Youth Ministry’s path to strategy…. & failure (part 1)

The desire for the quick win within Youth Ministry is all around.

Google ‘Youth Ministry resources’ and youll find the following; Image result for youth ministry books

Making your talk count when you only have 10 minutes!

The Ultimate Youth Ministry resource kit!

3 Crucial practices that fuel unstoppable growth in youth Ministry! 

How to build youth Ministry from scratch! 

Building a better youth ministry 30 Ways in 30 days! 

The desire for the instant formula. The perfect Model. The quick win is all too apparent. It sells books. It sells resources.

It reduces a ministry that involves young people and their families to a strategy. Strategic thinking dehumanises.

But how did we get to this in Youth Ministry. When did trying to formulise, create methods and models come from?

For arguments sake, in the UK, we might say that the birth of Youth Ministry might have started with the Sunday Schools in the 1700’s. In the USA the most powerful form of youth ministry might be traced only as far back as the 1940’s and possibly up to only 40 years previously. But as Andrew Root picks up the story, by the time Sunday Schools had crossed the atlantic, their key function was to regenerate the US nation away from cultural distractions and the spread of modernity, rationality and to protect adolescents. At the same time, between 1940 onwards the world progressed in technological, industrial and managerial fields. The advances in science and technology paved the ways for new languages and new statements of values. People became an asset, a user, a client, a customer, even less than that, a number. Technology also brought risks. Things also replaced relationships for spaces in which meaning was found. If a person could choose things for meaning, then they also could choose relationships, on their own terms.

Skip forward a decade, and post war America was flagging spiritually. The sunday schools were losing young people. and american nationalism was taking effect post WW2 , as the US discovered its strong leadership in the world. The middle class evangelicals were rising, but needed a way of reconnecting with the broader US public. In a age of emerging technology, and nationalism, step forward a former wheaton graduate, Billy Graham. What is less known about Billy Graham this side of the pond is quite how much Graham tapped into the US culture and psyche for its message that feared modernity, and heralded a type of patriotism through his confidence and preaching. His message was more well known. Not only could individuals choose their own relationships in society, they could also choose a relationship with Jesus. A one step in or out decision.

It was a simple message. And it appealed to the culture of its day, it was also influenced by the culture of its day.

Pick up any book, journal or article about Billy Graham, and you cannot fail to notice that numbers of people attending his rallies, talks and events are widely known. What is also widely reported is the numbers of people who make ‘commitments’ at these events. What im not questioning is legitimacy. It is that it was measurability. Measuring success by numbers was a scientific and technological invention. The process of faith became a production line, rally, talk, prayer, follow up, church and discipleship.

Not only was practices affected by scientific reductionism, but theology was too. Reducing the Bible to appeal to teenagers has been common place. Since the four spiritual laws (invented because youth ministers needed something ‘quick’ to share with young people) were invented, various other similar simplified, reduced formula have been used for explaining the gospel. ‘The bridge’, or one of the things from the 1990s was the chair diagram. There have been attempts to explain the whole bible in 3 verses, or ‘the 10 verses you only need to know’ . The desire for simplicity, is not accidental. Again it is a reaction to culture. If we have to tell young people something, it needs to be quick. and simple. It is reductionist thinking in culture being applied to theology. To make something easy , quick, measurable and controlled.

what might that mean for the Gospel?  well its complicated. Actually its not complicated at all. It and God itself has become trained in our image. The God of effective youth ministry is that can be fit into a 2 minute talk. 

But thats not all. The influence of broader culture has not only had an effect on the nature and content of the Gospel.

It has also affect the practices of the relational Youth ministry.

If the reaction to the quick sell evangelism and large scale rallies of Billy Graham was to develop low profile but as locally renown youth ministers into schools, college and churches to begin ‘relational’ youth ministry. Because very quickly, the desire for relationships (as befalling the culture of the day) was not being met through Billy Grahams technique, then on the ground relationships became a new strategy with Young Life. 

Relationships became a strategy in Youth Ministry because the aim of developing a relationship with a young person was for it to ‘do something’. To Invite them to a ‘thing’, to ‘earn the right to tell them about Jesus’, and to use a relationship to help a young person find a relationship with Jesus. The relationship was strategic. 

In a culture of self chosen relationships this became very popular. The simple strategic relationship has dominated US and UK youth ministry. Think about ‘friendship evangelism’ and you’re not far off.

