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.


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


To see God at work, maybe we have to find him in the likeliest of places?

Missio Dei is a significant concept within Christian Mission, it quite literally means the Mission of God, and it has been written on extensively for best part of the last 50-100 years, as David Bosch writes. It refers to the mission activity of God and how the church as part of Gods creation takes part in Gods mission – and not vice versa. The role of the church as a result is to point persons to God, the fullness of God and the reign of God. Mission, according to Bosch, affects all people in all areas of their existence. Mission is Gods turning to the world, in respect to creation, care redemption and consumation. It is Gods activity¹.

Subsequent to this phrase, one of the key terms that has been used in developing mission work (especially with young people) is that we in meeting young people on the streets are to be ‘joining God at work’ . On other occasions in mission we might be joining in with what God is doing.

But what coImage result for roadworks signmes to mind when it is said that ‘God is at work’ – might it be like the roadworks sign? , or ‘do not disturb- God at work’? . Is it one of those scenarios where we might only be able to imagine God being at ‘work’ in situations where we also have knowledge of what work might be like, so what might it mean if God is a youth worker, and at work? or a taxi driver, a nurse or a Bank manager.

Caution: God at work – might be dangerous? 

Is ‘work’ the best word to use for God? Even is what ‘God is ‘doing’ the best word. Does work – even if it is a theology or work- have too many difficult or painful connotations, especially in a consumerist, efficient world in which there is high levels of stress, burnout and people leaving roles. God might be at work in the world, and our role in Mission might be to join in, but is there a problem with ‘work’.

Maybe we should change the metaphor. And not regard God as at work in the world, but as its key performer on its Stage. 

Two of the proponents of this metaphor, see the role of God on the stage of the world differently. For Hans Urs von Balthasar, Man is the key performer on the stage, being tasked with acting towards Goodness, where Gods play is being played though us. The humans are free to perform, and are given this room by God to perform freely, and join in with the ongoing drama that God himself is performing towards a final climax, world redemption.

Kevin Vanhoozer emphasises that Christ is also on the stage performing, being the main character in the performance, the one who takes up the principle action and the part of being divine and human, he is both judge and to be judged².

And so, if the world is the stage for the Mission of God, and he is the principle actor on its stage, performing – what does this mean for:

  1. What are we supposed to do?
  2. What kind of performances is God most likely to be performing in?

The second question is interesting. If God is the key performer on the stage – what kind of performances is he most likely to be involved in. Well fortunately – like many good performances there is a script. And what is revealed in the script of the Bible is that these are examples of where God was found to be performing in the past, examples remember. So, where was God performing the most clearly? In Creation, In conversation, in creating community, in meeting peoples needs, in lifting up the humble, in healing the sick, in freeing the captives.. In a way, one of the places God seemed to be absent was in the cry of the heart of worship – David cried out and wondered where God was… in lament. To understand a little about the likeliest destination of where God might be acting on the stage of the world, we might find him in the places he was most likely at work in the script. Most likely, for every performance is different. Even the disciples couldnt predict where Jesus was likely to be, and his mother searched for 3 days in Jerusalem… But theres something about needing the knowledge of the script, that helps to filter where God is mostly likely to be performing. Otherwise we could just have free reign on stating that God is here, there or everywhere. Making God as predictable as 3g, in reality, he is more like 4g.

On the other aspect of the analogy. What if we imagine ourselves as sitting in the audience. Might we be able to see a small intricate that God is performing on the stage, if we’re in Row z? – maybe not. We might just know that God is up to something. We might need to move closer, leave our seats, wander down the proverbial aisle, and find ourselves on the stage.  It might only be when we put ourselves right in the heat of the action, that we see exactly what God is up to. It is in that moment when we hear the conversation. It is when his hand is holding someone. Yet joining in with the performance is about being aware of the prompts that might be made in the scene. For we might see much in the context to take our cues from, but we also might tune ourselves to the voice and actions of God in the place that God is likely to be performing. For some people, God might be an artist, painting pictures, and are we the paintbrush? or the easel? or paper? – for others like Richard Rohr, God is a dance. What if God was instead the key performer on the stage of the world, and we were his co-actors on the stage, being on the stage as performers. Being prompted, but needing to be in the places where God prompts us to go.

