‘Your strategy’s on fire’- why youthworkers have an STI and its not to do with Sex.

Im not sure the Kings of Leon would have had such a hit with that one.

I think Youth Ministers have a Strategic Thinking Inability, and here is why;

I meet a lot of youthworkers in a variety of places, what are great at what they are good at, and good especially at the things that they thought that youthwork (and youth ministry) was all about. The busy, active, fun, relationship building of developing a great rapport with young people. Every week is a new week of planning, making, meeting, listening, understanding and connecting with young people. Sessions need planning, Subjects and topics need deciding, volunteers need meeting, a few reports need writing. But all in all, for many who choose the narrow path of being a youthworker, there might be much that is done well, much that is in the default DNA of a youthworker .

To accompany the default activist youthworker is the industry of those who support and maintain the resource of this person, seminars on self care, ready to use materials on discipleship and much much more. Usually Sex. Often Sex. If talking about sex with young people, and the broader conversation of sexuality, gender and relationships, was an industry, then im sure someone might be making a packet out if it. Sex in youth ministry chat is the big seller. And for every youthworker especially in the church, being prepared to talk about sex, and being prepared to try and know more about sex is what is kind of expected. (because often no one in the church really wants to do it- i am convinced thats the reason why youthworkers are employed more than ever). It can feel like Sex is the make or break in a youth ministry setting, given the amount of time that seems to be dedicated to talking about it. (or at least in he church at least). Theres even evidence to back this up, or at least there has been some evidence done to show that resources on Sex are what the church needs more than ever. (as a quick plug, my review of Gemma Dunnings book on LGBT and teenagers is here:   https://wp.me/p2Az40-1ga ).

Talking about sex, talking about anything, with young people for the youthworker might just be their bread and butter, their default. As long as theyve got some information, a bit of an idea of the group and knows them and can shape a programme around them, then actually a youthworker is often in their comfort zone. Often, not always, and not every youthworker is the same. But largely. Its what many of us came into the ‘business’ to do.

Its not talking about sex that is going to cause the biggest issue for a youthworker.

Its talking about strategy. Image result for strategy

And planning. or methods of planning

And thinking above the level of the busy-ness

Its putting the head above the parapet every now and again. 

Its not really knowing what it is we’re doing and being unable to really write it down as a plan. 

Its not really knowing whats going on to be able to think how it is ‘working’ – but it is

Its not giving time to ask the difficult questions – how can I/we do things better/more theologically? 


Talk about Sex in youth work and ministry is easy, everyone wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about strategy. Yet its not what comes as a default for many many potentially good youthworkers – who arent afforded the chance to become good youthworkers because they’re so stuck in the ongoing swim of the current. (metaphorically, though literally for the river based youthwork practice) . No one wants to talk about strategy. In the same way no one talks about management, closing ministries and what happens during the process of feeling like a failure. (though i have tried, my piece is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1e7

Thinking strategically doesnt usually come naturally to many a youthworker. Thinking strategically doesnt come naturally to many in christian ministry at all. Because usually it is so boring. It sounds like admin. Its sound like something someone else should do (whilst the youthworker does the fun stuff). It sounds so dull. I guaruntee if there was a series of seminars on ‘Sex and Young people’ it would be packed out. A series on ‘developing strategy in youthwork’ and theres a feint whistle of emptiness as two people turn up. Strategy isnt Sexy, but neither does it feel important.

But it is. Well it isnt sexy, but it is important.

And it is even more important is its something that hits you like a bolt out of the blue, when someone asks:

do you have a strategic plan for the youth ministry in the church? 


‘The diocese would like you to have  strategy on how we meet the archbishops strategic priorities’


‘we just need you to have a plan for what you’re doing – can you present it to the next PCC?’


‘can you come up with a plan for how to stop young people leaving the church, in the whole of the UK?’


right, you said we need money for the youth group – do you have a strategy for this?’ Image result for planning

It is often at this point that the youthworker is now outside their comfort zone. Talking about sex with a group of teenagers was easy compared to writing some kind of strategy, plan or proposal – where do you start? , And there is literally tons of resources on developing programmes, and approaches and personality and faith withing youth ministry – but where is there a resource on strategic planning?  its not often talked about in ‘youthwork’ magazine for example.

At that point thinking about strategy is in the ‘needed, important and urgent’ category. Unfortunately its also in the Panic category as someone else wants to see it, and soon. Its becomes more dreaded and more important than last nights ‘sex talk’ with the youth group – this has ’employment expectations’ written all over it. This asks us to plan, to think creatively, to show organisation, to think about risks, about evidence, about aims and objectives, it becomes not good enough to say that people showed up to the youth group now, it means that we think more than this. And, given that ‘developing a strategic plan’ isnt part of any school curriculum, this could be the first time that its been a personal requirement.

The other panic, is that not only does it need to be thought through. It needs to be written down, again what does a strategy look like?  I remember once the feeling of abject despondency when i had tried to write up a strategy for youth ministry for a church vision day, and also a church leaders meeting the following month. What i ended up doing was sharing with the whole church a series of ideas, theories and dreams. It may have been colour coded and used great phrases – but it wasnt what was expected. However – it could have been – because for some organisations they operate on dreams and vision – others want plans, processes and detail. In the development of strategy it is worth knowing what might be expected. Though, trust me, no one will be able to actually help you, often presenting a strategy or plan is a sink or swim moment, and guidance is usually limited.

It can feel very embarrassing when you get strategy wrong. Especially if you have tried really hard to think creatively and passionately about your ministry and that of the church, and also have dreams and ideas about what is to happen next. (something often members of the church dont even do that well) . On other occasions its not the lack of detail in the strategy, its that the strategy is going in the ‘wrong’ direction, to the churchs or organisations priorities. At this point it might be worth contemplating your own life or vocation choices with someone who you can do this with, especially if you do have dreams and ideas that now seem different to your employer (that were’nt before) .

However, these might be the result of the strategy. The issue in youth ministry is that there is often a Strategy Thinking Inability. The number of great, enthusiastic youth leaders is very encouraging. From the outset though, part of developing a ministry in any place with any group of young people, make a deliberate step to think about long term and short term strategies, about planning, resources, management and how these things are part of your thinking. It is in the lack of strategic thinking that many ministries fail and are cut short. Either personal or organisation ministries. Strategic thinking is part of good governance and management – and as youthworkers and ministers we are called to be good managers of people, and work with them too.  Its the politics of situations, often, that cause youthworkers to leave, many of these situations can be avoided though better governance, planning and appropriate strategising.  And i say appropriate because there is more than one way of strategising. But in the panic to provide a plan, theres no moment to think about alternatives.

Am I going to tell you here how to make a good strategic plan? Of course not. That requires effort on your part to think through it yourself. Though there are many other articles on this in the ‘Youthwork Management’ section of this website. Though Ill happily talk with you about managing planning and strategising in youth ministry further, and contact me for details, prices and what you might require. Talking of strategy is dull as dishwater, but it might just give you more of a long term ministry in a place, and that makes it important. More important than talking about Sex – well at least a Strategy Thinking Inability can be cured with some hard graft and thinking.

Does the church (and youth ministry) need to rid itself of capatalist c**p?

I was at my neices 18th birthday party last year, not a large affair, though a house and garden full of family and her friends in South London. As as is the norm with these things, the ‘young people’ were in the garden drinking or hiding the drink they were drinking, and the adults were mostly indoors (it was a fairly cold november evening), except for the odd excursion outside by the adult to ‘check on the garden’. All seemed to be ok. Balance of normality, with music in the garden chosen from one young persons Ipod, and adults inside either ignoring it, or being mortified at the odd swear word that escaped through on an album edit of a song. However, for a few minutes it seemed as though someone else was choosing the music, there was high school musical (these 18 year olds grew up on it (yes feel old)), and things like Rihanna, Justin Bieber and Little mix.

All of a sudden, equilibrium was destroyed, as one of the 18 year old girls, dressed in very inidividually designed attire, wanders into the lounge full of adults, and sat down on one of the chairs, looking disgruntled and annoyed, said (and I quote)  ; ‘Im coming in here, I cant stand all that capatalist crap music being played’. Her remark, sifted the socialist leaning wheat and capitalist adhering chaff within the adults, as to their response to this from cheers and support to being taken aback. Now it could be said that this 18 year old was a dreamer, a Jeremy Corbynite, an idealist, influenced by a wide range of things – (but when a young person makes a statement about their shopping habits they are less likely to be criticised of being materialist, or influenced by ‘the right’). However, this point aside. What this young person had identified was a lack of integrity within music of artists for whom on the face of it, seem only in it for the money, or created and produced with making money in mind. It would be easy to say that even the music on earlier in the evening might raise legitimate money, but im not going to muddy the waters here. There was something about integrity within the music industry that this young person was looking for.

Moving the conversation on. John Drane a few years ago wrote the Macdonaldisation of the Church (others have followed suit with other similar pieces) . Within it he describes how

aspects of the church’s Image result for mcdonaldization of the churchorganisation, ministry and mission have fallen fowl to Macdonaldisation; the process of creating systems that are calculable, efficient, repeatable and can be controlled. They then can be repeated in a similar fashion across the church community. One example might be Alpha (which restricted use of its branding and ‘service’ to tightly regulated videos and activities as one example, although there are others), other organisations have fallen victim to this when issues of brand protectionalism and universalism stand in the way of contextual unique ministry.  It is worth reflecting on quite how passive the organisations of the church were or are to external business and marketing forces that spoke a language and validated a form of practice that endorsed macdonaldisation, that churches adopted rather than being prophetic against. Sold as a way of having control, efficiency, calcubility and repeatedness – products are released into the church, mission and ministry, some sold as ‘franchises’ and ‘under license’.

Whilst talk of Macdonaldisation might be out of favour, even talk of ‘post-macdonaldisation’ is cheap. Some of it is merely a facade. Starbucks may offer ‘choice’ but  it is still bounded, giving the impression of choice – and choice in other brands might merely be as similarly just a front. Post-Macdonaldisation is about personal choice, though personal choice bounded.

Another form of Management that is creeping into the church is talk of ‘leadership’. From ‘transformation leadership’ (the setting of strategies, target and aiming for compliance), to ‘entrepreneurial leadership and missional leadership – there is a movement of thought that in a period of time when the deckchairs on the titanic of the church are in the process of needing to be reordered and painted, that this role requires the right type of leaders, and leadership training is all the rage. And continues to be all the rage when in the main the church is ordered around structured organisations that by almost definition of their role are in requirement of a hierarchy that by default includes some ‘leadering’ of them. Sometimes one can fall into the other, where leadership training is in part to ‘make the church more effective’ sadly effective could be misinterpreted as efficient. Jesus didnt do ‘efficient’ ministry. If anything it was the opposite.

‘Transformational leadership is consistent with the neo-liberal assault on professional integrity’ (Sarah Lea, ‘ Are youthworkers free to lead’ in Ord J, Issues in Youthwork Management, 2014)

So, whilst the church is in a battle to be relevant (and relevancy is the badge of honour in youth ministry) , there can be a tension between ‘relevancy’ when it comes to some issues ( lets just say moral issues regarding sex/abortion/relationships) and a different type of adopted relevancy when it comes to the organisation of the church, ministry and mission groups which it could be argue try and have moral distinctiveness, but managerial uncritical adaption to essentially the ideologies of capitalism and managerialism. It might have at times adopted the practice of the companies of the 21st century even if their ethics and human rights (or tax paying) have been vacuous.  Rarely does the church want to be run like ‘The Body Shop’. In short, much of christianity in the UK has sold its soul to capatalism, and it has limited integrity left from which to platform an alternative. As my nieces friend urged, ‘We need to get rid of the capatalist crap!’ – though it might be difficult, submerged in the culture to find it, or alternatives.

But its difficult. Things that need paying for, like buildings, and ministries and resources and organisations. Especially those that have large salaries, rents and mortgages. It is easier to make money with a programme that maintains the status quo, than challenge the system that creates it. Though that doesnt mean that our tune need to stay the same. Erving Goffman suggests that the integrity of persons appearances and interactions relies heavily on how close it is to goods. Its as if even sociologists know that proximity to things/money/resource affects integrity. Maybe thats what Jesus was on about when he told the disciples to go with nothing, its so that things didnt get in the way.

If our churches and ministries are to follow a different way, then currently it will be pioneering, it will be set to an off beat drum, and will be seen to be odd, strange or provocative- and invalidated. It will be pioneering to scale down rather than up. Pioneering to gravitate down, to live more simply, to create different structures within the church that have clearer intentions of equality, goodness and ignore the disparity between rich and poor. Currently the church doesnt have much of a voice of the oppressed, largely because it lives to serve them and be for them, not as Friere argues, build a pedagogy of them, or as St Francis would remind us a spirituality from the streets, not the temples. There are questions to ask, about how the church regain a sense of community that shares much, rather than individuals that collect and share little. Boff picks up the story, ‘that between 1970-80 the lay person began to organise themselves into christian base communities, where there is an experience of ecclesiogenesis, this movement exercised ministries, committed to faith and promotion of and liberation of the oppressed’ It was a movement that affected the establishment church which honed in on service, of Gospel to the margins and commitment to the poor- but also a more participatory and fraternal society’ (Boff, creation of a popular and Poor Church, in St Francis, a model for human liberation, 1980).  St Francis recognised that even in the 1200’s that a simpler life was required, and by all accounts, the 1200’s would have been a simpler life than now, in many places – certainly in the west. But again, to follow Jesus, meant for St Francis, to go, and to rely on the hospitality of others, to rely on the community of the poor, and to identify with by being poor. What he also recognised, was that things did not make him free, they were a burden. To be free was to remove them and give them away, for them to lose their control. And freedom from things seems to be the way of Jesus. Although easy to criticise, the freedom that pastors with millions of pounds in mega churches dont have must be awful. But there are other ‘things’ too, like fame, influence and authority. With all these things the temptation is to gain more. St Francis would suggest otherwise.

‘An individual cannot own anything that only belongs to God.Not even the certainty of ones salvation is ours, but rather solely God’s’ (St Francis)

Francis and Boff go on to say that for the Christian faith to appropriate within the capatalist system is illegitimate; stating:

‘Ownership looks for security, prejudices the community and neighbours, is inspired by passion and pleasure, wounds the soul, searches for one own well being, degrades work, overvalues the corporal, sees in intelligence and will a private property, is the road of sin and the devil, enemy of all good, taking sides against God and denying his kingdom’ (Boff, p71)

This is strong stuff, and its hard to know where to start with this, given how my own nearly 40 years of existence with the UK and broadly evangelical church culture has shaped me. If we regard our role in the Theodrama (a role given to us) as witnesses to the story, not the heroes within it, then to witness is to go and project a new reality. It is difficult to project a new reality if everyone is practically the same. Our distinctiveness need not be our morality, but our simplicity, or generosity, or care for the other. A care that St Francis suggests is true Humanity.

Oh, and if young people see that a capitalist crap has infliltrated the music scene, how much more might young people view the establishment and ordering of the church in such a way, that is less movement of social transformation, than ordered gatherings to maintain the status quo. Young people, theyre a perceptive bunch. They often want a cause they can believe in that has integrity.

How might the church rid itself of its capatalist crap? Especially if this is what young people might just want…

Might youth ministry, that once pioneering path that changed the church since the 1960’s- adopt a different tune completely for the future, forging a new pathway, not of organisation, but of true movement for the gospel doing so within community, integrity and simplicity. Might young people find in St Francis the hero to save humanity and model life around him, or view Christianity through St Francis.

If Capatalism and Neo-liberalism is under threat, as ‘populist’ politics (short hand for far right fascism) becomes influential, might the churchs response to be and act more prophetically, and create an alternative?


Boff, Saint Francis, A model for human liberation, 1980

Freire, P, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970

Rohr, St Francis, A Way of Life, 2014

Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, Christian Ethics, 2005


Working with young people is stressful – its just part of the job.

Ive got to admit, in my ‘professional’ time involved in working with young people, the stereoptypical 60 hours a week, mega stressed out youth minister role has passed me by. Its role i have seen at close hand, but it isnt a role I have done. Within this kind of role, i can only imagine, trying to stay sane might be needed at a number of pinch points… just after the deacons meeting, or indeed, that stressful 60 hour week that accompanies another. 

It might be the way that I am wired, but its not been the busy times for me that challenge the most. Its the long drawn out summers with no activities, the future uncertainties of funding, when you feel like you’re on your own – either physically in an office, or having to pretend to be agreeing with people when deep inside you think ‘its not going to work’ or ‘thats just missing the point, by a long way’ , and having to think this when its the organisation you work for, or your line manager that could be a cause of stress, as they change from strategy to strategy. Then theres emails, pressure to ‘grow’ groups, pressure to succeed and ‘have good stories’, a different kind of stress.

There are pinch points within every job, im sure, but im not a teacher, an office worker or police officer, and so have only the experience of being involved in working with young people. And it is a tough gig. High expectations from a number of avenues, though not always from young people (who might not care that you exist). High level of expertise needed in the role – but not always actually listened to when its needed, high levels of short term contracts, and also hugely seasonal and unpredictable work.  It isnt a blueprint for calm and tranquility. Less ‘lead me by the still still water’ (that other people seem to have) and more ‘Help Jesus Im drowning’.

I have no way of knowing the ways in which you react to situations in your youth ministry. All i will share with you are a few pointers that ive learned over the last few years. The first is that our emotions are linked to our motivations. Its obvious on one hand, but we’re more likely to be emotional about things that we care about, or that we have invested in because it gives us identity, a goal or meaning. If you want to read more – see Jocelyn Bryans book ‘The Human Being’ , i think this is important, as we not only start to realise the things we care about and how we care about them, but recognise this by our emotional reactions. We also do this with others. So when we start to get emotional, and that can be anger, upset,withdrawal and on a repeated basis then we might need to ask whether we might be investing too much into the ministry. It happens. Or even into ‘our calling’ (the goal) – and ‘this job’ might affect it – which it could. But holding on to that goal in such a tight way, might be damaging. Things that threaten the things we care about – might increase stress levels.

The few things:

It helps to get organised! This is not rocket science. And i have tried many many formats for this, the best way of being organised for you is to do the system that you can trust and that also causes less stress in itself. My filofax is 24 years old. I have tried every electronic diary in the world, but the note starts on paper. For those under 25 in youth ministry a filofax is a leather bound diary that has refillable pages, that cost alot… For its more helpful to physically write stuff down, and also with the pages write notes during the day at other things. Either way, being organised is helpful. However, spaces in the diary get filled up. So fill up the blank spaces with DAY OFF, or STUDY DAY, or TIME WITH FAMILY, – again i am the worst of sinners- but on paper it is easier i think to section out these things. Also as you are writing in it,other people might also see that and feel bad that your day off is being interrrupted by their ‘often trivial’ meeting. (its not always..) . However its more important, i find to have a system that you trust, rather than the best system. There is nothing worse than starting to forget meetings, or trying to juggle being in three places at once ( or this might just be a comedy routine in movies) .

Do stuff challenging, creative or physical in your time off.  If like me, you find that the banal conversations about aspects of work are well, banal and demotivating, then use this as a springboard to read further. Honestly in the last 5 years my library has increased significantly, though starting an MA helped. Do things in your time off that cause you to switch off, and that probably doesnt include going to the movies just for youth group illustrations.. but escape, and explore. Find hobbies, or if you have family, which i have had during all my youth ministry life, then you might be ‘doing stuff with the kids’ but it is what you need to be doing. Family is important, and is easily neglected. You might need to be sharpened emotionally and family are needed in this.

Conflict. It is messy. Its is sometimes needed (to get things done), but it is still messy. And all the advice in the world about dealing with it well, often it is your job to help others in churches do this. Its also linked to the fact that as i said above people are invested in the way things are, so change is difficult. By even being a youthworker in the space disrupts the status quo. Conflict is almost an inevitavility. And if there isnt conflict, then unless you have a brand new role that needs shaping (and that is possible) – or that the role has been deisgnated for a while and you’re just the same as the person before, then dealing with and also personally dealing with conflict is part and parcel of the role. Dealing with conflict in a culture of passive-aggressiveness, now theres a book about churches waiting to be written.

Get Support! Said it before, ill say it again. Being and feeling alone is the pits. Coping alone is criminal. It will be unlikely that they wont be anyone you can talk to about stuff. A previous colleague at college, a youthworker locally, former minister. If you need to pay someone and get ‘professional’ support from a youth worker locally, then arrange it. Someone who you can be honest with, but also who might be able to listen and offer guidance.

Recognise your own strengths and weaknesses, but also your limitations. Even more importantly communicate these so that people know that you arent a superhero. If you know that you cant function the day after a busy one, then make sure theres some time off booked. If you’re rubbish at admin and keep putting it off (but it is important- schedule it in, and dont leave it in a blank space hoping it gets filled up) . Try and use the ‘quieter’ times in the year to plan ahead, it is not always easy, but at least then there might be space for the emergency crisis at that busy time too. Only you can work out what you need to be able to function and flourish in the role that you are in. You are not the same person as the previous person. remind yourself, and remind others, your pinch points/stress points, work patterns , skills and personality dictate that you work differently, so you need to manage how you work and function within the role. Different activities may require different planning time – for you- sermons for a vicar might need 2 hours prep, for you it 5. If large groups, small groups, one to ones, conferences give you different fears or worries, and need extra preparation or recovery then assign this and also communicate this with your line manager. Part of their role is to understand and shield you.

Cultivate Dreams Spend part of your working with young people cultivating theirs or your own dreams. It might be that you do this on a daily basis. But in the nitty gritty of the week and even the yearly schedule in most churches, look at the bigger picture. What if you spend the next year helping a young person start a social enterprise? what if you began a piece of work cleaning up a local litter hazard? what about a new project, something to work to. Often dreams get lost in the daily church – but having seen a few dream cultivators follow their dream, especially for local good, it can be hugely rewarding. Armed with responsibility for your own diary usually, you might have this kind of space.

Sabbaticals, Study, Learning  Its not only that by doing ongoing learning it models this with young people. But it expands our brains, and resources and helps us look at things differently. You might even be able to arrange for the church to contribute to the costs or time. Oh and if you can arrange study days, or a sabbatical to give yourself time. You dont have to learn anything about youth work or ministry – it might be theology ( hahaha) or psychology, or art, or computing, it needn’t matter, but continuing to grow is. and its possibly a good distraction and something to ‘fill your time’. Keep reading, and pursue thinking and ideas. Read someones complete works!

Recognising the signs is important. How you start to react to things, that are the same as normal but your reaction isnt, or that you’re skipping doing things you like. I know when i havent been out on my bike for a while. Or when im not eating in a disciplined way ( too much ‘quick’ food like bought sandwiches, or snacks/cakes) are all signs or indicators of not just being busy, but also potentially not coping. Though quitting the mars bars is going to help anyway…Image result for afloat

This is one of those ‘im no expert’ articles, it is also a ‘everyone is different’ type pieces too, staying sane in youth ministry shouldnt even be an issue, it should be a space of developing faith in young people, of the challenges in mission, of listening and spending time with young people. Often its sold as ‘exciting’ – when its more dramatic than that, and drama means complexity, ups and downs, busy and quiet. Staying sane might be a battle at times, especially when on the face of it for others it can seem a breeze. There are no easy settings to work with young people. Youth ministry is a tough gig. Do more than stay sane, but in the tough times, do what you can to keep afloat. The answer isnt just ‘trust in Jesus’ though some of it also might be, especially if trust in Jesus also causes you to stop, pray and reflect, walk and breathe, and take time away.

Alternatively maybe it is better to recognise that imagination is required in the drama of youth ministry and insanity or delirium it provides is part of that process of genius… Image result for sanity

Normality is a pipe dream, so why not just let your imagination and creativity take over – just hone the craft of youth ministry instead!

There are a few other tips on dealing with Stress here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/vicar-know-better-anyone-many-clergy-close-edge/amp/?__twitter_impression=true a post by Alan Bartlett, on Clergy Stress.

7 not-so-Deadly Sins in Youth Ministry


The film Se7en came out in 1995, I watched it when i was 18, i think, just. Or i may have been nearly 18. And it was pretty graphic and shocking for me at the time. Unlike Trainspotting or Aliens it isn’t a film i have given a re-watch to ever since. If you’ve not seen it, IMDB describes it as “A film about two homicide detectives’ (Morgan Freeman and (Brad Pitt) desperate hunt for a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. The movie takes us from the tortured remains of one victim to the next as the sociopathic “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) sermonizes to Detectives Somerset and Mills — one sin at a time.” Whether the film is in any way successful at telling this story is difficult for me to remember, but throughout its main story line is the effect of an ignorance of the 7 deadly sins:  pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

So, for some strange reason over breakfast I was wondering – probably because theres two conferences on youth ministry happening this weekend- is to think about what would be ‘the 7 deadly sins of Youth Ministry’ and focus on these 7 original sins, and i think there would be some merit in doing this to highlight areas of ministry that are prone to envy ( the successful ministry down the road), wrath (after the leadership meeting) , gluttony ( too many cream cakes during YF tuck shop) or Pride (‘its all about my ministry’). But I thought that would be a little obvious, and its likely that in the depths of time that Youthwork magazine probably did something similar.

So, instead of focussing on these 7 original sins, as I was out walking this afternoon, I thought about a different sin, linked to them all, ‘Ignorance’ and wondered if Youth Ministry, in part, or more in full, has been found to be guilty of ignoring the following aspects that have a real impact on the nature of youth ministry, the depth of engagement in young people, and how youth ministry might be threatened by what it accepts from the culture around,  in 7 key ways.

  1. Ignoring Theology for pragmatism. – Good theology helps give young people connection with a world story that they can assimilate as their personal story (McAdams 1997), Challenging Theology is what helps to keep young people in local churches so says recent research here: .http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP.  Settling for an easy night, of fun and distraction from the concerns of the world, might only be so helpful. Neither is settling for what Christian Smith calls is Moral Therapeutic Deism (2005) – connecting young people with a God who is ‘there for them’ to give them confidence, however, as a personal myth to believe in it will go so far, just it might need changing when it is tested.
  2. Ignoring young people. This seems strange as youth groups are full of them, but how many youth group evenings are judged as successful by the quality of conversations between youth leader and young person, and not by who and how many turned up? Young people can be ignored if they’re just to take part in the activities. What they need is a healthy place to be where adults take interest in them, listen and shape activities around their needs, interests and gifts. And that is on just a local level, and the local church.  Where do young people feature in the shaping of area strategies, of national programmes. Its also apparent when young people are counted as just numbers.
  3. Ignoring History. A bit like the Premier league, which only provides statistics of games back to 1992, as if football didnt exist before then. An understanding of History reveals christian youth work practice that nowadays would be seen as innovative, more risk taking and politically active. Meeting young peoples needs was core philanthropy in 1830, for example. Its what Sunday schools were developed for.  What might be one persons innovation might only show a blind spot for history, or good practice down the road.
  4. Ignoring the effect of culture.. What I mean here, is not the effect that culture has on young people. This is extensively researched, and if not the Guardian usually has something on ‘Millenials’ to reflect on most weeks. What I mean is the effect of the prevailing culture on Youth Ministry itself. The Sociologist Wolfe said:

In every aspect of religious life, American faith has met American culture, and American culture has triumphed… the faithful in the USA are remarkably like everyone else (Wolfe, 2003)

An example of this is in the marketing and programming of youth ministry resources, that are described as ‘almost Fordian’ (ie representing the process of making one size/colour fits all, mass produced motor cars) by Danny Brierley (2003) – It is an example of where the influence of Managerial theory and practice is inserted into the church. The same could be said for any youth ministry programme that claims to be efficient, calculated, predictable and be able to be controlled, for these are dominant tenets of the business model of Macdonalds. Without realising it, the prevailing culture wins, if a youth ministry seeks growth and transformational leadership to do this, then this again is from the management guru handbook, more so than Theology – however biblically justified. Youth Ministry is undoubtedly involved in the culture, it creates culture, but is also subject to it – it is worth being critical of the sources, methodologies and ideologies of practice – having filters set to ‘on’. Being predictable and efficient – might give 4 spiritual laws, but maybe not the complexity of a deep faith, and young people exploring difficult questions. Keeping up with culture isnt making Youth ministry more theological or relevant, its possibly only turning it into efficient organisations that are cost effective.  Managing a good youthwork organisation or it being managed well might not actually be having the best effect on young people.

5. Ignoring Youthwork (& Education) philosophy. What the Values and practice of Youthwork can bring to Youth Ministry is an increased focus, not only on young people and their needs, but processes shaped by values that are in their favour, such as empowerment, voluntary participation, inclusion & anti-oppressive practice, and informal education, what it also can provide, again according to Danny Brierely, is an ethical yardstick for youth ministry. Youth Ministry will only be improved by encompassing more of the discipline of youth work. Not only that but a refreshing of different concepts of education especially as young people participate in youth ministry in a voluntary way would be critical.

6. Ignoring Pioneers. For too long the biggest conferences are sponsored by the same people who select the same people to be the experts. Critical and Pioneering voices, generally are put to one side, unless they have been youth ministry flavour of the month in the past – and can still retain ‘Hero’ status. But in the main, those who are known for good, solid local practice are ignored. Those who lead ministries and have several lead responsibilities in organisations are the heralded experts. Some are the pioneers, but others are selectively ignored. Organisations, cultures and practices are only developed further through critical thinking, questions and dissent. Yes people will only keep the hamster wheel turning, critical thinking will ensure the hamster is travelling in the right direction. Pioneers are what the Disciples were, lest not forget, improvising in the new spaces what they had been taught.

7. Ignoring ourselves. Not unlike the film, the final twist is played on the main character and the audience. The final ‘deadly sin’ in Youth Ministry is when we forget about being honest and kind and generous to ourselves. We help define youth ministry and youth work through our very actions with young people, our communication with churches, partnerships, agencies and schools, we also define it as a practice through the cultures of the settings we create, the young people we invest the most time in, creating healthy spaces for young people also starts with being healthy ourselves – not perfect- just healthy, self-care is important, and probably the most ‘deadly’ of them all on an individual youth ministry level.

Could I have included others, possibly. But what might be yours? Excluding obviously ‘critical blogging’….