Mission: Developing gifts on our doorstep

Notes from todays sermon, at Headland Baptist Church, Hartlepool..

Todays subject is on Fruitfulness on the frontline, and based around the subject of mission, and about mission, about fruitfulness on the frontline. 22 year ago I took part in a gap year called Oasis Frontline, and they sent me to Hartlepool back then, so talking about mission on the frontline seems to have come full circle. Today is the first of them. It got me thinking, back to those days in 1996. What was unique or special about Hartlepool? Why would I a fairly middle class boy from the midlands not stick around and do mission in my own hometown? What was the attraction of going somewhere new? In another way, did moving away make mission any more possible, any more real? Granted, for the life experience and experience of culture granted.  But doesn’t it seem a bit weird – that we might often have an elevated view of people who leave somewhere and go and do mission somewhere else.

Its as if a real missionary goes elsewhere. Or a real missionary is someone who is sent to us. In my own experience, ‘the gap year team has come to do the youthwork’ ‘the frontline team has come to enable young people to come to church’ – somehow the experts are from afar. Some how someone else is the one who knows what to do.

But thinking about it – what do they know? Or more to the point – what is that we know that we negate by defaulting mission to someone else. What might we do, to be fruitful, on our own front door step.

Jesus said, love your neighbour as yourself. Love your neighbour – who is our neighbour – well maybe it genuinely is our next door neighbour and street. Not just the work colleague, interest group – but actually the family next door, the lady who is one their own.  Fruitfulness on the frontline, love our neighbour. Thats love. Not just hope they come to church and to an event, or even alpha. But love.

We are all missionaries. It is the principle purpose of the church. Of us. Forget everything else. It is to love the world, to love our neighbour and to witness to Christ in the context that we are in. So – that doesn’t matter where we are, does it, location becomes slightly irrelevant.

If we are to be true to the intentions of Jesus today we must put in the centre of our vision not the church, but the kingdom (Lesslie Newbigin) ,

‘the church can only exist as the church of Jesus Christ when it understands itself as part of Gods mission and lives out that understanding’ (David Bosch)

‘The church is missionary by nature’  mission is its essence, not just the outcome.

Because this is the first in the series, it kind of gives me an opportunity to ask and propose a number of questions, that may require further reflection, but that I think are useful, in all we do, and all the church does is about mission.

The first thing to think about – is if the church is to do Gods mission – what is the Mission of God?

The second is – Is Gods Mission is an extention of his character (and we’re not going to do a significant theological study here) – What is God like?

And how might these two things be our starting point for thinking about the mission of the church? For this church.

It would be much easier to just respond, react and do stuff wouldn’t it.

Do the things that the church down the road say, or the next great initiative from the Baptist union, or do something that we used to do, because it worked there, or then, or with them. But is this an appropriate starting point?

What instead might it be to understand that God is ___________________, and then try and act in this way in to our neighbours, to this community.

What if we held on to this, resisting all other temptations, but genuinely loved, genuinely forgave, genuinely acted with mercy, to the extent that we were doing Gods mission, being Gods ambassadors. To that extent…

It is important, not to start with a book on mission, but to start with the God of Mission.

If we start with theology – our understanding of God – and have this be the key motivation, ethic for mission – rather than our needs, or the need of the church – then what might that be like..

To start with God who is missionary in character and nature.

God who loves, God who listens, God who forgives, God who gives.. God who is… God who is community, God indeed who communicates, the God who speaks…


And I wonder if we don’t think of God as a speaking God very often, and for the rest of this time together I feel that as we think about Fruitfulness on the frontline, that we contemplate the communication of God, the conversation of God and how these might help us in developing Gods mission in the local community, doing so as an extension of Gods own character and actions.

Lets think about ourselves for a moment – have a think about the last or a recent conversation that you had with someone. Over a coffee, at the workplace, walking the dog, at home in the lounge.. 

For – you what made it a good conversation?


Now; A  question for us all to think about…. I would like you to think about a conversation that you know of that occurs in the Bible, one that exists between God (and in the new testament Jesus) and a human person.

So, it could be an old testament character, Moses, Esther, Joseph, Elijah, Jonah, or Jesus talking to a person, a disciple.. ill give you a minute to think about one such example… pick one well known..

  1. What is it you like about the conversation? Was it a good conversation – do you think?
  2. What does this conversation reveal about God?
  3. Are conversations important.. why?

I would hazard a fairly strong guess, that the conversations that we thought of, were long in nature, were ones that we know quite well, Jesus and peter on the beach, Elijah moaning after the battle with the prophets of Baal.

Yet in 2 Kings 5 there is space for a very small conversation, a very small moment, a significant conversation.

Read 2 kings 5  1-8…

The huge effect of this one girl and what she says, wasn’t a long conversation at all

What does the Girl, the servant girl say…

The essence of what is being said – I take a risk in caring about my master, enough to give him advice

I want him to get well..

I see the effect of his illness on her mistress and want that to be alleviated. In short, it is a sentence that conveys a sense of healing, a sense of risk, a sense of wanting better for someone else.

