What makes a good conversation with young people?

In the past I have given many hints and tips on how to have a good conversation with young people, I have also reflected sociologically and theologically about conversations, and suggested ways of valuing them (Ie ensure they feature in review sheets) but I wonder;

‘What makes a good conversation?’

Think about for a moment, whether you were in a pub, a coffee shop, in your home, out walking the dog even, walking in the countryside or at a beach.. what was it that made the conversation you had with someone.. a good one?

A sense of sharing?

Time flying, yet every moment being precious?

Personal disclosure?


Good body language and eye contact?

Shared understanding?


No fixed ending?

Equal power dynamics? Or at least awareness of these but respecting each other through it with boundaries..?

What might you add?

And whether we’re 14 or 41, 30 or 60, we sort of know intuitively when we’ve had a good conversation with someone, we felt it, we learned something, we gave something away, maybe there was a spark of life, of hope and of support or care. But we just know.

So, thinking about the dynamics of the youth group setting, the club, the school group or street..

How can spaces, become places of good conversation?

The responsibility is on us, the practitioner, the volunteer to make it so.

Though we might meet a friend in a coffee shop – the conversation with a young person might be less deliberate.. only that they might be looking for the moment

Though we might pass a conversation off as insignificant (we have loads in every session..) young people might have treasured them, or felt an emptiness without one.

The culture and setting is important for conversations. I remember that the best place for conversations was on the door of the open music night, where the young people were smoking. Inside was too loud and dark.. yet, outside was good for conversation because it was an extension of the informal space inside. How might conversation be had in the space of your setting.. I’ve seen homework clubs recently where the leaders have some great conversations with the young people, whilst they’re doing their homework. But also seen very stilted conversations with young people about a theme not of their choosing. When I say I’ve seen, it’s because I led them. When urgency to educate overrides participatory culture that is for young people.

Trust. Agreed, not only being trusted people, but as Jeffs and Smith also say, trusting in conversations themselves. Investing emotionally, in the connections, relying on the conversations for learning, for themes if any to emerge, to let tangents happen, to trust in ourselves as practitioners and volunteers to hold on in conversations, to listen and ask, not try and direct or shape..

Then again, whilst we might want to fixate on the good conversations, we might do well to treasure all the conversations and interactions we have whether it’s banter or chat, or something deeper, all are important. When doing detached work I used to have different categories of the interaction, from ‘acknowledgement'(a quick hi and bye) , a social conversation (about the local context, evenings activities) , a detailed conversation (about a subject in depth) or even a personal one (where disclosure occurred or a personal opinion shared) .. these helped us to value the nature of conversations and recognise that all had value and occurred at different points of a detached evening.. the same group might have a social chat early on or an acknowledgement and later it’s more of a detailed one, once they have found a space to settle in.

I guess if we value conversations, we might do well to recognise their variety, the changes, and their nature. But what makes them good?

And whilst we might have an idea.. sometimes the most naturally good conversations are the ones that just well, happen. We just have to create the right kind of space where young people feel at home and safe.

Youthworker: Are these your 20 superpowers?

Fast on the heels of last week’s piece on the 35 experiences of youthworkers comes this reflection on the superpowers that youthworkers are expected to possess, given the range of questions, reflections and comments about the last piece, it figures that youthworkers are expected to be superheroes? Doesnt it.. well at least they might have to at times possess all or some of the following:

1. To live off adrenaline after 3 60 hour weeks and a weekend residential at the end of them

2. To only take school holiday holidays but be able to find holidays they can afford without a teachers salary. Oh and plan 3 holiday club weeks and summer trips for the other weeks. And take that weeks holiday and switch off…

3. To become the manager of your own management group who may have 2 weeks youthwork experience between them. To manage upwards with no management experience (often)

4. To work with a smile even when there’s only 3 months funding left (a requirement for some funders who won’t fund projects with long term reserves)

Image result for youth worker superhero

5. To be able to take young people off the streets. Or get them jobs when there arent any.

6. To help young people like/persevere/cope with church* (*could also mean school) – or as one contributor suggested: ‘Be capable of fully explaining the reason why young people don’t attend church and fixing it without changing Sundays one bit’

7. To divert young people into being part of the capatalist system.

8. To be the only people left in the society who want to talk, sex drugs and alcohol with young people.

9. To provide young people with the tools for resilience, when they themselves might not be coping

10. To be able to retrieve information from every movie, song or sports event in the last 30-40 years and use it in conversation or for a session

11. To find the magic funder, that no one else has found , who will fund good youthwork and fund good salaries and core costs

12. To be amphibious and chameleonic – to be able to work in a number of settings whilst trying to be facilitative and almost invisible.

