Is ‘Ministry’ a problem for Youth Ministry?

Image result for youth ministerI am pretty sure that I’m not going to be the first person to wade into this discussion.  There are a few aspects of why I shy away from the term ‘Youth Ministry’ where I can, but at the same time realise that its the common descriptor for working with young people in christian church contexts, so I do have to use it.

But I think there are a number of problems with it. It might be semantics (an argument about words) – but words do have power and influence, and the ‘ministry’ aspect of ‘youth ministry’ need a few questions asked of. Whilst we’re at it, the ‘youth’ aspect is awkward too, and a seminal piece by Mark Smith on ‘the problem of youth for youthwork explores this. You can find it in the link, on the Infed website. Youth is contested and often negative. Even the ‘youth’ aspect of ‘youth ministry’ has issues.

But the ‘Ministry’ aspect of youth ministry might do too.

In his book ‘The Pastor as the Public Theologian’ Kevin Vanhoozer pronounces a crisis of role identity for the Pastor/Minister. Now on one hand ‘crisis’ is strong a word and often crisis’ are used to set the scene for a major point or new perspective that deals with the issue. So I take it lightly. But in effect what he suggests is that the Parish Ministers role has diminished in society, because other people related professions have over taken the role – so the psychologists or counsellor are called upon sooner than the clergy, so might a social worker or school teacher for therapy or education, where once a church might have been the centre of these things. He goes on, but I wonder whether that same crisis that the clergy might feel, is a luxury not even afforded within youth ministry, yet youth ministry aligns itself with ‘church ministry’ oh so quickly.

The reason I think its a crisis that would be a luxury for a youth pastor/minister – is that whilst there might be a historic association with what a Pastor/Minister might be/do (sometimes a curse) and they can often find the roles that are expected – such as funerals, ceremonies, visits etc – the opposite is often the case with a youth minister who job description apart no one has any knowledge of what the role should be, (but strangely many expectations) and so much of the time the new youth minister (if minister is the right word) spends their time carving out what space there might be for what it is they are supposed to do. At least, if I look back to a time when I was based in a small town as a youth worker/minister or based in a church in the same role – much of the time was spend trying to establish either myself or the role, within the established patterns and trying to find either importance or need. Because there wasnt a defined gap for the role.

Goffman in ‘The Presentation of the self in everyday life’ says that it is very difficult for a person not just fit into the role before them, when everything is already established, so it may be easier to be the person who defines a role from scratch – ‘oh yes a youth minister is like ______ its how they did it’ – and the dye it set. But if there isnt a gap – what then? The gap might be an easier place to define a role – but what if there isnt a gap – because being tied up to being a ‘minister’ doesnt help in a post christendom world where young people arent looking for a minister or have counted out the regard for one.

Being a youth ‘worker’ doesn’t quite share this – saying that you work ‘with’ young people – as opposed to trying to do ministry with/for them – is a subtle but significant shift. Just.

So- Ministry is starting to have a problem.

The Language of ministry is barely recognised in society. Except government departments. And this conatation is probably best avoided. Or the Ministry of Sound. So, its pretty dead in the water except for an association with dominance, power and dis organisation – or a compilation album of dance music. The language of ministry as a concept is limited. But its not youth ministry’s only problem with Ministry.

do young people recognise ‘ministry’?

I’d say this was hardly likely, in a book entitled ‘Your first two years in Youth Ministry’ Doug Fields in the very first chapter uses the terms youth worker to describe the person, and youth ministry to describe the role/context . Even in Evangelical USA, minister was replaced by worker.. Maybe this is helpful, given that Arkle Bell, commented on a previous post the following:

The other big moan is the recent trend to talk about Youth Ministry – do the young people recognise that jargon, so are they already excluded. As I said to a Canadian visitor at church today – youth work is my ministry. A denomination wanted to ordain me as a youth minister, I turned them down saying God had already ordained me as a youth worker and wider society had recognised that.

Its difficult enough trying to find an establish role ‘with’ young people, but I wonder whether trying to do that as a ‘youth minister’ is more difficult than ‘youth worker’, neither is easily defined, but one at least has less association with an organisation such as a church, the other locates the venue of the profession as being where young people are. A shop worker works in a shop, a youthworker, well, where young people are. And Kerry Young has already said that youth work is defined as it is practiced (1999)

However, the main concern, i think, with youth ministry, and being a youth minister is, is the notions of power that are associated with it. Or more accurately, how through default within many churches, minister is associated with authority – the ministry of the young people is the ministry of the youth minister – young people are their ministry. Young people as a result can be viewed as little more than pawns in the activities and programmes, a number.. A group of people done to, with the youth minister acting in a way similar to the senior pastor.  With an image that looks like this;

Kids bored. Not listening, and someone talking at them.