Of course the stage of the world is full of drama in itself. Drama in that we have to hear the prompts of God in all the noise. Drama in that acting goodness might be prophetic, and challenging, Drama in that the stage contains both the wheat and the weeds, there is a complexity to the world stage, but that means that performing goodness is done as a deliberate task, we try to do good, it might not come naturally.

Back to the stage acting, not everyone can act without training, and formation, to understand the ways of the stage. But formation is done in order that performances are done, after all whats the point in learning lines, learning the cues of the script, the director and other actors, if it is not performed?  But also formation happens as it is performed. Every live performance is different.  Most notably during improvisation, when the actors respond all the time to what is happening on the stage, making themselves aware and responsive.

The metaphor can run a bit further. But for now – what might it mean to reflect on God being the key performer on the stage of the world, and us being his co-actors in the great drama of redemption?

what kind of performances his he renowned for doing in the script already? and so where is he most likely to be? 

What might it take for us to join God the performer on the stage? – in reality we are already on the stage, but God as dramatic performer might be encouraging us to perform a new play, a new scene, or an old scene of justice in a new place. The world is already the stage of Gods performances, we act and perform good news by being involved in the action. Not everyone will want to be captivated by the overall play.

When we speak about God, the world as a theatre of God’s activity is already implied’ (Bosch, quoting Hoekendijk, 1967, 2005, p10)

“The ultimate goal of the actor is not simply to play a role, but to project the main idea of the play (Vanhoozer, 2014, p119)

Joining in with ‘God at work’ – she might be performing a play of intrigue, drama, compassion, love, mercy and justice.. go find and go and join in.


¹David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 2nd edition, 2005, p400-401

²Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 2005, p52

Also Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014.

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.


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




‘Your talk was great! – im sure the young people got ‘something’ out of it….’

How many times in youth ministry (or even any Ministry) might we either hear this statement, or say it to someone else with a little more hope and assurance than expectation in our tone?  You can picture the scene, crowd of young people, all a bit sweaty after playing games for a while. Or it the evening of a Summer Camp, and theyve all had a nice tea after a day of rock climbing, high ropes and canoeing. And it is time for the talk.

It is the talk that helps us to make the environment in our view something ‘more than just a youth club’ or residential experience. It is the talk that is a time for educating. For helping the young people learn something mentally and spiritually. It is time to ‘do theology’. Image result for boring talk

Yet how often do we, even as volunteers, start to lose focus when the person doing to talk is going on a bit, and we’re the volunteer!

Of course, theres the enthusiastic types, and theologically minded types, who have actually prepared ‘The talk’ . And drafted in greek words a plenty, atonement theories , and illustrations from the church fathers. Or theres the overly trendy types of talk, every latest technological gadget is a metaphor for salvation, and the film clips all contain Jesus somewhere. The young persons are very switched on, they get the cultural references, but at what cost to actual theology? God is as immediate as my whatsapp group? on these occasions, young people do get something out of the talk – but what..?

The temptation is that we continue the same practices until young people are grounded in a culture that they accept this as a way of learning, but in voluntary spaces, like the youth group they walk out with their feet. or ‘They get used’ to practice, and it asks young people questions and places expectations on them to stay and cope within our poor theological practices of youth ministry. 

If you have got this far and think, great, you’re now going to get some ‘how -to’s’ for doing a good talk with young people. Then I am afraid you’re mistaken. If you want alternatives to a talk, I put them on this article here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NG 

First things first:

1. we need to think of young people as Theologians! 

The question to be asked, is not what kind of talk do we do, but if young people are theologians, as well as disciples, evangelists and humans (my next post will expand on this)  – then we really do need to think about ‘how’ they construct theology from within the practices of the faith community. They might get ‘something’ from a talk, but is hearing someone talk to them, even with stories and anecdotes a way of developing young people as theologians?

Andrew Root relays a story of how after a pretty dreadful talk by someone keen on imparting theology for 40 minutes to young people, one of the elderly volunteers said: ” Maybe it is not that young people do not care about Theology, it is that what we gave them, this evening, wasnt theology” Image result for theology

The question then for us, in youth ministry practices, is the same ; “Is what we give young people in our faith practices , theology?” 

