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

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

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

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

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

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

Related image

Might there be something more with wanting more ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A couple of questions to start off with:

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


What keeps them there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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 http://www.fyt.org.uk.  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..?


How to solve a problem like when the ‘estate kids’ turn up at the ‘church kids’ youth group

We want to reach out to our local community – the church said

We already have a youth group on a sunday night – the elders said

lets publicise the group in the local area and hope ‘more kids attend’ – the congregation said

The group needs more ‘numbers’ – the PCC said

Question: did anyone ask the young people – who attend the group what they feel about this? 

or are their opinions surplus to the requirements of the diocese, pcc, leaders and congregation?

So, Its Sunday night, the usual 9 young people are at the youth group, 3 children from one family, the 2 kids from the other end of town whose parents fell out with the parish vicar there, the younger brother of the worship leader, and 2 whove got long service medals having survived sunday school. And these young people have formed a group. It is their space.

Thats what theyve been told. They have done a few years, got to know each other, they go to different schools and so this is their social time. Its like the moments after the service in the morning over coffee. Same on the evening, apart from they all are in the same whats app group.

But there is only 9 of them. Only 9.

All the best youth groups have, well more than 9.

Dont they, they have well, they have more, whats the ‘right number’ for a youth group, whatever that number is its always more that the number of the people who already attend, because its not about them, its about getting a few more than them. Its about mission in the evangelism sort of mission sort of thing, and that means trying to make 9 young people more than 9.

The 9 are happy being 9.

But the church think that 9 needs to be more, after all their sunday services have been increasing numbers by -30% the last few years, so the youth group is expected to be the bastion of church growth. So, because all young people are the same, and the youth group is obvuously the right place for young people to go. Then strategies are hatched to try and get other young people to attend. The estate kids are sought after and welcomed in…

it is quite frankly a one way ticket to disaster. Well intention but a disaster. why? well 8 reasons

  1. Young people are not all the same, for some reasons usually ‘church’ kids are bullied at school by ‘estate kids’ and so youth group can be a time of safely, communality. At worse it can also fuel attitudes that estate kids ‘are chavs’ and degrading language has been known to be used judgementally within the church kids youth group – they, them, out there,  this needs obviously nipping in the bud, but its a sign of fear.
  2. Young people represent two different groups, ages, stages, communities and cultures. Mixing is like putting chillis in a hot chocolate – it might work, but the possibility is small, and both might be ruined.
  3. Estate kids dont know that the group has 100’s of implicit social rules, barriers, conventions developed over a long period of time.
  4. Estate kids probably have no relationship with the leaders, and so there is nothing to go on to help create positive environments when there is conflict looming.
  5. The parents of the 9 will soon be on the phone. and taking their Johnathon out of the group, because they dont want him to mix with ‘those sorts of young people’.
  6. The needs of each group are different. Their reason for being there is different. They are different groups, and mixing them blind like this, especially in the space where one group is established causes issues of power, threat and competitiveness.
  7. The teaching, with the 9 that included all 15 theologies of the trinity, now has to resemble a 2 minute epilogue at the end of an hours run around. Youth ministry seems to revert to ‘lowest’ or easiest common denominator. It may make it accessible, but those 9 didnt need accessibility… they wanted deep. They will be bored and leave- unless they are encouraged to lead and mentor, tricky but possible.
  8. Behaviour. The 9 know that swearing makes baby Jesus cry, and they know when to laugh during veggie tales. The estate kids swear all the time, and half the time all the leaders do now is clamp down on swearing.