13. To be eternally youthful – even though they grow old – to never give up the fight for equality, against injustice and to maintain a view that transformation is possible – and not be resigned to fate. (though that doesnt mean trying to be like young people’) To keep pushing for something better…

14. To be ready to listen, to be ready with questions, to be ready with suggestions for conversations with young people – but maybe not ever ready with solutions and the ‘fix’

15. To empathise with those in structures like teachers and clergy who trust you in conversations – without thinking – ‘yeah I wish I had your problems that involved job insecurity and funding… ‘

Image result for youth worker superhero

16. To get stuff for free on discount, like trips and activities – be the great convincer or bargainer – then the great apologetic when the young people trash the venue.

17. To have the endless time to commit to your own ongoing CPD, further reading, studying, career development and fund your own retreats.

18. To be able to say no to a young person without offending them and maintaining the relationship

19 To do all what you do that young people and volunteers see, with next to no need for any planning (at least thats what your timesheet says)

20 To manage other peoples expectations of what you’re actually able to do

and an extra…

21. To have the ability not to get caught reading this blog during your work day

What ones do you have? Which ones do you need right now? Which ones might help see you through this weekend?

You are a superhero, regardless if you dont think you possess all of these things, as what tends to happen if that you’ll find a way to be able have these superpowers and grow into them. Its just sort of what happens. You rise to the next level, in the new situation you find yourself, whether that’s managing volunters, staff, funding, or strategising, or working in schools or developing a project. Thats the true mark of the superhero youthworker, you rise into the roles, and well, as Freire said, make the road by walking them.

what superhero powers would you add?

Because Im not a superhero, and do my writing and reflecting as a hobby, I would appreciate any gift or donations to this ongoing site and my consultancy work. if you are able to make a donation towards this work, please do so, either by donation directly to my UK account click here for the details. Or you can make a donation via Paypal, just click the button below.

Thank you in advance, and thank you for sharing and reading these pieces.

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‘Where have the young people gone?’ 5 ways to get the long lost young people back into church

One minute you have them, all neat and tidy in rows upon rows, in small groups of small groups doing sunday school – the next minute theyre all gone! 

And, theyve stayed gone.

Remembering that this situation isnt new (the drop off from the 2 million young people who attended sunday schools at aged 8 verses aged 12 was large, and that was pre 1900)   Image result for sunday school rally day 1900

So you are going to need a very long memory to remember those days.

But maybe you can remember when you were part of a thriving youth ministry scene in the 1960’s?

That thriving youth ministry scene – was also the same time in which according to church statistics, young people were leaving the church at a rate of 300 per week between 1970-1980.

Image result for sunday school rally day 1900

So, its not an ‘all of a sudden thing’ that there are no young people in the church you are sitting in. Theres an element of rugged determination probably on your part that you’re still there. The survivior, the last warrior emblazoned with the leadership and pcc or retired elder badge for long service. Well done good and faithful servant, and I do mean this.

But if we’re only asking now – where are all the young people – we also have to ask – what happened to them in the 70’s and 80’s and to some extent the 1990’s – for as ive said before, even I represent one of only 3 people from a youth group/club in a church of 30 who are still involved in church – and sometimes that is clinging on by the fingernails.

The questions we have to ask about young people and the church have got to have different answers to them that was being given in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s. And I think that might be a different piece. For – though we have to find young people – we also do have to have some idea of what it is we expect, or want them to do, or how they are to experience faith once indeed we might have found them.

How might churches find their long lost young people? especially when theres none at all to start with?

The first things is to begin with reality not assumptions. But churches are full of them. So here is a picture of a warning sign.     Image result for assumptions

‘there are always young people on the streets being a nuisance‘  Find out the facts, how many, is it the same young people, are they from the area, how old are they, are they in the same group, what do you they like doing, what are they interested in, what schools do they go to. Also is it always? or just on a friday night, or just through the summer holidays?

young people are so busy, being taken to after school clubs, having to ride buses, they’re too busy for church’  Is that ‘all’ the young people who are in your community – or just the ones that you have connections with – and might they be too busy with other things, because these other things are seen to be more important & meaningful (maybe thats a challenge, to make the local church a space of meaning and significance) – but legitimately, even in areas where there are high attendance of mostly children going to swim clubs or brownies, there will be many who cannot afford these things, or have transport or parents at home to take them. When we start from a place of 0 young people, creating a place for these few who dont have opportunities – seems not only a good idea, but a godly one too – doesnt it?