However, It has taken quite a while, not just in this piece, but quite a number of years (150?) for someone to come along and say the brutally obvious.

Youth Ministry is about enabling young people to be ministers.

This is what Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean suggest in their recent two books (references below). Up until then, keeping young people entertained, or hearing ‘nice’ therapeutic/moral messages might well have been the order of the day. (Smith, C)

But helping young people develop their ministry?  Not only ‘what might that look like? – but what might that mean? 

For a start if working with young people to develop their ministry  makes the task more like youthwork as a process of supporting, encouraging, challenging and guiding – rather than leading from the front, so much. It has empowerment and participation as automatic bed fellows again more a youth work concept (just) .  In the next part this week, I will explore further what it might look like for youth Ministry to be about developing the ministry of young people. Given that this causes a need to understand what ministry is in the life of the church, and the churchs place in the world. Aspects that both Andy Root and Kenda Creasy Dean do touch on.

What if youth ministry was about faith shaping young people as ministers?

But i think there is more to the play than whats been said so far.

Image result for youth minister

Is ‘Ministry’ a problem for ‘Youth Ministry?’ – Well it might be if the ministry we have for young people, limits their involvement in the ministry as attenders and being entertained, than enabling them to become ministers themselves, including ministers of the word, sacrament, ministers of mission, justice and love in the world. Ministers who participate in the church and the world.

If its just a ministry the youth minister has – not a ministry that they are being encouraged into also having – then its no wonder that many young people find other places to be entertained instead. Ministry might be a problem for youth ministry in a number of ways, its even more of a problem if the youth minister is the blockage that prevents the ministry of young people thriving in a church. Or where the youth minister is employed to keep young people contained in the church, rather than enable their ministry potential be encouraged. As this picture infers, its the youth minister who is called, the ministry that they enable young people to participate in seems secondary.

What role do young people have in the church?  – maybe they should be considered as Ministers – will be the theme of my next piece.   

References

Goffman Irving – The Presentation of the Self in everyday life, 1960

Vanhoozer, Kevin, The Pastor as Public Theologian, 2016

Creasy Dean, A Root, The Theological Turn in Youth ministry, 2011

Root Andrew, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 2016

Smith, C, Soul Searching, 2003

Young, Kerry, The art of Youthwork, 1999, 2005

 

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Youthworkers today arent speaking from a position of strength, in society or the church – but then again have they ever?

Theres a bit of a recurring conversation going on in a number of different places at the moment, that is building a conclusion that Youthworkers today arent speaking from a position of strength.

On one hand there has been the decimation, or virtual obliteration of funding from local councils (brought about from national government funding reductions, excused by ‘austerity’ as a narrative) towards statutory youth services.  This has had a knock on effect almost everywhere in regard to youth and community work, and for young people themselves. Much ink has been spilt on working out all the effects. From loneliness, knife crime, mental health on an individual and social level – but also where schools and other institutions have been subtley charged with filling in the gaps – making a mockery of funding cuts and also trying to ‘do youthwork’ without the agenda less approach of youthwork. (That post is here: The effect of disappearing youth clubs )  This reduction in youthwork, then has an effect on those seeking to be employed and qualified in it, and the reduction in courses, funding and applications for these. Yes, the voluntary sector and social businesses may have been given the open book to fill the gap, but they do so with orgainsational survival and competition as core objectives – stuff which flies in the face of partnerships, collaboration and community which underpins the very nature of what youthwork is all about. Anyway. Thats one conversation.

The other conversation is in the faith ‘sector’ , and it is similar. Though not starting from centralised funding cuts. It does have funding as part of its issue. The last 10 years has seen the gradual shift in youth work posts in faith organisations/churches in the UK.  Whilst there are still many vacancies in some areas , this is also coupled with the reductions in courses across the country. A conversation about the pay for youthworkers, isnt new, given the extortionate housing costs in some places means that this is only a profession for the single, the young, or with those with a decent second income in the family. Unless a position also includes accomodation. Some of the high water marks of youth ministry, such as Soul Survivor, and collaborative working on resources (see ‘joined up, 2003, and other resources) gave the impression of a growing impetus for youth ministry as a profession and the hope of a collective voice, that inspired and could encourage many. A look back at Youthwork magazine from 1999, and it reveals colleges and courses cramming up the pages with adverts to attract people to them, a variety of jobs and vacancies, a rhetoric of positivity and a belief that youth ministry was the future, and the church needed to catch on and up.

