend church?

If its about relevancy – then what does this say about what we think about young people? just carried along by a crest of a wave, but what If, and I realise only readers of a certain age will get this , that young people are thinking, ‘So you have a guitar band- that dont impress me much?’

Substance over style is also the conversation when quite a bit of research is being done that is showing that young people are finding faith in the spiritual practices of liturgy, evensong, choirs and these more traditional forms of church.  This tweet was doing the rounds:

Church army report asked unchurched teenagers what worship might attract them, the result it may surprise you, is not soft rock but candles and incense’ (Prof. Alison Milbank) @markrusselluk @ChurchArmy

One response to this on my facebook page was: ‘Somebody asked me about this just earlier today, and I referred them to the case studies in Marilyn Haskel’s book ‘What would Jesus sing?’ What I hear from young people is that you can get soft rock music at any concert, usually better music than the church version, but candles and incense take you into a different universe. I think a reason for this could be that candles and incense offer a contextualized spirituality inasmuch as they take some elements that we enjoy at a concert (lighting, smoke) but transpose them in a way that creates a space for transcendent meaning.’ (John Drane)

There is probably more to it than it being radical to be traditional, a look at culture will reveal a heightened nostalgia. Retro is in. We are living in nostalgic times, where Baking and Craft are popular, and the Churches of liturgies, gowns and choirs represent a long lasting, safe and possibly escape from a world of hustle, bustle and speed. Long live a wifi free zone.

But it could be more than this. Is it more substance over style?

Image result for style/substance

Young people in a big city told me that whilst they were interested in going to the large, new church plant in the town which for the purposes of this piece, rhymed with ‘Mill gong’ – they went along for three months, but then returned back to their home church, the one in their local area. Guitars and Drums didnt captivate this particular group of young people. What did?

It was that they felt at home in their local church.

It was where they connected

It was where they felt belonging

It was where they could make a contribution (and as volunteers in the sunday school/youth club) they were.

It was where they were significant – not just one of many.

It was as though the grass wasnt greener, or more sparkly.

There is another conversation happening, much more on a local level. It is that local churches feel that they have nothing to offer young people, in the face of the bigger churches, brighter buildings and, again, the drums and guitars. On one hand this is defeatist. The other is that there is no evidence that any young people who a local church does missional youthwork with, ends up finding a home in a church, that isnt the one that helps them find faith in the first place. The market for the bigger brighter contemporary churches is the christian young people spoonfed on a diet of consumerism and the attraction of a christian youth music scene. They may have young people – but theyre often a completely different group of young people to those who live in the flats opposite the church, or the ones you work with in a mentoring programme in a local school.

And thats half of the point. Young people are different. Breaking it down to two basic, and horrible mantras, keeping young people from leaving church, and creating an environment of belonging, hope and meaning where they want to be and stay, and start from scratch, makes for two different challenges. And these are crude. but you get my drift.

There may well be research conducted on young people attending evensong. There may be research conducted on young people attending contemporary guitar worship services. But both become a style war, when a substance war is much more complex. For both there can be meaningfulness and relevancy in bucket loads. But scratch behind the surface and theres something deeper often going on.

Psychology might help, the Psychologists Deci and Ryan propose that people gravitate to situations where there is a measure of one or all of these three things; Connection, Autonomy and Challenge/Competance (Bryan 2016). For a moment, think through then how young peoples experiences of churches as a people group, a faith community and as an organisation relates to all of these things. I would dare to suggest that these three things play a significant part in the decision making of young people and their continued attendance in churches.

When the church community doesnt know how to relate to young people – then they’ll find more connections elsewhere

When the young person feels like theyre a new person every week – then theyll find home in somewhere more familiar, and where it doesnt feel they have to make an effort every week to connect with someone

When the young person is one of a crowd and the only challenge is to try and stay standing for a long period of time – is barely mentally challenging, or involving. The same is said for the Evensong.