‘young people find the building a barrier’ this is an assumption we make – then we need to make the space safer, but then not spend decades improving a building only for there to be now no connection with local people who then have disregarded a building as irrelevant however much of a conference centre it now looks like.

but we have nothing to offer – we’re an ageing congregation, young people are more likely to go to the (insert name of contemporary church) church down the road’ no, only the kids from christian parents who value style and entertainment in worship practices will go there. The young people in your local area who find meaning and connection in the space you offer, will continue to do so. And the person, usually a trendy youth pastor from that trendy contemporary church or youth ministry who suggests the existing church is boring should be shot.

These are all assumptions that at some point of another someone in a local church has made about the reasons why young people are not involved in the faith community, or the advent of sunday trading, sunday football or some other cultural entertainment reason.

So how do churches find the young people – where are they hiding?

  1. Discover the reality of life for young people, spend time in the local areas, communities and be present in the spaces. So, walk the dog around estates, grab a pint of milk at the corner shop, take up running – all with the additional purpose of being around in the public spaces of a local community at times. So, when school buses come back, or after tea, or at the weekends, do young people walk home from school buses, do any of them play football in the park from 7 (and is it the same ones every night) . Just any real picture is helpful.
  2. Schools. Schools are tricky, as they are becoming an even more compressed space of formal learning, and almost sadly just exam factories. School staff also have had good and negative experiences of faith groups either personally or professionally, so all the stuff about building trust slowly applies, or trying to connect in a way that helps the schools out, such as offering lessons on challenging topics like relationships, drugs and alcohol – or help in some way like mentoring some of the young people who are struggling. Or chapliancy for the whole school (especially in the peak stressful times in a school, ie between the inservice day in september and the end of term in july 😉 ) The days of ‘just doing assemblies’ because this topped up what the kids were learning in sunday schools or was a way of attracting them to the church’s activities are over. As i said here, To disciple young people, we need to quit assemblies.  though it might still be a start – there are other ways of being meaningful and connecting. But the school is just the school, its a place socially constructed in a way, and where young people perform in a way to thrive or survive, and/or be popular or to be invisible. And thats not rocket science, just one reality of the context of trying to be present in, its an already established culture and community in which you might be trying to find some kind of acceptance and respect in.
  3. The public spaces of the town and village centre. This wont be all the young people – no where has ‘all the young people anyway’ – but are there places and times when young people do congregate – is it the town centre on a saturday, the bus shelter on a friday, the village green on a tuesday  – if these are places young people choose to be in (as opposed to school where they dont choose) – then this, with the right approach and training, can be a way of making connections in places where young people have already considered safe.  Or it might be that this is the time to have the church open for hot chocolate, or take some out with you to the bus stop and spend time just chatting with young people there. If you’ve got a dog collar on, honestly its far easier to do this that try and be some kind of youthworker doing it. Not easy, takes bravery and vulnerability – but much of that is because weve made too many assumptions about young people that make us feel scared of them. Oh and by the way, any abuse from a distance when they see you coming, take that as the ‘mating call of the needy young person’ …. 😉
  4. What if young people are in their homes, doing their homework, playing on computer games, on social media? And for many this is the new normal, the new reality and the new majority. Maybe for this family, it is not about trying to connect with the young people at all, it is about trying to connect and become meaningful with the whole family. Also the young person is not in their room all day every day. But – What might mission to middle class families look like? And that is not my specialist subject…  – churches should be able to offer an alternative to the depression of eastenders or the business of commuter life – a place of hope, quietness, community?
  5. Attracting families to church with children has been easy, from sunday schools, messy church and every thing else inbetween, and at the moment summer holiday clubs are on, but they are plummeting in terms of numbers, and delivery. But that doesnt mean that in your local area, in your local space an after school group, messy church, themed club (movie/craft/sports) might be just the thing for families to be involved in that you as a local church can do. Forget any national picture or statistic – yes i mean forget it – if a small group of families want to set up a kids club (that you though was old fashioned at what you were doing in the 80’s) then let them. If its what is most meaningful and causes the church to be a space of community and conversation then make it happen. Family work with children isnt necessarily going to bring the young people back. But it at least could cause the church to be looked on favourably locally.  At least with 8 year olds coming to a craft afternoon, there is at least the possibility of some group work with them, and having conversations with them and creating a longer term space for their community and conversation to continue.  We may need to invest in the potential group work of the 8 year olds and believe in it as a long term process. Telling them theres ‘nothing’ after messy church when they get to 10, is only because we have wasted 2 years in not talking to them about what they might like to do next or continue to participate in.