In the past 3 weeks, This exact scenario has been presented to me as being an issue that a local youth worker has had to deal with, the estate young people turn up at the ‘youth fellowship’ and all hell breaks loose. Yet on paper this is what growing and developing youth ministry is meant to be all about, but actually it usually only leads to disaster, unless very well handled, increased volunteers and a readiness to adapt. I did think that because it wasnt something i had heard of for a while that it had died out, maybe the church had given up on estate kids and only focussed on its own. Is it only for resource reasons that churches think two distinct groups of young people should mix? is there a thinking that ‘we have a great youth group’ so other young people will immediately also love it too part of the equation? a legitimate preferential bias to our own practices. Itis worth saying also that it is great that a church would want to start being involved in the lives of young people, and young people it doesnt know much yet so this needs encouraging, nurturing and thought through further, to make it meaningful and appropriate for all involved.

Ideas and solution.

  1. Dont mix until the relationships are built up with young people especially a large already distinct group. The odd one or two young people might be ok.
  2. work with groups and progress groups, not activities, groups change, adapt and develop differently, there may be reason to combine, but working with 20 young people solidly for 2 years in 2 seperate groups, will be easier than trying to keep 9 and 11 happy when they are so different.
  3. Prepare and educate parents and young people about mission, community, about equality, inclusivity and taking risks, and explore the concerns.
  4. develop leadership skills with the young people
  5. Dont just consult. ask and have conversation. Losing the 9 in this case is as much a tragedy as trying to gain 11. Have a broader conversation with the young poeple about how mission/evangelism fits within the life of the group.
  6. develop new practices of community and youth work and find new spaces for estate young people (and i apologise for this term, its just makes sense in this context) to create belonging and acceptance.
  7. Dont moan at the 9 young people, they have been brought up in the culture of the church that has created their group so it has acted in this way for years. Change for them is as uncomfortable as it would be for you, if all of a sudden the pub crawlers turned up on masse on a sunday and sat in your seats. and swore. and wiped their muddy prints on your carpet.
  8. Parents will naturally want their young people to be safe, risk averse and be in  places where their children learn, and learn to behave. When these are challenged… Quite what they have in mind that discipleship is about is another question.

There are ways it can work, but it does need thinking through. Apologies for using terms like ‘estate kids’ and ‘church kids’ but its the easiest to convey in this context. If you have any ideas of how this can work put them below. If you want a conversation about ‘how does the church work in a community based way with young people – then contact me on the details above, id be only too happy to help, do training and provide support.

10 Reasons why young people leave youth groups

Over this weekend I have been leading training with the EQUIP NORTH EAST students on the Unit entitled ‘working with young people’  (for details of the equip course see the above menu.) One of the questions I asked the students on Friday evening was,

When you were a young person, what were some of the reasons you kept going to the youth activities that you went to?  

Most of them went to things like Boys brigade, church groups, sports clubs, music related activities, after school groups, and this list of things was fairly obvious; it was things like;

  1. I was made to feel welcome
  2. I met my friends
  3. I met other friends who i wasnt at school with
  4. It was safe
  5. I learned stuff
  6. I had new experiences

In a way, most of the research about young people and groups, fitted these answers, however, I also wanted to ask them, and develop more of a discussion about why they didnt stay in certain groups, clubs and activities.

These might or might not be that obvious, but are worth reflecting on further:

Responses to ‘why did you leave the youth provision?’

  1. I was told i had to leave as I was too old for it -ie the max age was 11
  2. It was boring after a year – It didnt change at all – so i lost interest – it was like groundhog day.
  3. It was boring after a year – I felt too old for it because it didnt change – unlike Harry Potter films, It didnt grow old with me.
  4. The groups kept changing and i was forced to go in a group i didnt want to – so i left
  5. For things like sports activities, cost and travel was mentioned
  6. I felt like i needed to be taught stuff differently, it felt too much like school.
  7. The leaders kept changing, so i didnt know who to trust to speak to
  8. I was the only person that age, so the church decided they couldnt do anything for me, so i left and found a different church to go to.
  9. Other kids seemed to be favourites and get responsibility.
  10. I was too busy and had to prioritise, usually school work came first from the age of 15….

