Could churches encourage young people to become a movement of local community activists?

When it comes to planning and developing a curriculum for a group of young people in a faith based setting – why is that creating opportunities for them to participate in some kind of local social community activism is more than often outside of a default mentality? its not for you? , well at least it felt like it was for me…

I remember when I was 20 odd and running a youth group, it was about to be a residential with the whole church, and I was responsible for planning and delivering a whole weekends worth of activities and sessions, for a group of children and young people, the offspring of the church parents and a mix of ages from 8 through to 16. I was a blank. I was used to planning group work for just the Sunday evening group of 8, 13-16 year olds, but this was a different issue. What to do with a larger group and one spread out over a wider age group. And with three sessions in 36 hours. I was stuck. I tried for weeks to look for suitable material, themes and topics. A real struggle.

That is until I discovered a whole load of material at the local diocese resource centre linked to thinking about social action, charity and compassion for a cause. It may well even have tied in with an appeal at the time, i think it was Christian Aid or Tear fund, it matters not which. But it was so long ago I cant remember. And, interspersed with a few other activities. It worked brilliantly. The young people over the course of the weekend learned about fair trade, justice, poverty and some of the causes, and then as part of the weekend undertook an activity to raise funding for that cause. I think the young people kidnapped the main speaker and begged for a ransom. Don’t judge them, they didn’t have many options on a church weekend away and no planning. However. The point is that this was the first time that as part of a youth programme we had done anything on social justice, charity, and encourage the young people to think about the global world. We didn’t think about the local world. The point also was, was that this subject still seemed ‘an extra’ to what might be considered core Bible teaching that had morality, spirituality or therapy overtones.

Fast forward 8 years, and I am leading another youth group. And the situation remains the same. Education through learning about morality and some Biblical content teaching is part of the youth group programme, however it is taught. Creating and planning for opportunities where these young people give, give generously of their time and make a local contribution to local charity groups, causes and campaigns is still minimal. In fact, the most likely group to do this, I have noticed, is the open youth group, the ‘non church going group’ . Now it may be that the profile of social justice and action in churches has been raised recently through the increase in foodbanks, CAP and other valuable initiatives, but does faithful discipleship for young people and programmes that do the week by week ministry with young people profile community activism in any higher way than they did?


Image result for volunteering

We might stop to ask whether the moral, therapeutic, entertainment, relevant orientated ministry with young people is actually working. Kenda Creasy Dean questions this, as even in the US context the decline is occurring. Her alternative – helping young people do social action, using the church as a resource for innovative local projects. An option that may be easier in larger churches, but even smaller churches have resources that could be used to cultivate young peoples ideas. Andrew Root writes that faith formation is more akin to deduction and giving up, and giving away than the insertion of education, and though doesn’t encourage social activism per se, does suggest that forming faith in people has leanings towards social generosity and action, and for young people to ‘do’ ministry. How might young people do ministry in local communities?

It is also worth contemplating about how Young people are participants in the Mission of God. For decades in youth ministry there has been a tendency to regard young people as the UK’s most under resourced and under engaged with mission field, and this is still largely true. But if young people are not just the receivers of the mission activity, but participants in it, participants because we are all part of Gods mission plan, as Vanhoozer (and many others) describes in a drama that requires participation of it on the stage of the world.  Then might we provide opportunities for young people to consider their own participation in ways that are more than being nice to their parents and encouraging a friend to come to youth group?

When it comes to learning, we might want to re think how young people learn, and so if there are opportunities for them to do and plan activity then this means that they are gaining in experiences, and learning through planning, ideas, collaborating, team work and also the act of volunteering, learning is happening through a process of doing. Is it true informal education, possibly. Will it enable young people to reflect on aspects of Gods character such as social justice, community and poverty, maybe. Is discipleship one shaped, where games and fun is a prelude to a talk, and the grand extension of this is the summer festival which, a few exceptions aside, is bigger activities, bigger talks and louder worship? Encouraging a doing discipleship, a faith that includes ‘not giving up good works’ – and even a faith that starts by doing good works as part of its culture, might be what young people believe in, as Nick Shepherd describes, if young people need faith to be plausible, then discovering where they and God might be at work in the community doing something together might be the most plausible thing of the discipleship.

Yes it takes risk, yes it might take a dynamic change in culture. But Christian ministry that focuses on developing morality over ministry, therapy over community transformation might need a seismic paradigm shift. Our role as youthworkers might be to empower young people to be the kind of community transforming and contributing people that we ourselves might be trying to be.

Image result for social actionHow difficult is it to think, and then help to create opportunities that enable, or empower, young people to make positive life decisions that not only help themselves but also their local community.