When the young person is not given opportunities to make decisions – about their youth provision (‘look we’ve employed youth leaders to do this provision for you’) , about faith, and about being involved, as contributors, creators not just consumers – then why stay? Maybe the rise in young people attending choirs, has nothing to do with glee culture, more to do with being part of a community that respects them, and gives them opportunities to contribute through choosing songs or the challenge of using talent.

If we think its ‘just’; guitars or evensong, we might be missing the point.

The point is, is that young people arent as superficial as we want them to be or make them out to be. Image result for style/substance

If we offer space for conversation, space for community and space that respects – and create opportunities for belonging, participation and decision making, this will be more than enough in a church for young people to want to be part of it. If we can be these things, and make young people significant, then, and there are no magic answers, it is more likely that young people will make their home there. So dont worry if this is what you’re doing, that young people will leave, it will take a huge sacrifice for them to do so and effort, given what theyre giving up on. Would they do this for soft rock? – probably not.

Substance over style matters, and I dont just mean a lengthy sermon. Substance that equates to values, community, acceptance, challenge and participation are featured more in reasons why young people stay part of churches, and an absence of these as to why young people leave, than anything else. Young people leave churches because the youthworker leaves – why ? because no one else connected with them. Young people dont go to church because theres no one from the church willing to help with the youth group. Thats a connection question. The same for autonomy- at least having some opportunity to have some decision making, and also challenge.

What about the transcendent? If worship is about helping young people connect with the grander story, this might happen in both settings, but one might create more meaning than the other, or help a connection to a grand story where a young person feels part. Both could feel alien or cold. An ongoing regular connection to the God of the creeds, the Lords Prayer and regular confession, cleansing, prayer and silence might facilitate personal and spiritual connection and challenge. It makes it tough, not boring.

How might substance over style be the conversation within youth ministry? might we recognise the complexity of young people and their increased perception of the faith community and how it is accepting, empowering and respectful of them as people, and wanting them to be participants, disciples and prophets. There is space for many styles, but can we stop assuming that young people only want one style, and focus on creating faith communities of substance instead?

if young people do value substance over style – then might we be thankful thats how God made young people in his image..?

How churches view young people is crucial. In my next post Ill be building on what a number of youth ministry specialists are saying at the moment. That youth ministry, needs to be about helping young people do ministry, not just be ministered to. So, keep an eye out for this maybe about Tuesday.

References

Jocelyn Bryan, Human Being, 2016

Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2016

 

‘Mum, Dad, I think I might have become an Anglican’

Fast-forward a few decades, Its 2050, and there’s a small family, just finished their supper and about to sit down for an evening watching ‘strictly’, with former footballer Marcus Rashford and queen of pop, now in her 6th decade Miley Cyrus trying to ear a bit of cash on the now 47th series of the programme, when the child of the house, begins the conversation with the following;

‘Mum, Dad – can you sit down for a bit – theres something I need to let you know, that Ive been wanting to say for a while ?’

A pensive set of parents sit slightly closer together on the couch, abating a deep breath

‘I am hoping that, you know, well whatever i say I am still your little boy/girl, still me in all this?’ is that right?

Parents sort of nod, slightly trying to wonder whats coming next, though Mum pipes up; ‘yes of course you are’ hiding what might be a reaction later on

‘Well its something thats been troubling me for a while, but i thought you may have guessed by now, i think I might be–‘

‘Pregnant’?  interrupted Dad, ‘I guessed it, youve been going out alot lately, evenings and al that, I knew it, youve been meeting boys down the park, thats what it is, I never thought id be a Granddad at 48 but Ill have to get used. to__’

Dad, Dad, stop it, im not pregnant, no not all all

‘Are you sure’, pipes up Mum hoping at least for scientific certainty on this matter, ‘Yes im sure’

Well then, what is it?