The conversation now is that Youth work and ministry is not in a position of strength.

The reality is that youth work and ministry never was in a position of strength. Position of ‘stuff’ maybe. 

Of course stuff was happening. The myriad of activity… But was the stuff happening that was in the corridors of the power brokers?

Youthwork slipped from the department for education (where it had sit for a considerable length of time) , but were youthworkers in that conversation. How might youthworkers affect education policy – rather than the other way around? Yet the place of youthwork slipped to crime prevention departments and now leisure and tourism…

At the same time were youthworkers in churches busy taking kids to soul survivor, were they also holding or furthering conversations at the time about increasing the status of youth ministry in the church, at a systematic level? Ensuring better pay, or housing, or stipend, or support, or recognition for the ministry within these settings? only a few, and that seemed hard work, easier to play the passive game. Not make a noise or fuss. Accept a low wage for the sake of calling. Contribute to a year out scheme that could be deemed like modern slavery. Then move on to not be a youthworker and represent young people for a stable role that carries a ‘higher calling’ (by others), but would that occur if the youthwork role was more stable?

Yes, as youthworkers we like to be in the thick of it, in the action, behind the scenes, getting messy in the margins, much of the time we’re trying to encourage young people to have a voice, and promote their voices (all fantastic) such as the recent youth parliaments and protests – all the time not realising or being able to do anything about the rug of that process and practice being pulled from under our feet. Empower others, dont do political. But thats not got anywhere. Youthwork is political. And the campaign groups continue, just. Though in youth ministry, its less a campaign group, more a few experienced youthworkers trying to get something done. Its difficult to make waves in a culture of compliance in a role that is paid for. Dont upset the payroll.

Systematic change is still required. All the stuff about young people in society requires and demands it. Imagine if loneliness is reduced because youthworkers (the same one) is present in communities for 10 years. Thatd be helpful wouldnt it? What about the same for all the activities youthworkers do, sports, social and spiritual – all things bereft in communities, where theres one crisis (obesity) to another (mental health) – so what if there was strategic and systematic commitment to youth and community work provisions in every community. How might that encourage the process of helping young people flourish, its probably immeasurable, and thats probably the point.

Would this be the same in churches? The best examples of where youth ministry works is where the persons have been around for more than 5 years. Not unlike the community, any community thrives on this kind of stability, and young people are no different. And I am guilty as charged, given up a role after 2 years, and struggle with another after the same. It would systematic change of thinking from funding and affiliations to commit to fund workers who are involved with youthwork for them to have significant long term contracts, and the stability equivalent at least to the minister. But this is not an argument from a position of strength, but then again, even at its surfing of the crest of its own bouyant wave, it was barely strength anyway. Strength implied that people were listening to youthworkers and their voice and enabling them to have increased participation in processes, methods and politics, that youthwokers were trying valiantly to encourage young people themselves to have. And whilst i write off the last 20 years in one fail swoop, there are and were some exceptions to all of this. But very little of that has lasted to the point where current decisions about youthwork and young people are made in the knowledge and collaboration with youthworkers or their approach. Theres dragons den meetings to decide funding, and consultations that appear relatively tokenistic.

What might it take for youthwork to actually be in a position of strength?  In both the government and the church?

and who is prepared to make a stand to cause this to happen, and how will anyone know when this has happened? 

Was youth work in a position of strength? Maybe it was just in a better place than it is today by a long way – but strength?  not sure about that one..

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

Image result for challenging behaviour

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

What do you do with young peoples challenging behaviour?

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

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

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

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

It is worth asking questions like:

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

How much ‘chaos’ is tolerated?

What kind of environment do we want to create?

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

Do all the volunteers know what is expected of themselves?

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

What are the power dynamics on display?

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

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

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

Image result for challenging behaviour

The key thing is to work out what it is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for challenging behaviour

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

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

Should Youth Discipleship be regarded as performative pedagogical practice?