What might it require of us as youthworkers to have? Good connections in our local community, an awareness of needs, project and initiatives locally, relationships with those who are responsible for these initiatives. As youthworkers we might need to be selective,  but if we might only need to go so far to foster community engagement in young people, because they may already have the desire to get involved. A good resource for beginning a process of active discipleship is the ‘Experiments’ resource that FYT have produced. Using 8 phrases Jesus said to his disciples, they have put together 5 different activities for each which young people decide to do collectively or individual group, and for them to report and reflect afterwards on how they felt during the activity or action and how this might have put Jesus’ words into practice collectively and individually in their family, their school or with friends, it may be the beginning to helping them pursue thinking further about acting out what the Bible says in their local situation.

There are so many opportunities for young people to contribute, many national charities have programmes, curriculums for thinking globally, but finding local opportunities might take a bit more work, but it definately not impossible, such as foodbanks, soup kitchens could really be worthwhile. But if there isn’t something that seems suitable, why not create the space in their ongoing programme to develop their own local initiative? It may be as ‘simple’ as a local litter pick, or tidy of the river, a bullying campaign, or developing a resource or social business. They might want to meet a different local need in some way, something that affects them, in their day to day, so  how might young people doing local community activism change how local communities view young people. How might local activism create opportunities for young people to flourish through empowered decision making, planning and action and even more so, how might local community activism be part of, and integral to young peoples Christian faith? Might it actually be good for young people and be good for the community at the same time?

Does it mean making our role different as youth pastor/minister? from teacher and leader to community organiser..Image result for social action

One question that might be considered is why social activism has been so absent from youth group programmes over the years?

When trying to keep young people beyond Sunday schools – why did entertainment and relevancy become the default?

When trying to attract young people is a movement of change more attractive to some than the flashy lights of a music event, or other club or group work?

We might not know the answers to these questions, but what we might be able to do is take a risk and experiment, and see what happens when as Christian youthworkers we empower young people to change their world and contribute in their local space.  Maybe we need to focus on the real rather than the relevant, and encourage a movement of meaningful ministry that young people participate in. Its not an old old story that happened, but a drama happening now for young people to do ministry in.



Nick Shepherd – Faith Generation – 2016

Smith, C – Soul Searching – 2003

Root/Dean – The theological Turn in Youth Ministry – 2016

Andrew Root, Faith Formation, 2017

Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith, Speaking Understanding, 2014, also Samuel Wells, Improvisation, The drama of christian ethics, 2004

The experiments resource can be found at



How will we find the good in youth ministry, if we don’t even look for it?

Oh well at least no one died tonight. 

This can often be the mantra at the end of a crazy out work session. But its not setting the bar very high in regard to evaluating or reviewing a session. Duffy Robbins in a piece on Youthwork Magazine 12 years ago wrote a piece on evaluating youth ministry, describing how for some volunteers, a good youth programme or activity or weekend event occurs when ‘young people cry’ at the end of it, and this was something that in the piece was manipulated by leaders though ‘inserting appropriate music’. Crying or not dying? are these the only factors that we’re looking for in youthwork practice? I would hope kind of not. The other measure, i hear very often, by clergy more than anyone else is well ‘if young people came back, then you’re doing something right’ this however also has its limitations for what constitutes appropriate or good practice, leaving little other than the unpredictability of attendance as the key marker.

If having successful youthwork is what we crave, then what we measure is critical.

There has been a trend to develop good reflection in youthwork and ministry practices (a trend, more a core component in youthwork, but hey), and yet, reflecting after a youthwork session can still feel like a painful delay, and pointless exercise in the midst of putting the chairs away and I wonder whether this is for a number of reasons, firstly that we’re asking the wrong questions, well at least we’re asking questions that have little context to them. For example, we might want to ask, and legitimately so, ‘in todays session, what went well?’  this is a great question. The problem with this question, is that without knowing what ‘went well’ looks like, and volunteers have an understanding of the identifyers of ‘went well’ then this ends up being the ‘nobody died, someone cried, or we had young people attend’ response.  ‘What went well, is a great question, if those involved know what is being looked for.  The opposite question, is then usually asked, what didnt go well. And this section can take ages to fill. Reflective youth workers can nearly always fill that box, as we’re never more than a footstep away from the precipice of doom that always finds ways to do things better, or on a bad night finds faults in everything or everyone. But this needn’t and shouldn’t be the way. We need to ask ourselves better questions. More to the point, youthworkers themselves should decide upon the questions, and not have questions imposed from above, which doesnt work.  (Sue Cooper, 2012)

Asking these 5 questions at the end of every session will transform your youth provision. Related image

It is a bold claim.