These all feel like whats been tried for the last 30 years. And yes, thats probably true.

I kind of wish that there was some magic answer. Some new answer. And in my last post I did put forward a few new ideas (see previous post)

The reality is that though it is easier to say why churches should involve themselves in working with young people for social and definitely spiritual reasons, actually doing it is going to be quite hard work, and a mixture of looking for opportunities, and also making the most of opportunities that may already be happening, or being in a place where opportunities may emerge (such as the bus stop over a mug of hot chocolate) . Its going to take vulnerability and spirit of collective pioneering and action, and thats not easy. The responses to the question of how to get the young people back into church doesnt need some kind of magic dynamic answer, and not from me anyway, the answer to that question will only be found in your local area, through making spaces to connect, through being present, and through listening to whats already happening, and trying to find a way of being meaningful to all, especially those for whom the normal way of life is leaving them behind, making them stressful, pressured and pained.  Churches that want young people for their own survival, might be better placed to think about how other people are trying to do survival and get alongside them. I dunno, seems like Jesus met people in the margins, in the borders and healed those who needed to be lifted up – guess that could be the heart of the gospel, and the heart of Gods mission for young people and their families, its just a hunch. There isnt a new answer to that question, its the same old answer, the story of faith that we’re participating in in our local contexts, and asking how might we present Jesus with young people and in our communities?

Maybe like God himself, we interrupt the norm, with a conversation of love that brings meaning and hope. Bringing young people back to church? a challenging task, especially if we cant find them or have lost them over the years.

God hasnt lost them. God doesnt need to find them either, he knows where they are.

And on many occasions she already hears their cries of help, anguish and pain. They might be closer to God than we already think. We as churches might be closer to being able to offer something, a God to believe in, than we think. Hiding faith behind the package has been one of the approaches, because God has been deemed boring, irrelevant or old fashioned. The mysterious thing is is that God might already be meeting young people where theyre at, the Spirit might be already moving in our towns and villages. And if young people need a story to believe in and participate in when the story of materialism, consumerism or achievement isnt giving hope, connection, autonomy or wholeness, then the story of Gods redemption for the world that we present offers a genuine alternative. Young people rebelling against consumerism by going to church and taking up a simple life… will it happen? If it did would churches know that this might be the authentic narrow way of the gospel that was possibly what was intended..?

Try all the magic methods in the world. Its be difficult to keep young people if theyre done without the mystery of faith and presenting a way of the gospel that is rude, provocative and dangerous, and discipleship as an ongoing active working relationship with Jesus to be experienced.

How to make your ministry more like Jesus? then sit down

Who are the people who sit down in the public spaces of our villages, towns and cities?

Think about it for a little while, do you notice who it is and why they sit? and is there a difference between those who sit because they have to, and those who sit because they choose to?

The first thing we might do after sitting down in our lounge, then sitting in our car, then walking from the car park space is to find another space to sit down and drink a coffee, or its the reward for an hours shopping, the need to sit down. But how many people might we have walked past who are sitting down not in the overpriced coffee house, and just on a random bench, or piece of concrete.

I was intrigued over the weekend by this sentence, its in John 4; 4-6

He (Jesus) had to go through Samaria on the way. Eventually he came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave his son to Joseph. Jacobs well was there, and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noon-time’ ‘ (John 4: 4-6)

Aside from the observation that Jesus ‘got tired’ and therefore this reveals a reality about his Human fragility, form and nature. What is more fascinating is that he was tired of the journey, and possibly tired of being with the other disciples on that journey (talking with other christians can be so tiring..) so he left them (they re joined him in a later verse)

Jesus finds strength and renewal by sitting down, being away from his own followers, and being served by others. Jesus didnt arrive in a town with a full on ministry team and try an lead from the front, no he sat amongst those who needed a drink at mid day. The way he showed his disciples, was actually not with them at all, he went alone and sat down.

He Sat down.