One of the dangers, writes Giroux, of modern educational practice set within a global economy that has economic growth as its driving force is that it has involves even more so a

‘narrow pedagogy, memorization, high stakes testing and helping students to find a good fit within a market -orientated culture of commodification, standardization and conformity’

Giroux wasnt writing this that long ago. As a result; Young people, writes Giroux further, ‘are treated as customers and clients rather than a civic resource, whilst many poor young people are simply excluded from the benefits of a decent education through the implementation of zero tolerance  policies that treat them as criminals to be contained, punished or placed under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system’. (Giroux, On critical Pedagogy, 2011)

Over the last few weeks I have written a number of pieces on young people and participation within the church, and I am thankful to the few of you who have read and shared them widely. Quite expectantly, one of the key tools to think about participation has been Harts Ladder of youth participation, which i have now shared twice, and i do so without apology again here.

Image result for hart's ladder of youth participation

However, whilst participation is a key aspects to how young people interact with agencies and establishments, from Giroux, critically young people can be little more than consumers in their role in the school, and probably barely on rung 2-3 at all. Developing a culture of youth participation in schools can only be achieved if it is part of what drives to actions of a school towards its funding expectations, including its Ofsted reports and league tables, none of which barely mention young people as participants in the overall ‘Good/Outstanding scale’ – So if its not measured and idealised as an outcome, it will barely feature as significant, in the rigorous testing and managerial culture of the school. Being run as a business within the global economy and with spending targets to boot. However, this is a sidetrack to a question about young people and participation, and more so about discipleship as a pedagogy.

I wonder, when reading the quotation from Giroux above, did you think about how young people are discipled in church and youth ministry?

Last year, I heard a seminar by Jo Dolby who had done an academic piece of work on Discipleship. Within it she referred to the definition of discipleship that arrived from the greek word ‘Mathetes’ , which literally means, to be involved in the process of ones own learning. Discipleship seems to involve an ongoing process that involved the learner and teacher as an ongoing process. Jo pointed to a number of aspects of discipleship based from the culture of discipleship in Jesus’ time that were provocative and counter cultural. She shared these things at last years Streetspace national gathering, a write up for which and the flipcharts on discipleship are here: Streetspace Gathering 2017

But Mathetes and discipleship as an ongoing process of learning. Interesting…

One definition of Pedagogy is :  The method and practice of teaching, especially as an academic subject or theoretical concept. (From The online Oxford dictionary) , Pedagogy is often used in educational practice as seen above. It is less well used in Faith Based discipleship conversations. Discipleship is less seen as educational, and more formational. At least that is the common language within churches in regard to discipleship, formation and authentic practices.

 Though forming, as Root goes on to say, has been thought of in not a neo-liberal vacuum (Root doesnt talk about this at all) but in a secular age, which values Authenticity. Formation has become another buzzword for educational group work that hopes desperately to keep young people within an institution (pages i-xiv).

Churches have become no better or different than schools. Where the schools curriculum is bent towards the market. Churches have been hoodwinked into reductionist programmes of survival. Reductionist in that they hope to keep young people, having only avoiding worst case scenario to hand. If Root is to be believed, though i think the British context is different, churches have turned to youth to keep their own authenticity intact, for being youthful is a sign of authenticity in todays western culture. What Root lacks in his prognosis is the effect of neo-liberalism, power, control and education within his analysis, though what he strives for is a rethink of formation, doing so without a huge mention of discipleship, though with one that calls for increased awareness of divine action, and young people as participants beyond just the institution (p191-194)

Will an understanding of Discipleship as Pedagogy help? Again, Root will probably say no, i think. Though in an age where youth participation is lessening in schools, then at least the church might offer something distinctive if discipleship was a process of ongoing collaborative learning. Discipleship as ongoing learning that also including aspects of divine action, and also performance might be closer to what is required. A quick aside, when Vanhoozer diagnosed American Youth Ministry and the church as a whole with the MTD disease that Smith Identified, his cure was to uphold Theology and also the Drama of doctrine in the ongoing actions of Human performance ( Vanhoozer, 2014, Faith Speaking Understanding) for him, limited doctrinal knowledge was the pre-curser to the God that makes me feel good attitude prevalent in MTD. How might a performative pedagogy that enabled the ongoing learning of Christian doctrine help within Youth Ministry?

Wesley Vander lugt suggests that Formation and Performance are intrinsically linked. There is limited use for one without the other, performance reveals formation, and vice versa. (Vander lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014). The process of learning, of formation within youth discipleship might benefit from how its ongoing pedagogical practice is performative and in doing so reveals, and helps young people embody theology in the world, being more that participants within faith institutions.