Ill stop there with the history lesson. If you want to read further, check out Andrew Roots Revisiting relational Youth Ministry (2007) or Joined up (2003) by Danny Brierley.  But can you see the trajectory. As the broader culture emphasised modernity, measurability and calcubility, this had an effect on the way in which the Gospel was honed and presented, and then strategies of influence emerged including talks and the development of relationships.

It starts with the effect of Scientific and Technological thinking on Theology, how in youth ministry we read and interpret, and use the Bible.

Let me give an example. If i said to you that ‘Jesus is a gate’ what would you be thinking?

a literal gate? a garden gate? edge of the field gate? sheep-pen gate? iron gate? castle gate?

which side of the gate are you on? what is the terrain like? what is the weather like as you picture the gate?

is the gate open, or is it closed?

The gate is a metaphor.


If i said that ‘God is Good’ – what do you think then good vs evil?  good behaviour? common good? its not so easy is it.

Strangely Jesus seemed to use alot of metaphors to describe himself.

What a metaphor does is expand thought.

It allows us to travel along it exhausting many possibilities, even finding cul-de -sacs – but there is something joyous about the travel, the thinking and the playfulness of the ride. Its as if it teases.

For too long Theology has been restricted to the straight jacket of understandability, of reductionism and simplicity. There has been too much speed in defining a word, and reducing it to one meaning, or avoiding the playfulness of metaphors, poetry and symbol that might expand thought. Even the christian life, so frequently described as a journey, seems to only a be road with very few turn offs.

Youth Ministry within a reductive faith, has become sold as a practice that desires strategies, formulas, quick wins and results. In short it has been sold a package, led to disappointment and used young people as a customer. Becoming more concerned with a strategy, and the outcome, a package and a formula. Finding the perfect method and model has been the key search. Finding what ‘works’ and copying it. Youth ministry as a universalism and package started with the Sunday schools, no not the first one. But the famous one. Raikes had access to a printing press, and now everyone could have the same resources.

The second part will explore further how a non scientific view of theology might be needed as the starting point.  But in the meantime, it is worth thinking of how scientific, consumerist and managerial language, so dominant in the last 100 years has affected theological thinking and youth ministry as a result.


Root, Andrew, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry, 2007

Brierley, Danny, Joined Up, 2003

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

Hart, Trevor, Between the image and the word,  2011



Is ‘Prevent’ the beginnings of controlling value based organisations?

Following the ongoing consultation by the government in regard to regulating and registering organisations who provide after school and holiday time care, the consultation is here:

Forgive the length of this piece of work, it is based upon my MA presentation on the effect of Government policy on Organisation Governance, which doesnt sound particularly exciting, but a time when this consultation is available to respond to and critique, it might be worth trying to take a long term view of what this government consultation might cause an organisation with strong values to become, and learn from the parallel history over the last 20 years of other third party organisations.

Gann, defines Organisations as: Creatures of their times, reflecting structures- philanthropic with good intentions (1991)

Handy defines a voluntary organisation as “ living communities with a common purpose, made up of free citizens with minds and values and rights of their own (1988:21)”

Handy argues that organisations should develop philosophies of practice which would, in his view, have no need for inheriting  political or engineering references to management and governance (such as Taylorism, Weberism, Fordism), stating that a community organisation should upheld community work values of democracy and problem solving. He infers that voluntary organisations should be more akin to what Morgan (1998) describes as an organisation that Creates social reality according to values, however the metaphor of organisations as an organisms is more appropriate, given that it could be argued that many have had to adapt, and adapt at the cost of their values, identity and purpose. But why has this been the case?

Adirondack on page 4 of Just about Managing suggests that organisation governance is a term for the “big picture, long term and legal aspects of ensuring an organisation is properly run”, and that Management is responsible for ensuring that the work gets done within the governance framework- but essentially that governance and management are different aspects of the same thing.  This is in line with Cornforth who states that Governance is concerned with: “the structures, systems and processes concerned with ensuring the overall direction, control and accountability of an organisation”(Cornforth 2004:1 in Billis 2010:72)

Policies are one such aspect of organisational governance, which although helpful, have caused a shift in organisation culture, and an access point to control and regulation by the government. However, in terms of the positives:

Polices are broadly helpful in defining the framework within an organisation operates (Adirondack(192:2005), providing clarity for what an organisation does, and how it does it. They help to create stability, and a base line for good practice. Not every aspect of an organisation requires written policies, but where there might be high levels of risk, or contention/argument, or for the adherence of professional practice, policies are created; notably in areas such as; the employment of staff, safeguarding, lone working, health & safety, and in specific examples values or conduct statements. Within the organisation governance, additional policies are used to identify suitable roles for Trustees, the charitable definition of the organisation itself, such as the constitution, its objects and how it should function legally.

Hussey and Perrin (86-88: 2003 in How to Manage a Voluntary organisation)  also add that Polices bring the visions and ideas created, to life, by describing in strategic and practical terms the outworkings of an organisation.  Policies of practice should be consistent with the aims and values of the organisation, more so they reveal the vision and values through the working documents.

How an organisation makes decisions, how it sets strategy, how its work complies with the strategy, and how it ensures that its performance is effective, safe and accountable.

“A policy is a guideline for organisational action and the implementation of goals and objectives. Policy is translated into rules, plans and procedures; it relates to all activities of the organisation and to all levels of the organisation.” (Mullins, L 537: 2010)

Negative impacts on an organisation governance include: The organisation becomes less about young people/community, and more time in compliance to policy, Young people/Community has less voice and involvement (Ord J, 113:2012)

Yet despite Handys recommendations in 1985, the language of structure, of managerialism, of control, accountability and order has been adopted in the discourse of organisational governance. This is highlighted as Handy (1985) bemoans the changes afoot (in 1985) of organisations that played down the importance of an individual – the gifted leader/manager, in favour of the more impersonal aspects such as organisational structure, control systems and policies, yet he goes on to describe the importance of the person as the manager in the ongoing decisions that they have to make in terms of demands, choices and constraints. (362:1985)

Butcher in Banks (2005) argues that Organisations, especially those supporting community practitioners, need to be thought of more as organisms than machines (p59;2005 (Banks et al)), this causes a rethink of the systems as open (rather than closed structural ones) and interaction with changing cultures and contexts and of growth, and evolution.

Policies themselves are subject to external influence and cultivate a situation whereby an organisation is changed through them; as identified by Butler and Wilson (1990:29) : The overall framework of the organisation and how the trustees, members and other governing body functions, and how the organisation relates to external legal authorities such as charities commission. Yet this is also a two way process, as “the Charity commission inserts pressure on organisations to adopt central control and hierarchical structures”. (Butler & Wilson, 1990:29)

However, The External Pressures on having policies which can be adapted from a central commission, as an adaptive organisation, has caused organisations to shift into a certain direction. As it changes it may become an ambiguous culture, that thinks community and fluid, but has to be governed in an increasingly bureaucratic way (Lewis, D 1999:195)- which has an effect on Values (see above) , Values  which as Mullins (2010) argues are part of an organisation ideology and thus its culture, and thus its outworking.

Butcher in 1993 seems slightly optimistic as he heralds a new relationship between right and left wing versions of post bureaucratic public service provision and democratic accountability. Yet the 18 years since have heralded 4 governments and an increase in control and regulation of organisations, via centralised commission and centralised policy for all participating organisations, using Macdonaldisation and related effective practices to imply a universality to local organisations.

However Somerville in 2011 articulates that there is now the disconnect between the community and the services which once served it, have now been affected by changes in policy, government policy and discourse.

The Governments partnership policy which is borne out of the neo-liberal ideology that promises a reduced state involvement, but high level of control, value for money and quality improvement and as Hart (2015) argues, an attuning of young peoples (or anyones) character to the needs of the market forces. I.e Community safety and employment.

Somerville goes on to concur stating that; “There is a subliminal restructuring in process which could cause community organisation to seek less to serve the actual needs, or be accountable to a local community more than view them as part of a service driven process or a target to fulfil” and concurred with by Milbourne in her article Remodelling the Third Sector (2009)

This will be particularly challenging in the poorer areas where community organisations rely heavily on public funding such as the North east, as greater controls, efficiencies, competition will occur, all having an effect on the nature and governance of organisations.

In this example, The government policy of developing state-private-community partnerships, and doing so with conditioned funding resources, has, through local government contracting, stating of funding objectives, has a direct influence on the procedures, objectives and practice and governance of an organisation.  An organisation which now has to comply with goverment ideology- for funding, and government structures practices in reward for funding, developed hierarchical structures, policies, practices and seeks efficient ways of ensuring outcome orientated practices for young poeple.

In quoting Barnes (2007) Somerville goes on to suggest that the governments policy documents have the power to constitute the language of their policy to fit their own needs, the rules of the engagement and participation – rather than have these agendas set and created by the community, or the community group themselves. In his example; the language of the formal partnership meeting was alien to the language of the community, and that the community often receives help and a service from a community organisation, as Taylor suggests (2003;12) The Community “does not decide the game that is being played; they do not determine the rules of play, the system of refereeing or, indeed, who plays, and the cards are stacked in favour of the more powerful players. In fact they are in the wrong game altogether”

The policy framework of the government could decide upon the legitimacy of those voices and modes of expression, and thus the power to decide whether to take account of the voices expressed. It is deemed a privaledged pathway which is controlled by shrouded knowledge of the path, and many organisations are excluded.

If the organisations that have subtley allowed the permission of the government ideology to affect their very nature, very management, policy, practices and thus have not heed Charles Handys warnings in 1985, and as organisms has been so affected by external conditions that they have become more bureaucratic, more managerial and view communities and receivers of a service and for the purposes of fulfilling a government ideology.

In a move that challenges the notion of Organisations and organisms;  Millar in Jeffs and Smith 2010, akin to Handy above,  argues that  management within Youth work should be representative of occupational youthwork culture of values, virtues and principles towards what Morgan would identify as an organisation that is metaphorically creating social reality.

However, this is also now under threat.

Organisations which have thus far withheld the temptation of public money, and retained strong nature according to values; whether youth and community values, whether values of faiths or none, and attempted to create social reality, for the sake of young people in their place in the community. Yes they may have had to register as charities in central bodies or affiliations, or as charities, but most of these transactions were only for the sake of minimal compliance, or local credibility. They have thus far resisted the heavy hand of new managerialism, outcomes and bureacracy for the sake of community, values and virtues.

Under the Prevent agenda, the Government now seeks to determine in their consultation paper (as above) , that all childcare and after school providers need to register with Ofsted, so that the provider is not only known to the authorities for DBS measures, but also so that the values of the organisation can be aligned to what could be determined as British Values. Yet British Values according to whom, actually thats not the point, the point is that even the organisations that have sought to create positive places and safe spaces with young people, were even spaces that young people flourish in a broad number of ways, and defined their practices in accordance with a range of values; whether Christian values, Muslim Values , youth & community work values and principles, are now under threat from a government that want to control what these values might be. And what could be the result ? – the gradual subliminal shaping  of value based organisations to adopt new managerialism, and further controls and bureaucracy and conduits of government ideology akin to the third sectors organisations who travailed that slope over the last 20 years and the legal threat of compliance.

All done within a discourse of fear, where the reaction is tighter control and regulation for what is deemed a common necessity and common sense, or at least that is what the rhetoric around it might suggest.

Ord (2012) suggests that both policy agenda and leadership agenda- or at least their discourses need to be critiqued and challenged. The policies themselves have power to shape the language and thus the discourse about the work, and bring in the realities of the work that they have to prescribe. Ord goes on to say how this occurs in teaching. Policies including inspections and Ofsted seek to ensure adherence to government policy and this again moves accountability away from the youth and community it seeks to serve. (p64; ord 2010)

So, whilst the rhetoric of the government, and its policies have emphasised the importance of community –stare partnerships  and a reduced state involvement in its neo liberal ideology, the emphasis on control via public bodies like the Charities commission , the rhetoric of social and partnership policy and the world of funding (which accentuate bureaucratic  hierarchical organisations) and no also recommendations of values, of centralised control, regulation and inspection will have a direct impact upon organisational policies, and the nature of an organisation, especially in how it relates to its community, according to its core values.

Yet community organisations that have adapted to changes, akin to the organism metaphor, have found themselves more at risk of becoming conduits for government ideology. Ord argues that any meaningful resistance will come from how organisations such as youthwork are managed within their political context .However now even organisations that have resisted interference (with strong values culture) will be enforced to comply legally with this new policy and adapt local organisational policies and governance as a result, and how might resistance be possible within controlled British Values?