But I am willing to make it. If you’re as serious about young people in the ministry as the ministry itself, then these are the questions to reflect on at the end of every session with young people. If we ask these, and have responses to them, then we will know that a ‘session went well’ or didnt – because these happened or space was created for them to happen. The other claim I make is that it doesnt matter what your youth provsion is – these questions will transform it. It could be a youth worship event, an after school club, mentoring or youth fellowship group. More to the point, i am willing to also suggest that if we cannot put a positive answer to these questions on a regular basis in the youth provision, it is likely to not be enjoyed or attended by young people after an initial buzz or excitement of it existing. So, what are the questions? 

1. What were the quality conversations between leaders and young people?

A youth provision in which there was no conversations between young people and supportive adults is just an activity centre, a creche, a place to be entertained. Developing conversation turns a place of activity into a place where life happens, where shared understanding happens, and is the basis of purposeful relationship building. Our role is not to watch young people do an activity from the comfort of the kitchen, but to be involved in it, not youthworkers are not observers of young people, they are involvers with, and this is about conversation. So its a good idea to ask a question about conversations.

None of the conversations need to feel deep or meaningful – but thats only ‘to us’ they might be deep and meaningful to the young person

They dont have to feel significant- but they might be

It might be just a short chat about football with a young person who hadnt spoken to anyone for a few weeks, but its still of value.

Yes, for recording purposes we dont want to write down names of young people and who said what, but we can record initials, and general content like school issue, or family, or health, or sports, or housing or hobbies, and then any tangents that this took us into. If we’re good at creating a space for conversation, then this might take time. But thats a good thing right?

We could do stuff with all the subject matter and upload into charts or graphs, but more importantly is that these conversations are happening, and continue to do so. They represent that young people trust that the space is safe for them, because the people in it are safe to trust with the daily stuff of life – or the personal stuff of challenge. So, the first question, is about conversations – are they happening, who is having them (to develop training) and what are they about? and are they of quality – not just abusive banter (though they might be the start) .

2. In what ways did young people increase participation?

I am indebted to a student who I was delivering training to yesterday for this question. This was theirs. And so thank you. It is too good not to share.

During the activity, session or club – in what ways did young people increase participation? Is an absolute gold gem of a question. I have written on Participation before, so am not going to repeat myself here (see the ‘participation’ tag in the menu)

Participation can be seen in a number of different spheres. Young people may increase their participation in the current club – through helping with something, suggesting an idea, responding to an instruction – that sort of thing, but they may increase in participation as they take part in something of their own choice that they wouldnt normally (and being a volunteer in the god slot activity doesnt count), they might participate in deciding future activities, or decision making in the style of the group. I remember once when a group of young people who didnt like a youth event, went round as a group to the leaders house, shared their ideas, and the event changed direction completely as the ideas were responded to, and from then a open youth music cafe was started that gave young people space to play their own music, that ran for 7 years. (It was about to close otherwise) . The participation from young people at this venue went from merely observers in it, to high participation almost overnight. At their call.  Image result for participation ladder

This ladder might help in thinking about what increased participation might look like. It doesnt help us think about where the areas are in the activity we run where participation can happen. It may be easy to create spaces for participation in the areas such as food, or games – but can we increase the space for participation in areas we as adults prefer to be more in control of? There are a few examples here, in a journal piece ive recently written for CMS.

But what about where young people want to make a positive step to have greater participation in the organisation, school, charity or their local community? Through positive action and decision making, can this be facilitated through this youth provision – when we hear this is what young people want to do? Facilitating young peoples participation in the wider society, might be our role as purposeful adults – especially when we are trusted (via conversation! ;-))

But hang on, what if you’re thinking ‘our group isnt about participation, its about giving young people a fun space and telling them a story about faith’ – well if it isnt about young people developing participation in the faith community, and in the story itself, and this is modelled by participation in the group or session – then the story will remain only a story, and not one that young people can or would want to involve themselves in. No participation, will also mean eventually, no young people. Or at least none of the same ones after 6 months. And none very interested to be there at that. (its then we resort to bribery, ‘if you dont keep coming, you wont go on summer camp’.. shudder) . If young people are bored, then its not better entertainment they require, usually it is more meaningful participation.

Participation is key to everything, and so creating spaces for increased participation (even if it is counter cultural to the rest of the church, or organisation) is essential and as is a question at the end of every session to encourage it to be continually important.

3. What did we learn?

Young people are key to youth work – agreed? Good, thought you’d say yes to this one. And youthwork and ministry is about education – agreed? lovely. Therefore, one of the questions we need to ask at the end of every session has to have something to do with education, or learning to do with it.

In asking the question we put ourselves in the role as continual and ongoing learners, a place of humility and discovery, a place of wonder.

We might learn something about ourselves – our strengths or limitations (and think about how to enhance both) we might learn the same about young people

We might discover a gift, an ability and unseen talent in a young person (or volunteer)

We might learn about an attitude, a belief or a desire in a young person

Who’s voice have we heard from? 