How many times do we sit down, amongst others in our ministries? What kind of ‘sitting down’ do we do when we arrive in a ‘new’ situation/town/village? Are we even allowed to?

We might not aspire to ‘be Jesus’ but surely theres something in this for us in terms of practices and attitude.

But ministry is barely like this, at times, at least it doesnt always feel like the default position.

When I first arrived in Hartlepool 22 years ago, it was part of a gap year team with The Oasis Trust, and we, like many other groups and teams of young people were keen, enthusiastic, positive, and full of the desire to ‘do ministry’, to ‘save the city’ and put ourselves in positions to be busy, lead and to save local dying churches who had no youth ministry. And, in the most part, the local church complied with this. We were ‘The Oasis Team’ and given space, time and responsibility – and roles, jobs, activities, groups and stuff to do. We were profiled in the newsletter, photos on the wall, food in the donation box, out for lunch every Sunday, we were ‘it’, and ‘it’ looked like ministry.

But Jesus tired from the Journey, sat down.

When we arrived in Hartlepool, we were up front. Right left and centre. Though we expected it.

Not as long ago, I was tasked, and failed, with being a youth and community worker in a small town in Devon. What i wanted to do was put what i knew into practice, I wanted to sit down, I wanted to be a person who didnt arrive announced and expectant, especially in a small ish town. However, at various times in the course of the year, and before I had even arrived, the local press, church parish newsletters had all circulated that I was arriving, and I was going to ‘work with disadvantaged young people’ and I was going to ‘help kids engage with church’. There was no space to sit down, when I arrived in this new town.

Before I had even arrived, the culture and expectations determined the strategy and approach. And I dont bear any blame, because the culture within ministry is to generally act in this was towards new appointments, new roles, new leaders and be excited to want to tell others and share it. Its part of church culture. Time doesnt often allow ‘sitting down’, culture doesnt either. And its tempting to love the limelight. To be the hero. The pull is all around.

Its one thing being a presence in a community, its another being present.

One of the deeply theological practices of detached youthwork, is the ongoing action of observation and being present in the spaces of the community, and learning through the process of being a presence in it. And sitting down can be part of this. In their book, ‘Working with unnattached youth’ George Goetchius and Joan Tash detail how their YWCA mobile youth work project spent 3 years walking around and being part of the community, gathering evidence, sharing observations, learning from and listening to what was going on… 3 years! wow – some youthworkers have burnt out in that time… most detached youthworkers get 3 minutes prep time on google maps…

Its part of sitting down. Its an attitude of sitting down. Its not a standing up attitude, its a sitting down attitude. A process of learning, of reflecting, of listening, of watching, it is slow.

Paulo Friere says this: ‘Always we have to look. Today suddenly a flower is the reason for your surprise. Tomorrow, it may be the same flower, just with a different colour, because of the age of the flower’ 

So, when Jesus arrived at a Village he sat down. He did not lead the marginalised and confused from the front, he sat down. He waited.

When he told his disciples to go to villages, he told them to ‘find a person of peace’ and wait to be served. Ie, have the attitude of sitting down. Go and find, not go and do. Not even go and lead and make a song and dance, but go and find. I remember part of the oasis training was to try and do ‘balloon modelling’ in the streets, so it would attract a crowd, cause a scene, and this would give an opportunity to invite people to an event. (it was the 1990’s dont judge me) Maybe that would be ok in some cities, but Hartlepool? hmmm. Jesus didnt stir up the crowds when he went to a new town, not just for the sake of it.

Some 19 years later Ive moved back to Hartlepool, been back 4 years now. And sat down this time. Lived here, shopped here, walked the dog here, living here. In a way, arrived here tired and weary after some challenging previous experiences (only to find a whole host of new challenging experiences). Not arriving with fanfare, or expectation. More recently, having now not being in work and travelling, I have wanted to be more present, and so walking around the town, sitting in the town centre, being present in the space. When I sat down in the open area a few weeks ago, one of the people who was begging for money, asked ‘why did i look so happy?’ and a conversation followed, and I learned something. And I felt strengthened through the encounter, renewed for the task. And that sounds selfish, but it isnt meant to be. Sat and waited a bit, do I know whats going to happen next, no…

Maybe the pattern of Jesus ministry, to a new place emerged from the experience he had out of necessity at Jacobs well, and where there was time, and not persecution,it was a way of being that the disciples in the early church tried to do; Acts 3, 1-4, though it is more noticeable that Paul spend time with believers and preached the message – rather than sitting and being, Peter very similar (Acts 9; 32-37) they met with believers. It could be dangerous to think that the way of doing ministry is do the same ‘with believers’ as to do in the new context and town.

