Does Youth ministry need to stop trying to be innovative?

What do churches mean when the job advert says ‘pioneering & creative’ – has someone before ran out of ideas? – and its a new idea that is always required?

My previous post exposed the frequency in which youth ministry adverts require someone to have innovation and creativity within their personality and skill set. It has been quite a well read piece, with a number of ensuing conversations, especially as innovation and experience and passion and qualification might be a mix often required, but almost now impossible to find. But one of the questions from this is, what wrong with ‘non’ innovative youth ministry – and maybe more pertinently – are there risks to trying to stay innovative?

There has always been the drive for the new idea – since 100 best ideas for youth ministry, 50 icebreakers, 60 great ways to talk about Jesus, 97 stories that will make young people cry and come forward to Jesus all were published (sort of) – it seems finding ideas is tantamount to the style of education and teaching in youth ministry. And it doesnt still stop…. because the vicar is still asked to do an assembly, the youth minister is asked to do ‘a service’ or talk – the market for ideas is still there. Ideas driven youth ministry is still alive and kicking.

The risk might be to forgo the ideas, the challenge might be to develop different patterns for youth ministry. The reflection might be on why ideas are crucial, and what is this saying about what we think about youth ministry or the church and its message? Are we afraid of what the gospel requires of us and young people, and wrap it up into something quite different? Does a drive for innovation cause us to forget some of the good stuff and ways of the past that were good, and are as or more appropriate now than before. Why the trend for innovation? and its bed-fellow ‘risk taking’?  Image result for innovation

A youthworker in the south of England, Loyd, shared with me their story and reflection on ‘risk taking’ on ‘innovation’ and the effect this had on him, his youth ministry and church. His story is as follows:

A few years ago I was at Soul Survivor with my youth group.  At that time I’d been in my post for 8 years (10 now), and was feeling tired and praying for direction.  You know the sort  . . . is it time to move on? switch gears? or dig in and keep going?  I went to the youth worker morning seminar, which was being led by two prominent youthwork/ministry leaders in the UK.  The session was all about the need to take risks in youth ministry and push to be innovative.
While I think that message is needed, I left the seminar feeling very tired and wanting to hang up the whole thing.  Bear in mind, 8 years prior my wife and I felt the call to leave our home in America and do youthwork in a rural village in the south of England.  We then spent the next 8 years carving out a niche for youthwork in that specific context.  I had previously worked for a megachurch in Atlanta, GA (9000 members, 3500 in attendance on Sundays.  We could easily take over 100 kids to summer camp, to get some perspective).  We had already taken a huge risk in moving to another country, giving up all we thought we knew about youth work (at least in an urban, megachurch, American setting) and started over.  We were now reaching 60-80 kids per week, most of whom are non-churched/non-Christian, and loving life.
Fortunately for me, I had an encounter with the Lord that weekend and gained some renewal/personal revival and some clarity about why I do youthwork in the first place (that’s a story for another time perhaps), but what’s relevant for this topic is that while there is a much-needed conversation about risk-taking and innovation, there’s just as much a need for us to talk about NOT taking risks–being consistent with young people, staying somewhere for a long time when possible, building up a youth work programme/ministry in a community that is sustainable long-term, making a real felt presence in a community, etc.’

I wonder, is this some of our reaction when there’s a drive to be ‘risk taking’? In these pages on this blog, I know I have communicated ‘developing dangerous discipleship’ or shared ways of helping conversations with young people take more risks. Can it be tiring to keep trying the something new. Has entrepreneurship and ideas taken youth ministry into a specific rabbit hole of pioneering and ideas creation. with the fall out being the burn out of the youth worker, who eventually runs out, and hopes to read a book or go to a conference, like the story above, just to get a new one.

I asked Loyd a number of further questions, based on his story;

What might be the issues with innovation/risk taking? for the youthworker, for the church/agency and for young people & parents ? 
L: ​Risk-taking and innovation are really valuable tools for youth work.  However, they must not be the only tools in the box.  The youth worker who is always taking risks will risk (sorry!) personal burnout, or frustration for young people, parents and line managers.  For instance, a youth worker who is always changing programmes, or frequently taking on risky projects will lose young people or parents who cannot cope with the frequent changes, or may lose confidence in those supporting the youth work.
Why is there a fixation with taking risks and being innovative? – does it reveal something we might be afraid of? – (being settled/complacency/getting ‘old’/ our own boredom) 
​L: The fixation is driven by a lot of factors: by media/social media obsessions with anything new and shiny; by the fear/anxiety we are not doing enough (cf. Mark Yaconelli’s work on youth work that is driven by anxiety vs driven by love); and as you touched on, it can also be driven by our own boredom.  To this, I would counter–sometimes it is enough to journey with young people and lead them toward the love of God.  Sometimes (not always) boredom is ok.
What about with older young people – could actually growing ‘old’ and settled and having a youth ministry that is ‘grown up’ and not trying to be new could exactly be whats needed… ?
​I have the privilege of working in a rural setting where I often get to see young people grow up from primary school age into young adulthood.  Our youth centre has a trusted presence in the community, simply because we’ve now been here for a long time.  There are some things you can only do in ministry once you’ve been present for 10 years.  The flipside to that, of course, is that it can become ‘old hat’ and there is a real danger of complacency or a lack of self-awareness.  So there is always a need for reflection and evaluation.
What happened when you stopped trying to be innovative? (for you, for your young people?)
​I think there is a certain amount of freedom in not basing your youth ministry on gimmicks or fads.  Tools, resources, and even innovation are great if used wisely, but they will never replace the value of time spent with young people listening, offering prayer, unconditional acceptance, and offering your truest self in love and integrity.Image result for innovation youthwork
Maybe there’s something to be said about being innovative, what if the previous youthworker ‘lost’ all the young people, maybe there is a different way to do things, maybe also there’s a different way to do things that the management and church want, that a new youthworker has to do – that the previous one didn’t do. But innovation is contextual too. A drive to do something different than a God-slot, for example might be ‘innovative’ , yet a youthworker who already doesn’t do this, and has open spaces for conversation with young people, might be already doing the ‘innovative thing’ that is being suggested, already taking the risk. But from the front, from a blog piece and from the perspective of a resource, this isn’t always known.
Thinking slightly differently, what if innovation came not out from resources but from the conversations with young people anyway? What if its innovative to just be with young people in the present, what if its innovative to listen and do empathy? None of these are new, just good, solid, open, young people orientated youthwork that has been going for a very long time. But if that sounds innovative, then so be it. Maybe its innovative to value young people, not the programme, value young people as spiritual, not lead them to a spiritual place, to hope and dream with them and create provision together. Maybe its innovative to not think of the what next and just be. Innovative to slow… right.. down and offer young people silence instead of crazy busy change.
Should we take risks with young people- by doing youthwork we might already be. Sometimes we just need to stop and remember how risky working with young people already is. Sometimes we might remember that young people grow up with intensive change, one thing we can that is risky is to be the same.
Additional:  Having written and reflected on this for the last 24 hours or so, I have began to think on how improvisation might be whats required for youthwork practices, instead of innovation, for if our youthwork is about increasing participation, about conversation, about relationship (which may be the innovative step in itself) – then developing from within the space as the conversation occurs is the task of improvisation, building from where the action is. As Rev Hamilton said in 1967, we need strategy from the point of action, externally imposed ideas and strategies are not appropriate for young people who are nothing like us. So, If its improvisation, rather than innovation we need as youthworkers, then do have a look at the link on this above, and the ‘improvisation’ category tag on this site.
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How should a church start working with young people? (pioneering advice from 15 youthworkers)

There is a stark reality to be had. Most churches in the UK are not places where there are many young people, and this appears to be an issue. An issue so much that ‘young people’ is a strategy for some dioceses, and also probably part of the motivation for the Church of England recruiting and appointing a youth evangelist in the last 2 years. So, for many there is a church problem with young people. And it has to be that way around.

I am encouraged though. Encouraged by the pockets of endeavour happening where spaces and places of faith are being opened up with young people in communities, especially in the north east, that include after school clubs which have reflective meditative moments around the cross, or where young people become involved in whole church activities like walks, social events, and eucharists, or where there are dedicated committed people open to learn from and journey in faith with young people. So, there are signs of hope, signs where young people are encountering and experiencing faith.

But these are the minority not the norm.

So, what advice would I give to a church – who was either thinking about, or having to think about starting work with young people? 

I put this question out to youth workers on social media the other day, here are some of the pieces of advice that returned:

(in no particular order)

  1. Look at the needs of the local community and look at your own resources  (@smoorns) 
  2. Don’t be afraid to start small. But start somewhere and learn as you go. Some things you try won’t work. Try stuff anyway. (@loydharp)
  3. Talk to God about youth, before talking to youth about God (@katneedle)
  4. Stop doing Sunday School and move to all age worship 10 years ago. (@revmadbull)
  5. (host it) Not in the church (@seanusx)
  6. Stop expecting young people to come to you, go to the young people. God sends us out for a reason! (@ccwgcyouth)
  7. Find them, listen to them, be with them, no commitments or invitations, just show up consistently. (Can I get away with that as a sentence?) (@abbiebeale)
  8. Make friends with other youth & community groups- uniformed, council, sports, schools. Find out what young people in area need. Pray. See which yp are hanging around in your area, where, when & why. Invest in the children your Church has. (@helenwolsten)
  9. What would welcome/hospitality look like to a young person in your home? If positive then replicate it and make church space part of this. (@stalbansdyo)
  10. Focus on serving young people, not on growing Sunday attendance. Trust your youth worker.. (@hdschutte)
  11. Pray. Pray that God will choose one among you who has appropriate skills and lots of energy! (@relmelrose1)
  12. Gently and with love. (I agree with everyone else). What are the community saying and how do you provide for them? (@lizskudder)
  13. Listen, look and seek beyond your own needs – what is it that you have to offer? (@mizenben)
  14. Find out where the young people are, get a bunch of loving and generous adults to hang out with them, and then build from these relationships. (@the267project)
  15. Take time to listen first, what are the needs and what resources do you have. (@youthworkermike)

It is often that the ‘Why’ of starting working with young people is focussed on alot more than the ‘how’ , though there are a number of ‘how to’ books that circulate , many of which reduce the long graft of working with young people to a series of formulas and ‘quick wins’ – when there is often no such thing.

One thing to be positive about, is that if you are starting from scratch, then you have the opportunity to try something new. As, it looks like previous attempts, and previous approaches didn’t work, or weren’t right for that time. Starting from scratch might also mean thinking differently, and not just about blaming the world for not being as christian as it used to be, but thinking differently about young people, faith, spirituality and mission. A new way might need embracing – that goes beyond strategies and attractional programmes. And embraces the incarnation, the improvisation and being vulnerable. As Richard Passmore says in ‘Here be Dragons (2013); Mission and Church are two sides of the same coin, and there is need to know stories, scripts and tools – but be ready to improvise in spaces where the wind blows (Passmore, 2013)

Being prepared with tools to understand the landscape, and tools that help with thinking on pioneering might be required, and Here Be Dragons might be one resource on this, especially as its written with youth work in mind (see the menu above for how to get hold of a copy)

One of the key aspects in developing something new is the waiting, the observing and the preparing phase, and im generally not sure this is done often or well enough. It is more common that a top down strategy is needed to be implemented to work with young people, and this dictates the process. Where, as many of the contributors above said, watching, waiting, listening and learning are key. As Friere said, we have to watch, for todays flower is different tomorrow. Watch and learn on how young people engage in their local community, or dont, watch and learn about how they gather in the parks and why, watch and learn about other community resources and partnerships. Learn about the needs of young people (and any school in the land will tell you these) – but also the gifts and talents of young people that you can enhance that arent being harnessed because of lack of opportunity, access or funding.

Participation is another key, (it might even be the key that unlocks the ongoing toolkit) How might young people be involved in an ongoing process. Dont just invite them to an event with free pizza, invite them to be part of a conversation to create youth provision (with free pizza) – theres a big difference. Between treating young people as consumers, or treating them with respect and as possible creators and contributors. After all, its not like we have any clue about young people (thats why you’re reading this and trying to get an idea or two..) ., but every young person is different, and, worth being specific not general. Work with who you have, not the fabulous young people it seems everyone else seem to have.

There is nothing wrong with trying to do an activity. As i said, the after school clubs and groups are fantastic, but both were started after conversations with young people, and not just an idea that was started without young peoples involvement. It might be necessary to, as someone above said, to ‘go to where young people are at’ – and so detached youthwork might be the thing to do to learn, listen and have conversations with young people. (Further training on this can be found above in the menu) . its a big difference between opening a space where young people have conversations, are given respect and feel a sense of home and then develop faith – from an activity space of high programme, curriculum and activity where it could feel not much different to school and where young people have little involvement, other that to kick off or out.

Some of the advice above is assuming that there are at least a few young people in the church. Some is about how we might in church convey messages that the whole of church is for everyone, such as the ‘all age service’ – and reducing the moments of separation, and encouraging children and young people to participate in the meaningful acts of the service. (And if the service isnt meaningful or inclusive for families (and families who want to be there)  then maybe theres a problem, … ) .

Starting something new with young people – go on, give it a go – be pioneering…

I hope this post has given you some pointers, pieces of advice, and been helpful to you if you are in the process of starting work with young people, especially from scratch. There is plenty on this site on detached work, participation, improvisation and mission, (search via the category tabs) as well as thinking differently about young people, so do have a look around if this interests you.

How might a church start working with young people?  It hasnt got to, but with the right thinking and approaches, even an ageing church can do something meaningful to help young people. Its just not about trying to entertain, more encourage, empower and embrace (a new paradigm) – sentiments that many suggested above.

LGBT and the Christian Story (Part 2) – Might drama make for a better evangelical story?

A few weeks ago I penned a piece that began with Peter Oulds assertion that ‘Evangelicals need a better story’  in regard to how situations of LGBT are dealt with, and the piece ended with my own story of growing up evangelical, and the predominant silence on the issue, a silence which meant that as a young person I had no way of assessing the few perspectives floating around that were predominately negative, and where the churches were represented as being guilty of committing spiritual abuse against individuals. If you want to read that piece it is here: ‘On LGBT and growing up Evangelical- the Silence’

This is the follow up, and tries to respond to Peters original question. One key motivation for me in regard to this piece, is that I was in conversation with a young person recently, and in asking them about ‘difficult issues that they face’ they said ‘well i have my spiritual beliefs over here, and my personal ones here, I go the Pride march locally as I want to support it and am for it, but its as if i have to hide being a christian, or keep my spiritual beliefs separate’. I paraphrase a little. But isnt it a shame that this was how a young person in a local church, growing up evangelical, dealt with what they saw were a divergence of beliefs and values? A better story for them would bring coherence. And i realise coherence isnt everything. But it might help young people growing up evangelical today. Amongst other things.

So, If there needs to be a better Evangelical story ;  Might that story need to be a bigger one? If the only evangelical story in town is to denigrate those who stand with pride marches as having a cartoon faith, and creating an either/or argument, then Peter is desperately right. The tone of the debate continues to sound nasty, and it is evangelicals playing the doom drums.

Where the conversations have been about Vicky Beechings book ‘Undivided’ which is getting alot of positive and dismissive comments.

But if I am brutally honest, when the battle lines are drawn in this debate both lived experience and good humanity become sidelined to bit part players in the great theological conversation. The lived experience, personal ministry and horrific experiences of oppression in the church do have to be wrestled with, are valid, dont mishear me.

If the lines are drawn as ‘lived experience’ vs ‘what the bible says’ then the rut might be stuck in for a while. The tools in what seems a battle have barely move on since i was a teenager. To be evangelical is to still believe in the Bible, yet no evangelical believes in the whole bible anyway, all is culturally appropriated. Thats still not, quite the point.

Yes it has taken 1000 words of preamble, and so this might be the first of a number of posts, but in terms of a framework for using the Bible, and also exploring inclusion, acceptance and participation in the faith – does a Theodrammatic framework help?

Of course, in thinking like this, we have to ask whether we want to find a way that accepting a theological premise that offers acceptance and inclusion with the LGBT community is what we want – if this isnt what is wanted, then no premise will have any affect anyway – because the heels are already dug in and no fancy 2000 word blog is going to change that. But if you humour me a little, and want to work with me to think about a better evangelical story, then read on…

How the Bible is used – is a question that doesnt as often get asked as ‘what does the Bible say’ , neither ‘what is the role of the Bible’ in this or any debate- and this may well be where thinking about Theodrama might also be helpful, in not just providing us with a better story, but also a way of understanding how the bible is to be used.

And one key aspect at stake is the use of the Bible, which, according to the critical piece above is phrased as having no need for interpretation, for only a literal one will do. How the text of the Bible is used is undoubtedly an issue. An issue that isnt picked up on by Ian Paul in this piece, but he does helpful highlight the potential factionary nature of the debates.

but moving on…

Can there be an evangelical story that is the different one that Peter Ould is trying to find?

I am wanting to believe there is.

I wonder whether the limitations described by Peter in his piece on ‘The Christian story’ are also related to the notion that ‘Story’ itself has limitations as a descriptor, its something I have talked about before here in this piece: ‘Does a 3 way Drama help?’ and I suggested that the limited nature of story is that it restricts the participative nature of God in the current story of humanity. It can feel as though what is described is as if the separate story of man and God only connects at certain points. And I am not sure thats Biblically or theologically accurate.

I wonder whether Theodrama helps to create a better story? Where it is not Story, but Drama that is the descriptor, and metaphor that is used to describe the Christian narrative, mission, expectation and purpose.

There will be references to Theodrama at the bottom of this piece, if you want to read further, but for the content of this piece I will try and keep things as fairly simple as possible. Thats if you’re not lost already, please try and bear with me on this.

In thinking about Drama, Balthasars original descriptions evoked Shakespeare (all the worlds a stage) and also Greek Philosophy, in which theatrical language was used to describe the human condition and place in the world. What Balthasar did with it, in 5 volumes was to suggest that the field of Theatre was both underused and devalued by the church, and that it had much to offer that had been sidelined. In particular Balthasar focussed on the nature of the relationships that occur between the script, the author, the playwright, the director, the audience and also the actors on the stage. Principally describing that the actor has both the freedom to perform on the stage, with knowledge of previous performances, the written script, (thats been tailored from the original piece of literature), their relationship with the author, relationship with the director – and also that their performance is being realised on a stage in front of the audience. I think we can get this in terms of a metaphor for the Christian life, in which the human responds in freedom to the author, director, audience, fellow performers and tries to act in a way that brings the audience closer in awareness to the script. (Wells 2004, p49, and Von Balthasar, Theodrammatic 1, The Prolegamma). Shannon Craigo Snell (amongst others) have alligned the various aspects of a theatrical performance to that of the Christian drama, with, the world being the stage, God the director/producer, and performer, and humans/christians as also actors on the worlds stage.

As with this analogy, different methods of theatre in your mind make give this metaphor variety. If you have improvised or interactive theatre, then audience participation and improvisation is high (as is the skill of the actor to incorporate massive disruption and divergence), the more bourgeoisie theatre with clearer boundaries (except when the audience is involved in a panto scene) permeates a different image of what performance is expected. Boals descriptions of Theatre for the Oppressed are helpful here, and I have not done theatre studies. But there’s a glimpse here on how Theatre has possibilities for a metaphor, especially as interactive and improvised theatre suggests that drama as Wells suggests celebrates and embraces an open and social future in a time to be explored. Theology in the Drama engages with time in its openness. (Wells 2004, p50)

A number of people have written further, using the metaphor of theatre as a way of bringing together free will, the creator/creature relationship, the answerability of Man to God, (Balthasar), the church (Nicholas Healy, Craigo-Snell, Wesley Vander Lugt), Trinity (Balthasar/Vanhoozer) calling and salvation (Vanhoozer, Balthasar), Ethics (Samuel Wells) and maybe as importantly for the discussion about the christian story, The bible itself (Craigo-snell, Balthasar, Vanhoozer, Wells, Vander Lugt, Trevor Hart)

Imagine for a moment that the Drama is the descriptor for the Biblical narrative and not story. And so, in that dramatic imagination, think about the historic and present timeline of the Biblical action, whilst there is a bit of a small dispute (and its not worth a discussion) on how many acts there are to play in the drama, for me its easier to think of the framework as five acts of God, four that have happened, and one that is in the future. These being

  1. Creation,
  2. Covenant,
  3. Christ,
  4. Church, and
  5. The Consummation

Hopefully, this still feels evangelical. The Bible contains reference to all of these in the canonical text, and what this time line also does, as Samuel Wells describes, is that it put us is in our place  – being in act 4 of 5 – and thinking about this is below. God is at work in all 5 of the ‘acts’, they are the acts of God that permeate through the Biblical text and these key moments. Though in this description Wells described adequately the chronology of the Biblical narrative, it is laking reference to the Biblical themes, and an alternative is suggested by Vander Lugt who presents it as:

  1. Formation (creation)
  2. Deformation (Fall)
  3. Transformation emerged (Isreal)
  4. Transformation Embodied (Jesus)
  5. Transformation Empowered (church)
  6. Re-formation (new creation)

This carries with it something of the impetus of our current situation. For, as people in the ‘church’ act of the drama, our prime role is of having been empowered to witness, empowered to sustain the faith, empowered in christlikeness and empowered to cultivate and make disciples. And transformation is expansive enough to include other salvific acts such as reconciliation, ransom, adoption, victory, liberation and justification..

This post is not about a theological understanding of LGBT per se, It is meant to be a way of re thinking the Christian story, to drama, and Gods Drama (Theodrama) that might ensure that the Evangelical Christian story, does itself have a better and i hazard a though, more accurate story.

So, for the remainder of this already length piece Ill focus on the question – If there is such a thing as a 5 part Theodrama – what part in this metaphorical drama does the Bible play? And as a result, what is the Bible for, especially given that literal uses of texts (albeit subjectively used) are often weaponised in an LGBT theology-off.

Within the Theodrama, it might be that the Bible is easily determined as the script. But not so fast. For the script of the Bible rarely corresponds to current events, neither do the current actors regimentally act it out. Indeed, the whole theatrical methaphor might itself be under threat in the questioning of whether the Bible is a script or not (Vander Lugt, 2014, 92-93) Although there are many compelling reasons for suggesting the bible as the script, Vander Lugt suggests that it is better to think of the Bible as  a Transcript and a Pre-script. Vanhoozer himself deviated from his original thinking on the bible as a script between Drama of Doctrine (2005), and Faith Speaking Understanding (2014).

With the Bible as a transcript, Vander Lugt paints a picture of God (the playwright) who has a comprehensive view of the whole drama, but guides certain writers in transcribing a long series of improvised performances in interaction with his own performance. Not all is recorded, only those which are events, interactions and notes that contribute to a cohesive story (the OT), and this theme continues by the disciples who improvise with earlier performances and then interact with God playing a lead role (Jesus), and then following this the playwright includes letter from assistant directors ( peter, john, Paul)  to their companies who provide creative ways of performing  in various situations guided by the producer (Holy Spirit), and all these become adapted for future performances, and some even include how the play will end – so actors are required to reincorporate by memory what is transcribed while pre-incorporating with hope and imagination elements from the ending. (A slight rephrasing of Vander Lugt, 2014, p94)

Actors therefore have freedom to improvise within the structure provided by the playwright, protagonist and producer, with God also involved in the ongoing, immediate and present – as he is and was always (it was only written down afterwards) . Scripture may not be a script, but a transcript of what was that serves as a pre script for ongoing fitting and appropriate performances in the future.

I cannot continue this piece any further. It will get longer than the Bible itself.

What I hope that thinking of the Christian story as Theodrama does is bring expansiveness of thought to the concept of the biblical narrative, using theatrical language that has this potential, and uses terms that many people who are adept at film/theatre or music fields can understand. It might be accused of over complicating what for decades evangelicals have harped on about making faith simple. The christian religion as Max Harris describes is a religion of the stage, and not just a religion of the book (Harris, Theatre and imagination) . This is not the place to discuss what it might mean to ‘perform’ the text in an improvised way, and neither is it the place to think about passages that are used in the heat of the LGBT text warfare.

In conclusion, The Bible is a central aspect of Gods own performances by which he reveals to us the theodrama and invites us to be participants in it. The Spirit speaks to, and with ongoing performers who respond to the directions and who are capable of fitting performances. Scripture records particular performances that taken individually and collectively provide a trustworthy transcripts of the theodrama and prescripts for continued participation in the theodrama today. Simple… ?  So what does this mean for the christian story? Its a drama where transformation is the impetus and we are improvisers empowered to perform it, in the everyday of now and tomorrow.

Conceived as a drama that requires participation, Theodrama is a drama that has a transcript written and has elements, themes and examples that form a prescript for todays performances- which are to be improvised in the current context, with the actors freedom, creativity and ongoing responsiveness to, as Vanhoozer describes, the Holy Author in the midst. What does this mean for inclusion, for participation in the drama- well its then a matter of who God speaks to and calls, who is directed and prompted, its a drama of participation in the mission and kingdom that requires Christlikeness and childlike responsiveness to obedience to that call. Is gender important? or transgender important – maybe thats for part 3…

Its Theodrama – with God still speaking and acting in the very present – its more that an old old story – but a present that has ongoing participation, responsiveness, action and transformation as its directives. Its a drama yet to be performed. How do we play the next scene? Is it love that compels or judgement?

To many young people- including the friend of mine – drama might bring coherancy, and expansion, to christian beliefs that remain evangelical, in its overall framework, provide insight into how we are participating in Gods drama that is in need of attentive and fitting performances that take into account the script beforehand, as well as the current context, trinity and the theodrama itself, the drama of Gods covenantal love for the world.

 

References

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, 3rd edition 2005

Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine 2005, Remythologing Theology 2010, Faith Speaking Understanding 2014

Shannon Craigo-Snell Command performance, rethinking performance interpretation in the context of divine discourse, modern theology, (16/4, 2000) pp 475-94

Samuel Wells, Improvisation, 2004

Wesley Vander Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014

Hans urs von Baltasar, Theodrammatique 1-5, 1980

 

10 threats and opportunities for churches as posed by Detached youth work

Recently I was in a conversation with someone who was asking about my working experiences (no it wasn’t a job interview), and having talked a little about my experiences in working in a call centre, then making the leap to begin youthwork and theology training, I then mentioned that I have been involved in detached youthwork for the best part of the last 12 years, in one shape or another, either through coordinating a project, trying to start detached work, or managing and volunteering detached work back in the north east. The person, seeming knowledgeable about detached youthwork (for I didn’t have to explain it, there’s a surprise) said;

Detached youth work, Thats a real threat to the church – isnt it?

Image result for 6 and 9
Picture of image of the number 6 or 9 realised differently depending on how it is viewed

I kind of hadn’t thought of it in this way before. But in the subsequent couple of weeks I have realised that aspects of detached youthwork that are threats to the church, are also aspects that present churches with opportunities. I guess its where it depends on how the threats are viewed, as threats or opportunities.

So, what might these threats/opportunities – or thropportunities be?

  1. Detached youthwork deals with the reality. Countless times I hear about the perceptions of young people in the local community, their behaviours and issues that are occurring. But the reality of being out on the streets is a whole different scenario. Its not always like this, but the reality compared to the perceived reality, or talked about stories is very different. A reality discovered about young people from them, is usually far different to what people who dont know them make it out to be. Especially in terms of situations like ‘boredom’ or ‘alcohol use’. A threat to church is that detached youthwork is about a reality of a situation. Also, it threatens the universalisms of ‘gen x’ and ‘millenial’ thinking for ministry that are used to shape programmes, detached youthwork deals in the local and reality. And this is also an opportunity. An opportunity to learn and listen from the local and real. There are no millenials on the streets of your town, trust me, just young people who want a bit of time and respect, and to be treated for who there are, and not what people expect them to be.
  2. Detached youthwork shifts the big idea. The threat here is that the source of the big ideas about developing work with young people gets shifted from the corridors of power erm ‘youth ministry planning meeting’ which is when adults talk about young people and try and discover an idea to work with them, and shifts the idea making space to the young people themselves. The threat is the loss of power, the opportunity is that young people become invested in and the opportunity for high participation and creativity into the nature, practices and regularity of next provision. Its a threat because the assumed knowledge held in churches gets shifted. ‘Why not find out what young people like, want and could contribute’ is a both an opportunity and a threat, isnt it?
  3. Detached youth work opens up the empty space. The threat here is that pandoras box of the local community may be opened up and the church may feel provoked as hasn’t been as vulnerable or willing to open it before , to experience the reality, or face its own cultural boundaried edges. But this is also an opportunity, of course it is, an opportunity to be provoked into cultural change, an opportunity to listen and respond, an opportunity to realise that the empty space is already a God at work in it space, and therefore an opportunity to join in the party already happening. Image result for empty stage
  4.  Detached youth work makes the relationship ministry. A report the other day suggested that clergy like being clergy because they cant stand being with people, that its a way of being able to stand aloof, now I imagine that might be the same for a number of professions. In youth ministry, with the exception of the summer camp or weekend residentials, there can still be a temptation to the let the game, talk, activity, do all the ‘talking’ and that it not be about personal conversations and educating through them. The Ministry could do all the talking. In detached youthwork, the gloves are off, for, aside from what might be spontaneous activities like a game of football on the park, detached youthwork threatens as it is about personal rapport, personal conversations, and developing a purposeful relationship with a or a group of young people. It is a threat because it asks more than ‘new skills’ but asks that we become closer to who we are with young people, we do the talking (and listening). There is only the possiblilty of relationship that exists in detached work, rather than the offer of a next game, activity or session. Its why young peoples questions on the street, whilst sometimes challenging, are versions of ‘can I trust you?’ Its the young people that are testing us and whether they can trust us in that place. The threat is that ministry doesnt do the talking, and that we as workers and people who are out there do relationship building as ministry. This makes it still an opportunity- doesnt it… ?
  5.  Detached youthwork does not raise any money. Sorry, I had to mention the ‘m’ word. But no its pretty difficult to make detached youthwork pay for itself. Given that its about vulnerability, reality and conversation, its kind of difficult to charge young people for it, unlike subs or tuck shops or other ways in which churches generate small amounts of income from young people in the clubs and groups. But that means that detached youthwork is free at the point of access, and that, makes it an opportunity for young people who cant attend groups, who feel awkward about paying.
  6. Detached youthwork values young peoples group making. Have you ever noticed how group work develops in churches, usually its a mix of people who like an activity, gather together to do it, so the choir, the homegroup, the bible study. In working with young people, often young people have to try and develop group work even though they can be a dispersed group for the rest of the week (not unlike a sunday morning congregation at times) , so any group work is slow because it has only an hour or so a week to occur, and normally most Sunday nights are ‘storming’ events in the group cycle, and only over a weekend residential, or some collective activity does further group work happen. I wonder whether we attribute God to nights when good group work happened… ‘look how they worked well together, im sure God did this’ , it could be more sociology than spirituality as to why a group of young people functioned. Image result for group developmentDetached youthwork meets and tries to work with young people in the groups they have already chosen, spent time with and created for themselves. They are not created groups through a ministry practice, but groups in which young people have already found an identity, role, space and support from, and so detached youthwork if we do it well, forces us to recognise the possibility and strength of this already established group and try ourselves to become accepted as part of it in the way they might want us to be. But detached youthwork values that young people can make their own groups, find sanctuary and space to be in their own groups and as an opportunity to meet and connect in and with them, taking the pain out of trying to force group work upon a gathered group of young people.
  7. Detached youthwork connects churches with the other 95% of young people. (Scripture union suggest that churches are only connecting with 5% of the young people in the UK) I guess that’s the opportunity. It is more of a reality that detached youthwork may help connect churches with the 10% of young people who are out on the streets. It is almost guaranteed that none of these young people are the usual sunday youth fellowship young people. Its also as guaranteed that even if the church is involved in local schools assemblies or groups, there’s likely to be better conversations with young people on the streets, and this is where there’s the greatest likeliest long term ministry to be started from. There are projects in the UK who now have a small number of voluntary and paid leaders who were all the ‘destructive’ kids in school, but who with a dollop of patience, listening and availability for conversation over a long period of time from detached workers have flourished as part of a faith community. Far more than any in the ‘schools groups’. Detached work threatens the church, as it says, young people who no one else hopes for have value. It threatens the church because it asks the church to believe differently about young people and believe differently about the future leadership of the church and where it resides from. Its not the ‘other 95%’ of young people, but the 10% who have been left behind. Detached youthwork can be the standing in the gap people, the borders and margins, the opportunity to lift others and cause them to fly, even with previously clipped wings.
  8. Detached youthwork is a threat, because its unpredictable and open ended. Sadly in a world where the church has opted into ‘value for money’ ministries in which outcomes and outputs have to be tightly negotiated and planned for. Detached youthwork is a threat, for, like chaplaincy, it doesnt play that game. Detached youthwork may be the chaplaincy to young people on the streets, but it is a threat because it challenges the outcomes agenda. Yet it is an opportunity, because it challenges the outcomes agenda. It has the possibility of opening up the space, the empty stage and creating something new, improvised, that wasn’t thought of before, because that’s the tangent that young people trusted us with.  We might want to predict the number of sessions, hope for the number of conversations, plan for recruiting volunteers and measure the training hours, but to know whats going to happen with a group of young people in a period of 6 weeks? hmm… its a threat because it is open ended, but its also a possibility that being open ended might allow a church to follow and not lead, to be responsive and less in control, to challenge ‘value for money’ with values of ministry. It is therefore an opportunity of space creating within existing places instead of planning created spaces of expectations. Its not A + B to make C happen, but A + B and why not C what does…   Being open ended is an opportunity, but its also definitely a threat.
  9. Detached youthwork present a new lens for theology. When we explore, observe and feel the reality of life on the streets, when we’re in conversations and hear stories – we give ourselves a new lens with which to view scripture and the theology we held to. (and I know all experiences will do this) there is something about the fluidity of detached work and the same street occurences that we read about that Jesus and disciples had, that take on a new meaning through the lived experiences of detached work. It is also a lens from reality, from developing new conversations, from being involved in young people where they are, a lens where we ecounter God in the midst of the action, in the dark spaces on the streets. A lens of hope. It makes faith seem a whole load different and different from a Sunday shaped view of buildings, rows and order, or academia, reading and reflection (all valid, just different). Theology from the context of the streets, not just contextual theology for the streets. An opportunity and a threat.
  10. Detached youthwork is everyones game, not just young families and the young leaders. Having bought into the attractional game of youth ministry, where only Mr or Miss trendy can work with young people, detached youthwork is a threat to this. Image result for trendy youth leader

 I want you to think about when you were a young person. seriously. What kind of person did you want to connect with? Someone like you, or someone who liked you, someone who respected you and gave you time, or someone still trying to find themselves, someone who listened, or someone who wanted to only tell their own story?  Did it matter to you what age they were?  Detached youthwork is a threat, because its not for the young leader. No it really isnt. Its for those who are willing to be vulnerable and take a risk. Its for those who are good at talking and listening, for those who have a deep call to hope for young people. It is not a young persons game, because it is not a game, it is real. It is a threat to the gravitational pull to the attractional youth leaders, and an opportunity to take years of experience, life wisdom and patience, and even deep maternal or paternal instincts out onto the streets. It is an opportunity to be surrogate uncle and Auntie, and respected as an adult for being an adult. The best detached youthwork volunteers i ever had – they were in their 40’s and 50’s. And i have had some good 20 year olds too. With churches that are ageing, 50 year olds – come on, do more than be a street pastor once a month, get out and connect with young people on a weekly basis.

So, 10 aspects of detached youthwork, and maybe also open club work and chaplaincy type work, that feel as though they both present threats and opportunities to churches in the current context of missional practice. The good thing about threats is that they cause us to rise to a challenge, to take a risk, and provoke, the mission field of the streets is still pretty much open, and young people are still there. Some of these threats may help to take churches to a new place, should they be vulnerable to go and learn, some may be opportunities to do good in a local community, just being in the place of reality and opening up the streets as a space of opportunity is an opportunity in itself. Its a threat to often how mission has been ordered before, but thats not a bad thing. Surely?

If you’re up for starting this opportunity, and want some training or help with it, let me know, contact me via the menu above. Thank you for reading and sharing, and I apologise for the adverts below:

 

Learning to improvise within Christian Youth work & Ministry.

One of the Key stereotypes of a youth worker is their underpreparedness. Turning up late for meetings, with no notes. Planning the youth group on the way there in the car, so that no one knows whats going on.  In the following video, there are a number of youth worker stereotypes, the ‘tardy’ youth worker is often the one that most people relate to.

On a good day the youthworker might be able to ‘get away with it’ and there are those who view this kind of approach as one that involves ‘where the Spirit leads’ – however, you dont need me to say quite how many issues there are with this. Yet, the stereotype exists because its still common. What an under-prepared youthworker might say is that they are improvising within their practice. I completely disagree. It is not improvisation to hope something happens just because you turn up into the space. Thats almost just lazy. Under-preparedness might lead to a form of spontaneity, but it does improvisation a disservice.

In thinking about Improvising in youth work & ministry, and its something I have written on before,

this post explores the churchs future as one that requires it: http://wp.me/p2Az40-B3 ,

and the following post talked about making the transition from scripted and programmed to improvised youthwork , and how this occurred for me in a personal way.

What I havent explored further is the notion of what improvisation is, what it isnt, and how this is helpful in developing work with young people. especially as it is something that it might be worth taking a short detour into the world of theatre, for this is obviously where Improvisation comes from. The following I am going to look at improvisation and what it reveals to think of it theatrically,theologically and sociologically, hopefully it will be of insight to you in youth ministry and working with young people. Some of this is from my dissertation which explored this theme in more detail, at least it looked at Performance as a metaphor for Youth Ministry.

Theatrical Improvisation

Theatrical improvisation recognises that maintained within every live performance, the actor is completely free in how they perform. For, despite knowledge of the script, directing by the actor and awareness of their cues of others- they can put the entire performance, from Shakespeare to Mamma Mia! in jeopardy should they in full freedom ignore all of these, make a rude gesture and storm off. Or if they do not make the proper preparations. And this is in a relatively tight performance – the actor will have cues from other actors, music cues, stage and lighting ones. They would need to be obedient to the director, and also raise their performance to accomodate the live audience.  Even with all of these, they are still free. Free that is within a relationship between themselves, the script and the director. One that they to maintain a performance adhere within, normally.

Jerzy Grotowski, amongst others, re-develops the notion of a poor theatre, not unlike the original interactive and community theatres. Saying that in a stripped back existance, theatre is just about an encounter between persons. He makes the claim that putting actors onto a stage with a scenario they have created, then their performance will be as good¹.  What Grotowski argues for is the development of skills for the actor so that they are able to improvise within this kind of open space of the stage. He uses the picture of the sculpture and the block of stone, saying that the rock already contains which is needed, it just need to be shaped. Rather than the artist and the empty easel. What improvisation is about is the revelation of the person within the situation. The real self. The actor in this type of ‘poor’ theatre who undergoes the processes of self discipline, sacrifice presentation and moulding throughout the improvisation process, and not afraid to take risks, attains a kind of moral authority and inner harmony and peace of mind, as opposed to the ‘rich’ theatre actor who maintains working through pretence.

For Augusto Boal “Improvisation is life” ², and though he does not reference Grotowski, he describes the interactive theatre as a space for the oppressed to protest, provoke and picture a new way of being. And suggests that there are series of games that can be played to enhance the skills of the actors as they improvise. He also recognises that interactive theatre breaks down the walls between stage and audience, all are potential performers, restricted only by personal choice, not social convention. (2008 edition , p111)

To improvise on the stage, there must still be a story, however it is created. Some kind of source material. And the persons involved must have some knowledge of it. The Audience may participate when they understand enough to also participate. If they have no idea of how to contribute, they remain passive. Often this is the young people bewildered by not knowing what is going on.

Theological Improvisation

As you might know (if youve been a follower of this blog for a while) the links between Theatre and Theology have become common, and a number of references to this are below. Both Samuel Wells, Wesley Van der Lugt and Kevin Vanhoozer make references to Improvisation in regard to the ongoing performance of Theology in the everyday. For Wells, Improvisation means to be on a continual process of accepting or rejecting the offers that are made by others within each interaction. For Vanhoozer, improvisation is what the church needs to do to be faithfully different and respond in each context. On an individual basis, to improvise is to use the cues and prompts in each context and faithfully act performances that are fitting to the context and the overall story of the Theodrama – that is the narrative of the Bible in 5 dramatic acts. These cues, include the  knowledge of God, the theodrama itself, the trinity, mission and ecclesiology – as well as the in the moment speaking and prompting of God – all given to the Human person in complete freedom to be obedient to the many cues. But what is also required is knowledge of the context, creation of a suitable stage/place in which audience participation is likely because trust is given.

Sociological Improvisation

Erving Goffman³, in thinking about persons in their interactions as akin to Theatre suggested that in the presentation of ones self in situations that ‘persons act better than they know how’ – that people because they have complexity have the capacity to act into a situation even if they have no knowledge of being in the same situation. Improvisation is possible, and needed. What is interesting about all of this, is that in 1967, youthworkers were saying something similar. For what George Goetchius and Joan Tash discovered is that they had to develop strategies of working with young people from the point of interaction, they improvised youthwork within the conversation. And so, this brings again to the fore the skill of the youthworker, to be aware of possibilities, questions, space and for the environment to be created in which, in interactions improvisation occurs.Image result for improvisation

No doubt it necessitates great skill to be able to improvise in the moment – but this is possible if in the space there is capacity for genuine conversations. Wesley Van der Lugt uses the term ‘Disponibility’, it means to be formed at the same time as performance, its not too dissimilar to ‘experiential learning’, and be attentive and ready in each moment to receive new information to make an action. It is a call to be ‘fresh’ in every situation. But it means that in the moment of improvisational acting that learning is occurring through the process. We might in youthwork say that we are disponible in the moments of interactions as we learn ‘in action’ reflection and act accordingly, but beyond this, in faith we might also act guided by a faith story that might be constructive, provocative and challenging as it suggest not just reactionary responses but ones that challenge societal status quo and other stories, and help young people become participants in a whole other drama, one of the way and movement of Jesus.

In the example above, in the clip, it all looks hurried as the teaching style is one of formality, one unrecognisable to the maybe more conversational/open style of many youth clubs, in that situation being unprepared is shown at its worst. Though an open session still needs preparation, maybe theres a theme, or opinions to be sought, maybe there’s something put in the environment to draw attention, a picture, notice or artwork. Items in the scene can affect the performance, as they act as stimulus for the improvisation, might as well make the most of them.

So, improvising in youth work and ministry – its distinctly better than under preparedness. It involves being formed to hone in on the cues and being obedient in the midst of the interaction, to ask questions, take risks and explore with young people in the space. Being courageous to go to a new place where they might lead in conversation to where neither have been before. The young people become the key actors in the scene we may have created, and we take a step back to watch and learn, listen and guide them to be attentive to the same cues.

There may be some offers we reject, some we accept, it depends on what kind of performance each session of improvised youth work might take. We need to be skilled and prepared to improvise, being led by young people, directed by the Spirit and the Story and free to be obedient to the voices of God prompting in the midst.

Instead of under-preparedness, an improvising youth worker might need the following ‘skills’ in the toolkit for performing youth work in this way.

  1. Creating the right kind of space – think like jazz- a space where young people can ‘riff’ themselves in conversations, and where interjections by us are acceptable
  2. Having a bank of questions, and tools for conversations, that allow for tangents and flow
  3. Being able to pick up cues, being discerning, and aware than there are competing motives.
  4. Have thought ahead to creating possibilities that questions often ask of young people – so if we ask ‘if 4 of you were in a group to do something to change the local area’  its worth thinking ahead with a ‘bank’ of resources that might help the process, or space for young people to lead it,  resources that may or may not be needed. Its like having a full picnic of goodies, but not necessarily needing them all.
  5. It is building the discernment to be able to accommodate offers of young peoples interruptions into the overall ‘play’ (of Gods redemption and reconciliation- not just ‘this youth group’) – and having the skill to be accommodating and use it as a marker along the way. This takes skill. Not every interruption by a young person is meant to be disruptive, often its a misguided cue of someone who might want to join in the action. Think audience to actor.
  6. Trust in conversation – but as informal educators we should know this already – believe that young people are shapes fully created that need moulding, not empty vessels to be filled.
  7. Go to each conversation fresh with possibility, each moment with a young person has meaning, and life.

As Vander Lugt affirms, Improvisation is a culture making endeavour, culture making is an ongoing process of implicit and explicit actions, of crafting and enacting a script for the drama of existence, it is what we all participate in in daily life. We create culture with the space of youth work, in every interaction, session and moment, and this requires us to be disponible, and ready to improvise.

References

¹Grotowski, Jerzy, Towards a poor Theatre, 1968

²Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed, 1974

³Goffman, Erving, The presentation of the self in everyday life, 1970

George Goetchius, Joan Tash ; Working with the unnttached youth; 1967.

Wesley Van der Lugt – Living Theodrama, 2014,

Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Samuel Wells Improvisation , 2004

Thinking theologically about youth ministry – does a 3 way Drama help?

Much is made of Stories in youth Ministry. Lets get it out there. Stories communicate a message through appealing to imaginations. We connect with character, with script and with narrative arc. Jesus told stories. Story telling is key in the communication of the Gospel, often stories illuminate when proposition disengages. From a theological and philosophical perspective Paul Ricoeur, the french philosopher, is credited with bringing narrative interpretation of the Biblical text into the conversation, although using narrative to understand the Biblical text goes back further.

Image result for storyWe understand story, because stories are everywhere, from Disney to Doctor Who, Breaking Bad to Big Bang, in Books, comics and magazines. Stories invoke passion, provide an empathetic outlet for us, and cause us to relax about our own circumstances for a little while, or be inspired by another.

Story comforts and settles, like the bed time story, the camp fire story or the primary school story time. They might distract, and they take us away. They are also abstract, the story is some elses, some one else has lived it, written it, and all thats being done is reading it out aloud. And no one reads a story that hasnt been finished, or do they?

The problem with story as it gives no clue. It is a pretty neutral word. It needs a descriptor, such as ‘poignant’, or ‘long’, or ‘childrens’.  If you asked me to a tell a story, i could regurgitate about my trip to tescos, my holiday in the cotswolds or about how I saved a young persons life, all might be correct as all are stories, as there was no way of gauging what king of story it would be from asking about story.

Back to youth Ministry, the Gospel story might be one that is told.

Theres many ways of doing it, some that relay its complexity better than others. And we tell a gospel story so that young people might believe it. Adopt it, and cause it to be the ideological story that they shift their personal life narrative to coordinate around. So it forms their identity. Which is great. Job done. Marvellous. And we can go home then.

But if story is just about telling, and belief is just about accepting, then what happens next? Believe in the story of God, seems to make light of participating in the ongoing mission of God. It doesnt seem much, to opt God into our story. Feels a bit, well short changed doesnt it?

In Short – we need to change the metaphor from story to drama. But not throw out the ‘story’ out with the rest of the bath water. 

Regular readers here will know a little about Theodrama ( Gods Drama) but if this is the first post you have read from me, then heres a bit of a reminder. In this post I asked the question: What does Theodrama mean in Youthwork? (and this is kind of a part 2 to this):

Various Theologians, Von Balthasar, Vanhoozer, Sam Wells, Trevor Hart and Wesley Vander lugt have proposed that the metaphor of theatre and drama is a suitable, if not vastly illustrative and informative lens to use for the Gospel, a eucatastrophe, a tragedy that brings about Good. They, and NT Wright, make the proposal that drama, rather than story is helpful.

Lets go back to basics, what Drama there is in the Biblical narrative!Image result for drama

In each moment of the Biblical narrative there is tension and drama, from Act 1 where Creation breathes life, Human made in Gods image, expulsion from the Garden

The Covenant and ongoing communication of God to Moses, Aaron and Joshua, right through to David and the prophets, Kings, and just before the arrival of the Christ, there is silence. Nothing.

Then Christ in Flesh. A life of drama, unease in his surroundings, the rabbi who asked others to follow, the leader who served, who listened, included and healed. Who voluntarily went to Jerusalem, died, and then rose. The greatest story ever told, the most dramatic of drama in 33 years.

Then emerged the church, foretold in Peter, and emerged from the Resurrection, the organisation of the disciples, yet God still spoke, prompted and gave cues for the action, from Philip on the road to Gaza, to Paul in Jerusalem, and the disciples deciding their routes. That God spoke in creation, and to Moses , as Jesus and in the church is key.

Story might mean that Gods story is finished, and that there is no intersection with ours. The metaphor of Drama, allows Jesus to play alongside, all the way. But it is not finished. It is not a 4 act play, but 5.

For the last part has yet to be played. It may have been predicted, and illustrated in the last book of the Bible, but is yet to be played. There is an immediate tension. There is a Drama in the Drama. Yet knowledge of what might be, even metaphorically in the future, is enough to give hope. As Kenda Creasy Dean says, often in Youth Ministry we have an ascension deficiency disorder. Without Future hope, the present is more anxious. Without a concept of the future, and the imagination of the future Kingdom, how might we enact hope with young people, how might they be hopeful themselves without purposeful metaphorical direction?

So, Drama helps to describe the Story. The Whole story. That bit is fairly easy, thats a framework von Baltasar created. The Biblical narrative is dramatic. The Human plays parts, God speaks and directs. Yet that is not all.

The drama above helps us locate ourselves in the story. Helps us, and young people know our place. As Sam Wells says, we are not the Hero, the church is not the hero. It is merely the vehicle and witness, the place of the saints, not to be heroic. The flawed but gatherer of community, the one who projects the action onwards, the wise sage.  (see this post for more on Heroes and Saints in the Theodrama

Drama also secondly describes the ongoing search. For the current action might take place on the Stage of the World, and we might be in the middle of participating in Gods ongoing story of redemption towards the final fifth act. But within the performances, certainty, control and consistency are often absent, instead even the search for God, in a world of distractions is dramatic itself. It is hard work even to communicate with God at times, that is drama itself. This is where story really doesnt help does it?  Story might give us the impression that discipleship is like Disney, when the reality is that it is more like a live ongoing play that takes place every day of the year with different challenges , distractions and cul-de-saqs that prevent even resting and meditating on God a challenge. So, not only is the Gospel Narrative a drama, the search for God is a drama too.

But thirdly, and maybe more importantly, Drama and Theatre appeal to our imagination, just like Story. Drama is live and present and unique – often unlike story, which may be read with different voices, or shown in different cinemas, but the story has a fixed element. Drama is open, creative and responsive. Our part might be to respond to the offers of others, or create performances for others to participate. For young people as theologians, (see previous post) it is that they are attuned, like us, to hearing and responding to God in the midst of the everyday situations, and to not perform a moral play, but a hopeful, intuitive one that loves the world. And yes, Drama rather than Story envokes performance. Story might just seem to cause God to fit into our story (and we do what we want), Drama implies that we participate in Gods and perform it, whilst still retaining human freedom. 

Theodrama is an adventure into the unknown scenes with God speaking and where we might fit ourselves into his tasks to walk humbly, love mercifully. A dangerous prophetic act of rehearsing and practicing acts of the new kingdom. Not just see where we fit God into our lives and story.

Theodrama causes us to have an imagination to see God , hear God and make a response to God in the Midst of the action.

Maybe in Youth Ministry we need an imagination shift, a metaphorical picture of God continually at work, of ourselves a humans performing along with others ( for it is not a lone performance) on the stage of the world. It is a performance that is inclusive to all to perform to the best of their formation. (Forming performers is what ill write on next). In wanting to help young people make their story connect with Gods, we might omit that they might already be performing, and how they might continue to do so. Salvation might be to hear that ongoing call.

So, some of that might make a dramatic difference for young people. Drama gives us the expectation of what discipleship is like, what the story is about and what we are tasked with doing, once we begin to participate. It is story in need of improvising and acting, with a hopeful but dramatic ending, present and past. Drama is what it is. Disney is what its not.

References

Hart, Vander Lugt – Theatrical Theology, 2014

Ricoeur P – Figuring the Sacred, 1995

Root, Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, 2011

Von Balthasar – Theo Drama – the Prolegamma, 1980

Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Vander Lugt  Living Theodrama, 2014

Wells, Samuel,  Improvisation, 2004

 

 

 

Why ‘what works’ shouldn’t be our motivation for mission with young people

“We need to do (insert ministry here) because that works with young people”

or the more precious statement: “Show me where this works”

The search for the silver bullet to solve the problem that young people cause adult society continues. Disruptive young people ‘are given interventions’ , young people who dont attend church are ‘engaged with’ . But more specifically, schemes, initiatives, projects and services are realised. What has become common, especially in Faith settings, working with young people, is that there has become a drive to focus on, or discover the things ‘that work’.  It is to this audience that i now write, though the drive to ‘do what works’ and can be seen as ‘working’ is universal in youth work & ministry.  And it is an exasperating task to find the perfect model to appeal to stakeholders, senior Pastors and funders – to do the proven. Image result for business models icon

It is the ‘finding things that work’ that needs to be questioned, and you guessed it, thats what I am about to do.

But lets start with the realisation that there is the premise, in youth ministry , things do actually work sometimes. Do we ever stop and think about ‘why’ something works, and what that ‘working’ is? At times, and in a social media savvy culture, often the thing that ‘works’ because it looks good, is photographable and tweetable for the website. ‘It looks good’ – but is even this a statement even of something ‘working’ even on that level. Might this show that the church is ‘about young people’ when the work is for and with young people?  Young people might smile on the photo, but what is working about that moment? That young people are happy to sign up to do a thing, and go to a thing with other young people doing the same thing, or to watch a thing happen, in the main those there doing the thing, might usually be the same young people doing the thing anyway. But it looks good, because they are there. They didnt enjoy it, they didnt come back next time, but it looked good. And it ‘worked’ – but did it? Forgive the slight cynicism, and its more the issue about the media frenzy about how the church presents itself as a working machine via social media.

Going back the ‘things that work’… I would like to tentatively suggest that any model of practice that ‘works’ is the result of many trials, reactions and improvisation to get there. Not to mention endurance, backs against the wall perseverance, and the long term trust of young people. Especially when working with young people ‘outside the church’ – where a ‘model’ works, it cannot be separated from the conditions for it to be successful in a particular context, and have strong believers in it, and for people to be valued to persevere with it – often despite having limited support from other churches. So – when something ‘works’  – is it the model, the people, the culture or the strategy that enabled it to do so? (not to mention that unpredictability – ‘faith’) 

For Chap Clark, writing in 2001, comments that, we need in youth ministry to be “theologically and sociologically committed to Gods unique movements in different places” and that we need to be people who look beyond what works, and learn how to think, act and live theologically and let go of a copy & duplicate tendency”. (Chap Clark, The myth of the perfect youth ministry model, 2001, Starting right, Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry) 

So i want to challenge the ‘doing what works’ culture: 

Why?

  1. It is not Biblical. When Jesus sends the 12 or 72, there is no model. It is just a way of being. Travel light, receive the gift of hospitality from others, stay in the village until rejected, find a person of peace. Be on your guard. Crucially also, Jesus says – “when you are arrested, do not worry about what to say or how to say it, at the time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking but the spirit of your father speaking through you” ( Matthew 10:19-20). Why is this crucial? – Because what it suggests is that there is no ‘right model’ – even in the way Jesus gives instructions, arrests and challenges are likely. It is also apparent that scripted mission work seems to be ‘not the Jesus way’ – far more appropriate is to act in an appropriate way, to seek a welcome from others, and improvise with the ongoing speaking God when challenges arise. It wasnt a ‘model’ , and it had ‘not working’ built in – but this was the Jesus way. It is a way of life. 
  2. One Problem with what ‘works’ is that this is based on our experience of the ‘thing’ and how it ‘worked’ in the past in a different situation, in a different moment in time, with completely different young people. As Heraclitus said “nobody can step into the same river twice” . The river has demonstrably changed since the first step. Water is in different place, the river bed disturbed, banks changed. It is only the same by name only. In a desire to do ‘what works’ – what weve missed is that where a raft was needed and built, the river has dried and only a pair of wellies is needed to cross it. The Greek term Phronesis causes us to think about practical wisdom – doing the right thing in the right current context- thats what Paul was talking about in 2 Corinthians 3 1-6.
  3. Another problem with ‘doing something that works’ is that scientific thinking has overtaken artistry. Without realising it, talk of the market has become the driver in the conversation. Usually if something works it is because it is efficient, calculable, measurable and repeatable. For something to ‘work’ it is usually because it entails that it meets on or more of these things. Again, this is far from a Biblical method of discipleship, or how the church spread. It experimented, then received direction. Of course, it would be easy at this point to align ‘doing something that works’ with the underlying principles of Macdonadisation, John Drane (2000) has already done this. At this juncture, though, the ‘doing of something that works’ has a business feel to it. It means that we’re thinking ‘ if we do this, and then do that, and get this, then something might happen- it might work’. The problem is that people, especially young people are more likely to be unpredictable and see through what be corporate inauthenticity. Young people are not like the raw materials in a technological model, they can and do opt out- especially when they feel as if they are being worked with strategically, rather than authentically. As Gilmore and Pine argue, “the more that we realise that experiences are staged, the more we require assurance of the real” and so even in a business world, it is perceptions that need to be managed, not people. Hence all the ‘authentic’ friendly branding, which is beginning to wear thin, and if young people are just to be marketed to, or ‘sold’ Jesus in a model… The language of Faith, is less about strategy, than it is about sacrifice. It is a way of life, not a package holiday with a itinerary down to the last minute.
  4.  If our ‘work’ with young people, is to do things that ‘work’. Then forgive me for saying this – but is that all young people are to us? Do they become pawns in our ministry of gatherings and activities? All the advertising might cause me to go to tescos to buy my groceries and so ‘it worked’ but if three local shops lose my custom and go out of business, has something that ‘worked’ actually been ‘good’? Doing something because it works, has got to be lower down in the pecking order than doing something because it is inherantly a good thing to do. It is conceived with purer intentions, it is created within a process of supporting people to thrive, it is the result of treating people with respect, in short – it is of value, and virtue. Young people simply deserve better in our communities, in our churches to be pawns in our ministry game. If God is good, then we need to perform and act in goodness with young people. Values, whether Christian values or even youthwork values ( often the same thing) must and should trump needing something to work. If something doesnt ‘work’ maybe its method wasnt good enough. Young people saw its fakery a mile off. Or those who attended needed coeercing to be there. And i dont care if your ministry needs early ticket sales to exist. If its that good for young people and is ‘for’ them – then it should be free.
  5. If something did work somewhere else – is this not a prelude to over expectation and then disappointment in a different time and place? After all its not the approach that is fallible is it? (it worked elsewhere)

Some things may work with young people. But do they because of a ‘model’ or the long term creation of an appropriate environment? If It takes 7 years to begin to do good community work in an area. That isnt a model, that requires a way of life. Reducing, for reducing is what it is, the ongoing faith of young people to a model, is to say that God can be simplified. This is same accusation of those who reduced the complexity of the christian message to ‘the four spiritual laws’ (just so that youthworkers in the 1960’s only needed to remember 4 sentences (Pete Ward seminar at Youth work summit)). Reducing the mission activity and ongoing process of unpredictable community gathering to a model, devoid of values, artistry and contextual thinking, is to do the Gospel of Jesus, one of incarnational good news a major disservice. It does matter how it is performed, and the intentions behind it. Improvised goodness might be more appropriate in every context, than prepared strategy.

Faith is a movement, not a model. It is a way. If it is a method it is an artistic one. Whats good might be what works. What works might become something good. But doing something just because ‘it works’?

Oh – and where, as the Black eyed peas once said, is the love?  Is doing what works about loving our communities and young people at all?

 

References:

Drane, John, The Macdonaldisation of the church

Boal, Augusto, Theatre of the Oppressed (where the Heroclitis quote came from) 

Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014. (Gilmore and Pine) 

Even Americans are saying programmable youth ministry is broken…reviewing an evening with Kenda Creasy Dean. 

But fortunately in the UK the answer is close to hand. 

I have just arrived back from an evening with Kenda Creasy Dean in Leeds, (hosted by the Yorkshire plus region of the Methodist church). Kenda is an American youth ministry specialist, writer and academic. It was probably the first time I have heard directly from an American youth ministry person and an academic at that. That’s outside of the many books or articles I’ve read or reflected on. In a way I was curious about what might be the next trend in UK youth ministry given that it’s usually 10 years behind America,  or decides to ignore it completely. 

However. 

Kendra admitted that American youth ministry is broken, it’s programmes and franchises ineffective and that an image of the church as a ship heading for a shipwreck was her opening metaphor. 

Though like the wreckage from the ship, some of its raw resources are still needed to help it’s voyagers still reach the shore. Even as a floating raft.

Fortunately the answer is already being practiced.

So we’re ahead in the UK. There’s practices, thinking and an emerging history of it UK already. 

It’s asset based entrepreneurial youthwork.

Kenda contrasted ministry ‘done to’ young people, suggesting that young people in churches needed to be given space to have their creativity and ideas harnessed. So, not the programme but the person and their gift. Create the right kind of culture in a church that harnesses young peoples ideas, a space that is able to accept their improvised offers.

Kenda suggested that young people need to be supported, empowered and listened to. That a ministry of youth leaders deciding programmes has finite appeal. It’s what the values of youth work look like. Young people first. Young people as the primary clients. (Sercombe 2010)

Kenda then showed case studies of young people using the resources of the local churches to develop their own social enterprises. From cakes and pies, to aids for ppl with disabilities, from cafe churches with also host sewing to make fun capes for children in hospital. All as the result of ideas young people had, their creativity and the support of a church community to try, to be brave and to support the young people, being courageous, not taking over but providing resources as required. Yes there’s an element of long term investment. But quick instant wins don’t change communities or young people.  And most enterprise didn’t make money, but enough to be sustained or set aside for other ideas. 

In a way it’s using entrepreneurial skills in the church and young people to develop young people themselves. It’s something the church has always done. It’s philanthropic entrepreneurs started sunday schools or charities or housing organisations. Entrepreneurial asset based youthwork only gives it away as an approach to empower young people to be community changers themselves, and be church creators themselves through their connectability. 

If I was cynical I’d ask about theology and faith within this. What this provides is opportunities for sharing gifts,  apprenticeship and task orientated discipleship. But who needs teaching about doctrines if they are being performed? I might also ask whether it is an adoption of the ‘ways of business, and commercialism’ by the church, church accepting culture, but i think that might be trivial given the good that it is doing. 

So. When Key American youth ministry practitioners are having doubts about the inherited patterns of ministry, in the UK we should take notice.We should think twice about Doug Fields and purpose driven programmes. Americans have started to cotton on to youthwork as an educational process, of values of empowerment, of community participation and of justice. As well developing gifts of both the young people and the resources of local communities including what the church has already got. Fortunately in the UK we have the experts in this field. There are 100’s of trained christian youthworkers who understand youthwork, there are emerging areas of churched adopting asset based approaches, and ‘who hasnt got business skills’?

Maybe it just takes the Americans to gift wrap it, to make whats already going on valid in the eyes of those who look to america for the ‘next great thing’ – when it is here all along.

Kenda suggested that churches discover local needs and gifts, something uk community workers, detached workers and pioneers have done for ages. It is local church. Local process and local transformation. It is not a sellable universal programme.

So

What is coming out of the US as innovation and the innovative answer to young peoples participation in the long term life of the church in action in its community, is what in parts is already going on here in the UK.  We’re already doing it folks or at least weve got the barebones, it’ll be putting it all together.

We know youth work and it’s values and educational process

We know asset based community development 

We know entrepreneurial church. We know church as process through emerging church and fresh expressions. 

We just need to trust young people and open up spaces for them to be creators, leaders and deciders, through which they’ll also be learners. 

Young people to be the solutions to other problems, not the problem to be solved

It is quite literally, going to a place whether neither us or they have been before. But with tools we already have practice of using. 

 

Creating safe stages for Improvised youthwork

“Improvising seems dangerous because it requires participants to make use of their unconscious” (Samuel Wells)

In a recent study on the types of churches that engage and keep young people/adults, the Fuller Institute, discovered that the places where young people were most likely to stay were places of good emotional health. Their report is referred to here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP , and in pre-empting a future article I do wonder ‘what constitutes an emotionally healthy youth ministry?’ – but that might be for another time. Regardless of anything else – creating a safe place is seemingly one of the key commonalities in youth work and Ministry, a space in which the boundaries are known, where leaders are trained, where a risk assessment is done, all those kind of things form the basis of the safe space, or at least create a structure where there is a safe space. In a way, these help those with the creation of the space – more than the young people who participate within it. They might not know if theres been a risk assessment, or if the leaders have had child protection training.

I wonder whether the ‘Safe’ ness of the space has to be felt by the young people. A few years ago now when I was involved in detached youthwork in Perth City Centre, we met 100’s of young people most of whom were in small groups around and about, in the busyness of the city centre that was also usually full of adults in groups drinking, walking and sometimes being threatening. It was all part of the environment. It wasnt a ‘dangerous’ place per se, but there were dangerous aspects to it. Usually the young people wouldn’t admit that they felt in danger, or worried about it – but when we asked them about what they liked about us being around the said: “you help us feel safe”. On detached also, there can be that slightly awkward moment in the midst of a conversation, because the young person might not know the intentions of the youthworker, or there hasnt been an introduction – ie they feel unsafe, unsure, so by describing the intention they can then have more confidence in the space and feel safe in a any personal contribution to a conversation.

Image result for improvisation

Those of you who have read my previous articles will know that I have mentioned improvisation before. Sam Wells describes improvisation as

Improvisation in the Theatre is a practice through which actors seek to develop trust in themselves and one another in order that they may conduct unscripted dramas without fear.

It requires both trust and imagination, knowledge of each other and also the overall direction of the play. The kind of trust, is not dissimilar that the notion of safety – but it is more than that. Safety might be the structure – trust is what people feel.

Improvising is about accepting and blocking offers. So the line from the actor accompanied by a gesture can either be accepted and incorporated because though it might be different, edgy or unpredicted it can be incorporated into the story, there is a risk, and a trust. The offer is blocked if it cant be done so or requires more than the skill of the receiver to be able to develop it as part of the play. But, crucially the offer might only be made deliberately if there is safety and trust to be able to do so, the predictable thing in the moment, is to stick to the script, so that the cues are well rehearsed and imagination lies dormant.

Image result for improvisation

Improvisation could feel like a responsive, reactive task.

But it isnt. Because improvisation requires the stage and set to be created in a way where improvisation can happen. It is about created a safe stage, a safe place for experimentation, a safe place where lines can be tried and tested, where others are open to be responsive to new lines and cues, or to have to rely on new lines. Improvisation is less about responding to the variety of cues and taking up offers, as with young people creating an environment where they want to suggest offers and imagination and believe that their offers have worth, will be listened to or might even be accepted. What it means that for youth workers it is not enough to create a physically safe space, but a space in which young people feel as though their contribution will be taken seriously, or where the offers they make in terms of questions, critique, ideas are accepted.

 

It might also be that when young people do contribute into the conversations, such as those on the streets, in the clubs or groups, that these are indications that they feel trusted and accepted in that particular setting, what they have to give is given. It is an indicator of what is hoped for. Image result for improvisationThere is more to a space than it being safe to be, as youthworkers creating a safe space is in order that young people can perform and flourish, contribute and make offers – that are followed up. When we as youthworkers follow the offers we cant help but be with young people, and with them in the space that they are wanting to create for themselves, they become the creators and deciders, because they have a stage in which they can use their imaginations.

If a young person has given up on offering – what does that say? They dont trust the response? they don’t feel safe?  There is no space to even make an offer – that doesn’t feel like an interruption or a challenge to control? If young people need a healthy place to thrive and engage, according to the research, then a healthy place might be the kind of place where they are able to creatively contribute and make and have offers accepted. But it also requires that our desire in youthwork is to enable improvisation, its far easier to restrict, control and decide. The french word for youthworker is Animator, one who creates and allows the animation to occur.  Being a youthworker is to create safe stages and to response to the offers and creativity of the young people that we have given license to happen.

 

References

Samuel Wells, Improvisation, 2005

Credit also to Steve G Blower of the Sidewalk Project, Scarborough who prompted me to reflect on improvisation further during a conversation yesterday.

 

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