It is a sentence that from which the commander of the army, Naaman, listened to. She might well have pushed a nerve, triggered an emotion, he may have had a soft spot for her… and we don’t know this… but it carried enough for Naaman to act. And for Naaman to go to the king and for the king to commend a letter.  The voice of the servant Girl…. i mean, could that be the voice of God..?

Yet Naaman, when given the instructions by the prophet, didn’t initially take his advice.. that was a bit too weird… 

Having travelled all that way, Naaman had to take another new risk.  However, that is for another story.

To focus on mission on the frontline we must focus on the girl.

2. Another example, recently a few weeks ago we heard a sermon on Sauls conversion,  Yet, how many conversations did God need to have with Humans that day for Saul to become Paul and then to become a follower… yes 2..

Ananias – the forgotten man – let look at this one  Acts 9:10 –  disciple who has a vision

The Lord spoke to him in a vision..

‘Brother Saul… ‘’  This is meant as a symbol of Sauls healing, of the laying on of hands, but also note the risk that Ananias had to make in doing this, and the message God gave him of Saul, saying that Paul will how much he must suffer’ – suffering is part of faith. Being a witness is a sacrificial task. Paul the zealot now has suffering as part of his commission, in effect. But the conversation Ananias has with him, and with God is interesting.

What does God promise Ananias.. ?

He gives him knowledge of the situation, he calls him by name. Maybe more importantly, God gives Ananias the opportunity to talk back – But Lord – But Lord- thats Saul….

God doesn’t seem to be adverse to the push back- have you noticed this? But God…. But God… But God…

Maybe thats for another sermon.

Ananias the hearer and doer.

And addressed Saul as brother.. you are part of us.. you are with us now. Participation, risk and belonging. Healing.


3. The third conversation i thought we would look at it is one involving Jesus- actually, a quick question – which conversation does Jesus have is is the longest? – who does he speak to the longest in one specific conversation?

Give you a clue, Peter Hart preached on this a few weeks ago….

Yes, its the woman from samaria.

John Chapter 4.

And We wont look at it at depth, but we will look at a few of the questions and statements that Jesus uses:

Whats the first thing that Jesus says?

‘Woman please will you give me a drink’?

What is Jesus doing here? – Stating the flipping obvious – thats what… though we know that on one hand this isn’t obvious at all. This was the kind of act that wasn’t supposed to happen, yet it was a simple act. Woman – would you serve me?

Woman, this well is here, you have a bucket – could you use what you have to serve me?

Woman – you do this every day, any chance you could share your skill with me?

Woman – you have already been brave enough, to gather water in the heat of the day – would you take a risk and serve me, a man, too…

Woman – would you give?

Woman, you are standing, i am sitting, I am tired, i am exhausted, will you give me a drink..

We might get the significance easier because we know more about the situation, but thats nearly always the case after the event isn’t it.

Yes there are resonances with Elisha and asking the woman for oil. As importantly it might be a template for the conversations we could have. Jesus tired and weary asked the vulnerable to serve him.

The church tired, weary and exhausted, might need to do the same. Shift the power, sit by the well and receive from others. Sit on the wall and wait, watch and learn, and be in a place where the most vulnerable have gifts to give, and gifts to share- if only we might ask the right kind of question – or be in the right place where their offering is available..

Jesus gave space in the conversation for participaton, for the persons action, and for people to have left speaking to him in a better place than they were before.  And he used what they had. There is alot of using what they had in the New testament, from homes, to resources, to sharing of money, gifts and talent.

We can at time focus on peoples needs, but this doesn’t seem to be what Jesus does, that often, yes peoples needs are fulfilled, and a generous God gives. But I wonder if we can focus on peoples needs too much, and our conversations might reflect this, we have a desire to fix, to repair, to save what was lost, and to be the hero.

That doesn’t seem to be how Jesus operates. Remember, God is love… God is … and we are made in the image of God. So, maybe we need a different starting point. Maybe we focus not on needs, and solving these, and think about how a person might participate, might contribute, might do something that they are good at, how they are gifted.

Our neighbourhoods are full of people, young and old, who are bakers, creators, bicycle lovers, entrepreneurs and artists and more. Our streets are not dark and dangerous, they’re bright and imaginative’ (Mike Mather)


One of my Jobs is with Communities together Durham..(https://communitiestogetherdurham.org.uk/

And part of this role is to help churches to create spaces in which people gather, have conversation and develop opportunities to use their gifts, use their talents. Not a group of people who share a love for an interest like a knitting group, but a group of people who discover that they can learn a skill together and use it.

Mike Mather in his book talks about the story of Lucy and her flowers. This story can be found in this book: 

a copy of which you can buy here 

Read the story of getting out of the way

Amazing the significance of a conversation, of a question.

What might mission, conversation look like if we were prepared to ask the gift questions. To sit amongst the vulnerable, and ask

what skills do you have, what would you do if money was no object, and who will help you?

Moment to reflect on these questions… How might these be used by us in our everyday – what gifts do we have that we might share… – baking- artistry, what can we give each other, that we can also give to others…

Gods mission is to love the world, it is ours too.