Slightly taken aback, the young person starts again, ‘Well ive been often wondering about who I am, especially since I started to think about relationships, and you know the being devoted to that someone, and something just hasnt felt normal for quite a while, and well, I think I might be- ‘

‘Gay?’ Mum interrupted this time ‘ Mum and Dad, looked at each other, a small tear in one of their eyes, a smile on one of them, and a deep breath in another, I sounded like relief, strangely .  Mum went on, ‘We did sort of guess, the way you didnt have a boyfriend, the way in which you were dressing quite sensibly, and of course we’ll love you, and help you through this, and help you be the person you feel you are, and support you in the relationships you have..’

Mum, im not gay’ and there was almost a gasp of disappointment from Mum…

What do you mean you’re not gay?’ if its not that what is it?

This is going badly thought the young person, she was going to have to come straight out with it, and try for a third time

‘Mum, Dad, I really hope I am not a disappointment to you, but i think I have become an Anglican’ 

A WHAT?  ‘bellowed Dad’ AN ANGLICAN? – ‘No daughter of mine is going to become an anglican, what will the neighbours think? , what will you tell grandma? it will change you life?  he sobs. 

Mum, sobbing; ‘But darling, you’ll lose all your friends, no one will speak to you, and it will be so difficult to get on in life, people will bully you, Its just not, not right, I didnt think I had brought you up this way, I blame your father’ 

Dad  Are you sure, I mean , its not just a phase you’re going though?’

‘Yes Im sure, Its been confirmed, I am an Anglican’

Dad, still trying to keep it all together; ‘Well , we’re not happy, not at all, Its going to take a whole load of getting used to, I dont think there is another anglican in the village, and we will have to get used to being parents of an anglican, and all the questions and all that, I heard of Jim down the road, he said his son was a Baptist, but they soon got over it, so I think we will just have to deal with it’

‘Is there support groups for people like you’ suggested Mum, can you go somewhere to talk about being anglican, and all the things you Anglican types do?

‘Im not sure, I think there might be, something in the next village, theres another Anglican there, and Im sorry, but, and you’re going to hate me for this, I havent been out sneaking to the park to see boys, but ive been going to church, without telling you, Im sorry, but I just had to’

A revelation to Dad, and Mum took this better, ‘Really, Church?thats so, well, so, not for people like us,  I am disappointed, and Im not surprised, theres more people, you know, like that, in the next village, but not here, no not here’ – she couldnt say much more…

So, Dad continued; ‘What about the media, they’re all against Anglicans, and people will stare at you in the street? ‘ 

I know Dad, Ill try and keep it quiet, but I will need to start telling people, getting people used to what its like to actually be an Anglican, not just what they hear in the press, and its not as if the press is true anyway, is it?

Mum and Dad, just sort of waited a while, calmed a bit and said – ‘Well we are a little taken aback, but thinking about it, we knew you were different, and acting strange for a while, but never for a moment did we ever think you were becoming Anglican, yes of course we’ll love you still, but it will be strange for a while, while we get used to it’ 

 

With the news that only 2% of young people in the UK are professing to be Anglicans, this kind of coming out might be needed. Though it might be like Tory voters, who don’t show their true colours until the actual votes and not in the opinion polls, there may well be a while load of secret Anglican young people out there.  To be young, and christian might be as challenging, might, as being young and LGBT, especially when, in the few scenarios that it isn’t the same world view or belief as the young persons parents. It could easily feel as alienating, and probably does. As Parents – what are you supposed to do, when your child have become, well, one of them, an Anglican?

Lets face the reality, and I jest. This isn’t about 2050 at all. Its happening now. So what response might there be from those who might have influence over these matters – will there be money where the mouth is in regard to teenage faith experiences in the church? Or – might an underground movement of secret anglican young people be needed to take on the world..?

Theres far too much already on this site about the church, young people, mission and youth ministry, nothing in these statistics in any way is new, the only call to make whether it stirs anyone in power, with finances to action. There are heaps of ideas in these pages on how to start connecting with young people, developing mission and engaging in conversations, by all means bookmark a few articles and come back later. All i can say is that whilst childrens and youthworkers are underpaid and thus undervalued, then a situation where children and young people do not feel valued and connected in churches is no surprise. Coming out as an anglican, might soon be as traumatic in a few decades as coming out as gay.