Andrew Root suggest that for too long the starting point for thinking about theology is Dogma or Apologetics, or on the other hand, where i might put myself, it starts with the social action or the community. So theology becomes learning about a Biblical theme, or becomes about finding God at work in the actions of the community as it cares. Andrew Root takes a different view;

2. Theology is constructed with others, it is not something we give

Theological construction that means that anything to young people is theology that dwells in questions with no easy answers – not a theology that provides answers to questions not even being asked. 

What this means is that we dont ‘do’ theology when we talk at young people. We do theology when we talk with young people. It is when we accompany young people on the walk, in the game of football, on the high ropes course, in the woods, and in conversation we create safe spaces in our interactions so that meandering questions of the crisis of life, the purpose of life and the reality of future are brought to our attention. We walk the crisis of their reality- and seek God in the questions raised. 

If you’re not sure, take your mind to the crisis confronting the two disciples who were walking away from Jeruslam late on Sunday that first easter, how did Jesus do Theology with them, by responding to their moment of crisis, their questions. He gave them tradition, out of conversation, he shared with them hope and purpose, in conversation. In the moment of existential crisis. So much of the reality of our ‘teaching theology’ in youth ministry might be uninteresting, meaningless, shallow or even boring – because it doesnt start in the perplexity and reality of the crisis. But this causes a problem, because we daredent go to the point of crisis with young people, because that in itself might challenge us and our own theology. The safe option is the program, and keep activity the focus that hopes that excites young people enough to stay, and the hook for our uninteresting theology.

So, how might we help young people and ourselves face the crisis, and develop theology from that point? Well, we have to give the opportunity, and create the spaces where young people articulate the things that they fear, the things that haunt them. The personal, societal, global, local fears and worries. Theology becomes from a point of reality, it is also itself incarnated, it is significant because it doesnt appeal to moral behaviour, or provide a bullet point of knowledge, but needs little case for its significance. It appeals because it has meaning. It might be judged as wrong, but it isnt benign or irrelevant.

For, it is from these depths and walking with young people through the story to enable it to be faithful and trustworthy in the intuitive crises that young people articulate. It is not about providing information that young people ‘make a decision’ it is that the Tradition is constructed theologically in order that young people can make sense of the reality of the world that causes crisis. McAdam suggests that young people start searching for an ideology to believe in and shape their personal narrative around from the ages of 10. Where I depart from Root is that Vanhoozers metaphor of ongoing Drama enables heightened interaction and purpose for the young person as a theologian, and not just that their story is yet to be written, it is also to be performed and added to the myriad of plotlines. However, it is in the historic and future story of Gods creation, covenant, incarnation, church and consumation that addresses questions of crisis and reality. Of hope, forgiveness and participation. Theology doesnt start with crisis just to tell young people that they can be successful in the kingdom, and winners for Jesus. It is that crisis and suffering are intrinsic to the call of faith, it is our context that is the cause often of the crisis.

It is other stories in culture that try and write away the crisis. From materialism, to celebrity, and Tv and Film. However worthwhile, their common root is to distract from the crisis, but they all fall short, and ultimately lead to numbing of the crisis or believes it can answer to it. It is often why Ecclesiastes is helpful as a starting point with young people, they get helplessness and the void. 

Forming Theologians is the key task of youth Ministry, and that means forming young peoples theology. Christian theology is not about rightness and morality, it is about being encountered by truth. It is a call for faith to seek understanding, to love the curious search for the mystery, next to God who acts (dramatically) in the world of death, the thin spaces, and in the yearning.

The best Theology we do with young people is in the conversations with young people, for theology itself is a conversation, between where we are in the moment and the crisis and the overall tradition and the Theodrama.  I notice that after a period of time where Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber ruled the airwaves, and love and identity shaped songs, that the rage of society and personal purpose have found their root, as Fall out Boy, Panic at the Disco and singer songwriters are popular with young people. The tide might be changing that young peoples music is prompting them to think deeply about their existence in the world. But these might be avenues to begin the conversations with young people. How might their films, their music, their writing and artistry help them, or provide messages which help them deal with their crisis.

If we want our talks to do theology, then we might be off the mark. as per Root: “Theology can only be constructed within the lives of people yearning for God in a world of death, love, life and brokenness” 

Young people might get something out of ‘the talk’ – at best it might be moral guidance, but to kid ourselves that it is theology..? Boring young people in their pursuit of their knowledge of God and theological yearning is the greatest crime commited in our churches and youth ministry. Its in our talking rather than our talks where Theologising happens.


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

Dean + others, Starting right, thinking theologically about youth ministry, 2001

McAdam, D The Stories we live by, 1997

Vanhoozer, K, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014



Youth Ministry; training young people to perform theology (not just learn it)

I was on my way back from the diocesan youth officers (DYO) conference last Wednesday, and I realised I had made a mistake. If I am being kind to myself, it was because I was given 30 minutes to talk about one particular subject ; Evangelism, and in my train of thought I developed thinking on the theological reasoning for contextual ministry with young people, of creating spaces for young people to opt into the christian belief.

I also talked about how as youth ministers we need to change the metaphor – to reflect on the performance of our knowledge of God with young people, and how we as youth ministers create spaces of welcome, of conversation and healthy spaces. Reflecting Theologically about the delivery of youth ministry has occurred for a while. From Pete Wards (youthwork and the mission of God, 1997), Paul Nash ( What Theology for youth work, Grove, 2007) , and from the US, Dean Borgman (When Kumbaya is not enough, 1997) and titles by Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean. What we’ve become good at is theologically justifying the practice of youth ministry, locating it withing Mission, cross cultural mission, education, discipleship, theology and practical theology. When i say ‘good’ i mean that people have done it, it can still be the unheard of, ignored ministry within the church. However thats not for now. Whilst the practice of youth ministry has been theologically defined and justified, the question of this article, and the reason for admitting my error at the diocesan youth advisers gathering is the following; What we need in youth ministry to reflect not on what theology to underpin our practise – but instead ‘what theology for young people themselves’?

At the DYO conference, Alex Batts from Youthscape, Presented research on what they had discovered about young peoples faith. For anyone involved in open youth work for a long while, it wasnt hugely surprising, but what she said was that for young people faith wasnt about trying to understand whether something was true enough to win an argument. (one to reflect on if trying to ‘apologetics’ in youth ministry) But instead, young peoples faith was practical, it was personal, it was formed in their experience. In short, faith was something that was useful. 

This does tie in to some other thinking i have done recently on faith and myth making, and how young people construct a story and adopt an ideological story that helps them make sense in their lives , a story that provides coherency, validation, efficacy, self worth. This is based on work by Bryan (2016) who is influenced by Baumeister, and McAdam and their psychology which includes narrative identity and myth making and these processes. On a slight tangent, it is fascinating to compare what Alex said, with the research by Christian Smith, for, whilst he ascertained that young people in the states have adopted a Moral, therapeutic deism faith. There are some resonances, for the faith that he found young people to have was one that was useful for young people, ie it gave them confidence and helped them ‘do what they want‘. Faith does have to provide usefulness for the individual. What that usefulness entails is different for each person. God isnt in existence to be useful for us, that point it to be made, but participating in the rituals, community, rites and discipleship might include elements of personal or community usefulness; hopefully beyond ‘God giving me confidence, or a self help manual. Image result for moral

Thinking about MTD again. What it brings to the attention is that faith is something that is learned about, but what matters is ‘being morally good’ as a response to faith, or alternatively, its that faith in action is one that emphasises moral actions. This is done through the ongoing learning of the faith through what can often be formal teaching methods ( Brierley, 2003). From the God-slot, to the Bible study, the sermon to the conference, the teaching method can be one way, and what is implied -so goes the research is that young people are ‘just learners’ and that enacting the faith is about morality. Young People as learners is something that Nick Shepherd identifies in Faith Generation (2016) – its as if thats where young people – and dare I say it adults – get stuck in the church. They are on an ongoing journey of being talked to as a learning process, and continual learning.Image result for performers

What this can then imply is that the Christian faith is just one to be learned. God is to know about, an abstract. 

Theology – ie knowledge of God – as far as young people are concerned becomes merely a cognitive task. Whilst it is important to build within young people a set of doctrines and beliefs for them to live by, and I assume this is what is going on in our youth groups, discipleship courses and programmes, these doctrines are not just to form young people – they are to equip them for performance. Theology for young people needs to be active and performative, to use a phrase I often do, it needs to be dramatic.

We need a shift from youth ministers to be educators of young people, helping them learn. But to be acting coaches, forming them through learning in the performance. For in youth ministry our task is not to teach, it is to make disciples. Not only that, to form young people as theologians, or ‘practical theologians’ (Kenda Creasy dean, 2011) But beyond this, practical theologians that act. Equipping young people to be performers of theology, ongoing actors who perform the gospel in 10,000 ways every day, week and month. Performing the love of God with their friends, performing the justice of God, the mercy of God, the faithfulness of God, the mystery of God in the everyday moments, and they perform not alone, but to learn the promtping of the Spirit in the everyday moments, the cues and clues in every context that call wisdoms voice.  It is so much more than ‘being good’ and doing a bit of evangelism with their friends to invite them to a group.

A performative Theology will also help young people to understand their role and purpose, for if they are participants and players of the drama, then they join the company of others in Gods ongoing drama of redemption that is the fourth of five acts ( Vanhoozer, 2014) . It provides not only usefulness in the everyday, calling and purpose, but gives young people meaningfulness in the everyday, and significant control of their actions, the autonomy that a young person and we all want, but as well act in ongoing obedience and faithfulness. A performative faith, within the long term plot of the drama, also gives young people a coherant life story, calling and purpose, one that might be easier for them to adopt as a personal narrative.

A performative Theology for young people and their ongoing discipleship appeals to their imagination. Even Paul was after newly attuned imaginations; Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in christ Jesus’  The word that Paul uses is Phronenin, The same that Aristotle uses for Phronesis, meaning, practical wisdom. Paul isnt asking the Phillipian church to do the same thing and be robots, but to understand the situation rightly and act accordingly – to act as Jesus Christ, in the nature of the kingdom – one that turns the other cheek, blesses the peacemakers and offers a coat to enemy. it isnt moral behaviour, its the essence of the kingdom that is of the superabundance of the love of God (Ricoeur, 1995). Can we aspire and inspire young people to be performers of the kingdom? 

Young people love films and movies – conceptualising their role in the world as ongoing actors of Gods play might not be difficult. They need not know where to find God in the plays and dramas of Hollywood, but that others might see God in their everyday productions. See God not because he appears in the script, but also the acting and non speaking. God appears through their acting.

What young people dont need is another rule book, moral code or dictum. They get enough of this in their schools. One step out of line in these institutions is detention wielding. They need faith to be a guide, a compass, an ongoing cognitive attuning to the voice of God that prompts in the every day performance. What we dont need, and what young people are switched off from is a meaningless moral faith. Helping young people view themselves as performers may also ultimately be realised when the whole church realises its duty to perform love and justice in their local community, hosting spaces of welcome and acceptance in towns and cities. But thats for another day, helping young people to theological performance might in their passion ignite a church to community action. Our task in youth ministry is to form performing young people, disciples who work for the kingdom. Not just spectators of our performances, after all there are no armchair disciples, we might do well to awaken young peoples acting imaginations in order to bring about performance.

I leave the end of this piece to Kevin Vanhoozer who says:

“The church exists to form and train grateful disciples to understand the Theodrama (Gods Drama) and their roles in it so that they can communicate and continue Gods wonderful works for the sake of the world. There is theater whenever a person meets another. Every encounter with another person constitutes a small scene, and whether disciples will say and do the right thing is what makes for drama” (Vanhoozer, 2014, p233)


Borgman, 1997, When Kumbaya is not enough

Brierley, D, 2003, All Joined up

Ricoeur, P – 1995, Figuring the Sacred

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

Smith, C, 2005, Soul Searching

Shepherd, N- 2016 Faith Generation

Vanhoozer, 2014, Faith Speaking and Understanding

Ward, P 1997 Youth work and the mission of God

Wesley Van der lugt – Theatrical Theology, 2014


Vulnerability as the starting point of community transformation

“But that might mean we have to be vulnerable”

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

‘But that might mean we have to be vulnerable’

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

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

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

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


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


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

What makes the Christian Youthworker distinctive?

At the moment, amongst a few other books, I have been reading ‘The Pastor as Public Theologian’, by Kevin Vanhoozer.  Within it, he asks the question: ‘What is the distinctive role of the Pastor’? describing that there is a problem of identity not just for pastors, but all associated with a Christian vocation, such as Youth Ministers, worsh
ip leader and so on.I’ll come to his responses in a bit but it might be worth exploring for a moment, some of the identity and role challenges that a Christian Youthworkers might have.

This is not a new query, the God-fathers of modern theoretical Youthwork, Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith, wrote in 1987, in ‘Youthwork’  that Youth workers not only have to conduct a number of roles, but also, because ‘what a youth worker is’ is such an ill-defined term that they often use these following as a guide or starting point:

  • Youthworker as Caretaker (puts the chairs away)
  • Youthworker as Red-coat (entertains)
  • Youthworker as Social Worker (1:2:1 support)
  • Youthworker as Character Builder (resilience improver)
  • Youthworker as Community worker, and finally
  • Youthworker as Educator

And so- this plight to not only understand the role of the youthworker, using more well trodden paths of understanding is not new. A youthworker might need to use another profession to define themselves against, their role might even encapsulate all or some of these others, but in a distinctive way. When Jeffs and Smith were writing this, it was very much to and within what might be considered the statutory youthwork sector. Kerry Young (1999, 2nd ed, 2006) expanded this list somewhat, by reflecting on Youthwork as an art form, in The ‘Art of Youthwork’, suggesting that

The Art of Youthwork is the ability to make and sustain such relationships with young people. In so doing, youth workers themselves develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to engage with young people in the process of moral philosophising (Young, 2006)

So, adding to the list, of the roles of the youthworker became self-awareness, examination of their own values, critical skills and enlargement of their own capacity for moral philosophising.Product Details

In addition, she also suggests that Youthworkers do not just deliver youthwork, they define it, interpret and develop it. She argues that youthwork is a ‘distinct practice’ – not unlike what Jeffs and Smith were suggesting. So, the question is, for the Christian faith based youthworker – if indeed, this in itself is a distinctive practice – what is it that makes it distinctive?

We’re 30 years (ouch) since Jeffs and Smith’s ‘Youth work’ Book, above – I wonder if there might be other additions that could be made to their list? That youth worker could be defined as. I guess I am waiting for a different professional to say – ‘Im a bit like a youth worker, but less structured’ or ‘if you imagine a youthworker, then I do such and such’ – as if there is a profession that defines itself as one step from youth work – 30, 50 or 70 years into youth work as a distinctive practice – it hasnt captured the public imagination in the way, teacher, nurse, police, social worker or redcoat might have done… (‘hi-de-hi’ has alot to answer for in the latter of these)Image result for butlins red coat

Because there hasn’t been new people-orientated professions I cant think of another new profession to add to this list. Though one of the oldest professions could be – The Priest/Vicar/Clergy? In a way this is not that different to what Kerry Young is suggesting. The Youthworker as Clergy is one who has a sense of values, of practices according to values, is someone who would guide to moral decisions, maybe even challenge some too. Now, probably a few of my clergy friends might dispute that Clergy have time to do the kind of pastoral work required for this, but thats not the point im making, for the youth worker, a nod to the role of Clergy might at times be appropriate.

The slightly worrying thing about this, is that if Vanhoozer is to be believed, Clergy might be in the same kind of identity predicament. What he suggests is that there have been a series of images and metaphors that have shaped the understanding of ‘Pastor’ which were created in the social context/culture, been retained and have held the role captive – such as ‘The Pastor as CEO‘ , as ‘psychotherapeutic guru’, as ‘political agitator‘ , (all of these could easily be transferred to youth worker)  – different times in history shape the nature of the role of clergy and models, and so ‘master’ (of theology), ‘Builder’ (of church congregations), ‘Revivalist’ (in the 19th C) , and ‘Manager’ (of programmes, buildings, people- a 20th Century concept) – additions in the 21st Century include ‘Social media mogul’ and ‘community activist’ – and thats before others such as life coach, agent of hope, story teller, midwife (Vanhoozer, 2015, p7-8)

A look to clergy might not be that profitable, in this sense, though there is an element that Clergy are able to shape their practice in a way that defines it, interprets it and develops it, the many examples of books on the role of being a pastor are testiment to this, but this also occurs in the local setting, as clergy encounter people through visiting, groups, wandering around their parish, in schools. There are times when Clergy are as much the youthworker, as vice versa, doing assemblies, being governors, leading groups. The fluidity of role definement remains.

It is not a semantic question to try and define the ‘Christian Faith-based youthworker’ – or at least suggest how this is distinctive as a role and in practice.  Carole Pugh locates ‘youth work with a spiritual content & ‘youth work based on Christian (or other faith) principles focussing on a social action/youth work values approach’ in between the deemed extremes of ‘youth work with no spiritual content’, on one side, and ‘Christian youth work adopting an evangelical approach’ on the other.  (Pugh, 1999) This is similar to that of Danny Brierley in All joined up ( 2003) or Richard Passmore (and I) in ‘Here be Dragons’ , in which we argue that at the heart of Symbiotic youthwork are the core principles of education, equality, participation, empowerment and group work within an understanding of Mission, of improvisation, of ‘valuing culture, traditions and the Bible’ (Passmore, 2013, p60)

So, if Core to ‘Christian faith based Youthwork’ is Youthwork and its values – how might a developed understanding of Christian vocation help. For, as in ‘Here be Dragons’,’ Youthwork and the Mission of God’ (Pete Ward, 1997) and others – one of the key attributes to the Christian youthworker has been a mission prerogative – to ‘meet young people where they’re at’, to ‘be incarnational’ and so, as a result ‘understanding the culture’, and forming practice around Mission has been essential, and has in many cases driven practice; often with Vincent Donovan ringing in our ears. Mission may have taken the youthworker thus far in their thinking, Fresh expressions and emerging church is developing new avenues for youthwork ( see also Here Be Dragons again..), but if Mission becomes swallowed up and synonymised by Evangelism, as the church in ‘Status Anxiety’ might cause it to be, and the Church of Englands national youth person has ‘evangelist’ in their title, (one example amongst many) – then the Christian youthworker, may become even more distinct, but not only that Mission becomes reinterepreted as ‘church grower’ – leaving the Missional christian youthworker without a theological discipline to call home.

Enter, metaphorically, stage left, Kevin Vanhoozer again or at least a paraphrase of him, as I ask ‘What does the Christian faith based worker do, that no other institution can’?

On one hand they might be the only living remnant of youthwork practice soon – much to the thanks of the Conservative government slashing local council funding and with it universal youth service provision – so that might be one distinction- with a youthwork underpinned practice – this might be a future distinction.

But what else – at least from a faith perspective – what might the Christian youth worker be called to be and do?

Vanhoozer suggests the following:

  1. A Theologian- ‘To be a Christian Theologian is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God was going in Christ for the sake of the world’- theology is not just a job for the professionals, the qualifieds or academics.
  2. A Public Theologian- This is someone who reacts against the privatisation of the faith, restricting it to individual salvation – it is someone who is able to discern truth and justice, able to discern how and where in the world the traces of truth and justice may be unveiled, it is to be communicative of the story of God in the public domain, to be as Volf suggests a ‘witnessing presence’ or as Sam Wells (2005)  ‘Saints’ (See my post ‘Theodrammatic saints..) –
  3. To be in Public: It is to be involved with the public, being present, working with people to have conversations, to raise questions, address big issues of life, death, hope, fear, meaning and despair. To have much knowledge, and but also have general knowledge, to encourage places of connection, and environs such as homes (see my previous post on ‘home’ here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-S5)

Now these three things are directed by Vanhoozer, firmly and squarely with the role of Clergy, and in his words the ‘Youth Minister’ – and he has Christian Smiths (2005) research on Youth Ministry in the USA in mind as he makes this point (2015, p116-117, 154) and so this might have more resonance or direction with the ‘Youth Minister’ role in the UK. But what is interesting is that the ‘Christian faith based youth worker’ is probably more used to be doing these three things, as they have an adopted language of youthwork (universal), are involved in conversations that invoke witnessing, are discerners of truth, justice and equality (even if youthwork values drive these) and also value space for conversations.

Maybe ‘Christian faith Based youth workers’ might be Public Theologians after all…  



Passmore R, Ballantyne  Here be Dragons, 2013

Pugh, C Christian Youthwork or Social Action, 1997 in Youth and Policy 1999 no 65

Smith, M, Jeffs, T, Youthwork, 1987

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

Vanhoozer, KJ The Pastor as the public Theologian, 2015

Young K, The Art of Youthwork, 2nd ed 2006