Love so much that we see people for who they are, love so much that we build them up, we get out of the way, we sit tired by the well and let them use their gifts to serve us, we forget having the answer and be open to the wisdom of other, the person with the surprises who heals. Every conversation we have is a moment of theatre, every conversation is a moment where the ongoing drama of Gods redemption is carried onwards, is acted out. We are all missionaries, all conversationalists, even on social media, conversation is big business, everyone wants to hear from us. Sometimes the best conversation is the silent calm one. To think that we need to be ready to do the Mission of God, or professional, is not correct, we do the mission of God, from the place of our own normality, maybe our own desert place, our own reality, and have you noticed, that even in your desert place there is still energy to be generous, energy to give, energy to be used by God to love others. We are always on the frontline, discipleship and mission is a full on task of us all.

Our conversations that focus on the gifts of others might in reality be the most healing ones, our healing conversations might be those who help people to discover who they are, what they can do, and how they might contribute, not just to the functionality of the church, but the purposes of Gods mission in the bigger created world, the fixers, makers, artists and creators, the restorers, welcomers and the generous.

Reflect on the persons who don’t feel they have purpose who you meet, why not discover their passions, their interests. How might this be how we create the possibility of fruitfulness on the frontline. Its Gods world that we are all part of.  Might our fruitfulness not depend on us, but on how we encourage other to use theirs.


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

Image result for broken record

or reading them, has been like

Image result for groundhog day

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

Image result for nothing new under the sun

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…

Youth work: Focussing on the strength of the rope, not its knots.

A rope is 1/3 weaker when it has a knot in it. 

Or at least thats what I was told in Scouts many years ago. I havent googled it to confirm it. Image result for rope knots

A rope is only two thirds effective when it has a knot in it. It is less strong.

On Sunday I preached at Headland Baptist Church, Hartlepool, on the Subject of the churches in Revelation, The church in Smyrna. It is known as the suffering church, and it was also a church that thought of itself as poor. It was was a ‘not’ compared to others.

It caused me to think and reflect on young people. ‘Not’ just the 10% that might be deemed ‘hardest to reach’ but even more than that, and think of the ‘nots’ that they hear, from a range of people, parents, teachers, sometimes friends, from society at large, things like;

You’re Not allowed to play in there

You’re not allowed to take those two subjects

You’re not clever enough

You’re not tall enough

You’re not sporty enough

You’re not as good as your older brother

You’re not thin enough

You’re not pretty enough

You’re not going to get a job acting like that

You’re not capable

You’re not resilient

You’re not confident

You’re not calm

You’re not fulfilling your potential

You’re not able to control yourself

You’re not going to make it in life if you do this.. 

You’re not welcome here

You’re not important

You’re not………


Add to this the lists of the messages that appear in all the advertising and media that young people hear, like you’re not something unless you have this thing. This might make you attractive – but by default you’re not without it. Being not something is part of culture, part of growing up.

And for every ‘not’ the rope gets weaker and weaker. The young person has to prove the adult wrong, or give in. ‘But Im not tired’ ! says the child – knowing full well there isnt a right answer to that one. 

Likewise the rest, the young person fulfils the prophecy, or kicks against it (and is then rebellious) – nay angry.

The nots keep adding up, weakening the rope, and denying the young person to fulfil their purpose.

The Message given to that Church in 120AD, was that ‘They were rich’  They were not to think of themselves as ‘not’ something. Their perspective needed to change of themselves. They had riches.

This could have been an article on how churches compare and think of themselves as ‘nots’ against other churches, in the competitive market place of church growth and the numbers game. But it isnt. This is about how a church, how we as youth-workers provide the kind of opportunities for young people to enable some of the tight ‘nots’ to be begun to be undone. In the metaphor of the rope, it would take two hands, one at each end to begin the process of undoing the knot.

Itll take a community of people to undo the knots that young people store as part of them. 

In the metaphor of the rope , a bit like the headphones cable in the pocket which automatically knots when not in use, it is less likely to become reknotted whilst it is being used for its purpose. 

So in thinking about developing the assets of young people – the sooner they are being used for the purposes, gifts and abilities that they have and in the right supportive environment, they might be more able to withstand the ‘nots’. With many young people, it is that so many are being used in society at so less than what they have to potential to be. In the restrictions of the education system (you’re not welcome here, the talent you have is not valid here)

If it true that churches are only working with 5% of young people (and i would suggest that with these 5% there is still significant wastage with the talents/skills and gifts of young people not being used), this is according to Scripture Unions recent research. Then it is worth reflecting on what kind of approach a church or youth ministry practice could take – when it engages with young people who are tired of being ‘nots’ in the world. It is one thing working out what a ‘generation z’ young person might look like, believe and be influenced by to make the gospel relevant. It is more significant to provide churches, groups and youth work projects with the tools and approaches to begin the process of undoing the ‘nots’ that hold them back. To not give them confidence by telling them so. But to gradually, painfully undo the nots. It is doing that heartfelt ministry, that painful searing physical mental acceptance in love of young people (Hamilton, 1964). It is also identifying the gifts and abilities in a young person that thus far had been hidden deep, that needs a little excavation, and tender nurturing. It is telling a young person that they are human, that they are of worth, and that they have richness.

As youthworkers, we may not ever be able to undo the knots, some will be tight, but even a 2/3 effective young person can be given the opportunity to flourish, to use their gifts and contribute, participate in society, and in our faith communities. It was said of Jesus, a bruised reed he will not break. We might be able to prevent the nots from being there, though we might try, focussing on what makes that person strong, even if hindered might be what is required.