We might learn to change our own views about something – because we’ve been open to learning from a young persons perspective

or something else…Image result for learning

We might be tempted to ask what did young people learn (because we tried to teach them something) but thats a path fraught with difficulty, because, what they heard and what they learned might be completely different, what they learned and what we wanted them to learn again very different. Young people may have learned who to get attention from in the session, yet we hoped they learned how to behave better. So the question is for us – what did we learn? 

The fourth question is this:

4. How did we take a risk with young people, or encourage them to take a risk? 

Unchallenging youth practices are boring. Or at least they will be fairly quickly. But you really dont need me to tell you this. If we’re not careful though, youth ministry takes the relevancy route and makes faith as easy to believe in as technology is trying to make everything as easy as possible. Making youth provision challenging is counter cultural. But challenge is what young people need.

If you ask any number of young adults in their 20’s why did they attend youth provision in their teens, aside from social friendships and fun, they will nearly all say learning, new experiences and being challenged to try new things. Challenge is part of the risk taking. Challenges are good for the self esteem of young people ( Baumeister, in Jocelyn Bryan, 2017 Being Human). It is good for young people to be challenged, therefore – we need to take some risks.

We might need to ditch the programme for the evening and host space for conversation, listen and learn. We might need to do an experiment in regard to discipleship, or had over an activity to young people for their participation in running it, bottom line, we take a risk, and do so because we want young people to be challenged and to raise their game – and we give over to trusting them. A risk might be to try and talk to a young person who doesnt normally say anything, or to create space for the quiet ones to participate, or something else… Risk taking and encouraging it turns us into the kind of youthworkers and volunteers who are still dreaming for something better, we havent given up. Trusting in young people to rise to the risks and challenge we offer causes what we do to stand in the face of prevailing opinions about young people.

Asking about risk taking – is question four of five. We should be thinking of taking risks each time we meet with young people. Even if that feels like we took a risk to try and talk with a young person at the pool table, well done, even if it was just a game of silent pool, you did at least put yourself in the place.

5. What do we need to do before the next session? 

This might sound intensely practical, and it is. But this session with a group of young people may have caused a whole host of things that need to be done to be done, so, write them down, and decide who and when they need to be done.

Is there a referral to an agency needed to be done?

do we need some training on an issue young people are raising?

is someone going to contact that young person the day after their job interview – see how it went? 

what about a talk with the leaders of the church about that idea the young people had – or creating a space for the leaders to meet with the young people directly? 

is someone going to fill in that funding bid? 

how might we change something about what we have always done, and need to prep for it this week? 

not just ‘practical’ but this could also be an opportunity to develop ongoing learning and reflection, training might be needed, but it could be that before the next session everyone of the leaders reads an online article or blog, or chapter from a book (if it can be photocopied) , or watches a film, listens to an album. It is about the ongoing desire to keeping learning and doing this collectively. So – what to do before the next session might not be to ‘plan’ the next session, or follow up pledges or promises made to young people (which are definitely needing to happen) but an opportunity for reflection.

It will transform your practice, sounds like it is hard work, but if we’re serious about helping young people take risks and developing learning, then its to be part of our own culture. (Even if, again, its not part of the wider church or organisation culture) As volunteers and workers developing provision for young people, its our game that we can take responsibility for.

So, there you have it. 5 essential questions to put on the after youth session review form. That will transform it. 

Why?  Because if these questions are asked, they become important, and what becomes important becomes part of the culture, and creating a culture of conversation, learning and participation is core to youth practice. If youthworkers are setting the tone for what makes a session ‘successful’ then young people will benefit. Success or failure is not part of good youthwork, its about conversation, participation, education, reflection and risks. A session that went well, will be because of these things. Not because someone cried or didnt die.

So – why will these questions transform your youthwork practice?

If we ask them at the end of every session, and make time to do this, not running home quickly after volunteering, then these become core to what the group is all about, and volunteers and leaders will be focussing on doing these things during the session, knowing that its whats going to be asked in reflection later. There is no magic quick formula to better youth provision, but I would hazard a guess that using these 5 questions, and in each session trying to work towards these things will make a significant difference, transform it? it may well do. Take it out of your comfort zone – almost certainly, hang on and enjoy the ride.



Jocelyn Bryan, Being Human, 2017

Jon Ord, Critical Issues in Youth work Management, 2012 (Chapter by Sue Cooper on Measurement)

FYT Streetspace Gathering 2018; feeling the movement

The pressure was on.

