‘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.

Are young people more perceptive than we realise?

About 10 years ago I was asked to help out with a friends research on their MA course. Ill keep it a little confidential, but the remit in the task was to prepare a session in 30 minutes or so with a group of young people in a room, whom I had never met beforehand.  There was no inclination of theme, of age of the participants or anything, but that in 30 minutes I was asked to prepare using a range of materials a session.

What I didnt know is what my friend was looking for. Neither did I know what she would be asking the young people about it afterwards.

I think she asked about 6 people to contribute and do something similar.

What she discovered that the young people appreciated the most about any of the sessions was that the youthworker had made them feel welcome, had created an atmosphere (with someone who was a stranger) given them opportunity to talk, be heard and respected and all of this led to them as young people appreciating the session further. The young people perceived the tone of questions, welcoming handshakes, body language, eye contact, confidence and also spaces to contribute. In short, what I didnt realise was how perceptive the young people were in these sessions. What I also realise now is that the culture that is created in the spaces of youth work are far more important to the ongoing flourishing of young people and their education informally, than we might imagine.

As youthworkers we are maybe told to be authentic, to be real, to get young people to accept us for who we are as adults – ie they spot a phoney. They do, but their level of perception doesnt end there. It continues into how we welcome them, how we greet them, how interested we are in them, how we open up the space to let them contribute, how we respond to questions, how we let them have questions, how rushed we might be when we talk to them- these all create an impression and form a culture within a setting.

If young people notice the minute things, then theyll even more notice the following:

  1. unkept promises, big ones and little onesImage result for perception quotes
  2. frequent changes of youthworkers
  3. limited participation
  4. no control or decision making
  5. high tunnelling into activities with limited choice
  6. youth leaders not interested in them
  7. changes to programmes and clubs and groups without consultation
  8. being judged.

and many more. And these things are fairly obvious, of course, young people will notice these things, but more to the point it becomes even more important to create an appropriate culture within youth

These things are fairly obvious, of course, young people will notice these things, but more to the point it becomes even more important to create an appropriate culture within youth ministry, so that young people in their faith exploring and journeying, as well as personal and social development can be encouraged. The effect on little things is noticed, what about things that we as adults might not think is big, but a young person is huge – like splitting up a group or changing its time, made even worse if young people have had no control over it.  Creating the right kind of culture in a youth ministry setting might be counter cultural to the church – but thats ok if youth ministry has to take a prophetic edge, so what if youth ministry creates a culture where:

  1. Having a question is ok, having good questions is commended
  2. The decision makers are the young people
  3. It trusts in conversations
  4. Leadership is open to everyone
  5. It is a space of welcome and acceptance
  6. Mistakes are acceptable consequence of taking risks
  7. Young people become creators of programmes and participants of them
  8. Young people are adults in the making, youth ministry needs to project the next stage with young people, not hold them back to a previous development stage.

Its easy to have a set of ground rules for youth groups, sometimes easy to get stuck into normal patterns of behaviour, and these start to set the culture of the group, and only when something is different might people notice. But young people – especially if Wyn and White are right – at a time of ‘youth’ they are making constructions of the dynamic between themselves and organisations ( Wyn /White 1999).

Image result for culture

So all the while in every moment, they are beginning to and are making interpretations of what is going on. Such as ‘ do these people like me?’ ‘ why is no one actually listening to me’ ‘ does this youthworker or church care about me’ – young people are fundamentally hugely perceptive. And it doesnt stop at groups inside buildings, they are doing it all the time on the street, and so as we meet them there we create a culture in the interaction we have sometimes in the fleeting moment, because young people are ‘reading’ us all the time.

Young people are highly perceptive, its part of their nature and development. Its something to treasure and make good use of and develop. Its in the little actions that they will notice so much of what we believe and value about them, not just what is said.

Clergy; dont give up on youth ministry, but its not the complete answer to the church growth problem

The church is talking itself into a problem about its numerical attendance, and its mind, sadly is focussed on this. Fuelled by almost quarterly surveys on church attendance, ‘church growth’ has become one of the key priorities running throughout its stated objectives, and vision. Whilst any organisation is reliant on its members for its survival, responding only to the needs of that membership is counter productive – especially when the cause of the organisation is to hand.

The Church isnt for its members, it is in the ‘business’ of world transformation.