None of the group of adults in the training are over 25, so all of these experiences are in the recent past, ie in the last 15 years of being involved in youth activities in churches and sports clubs in the UK, its not an exhaustive survey, by any means, but similarly I would think there is enough even in these responses to reflect on the experiences of young adults in churches. The questions that arise are:

  1. Does Youth Ministry grow old with the young people – or are young people supposed to make the transitions themselves – ie hop from group to group as they get older?
  2. If Youth Ministry is meant to be significant to young people – why is it the first, it seems, to go when other things take priority? There is due reason for school work being so, but if sports clubs clash – why do ‘they win’? – if they have more meaning, does ‘youth ministry’ need to find ways to mean more than what could be a free social night and a few games.
  3. Young people are hugely perceptive of changes, and because they are constructing their identity ( Wyn/White) they make interpretations of the decisions made on their behalf – especially ones they dont control or feel an injustice.
  4. Young people wont stay to something that makes them feel younger than they are, but are happier to raise their game and be challenged.
  5. Young people felt quite sad that they have to leave things for reasons out of their control.
  6. Young people want responsibility and opportunities and find these elsewhere if they’re bypassed from them in the church groups.
  7. It shouldnt remind them of school, but they want to be challenged, we have got to make our youth ministry and work provision around different educational methods and approaches ( informal), learning styles , and if its a faith group use a variety of ways of forming about faith – can faith be ‘taught’ in all learning styles? 
  8. Connecting with adults on a consistent basis matters. No one said that the person has to be young, trendy, or relevant. Consistency was far more important.

So, a few thoughts on why young people stayed in youth groups & provision, why they left, and reflecting on these. They may not be rocket science. But as youth provision is a voluntary attendance, then its not about always trying to make it bigger and better, but to make it meaningful, consistent and better.

‘That doesnt sound like my church!’ Challenges in large church youth ministry

I was pulled up in my tracks today by someone who actually reads these articles. They told me that they like what they read about what I say about youthwork, young people and mission – ‘but when you talk about church thats not really my experience!’ – I have different problems to what you describe..!

And the person is right, of course, no two churches are the same, no two young people are the same, no two groups of young people are the same or are two volunteers the same. But in the main, there are popular threads of conversations in youth ministry. Or at least there seem to be. Usually regarding churches with limited resources and ideas, with young people who leave, or who are non existant beyond the age of 14, or are confirmed then conspicuous.

But thats not the situation everywhere!  

The view from where I am is that in the main there are only fairly small churches around, especially in the counties, and even in the few cities in the North East, there arent many. So in the main, its a common view of few youthworkers, few resources and generally overworked clergy. It has also been my experience in the main as a youthworker in churches, mostly small churches. But there are exceptions to this, and exceptions which might present young people and youthworkers with a whole host of different problems, challenges and opportunities.

About a month ago I went to one of those large contemporary city churches, its name will remain nameless. It was an impressive building, converted from a building near a hospital, with comfy seat, lighting rig, 4Khd cameras, and a soft rock band that was accompanied by the dulcet atmosphere of dry ice wafting around. A very different space to the usual three persons and a dog wailing along to the organ, or small church syndrome. This was big ambition church syndrome. I found out later that the building was converted to fill it, not the other way around, they didnt have a large congregation and needed the building. Wow, ambitious.Image result for mega church But that wasnt all. Because during the service there was a christening, and a childrens talk. During one of these ceremonies, dedicated to children and their families was the sentiment that the ‘church invested in their childrens work, because ‘we’ (or should i say God), gave us the £2million to give them some great classrooms and spaces to have activity’ – this was said during the service! 

So, what might this imply for young people? – or their maybe beleagured youthworkers and volunteers (which they said there was plenty) – Is this added pressure? possibly. Regardless of whether that amount of money should be spent on a church building, suggesting that it is ‘for the youth and children’ or because of them, seems to take under resourcing to a whole new level of depravity.

