Why daily life, not data is more important knowledge for the youth worker

Early in youth ministry for me it seemed to be implied that being a good youthworker was about maintaining an ongoing knowledge of popular culture. This was reflected in youthwork magazine (circa 1997) suggesting ‘what was hot’ and what was not. A tool to ‘help’ the beleaguered youth ministry volunteer ‘stay relevant’  by being up to date and have a knowledge of popular culture. That youthwork magazine was printed bi-monthly then, by definition it was already out of date, but never mind it suggested a view that learning is required from popular culture. And as cultural workers who connect with young people this is true. To an extent. But its tiring trying to keep to date. As this photo shows, knowing about David Beckham and Teletubbies was crucial youthwork knowledge in 1997. (and yes I have kept old youthwork magazines..for such a time as this..)

Popular culture has developed a new more recent tool. For a significant energy is invested in the cumulative report and research from culture. It is from this that more general assessments are made, such as generation X, Y or ‘millenial’ . Image result for generation xThere may be learning that can be gleaned from these, though often it is little more than general knowledge, it gives an insight into a culture, if a general culture actually exists amongst young people/people.

Then there is written knowledge, the theories, research and thinking behind youth work and ministry, from education to sociology, politics, from theology to Mission and psychology even. Youth Ministry adopts knowledge from a number  of sources, even business, entertainment and advertising, all wrapped up in Books. Books that are sometimes read, sometimes written essays on, and so, one form of knowledge is that from the books. Books though require time, and considerable reviewing before being published, not all are useful, but at least time has gone into them. Unlike the bloggers. Like this. Just whip out a blog in an hour or so. It is still the sharing of knowledge in written form though. Bloggers might provoke, the odd question maybe.

However, though some of the knowledge might fore-arm you for the task of youth work. There is no hiding the reality that knowledge of the local context is also required.

That local knowledge can be in the form of Data. From Nomisweb.gov.uk. to the NHS and Police, you can find many pieces of data about a local area. From obesity in the under 5’s, smoking in the over 65’s, employment, population and households, again, some of this information is revealing. Some concerning. Some, when shared in churches might actually cause congregations to realise that at times they might know very little about their local area. And as a youthworker, all this information is critical for being able to do fantastic youth work in the local area isnt it. You know find out what the community needs, see where the gaps are, think about anti social behaviour from the police stats, alcohol consumption from the health ones, and there you go, project up and running.

But data, doesnt give the full picture.

It points to the consequences, not always the causes. It points to the deficiencies not the desires, the needs not the personalities. The only data found is usually negative. There is no data for musical instrument use, or drama classes, or number of books read ( just literacy issues), or games of football played, jokes told, friends who did something caring.

We need to build up knowledge of the context, from within the context. We might learn the name of the shop keeper by actually using it, the favourite colour of the boy who is on the obesity statistic. What that 15 year old girl who does smoke, what does she dream of, hope for and care about? – what might she be good at? What is her story? what is all their stories? And so – from the streets and in our churches, communities, we need to hear and share stories, hear the buzz of life. Statistics might tell us one thing, stories involve us in another, the heart of the community. There is no such place as no place (apart from the ‘no place’ in county Durham) – because community and society is where people are and interact. There are a myriad of stories every day. As Freire said, all the theoretical knowledge he had was nothing compared to the knowledge of the community that every person living there had.Image result for stories It was only from there, and with people that he was able to create the possibility of change. It is this kind of knowledge that we need, of what is actually happening. No amount of strategising with statistics, consultation without concrete collaboration, planning without people will do anything other than provide a service that people might only reject or reluctantly accept (as a user). It is back to the strategising from the context and shaping possibilities through conversations, thats the knowledge we need. Its knowledge from people, with people and of people. As they really are.  As youthworkers, we need to leave spaces to be trusted to be told stories. Often i hear more stories of life from young people on the streets, than those in schools or churches, the environment doesnt always lend itself. Yet that doesnt mean that we dont keep trying at listening, hearing and provide spaces where we value stories as knowledge more than anything.  As youthworkers we need to be in the heat of the action, and attentive to learning from it.

After all,  Its not as if anyone said – thats the greatest data ever told.

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Maintaining Young Peoples Joyful Curiosity

*boring start of blog alert….I dont listen to alot of Radio 4, although because my car arial is a bit rubbish and Radio 5 is a bit crackly I have started listening to it a bit more and today I was heading to the local supermarket and heard about 3 minutes of a discussion on education. What they said resonated alot with some of the other stuff I have listened to or writte about recently, especially if an of you have watched any of Ken Robinsons TED talks. What they said was that ‘the education system has been reduced to what can be measured by testing, and testing then shapes what the education system is all about’. Of course its easy for a discussion on Radio 4 to sound like this. What they also went on to say was that because of this, there is ‘no Joy in the discovery anymore’  the joy of discovering stuff, of learning, of find out the whys, hows and whens of things has been reduced to a test, and made meaningful out of a test.