I wonder if pioneer youthwork, which can often call to question the busy, the activity and the up front stuff – is less pioneering, and more just about trying to do the kind of approach that Jesus adopted when he went to a new community. He sat down. This may be so far from the culture of ministry, that it is regarded as pioneering, so far from an outcomes orientated funded ministry, that it is alien. But for a new person in a new place – sitting down is what was required.

One of my favourite all time songs is this one, in 1991, from James:

I sing myself to sleep
A song from the darkest hour
Secrets I can’t keep
In sight of the day
Swing from high to deep
Extremes of sweet and sour
Hope that God exists
I hope, I pray
Drawn by the undertow
My life is out of control
I believe this wave will bear my weight
So let it flow
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Sit down next to me
Sit down, down, down, down, down
In sympathy
Now I’m relieved to hear
That you’ve been to some far out places
It’s hard to carry on
When you feel all alone
Now I’ve swung back down again
And it’s worse than it was before
If I hadn’t seen such riches
I could live with being poor
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Oh sit down
Sit down next to me
Sit down, down, down, down, down
In sympathy
Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
We are more likely to find Jesus sitting by the roadside and by the well, than standing in front of the crowds. We are more likely to find Jesus in the conversation, and conversation happens when we sit and listen, or are present and take time to listen. Who are the people who sit down in our local towns and cities? The young people, the marginalised, the lost, the waiting, those with little power, or money, (or ok those whove just got their Greggs meal deal)- where does Jesus go and we follow – to sit down with them.  How might we ‘sit’ more in our pioneering, our youthwork, our lives – and learn, and wait and be present? Jesus didnt just make himself lower than the angels (Philippians), he made himself lowest of the low by sitting down when and where others chose to avoid. How might we make time to be amongst and not just fleeting through.
Friere, Horton – We make the Road by walking (1990).

The Church as Mission in Space

I was out volunteering on detached around the streets of Hartlepool this evening. Just walking and wandering around.  In the end there wasn’t many opportunities for conversations but that’s not so important. In a culture where every moment is viewed through a lens of how effective, purposeful and impactful time is. Just being available and wasting time providing space for people is not only valuable, but valued and counter cultural.

For all the activities and events, the more open and informal the space, the most likely to connect with people, to be able to listen and It’s not only counter cultural because it values conversation but that it requires that people slow down. It means that we can act out being interested in other people.

I was hearing today of the stressed out male who turned up at a community cafe. Was given a conversation, a coffee and disclosed about a relationship issue with their son. At the end the person want to give the church a £5 for the coffee. That’s how much it meant to the person. It is valued.

Mary Rogers suggests that places become safe when people share authenticity and common values. This in a building is also created because a building exudes trust like a church. But this can also happen outside. Public spaces can be caring spaces. Places of listening. As young people have commented, ‘when with us they feel safe’ though they’re still outside.

In addition. The church is caught in a resource trap. Since the late 1890’s ministries that used more formal teaching and resources excluded the harder to reach. Or anyone who already opt out of the activity. We want programmes and off the shelf and organised. To be truly counter culrural , open to others and do mission, the perogative is to offer counter cultural space. To value conversation and opportunities to meet people where theyre at.

Oh and offer cake. Coffee. Or soup. Lets do church that is regularly available. Create welcoming hopeful listening spaces. Slow meaningful conversations and relationships.

Harnessing the power of young peoples ideas; the future of youth ministry? 

What if the role of the youth worker was to harness the power of the young persons ideas?

Whenever there’s discussions about young adults conceptually we might put them in sociological context, as teenagers or adolescents, in a victim or voiceless context such as ‘youth crime’ and innocent/precious context ‘young love’ . Two others are young people as deficit, somehow distinct from society (as determined by adults) or gifted and contributors in social change (abcd, see nurture development site in the menu). Often youth workers might say we’re working to address needs, create safe spaces or  develop their interests.

But what about being catchers, harnessers, and facilitators of young peoples ideas?

As Friere said “There is no change without dream, as there is no dream without hope”  this isn’t about dreams, though dreams & ideas are similar.

As Ted Robinson said in a TED talk on education, from an early age children have divergent thinking that due to more controlling environments in school and other structures like church (sunday school classes) their divergent thinking contracts and becomes convergent. Converging on expectations and the boundaries in formal education settings.