After raving about it every year, writing blog pieces on it each year (including this post, my second most popular in 2017), This year, I, as part of the staff team was part responsible for planning the FYT Streetspace gathering, The national gathering of pioneer youthworkers. The pressure to make it work, or make it better, or make it more original, more radical, more provocative and be what people needed, wanted and would want to come along to. Before as a punter, a project leader i could come along (and bring my son) for a ‘ride’ take part and enjoy it. This year, it was going to be different.

This year, the gathering was also different, for me at the end of challenging month, with the job itself ending, my wife having an operation, and then also at the same time the dog getting ill.  Head and Heart space was severely distracted away from doing the last minute, stuff, (and I am so thankful for John and Dan for picking up alot of my slack on this) , this year i struggled to want to go to the gathering, because I knew it occured at the end of a month that i was already shattered, being practical all day every day in the house, and trying to do work, and even apply for new jobs. I neednt have worried. But i was, worried too about the awkward conversations like, so what are you going to do be doing on monday? when theres nothing in the diary. The pressure, though, to make something good, still good, make something meaningful, still meaningful, was kind of on.


The themes of the weekend were to reflect on the current strategy of FYT, create a Home for pioneer youthworkers, improve practice and encourage risk taking with practice and be prophetic raising a voice to challenge structures, oppression and stand up and stand with those in the margins. It had also been agreed, and pushed that we wanted to continue the conversations that had started in 2017 (and before) on gender, sexuality and inclusion/participation, pinning the colours of FYT to the rainbow coloured flag both metaphorically and literally.

Thats the background. The reality was that everything, and more that was good about the previous weekends happened again and more.

A place of home was stated and created, with cushions and lights, and coffee and comforts. Like crumble and custard, and board games and mealtimes. Yet that held a space of challenge, of hurt, and reality. We should be sick of pretence, when the real is far more beautiful. The pretence might want to be bouyant and hopeful, but it is false hope. Real hope is found in the ditches of the margins. When compassion meets determination. The cross is where hope is found, and that cross was dug deep into the ground. In the dirt and soil and mud. Hope goes deep. Starts deep. Foxes have homes, ‘I have friends’ said Jesus. His friends were his home. Friends make homes.

A place of family was created, as the home had practical things to do like cooking, and washing up, outdoor spaces, the sound of babies, toddlers, children and a couple of teenagers. Not grumpy sullen teenagers, but people who raised their game for the occasion where they were given the space in the home to be able to. Space to raise their game, space to try and fail, space to take a risk. Not excluded, given something ‘instead’ teenagers. But young people given the chance to be youthful and adult, to dream the possible. Space to share a personal story, a personal prophetic challenge, or to play the comic at the evenings entertainment and hold an audience. Teenagers who could raise their game, and at 15 weren’t barred from a youth workers conference. (fancy that) A place of home where toddlers has space to be free, and parents kept a long ish lead and a watchful eye was maintained, by 35 other surrogate aunts and uncles for the weekend. But the noise of a joyfilled toddler filled the room that they occupied.

The real got shit real

The youth participation cranked up considerable notches.

The provoking came from the young people.

The needs of the oppressed was told by their voices

The provoking came from being present.

A session to learn about LGBT and diversity, wasnt enough.

For ‘theyre’ not a token. ‘Theyre’ not an ‘other’.

they needs to become we.


It was a place to cry and dream

A place where the magic happened in interactions

Where the movement took off its masks

and shoes

and was served by those used to being pushed down.

The young, the queer, the female, the new

but that wasnt enough. no it never is.


For the movement of friends is not service and served

and many are missing, who we want to include

in the home of the movement, the pioneer dreamers

make the movement not ours, but yours to be part of.

Im not sure I could do emotional this weekend, friends. Many did. And many who grieved, and wept, went deep. A movement of pioneer dreamers, with feet in the mud. With hearts made of soft stuff, the clay of the earth. A group of youthworkers whose default chip wasnt frustration or angst, or pie in the sky. But dealing with tough stuff, the stuff to ignore. The stuff to push down on and hope it goes away. So the corks were opened. The bubbles emerged. Shit got real.

There was just empty space. No music or drums. No carrion call or manipulation. But silence and space. A place to grow up in, to grow out in, to grow deep in.

Like the seeds in my shed, that on thursday were nothing and today: 

Just space, silence, food, light. Growth happens. In the dark, with light poking through, and warmth.

From the deep came the song, the poem, the voice. The margin spoke, and not spoken for, and it felt.

The movement was felt.

Step up was the call.

That rose from the deep.

Do better.

Take risks.

Stand with.

Love courageously.

Step up.

Step was was the call, the rose from experience

and called us do better.

And say that we mean it, and take risks and challenge, ourselves to a new place.


And as we tidied away, the yurt was folding down. The kitchen was a mess of left overs, and the plan for take away lunch was crusting at the edges (though i dont think anyone went hungry all weekend, just death by midgie bite). Nature came knocking, reminding, provoking. As from the distance, one by one, three Red Kites started circling above us.

