How will we find the good in youth ministry, if we don’t even look for it?

Oh well at least no one died tonight. 

This can often be the mantra at the end of a crazy out work session. But its not setting the bar very high in regard to evaluating or reviewing a session. Duffy Robbins in a piece on Youthwork Magazine 12 years ago wrote a piece on evaluating youth ministry, describing how for some volunteers, a good youth programme or activity or weekend event occurs when ‘young people cry’ at the end of it, and this was something that in the piece was manipulated by leaders though ‘inserting appropriate music’. Crying or not dying? are these the only factors that we’re looking for in youthwork practice? I would hope kind of not. The other measure, i hear very often, by clergy more than anyone else is well ‘if young people came back, then you’re doing something right’ this however also has its limitations for what constitutes appropriate or good practice, leaving little other than the unpredictability of attendance as the key marker.

If having successful youthwork is what we crave, then what we measure is critical.

There has been a trend to develop good reflection in youthwork and ministry practices (a trend, more a core component in youthwork, but hey), and yet, reflecting after a youthwork session can still feel like a painful delay, and pointless exercise in the midst of putting the chairs away and I wonder whether this is for a number of reasons, firstly that we’re asking the wrong questions, well at least we’re asking questions that have little context to them. For example, we might want to ask, and legitimately so, ‘in todays session, what went well?’  this is a great question. The problem with this question, is that without knowing what ‘went well’ looks like, and volunteers have an understanding of the identifyers of ‘went well’ then this ends up being the ‘nobody died, someone cried, or we had young people attend’ response.  ‘What went well, is a great question, if those involved know what is being looked for.  The opposite question, is then usually asked, what didnt go well. And this section can take ages to fill. Reflective youth workers can nearly always fill that box, as we’re never more than a footstep away from the precipice of doom that always finds ways to do things better, or on a bad night finds faults in everything or everyone. But this needn’t and shouldn’t be the way. We need to ask ourselves better questions. More to the point, youthworkers themselves should decide upon the questions, and not have questions imposed from above, which doesnt work.  (Sue Cooper, 2012)

Asking these 5 questions at the end of every session will transform your youth provision. Related image

It is a bold claim.

But I am willing to make it. If you’re as serious about young people in the ministry as the ministry itself, then these are the questions to reflect on at the end of every session with young people. If we ask these, and have responses to them, then we will know that a ‘session went well’ or didnt – because these happened or space was created for them to happen. The other claim I make is that it doesnt matter what your youth provsion is – these questions will transform it. It could be a youth worship event, an after school club, mentoring or youth fellowship group. More to the point, i am willing to also suggest that if we cannot put a positive answer to these questions on a regular basis in the youth provision, it is likely to not be enjoyed or attended by young people after an initial buzz or excitement of it existing. So, what are the questions? 

1. What were the quality conversations between leaders and young people?

A youth provision in which there was no conversations between young people and supportive adults is just an activity centre, a creche, a place to be entertained. Developing conversation turns a place of activity into a place where life happens, where shared understanding happens, and is the basis of purposeful relationship building. Our role is not to watch young people do an activity from the comfort of the kitchen, but to be involved in it, not youthworkers are not observers of young people, they are involvers with, and this is about conversation. So its a good idea to ask a question about conversations.

None of the conversations need to feel deep or meaningful – but thats only ‘to us’ they might be deep and meaningful to the young person

They dont have to feel significant- but they might be

It might be just a short chat about football with a young person who hadnt spoken to anyone for a few weeks, but its still of value.

Yes, for recording purposes we dont want to write down names of young people and who said what, but we can record initials, and general content like school issue, or family, or health, or sports, or housing or hobbies, and then any tangents that this took us into. If we’re good at creating a space for conversation, then this might take time. But thats a good thing right?

We could do stuff with all the subject matter and upload into charts or graphs, but more importantly is that these conversations are happening, and continue to do so. They represent that young people trust that the space is safe for them, because the people in it are safe to trust with the daily stuff of life – or the personal stuff of challenge. So, the first question, is about conversations – are they happening, who is having them (to develop training) and what are they about? and are they of quality – not just abusive banter (though they might be the start) .

2. In what ways did young people increase participation?

I am indebted to a student who I was delivering training to yesterday for this question. This was theirs. And so thank you. It is too good not to share.

During the activity, session or club – in what ways did young people increase participation? Is an absolute gold gem of a question. I have written on Participation before, so am not going to repeat myself here (see the ‘participation’ tag in the menu)

Participation can be seen in a number of different spheres. Young people may increase their participation in the current club – through helping with something, suggesting an idea, responding to an instruction – that sort of thing, but they may increase in participation as they take part in something of their own choice that they wouldnt normally (and being a volunteer in the god slot activity doesnt count), they might participate in deciding future activities, or decision making in the style of the group. I remember once when a group of young people who didnt like a youth event, went round as a group to the leaders house, shared their ideas, and the event changed direction completely as the ideas were responded to, and from then a open youth music cafe was started that gave young people space to play their own music, that ran for 7 years. (It was about to close otherwise) . The participation from young people at this venue went from merely observers in it, to high participation almost overnight. At their call.  Image result for participation ladder

This ladder might help in thinking about what increased participation might look like. It doesnt help us think about where the areas are in the activity we run where participation can happen. It may be easy to create spaces for participation in the areas such as food, or games – but can we increase the space for participation in areas we as adults prefer to be more in control of? There are a few examples here, in a journal piece ive recently written for CMS.

But what about where young people want to make a positive step to have greater participation in the organisation, school, charity or their local community? Through positive action and decision making, can this be facilitated through this youth provision – when we hear this is what young people want to do? Facilitating young peoples participation in the wider society, might be our role as purposeful adults – especially when we are trusted (via conversation! ;-))

But hang on, what if you’re thinking ‘our group isnt about participation, its about giving young people a fun space and telling them a story about faith’ – well if it isnt about young people developing participation in the faith community, and in the story itself, and this is modelled by participation in the group or session – then the story will remain only a story, and not one that young people can or would want to involve themselves in. No participation, will also mean eventually, no young people. Or at least none of the same ones after 6 months. And none very interested to be there at that. (its then we resort to bribery, ‘if you dont keep coming, you wont go on summer camp’.. shudder) . If young people are bored, then its not better entertainment they require, usually it is more meaningful participation.

Participation is key to everything, and so creating spaces for increased participation (even if it is counter cultural to the rest of the church, or organisation) is essential and as is a question at the end of every session to encourage it to be continually important.

3. What did we learn?

Young people are key to youth work – agreed? Good, thought you’d say yes to this one. And youthwork and ministry is about education – agreed? lovely. Therefore, one of the questions we need to ask at the end of every session has to have something to do with education, or learning to do with it.

In asking the question we put ourselves in the role as continual and ongoing learners, a place of humility and discovery, a place of wonder.