In the same way, Giroux and Root have at their heart the sense that pedagogy and discipleship are for the same ends, the flourishing of humans within the flourishing of local communities, Root suggest that the church is the only collective society that is for personhood itself ( p207), and as Giroux above indicates pedagogy of persons is, at its most ambitious :

‘is to educate students to lead a meaningful life, learn how to hold power and authority accountable and develop the skills, knowledge and courage to challenge common sense assumptions while being willing to struggle for a more socially just world‘ (Giroux 2011, p7).

Discipleship as prophetic pedagogy? It may be that the church, if it can think of youth discipleship as a process of helping young people lead a meaningful life (and not just conformity to institution) then it might have something to give and contribute in society with young people who do get ‘left behind’ but also who are in the system and struggling to cope. But discipleship as a pedagogical practice, that forms disciples to lead meaningful lives for the greater good, and gives them keys to understand their place in the world, to enable it to flourish, and challenge structures of power. How might churches do this – let make them places of welcome, and places where young people create hope, and places where young people are ministers of it in their world.

References

Giroux, On Critical Pedagogy, 2011

Root, Andrew, Faith Formation in a secular age, 2017

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2004

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2014

Van der Lugt, Living Theodrama, 2014

 

The White elephants within Youth Ministry. 

This month Youth and Childrens work magazine have produced one of their gems. I caught a copy of it at the Religious resources centre in North Shields yesterday. It is based upon 8 of the serious issues in youth ministry that they suggest that youth leaders and churches are ‘scared to touch’, it felt like a top ten run down of the most embarrassing conversations to have with the parents. So included was gender, sexuality, masturbation for example and a whole host of others.

These white elephants in the room were mostly all ‘ things that we think we need to talk about with young people but dont know how to’ . What instead if there were white elephants in the room about the practice of youth ministry that we might need to consider as practitioners, over and above thinking about what to talk about with young people in our groups, schools and sessions? Or on the streets, where discussion about faith, gender, sexuality, ghosts and relationships seem much more spontaneous and frequent, however.

So: Some of the white Elephants within Youth Ministry: 

The first one is based upon a number of recent blog posts of mine. How might the practice of youth ministry – focussed on teaching, telling, groupwork, events and church based activities have deliberately and implicitly excluded the poorer, working class young people in communities? How might this be addressed? who wants to face this reality? (That previous post is here: Youth Ministry has always abandoned the poor)

The second, Can Youth Ministry be a genuine missional endeavour – if it relies on ‘friendship’ evangelism within young people – that barely works for adults. If groups in churches find difficulty ‘accepting’ the estate kids, or fear them, or ‘call’ them chavs. I have had three conversations in the last week alone in which groups fell apart because of ‘estate’ kids trying to attend the ‘church kids fun night’ – and put those reflections here: ‘What to do when the estate kids turn up: http://wp.me/p2Az40-13t) 

The Third one – How much funding needs to address the north/south divide in youth ministry resources? And are there ways of allocating resources to young people in some areas in the same way parish share/ministry funds do to focus on areas lacking.

The fourth – Has Youth Ministry focussed too heavily on helping young people learn about faith, worship, and find salvation – and less about how young people perform what faith is all about? Again, this is potentially cultural, as sermons are often heavy on content, less on action. Where might churches help young people enact Gods goodness to the world, beyond that God loves them individually.

The fifth. Has youth ministry become too scientific? predictable? If Making disciples has been the intention of youth ministry, has the ready to use material, tools and resources reduced making disciples to methods, programmes and activities. Instead – what of Youth Ministry as a local art form? The youth worker who facilitates an ongoing masterpiece of creativity, of young people participating and contributing?

The sixth. Do only the strong survive in Youth Ministry? The leader material – rather than the quiet one, those who can hack the youth group, those who have the right parents, those who look and act the part. And if so – what might that say about developing a theology of youth ministry that is ‘for the least’, the ill, the lonely even. Those even who stick their necks out and take risks, those who are provocative and challenge. Can youth ministry house and host the rebellious?

The seventh. The church is only working with 5% of the population of young people. And that includes every pay to go to event, camp, festival, club and group. For every 10,000 who attend soul survivor, there are 500,000 young people who watch on from Bristol, Bath, Exeter and Plymouth, within 150 miles up the road and dont give a monkeys.  If there is a north/south split in the youth ministry, then my guess, especially that even in the Durham diocese churches are in contact with 200 young people – then that is less than 2%. It is not a numbers game. Its a reality game that 98% of young peoples contact with faith is a vicar at an assembly. Youth Ministry has to become a whole church response, a whole diocese response, a whole focus response. There is no other way. And in many areas the ways that will happen will not look like the club, group or activity, it is something else. (want to chat about what this might look like – contact me above). It is not posters but persons, it is not programmes, but presence.