So over that yurt was a pocket of air, that was thermal and warmed. Where Kites came and played. For a while, then they soared. Stopped off for a breather, then went back on duty. Our eyes looked above, we stopped all the rushing. And paused. Again.

Our path from gathering was not feathers and flight. Though step up to the plate is the task that we might. The kites did not land, for their task was too great, to stop off too long.

They felt the movement, the warmth in the air. And us on the ground. Our flight path all wonky, and broken and beaten, But homes are all messy. And risks can be taken.

I write this on Monday, and life does not stop. The future still blank and open, uncertainty raging. But back to the living and dealing and busy of coping. May was a tough one. But im not alone. Our kites felt the movement, and are now soaring away. And Jesus, he washed the feet of his friends, their feet full of sand, taking the mud and the dirt with a cloth, and making them free, clean and able. To step up to the challenge. Yet its love that cleanses.

And this love is not selfish. It gives it away, and away and away. It gives and it gives. It loves from the deep, and the tough and the real. It loves in the risk.

What is Frontier Youth Trust? and what does ‘Frontier’ mean? lets not get stuck in the wording, stuck in that mud, but be a movement of dreamers who love to the depths – of our faith and our being.

Thank you all, in the small, in the significant and stupid.

Now to Step up.


To read of Streetspace gathering 2017 click here: Gathering 2017 , and FYT click the link above.

To buy Gemma Dunnings resource on Pastoring LGBT teenagers click here:  as a way in to start thinking about LGBT and young people, the language and develop understanding, start here. Step up might be your call too.


Does developing group work offer a clue to growing church?

A recurring conversation amongst many people involved in youth ministry and church ministry overall is

We get loads of people to come to our toddler group – but very few come to sunday worship

or a similar one looks like this

Quite a few people enjoy our lunch club, but even though we try, not make come to the special easter services

In Youth Ministry, the scenario might sound like this

Our monthly special events get 50 or more young people, but they wont come to our youth group every week

It is a scenario that has many variations. It comprises of an open style activity that gives people a social, emotional or physical benefit – such as toddlers, or the church fitness group, or the open youth club, or coffee morning for those too old for the open youth club- but that whilst the individuals who attend find value in the activity itself, there could be a tendency for those running the ‘open’ session to view the activity as a ‘feeder’ activity for something else. Once I was working near to a church and speaking with young people on the streets, they had been inside that evening as the church had put on a ‘battle of the bands’ evening – which young people from across the town went to, however, the young people left pissed off, as those running the evening had used the evening as a way of promoting an upcoming youth alpha series. Young people in this instance felt that they had no intrinsic worth, and that their evening had been a scam. This is one example, a poor one, of where the ‘open’ session was viewed differently by the participants from the attendees.

But the problem might be summarised by the differences between how a form of church/mission might work through a process of activity groups, as opposed to developing peer groups.

Activity groups are already in existence. It is the education format of ‘moving classes’ or ‘moving schools’ at set age groups. Top end Sunday school go to ‘youth fellowship’, or the process of developing spirituality for a person from an ‘open’ type session is for them to make an extra commitment to go to something else – Sunday morning, alpha group, social event, that is put on by the church.

What this can mean is that the individual is having to make an effort to make a change. For a young person might mean leaving their friends behind (as they move up), and make themselves vulnerable in an older group. But that is the same for anyone else. The individual is asked to make a move. The pathway to participation in faith – developing ‘spiritual’ discipleship seems to involve going to another activity. Church becomes the neck of the winebottle where only a few people reach, but many have connections already.

In a way its not just that ‘Sunday is Church’ and the target of all the weekly ministries of a church in this model that is the issue. It is that there are so many barriers that a person may have to undertake to eventually find church and faith as a meaningful thing that is the issue. We might be accused of being so unaware that God could be at work within the toddler session, or the lunch club, that we miss this, thinking that getting people to church on sunday (via another social event) is how God is accessed.

Dont get me wrong, the open sessions that a welcome, inclusive and create spaces for conversation, social, emotional and physical support and help are all needed and positive. But when they turn only into a strategy….

From Activity groups to Peer groups

What happens when we find a group of people in the church who start working really well together? ie – the older sunday school group, the lunch group volunteers, a house group, or, even, a messy church group or confirmation group? – Often the value of this group is only in how this group is able to get bigger by disrupting it. Image result for group work

Instead – why not develop practices of peer group working?

So, instead of individuals moving between groups in a church, what about developing group work with self selecting peer groups. So- all the parents in toddlers who ‘become cliques’ – how might that clique be channelled positively within the life of the church or local community – what are they good at and how might they contribute? And how might this be facilitated…

The young people often thrust together to do a confirmation course – how might this group stay together beyond it – rather than be asked to ‘join’ something else post confirmation with people they dont know/like.