However, and with this in mind, it is then worth reflecting on why Youth Ministry is seen as one way of enabling the maintenance of church growth to happen, and being brave enough to suggest that it isnt the answer the question it might be looking for – not that youth ministry doesnt do good in itself. Here are a few reasons why Youth Ministry isnt the answer to the church growth problem, or more so, here might be factors which if thought through further in the church as a whole then it might be more likely that churches could be places where young people are more likely to thrive in discipleship & faith, and maybe this is what should be the driving force.

  1. Youth Ministry isnt the answer to church growth if the whole culture of the church isnt changed, to one that enables the generation of faith and discipleship to be culturally core.
  2. Youth Ministry is not the answer in a church if there is only 2 years funding for the professional
  3. Youth Ministry is not the answer to church growth if young people are not given reasons to stay in it beyond attending
  4. Youth Ministry is not the answer if it doesnt connect deeply with young people, giving tools for discernment and discipleship in the space of the faith in the world, not just a fun time and a god slot (yes this still happens), but even this deep faith might be at odds with the faith of those who ‘attend’ church.
  5. Youth Ministry is not that answer if it doesnt occupy a space practically with young people through their crisis.
  6. Youth Ministry is not the answer if it doesnt fight with the powers that cause the oppression of young people, even in the church, but also in their family and social life.
  7. Youth Ministry is not the answer if it genuinely believes that young people can be free to make choices, and one of these may be the possibility of them leaving the church
  8. Youth Ministry is not the answer if the high points of young peoples faith experiences happen outside of the week by week. Somewhere else might become more interesting.
  9. Youth Ministry is not the answer to church growth whilst young people seen as numbers and targets.
  10. Youth Ministry is not the answer to church growth, because it is seen as separate from ‘real church’  and separation doesnt work.

I do know of a churches where having good youth ministry enables families to attend and stay and the church is growing, and i would hazard a guess that where a church is in a niche position – ie the only charismatic church, and has an influx of people into the area such as a university town, then this flow of people is likely to be attracted to the good family work, but even in these kind of situations, large numbers of children in sunday school age groups doesnt necessary mean large number of 16-18 year olds in youth groups – and most of these are likely to move away (to a different university)

The challenge in non university towns (with low achievements) is that a static population has the potential of long term discipleship – but does the church have a presence in FE colleges? or 6th form centres? And in towns of high achievement where students move away – the task is different again. Understanding local culture is vital for long term discipleship.

There are situations where youth ministry is no doubt helpful, maybe it plugs a few gaps in the leaking sieve of young people from the church. But without a radical rethink of the culture, the format of church itself as a learning or empowering organisation youth ministry is not the answer to the church growth problem.  Is it the answer to helping young people find faith? or for developing spaces of mission in the schools? is it a good thing? Yes. But it might not be the solution to the problem.

But it might not be the solution to the problem of church growth.

The problem with church isnt that it isnt growing, it is forgetting that it has the task of being goodness in the world, youth ministry and young people can join in this in collaboration.

If churches are losing heart for youth ministry, as a recent consultation exercise by youthscape (details here: https://www.youthscape.co.uk/research/publications/losing-heart) set out to begin a conversation on. Then maybe theres a element that when youth ministry was meant to be and proclaimed of itself to be the fix to church growth that everyone was looking for, to actually achieve this requires a considerable extra amount of effort that on face value, and this aspect of cultural and sytematic change is something that the church as an organisation was limited in their acknowledgement or preparation to do. And thats even before thinking about developing work with families, with developing work with young people who the church doesnt know yet and enabling church to become a culture within young peoples existing groups (rather than a leap they have to make to).

So Clergy, dont give up on Youth Ministry, love it for what good it can do, the adventure of it.


‘Confirmation’ as an opportunity to launch relational group discipleship.

A few years ago I had a conversation where I caused a Vicar to cry. I’m not proud of it. It wasnt clever of me, neither did i think i was being provocative, neither insensitive, or insightful.

The vicar was recalling the progress that they had in their local school and describing the process of advertising, ‘selecting’ and developing the confirmation group in a local cofe school, they were a few weeks into the course and getting ready for the ceremony itself, or it had happened a few weeks previous, i cant remember exactly, but you get the picture.

The church also had a youth group, which met on a weekday evening. A kind of open club, with largely social games, activities and some faith content or activity, nothing ‘heavy’.

The Vicar was talking about how the hope was that the young people who had been confirmed would start going to the youth group. for no other reason that he would let them know about it, and some of their friends in higher school years go to it.