But what of the well-resourced church, full of young families, with many groups of children and young people at each age group, what of the church of a 1000 volunteers, of a myriad of activities to keep up? – What in that situation are the challenges? On one hand the kind of investment in activities, personal interest, faith and spiritual development, where this occurs, according to Christian Smith will be usually replicated with increased participation and attendance ( Soul Searching, 2005, p262), but what might be the pit falls?

Maybe you recognise your church as being a large one, you might be a youth minister in such a situation, and you know what this is like. Having many groups to run per week, lots of personalities as volunteers to manage, continued expectation on groups to grow in number, or for new ideas to be put into fruition. Or even, still, the same pressure in the small church – just keep the young people, or at least that ultimately is the expectation parents have. It might be that for the 100’s of young people it becomes very difficult for them to actively participate in the life of the church – as theres no 100 vacancies for roles, or gaps to be given leadership responsibility, when this might be the case in a smaller one.

If there are distinctions between mega church youth ministry and small church youth ministry, then I am not the person to know what they are, but please do share below and begin a conversation about it. In one way, the resources on youth ministry from the USA might be more applicable as these tend to be written in large church settings. There may be learning required from larger churches here in the UK to others in the same situation that might be worth sharing. Whilst there might be pros/cons about large/small churches and young peoples discipleship – ultimately young people dont really have a choice – that is until they can leave and go to a diametrically opposite type of church. The reality is that they are part of whatever church culture their parents encourage.

So, challenge accepted, gauntlet laid down. What are the opportunities and challenges in the UK’s large churches for young people?




10 Tips for creating a Healthy Youth Ministry

For a moment, stop and think about what it is like for a young person in the present day. If reports are to go by, then incidents and reporting of anxiety amongst young people are on the increase, as a result, young people may just have their self protection antenna switched to a firm on. But then again thats the same for most of us adults, for it is usually in our own self protection to avoid situations that are unhealthy, or damaging, if we can help it. In the recent report from the Fuller institute, 1400 churches were interviewed who had kept young people from the age of 14. One of the key findings was that young people stayed when church was a healthy place

Healthy churches are the subject of Peter Scazzeros books, it was also what Rob Bell was talking about on a recent Nomad podcast – it seems that burned out ministers are now making ministries out of preventing others from burning out too. Cynical or not, the questions about the health of our churches, and ministries have to be asked. Would it be possible to say that the church space where young people go is emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy place to learn, to become responsible, to flourish, to be accepted in the church community, to be treated as an adult at the appropriate time. How might we work towards this?

A friend of mine, Jenni Osborne, saw my previous post on the Fuller research and asked a colleague in a local church for 5  top tips to keeping a church based youth club healthy and thriving, and came up with these:

  1. Plan in advance. I know, we youth workers are all fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants types (I’d bet we’re not actually) and love to plan on the fly because there’s just not enough hours in the day! Well….Image result for plan
  2. Look after your team. Invest in your team, find out what makes them tick, uncover their strengths and encourage them to play to them. DO NOT EXPLOIT THEM…
  3. Look after yourself. If you are going to be in this job for more than a metaphorical 5 minutes then you absolutely MUST MUST MUST look after yourself. Eat well, sleep well, rest well, manage others well, be managed well, go on training for the latter two, ask for some help with managing your diary for the middle two, learn to cook for the first! It’s too easy to give in to the stereotypes of late night eating of mostly brown food, burning the candle at both ends with Friday night youth club and Saturday morning Prayer Breakfasts or whatever your picture looks like! It’s too easy to allow the thing that yp have said to you or about you to prey on your mind, refusing yourself sleep or rest. Much harder but much more worthwhile to learn how to cook, to rest, to recharge, to say NO. You’ll be around for many more young people!
  4. Don’t be afraid to challenge your young people. Youth clubs are not all about eat-as-much-as-you-can with a side ordering of table tennis/Wii Sports Resort/pool/Jungle Speed. OK maybe they are, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also make room for challenge about how they live their lives: use fairtrade fortnight to challenge their consumer habits; use a ‘sleepover’ activity to highlight homelessness; get them raising money for a local charity or one that sponsors a child/village/cow (providing a cow for a family rather than sending the cow to school!); give them space to ask Big Questions about the existence of God, why things happen the way they do, or what happens when loved ones die; sit with them while they try and process painful stuff. Pray with and for them, the effects will surprise you!
  5. Invite your Church Leaders onto the team or along to a regular ‘Q&A’ time. Young people want to be listened to, not only by you but by others who say they care. If your church leadership has invested their time and money into you to work with their young people, then they are saying they care and yp will want to see that in action and be listened to by them.