If and it is a big if, people do naturally gravitate towards groups within open sessions, youth clubs, detached work, coffee mornings, then how might in churches we invest in their social connection and help this be built upon? There is much evidence that people in groups gain significantly individually through being part of them, so- might developing peer groups be key?

Community development processes and also Frontier Youth Trust have focused on group work development in their practice strategies. FYT have a process within their detached work which focuses on developing acceptance, recognising peer groups and developing basic small groups, developing risk and then exploring spirituality within the group. For more details and a write up on these processes- see ‘Here be Dragons’ above, which you can order via FYT at  And though its written with youth work in mind, the same principles apply to any group work. They go something like this:

  • Community Profiling
  • 1 Observation (to discover the groups) 
  • 2, 3 Cold Contact (gaining rapport/acceptance, as this can take a while)
  • 4 Area Group Work
  • 5 Peer Group work
  • 6 Basic Small group work
  • 7 Risky Groupwork
  • 8 Exploration of Spirituality
  • 9 Church on the edge

But though group work principles are pretty common in community development and youth work, they seem largely absent in church & youth ministry practices. Too much focus on individual faith – and the individual person, rather than a number of individuals within a group all exploring faith together whilst being together, call it group discipleship…

Whilst there has been a huge increase in churches and youth practices offering the open spaces in local communities, what might be needed is to reflect on how groups form and are allowed to form within them, and having the resources to facilitate the interests that these people share, whether fitness, reading or hobbies, or the social justice or community endeavour mentioned above. And yes this involves work. The alternative is that people love coming to a coffee morning for a few months, but get sick of being invited to services, there has to be another way. Discipleship instead might start and exist within the toddler session, or the lunchclub, and that doesnt mean that people just ‘hear’ a talk, but that they are given opportunities to participate as groups as disciples. After all – didnt Jesus do discipleship in groups too..?


Sometimes you can’t make it, on your own. (On finding a tribe) 

This is going to be my last post for a while, for, as you may know I am hoping to host a number of guest posts during November. Please do send your articles to me, and follow/like this page so that you can read them as they arrive. Just 500-1000 words on anything, theme to do with youth work, mission, young people & youth ministry. All details here:

I have written about feeling alone in youth work & ministry before, and I want to return to it again as a theme before handing over this platform to others for a few weeks.

I wouldnt be the first person to recognise the ‘loneness’ of being involved in an employed capacity in a church setting, whether its the clergy, volunteer youthworker, paid mission worker or in an other capacity. There can be many times, when it can feel like you’re out of step, or thinking differently, or saying things that receive only ‘blank faces’ or ‘thats not the way we do things around here’ type glances. And thats just in a church, let alone an association or diocese or organisation, where the status quo, even in terms of thinking differently about mission, or discipleship or church can be a place of trying to make it on your own.

As a youthworker in a church, there can be seminal moments. For me it was when i realised that as i connected with young people outside the building, that the expectations of those within, and mine became different. I was expected to shoehorn young people outside into existing events, and for this not to upset the applecart. At this point i was searching for a new way. At this point the limitations of the expectations and institutions became only too aware. In other places that might be that believing that the young people ‘off the estate’ might make good leaders in the church. Or that young people can create in a positive way aspects of their own future. Or that it is ‘worth’ spending time with young people who might be LGBT. It is sometimes these small but significant steps that might put us as youthworkers, maybe progressive youthworkers who have a deep concern for young people outside of just faith, to start to be standing against the institutional flow. It might be there where truth and justice might meet, but it might also be a space of feeling alone.

Feeling like alone because the institution might doubt, feeling alone because the doubts become character attacks, feeling alone because others fear respectability (‘we cant have ‘gays in here’) or feeling alone because of reputation (what if someone goes to the papers) – feeling alone, because we feel tasked with compassion to go, to connect and spend time with young people, in ways or approaches that seem odd, or young people who arent ‘easy’ to cope with within an institution. In a way, being alone, can be in terms of thinking, it can also be in terms of doing, of acting in a way that challenges, and hopes that others might follow. But often the party line, the established practice, or ‘what we used to do’ becomes paramount the normative, and stepping out, taking risks, being ‘progressive’ is an alone step. And its not often called progressive, or radical, divisive or upsetting the status quo. Image result for risks

I have talked about being alone in what seems a church situation, but the path to feeling alone can happen elsewhere. Ive been in situations where the need for funding dictates a way of having to do ‘youth work’ – which then takes the practice away from ‘what the church expected- and so it can be ‘change’ or ‘lose job’ – and there can be little support when this decision needs to be made. So, going alone in a busy world of funding can be tricky, because then, usually theres very little experience in a church setting to also be involved in finding funding. You’re alone because you think young people are more important than institutions (and growth of them) and need a voice within them and in broader society. You’re alone because you think young people have been ‘sinned against’ more than sinners, and yet its the latter that they are told, or you’re alone for something else.