What i said was ‘well, _________, the problem with that is that you have built the relationship up with them, created a group space for them as a group where they feel safe, and comfortable discussing possibly deeper spiritual things and after being confirmed, this group is dispanded and they dont have the opportunity, in this group to continue being discipled by you’ – The youth group isnt the place for the kind of discipleship, effectively, that the Vicar in this situation had actually started. Yet they had begun to create a group where young people trusted them and a space opened up to discuss things of faith. The most intentional faith group for mostly ‘unchurched’ young people in the diocese. It’s then that they gulped, took breath and were on the brink of tears.

I didnt think this was a particularly rocket scientist thing to say. But it revealed something of a ministry and activity first culture in the church and relationship second. As long as young people attend ministries, doesnt matter which ones, or how, then this is the requirement. Or a failure to recognise what was being created in the form of group discipleship, and relational connection with the member of the clergy, and no real desire to maintain this, or see discipleship through beyond a ceremony.

Practically; What if every confirmation group is started at a time – near the beginning of year 6 so that there can be a whole year of establishing a group dynamic before they head to secondary school. Can clergy dictate this with the school?

What if it occured outside of the school and in a local church/community centre – so that this space becomes familiar to the group and part of its identity – (when confirmation groups in schools become harder to maintain. )

What if the young people know from the outset that part of the confirmation is a continued process of learning and developing after confirmation ceremony and that they have to think of activities and discussions they want to discuss further once the formal confirmation group is finished.  Just so its not just to be thought about at the end..

What then, if every confirmation group (say there is 10 in the group) continues to meet with the clergy & volunteer once a month or fortnightly after the confirmation ceremony for 6-12 months – what kind of group work is developed, what opportunities for discipleship would this bring, what training for formational leadership could this spurn in them? (or alternatively they could ‘go’ to a youth group) 

What if this group continued to develop spiritual curriculum, relationship and faith throughout the next 7 years- building on what they started – yes a few might ‘drop off’ but it might be the best way of ensuring some kind of small group for young people of a certain age as they progress through the ages?

How do you go about helping the group continue? ask them, plan with them, pose scenarios and options. (dont buy a resource, every group will be different to the previous)

Then another group starts the next year.

And the next.

Until every year group has one group in it of 6-10 young people – all are different because of different interests, issues, choice of topics, learning methods. 1 group per year band. Yes they might mix and do socials together, but they have key group identity as the confirmation cohort of the year 20__. They neednt invite their friends to the group, in one way – that is what the open youth club is for, to a degree. (and inviting new people to this type of group rarely works)

Currently the church only keeps 1/3 of its young people.  If 6 year groups of 10 young people are confirmed at 11 (60) and say 2 of each group drop out, and only 8 of the 10 start. Then 6/10 in a group might just stay until they are 18. Especially if they are trained and discipled well, given opportunities to serve in the church (and change the world), develop skills and find their identity in the local church. I think from 1/3 to 6/10 might represent a 100% increase, and yes i know this is hypothetical. But if the scenario above is replicated then currently barely any who are confirmed are involved past 12.

Yes i know itll involve man/woman power and resources. But it might need 6 people (+ stand bys) to work with the clergy in each group, if they each meet once a month then this shouldnt be too much of a challenge. And if the oldest group – the ‘first’ ones once they get to 15-6, part of their discipleship is to mentor and help with the new ones… then theres a ready made cycle and further training ground for disciples.  What if this was core volunteering for the church, discipling young people. Not youthwork, not scary young people – but giving young people the opportunity to be discipled.

It might involve a change in culture. It might involve a re prioritisation of tasks, or a training of clergy in relational group work, education and some youthwork skills, or it might involve realising that the future of the church and young people into its future calling is staring at them in the face, but it means a shift to continually invest and build on the mechanisms in place, effectively building and using the young people who are effectively sent to us in the confirmation group and making the best of this gift. Honing and encouraging long term relational group work discipleship. The clergy cant be consumed with discipling young people , can they?  Well i guess this might have to be another culture shift, one like all the other ministries will yield long term results. And have more impact than a considerable amount of meetings and emails that clergy have to also deal with. Is it adding pressure to the clergy to do more, yes, well if people are concerned then they need to fill other gaps, to help out in this work.

It can work, ive seen it, it takes time, and desire and patience. Youth ministry isnt working, but confirmation as a ceremony and an opt in for young people to explore faith – might be an opportunity to develop, to reconise the gift horse that might be starring us in the mouth.