We might learn something about ourselves – our strengths or limitations (and think about how to enhance both) we might learn the same about young people

We might discover a gift, an ability and unseen talent in a young person (or volunteer)

We might learn about an attitude, a belief or a desire in a young person

Who’s voice have we heard from? 

We might learn to change our own views about something – because we’ve been open to learning from a young persons perspective

or something else…Image result for learning

We might be tempted to ask what did young people learn (because we tried to teach them something) but thats a path fraught with difficulty, because, what they heard and what they learned might be completely different, what they learned and what we wanted them to learn again very different. Young people may have learned who to get attention from in the session, yet we hoped they learned how to behave better. So the question is for us – what did we learn? 

The fourth question is this:

4. How did we take a risk with young people, or encourage them to take a risk? 

Unchallenging youth practices are boring. Or at least they will be fairly quickly. But you really dont need me to tell you this. If we’re not careful though, youth ministry takes the relevancy route and makes faith as easy to believe in as technology is trying to make everything as easy as possible. Making youth provision challenging is counter cultural. But challenge is what young people need.

If you ask any number of young adults in their 20’s why did they attend youth provision in their teens, aside from social friendships and fun, they will nearly all say learning, new experiences and being challenged to try new things. Challenge is part of the risk taking. Challenges are good for the self esteem of young people ( Baumeister, in Jocelyn Bryan, 2017 Being Human). It is good for young people to be challenged, therefore – we need to take some risks.

We might need to ditch the programme for the evening and host space for conversation, listen and learn. We might need to do an experiment in regard to discipleship, or had over an activity to young people for their participation in running it, bottom line, we take a risk, and do so because we want young people to be challenged and to raise their game – and we give over to trusting them. A risk might be to try and talk to a young person who doesnt normally say anything, or to create space for the quiet ones to participate, or something else… Risk taking and encouraging it turns us into the kind of youthworkers and volunteers who are still dreaming for something better, we havent given up. Trusting in young people to rise to the risks and challenge we offer causes what we do to stand in the face of prevailing opinions about young people.

Asking about risk taking – is question four of five. We should be thinking of taking risks each time we meet with young people. Even if that feels like we took a risk to try and talk with a young person at the pool table, well done, even if it was just a game of silent pool, you did at least put yourself in the place.

5. What do we need to do before the next session? 

This might sound intensely practical, and it is. But this session with a group of young people may have caused a whole host of things that need to be done to be done, so, write them down, and decide who and when they need to be done.

Is there a referral to an agency needed to be done?

do we need some training on an issue young people are raising?

is someone going to contact that young person the day after their job interview – see how it went? 

what about a talk with the leaders of the church about that idea the young people had – or creating a space for the leaders to meet with the young people directly? 

is someone going to fill in that funding bid? 

how might we change something about what we have always done, and need to prep for it this week? 

not just ‘practical’ but this could also be an opportunity to develop ongoing learning and reflection, training might be needed, but it could be that before the next session everyone of the leaders reads an online article or blog, or chapter from a book (if it can be photocopied) , or watches a film, listens to an album. It is about the ongoing desire to keeping learning and doing this collectively. So – what to do before the next session might not be to ‘plan’ the next session, or follow up pledges or promises made to young people (which are definitely needing to happen) but an opportunity for reflection.

It will transform your practice, sounds like it is hard work, but if we’re serious about helping young people take risks and developing learning, then its to be part of our own culture. (Even if, again, its not part of the wider church or organisation culture) As volunteers and workers developing provision for young people, its our game that we can take responsibility for.

So, there you have it. 5 essential questions to put on the after youth session review form. That will transform it. 

Why?  Because if these questions are asked, they become important, and what becomes important becomes part of the culture, and creating a culture of conversation, learning and participation is core to youth practice. If youthworkers are setting the tone for what makes a session ‘successful’ then young people will benefit. Success or failure is not part of good youthwork, its about conversation, participation, education, reflection and risks. A session that went well, will be because of these things. Not because someone cried or didnt die.

So – why will these questions transform your youthwork practice?

If we ask them at the end of every session, and make time to do this, not running home quickly after volunteering, then these become core to what the group is all about, and volunteers and leaders will be focussing on doing these things during the session, knowing that its whats going to be asked in reflection later. There is no magic quick formula to better youth provision, but I would hazard a guess that using these 5 questions, and in each session trying to work towards these things will make a significant difference, transform it? it may well do. Take it out of your comfort zone – almost certainly, hang on and enjoy the ride.



Jocelyn Bryan, Being Human, 2017

Jon Ord, Critical Issues in Youth work Management, 2012 (Chapter by Sue Cooper on Measurement)


When was the last time you had reflective supervision for your youthwork? never? Well if its helpful, start today with the following questions:

The chances are that you’re involved in some kind of work with young people, after all thats what this blog is all about, and most of the people who read this are youthworkers, paid or voluntary in a variety of settings. So, the chances are that you’re involved in this ongoing unpredictable vocational task of trying to educate/support/guide/challenge young people through the purposeful relationship that you have with them. And its challenging isnt it? some/most/all of the time (delete as appropriate)

What about a second assumption.

The chances are that you have faced some kind of reduction to your budget over the last 5 years, thats if you have one. If you’re a volunteer, maybe there used to be a paid worker in the church, if you’re a youthworker you used to have a training budget, or if you’re actually still in a paid professional youthwork job, just well done for having it (and no budget to make anything happen). But in the main, (unless you work for NCS) your youthwork has had some kind of reduction in the last few years. Right? at least half right? Yeah i thought so.

So, the chances are, that as a youthworker, you have barely any reflective supervision or support for your work?

the youthworker who used to supervise you- has now left

the external supervision you used to get – you cant afford, it was a luxury anywayImage result for supervision

no one in the congregation really takes an avid interest in the youthwork, thats why you do it.. all they hope for is young people on a sunday or staying out of trouble..

There seems not to be anyone who spends time doing the listening anymore.

And who is thinking about your development? – not just the development of the outcomes, or the goals of the group?

And not just that, its the sounding board, the ideas space, the reflective questions back.

Having someone to help with the ongoing reflective practice has been deemed a core part of youth work practice since the 1960s, yet fast forward a number of years and it was seen as barely important in faith settings mostly, and a luxury in more secular settings. At least its shifted from personal development to managing the outcomes and goals (Ord, 2012)

And the first thing to go when the budgets got tight.

Yet good supervision can do a number of things (and supervision is different from management, or at least management can also include supervision, see my other posts on this topic for more)  but good supervision as Joan Tash described in ‘Working with the unattached’ deems supervision to be an ‘experimental relationship’ in which the dreams and ideas of the worker have a space to circulate, fester and be talked through.

Image result for supervision

So what happens when thats lost?

who is losing out? – well you are…

Supervision for the youthworker/volunteer is a space for support, for education and also direction (Jon Ord, 2012), that often happens outside of the management relationship (though it could occur within it). And so, that supportive, educative and directive function may be lost for the person involved in the ongoing practice, and its a reflective practice of youthwork.