By way of an epilogue: Many of you will have listened to Ken Robinsons TED talk on education, 11 million of you would have done. In it he describes the story of Gillian Lynne, the choreographer of ‘Cats’, here is that story: Thinking of education and talents; It’s really prompted by a conversation I had with a wonderful woman who maybe most people have never heard of; she’s called Gillian Lynne — have you heard of her? Some have. She’s a choreographer and everybody knows her work. She did “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

It was asked of Gillian, how did you get to be a dancer?

And she said it was interesting; when she was at school, she was really hopeless. And the school, in the ’30s, wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” She couldn’t concentrate; she was fidgeting. I think now they’d say she had ADHD. Wouldn’t you? But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. People weren’t aware they could have that.

Anyway, she went to see this specialist. So, this oak-paneled room, and she was there with her mother, and she was led and sat son this chair at the end, and she sat on her hands for 20 minutes while this man talked to her mother about all the problems Gillian was having at school. And at the end of it — because she was disturbing people; her homework was always late; and so on, little kid of eight — in the end, the doctor went and sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me, and I need to speak to her privately.” He said, “Wait here. We’ll be back; we won’t be very long,” and they went and left her.

But as they went out the room, he turned on the radio that was sitting on his desk. And when they got out the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” And the minute they left the room, she said, she was on her feet, moving to the music. And they watched for a few minutes and he turned to her mother and said, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

“What happened?” She said, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked in this room and it was full of people like me.

People who couldn’t sit still. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think. They did ballet; they did tap; they did jazz; they did modern; they did contemporary.

She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

Vulnerability as the starting point of community transformation

“But that might mean we have to be vulnerable”

I was at a gathering of people this week, mostly clergy, and the subject within it was about conversations, and creating opportunities to have conversations with people. The kind of thing that detached youthwork is pretty much uniquely and solely about. Ideas flung across the room, such as chatting to people who were waiting at the bus stops, or travelling on the same bus. It was recognised that people at first would think this was odd, but after a while there would be a process of acceptance, rapport, trust and then the capacity for conversations to occur. Again, its the kind of process that is visible in detached youthwork. It was suggested in the meeting that Clergy ‘just dont have the time to do this’  which is fair enough, though is only an excuse and realisation of other priorities. What was more revealing was the comment given, and said with more feeling:

‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’

On the positive, the statement recognised that vulnerability felt difficult. And that as a member of the clergy their role came with it many associations of power. But in a split second of a statement, the light dawned – for real conversations, to be trusted by people, and to really connect authentically in unusual spaces, meeting people in theirs, requires vulnerability.

Detached youthwork, and even to a slighly lesser extent open access youth club work that I have been involved in in the last 10 years has given me a regular experience of vulnerability, or at least giving me the possibility of vulnerability, as at times I choose not to let go, not to commit fully, protect myself. Though for others looking at it, it is risk taking, unpredictable and requires vulnerability. Yet in a different way, I have felt even more vulnerable in the last few months, one to many family related health scares and worries, which include a fair dose of fear and worry – and vulnerability – combined with the dawning reality of redundancy from my current job at DYFC, these have, if im honest, caused me to feel a different sort of vulnerability, to just a vocational vulnerability, a vulnerability of not being in control, a vulnerability of emotions, even though I am used to trying to give others power, and meeting them where theyre at, having almost no power in situations gives this a new meaning. I wonder whether at the heart of genuine mission is that same sense of lost it all vulnerability, or leaving as much of it behind to not just go, but be present in the space. What might it mean to be vulnerable?