It means that it becomes really important to ‘find your tribe’ – and no tribe is perfect by the way. Sometimes there can be nothing better than a coffee with another youthworker who might just know what you’re going through. It might be a youthworker who offers critical thinking, challenging questions or ideas – someone different. On other occasions its not just one person who might be able to help, a friend might help in the short term, but being connected with a larger affiliation might then bring you into contact with a range of personal resources, support and guidance.Image result for tribe I remember when I first met a youthwork hero of mine, and they suggested that i could connect with them on a regular basis, and that they could learn from what I was doing. they learn from me! Wow. So, no tribe is perfect, but find one that pushes and supports you in the path that you are being called to travel with young people, find one that expects less conformity and tries to push and asks the critical questions, find one who is willing to be on ‘your journey’ and not just trying to fit into theirs.

Theres nothing worse than feeling alone in day to day youth work life, and also feeling alone in the place where you’re supposed to get support, guidance and help from and within. It might not take long to know if you fit, or it might take a while. As tribes can change, or be too static when you change and start to think differently.

Of course, at no point are you ever ‘on your own’ – for me it is about having people around who at least give me opportunity to receive questions, think about thinking, theoretical and theological on youth work, and pushing the possibilities of compassion beyond to challenge structures. But thats how i am wired. However, there is something biblical about ‘not being alone’ as being part of our make up and created identity. It is also well documented that Jesus send the disciples in pairs (a model of ministry that is rarely followed – gospel centred ministry can still be very hierarchical) , the early church met in groups, and only on a few occasions was lone ministry seen as good. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, because actually you arent alone, sometimes you cant make it even with support, because it can be that tough being different, being pioneering, or because the actual support cant take away really difficult or unbearable situations, like bullying, manipulation and/or power struggles. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, but sometimes you might have to go alone before you are joined by others who see a different way, forge the pathway, make the road by walking and all that. Find a tribe and take a few along with you, find a tribe nd have people cheering you on from the outside, along the road, find a tribe who you can share your joys and frustrations. Find a tribe that causes your alone work feel more like a community effort. Find a tribe that you can contribute to.

Sometimes you cant make it on your own, Sometimes you can. Sometimes you might need to. Taking risks and being prophetic might be a lonely place, but find the tribe that doesnt just validate you, but keeps you sharp, challenged and supported. In the grand scheme of things, you might just need it.

Of course at this point I might refer you to Frontier Youth Trust, who for over 50 years have been facilitating a Home for pioneer youthworkers, who needed to find a tribe that enabled them to have a space and voice within a paradigm of church serving youth ministry and ‘big’ ministries, if this appeals, as you face challenges of numbers, or attendance, and like me years ago was scratching for a different way, then please do check fyt Related imagehere:  Theyre not perfect, no one is, but they might offer you a tribe and community that could help you not feel alone as a youthworker believing in young people, in faith and community, and where change is possible, another way is possible, a home for pioneer youthworkers, might be a place for you not to feel alone.

Welcome encouragement along the edge

This year I missed the FYT,  Streetspace gathering, I didn’t even follow it that much on twitter, though if you want to see what I thought of the previous two that I went to and loved, I’ve written about them on this blog (2015 and 2013).

They’re great because they ask for participation, for collaboration, and for shared learning across the whole weekend. They itch at the places where the local scratches and draw from the expertise in the room. They’re not afraid to take risks in the real world with young people, so that taking risks at a conference is relatively easy.

But I missed it this year. Family commitments I couldn’t get out of.

It would have been good to report to the group all the progress being made in the north east with getting projects off the ground, the work in Middlesbrough, the conversations elsewhere, and where signs of hope are desired to be cast, things are happening and its a bubbling of excitement. It would have been good to share some of this, but I know that the guys there would have done so.

Today, on a Monday morning after a challenging weekend, with essays due,  I got the above gift through the post, arriving at work.

Four badges and a small note.

Greetings from the gathering.

Another world is possible.

Encouragement along the journey.

For me the people of the FYT team, their infectious love for young people, passion for the world to be a better place and for young people and communities to have radical authentic discipleship encounters with Christ make them a huge inspiration. Hear their stories of hope, visit the FYT website, be part of this movement.

Yet at the same time they offer continued kindness and encouragement to the fellow travellers along the edge. No point being radical without being authentic, loving others outside without loving the others in the movement.

So, a genuine heartfelt thank you from me to you all at FYT.

This meant alot.

Another world is possible, and for those of you involved, lets make this happen in the North East…