‘To solve the church and society’s problems; we just need to get those feral young people into church’

Or at least, that’s what we want to pay a youth worker to do.

Harsh? Or deep down is this what churches are really thinking?

Twice in the last year I have heard the word ‘feral’ used to describe groups of young people.

As many times more have I heard that getting young people into church is the only answer to solving their problems.

Forgive me for just a little over sensitivity.


Has brexit unleashed a whole new generation of intolerant uncompassionate baby boomer/late retireds who have a compassion and humanity chip missing?

Have church leaders forgotten what love and ‘people made in the image of God’ looks like?

Has personal blame, rather than community responsibility and societies ills been sidelined?

Or is church still set in Victorian ways.. still happy to feel colonial and superior and retain this by the use of Victorian language.

So I’m bloody mad.

But if this is actually what we’re thinking as churches when it comes to working with young people, then churches and the congregations in them have got to own this.

Own that this is how they actually feel about young people. Own that working with young people is only code for ‘bringing them into church’. Own that they are scared and frightened of young people, and where these feeling originate. Often from the media, and when powerful leaders in churches use negative stories of the world outside and young people’s actions. Own it and be honest. Own it and challenge i. Own it and be collectively self aware.

I just don’t think the problem is with young people.

It’s with us.

It’s with the us who know better

It’s with the us who still believe

It’s with the us who hope that change is possible

It’s with us if we have any desire to realise that God’s love is inclusive.

It’s our problem. It’s our problem as church if this is our starting point. Or what we actually mean, but try and hide it.

It’s our problem if we believe some young people are worth more in the kingdom of God than others.

It’s our problem if the culture of church favours the behaved. Or people only like us.

It’s these expectations that cause challenges with employing youthworkers. But if it’s out in the open. We have to own it.

I may be critical and angry. But this is also heartfelt passion.

‘Sorry and We have got it wrong’ have to be the starting point. We will not provide reconciling spaces if we’ve already judged.

Whole communities do need restoring, encouraging, loving, understanding and being present in.

Those feral young people might be the key.

Those feral young people have had their life opportunities restricted by austerity policies that weren’t their fault.

Those feral young people are angry. Those feral young people need compassion not criticism.

Those feral young people are creative, determined, passionate and resourceful, and God is provoking us through them. They are the visionaries a dying church needs.

Those feral young people, and not other, they are not scum.

Those feral young people… are not other, they are us.

Maybe we do need to understand before were understood.

Maybe hearts need breaking first. Ours.

Maybe anger is a good thing.

God, please one day might there be a church where ‘those’ young people are welcome, understood, loved and cherished. And I hope it is in my lifetime and I am able to play a part in it happening.

And I haven’t started on the ‘getting them into church bit..’…


Young people are the saints of the present, not the church of the future. 

There can be two perspectives, in regard to how young people are viewed in the church, actually scrap that, maybe theres three. All influence the way in which people in churches develop ministries and so they’re important to reflect on, some more common than others, all impact the ongoing way which young people are treated, and then this impacts upon how they are discipled.

The ‘not there yet’ perspective;

This has come about through a number of ways. The most obvious one being that young people are often viewed in transitional stages, ie ‘not quite children, but not yet adults’, Young people can be placed against transitional frameworks from human development, and are then thus ‘not there yet’ because they are the ones always developing, changing and trying to become something. What this does is develop a concept of young people as learners. Something Nick Shepherd alludes to in Faith Generation (2016) he is not alone. But it means that because young people are ‘not there’ yet they need to learn to know ‘how to be there’ , becoming recipients of teaching, and being only viewed as learners, because ‘they aren’t there yet’ .  The not there yet is also in the tool kit for the youth evangelist, the trick being that young people aren’t listened to or with to hear about their faith perspective, but that, stereo-typically, they are given a new plumbline to measure themselves against – to be told ‘they aren’t there yet’ if they haven’t prayed a prayer (but have been confirmed), they’re not there yet if they haven’t ‘recommitted’ or ‘been baptised in the spirit’ or something else new to measure themselves, thus creating a need that only the evangelist can fill. Its a ‘not there yet’ perspective that is the starting point. But its not just the evangelist, think about the processes needed for ceremonies in the church – how often is it inferred that young people ‘aren’t there yet’ – to participate? Then theres the old one of ‘young people as ‘tomorrow church’… but ive said enough….it’s also linked to the ‘potential’ perspective..