  1. It takes vulnerability to realise that we might be wrong. Everything we know about a community, about a group of people is one form of knowledge, but it is only one perspctive. It started to blow my mind when after only a few weeks of detached youthwork, that young people were choosing to drink alcohol, it wasnt because they were bored. It was choice. ‘Bored’ was what i was told was the reason. Escaping other realities was another truth. Paulo Freire said that after he had started talking to people in a community in south America, describes it like this: “that was my second learning experience, but i still didnt know what i knew. Just like they (the community)  didnt know what they knew, I didnt know what i knew. The question for me was exclusively to understand what were their levels of knowledge and how did they know. It was a beautiful experience. I learned how to discuss with the people, i learned how to respect their knowledge, their beliefs, their fears, their hopes, their expectations. It took time, and many meetings” (We make the road by walking, Freire, Horton, 1990, p56,p67) It takes vulnerability to be truthful about the prejudgements, the preknowledge and to listen to the knowledge of someone else, to have these challenged.
  2. It takes vulnerability to give. Over the last few months I have witnessed the slow processes of collaboration taking place, small tentative steps between people of different organisations trying to work at something of bigger goodness. Each collaborative moment of conversation is vulnerable, requiring either trust or faith, and vulnerability to leave something behind. Heading out on the streets to talk to young people, leaves alot behind, but in the moments of conversation and connection there is vulnerable giving of time. A Spiritual leader who lacks basic compassion has almost no human power to change other people, because people intuitively know he or she does not represent the Divine or Big Truth” writes Richard Rohr, change that requires law “does not go deep, nor does it last” (Rohr, R,  Eager to Love; the alternative way of St Francis, 2014, p28)  It is not that people don’t associate a representation with divine truth, they just smell a rat. If it looks forced, manipulative and quick- its not likely to be deep, heartfelt and lasting. Image result for vulnerable
  3. It needs vulnerability to take risks. Because this takes us out of our comfort zones. Even on the streets, which could be always risky places, actually its possible to ‘go through the motions’ and be almost blaze about being there, the street becomes a new comfort zone. Kevin Vanhoozer uses the metaphor of theatre to describe the church (as do others) and in Faith Speaking Understanding (2014) suggests that in the great theatre of the world, the church in its mission is to break through, nay, collapse the invisible fourth wall that exists in the theatre between stage and audience, and often between church and its own view of the world outside. What this calls for is less of a prepared script for performing the Godly script – but an interactive one. (Vanhoozer, 2014, p34-35) 
  4. Vulnerability to trust in interactive conversations. Trusting in conversations as a source of education is one of the bedrocks of informal education – or youthwork ( See ‘Here be dragons 2013, or ‘Informal education, by Jeffs & Smith, 1998) , yet it might seem just a ‘waste of time’ to chat with people at a bus stop ( when there are 101 other things to be doing instead, like arguing with Ian Paul on Twitter, for example). The reason it takes vulnerability is that it breaks all the moulds, it is not a programme, a service or a pre ordained script.Image result for vulnerable It is interactive trusting, of listening and letting the conversation flow, with tangents, stories, warts and all, by letting it flow, its in the hands of the other, yet this will take time. Because people tend to expect that the vicar, or youthworker might be ‘doing conversation for a reason’ ( theres probably an event on to be invited to.. sigh) Being vulnerable in conversation is to trust it, nuture the relationship that develops from it, have faith in it and the genuine sense of humanity that might exist in it. But its vulnerable, because ‘vicar has conversations about peoples gifts’ doesnt write its own poster, neither is it social media friendly. PTL. Image result for vulnerable
  5. It takes vulnerability to invest in the ignored. It is always easy, it is part of Human nature to be liked, to seek people out who might like us, who might fit in with people we also like. Who dont upset the apple cart. So in this way, being vulnerable to connect, and actually invest in ( not just give food to) is a vulnerable step, and one that others have to be educated about in the church, worship might have to become a collective journey to a place of welcome for all – but it takes vulnerability to connect, converse and provide space to the usually ignored by church in society. Even on the streets, I know i have ‘favourites’ the young people who might be chatty, easier to talk to than others, even those I know from youth groups – far far easier than those who might give nothing except crudeness, so its not easy to be vulnerable, yet no one said vulnerability was easy. If theres relationships to build from scratch then nothing structurally sound gets built on the first assessment of the site.
  6. It takes vulnerability to provide opportunities for those perceived with needs, to enhance their gifts, use their strengths and develop what they have that’s good. Image result for vulnerableFrom community gardens, to Sharing food, to bike recycling, to forums and groups, many are examples of using and sharing gifts, strengths and being in receipt of the goodness and beauty of others, the almost least expected. But theres a vulnerability to let it happen, when usually those who have great power find it difficult to relinquish all the responsibility.
  7. It takes vulnerability to resist conformity. An interactive Theatre production might have a theme, and the sense of the director or authors intention, but how it gets there, using what props, and finding its feet along the way, as offers and gifts are accepted into the story and others are rejected – its is less of conformity and more genuinely about faith, faith as process, faith in process. The message is in the performance. Some conformity is good, conformity to the overall story of Gods redemption, Gods giving grace, yes, conformity of how this is enacted in the interactive theatre might be challenged in all vulnerability.
  8. It takes vulnerability to invest emotionally, truthfully and authentically. Yet people orientated presence is akin to Jesus heading to the well at noon. We go to where there are people who might be lost looking for conversation, and leave it at that, no strings or expectation. Just to be in the space.

As i was thinking about this theme today, I encountered this awesome article by Wendy McCaig, someone doing asset based community development from a faith perspective in Richmond, Virginia. I nearly wrote a piece entitled the same quite a few years ago, when i was sensing that people not programmes were the order of the day in youth ministry back in the 1990’s, but Wendys article below, spurred me to think further about vulnerability, and how this is core to the start of deep missional practices, also deep & real understanding of others, and a recognition of our own power. Here it is, as a reward for reading all of my article, heres a real treat:


‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’ – well, yes. Its not something the disciples or apostles had to do, it was their core practice, they barely stood still enough to regard comfortability as the norm. “For he made himself vulnerable… even to…..what was it again…?’ 


A follow up to this post is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-TO; and entitled ‘ does status anxiety prevent the church from being vulnerable’. This was in part after the various questions, comments and feedback this first post generated.

We need to talk about Clergy to Youthworker Line-Management (part 2)

We dont need to worry too much about Management, im sure we’ll be fine


Im meant to be your line manager, theyve asked to do it, im sure we can work it out as we go

Are words that I have heard on at least two occasions during the induction process (where there was an induction process) from Clergy in their role as line-manager to me, there might be other good introductory statements made by Clergy in their role as line-manager, though  I have a feeling these might be common.