Today is Wednesday.

What are your thoughts on the youth fellowship from Sunday evening? How did it go? Or the detached session on friday? what about the schools session you did today?  how did it go – how are you feeling about it? how might the young people?

They might be the questions you allow yourself in thinking about the few hours of that bit of youthwork, then onto the next one, or for the volunteer, back home to put the kids to bed, do the washing up, switch on the tv, breathe and recover and think about work for the next day. Quash the potential insight, wisdom or ideas , life moves on us quick.

So, if being supervised is a kind of experimental relationship – what about giving it an experiment in itself and try having supervision digitally?  What might that look like for you?

Dont be too freaked out… below are a number of questions and instructions, that might help you think and reflect upon your latest or series of latest pieces of youthwork practice. All you need to do, is use the questions to write down, either using pen or whatever means, a response, a story, questions, comments, ideas – and then use these reflections as your own shaping of supervision, done through digital, rather than face to face.

It wont get personal, just keeping it to do with your practice. Find a space, grab a coffee, have a seat, and think about whats going on with the youthwork that you’re doing at the moment. You might want to focus on one of the groups, one of the young people, one situation over the weekend. Ill pose a number of questions here, with comments and spaces for you to spend some time on your own just thinking through them, and writing down responses.

So here goes (if you want to avoid this, then skip to the final paragraph) , no pressure, this is optional and in your time.


Starting question ; What is it you would like to talk about with whats going on in the youthwork at the moment? What are the things that are plaguing your thinking about whats happening? – what would you like to explore further..?

..write them down, take your time, theres no rush… 


Now Pick one of these things

Now, go a bit further on this one thing

Give it a bit more thought, why is it troubling you, or energising your thoughts – describe it in a bit more detail – are there many sides to the issue? or perspectives?

is there more understanding that you require – and from whom?

ill give you space to write some of these reflections and sentences down



As a result of this – is there something that needs to or could change? what could be done differently? what change might you need to implement?

write these down

who might be affected by the change? how might you be affected by it? how might young people be? How involved should they be in making a change? are there best or better ways that change could be implemented?   Think some of these through

How do you feel about the scenario, about the scenario at the time and what do you learn from these feelings?

Thats one particular direction…

What if it isnt a problem, but its an idea that you have instead? 

Then in a way its the same questions – about developing it, thinking it through, working out how and who’s idea it is – thinking though the values of youthwork such as participation and empowerment and how your idea encourages these things.

From here i cant say whether I would go along with or suggest an alternative to your idea – but think about it like this – put yourself in the position of the young people in the group – how might they react to a leader doing what you’re about to do?  Maybe refine it or test it out – or share with others in the volunteer team and discuss it further

how might your idea, or change, or issue start to have an impact on the relationships you have with the young people? will it hinder, damage or develop and encourage? Is it a risk worth taking at the moment? Or a risk for the relationship to be tested on?

Do you have to implement the change or the idea at all?  Is a ‘Red light’ and stop needed to be heard? or Amber and its spent time in further discussion for a while, or green and give it a go, a trial, a test.

Lets change the direction a little, if i asked you ‘what are you learning at the moment?’ what would you say?

about yourself?

about an individual young person? – about the whole group?

about power?

about participation and barriers?

about the local community?

about attitudes?

about being a volunteer or paid youthworker?

about the resources you’re using?

about the nature of the space created?

about the abilities of young people?

stop and think for a moment on what you’re learning, and what you might all as a team of volunteers be learning, all the time. You never stop learning and observing in youthwork practice, its good to stop and acknowledge it and share it.

it is good to stay curious and humble about what we do or dont know (Jon Ord, 2012)

What about what you’re learning in what you’re reading and challenging yourself with? away from practice? Is there a theory, an author, a journal, a blog, a sacred text, a conversation that got you thinking, that has spurned thoughts, or ideas that is challenging you, your practice and your way of thinking and perspectives? How are you being channelled and challenged yourself? and if this isnt happening – do you need to make space for it?

And finally – What do you do next? Whats the next steps?

Do you need to reframe your goals and objectives? Do you need to put in place training, for yourself or others? do you need to have a conversation with someone about something? what might you need to do as a result of thinking through this one particular idea or issue?

write them down..

But dont just write the down – when are you going to do these things? Set yourself a deadline! 

If its that important to worry about and chat through, then isnt it worth doing something about it, i would think so

Maybe keep a journal or write further, having started to think through these things, reflective practice and supervision go hand in hand, and its important to keep the channels open to learning, and especially personal learning which can often be our own responsibility to do.

And now as you close this process take a moment.

Reflect again on thinking through this.

Where you started and where you got to. Think for a moment about the group, the young people, the conversations, the volunteers, reflect on something that makes it sparkle, gives it life, a moment of discovery and learning, a moment of joy. Thats a moment to take heart, a moment to remember and be assured that you’re doing a good think, even despite what might be a current challenge in a different aspect of it. Hold on to those moments. the moments when a young person surprises ( because of our lack of expectation or fear), where a volunteer does something impressive (because they took a risk) , where the group develops their own idea (because they were given space to play and be creative and creators), for all of these things, or the things you are thinking about now, be assured in the small transformations that you are making.

Repeat again? And set a date to this again? sometime? – Same place? – this post will always be here.

Come back again sometime.

If you are now able to share your reflections with others, or need to then do, maybe its another volunteer, a line manager, the vicar, or someone to talk through now as you may have more clarity over an issue, over an idea and what you might need to do about it.

I am hoping that was helpful for you. Even if it gave you questions or a framework to use for yourself or others in the volunteer group.



The process is very much following through the reflective process and cycles of Kolb, that include concrete experience, reflection and thinking, attending to feelings and then renewing/changing action. Image result for kolbWith bringing into that cycle external learning, theoretical understandings and previous experiences. If you are being a youthworker in a faith context then that understanding of community, humanity, education and ministry also shapes the responses – as well as being a formational tool to inspire and realise. In a way this is where reflective practice meets practical theology – (but thats a whole different discussion.). So Supervision is your opportunity to reflect, gather thoughts, dream and experiment. It should include aspects that are educative, directive and supportive,  to help with development of practitioners – rather than be merely task focussed, and be helpful in developing your experiences, and also the experiences and relationship that you have with young people. You may also be able to use similar questions with young people as you help them reflect on their day to day lives.

So, there may not be money floating around for the quality relationships, and enhancing the quality – where good supervision might be helpful in the ongoing unpredictable process of youthwork and developing those within it to be it.  Maybe even having this conversation internally and reflecting might be half helpful for free, and if it is ‘half-helpful’ then thats great.

If this has been helpful and you can afford to receive supervision in person, it is something I can offer and so do contact me here , some national youthwork agencies like FYT also offer this especially for those groups connected to their community of youthwork practitioners, Streetspace.


Some, only a few, resources on supervision are here:

Working with unnattached youth : Goetchius and Tash, 1967

Rebalancing Supervision , Cooper, Grace, Griffiths and Sapin, In Ord, Jon Critical Issues in Youthwork Management, 2012

Sustaining ourselves and enthusiasm by Carole Pugh in Jeffs and Smith (ed) Youth work Practice, 2010

Theres a few other articles on supervision on this website, in the Management Section, have a look around!


As usual apologies for the adverts below this line:


How might we respond and learn from young peoples challenging behaviour?

Image result for challenging behaviour

Whenever there is a question and answer session involving volunteers and developing community based youthwork, this is the one question that is almost certainly guarantee;

What do you do with young peoples challenging behaviour?

and it is a great question. Behind is often a combination of exasperation at what is going on, as well as a desire that the young people connect and benefit from what is provided and that the volunteers in question want to work with them. Maybe not every time, but most times. And most times, our reaction to challenging behaviour is a reason why young people dont continue with participating in the group.

Before thinking through the issue it is worth thinking through what it going on in the wording of the question. For, the reality is that we all encounter what might be challenging behaviour all the time by other people, especially by people who are in authority over us, or where there are public spaces. What i am saying is that adults display challenging behaviour too. Whether thats in the PCC meeting, or the open saturday coffee morning, or the bus home. I dont think the ‘young people’ element of the question is unfair mind, but it is worth thinking through how we encounter challenging behaviour around us, and how we adapt, ignore, challenge or deal with it in the everyday. So, being with people and working with people is likely to create situations where challenging behaviour exists.

The first thing we to look at in the situation is ourselves.

The reason being, is that this is the bit of the situation that we ourselves can control, to a large extent – before we look at what is going on, and the behaviour of the young people.

It is worth asking questions like:

What kind of expectations do we have about young people and their behaviour?

How much ‘chaos’ is tolerated?

What kind of environment do we want to create?

What are the aims and objectives of the group/activity?

Do all the volunteers know what is expected of themselves?

Is there anything in the setting that could be a trigger?

What are the power dynamics on display?

These are important, as they are something we can do something about. To a large extent, we do need to reflect on what we, as a group of volunteers. are able to tolerate and cope with – but at the same time realise that there might be stuff that we do, or dont do, that acts as a spark for the behaviour itself. The behaviour itself might not be challenging, but because of our expectations, then we feel we have to do something about it. Not every, sometimes not any, group of young people playing in the park are anti social theyre just young people playing! , yet young people playing, running, shouting and letting off steam in some areas could be a cue for phone calls to the police, because of fear and expectations. Our expectations might often shape how we perceive the behaviour. So it is worth looking at ourselves, volunteers, culture and expectations of the practice – and whether we want conformity from young people to our ways, or be open and young person led – or somewhere in between. The former is much more difficult, but it can be often what is implied when we try and use techniques to calm young people down. Which is fine, though actually not fine, in a formal environment like a school, but the open youth club or after school group – is not a school is it? At least id hope we’re not thinking ‘well they wouldnt behave like this in school’ – I would hope we’re not expecting young people in our church groups to have to behave in the same way they have to in school…

So… To the Challenging Behaviour – what is going on?

The fundamental thing to do is to understand that in one way or another we are triggering, or continuing to trigger young peoples challenging behaviour. If we try and understand what is going on, this is the only conclusion that is completely true in every situation of it. We are doing something to trigger it.

Image result for challenging behaviour

The key thing is to work out what it is!

There is something we are doing that creates stress in the young person that they are reacting to.

We need to look for patterns. When does the behaviour occur ( at the beginning, or end of the session? – or when its time for the God-slot ie when a type of control is exerted) Is it to a particular person/volunteer?

Are young people bored, because they are under-challenged by whats going on?

These questions are more important than trying to disect what the problem is ie physical, verbal, sexually explicit, aggressive, non complicit, etc. Most of it will be triggered by something. Young people are making an emotional reaction to the situation, are either fighting against or flighting from – through putting up barriers of their own.

Even if we try and think through the situation and try and understand it, sometimes our judgements are incorrent, and we risk making assumptions, what we cant deny is that something acts as a trigger, and that something needs to be reflected on and thought through.

I remember a situation where young people would like to play football in the church car park at the same time as church was on, was this challenging behaviour? the church congregation thought so. But this space was where young people played every evening, it was near to their homes and was in eye view of the kitchen windows. It was a safe place to play, that was made disrupted and created a stir only once a week, when a whole load of people parked their cars to go inside the building. Whats the cause of the challenging behaviour? What is the trigger in this situation?

There are countless others. The distress near to the end of a weeks residential ( when ‘going home’ starts to loom in view), the distractions during the conversations, destructive behaviour when others get attention, spoiling the fun of others, being suggestive, testing boundaries, there so much that a young person or group of young people could be doing, that we might determine is challenging. And it is. The challenge is to us.

The challenge is – how might we raise, change or adapt our ‘game’ to be able to continue to work with the young people? (at least id hope this is the case, rather than ‘how can we get rid of them so we never have to see them again‘..)

And we might have to and need to adapt. Id go further, and say that we do need to adapt.

We might have to create the kind of space where a young person might be less likely to be disruptive, or show the behaviour, or cause harm to themselves or others or property. Maybe the open youth club is ok, but the small group work isnt, maybe the detached session is a better space to interact so both parties can walk away, than the open club. If the space is too formal, like a school, such as mentoring, then there might not be an alternative – the question there is whether we as youthworkers have lost the informal voluntary ness of the relationship, and so a young person might take time not to be challenging. Its an experience i know well from mentoring young people where we never got out of the ‘calm’ room for an hour…

The challenging behaviour might be a reason for us to reflect on and then change our approach.

The challenging behaviour might also be a reason to reflect on the needs of that individual

The challenging behavour might be because young people are trying to tell us that they’re bored, not involved and not interested- it might not be challenging enough or participatory enough. They want to have control, but are given none.

I remember the situation where a young person was showing disruptive behaviour when part of a group – but when they were asked for their help with one of the leaders, completely changed. That person was used to caring for younger siblings, they knew how to be responsible, they didnt like being treated as a one amongst many. They could raise their game, but it took a brave leader to give them the space to do this. (it wasnt me)

What if instead of trying to deal with the challenging behaviour we view it as a learning opportunity? I guess thats what ive been suggesting all along. What if we see the disruption a moment of spiritual disruption, God trying to speak to us through the young person, a provoke. If young people are disruptive, and it is boredom then maybe we need to think, and think fast.

Image result for challenging behaviour

There is no good just being reactive to the challenging behaviour. But it will cause a reaction, a challenge and a moment for collective reflective practice. It is also an opportunity to develop new strategies, or practices or thinking about the why, how and what of working with particular young people, especially if we still want them to experience and receive something positive, support, love or an experience that might enable change or transformation.

It might be that we need to get outside help and guidance, to go through further ideas, and get support – and that could be someone like me, or other local youth workers, diocesan youth officer type person, outside support could really benefit you. As working with young people is not, and never has been easy, they will keep you on your toes, its part of the fun of it. It is always challenging, no, but sometimes it is. What we might have to realise is that our behaviour towards young people might be challenging too.

How might space be created for discipleship growth in our churches?

I dont do gardening. At least I am in denial that I might be ‘doing gardening’, its more ‘being self sufficient’ trying to live closer to nature, and a whole host of other things that it might be known as , but it isnt gardening. So, that thing that I have been doing the last few years, not gardening, came about as I in herited a whole load of fruit trees and bramble in my garden (great free food) and, I wondered if there was a way of creating some kind of space in it, that the dog wouldnt destroy (she digs) that would mean that not only fruit but other stuff as well would be grown. The first year i got a load of large plastic containers and tried growing peppers, chillis and tomatoes, and ended up with about 90 green tomatoes.

The following year I played safe and instead of tomatoes put salads in the containers and ended up with lettuce, spring onions, beetroot, some herbs and with a few exceptions managed to grow most of them. The same the next year, with the addition of a few potatoes.

But I was given a seedling chili plant from my sister in laws parents, which i put into our sunroom, and watched it grow and grow. It gave us three seasons of chillis during the year, about 100 in all. So this year I am trying out the chillis and peppers again. (and have planted garlic in the pots – so basically I am after the base of a good curry)

Its not remarkable. But what I noticed this time, trying to grow plants from seedlings was that as the seedlings start to grow and expand, you have to increase the size of the pot they are in so that they can expand into it and grow a little bit more. And thats it.

Seedlings will only grow if you expand the pot they grow into. To stop my chili plant growing last year i left it in a fairly large pot – but didnt keep increasing it.

What if this process of ‘pot-expansion’ is the one that we develop with young people and their discipleship? It becomes a process where we as workers/leaders/volunteers continually seek ways of creating a slightly larger, or even much larger ‘pot’ for them to grow into for them to expand.

A Seedling might last if put in the Garden, and in a new phase of ‘not gardening’ I have spend the easter holidays making a raised bed.

It now has several seeds in it. For a young person, that might present having a space expanded too much – for others they might rise to such a challenge of growing into a space that demands that they fill in to.

If Discipleship is a process of ongoing learning (the greek word Mathetese)

and Empowerment a process of ongoing participative competence (the community writer Keiffer)

Then in our work with young people- actually – given the state of the church- in our discipleship with everyone – empowering leadership, that doesnt just tend to the plants (and not bruising the damaged reed) but empowering the competence of others to grow into a larger space might be what is required. What we have is a one-size-fits-all approach with gatherings as large groups or smaller groups – what eah need it not more sprinked water from the top, even plant food, or sunlight (though all are helpful) – but space in which the roots are given the opportunity to grow. and How do we do that? The how is easy. We get to know where people are and create spaces for them to be challenged, why dont you do that? or can you go away, read that and talk to me afterwards, or what are your ideas on that? What difference could you make here? How might we use you better, and your gifts?

If i had a pound for everytime someone said we need to have a culture shift in our churches, on discipleship or mission, then id be able to buy at least a few more packets of seeds. If the farming and growth metaphors Jesus used were good enough for him, then they might be good enough for us now. I think in youth ministry, we are better at ‘pot’ expansion than elsewhere, young peoples horizons are hopefully opened up constantly and are given opportunities at times. It would be very wrong to say that young people are kept in small pots. It would also be wrong however to say that this is the case everywhere. Though sometimes the pot is only slightly bigger, and young people go elsewhere to be challenged.

Whole life, empowering discipleship, believing in the Human person to rise to the challenge, to have their ‘pot’ enlargened, is something i think we need to be doing, and keep doing, and keep asking. How might this church grow- is the current question? – well it needs to be given a larger pot to grow into. How might all the individuals within it grow? you get the picture. When we empower people , sorry, that isnt possible, when people are empowered it is because they are given space to empower themselves, space to grow. If discipleship is about growth, then we have the responsibility as leaders to keep discovering ways, real ways of expanding the pot size. The space for them to grow into. And its not just our responsibility, its also about trying to help the whole church to encourage the potential growth in each other.

By the end of three years, I would be pretty certain that Jesus disciples had had enough, every day presented new challenges, new scearios to act, new learning to take in, new directions about what to do. Constant expanding the space for them to grow into. Hey Peter, heres 5000 people – you feed them!. There seem to be times when Peter and only a few of them get given the opportunities to grow, at least thats what we hear anyway. But the 72 are sent out, as are the 12. They are not just given the ‘opportunity to do mission’ they are given challenges to enable them to grow as disciples.

Youth Discipleship; What if young people were performers of the gospel?

‘Christian children all must be, Mild, Obedient, Good as He.’

By the time he was 12, the boy Jesus was teaching the religious leaders of his time, questioning their beliefs and slightly defying his parents. Why wouldnt he, after all, he would regularly go to the temple for that festival, so why wouldnt he find a space to announce himself. Mild, Obedient, good? hmm…

In some places we might be lucky to have any 12 year olds in church. Let alone give them a platform.

At the same time many 11-12 year old are captains for sports teams, leaders in uniformed groups, participants in school councils.

What I found growing up evangelical, was exactly this, or well not quite this but something similar. What I did was make the translation from reading the Bible, the works of Jesus, and the commands to ‘do good’ , to ‘doing activities in the church’ , and trying (but often failing to be ‘nice’). Though I was given lots of responsibilities in a local church, all very positive, inclusive and participatory, this didnt seem to equate with the kinds of things that seemed important when I read the gospels. Jesus didnt say – now children go and work the OHP, or hand out hymn books. But it seemed to be the spaces the church created for me to act.

A few weeks ago I was in Newcastle at the Diocese Office, leading a seminar on ‘Drop ins and Discipleship’ this was organised through the Diocesan Youth Team, and was an attempt to begin a conversation about discipleship, especially discipleship ‘after’ (or during) the open spaces of the activities that occur, such as messy church, drop ins or youth club spaces. During the day we heard from a number of practice leaders, from Bishop Mark Tanner, some group discussions and it gave me an opportunity to share a few ideas around the topic, and also promote the developing work of FYT in the north east. (see above menu for more of this) 

In session I suggested that we have often viewed church as the source of learning for discipleship. It is implicit in a way, and cultural, given that for many of the last 200 years churches have also been ‘sunday schools’, and before that, church was the only place to go to ‘hear’ the Bible being read, before the printing press. Learning has become a key feature and implicit in the building and practices of the church. It is therefore not unusual to see the process of discipleship as a learning experience.

From Sunday School upwards, or was it from Sermons downwards, this process can often be heavy on the cognitive learning, low on the connection to real life, and even lower on the value of actually doing something. The forming of disciples can feel like a learned experience in closed off boxes, and the actions that follow usually are to help children and young people be the ‘Christian children all must be, Mild, obedient, good as He.’ That gets sung at this time of the year.

And ‘learning first’ discipleship is almost the only model in current youth discipleship.

A quick survey of ‘ready to use material’ often points to ‘themes’, ‘games’ , ‘messages to reveal’ and questions for young people to reflect on. None of which in any way is invalid. What happens when this ‘method’ fails, is to ramp up the anti, and make the games bigger, more stupid and dangerous. What the type of teaching implies is that listening and the moral behaviour that is encouraged by it, is what discipleship is all about.

The problem with learning first discipleship – is that it feels a world away from the type of space created in the ‘open’ session. And not just for young people. Often to help people learn more about faith we ask them to ‘come to another event’ or to ‘do a course’ – for young people it is often the same. Open club to youth alpha equivalent. But many youth fellowships are not too dissimilar. Meant to be about discipleship – often not much more than an hour of games and a two minute epilogue. However, it is still learning first, even in a 2 minute epliogue. It would be easy to say that a consequence of some of these kinds of learning discipleship has produced effects such as MTD (moral therapeutic Deism (search this site for more on this) or that a ‘Happy Midi Narrative’ exists in which faith is just so that young people feel happy/confident. Once in this type of rut has set in it is time for a cure.

But there is no cure needed for the young people who are just connecting to your church via open sessions, youth clubs or messy church – this is an opportunity to do differently from before.

What i suggested in the talk, and then also in my Thesis, is that we need a new metaphor for thinking about young people (in fact all) in the church especially in discipleship. It is that of helping young people be ongoing performers and be formed through performances. A crisis of discipleship needs new imagination.

What if we perpetuated the idea that the Gospel was a drama to be performed – rather than to be learned and understood?

What if young people learned how to ‘do’ the gospel, before learning it?

What then, might action first – ‘learn’ second discipleship look like?

On one hand it looks like Jesus. Though the disciples watch him go to the village and meet the samaritan woman ( John 4), when he commands them to go to the villages two by two, these are not places he has been before, and with minimal instructions and equipment, commands them to go. And they come back and talk about their experiences. Though he has ‘done’ something in their presence and they watched – he is not ‘with’ them as they go and do it later on. When Zaccheus ‘does’ something in the repaying of tax receipts, it is there where redemption is found and Jesus finds a home. How might both of these be ‘played’ out in the ongoing ‘acting’ of the gospel as a drama with young people?

  • Put it this way, if a young person sells their xbox and gives the money to the foodbank, is this a salvific act?

The Christian Drama, calls us to action; ‘faith requires self-involvement; we too are asked to become part of the drama’ (Richard Carter, Sam Wells, 2014). Drama means Action.

One of the fascinating stories that I heard in Newcastle at the seminar, was of a young person who was part of a youth club in which they did alot of social action/justice type projects within the group, they did fundraisers for charities, wrote letters to MPs, and got involved with campaigning. For anyone thinking of doing this in youth groups then theres usually a stack of free resources at Tear Fund/Christian Aid or others. However, what the youth leader found is that when the young people ‘did’ more social action and supporting/protesting – so their faith also grew. Young people would voluntarily read more of their bibles, and pray in response to the actions they were taking. They were building a movement of faith and justice, and their discipleship framed around it. Its a profound thing to think that young people might be reading the Bible as their guidebook for creating social transformation!

In the grip of anxiety about numbers and success, it is easy to fall into the safe game, or to do the ‘tried and tested’ – even if the tried and tested is by established youth ministers or in a recognised publication- what we need is a new imagination for the process of discipleship – that views young people as participators of the drama, and ourselves as co actors with them. One that imagines and experiments, and appeals to meaningful actions that young people can do (together) on the stage of the world.

Frontier Youth Trust (FYT) have recently put together a resource, which i admit I havent used yet, which focusses on the ‘experiments’ that young people might do. What it does well is give young people and their leaders a range of potential actions around a theme, and then the young people ‘do’ these things, and the following week/session, they talk about how it went, how they felt, and how it relates to something that Jesus Said. If you’re keen to give young people a space to do ‘action first discipleship’ then you can order them through the link below. As far as i know there are plans to produce a second version soon. But in reality, once this framework is developed, then you might not need the cards in the future.

So, what about ‘action first’ discipleship? It might require new imagination, it might require us to think about how ourselves an young people are caught up in a larger drama that we are all part, and have roles to play together. Beyond the open interaction of the youth club – if they wont ‘sit and learn’ why not create the spaces for them to have meaningful action, allow them to rise to the challenge. Maybe ‘action first’ is not that much different to ‘experiential learning’ – if thats an easier concept.

The challenge too, is that neither young people, nor we, nor the church are the principle actors in the drama. So whilst we might give young people ‘prompts’ to their actions, we also need to help them be aware of and obedience to, (as Vanhoozer suggests), the voice of God in the midst of the action. Some things might need improvising even in the midst of them.


Helping young people be active in discipleship is more than ‘just’ giving them something to do in our local churches, though, it possibly might help. Imagining discipleship as a drama, might help young people feel connected and participating in something, and also the agency to contribute meaningfully within.

Christian children all must be, wild, creative, prophetic and challenging the structures, just like he?


Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

Vander Lugt, Trevor Hart, Theatrical Theology, 2014

Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation 2016, Nick discusses both MTD and ‘Happy Midi Narrative’ , more on MTD is here: , or via the category tab. For more on Theodrama, see also the Theodrama Category on this site. 

Young people, Youth organisations and galleries: Working as allies for change. Guest Post by Mark Miller, Tate Modern

Young people, Youth organisations and galleries: Working as allies for change.

By Mark Miller, Circuit Programme Lead, and Convenor: Young People’s Programmes Tate Britain and Tate Modern

In this Guest Post, Mark Miller describes and outline The Circuit Programme, and asks critical questions of how young people engaged with Art within it over a four year period, and calls for youth organisations to develop further links with art through their practices.

The Circuit programme aimed to learn from, contribute to, and align with the good work being done across the country, through the youth and cultural sectors with and for young adults. At the heart of this, we wanted to improve access and opportunities for young adults with a drive for social, cultural and economic justice. This drive, and motivation, included establishing representation of the positive and complex dynamics of ‘difference’ in race, class, gender, sexuality and economic circumstance within our organisations. 

Ownership of the creation, the development and the delivery of cultural activity in galleries, from initiation to conclusion, with, for and by young adults, was set up to present us with the opportunity to investigate, evaluation and enact change. Many questions arose, such as:

  • How can we work in a deeper, balanced and shared way across the youth and cultural sectors?
  • How, and what, would organisations need to change to enable younger voices, ideas, and critique to be embedded?
  • How can we be transparent about our failures, challenges and success to enable us to learn, reflect and respond to what we have found?
  • Is this an unreachable ideology, or are we motivated personally and professionally to make any of this possible?

Some of the things for arts organisations to address that emerged from Circuit are: a demystified organisational structure, being targeted with long-term strategies, a diverse workforce, positive welcome into galleries, politically and socially relevant interdisciplinary artistic programme, better cultural representation, and working with youth organisations as allies. Some of these ideas are not new, but can still be addressed and influence organisational change. These themes and challenges are explored further in the Circuit report, Test, Risk, Change.

The Circuit programme enabled young people to present cultural production at varying levels of intensity, scale and content in each gallery. Over a four-year period, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Tate St Ives, Tate Liverpool and Plus Tate partners, namely The Whitworth in Manchester, Firstsite in Colchester, MOSTYN in Llandudno, Kettle’s Yard and Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire, and Nottingham Contemporary, worked to support young adults and contribute to their wider social, cultural and political experience by allowing them to be visible and impactful with the galleries. Core to this, was working with, and learning from youth organisations. We aimed to facilitate deeper alliances, mutual understanding, and co-design projects, to bring young adults with the least access to cultural activity in galleries to the centre of our organisations. Circuit demonstrated the role galleries can play in the wider ecology of young people’s lives. Make Your Place, a new documentary featuring four of the young people involved around the country looks into specific examples of this.

During Circuit, young people’s cultural productions have been richly represented at a wide range of events, accompanied by a wide selection of artists. They’ve included performance and glitch art, film and pop-up shops, residencies and installation art, socio-political debate, and ephemeral objects that symbolise and resonate with young people’s cultural experiences. The constant being, the use of multi-disciplinary art, and social, experiential and relevant programme content has attracted diverse audiences. Collaborative work between marketing and young people’s programmes teams has been central to communicating and understanding these diverse audiences. This has included utilising influencers, such as artists, collectives, cultural and political commentators and creatives who resonate with the values of Circuit, and maintaining the use of social media platforms in authentic ways.

Our public and cultural spaces should provide platforms which enable young adults to explore and understand the impact they can achieve. Art is not just a gateway to become a designer, artist, curator, or cultural commentator. Visual culture is experienced daily by many through digital platforms, online, and in advertising, with multiple languages which identify and represent many of our day to day experiences. Art is a unique space for learning, questioning and criticality. It’s a space where young adults can contemplate, change and open their perspectives to build or realise the ownership of their path into varied interests, skills, and professions and build a positive vision for their own fluid futures.

The complexity of diversity and difference, of identity politics, the relationship between analogue and digital visual culture, political and economic uncertainty, and the hierarchies of cultural representation within cultural organisations, all continue to require more work, motivation and energy to rethink our methods. As well as this, it is important to establish structures that will enable us all to become part of a wider ecology of ongoing change for social, economic, and cultural justice for young adults.

Now, we call for youth and arts organisations to reflect on collective expertise to provoke conversation, collaboration and action to champion work with young people and their cultural participation.

Find out more at:



Many Thanks to Mark for sharing this thought provoking piece, that challenges an ongoing development of cultural engagement with Art by young people. In a recent outdoor exhibition as part of the Sunderland illuminations. I discovered the following installation   It reads ART IS YOUR HUMAN RIGHT. I took the photo from behind a fence, as often many people, especially young people are not given, afforded this right. Young people might be creative geniuses, yet often can be cast aside as not engaging, or have their creativity quashed by the education system. It is great therefore to share this reflection from Mark Miller, on Art and young people. To send your post to me to share with others, please see the menu above. 

Sometimes you can’t make it, on your own. (On finding a tribe) 

This is going to be my last post for a while, for, as you may know I am hoping to host a number of guest posts during November. Please do send your articles to me, and follow/like this page so that you can read them as they arrive. Just 500-1000 words on anything, theme to do with youth work, mission, young people & youth ministry. All details here:

I have written about feeling alone in youth work & ministry before, and I want to return to it again as a theme before handing over this platform to others for a few weeks.

I wouldnt be the first person to recognise the ‘loneness’ of being involved in an employed capacity in a church setting, whether its the clergy, volunteer youthworker, paid mission worker or in an other capacity. There can be many times, when it can feel like you’re out of step, or thinking differently, or saying things that receive only ‘blank faces’ or ‘thats not the way we do things around here’ type glances. And thats just in a church, let alone an association or diocese or organisation, where the status quo, even in terms of thinking differently about mission, or discipleship or church can be a place of trying to make it on your own.

As a youthworker in a church, there can be seminal moments. For me it was when i realised that as i connected with young people outside the building, that the expectations of those within, and mine became different. I was expected to shoehorn young people outside into existing events, and for this not to upset the applecart. At this point i was searching for a new way. At this point the limitations of the expectations and institutions became only too aware. In other places that might be that believing that the young people ‘off the estate’ might make good leaders in the church. Or that young people can create in a positive way aspects of their own future. Or that it is ‘worth’ spending time with young people who might be LGBT. It is sometimes these small but significant steps that might put us as youthworkers, maybe progressive youthworkers who have a deep concern for young people outside of just faith, to start to be standing against the institutional flow. It might be there where truth and justice might meet, but it might also be a space of feeling alone.

Feeling like alone because the institution might doubt, feeling alone because the doubts become character attacks, feeling alone because others fear respectability (‘we cant have ‘gays in here’) or feeling alone because of reputation (what if someone goes to the papers) – feeling alone, because we feel tasked with compassion to go, to connect and spend time with young people, in ways or approaches that seem odd, or young people who arent ‘easy’ to cope with within an institution. In a way, being alone, can be in terms of thinking, it can also be in terms of doing, of acting in a way that challenges, and hopes that others might follow. But often the party line, the established practice, or ‘what we used to do’ becomes paramount the normative, and stepping out, taking risks, being ‘progressive’ is an alone step. And its not often called progressive, or radical, divisive or upsetting the status quo. Image result for risks

I have talked about being alone in what seems a church situation, but the path to feeling alone can happen elsewhere. Ive been in situations where the need for funding dictates a way of having to do ‘youth work’ – which then takes the practice away from ‘what the church expected- and so it can be ‘change’ or ‘lose job’ – and there can be little support when this decision needs to be made. So, going alone in a busy world of funding can be tricky, because then, usually theres very little experience in a church setting to also be involved in finding funding. You’re alone because you think young people are more important than institutions (and growth of them) and need a voice within them and in broader society. You’re alone because you think young people have been ‘sinned against’ more than sinners, and yet its the latter that they are told, or you’re alone for something else.

It means that it becomes really important to ‘find your tribe’ – and no tribe is perfect by the way. Sometimes there can be nothing better than a coffee with another youthworker who might just know what you’re going through. It might be a youthworker who offers critical thinking, challenging questions or ideas – someone different. On other occasions its not just one person who might be able to help, a friend might help in the short term, but being connected with a larger affiliation might then bring you into contact with a range of personal resources, support and guidance.Image result for tribe I remember when I first met a youthwork hero of mine, and they suggested that i could connect with them on a regular basis, and that they could learn from what I was doing. they learn from me! Wow. So, no tribe is perfect, but find one that pushes and supports you in the path that you are being called to travel with young people, find one that expects less conformity and tries to push and asks the critical questions, find one who is willing to be on ‘your journey’ and not just trying to fit into theirs.