What if the role of the children’s and youth worker is to provide spaces and opportunities for young peoples ideas and the environment to follow them through? To try not to waste them.

Ideas that might be about;

The structure of groups,

Leaders roles,

Content of teaching

Responses to their problems (eg bullying in school )

Responses to faith community issues

Responses to local community issues (food poverty, obesity, limited exercise opportunities, literacy concerns, social inequality)

Residential planning or special events..

The list could go on…

I often hear youth leaders say, ‘we ask young people and they don’t know what they want.’ Then it’s a question of how young people are asked, what the process is to gather ideas, ‘brainstorms’ aren’t always best. Neither are consultations when the plan is already set.

A youth worker friend of mine said that they once took 3 months talking with a group of young people to help them plan their programme. They loved it, engaged with it, led and shaped it. The church hated it. When the worker moved on , new leaders used predetermined programmes. The young people left soon after. A healthy space where ideas were realised was created. When it was shut down. Young people voted with their feet.

What if working with young people was about seeing then as persons with ideas. Ideas that might change their local world. Ideas that it is our role to uncover and help them make them happen.

I was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit of young people as presented by Kenda Creasy Dean (see previous blog), where young people developed food kitchens and resources. But young people can often find a way to be entertained with just a football and a kerb. They have ideas. And if they don’t then it’s because we’re not trusted to be in receipt of their ideas, yet.

We might hear ideas in conversations, so we need to have conversations with young people and listen.

What this might mean is that young people and children become creators of their own provision. The skills of the voluntary or pro youth worker are then in negotiation and creating mechanisms for accepting or reluctantly blocking the offers of the ideas. In short to be attuned to the skills of improvising in the moment and having access to resources to be part of the acceptance.

If the question is what might the faith based youth worker do that no other professional might, yes support or education or faith imparting might be in there, but a person that seeks out, accepts and realises young children and young peoples ideas might make the role unique.

In a room of 3 young people how many ideas might there be that they have? 30, 300? How many times have these same young people attended the group or club or event and all those ideas for local or group transformation have laid dormant? What a waste.

Oh and if persons are made in God’s image, then so are imaginations, dreams and ideas. It’s our responsibility as youthworkers to create the environment to receive them, to work with young people & children to realise them.

You might never need a ready made programme again.

Taking a cue from the context; Detached youthwork on the stage of the world

I got to realise, that filming in India, there are always three people to work with, the actor, the script and the City

So said Dev Patel, film maker, who was talking on the Wittertainment podcast, the Kermode and Mayo Radio 5 film review show last week. He was promoting a new film, Lion, out at the end of January, his fifth set in India, with another being released later in the year also. He said that the Cities are just alive, and so when he was filming scenes, there would be traffic, cows, traders and people bustling all over the place into and out of shot, and that even as part of the script that an actor and others might have to be delivering, his task as director was to ensure that they acted with authenticity to the unpredictability of the setting, given that the setting of the city was crucial to the plot, the character and the scene.

It got me rethinking again about the sense of doing detached youthwork out in the public, out in the scenes of real life. I have in the past talked about taking a cue from the context – but what if to go further, the context also plays a speaking part in the improvised drama of being out on the streets with young people. Yes, like the film maker in India, there is often no knowing what might happen next, the proverbial cow might move into shot as a group of drunken adults start shouting down the road at the young people you’re speaking to. But in another way the context might make profounder positive statements into the situation, and not just say a sunset, or a rainbow. But the context of the streets might bring about the creativity of a game, might be a blank canvas to draw chalk, or an object to play on. How a young person interacts with the space, as they form their own game, their own identity even, might be something for us, as we are in the space too, to reflect on further. How might young people be learning in and from the open space, the stage of the world?

As detached youth workers the location becomes critical to the interaction, it is not a young persons space, but it is an unpredictable space, a public space, a space alive with possibilities, a space that young people shape narratives of, that adults do too, a space of fun, of safety and peace for a young person, a space they might call home. I guess if like the filmmaker we decide to try and shape interactions in a public space, then the space itself creates scenes for the action. It is up to us to be able to listen to and respond to the signs, symbols, smells and suggestions from the context as it shapes the interactions and affects the performance- making it more authentic.

Sometimes there are extras who move in and out of shot, there are those extras who want to get involved with the main scene that we’re trying to shape, but in a public scene this is going to happen.