Simon Davies argues that ‘Christian youthwork Management suffers from too little management, rather than its secular cousin which suffers from ‘too much” (Davies S, in Ord, Jon, 2012). Management within faith settings can often be the reactionary type, or ‘to be fitted in’, and without seeming patronising, I can understand why this is the case. For, its not often that Clergy are themselves given regular positive line management themselves, they dont see it in practice. The kind of management that might inspire them, educate, offer support and appropriate direction in the ministry they do ( as opposed to the plans of the affiliation to enforce as a county wide ministry) – so then for Clergy to attempt to be good Managers is to go outside not only their training ( see part one) but also possibly their experience of faith orientated Management. So of all the styles of Management, the one that becomes default can be ‘laissez-faire’ – ie leave the youth worker to it – when what might be more fulfilling and motivating for the youthworker is be give more management, direction, support and education (Davies).  Good supervision and thus line management has to have a clear focus the personal and pastoral needs of those to be supervised, and to highlight the development of faith commitment and spiritual expression. Image result for negotiation

What it sounds like is that it is important to establish a good Managerial/supervision relationship from the outset that entails some kind of contract. In Part one of this series I suggested that both the youthworker and the Clergy bring something to the relationship, it makes sense then that some kind of negotiation from the outset begins a process from which appropriate Management can occur. In one way, because both the line manager and youthworker give something to the relationship it can become something of a negotiated collaboration. This in itself can be a source of challenge as often the youthworker and clergy operate (dangerously) as the ‘lone wolf’ , collaboration, and working together might not be in their mindset, neither practice or value orientation. Related image

In the collaborative relationship between Clergy & Youthworker what needs to be negotiated? 

  1. The Style of Management – Kenneth Blanchard ( Management Guru) describes 4 styles of ever changing management/leadership style – and its less important what they are- more so that the context of the situation might dictate that a certain style is important. This is the ‘contextual’ leadership style.  (Leadership & the One minute Manager, 1986) The four styles are: Delegating, Supportive, Directive, Coaching. Depending on the level of support & direction given.  Without describing all of the 100’s of styles of management/leadership, it is probably enough to say that all of these 4 actions might be required at some point from the line manager. It is how these are done…. 
  2. The Practicalities of Line Management – It might seem irrelevant or trivial, but the venue, time & frequency of Specific line management are crucial. They all communicate to the Youthworker how valued they are. A once a month meeting might be too much for some, not enough for others, the reverse might be case for every week. How long is important, if line managers are checking their watch, or waiting for a phone call. Venues can be spaces of power, neutrality is good, but this would need to be balanced by the need for privacy for delicate conversations. 
  3. The Content of Line Management – So, when the allotted hour arrives at the decided time and venue – There should be negotiation from the outset of the relationship as to what the appropriate and expected content should be, so that both parties are prepared. Is it to report the weeks events? To talk through ideas and plans? to talk about personal/spiritual challenges? is it receive direction/guidance? to ask for help? to talk about what is not happening? Again, the content can change, but some kind of agreed pattern that can be negotiated ongoing might be a positive helpful. It is worth then negotiating what is expected of the line manager when they hear the report, suggestions or crisis – is it merely Support (high support/low direction), Direct (high direction/low support), Coach ( high direction/high support), or even Delegate ( low direction/low support) – because a line manager that ‘just listens’ might not be whats required – but neither might be a line manager who just delegates new tasks. Negotiating the Content and form that line management takes is crucial. 
  4. Handling Feedback, Criticism & Conflict. From the very beginning the clergy to Line Manager relationship needs to build in what will happen when there is both positive and critical feedback to be given. There is nothing worse that only being praised for everything, or either only being criticised for everything. But as the line manager the Clergy will have to bring to the table, and should bring to the table, the positive and critical feedback, and complaints that might be being aired about aspects of youthwork practice. Image result for criticismWhat is to be negotiated is how these will be communicated, and what the appropriate responses should be to them. To think that there wont be is ‘pie in the sky’- or that the youthworker is finding things too easy, and might be in a safe/comfort zone – where being challenged and making ‘mistakes’ due to inexperience might not be a bad thing.
  5. Expectations; When the Job role & Strategy says one thing, but culture determines another. They say that ‘Culture eats Strategy for breakfast’. If the following is true:

At its worst Christian youthwork is a context where innovation, creativity and diversity is being crushed because of the weight of established tradition and culture (Davies p154)

Where there is an avoidance of a church engaging politically -and youthworkers can have a political switch set to on, like often young people arent given credit for also do. Churches intend to be safe places – or even far too comfortable places – to find healing, hope, meaning and purpose – so they become places where peoples own needs are met. At worse to be exciting and attractive they can become safe and easy to go to – More ‘Moral Therapeutic deism’, than sacrifical, costly, challenging discipleship.

Image result for strategy eats culture for breakfastChurches tend to be places of nostalgia, reliving the past, and its glories, as a way of shielding themselves from the dangers of the present – a reality that youthworkers find themselves in throughout the week and ‘do mission’ in. But these desires for Safety within the church, transmits to conservative and safety culture being the key motivation for education and young people thus youth ministry. It is the culture of the church that might dictate the strategy of the youthworker, more so that the job description or hoped-for strategy – and so negotiating the culture is a key aspect of the Line Management relationship – especially as the Clergy have a role in challenging, conforming to, or educating the culture to create new ones.