I might add a few others to this list to make it a total of 10; which relate more broadly to the culture of the church, and the youth leader themselves:

  1. Working at 80% might give you the energy for 2-3 more years. Strategise the odd session off to train and supervise volunteers. Not every week has to be youth club night.
  2. Provide yourself with the kind of opportunities to be challenged that you also give the young people – so do a course, study, write or read
  3. Delegate. ‘Wait’ is an acceptable response to a request, delay a yes or a no, if you can.  ‘Yes’ might add to your ‘to do’ list, it might also take the opportunity away from someone else. It might also take you away from family time, time off or doing something that actually was important. like phoning a young person or spending time with someone. Image result for delay
  4. Ensure as much decision making about the nature of groups, curriculum and events and activities is given to young people. A healthy place is one where there are no sudden shocks, that might affect them, like all of a sudden their younger sister is allowed to join the group. (what a night mare!) Young people will opt out if they smell a rat, a fake or fear. Though this doesnt mean that risks arent taken.
  5. Balance space with activity, activity is space. Leave spaces for conversations for young people to have conversations with themselves but also with the leaders that seem as young person directed as possible. Every week neednt be 100% high energy, high adrenaline mega programmed to its final 2 1/2 seconds.  Trust in conversations, and keep trusting them, its a basic human need to be listened to, listen intently to your young people. Just give space. Have a weekend away, just to be on a campsite, no talks, no activity, just space to walk, cook, explore, spend time together. Brave. well why not?

So – develop the practices of a healthy youth ministry, be aware of your health, spiritually, emotionally and physically, and then also regard the health of your young people. Challenge practices in the church that become of high anxiety, stress and pressure, whether this is the ‘numbers game’ the ‘success’ game or the growth one. Cultivate health, depth, gifts and participation instead. You never know, it might produce longer lastingness.

any other suggestions? – please share them here for others:

Implications of Young People Opting in or Opting out of faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But do young people opt in too? 

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

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

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

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

There is a third group of young people.

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

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

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


Bryan, J , Human Being, 2016

Macadams, The Stories we live by, 1999

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

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2005

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

Wyn & White, Rethinking Youth, 1997

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


How spiritual are young people on the streets?

I have spent the evening putting together some slides for a training session I am leading tomorrow with a group of detached workers in Newcastle. One of the topics they would like me to cover is that of ‘developing spirituality with young people during street based work. A few years ago i posted the following article ‘The Street as a context for Theology -which was quite popular, its here if you would like a read (http://wp.me/p2Az40-5w). But this evening i was reflecting on developing spirituality with young people and it caused me to reflect on a few questions:

Are young people spiritual – and how, as detached youthworkers, would we even know?

Of course the answer is yes, but without the building to be a guide ( ie young people attend a church space, therefore they must be) , being confident that young people are articulating spiritual thoughts, reflections and ideas might only emerge in conversation – or as they react to things happening in the world, such as creation, or loss, or celebration. As i was thinking however, I wonder whether in regard to matters of faith, there needs to be a new typology describing them.