Ken Robinson would go further and say that this shape of education reduced the validity of other forms of intelligence outside of an academic one.  Some of you may know Gardners 9 forms of intelligence, where the academic/information type is only one, more is explained here: http://fundersandfounders.com/9-types-of-intelligence/. 

9-types-of-intelligence-infographic

That was the slightly long winded way of reflecting on the how youth ministry might maintain the Joy of curiosity for young people. In a way it has a luxury to be able to do this, because it is doesnt have the restrictions of formal education, tests, exams and the policies that shape them.

So, when it comes to helping children and young people be formed in their faith, what is that has been done that causes the vast majority of young people even in churches, to think that faith is boring.

It has been said that over stimulation to visual screens has caused a detrimental effect on young peoples ability to be creative and constructive. What if the same might be said within some methods of youth ministry, which have over stimulation, games and activities, but then the ‘God’ bit is the ‘boring’ bit, because it feels like a school bit.

The question then is, How might we enable children and young people to rediscover the joy of discovery, when it comes to learning about faith. And, might a broader understanding of intelligences help?

But the first thing. Ive got to admit, even before starting academic study 13 years ago, i loved learning, and developing deeper thoughts of faith through reading theology, such as Tozer, Jim Packer, David Watson and Philip Yancey, and other books by Wimber, Yaconelli and Max Lucado. Maybe i was a faith geek, regardless I had an apetite to learn more, and deepen an understanding of faith, which catapulted onwards ever since starting my BA in youthwork and theology in 2004. Some people might say that none of this is necessary. That young people just need a simple faith. A simple faith might not always be able to respond to difficult questions. There are only so many helpful verses that are included on fridge magnets.

Because I am a Theology learning geek, it is difficult for me to suggest how otherwise to help young people discover the joy of discovery in their faith outside of reading and reflecting on those whose faith and stories may have inspired them. And this may work for some young people, give them access to the popular theology books that you yourself have been inspired by, like Rob Bell, or Yancey, Tom wright or Tozer. It seems daft, but what about raising their game..

This is where the multiple intelligencies help. It is easy to find the resources to help young people explore academic learning in regard to the faith, but how might they explore using other aspects of intelligence? How might their joy of discovery be active, peformative, emotional or social experiences, or even those that help them connect with the outside natural world. Even if ‘multiple intelligencies’ is of dubious science, helping a young persons journey of discovering faith be of variety can only be a good thing. Not all of the young people in your group are naturally information intelligent, some are socially or interpersonally intelligent and so it is worth reflecting on holistic spiritual discovery, and enabling a joy of discovery to be longer lasting.

Theres a possibility that the problem is broader. We might be asking young people to find a joy of learning and discovering the faith, in a broader culture of where we ourselves have grown tired or bored of the learning aspect of church itself. (usually the sermon)  And valuing ongoing learning is almost dumbed down in churches when the activity of church is emphasised.  If we have a culture or even concept of faith that ‘becoming a christian is it’ and ongoing learning isnt a requirement, then there is no joy in onging discovery, because the Jesus of the fridge magnet is all that is required.

In the recent research in 1400 churches in the USA, (a copy of it is here:  http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP     )  They discovered that it wasnt games, fun, camps, or residentials that kept young people in church. It was that faith was meaningful and challenging. It tackled the deep stuff, mysteries and complexity. And by doing so it gave seriousness to the capacity of young people to be learners, explorers and capable of handling theology. Here is what it said :

During the Growing Young project’s interviews, 40 percent of young people specifically mentioned “challenge” when they talked about why their church is so effective with their age group. They appreciate challenging teaching in their churches, even when it makes them feel uncomfortable and invites them to make changes based on scriptural principals.

40 percent of young people specifically mention wanting to be challenged by their church. Tweet that

Contrary to popular thinking that young people today want it easy, many told us they love their churches because their churches inspire them to act. This inspiration flows from leaders who model authenticity and humility and extend the challenge of following Jesus not from a place of superiority or power, but out of an invitation to pursue the way of Jesus together.

We dont have an example of How Jesus kept the disciples interested for 18 years in his ‘church’ . We know that he kept a faithful following along with him for at least 3 years, even though suffering was pending. Discipleship was about discovery, imitation and performing. It was about learning, questions, mysteries and complexities. And it took place in the backdrop of a society that there was oppression and roman rule. Jesus didnt make things easy for them. Maybe there is a lesson there.

As I was reflecting further on the Joy of discovery, I came across this from Richard Rohr:

We’ve turned faith into certitude when, in fact, this Trinitarian mystery is whispering quite the opposite: we have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding; it seems to me it’s only this ongoing search for understanding that will create compassionate and wise people. (Richard Rohr) 

What might it mean in youth ministry to create compassionate and wise young people, who fit their lives around the requests of God to love, show mercy and justice. If young people have been given a Godly spirit of questioning ( Acts 17:27) then it might be only right that in youth ministry we create spaces open for that quest.  We are born curious, how might that curiosity remain joyful and ongoing in exploring faith and discipleship.

Image result for joyful curiosity

Why should the school teach all the best doctrine?

I had a really fascinating conversation with a young person the other day. They were describing how they went to church and a youth group on a Sunday, and during the week were involved in doing RE at GCSE level in a pretty bog standard north-east secondary school.  The young persons opening conversations were mostly about football, and the like, but then as the conversation progressed they realised that I was of faith and wanted to chat through what they had been doing during RE.

In the past I have been involved in schools work in secondary schools where the RE lessons can be related to philosophy and ethics, where young people aged 11 are dealing with Plato and Socrates. But in this instance the young person was telling me that they had been learning about Christian beliefs, about the Trinity, about Creation, and about Eschatology, for some youth ministry people, that’s the ‘end times’. It was a fascinating conversation. The young person described how the teacher had used a mars bar to describe the trinity (brings a new meaning to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good, boom boom)  The young person was relaying to me about the different thought about all of these things, and also different perspectives on them, yes it came across a little simplified, ie ‘all conservative’ Christians believe x,y and z, whereas ‘liberal ones’ don’t, and yes – whilst I responded to the young person in terms of questions to reflect that there are spectrums and a scale, that wasn’t the point. What I asked the young person then, was  – so, given that you are learning about these things – How does knowing this help you with Church on Sundays and youth group?

Their response was that they hadn’t necessarily made a connection, or couldn’t articulate it. But what they did say that was they seemed to do on a Sunday was to think about how to behave, or how to believe, but the rest of the time was about having social space in church, about space to have fun and it be a good club. And theres nothing wrong with that. When I asked them about the learning on a sunday they described it as someone telling them something to think about, but with little interaction. What they couldn’t do was correlate their learning of the faith in RE to the table of their youth group. School was awakening their interest in something deep and thoughtful, about the knowledge of the faith, about doctrine, and giving tools to explore it further, yet church was about morality and fun. Not that much different to Moral Therapeutic deism, something I describe here: Does Youth Ministry suffer from MTD?

In the 1970’s Larry Norman wrote the song ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?’ – I’m not going to propose that Christian music has improved since then, the point being that whats the alternative to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the rest, what this paved the way for was the alternative Christian music scene.

But should the question be today…, ‘why should the school teach all the good Christian doctrine?’  This wasnt some progressive or well resourced faith school, it was an ordinary secondary. Neither was it a particularly well resourced or progressive church that the young person attended. The point is that some aspects of youth ministry are trying on one hand to improve RE teaching ( Ie YFC’s ‘RE:quest, resource) – but at the same time resources that equip Christian young people to explore deep faith, deep doctrine – ‘going beyond the god slot’ are hard to find. The school has to teach Christian beliefs as part of its curriculum, and also forms of belief, and give spaces for questions, for discussion and also exploring. But doesnt the church too have an obligation to help young people explore, question and develop opinion and belief of God too? I am not going to judge every youth group experience on the basis of the one that was described to me, that really wouldn’t be fair, but from some churches it is seen that what is taught in RE might be ‘liberal’ or ‘not real Christianity’ ( hence the desire to give schools a ready made resource) – but actually what schools might be doing is awakening the curiosity of young people to think about the faith, to know God further, to not be afraid of asking the question.

Whilst young people are curious and questioning their minds need feeding. When it comes to doctrine – youth ministry and even the Sunday church might be catching up with the school. We wonder why hundreds of young people leave the church, when their intelligence is ignored, or their capacity to learn is sidelined its probably not surprising.

What about thinking that each year the group of young people will consider and develop a deeper knowledge of one doctrine? so doctrine of grace, of incarnation, of the Trinity, of salvation or something else. Then if young people become followers of Jesus, they do so with knowledge of Jesus, knowledge of their place in the story, of how the pieces fit together. Its not just a bible verse to justify a theme.

Be brave with our young people, take a risk. In a recent survey only 22% of churches are talking with young people about basic Christian beliefs. (See ‘Losing heart’ stats, link is via here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-JK ) or  That’s 78% of churches who have young people aren’t. Statistics can prove anything, and they can be a stick to batter the church with, or justify youth ministry practices or resources. What the conversation revealed to me is that even secular schools are potentially doing a better job of this than the church.