Theres nothing worse than feeling alone in day to day youth work life, and also feeling alone in the place where you’re supposed to get support, guidance and help from and within. It might not take long to know if you fit, or it might take a while. As tribes can change, or be too static when you change and start to think differently.

Of course, at no point are you ever ‘on your own’ – for me it is about having people around who at least give me opportunity to receive questions, think about thinking, theoretical and theological on youth work, and pushing the possibilities of compassion beyond to challenge structures. But thats how i am wired. However, there is something biblical about ‘not being alone’ as being part of our make up and created identity. It is also well documented that Jesus send the disciples in pairs (a model of ministry that is rarely followed – gospel centred ministry can still be very hierarchical) , the early church met in groups, and only on a few occasions was lone ministry seen as good. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, because actually you arent alone, sometimes you cant make it even with support, because it can be that tough being different, being pioneering, or because the actual support cant take away really difficult or unbearable situations, like bullying, manipulation and/or power struggles. Sometimes you cant make it on your own, but sometimes you might have to go alone before you are joined by others who see a different way, forge the pathway, make the road by walking and all that. Find a tribe and take a few along with you, find a tribe nd have people cheering you on from the outside, along the road, find a tribe who you can share your joys and frustrations. Find a tribe that causes your alone work feel more like a community effort. Find a tribe that you can contribute to.

Sometimes you cant make it on your own, Sometimes you can. Sometimes you might need to. Taking risks and being prophetic might be a lonely place, but find the tribe that doesnt just validate you, but keeps you sharp, challenged and supported. In the grand scheme of things, you might just need it.

Of course at this point I might refer you to Frontier Youth Trust, who for over 50 years have been facilitating a Home for pioneer youthworkers, who needed to find a tribe that enabled them to have a space and voice within a paradigm of church serving youth ministry and ‘big’ ministries, if this appeals, as you face challenges of numbers, or attendance, and like me years ago was scratching for a different way, then please do check fyt Related imagehere:  Theyre not perfect, no one is, but they might offer you a tribe and community that could help you not feel alone as a youthworker believing in young people, in faith and community, and where change is possible, another way is possible, a home for pioneer youthworkers, might be a place for you not to feel alone.

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: 


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:     )  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.

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Young people as learners and deciders

‘The first area we might consider (in youth ministry) is the way in which young people move from being learners to deciders’  Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation , 2016

As soon as I read this on Sunday afternoon, the phrase – from learners to deciders resonated.

It started me thinking about a variety of models and values in youth work practice such as Harts participation ladder, a picture of which is here.

Image result for harts participation ladder

I thought about some of the experiences of youthwork that i have been involved in, at the acoustic cafe in Perth where a continual group of 16-22 year olds were integral to the running of an open youth club/music venue, completing voluntary award schemes and developing ideas in the programme. There are others and I can also recollect times when young people involved in youth activities were less involved in the decision making of a club, group or activity – such as mentoring in a school, which can be voluntary but at other times might not be, or detached as, although young people can exercise their right to engage and walk away -they dont often decide about having detached youth workers in the first place. Most of this to the youth worker is pretty standard stuff, at least its been kicking around for quite a while, especially as participation has been such a key value and principle of youth work (Brierley 2000, Jeffs & Smith 2005, 2010)

Theres something about the phrase ‘ from learners to deciders’ that plays into this progression theme however, which might be emphasised by the ladder and stages. In thinking about faith based youth ministry, for this is the context that Nick is writing, i wonder whether the phrase – ‘from learners to deciders’ is helpful, much though i like it. What Nick is referring to is the thought that young people learn of the faith, and then decide to leave the place of that faith – almost as if it is the first decision they have been able to make in the pathway of their faith identity – is to leave.

I am thinking then, if the phrase from ‘learner to decider’ is used, it maintains some of the power dynamics and adolescent development phases that need to be challenged in practice and in the narratives of young people evident in youth ministry. My comment in my review of ‘Faith Generation’ here:  was that people need to be in a culture in a church where they are deciders from the earliest point possible.

If people have waited until they have learned, whether this is learning the ‘ropes’ of the culture, learned how to do something, learned to behave, learned all about the Trinity, learned and participated in a ceremony (baptism/confirmation), then the temptation is to wait until a person has learned, before they get to make decisions.

Its funny that, because that’s not what happens in a school. Children from a fairly early age, at least the ones in Scotland, are given opportunities to participate in decision making, whether its school projects, musical performances, community action, gardening and other schemes, a long time before they know everything there is to know about Maths, or Science or horticulture. Schools have given young people opportunities to work in groups to make decisions. Important ones in the life of a school. Now it might be that this is to tick various personal and social development and well being targets for a school. That doesn’t matter, young people are being given moments to make either individual or collective decision-making opportunities in schools. Young people cant opt out of school easily – so its not as if schools are doing this to create belonging necessarily and attendance.

learners and deciders

Does a church or youth ministry have a young persons ‘personal and social development’ in mind? no not necessarily. Can young people leave the church voluntarily – well sadly yes and thankfully yes also. But that neednt matter. I would urge churches who create the culture for youth ministry to think of children as learners and deciders, yes young people and children are in spaces to learn, have fun and understand their place in the world and in addition at the same time this should include opportunities for appropriate decision making. It is great when i see young people involved in the choosing of a youth leader, but even then this could have been the first time they have been involved in an important decision  that affects their future.

So, can children who attend Sunday school or messy church be given opportunities to decide games, or food or movies or activities? Can they even be given opportunities to contribute in ‘leaders meetings’ ? what about older ones – what can they do and decide in the life of messy churches (not just as a helper), or youth groups, activities – but broader still – as Nick urges, what about the culture of a local church might encourage young people to be disruptive, challenging and questioning and have this in the ‘corridors’ of decision making in a church. If the church is ageing, then structures need to be changed so that younger people can contribute and have decision making as part of their participation and learning. Holding it is a power thing, not changing structures to allow it is a protection thing. Churches that don’t help young people be decision makers in them now will probably have disappeared in 15 years time, but thats not a reason to do it, the better reason is that it is a good model of discipleship, of belonging and of a faith community, one that is practical , with young people and encouraging their gifts and strengths from an early age, and one that is prophetic – but still catching up with schools!

This isn’t about young people as leaders. That’s a different story. This is just about helping them be learners and deciders in the faith community and culture of empowerment and participation that a church could be.

The same challenge is in community settings, faith based organisations and those seeking to adopt asset based work – or should that be that asset based work is reflective of encouraging cultures of learning and deciding. How this occurs when it is easy to maintain power, and protect self interests in decision making and not open this up, or create alternative cultures is a challenge facing all of us in community approaches.

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