  1. The ‘Opting-outs‘ – these are the young people who have been part of church culture through family links and are ‘mostly in’ but could ‘opt-out’ – and a huge amount of energy is put in to ‘keep’ them in.
  2. The ‘Opting – ins’ – This could be a great number of young people who are ambivalent but could be interested in faith – and they go to open youth clubs, attractive after-school clubs, or messy church type activities – they could ‘opt-in’ and might not need too much convincing if there is a healthy place, positive relationships and they fit within the culture via friendships. Yes, they have friends who are ‘in’ – so these young people might ‘opt in’
  3. ‘Distant Opting-ins‘  – These young people have few faith connections, aside from statutory provision, such as RE in school, and have attended a few ceremonies in churches, their friendship groups have no faith adherents, neither do their family. They may have tried to articulate faith, but haven’t been given a space to do so. To become ‘religious’ they would have to go ‘against’ family and friendship values and would have to explain themselves.

Generally, young people I have ever met on the streets have been in category 3. They are ‘Distant opting in’, not through any fault of their own. Often churches have abandoned the estates they live in (or are only a gathered community in the estate), they have no connection with a local church, or faith community, through even a friend, or family member. The opportunity that detached youthworkers have on the streets is that they get the opportunity to connect with young people who are left aside by most churches, deemed too hard work, or ‘disengaged’ – and so the task is to give ‘distant-opt in’ young people opportunities to opt in. Image result for curiosity quotes

By raising awareness & curiosity, by engaging in conversation, by listening and meeting them in their space, by listening to the faith they already have in the world – such as gambling, or consuming, or competition – what might be their religion already? what do they worship? phones? friends? football? how is it displayed – in clothes, technology or tattoos?


Image result for tattoos of spirituality

Christian Smith in ‘Soul Searching’ (2005) says that “The religion and spirituality of most teenagers actually strikes us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations and structures of the larger adult world in which adolescents are being socialised”

It stand to reason then, that a young persons situation in regard to faith and spirituality is most likely to reflect their parents. It could be presumed that a young person might rebel against these to join a faith community – but if this is what faith communities are encouraging without conversing with parents also, then theres something to reflect on. But if their parents have limited experience or sympathy with faith then its as likely the young person may not either – this isnt rocket science – but as we encounter young people on the streets and begin to explore and raise awareness of spirituality it is worth reflecting on further. But how might this happen? – well none of it happens without creating positive safe supportive relationships with young people – the basics of detached.

It might be possible to rely on the same ‘methods’ used for categories 1 and 2 above – but usually these look like programmes and buildings, and so these are less likely to be successful – they also tend to be packaged with high levels of expectations- ie ‘if you do x, then young people with think y’– so, we might need a whole new tool box of items for spiritual exploring on the streets.

  1. Trust in conversations – Young people will often , if they trust you, and are wanting to, take the conversation to a place where they are comfortable – if this starts to include matters of faith, of personal opinion, of religion, of ceremony – then organically prompt and provoke through questions and listening.
  2. Redeem spaces – Often the case is made to take young people away from their environment to explore faith, the residential, or the ‘event’ to be invited to – alternatively What we can do on detached is to help young people think about faith and spirituality in the space – in the urban landscape. Can we light candles on the footpaths, or create intentional spaces of silence, or something else appropriate to the space. From red lights in the traffic lights, bus shelters or barbed wire – all can be used in conversation to enable reflection on humanity and something about God.  Can we hold open ‘services’ in a place during an evening and see if young people who are also there might opt in.

Whatever we do to help young people to explore spirituality on the streets it will involve us taking a risk. We take a risk by being there in the first place – and to be receivers of young peoples curious or boundary testing questions, it is usually unlikely that faith and spirituality is the first thing on young peoples minds – unless we set the agenda for this- so, its going to take time, patience, listening and also be ready to take or pose an opportunity through a question or conversation, we learn first, and become attuned to young peoples spirituality first.

Developing Spirituality on the Streets – what ideas might you have? Theres more on developing Spirituality with young people on the streets in ‘Here be Dragons’ details of which are the menu above.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: