And who is my neighbour? – A locally outward facing church – notes from todays sermon

Despite an attack of the ‘Theresa May’s’ ie waking up with a bit of a cold, I preached this morning on the subject of ‘a healthy church is an outward facing one’ – based on the Peter Scuzzero resource  ( which i did not have the opportunity to read) . So- with the theme and title in mind I then had an empty page to reflect and share on the theme.

At the base of this post is the slides from the talk, which might make only a little sense. I have  feeling that i ended up doing a ‘best’ of and skimming a whole host of really meaty subjects in just one sermon, or what felt more like a seminar.

I arranged the session into three parts, thinking theologically, thinking context and thinking mission.

In the first section I gave people several printed bible verses, and the pictures to spend time in small groups responding the the question:

‘What is God like?’ – and what has he called us to do? 

As the groups returned, I shared the following quotations

‘Mission is Gods yes to the World’ – David Bosch

‘The church is to be the theatre of the Gospel’ – Kevin Vanhoozer

There was then a break for coffee.

After which there was a quiz on the local area. In which i found lots of historical and statistics from the area.

However, the point I made afterwards is that looking from a distance to strategise is irrelevant via statistics. The important information locally are names, interests, gifts, and people behind the statistics. Going on to say that gifts rather than needs are a better starting point. 

As youll see from the slides, i then developed the idea of church as prophetic, as involved in the action, and church being involved in following the coat tails of God already at work in the world – and how might we find him/her in action? (if we’re not present ourselves…) 

In putting the above together,I suggested that pioneer, new churches, have it somehow easier, as they can start from scratch. However, they can often fall into the same huddles of gatherings, formation and still place expectations on the relationships created. Yet an established church – how might this become pioneering, and outward focussed and missional at its core? When it might have organisation, or status anxiety as a problem. It might have lost its status of importance culturally, and might fear the worst in a specific situation, but it still has resources, a story and hope for any local situation. Image result for frederick buechner

At times i used stories of vulnerability – to go and be on the streets – the story of the Women who Visited and conversed with women in the brothels – this post is here:  If the darkest, most easiest place to have a moral opinion on can be full of hurting humans who responds to the welcome call of hope and love from God. Then no place is too dark. Not even the north east of England.

I closed with a reminder of Vincent Donovan – of going to new places, being courageous and making new beautiful places of hope and faith.  So, it was a bit of a hotch potch of a few themes to do with mission. From Mission dei, to asset based community development, with theology and ecclesiology thrown in too, each could be a three hour/day seminar on their own. But for the local baptist church in Hartlepool, a skimming of and reflection on what being outward focussed, present and performing the gospel might be all about. I suggested that churches should not be missional/outward looking just to satify a book, but because the church’s walls should be thin,  and closer to what we are called to be, as we follow the way of Christ, to walk humbly and love mercy on the stage of the world. A world that we need not be afraid of.

An outward facing church? – that might be risky, dangerous and challenging. But what an adventure…

an outward facing church_


12 questions that help put young people first in Youth Ministry Practice

Often young people are the forgotten aspect of youth ministry practice. Think about it. The days before are spent thinking of programmes, resources, craft activities, getting the keys, checking on the volunteers, booking a room, facilities, the days and hours after are about recovery and starting again for the next week. In a process of trying to develop entertainment and education on an ongoing basis, stopping and thinking about young people can feel like an additional drain. I have said before, that young people are youth ministry’s biggest resource. But often their capacity has been overlooked. In Naomi Thompsons recent book (a review is on this blog) she recounts how in strategising activities like sunday schools, without local consultancy of those using Sunday schools, or adapting teaching practices to less formal methods all contributed to their downfall. A reluctance to build youth ministry – thats youth groups, and maybe even Messy Church, around similar processes might only repeat the same issues. A few weeks ago I was talking with a group of young people who were all in a north east secondary school, and they all said that it wasnt more activities that they wanted, it was that they wanted to volunteer, they wanted to contribute. They wanted to have a voice, a say and be significant in local decision making and processes. From a Church point of view, and its well repeated, Christian Smith in 2005 discovered that young people wanted to make even more positive contributions in churches, but that they were prevented from doing so. He highlighted that power, control, and lack of awareness , and ‘the church culture’ were reasons why they were unable to. Young people want to be more involved that we often think they want to be, and are given the space to be. Maybe it is time to develop youth ministry around young people – and not existing resources, programmes, buildings or agendas. 

So, when we start, or continue in youth Ministry, these questions might help us start framing it in a new way.

  1. What are we learning about Young People and faith, in every encounter- and what are they teaching me?
  2. What gaps are there that I , as a leader, am willing to open up so that a young person can contribute more?
  3. What space is there in youth ministry to hear what God is saying to young people?
  4. What do I need to stop in the youth ministry practice, so that God is encountered more?
  5. If Discipleship is about doing (performing) – then what is God asking young people to do to show goodness & love in the world? and how might we join in? (discipleship is also mission)
  6. Are there gifts that young people have, that the whole church and wider community might be able to use?
  7. How might young people contribute to decision making process within their own group
  8. How might a local church, and local community best use the resources of young people that it has – see them as contributors and creators, not a problem.
  9. What do i need to do, so that young people trust enough to take risks in their faith?
  10. What questions are they asking, and how might they be also developing an answer to?
  11. Where am i afraid to go, as young people might lead me to a new place ?
  12. What might make faith be an exciting risky, demanding, creative thing in the lives of young people – not just a boring teachy, moral thing…?

You can take on any new resources, plans, curriculum for youth ministry as you like. But anything that reminds them of school and learning expectations will have a similar opt out process. Young people have choice, ultimately. But if in youth ministry we are asking the risky, faith questions, and help guide young people to risky faith that challenges us, then we might find a whole new way of doing community with young people who then participate and do discipleship, learning along an active journey, one that is dramatic in the face of the world, as acts of goodness challenge expectations and fear. A generation of young people need to be trained in the ways of goodness, in a dramatic world of competing values. Fortunately there are many who already want to make positive contributions. As adults and youth leaders, a new way of being might emerge as we stop and listen to recognise young people, their God given ness to us in our youth ministry practice



Christian Smith, 2005, Soul Searching, The rise and fall of faith in American Teenagers. 

Naomi Thompson, 2018, Young People and the church. 

Wesley Van der Lugt, 2014, Living Theodrama. 

To see God at work, maybe we have to find him in the likeliest of places?

Missio Dei is a significant concept within Christian Mission, it quite literally means the Mission of God, and it has been written on extensively for best part of the last 50-100 years, as David Bosch writes. It refers to the mission activity of God and how the church as part of Gods creation takes part in Gods mission – and not vice versa. The role of the church as a result is to point persons to God, the fullness of God and the reign of God. Mission, according to Bosch, affects all people in all areas of their existence. Mission is Gods turning to the world, in respect to creation, care redemption and consumation. It is Gods activity¹.

Subsequent to this phrase, one of the key terms that has been used in developing mission work (especially with young people) is that we in meeting young people on the streets are to be ‘joining God at work’ . On other occasions in mission we might be joining in with what God is doing.

But what coImage result for roadworks signmes to mind when it is said that ‘God is at work’ – might it be like the roadworks sign? , or ‘do not disturb- God at work’? . Is it one of those scenarios where we might only be able to imagine God being at ‘work’ in situations where we also have knowledge of what work might be like, so what might it mean if God is a youth worker, and at work? or a taxi driver, a nurse or a Bank manager.

Caution: God at work – might be dangerous? 

Is ‘work’ the best word to use for God? Even is what ‘God is ‘doing’ the best word. Does work – even if it is a theology or work- have too many difficult or painful connotations, especially in a consumerist, efficient world in which there is high levels of stress, burnout and people leaving roles. God might be at work in the world, and our role in Mission might be to join in, but is there a problem with ‘work’.

Maybe we should change the metaphor. And not regard God as at work in the world, but as its key performer on its Stage. 

Two of the proponents of this metaphor, see the role of God on the stage of the world differently. For Hans Urs von Balthasar, Man is the key performer on the stage, being tasked with acting towards Goodness, where Gods play is being played though us. The humans are free to perform, and are given this room by God to perform freely, and join in with the ongoing drama that God himself is performing towards a final climax, world redemption.

Kevin Vanhoozer emphasises that Christ is also on the stage performing, being the main character in the performance, the one who takes up the principle action and the part of being divine and human, he is both judge and to be judged².

And so, if the world is the stage for the Mission of God, and he is the principle actor on its stage, performing – what does this mean for:

  1. What are we supposed to do?
  2. What kind of performances is God most likely to be performing in?

The second question is interesting. If God is the key performer on the stage – what kind of performances is he most likely to be involved in. Well fortunately – like many good performances there is a script. And what is revealed in the script of the Bible is that these are examples of where God was found to be performing in the past, examples remember. So, where was God performing the most clearly? In Creation, In conversation, in creating community, in meeting peoples needs, in lifting up the humble, in healing the sick, in freeing the captives.. In a way, one of the places God seemed to be absent was in the cry of the heart of worship – David cried out and wondered where God was… in lament. To understand a little about the likeliest destination of where God might be acting on the stage of the world, we might find him in the places he was most likely at work in the script. Most likely, for every performance is different. Even the disciples couldnt predict where Jesus was likely to be, and his mother searched for 3 days in Jerusalem… But theres something about needing the knowledge of the script, that helps to filter where God is mostly likely to be performing. Otherwise we could just have free reign on stating that God is here, there or everywhere. Making God as predictable as 3g, in reality, he is more like 4g.

On the other aspect of the analogy. What if we imagine ourselves as sitting in the audience. Might we be able to see a small intricate that God is performing on the stage, if we’re in Row z? – maybe not. We might just know that God is up to something. We might need to move closer, leave our seats, wander down the proverbial aisle, and find ourselves on the stage.  It might only be when we put ourselves right in the heat of the action, that we see exactly what God is up to. It is in that moment when we hear the conversation. It is when his hand is holding someone. Yet joining in with the performance is about being aware of the prompts that might be made in the scene. For we might see much in the context to take our cues from, but we also might tune ourselves to the voice and actions of God in the place that God is likely to be performing. For some people, God might be an artist, painting pictures, and are we the paintbrush? or the easel? or paper? – for others like Richard Rohr, God is a dance. What if God was instead the key performer on the stage of the world, and we were his co-actors on the stage, being on the stage as performers. Being prompted, but needing to be in the places where God prompts us to go.

Of course the stage of the world is full of drama in itself. Drama in that we have to hear the prompts of God in all the noise. Drama in that acting goodness might be prophetic, and challenging, Drama in that the stage contains both the wheat and the weeds, there is a complexity to the world stage, but that means that performing goodness is done as a deliberate task, we try to do good, it might not come naturally.

Back to the stage acting, not everyone can act without training, and formation, to understand the ways of the stage. But formation is done in order that performances are done, after all whats the point in learning lines, learning the cues of the script, the director and other actors, if it is not performed?  But also formation happens as it is performed. Every live performance is different.  Most notably during improvisation, when the actors respond all the time to what is happening on the stage, making themselves aware and responsive.

The metaphor can run a bit further. But for now – what might it mean to reflect on God being the key performer on the stage of the world, and us being his co-actors in the great drama of redemption?

what kind of performances his he renowned for doing in the script already? and so where is he most likely to be? 

What might it take for us to join God the performer on the stage? – in reality we are already on the stage, but God as dramatic performer might be encouraging us to perform a new play, a new scene, or an old scene of justice in a new place. The world is already the stage of Gods performances, we act and perform good news by being involved in the action. Not everyone will want to be captivated by the overall play.

When we speak about God, the world as a theatre of God’s activity is already implied’ (Bosch, quoting Hoekendijk, 1967, 2005, p10)

“The ultimate goal of the actor is not simply to play a role, but to project the main idea of the play (Vanhoozer, 2014, p119)

Joining in with ‘God at work’ – she might be performing a play of intrigue, drama, compassion, love, mercy and justice.. go find and go and join in.


¹David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 2nd edition, 2005, p400-401

²Kevin Vanhoozer, Drama of Doctrine, 2005, p52

Also Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014.

Was the golden era in Youth Ministry- ever that Golden?

Ahh, the good old days in youth ministry? remember them….

packed football stadiums..

delirious deepening their way to the UK charts..

ministries taking cities by storm…

when we used to ………

and people ran down their streets to come to church….

and the ‘sunday schools were full……. ‘

you name it, theres a golden era in church and youth ministry that we cling on to memories of..

For me, the 1990’s was when i was Christian young person fan boy. Whilst the world went Oasis or Blur Crazy, ‘The Cutting edge band’ or ‘DC Talk’ were on my radar. Thousands of young people like myself attended Soul Survivor, and its after hours parties, and its off shoots. By the end of the 1990’s gap year programmes were in their hey day, and the emerging scene of youth ministry academic training was about to take off. But growing up 1990s felt like a youth ministry hey day. And we were told that we would be a generation who would transform a nation. repeatedly. Other similar festivals were around, Harvest in the north east was attended by up to 1000 people, events at Newcastle city hall attracted more, and hosted Tony Campolo. So, for me these were a golden era. Because it was the era i was part of, and there was a positivity about them.

What about you- Was it the 1950’s? 60’s or 2000’s?

Theres often a ‘golden era’  about movements when they start.

The documentation about Sunday Schools in the 1770s and onwards is a case in point, as thousand upon thousand of children attended them in their first few decades and century.

The emergence of evangelistic rallies in the 1950s and 1960s also , again with large numbers, brings with it a rosy glow of an emerging movement from its outset. But even by then numbers in sunday schools had halved.

Various other organisations reached their peaks at different points. With many uniformed movements it was between the wars or just after. It was then that youth clubs were brimming too, with 50% of young people attending youth clubs in the 1950s, this was on the decline, so it was higher prior to this.

In detached youthwork, the peak time, at least it feels like it was in the 1970’s. This is when people developed it on estates and wrote about their stories. They had the stories to tell. Now mostly its only theory about detached work that is written, its lost its storied edge. Its not new.

Im not looking for bubbles only to burst them. However, the danger is that the golden eras can hold us back from enjoying the moments that we’re in. When actually they werent golden eras anyway. I remember being at some youth ministry event in the 1990s, it may have been soul survivor, and whilst people were talking about how great it was that 8,000 young people were there, some one said that there were 30,000 at a festival up the road for Muslim young people ( i think, but dont quote me it was a long time ago) .  It was a perspective check. Gathering 8,000 young people comprising of church youth groups, and their leaders, minibuses and cars is probably easy once the event is in the annual psyche. (though others sadly have tried and folded, Harvest in the North east being one of many)

But 8,000 young people. Or even the 130,000 who were attending sunday schools in the 1700’s and the rest, might feel like a golden era and large gathering. But theres more than 8,000 young people in one high schools of Hartlepool. And in a UK population of about 30 million in 1901, 130,000 attending sunday schools – may look large in each church setting, but its still not including an awful lot.

A few weeks ago, i though id write an insightful piece on how youth ministry has excluded the poor, if you didnt read it is here:  and followed it up with a piece that wasnt read at all, on the outcomes in youth ministry that also exclude,     . On the second piece, someone responded to me saying that they had written a dissertation on this argument on youth ministry back in the 1980’s. It caused me to wonder, and realise that these similar conversations have been going on for a long time. But at the same time, there was that conversation about that statistic about young people leaving the church.  But its not even correct to think that youth ministry has excluded the poor. Its more that it created a bubble in which felt large, but were significantly fairly small. It wasnt ever about including many people, but making the few feel significant. So, were the golden days of youth ministry ever that golden? Movements may have risen and caught the imagination in a short period of time, and bubbles and pockets of youth ministry activity have fluctuated over the last 100 years or so.

Were the good old days ever that golden?  It depends who you ask… Ask anyone who isnt in the bubble about what effect youth ministry had on them, ask those in the working class estates, but it is not just them, ask the families in middle class estates who didnt do church, ask the wealthy families too. There may have been golden eras, but were they really that golden? we’re their practices really that impactful on the wider society?

Maybe if we do look back we dont regard the old days as golden eras quite so quickly. Maybe we dont get into a rush about replicating models and methods in the current day that might have felt like a golden era for us, but had little broader impact outside of the ‘us’. Maybe we keep the dream alive because we cant let go of the dream. And those in youth ministry keep perpetuating the same dreams, trying to bring the golden era back. It needs to dream of the faith spaces, faith congregations and faith that equips young people for the future, in 5 years time. And that means letting go of memories, and realising that new movements might actually be better anyway.

Have Millenials Killed Youth Ministry?

In the good old days. Sunday schools were brimmed to capacity. The pews were full to over flowing.

The church had power. It had influence.

The church created youth ministry. And it became full of Baby Boomers!

They made it great

They had conferences






And kept them all going.

But in the early 1980s. Young people were found to still be leaving the church.  Millenials were born and leaving the church.

The Baby boomers called meetings. Created strategies. Wrote resources. Ramped up the conferences, festivals and music. MADE EVERYTHING BIGGER.

Everything youth ministry has become bigger and better than everything else before it.

But young people are still leaving the church. Millenials. are. leaving. Church works with 5% of young people.

There is only one conclusion.

Millenials have killed the church and youth ministry. 


This is by far the best reaction. Blame the millenials. Everything else was fine before.

And whilst we’re at it blame the generation X parents of millenials.

Blame the Millenials- because its not like things didnt work before

Blame the Millenials – because theyve quite literally killed everything else:

Blame the Millenials – then its an individuals fault – not our system

Blame the Millenials – if they cant adjust to what how things are done round here, then we’re better off without them in the church

Blame the Millenials – Weve tried to do a youth club but ‘they’ smashed in the windows, or didnt turn up. 

Blame the Millenials – theyve killed youth ministry, by not attending our great festivals anymore, or the ‘youth events’ . 

Blame the Millenials – theyre using technology more and reading the bible less 

Blame the Millenials – and whilst we’re at it, post-modernism, inclusivity, relativity and tolerance. All the things millenials might be in sympathy of. 

I guess once the use of ‘generalisms’ for generationalisms, like ‘millenials’ can be so readily used in youth ministry and the church (often fuelled by their over use in the Guardian) then as easy is it that ‘they’ can be blamed, or have some responsibility when ‘our’ practices of mission, church and faith dont work like we thought they ought to.

If we’re serious about reflective practice in youth ministry (see previous post), then might we reflect on whether generalisations are helpful, and instead as we live and do mission in specific contexts it is there where research begins. Otherwise we might just end up blaming a whole generation for the disappearance of practices that developed into cultures within churches by the baby boomers, and we wouldnt want to blame them for that now would we.


On developing courageous Mission work with young people


I tend to use this quotation whenever I am giving a talk or training on detached or Mission youth work practice, on Monday I was in Middlesbrough with a group, and their project coordinator turned it into the above picture. I also used it at the DYO national conference in May, more ‘as a reminder’- but sometimes it is good to be reminded of things that might have got forgotten.

Vincent Donovan, was a missionary who went to the Masai Tribe, and realised that imperialist methods for ‘converting’ people werent working, and they felt disrespectful to the local setting. It was then when he began to realise the effect of culture on faith (in his own) and also the realisation that the future destination of faith conversations might be more open. I paraphrase extensively, but you can buy a copy of Christianity Rediscovered here:

So 5 Questions that arise from this quote that might be good to reflect on further in your youthwork practice:

  1. How open are you to the possibility that the future project/activity/destination is something you currently dont know, and you develop with young people in negotiation with them?
  2. What much do your beautiful places determine the nature, method of working with young people? How much influence to other peoples (not yours or the young people) beautiful places have on your work?  (‘we have a great project/activity/service, why dont you get your young people to come to it’?) 
  3. When Donovan talks about courage – who might you need to be courageous with?  yourself? volunteers? the young people? your line manager? the church congregation? the senior youth leader? Is there more bravery needed, when justification by numbers, even in church groups, is prevalent..?
  4. How open might we be to learning about young people, about their culture and community from the point of contact and work with them in that space?, whether that is the streets (which ‘we’ might perceive to be dangerous)  or somewhere else, and it neednt be a physical space, it might be that we have the bravery to talk to a group in a club whom we often leave to ‘play games by themselves’.
  5. As i said, this quote is often used when thinking about ‘mission’ work or detached youthwork, but what about the work with young people we already know, and who are already ‘acclimatised’ in our groups, clubs, activities?  Does not educating them , discipling them, and helping them explore their place in the world require the same ‘brave’ attitude?   Is it possible to go to unknown places with young people we know? (when what we know is what we think we want young people to know too)  what kind of spaces, questions, situations might this cause us to create? , (even in the opennest of groups – or even the groups that have curriculum and programmes).   As i wrote in a previous post, one danger of the contemporary worship scene, is that young people used to create it as their own, now its the youth leaders/youth ministry beautiful place and young people are turning to liturgy instead, which is still someone else beautiful place, but one that offer meaningfulness to them. (that piece is here:   However,  the question remains, how brave might youth ministry be with young people – when its destinations, in the form of resources, activities, festivals, culture – seem to guide its path?

It might cause us to question how institutionalised our beliefs are. Whether it is beliefs about young people and their attendance at youth clubs, or employment groups, or churches and worship activities. What Donovan, and Freire, and Ken Robinson and others have said, there is knowledge within every one -but institutions shape what kind of knowledge is valid. There is also faith, and spirituality within everyone – but again institutions and doctrines might validate faith more than others. A question for us is what would it take for youth workers, youth ministers to really work with, to listen, and develop from the point of young people. What it might take is a grassroots, maverick approach, and being vulnerable.  What might it take for an institution to be brave and meet young people where theyre at, recognising its own position, dreams, desires and beliefs for young people?

When Goetschius and Tash wrote ‘Working with the unattached, in 1965; – 50% of young people in the UK didnt attend open youth clubs. Detached youthwork was an answer in local contexts. When Scripture Union did a recent survey, they realised that churches in the UK only work with 5% of young people. And most of the mission work with the  5% , is the 5% ‘bring a friend to an event’ ministry. And the focus on youth ministry, and all of its programmes and resources is to keep these young people , from one event, resource, camp or programme to another. In working with the 5%, there is a danger of repetition, and every new revolution is the old revolution with new paint, youth ministry might become like the phone book, or woolworths, as this US commentator suggested   I applaud the London Diocese for putting young people first, and setting the target to do youth ministry in every one of its parishes, i only hope that there is capacity to start from the streets, from the local context and work with young people, whom the church doesnt currently know, in each place. And that how a church or club works with its existing groups doesnt shape how young people are worked with whom are outside the institution – bravery is needed.

Maybe Youth Ministry needs to be brave. Youth Ministry, and Programme based work with young people might already hold the keys to the beautiful places, but truly working with young people in their context might mean that those keys arent ever needed, and that new beautiful places are made.  

Every conversation with a young person, in the right context and space can be full of possibility, it might take a brave youthworker, a brave club, a brave church, to build from that space of interaction something new, something truly with young people and not just meet them where they’re at, but construct the beautiful place of faith, creativity, community and hope with them. It is not just gift based, or needs based practice, but open practice that always for shared animation.


As I am now self employed I hope you dont might me pointing you to the above menus on training, for if you would like me to do some detached training with you, your group or church, please do contact me on the details in the pages. If developing from young peoples spaces is where you need to go, please do get in touch. Thank you

Why do youth workers leave the church?

In the last week, Brian McClaren, the highly regarded and influential American Theologian and Pastor, penned and article: “Why do so many Pastors and Ministers leave the church”. It is personal, provocative and enlightening. And it is to be found here at this link:

Get a glimpse of the main aspects of what Brian is saying here:

As a leader in the church I feel I am expected to be silent and non-opinionated on these issues.  Ironic.  When I look to the life of Jesus religion seems to have been low on his list of cares other than to challenge the religious elite of the day.  Jesus cared about people who were on the margins, He cared about the list of things that I feel I cannot talk about as a leader of the church. So how do I passionately follow Jesus and ignore the very work that defined his ministry?

McClaren says; Clarke, and many like her, are being drained of passion by the relentless focus on religious trivia and the relentless avoidance of issues that matter morally – and in terms of human survival.

As I sit in our weekly staff meetings there are so few things that get talked about that I can muster up passion to engage or care about. I’m not only talking about things like whether we use bread or wafers,  Easter worship service times, and carpet colour, but even worship itself and the doctrine that binds us often seem simply irrelevant to the issues of our world. I wonder if I’m burned out but I don’t think I am because there are things that do invoke deep passion in me.  When I watch the news, I feel passion.  When I hang out with kids who are struggling with great questions for which I have no great answers, I feel passion.  When I see someone searching to find their place in the world, I feel deep passion, when I see people trying to understand one another despite their differences, I feel deep passion.  When I see young people starting a recycling campaign or a stop bullying campaign, I feel deep passion.  I went to school to become a leader in the church because I somehow believed the church would be the platform from which I could work alongside a community of people to engage these areas of passion. I think I was naive. 

The question that is worth asking on the back of this is – why might youth pastors/ministers be leaving the church, over and above what this extract alludes to? 

  1. Mission & Risk averse churches

For, there is no doubt whatsoever, none at all, that the desperate passion that a youth worker feels for young people spurs them on within ministry. There is often no doubt that it is one of the key reasons for them being a youthworker in the first place, That same passion of the hurting, passion to help those with questions, passion to help them find place in the world, and to challenge the status quo’s that are barriers to young people being included, accepted and thriving.  MacClaren further on, using the same example suggests that a problem is a safety first, conformity within the culture of the church:

Clarke and her colleagues long to grapple with big challenges, even though doing so is “dangerous” in that it might offend a major donor: “Worship is safe, service projects are safe, Bible study is safe, talking about bulletin size is safe.  I don’t think passion is ever found in the safe and I don’t think important change comes from there either and so we have become passionless and barren.”

I have argued the same, in ‘this parish’ here in this post. Why Disciple making isnt a dangerous exercise.  in which I alluded to 3 pieces of research that show that the culture of the church is dominated by conformity. And so, a risk averse culture dominates, to the point that change is difficult.  In the article Brian alludes to the expectations of someone as they enter Ministry, as they think that being in Ministry in a church is tantamount to changing and transforming the world. But sadly, they discover that it isnt, it becomes about being the figure head who helps the organisation be maintained. Where Mission is a process of learning in new cultures, the institution puts on the reigns, ‘no dont mix with them, you must go to meetings with us, no that isnt our priority, you’re here to ‘serve’ us’. And this translates into youth ministry as well. So, what do you do for the young people who actually wouldnt, or dont fit into ‘youth group’ or disrupt the applecart for the ‘church kids’ (whom you’re there for). These arent new problems at all. But it in that moment of passion, and moments of actual life transforming ( for you as a worker) and the desire to connect with young people outside the church, that tensions may start to happen. The tensions between what ‘might be on your job description to make it exciting’ to we didnt actually expect you to do it in this way.. (no one else has ever done mission before..) 

So, theres the Risk vs Conformity reason why a youthworker might leave a church. 

2. But theres also other reasons, not just ‘mission’ or risk related. Theres management. 

Poor Management is rife in the church. There i have said it. On one hand its not part of anyone’s core training. Neither unless we as youth workers have the capacity, do we help to educate our managers to being good managers. But this is old ground for regular readers here. I have written a series on Management and Clergy, the first part is here:   And there are 4 subsequent posts. because the fall out from a Clergy as line management to Youth worker relationship is one of the top reasons for a youthworker leaving a church. But Why? 

As I explain in the second of the posts on the subject, it is about expectations.  The youthworker dreams of the future of being guided by the wise hand of a pastorally minded minister, The minister thinks that having a youthworker ‘do all the childrens & youthwork’ will free them up to do ‘proper things’. Though there are other expectations too within Management. like the vicar thinking that a youthworker doesnt need managing. Or a youthworker thinking that youthwork  or young people might actually be a priority for the church.. nope. not usually. It seems like expectations are issues in both of these reasons so far. 

3. Parachurch Drift.  The Grass seems greener in the Para-church organisation. 

So, the local YMCA, the YFC centre, FYT, or other local Project. These provide the natural safe haven for the previously church based frazzled youthworker. They promise better management, a focus on young people (hopefully), a freedom from institutional politics, the freedom even not to go to church, or choose one, funding not from parents of the young people, they may even promise a team of youthworkers to work with so that you’re not alone, like you used to be. They have managers in place, and wont it be great to be managed by a youthworker for a change! – at least someone who might understand what being a youthworker actually is all about. Not only this, the parachurch organisation might be able to offer a contract, a pension, better pay, an office, a 35 hour (not 65 hr) working week, connections in an affiliation, conferences, training, this sounds idyllic doesnt it. Oh and, if you pick the right affiliation, then the passion you might have for young people (see the original post) can be realised. You can connect in a homelessness project with desperate young people, or on the streets, or in sessions, and start to be transformative. Oh yes, the grass is greener on the para church side of the fence… isnt it?  There are catches, of course, but the path from single church to para church is well trod. Other youthworkers might go to work for a local school or council, for all the same reasons. It might give them the opportunities to actually work with young people, not just see them once a week, or in a mass of people in an assembly. 

But before this is criticised. There are plenty of Pastors and Ministers who leave the church to go to academia, mission organisations, chaplaincy in a similar way. Yes for a good number of reasons, but lets not get too snooty about youthworkers going from church to parachurch. For many its the only way out to stay as a youthworker and not be in a church anymore. Academia is a pretty closed route, and consultancy requires good links and opportunities, entrepreneurial setting up something new is also possible, but thatd take a while to be funded… . So back the bags to the parachurch. Of course, the definition of ‘church’ and ‘parachurch’ is up for debate, but lets keep it simple…

Of course, there is a fourth reason, beyond, conformity, management & parachurch drift.

4. The youthworker might leave the church, because, they cave in, go to vicar school and join the clerical dark side. ok ok, I am joking!  But it is a reason why youthworkers ‘leave’ the church. With many many good reasons and calling, I do hope, as many have said, that when they do become clergy that they employ and manage youthworkers and prioritise young people in their parish….. 

and finally…

5. Youthworkers leave the church because they burn out. It varies ‘when’ they get burn out, and when they might leave as a result. Its when more that 3 weeks are done on adrenaline alone. After they have said ‘yes’ to everything and not delegated. When they dont have a ‘team’ to help them with significant pastoral issues amongst young people. When no one manages or looks after their diary. When no one asks them difficult questions about their hours, time off, time with family. Or time to recharge (that isnt church), time to study. Or a Sabbatical for a youthworker isnt scheduled every 5 years at the least yes im serious. Schedule a sabbatical for your youthworker. Youth workers leave because they wear themselves out, they might even wear out their marriages working for a church. They might never darken the door of a church again to ‘do youthwork’ , which maybe is a shame because ‘they were a good youthworker’ but they burned out in the culture of a church. But surely this wouldnt happen now would it….

So, 5 reasons why a youthworker leaves a church. It is sad that so many youthworkers leave working in churches, though there are many that dont. And you, and your volunteers and church leaders deserve collaborative credit for creating a positive environment where you have been able to stay, and hopefully thrive, or that you as the youthworker have affected the culture around you so that you can, by shaping management, gaining power, decision making and also creating teams to delegate. So, no every youthworker leaves a church, neither might every minister. But a good number do. Most youthworkers who leave churches, like ministers, have their identity wrapped up in being part of the church, part of leadership, part of the faith community in this way. So it can be devastating to leave, but it happens.

As an industry, the promise of being a youth worker in a church setting shouldnt be paved with bright lights and never ended amazing experiences – neither should the promise of ‘getting a youthworker’ be there to stem the flood drip of young people leaving the church, or to magically pied piper them back in….

What might be other reasons why youthworkers leave the church?

In response to this, it was pointed out that youthworkers suffer from false Hero status, in this follow up piece i reflect on the cultural dangers of ‘Hero’ status in Youth ministry, and propose an alternative: Youth Ministers as Saints, not Heroes

Today I turned the above piece into the following article published in Christian Today: 

A follow up to this piece, two years later is here: Is youth Ministry just about survival?