The ‘scary’ perspective

Also known in youth work terms as ‘The Daily Mail’ perspective. Think of all the media words and their connotations and then what does that do as an image of young people. Yes news is only news because it is bad news, and probably only in local papers do good news stories exist about young people ( which is great) but young people are unfairly generalised to be wary of for the actions of a few, in a way that all motorists aren’t thought of for a serious RTA or others.  Think it doesn’t matter? When churches start using the words ‘disengaging’ to describe how young people aren’t involved in church, then the proof of this is evident. Or other phrases like ‘young people outside society’ then its clear where this influence comes from. Its not a biblical view of young people, or society. Language shapes understanding, and so words like ‘Youth’ ‘Chav’ ‘Disengaged’ portray meaning, which can cause churches to close ranks, and avoid being involved, and creates distances.

The ‘precious’ perspective

‘We need to keep them safe’ is the cry! So because the world is pronounced as a scary place ( because it is full of other ‘youth’ who act Scary) – then Safety measures are brought in to keep young people in the church away from these horrible horrible things that might damage them. Tactics such as busyness ( be at 3 youth services a week), alternatives (lets go to Soul Survivor, instead of Reading & Leeds), Guilt ( Jesus wouldn’t want you to mix with those friends)  all very subtly are out-workings of the precious perspective. It fits a youth alternative culture form of youth ministry that Brierley attributes to Billy Graham (2003, All Joined up), when avoiding the youth scenes of the day (in the 1960’s-1970’s) was done through the development gradually of Christian youth subcultures and was continually fed. It is not that these things aren’t important, but if they stem from churches, church leaders and even Christian parents who themselves were part of the same scene- having a ‘precious perspective’ of young people then this has implications for the young person themselves.

So, whats the alternative?  Have I got the right answer waiting at the bottom of this article? not yet, ive got two examples.

When I was early into youth ministry 20 or so years ago, as a training team we had a question for someone, I cant remember who, who was talking about evangelism and youth ministry back then. We asked them “what do you do when you don’t know the faith position of the group, and you’re giving a talk? , when some have become Christians, others haven’t? (I’m embarrassed by the question now..) the response was – just treat them all as disciples and you wont go far wrong.

There was a discussion on Radio 5 the other day about Dev Patels new film, ‘Lion’ and why the younger Dev Patel (in the movie) and also Dev Patel when he was a child (playing the child character in Slumdog Millionaire, a few years ago) aren’t likely to feature in Oscar nominations. And there are other child actors that could easily be mentioned, such as those in ET. The response from one of the contributors, Danny Boyle, was that it is very difficult to distinguish with a child actor their performance and also what the director of the film is enabling to be seen in the shot. There is no doubt that a child has to perform, but the person who creates the right environment for that performance is given more of the credit. It also wants to protect young actors from the limelight too early. However, the view in the industry is that the acting of the child is the directors responsibility.  The director helps the young actor rehearse, to act accordingly in the scene, to feel their way through the props, context and environment and be guided by the other actors around them. how might this be translated as a metaphor for young people in the church.

What if young people are Saints called  and being directed by God?

Already. Now and in the present.

Being called by God is one aspect that makes a Human distinct from the animal world (amongst other things, Baltasar, Theodrama pt 2, Vanhoozer, 2005). And if young people are saints called by God, then the responsibility for the church and youth ministry is to create environments (direct scenes?) where rehearsal and performance of the saints in the church and the world can occur. Undoubtedly Biblically young people receive the vocal call of God.

The Saint, according to Wells (2005) is someone who knows their place in the drama, in the sidelines but also with purpose (what purpose in the Kingdom are young people acting towards?) , a saint gathers community (is not alone- essential for young people, and us all), a saint is faithful instead of violent, a saint is aware of failings and these give God glory, a saint is in the world where its tense to show an alternative, loving way.

What if young people are treated, not just as disciples but also as saints, directed by God?

Maybe the view of young people as ‘not there’ ‘feared’ or ‘precious’ have clouded a view of discipleship and sainthood available for young people in local churches across the UK, a safe religion is not an attractive one, neither is one that is only about avoiding the good things that exist in the world. What those of us responsible for young people in churches have the responsibility for is not equipping young people for saint hood, but realising that they are already saints, already being directed by God and so our responsibility is to create environments where their acting as saints can take place, and their role of saints, often prophetic saints in the church, is welcomed and encouraged.

Young People as people called as saints currently under the directorship of God.

As CS Lewis said : ‘Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbour, act as if you did. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him’ . We need to act in churches as if young people are called as saints of God.


Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation,  2016

Wells S , Improvisation, 2005

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


The disconnect from mission ‘to’, to church ‘with’

As far as i know, Christian youthworkers, volunteers, and many people across the United kingdom are involved very sacrificially in the lives of individual and groups of young people who find themselves struggling with the following issues for a variety of reasons:

Housing and Homelessness

Sexual identity, sexual preference, Sexuality

Learning difficulties

Behavioural difficulties


Addictions to alcohol or drugs


Perpetrators of crime

Domestic abuse in their relationships

Economic poverty

Mental Health

To be able to interact with young people, these youthworkers often go beyond their comfort zones, beyond the programmes and beyond their job descriptions because of a call to follow the nose of God into the situations and contexts that young people find themselves. They often use as inspiration Jesus mandate in Luke 4, a combination of christian values and what is said to be ‘liberal’ youthwork values of inclusion, valuing community and equality – and build relationships with young people where theyre at, in schools, on the streets, in clubs, in groups.

They present to young people an inclusive, a possibility that Jesus is interested in them, a Jesus that meets young people in their reality, a Jesus that can be grasped. A Jesus who is open. A work of the mission of God in the UK, as embodied by the social activists as described by Newbigin:

“What is true in the position of the social activists is that a church which exists only for itself and its own enlargement is a witness against the gospel, that the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God, and that it is impossible to give faithful witness to the gospel while being indifferent to the situation of the hungry, the sick, the victims of human inhumanity” (Newbigin 1989)

Most of these people doing this kind of work – and i also include those in conversation with people at foodbanks, or on the streets of Street pastors, or being a Prison Chaplain. Do so with the honest feeling, and unescapable reality that the local church that they represent personally will not be able to accommodate the complexities of this person or group they are missioning to in conversation, their needs, their learning capacity, their social standing or knowledge of their history. Yet its the language from the core that dictates that others have to adapt, whether people arent valid.

How might this disconnect be confronted head on – when will people we don’t understand, or who are not like the current church community in background, go from being ‘missioned to’ and ‘church with’ . The attractive option is to create other homogenous units of church (as described in Here be Dragons) creating church with young people in the chaos, enacting church amongst groups, amongst friends who share life & ceremony (Clapp)- but this seems to be relatively easy in practice, keep people who wont fit into church outside to create their own faith community that connects to other church communities. (For more examples of this listen to the Nomad podcast) Yes its far harder for an established church community to readily accommodate a different community, or people with a different identity, and if this is going to happen, because clearly the church is doing its best to do mission amongst people who are in the margins (foodbanks etc), what is the process and education needed for the church to disconnect from its own ideals, and expand faith and performance of church within the margins.

Yet for the sake of the life within the margins, the pioneers are staying there. Whilst they do so the so called core of the church remains unchanged and unchallenged. And their voice is ignored, because it does challenge, it does confront, it upsets the applecart, and doesn’t buy into the established structures. Yet, can we have more people who live incarnationally, and build relationships with LGBT young people, immigrants, people with Mental health issues, or disabilities to be inspired by at national conferences. Let the core be expanded. Lets dissolve the disconnections, and embrace and include. Its challenging, improvisory and real.

“Christianity then is not a religion of exclusivity, of a predestined group who are chosen for salvation. Instead it is the set of those who know/embrace this paradox of being strangers. We are the boundary, not the centre, we are the other, not the included, and it is out of this realisation that our empathy for the oppressed and marginalised spring” (Brewin 2011, Embracing difference in a fractured world) – Taken from ‘Here be Dragons (2013)

But at the moment, is there a personal conflict – for those who work with (young) people described as in the margins, and the possibilities that that person finding belonging in the process of finding faith and in the community of the established church. Its not a theological or missiological tension, this is continuously being restriven and reflected on by the soujourners in the margins. But why isnt space for that voice in the mainstream accommodated?

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, said, “My experience has shown that when we welcome -people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation — I would even say ‘resurrection.’ Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful and trusting. This shows through the expression on the face and through all their flesh. As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a ‘family,’ then the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push -people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge.”


So is what you’re doing christian?

was a question i was asked by someone in church the other week, someone who was a visitor to the church and who had found out that i was a ‘christian youth worker’ and because of this wanted me to put some of their evangelistic mission posters up in a local school. It has taken me a little while to want to articulate a response to this, as even though i did make much of a response at the time ( didnt feel it appropriate in the context) i began to realise today, a week later how i might respond to this.

Use of language is an important factor here, and so when we think of something being ‘christian’ what does that mean? ie

Christian music, Christian book shop, Christian festival?

are the artefacts of these things inherantly holy? – ie the paper and ink of the books in the book shop, or is it that person is a christian?

is it that things accepted by the church to be within the church community can be labelled as Christian – without too much of an argument – and yet when something, somebody, a ministry is outside of such a framework – their so called christian credentials are questioned, and their belonging within the acceptable demography of ‘christian’ is doubted, yet in itself is a labelling, prejudgement phrase – not unlike ‘youth’, ‘generation X’ , said by those intent on preservation of the status quo, the cultural hegemony if you like.

Its the easiest thing to do, judge others by the stock phrase of what we have derived to be christian – from our own cultural landscape of what it means to be christian, however broad or narrow, broad, global, western or eastern that is.

Some of this, for me, reeks of a Platonic dualism, that still pervades, where something is derived as one thing or another,  a platonic view of the early christian world that stated that something was either one thing or another. an examples being what is seen/unseen, where what is seen is physical and temporal, and ‘bad’ and what is unseen is eternal, and thus Good, where Heaven is sky, and World is earth. Even now this is embedded in our language of work/home, and similarly in ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ , christian and ‘non’.

What we realise when we read Jonah, is that God is not escapable, not set to places that we think, not only in one thing or another. That he is already in the city – before he manages to get Jonah to get there too. There is no sacred, secular divide with God.

So, my response. If you want to derive the ‘christian’ of the ‘christian’ detached youthwork that i do to the artefacts that somehow are accepted as christian – such as assemblies, God talks, taking young people to soul survivor (other festivals are also available- but even they may not be ‘as christian ie Greenbelt!), RE lessons, doing the monthly worship event in a church , then that makes me and the youthwork that i do not christian, as i dont do any of these.

However, if by listening to young people in their territory, if by being there, with them in the dark spaces of their lives, if by enabling them to see hope, faith and dare to dream through the conversation that i have on the streets with them. If in these moments with the young person, as a human person they explore faith, their humanity and they flourish and encounter a new vision of God, a God who is already with them, for them and wanting not for them to perish – then this to me is what i do. It has no labels, it may not be derived as christian to some, its about expanding the stage of the Gods ongoing drama to include the streets and parks and in those spaces rehearsing the Kingdom (Vanhoozer 2005). Maybe its not christian, maybe its Kingdom.