6. Spirituality and Formation – If one of the unique contributions to the relationship that the Clergy bring to it is their awareness of Spirituality, Theological education and Experience- its would be a strength of this Line Management role to negotiate how ongoing spiritual guidance, direction, and learning could become a feature, in order for increased challenge, for learning. It might be appropriate for this to be a two way thing, up to date theological underpinnings, readings and thought that the youthworker may have just received might also be good to share with the clergy – again so the relationship is collaborative and shared. The reason this is to be negotiated is that within a line management relationship there are issues of power, and so theological thought and disagreement or discussion might be inappropriate in this context if other matters and its dynamic are unhealthy from a power or control perspective – ie how might a youthworker learn spiritual discipline from clergy if the clergy are perceived as a ‘control freak’…. where a breakdown in relationship might put spiritual advice to the back burner, and so its worth establishing where pinch points or conflicts of interest might be, and how to attend to the relationship itself, in context with other relationships in the church setting. 

Im sure there might be additional aspects of a Clergy-Youthworker line management relationship that will need attending to, especially as it progresses. Whilst I am all for creativity and improvisation, I’d recommend that there be some structures and agreement in place within the line management relationship, especially as this is one of the key reasons for a youthworker to be unmotivated and thus where they are likely to leave a post. There is more information on Management in the links above, or where training could be provided further. What kind of Management did Jesus do with the disciples? Education, Support, challenge, direction? , only he left did he ‘leave them to it completely’ And that was as a group of 12, not the lone worker.

Part one of this series is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Sj


Davies, S ; The Management of Faith Based youth work in Ord, J – Critical Issues in Youthwork Management, 2012

Blanchard K; Leadership and the one minute Manager, 1986

Smith; Christian; Soul Searching, 2005 ( on Moral Therapeutic Deism)


Detached youthwork as a community building exercise

Earlier this week i wrote a short piece that held a mirror on the faith organisation of the church to the comparison of ‘the community’ in Cormac Russells blog on the nuture development site, this article is here:  http://wp.me/p2Az40-E6. I notice that on the same Nurture development site, Shaun Bartlett has written a sequel, titled ‘building bridges or walls’ – this is here, and worth a read: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/taking-strengths-based-approach-young-people-part-2-building-walls-building-bridges/

In the article – Shaun comments, from the perspective of being a youthworker for a while in Ayrshire, that;

In every neighbourhood, there are residents who care deeply for young people and who believe in them. They are not motivated by the impulse to keep young people “off the streets” or “out of trouble”. Instead they have a genuine and well-intentioned instinct for connecting young people into civic life. They see the untapped energy of all young people, and are sincerely perplexed and often distressed as to why others can’t see what they see in the young people of their community. Where some only see trouble, they see potential.

Among such folks, there are a number who are able to bridge the gap between young people’s potential and potential places of welcome in their communities for the gifts that young people have to offer.

This first section describes perfectly the tension experienced by the detached youthworkers, their volunteers and some of the criticism or expectations of it. For some, detached youthwork can be a means of social control, a catalyst of physical movement – yet as Dynamo international state in ‘The international methodology of streetwork throughout the world (2008);

Social street work favours an innovative proximity approach where the people play a predominant role in any action undertaken, from its beginnings (the request) throughout its development (accompaniment). It is this trust-based relationship, built up with the subject, which will help break the silence and enable support to be given to the person.

The underlying idea in social street work is not to take a person away from the streets or their surroundings “at all costs”, especially if it consists of compartmentalising them in a new social context where they will feel uncomfortable.

Whatever the context, be it a child, a young person or an adult, the work of accompaniment means building self-esteem, developing personal skills, independently from the degree of exclusion, and enabling participation in social life.

Increasing young peoples capacity in the social life, their participation and reducing exclusion (not of their making often) of it is part of the process of youthwork – especially that which starts from the streets . Yet there can still be expectation that detached work leads to a building- in the short term. What Shaun is suggesting, I think, is that often many local people understand the culture of the young people and have some sympathy with them. As i am in the process of helping to train people in detached youthwork in a specific place, those from the area, tend to not only have more knowledge of the young people, but equally if encouraged, have the desire to see them thrive despite it, being slightly less prone to see needs, but more untapped gifts. It can be as constant a tension between seeing the potential and actual of the gifts of young people, and worrying about their reactions and assessing their needs and trying to help, a natural response at times.

Shaun makes a further point worth reflecting on though. How often are the gifts of the young people, who are encountered in detached/mission type youthwork, given back into the community in order that they can re access it and create identity in it?.

Giving a young person a leadership role in their own youth club is one thing, or maybe even a leadership role in the sunday school – but where might they pay it forward as to speak, not just serve those who helped them become ‘redeemed’ or have their gifts harnessed – but give that back to the community that once rejected them?  Places of welcome where these gifts can be harnessed, can be as fluid as the conversation on the streets, in that space there is a moment of ‘theatre’ where a scene is outplayed, and performance is displayed, played by a gifted young person. The gift needs to be payed back so that young person can increase in their civil life in society, allow not just ‘the youth/church organisation’ to see & feel the benefit, but for others to see a change too.

Further on Shaun makes the point that we as workers on the streets, in the public places with young people are to become the steward;

A person that doesn’t lead, but offers guidance and stewardship nurturing strong citizenship amongst young people and the civic life of their community: they find space for, and often broker young people into community space, to take action on what matters to them.

On detached, the key issues for the young person are often brought to the fore, they are real, and honest at times, and often quick to lay the blame of their situation elsewhere. The game that is often harder to play is to have the toolbox of questions, or converstions that guide the young people into becoming the agents (agency) of their potential future change. Often we maintain the helper role, as adults, or the signposters, but building community, even building community as a faith group involved in detached youthwork, might involve a type of community building that provides only the structures for young peoples gifts to be awakened and they individually and collectively undertake actions of change for themselves and the community at large. They might be their own stewards after all.

If young people are citizens in their community first and foremost – how dare we on one hand proclaim their ‘anti-socialness’ ?  is this the value and language of the community organisation (Goeschius & Tash, 1967, 100), rather than the informal community- the families or the young people themselves.  The kind of language that restricts freedom and movement. To build assets is to remove the walls, often constructed by language, and for communities tarnished by external reputation, but filled with signs and actions of true community to become places of welcome, and spaces for young peoples gifts to be harnessed, and stewarded.

If i was going to reflect a little theologically on this, the obvious place would be to think about Jesus mission strategy with the disciples to go in pairs to local villages and await being welcomed, a model of practice  Jesus himself shows the disciples with the incident with the woman of Samaria (see http://wp.me/p2Az40-Cc for this in more detail), and it is also throughout the Bible narratives of people being commended for the gifts that they bring to be shared in the community, not just the emerging faith community, though this was more evident as the faith community closed ranks during intense persecution. The essence of the Biblical drama that is ongoing is summed up by Kevin Vanhoozer, a catholic evangelical theologian who says:

“The Christian faith is not a private affair for individuals but a community-building project” (Vanhoozer, 2014)

Building the kingdom is a building process.

Strength based faith communities for (young) people

On the excellent Nurture Development website, Cormac Russell (Managing director of the ABCD institute) has recently written a piece titled ‘Taking a strengths based approach to young people’ . It is about having a perspective of young people that is distinctive from society – one where young peoples strengths are focussed on, you can read it in full here (and it is well worth a read) http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/taking-strengths-based-approach-young-people-moving-risk-promise-part-1/

In it Cormac, after commenting on the negative stereotypes of young people in the media, and through the writings of philosophers such as Socrates, writes that:

Defining young people solely by what they receive, fails to realise what children and teenagers need most, which is to be needed and meeting that need is about organising our communities so that the contributions of young people can be invited and celebrated. Our current way of organising lifts up consumption to such an extent as to render young people to the margins.

going on to say that the kind of youth work that attempts to bring young people into organised youth programmes misses a trick in that it fails to bring them to the core of the community that has sought to exile them stating:

As well a providing such programmes and access to them, youth engagement must also concern itself with building a bridge between young people, productive adults and the centre of their communities. The very same communities it has to be said, who all too often exile their most ‘needy’ young people to the margins.

In closing he suggests that young people and adults, and older adults are more segregated than ever, in my view this segregation is also cultural, young people are segregated from adults because of access to prosperity, academia, employment, housing and more importantly hope. Cormac concludes by suggesting that, due to this segregation, and the view of young people:

  1. There is space and hospitality within every community for the gifts of all young people (regardless of their history or reputation) if we intentionally invite it in and make the connections. These spaces will not be found unless we actively seek them out.
  2. We do not have a ‘youth problem’ we have a ‘village problem’. Every young person regardless of past transgressions has strengths that are needed to tackle this village problem, and by so doing, to build inclusive sustainable communities.

From this article – I want to reflect on the following question.

Does the church have the same village problem?

For so long now, in many local settings the youth worker has tried to give young people a ‘voice’ in the community of the church – but legislation, or implied disinterest, has maintained segregation. Can young people change the village of the church using their gifts alone – or is church too wieldy for this to happen?  Is Sunday a space of segregation of young and old? and should this be challenged?  How might a church recognise the gifts of young people, inside its walls, and also outside in mission, so that they too are ‘at promise’ and invited into the core of the community- the faith

Is Sunday a similar space of segregation of young and old? and should this be challenged?  How might a church recognise the gifts of young people, inside its walls, and also outside in mission, so that they too are ‘at promise’ and invited into the core of the community- the faith community. Might ‘faith community’ need to behave according to faith values – where love, faith and hope – for all prevail – in order that the promise of young people is realised?  And they are not viewed as the world views them – but i dare say more like God does.

I know too many questions. But Cormac as ever poses them for the community of the young person, yet, where that community helps to shape a young persons identity in the faith community then the same questions should at least be asked.

How might young people be at promise in the church?  Can a youthworker help to heal the village- or are they (often) the scapegoat? Does the village need healing or does the church act in a better way than this – better than using young peoples gifts – or does it have a theology that causes this to be an exemption.  I would argue that focussing on young peoples gifts in a church should be an absolute minimum for discipleship and their identity, to help them find identity in the local faith community and the ongoing drama of redemption that they play parts in.