The eighth elephant in the room. One year gap year students. Serve only their own purpose to get experience in ministry, and serve a local church. If youth ministry is trying to be about meeting the needs of young people and develop sustainable faith. The persons who are only present for 1 year will not suffice. It is just not good enough. Neither realistically are two year contracts for youthworkers.

The ninth elephant in the room. We need to name the powers. No not greed, or the government. But be honest about where the pinch points are, where the dominant forces lie in youth ministry, and how those influences are shaping practices in too many ways. Does a business and managerial culture affect youth ministry organisations and their desire for growth? or efficiency? or world branding and fame? Do other groups hold the keys to publishing, to conference platforms, to festivals, to resources even?  Who holds keys, and what is that game all about in the coridoors of power in youth ministry? influence? money? profile? survival?

The tenth elephant in the room. If Theological training for ministers has excluded any references to young people as a distinct ministry, or even the process of community work and development and how this would help in a parish – the the same is to be said on the reverse – Youth Ministry training in the next 10 years needs to include community development (and its tenets from youth & community work), emerging church & fresh expressions, digital and media, detached work (in all seriousness, it is still where young people are, on the streets), working with families and helping older congregations get involved in youth ministry, Youth ministry as a whole church enterprise, youth ministry and developing entrepreneurial initiatives for young people & self funding, and developing asset based youth ministry.

The eleventh elephant. Youth ministry has been too slow to deal with racism. Too slow to advocate anti-oppressive practice. Not sure ive heard much from evangelical youth ministry about condemning the actions of terrorists in the USA over the weekend. (Nb I started this post on charlottesville weekend)

The 12th. Are young people leaving youth ministry with any biblical literacy. So they know more than 10 verses out of context that appear on fridge magnets. Do they know how to interpret it, reflect on it and see it in context.?

13th. Church has always been a problem. Kids from Sunday schools didn’t end up in them (only 4%) so youth ministry has an ongoing battle. It can’t be the end game. But this issue has always been the case.

Not sure which of these is the worst, depends on your perspective. But any serious attempt to ensure that youth ministry disciples young people in the UK. Aiming high that they become followers of Christ and perform goodness in their local contexts. It’ll be radical, prophetic and challenging. But being good is risky.

Young people are the saints of the present, not the church of the future. 

There can be two perspectives, in regard to how young people are viewed in the church, actually scrap that, maybe theres three. All influence the way in which people in churches develop ministries and so they’re important to reflect on, some more common than others, all impact the ongoing way which young people are treated, and then this impacts upon how they are discipled.

The ‘not there yet’ perspective;

This has come about through a number of ways. The most obvious one being that young people are often viewed in transitional stages, ie ‘not quite children, but not yet adults’, Young people can be placed against transitional frameworks from human development, and are then thus ‘not there yet’ because they are the ones always developing, changing and trying to become something. What this does is develop a concept of young people as learners. Something Nick Shepherd alludes to in Faith Generation (2016) he is not alone. But it means that because young people are ‘not there’ yet they need to learn to know ‘how to be there’ , becoming recipients of teaching, and being only viewed as learners, because ‘they aren’t there yet’ .  The not there yet is also in the tool kit for the youth evangelist, the trick being that young people aren’t listened to or with to hear about their faith perspective, but that, stereo-typically, they are given a new plumbline to measure themselves against – to be told ‘they aren’t there yet’ if they haven’t prayed a prayer (but have been confirmed), they’re not there yet if they haven’t ‘recommitted’ or ‘been baptised in the spirit’ or something else new to measure themselves, thus creating a need that only the evangelist can fill. Its a ‘not there yet’ perspective that is the starting point. But its not just the evangelist, think about the processes needed for ceremonies in the church – how often is it inferred that young people ‘aren’t there yet’ – to participate? Then theres the old one of ‘young people as ‘tomorrow church’… but ive said enough….it’s also linked to the ‘potential’ perspective..

The ‘scary’ perspective

Also known in youth work terms as ‘The Daily Mail’ perspective. Think of all the media words and their connotations and then what does that do as an image of young people. Yes news is only news because it is bad news, and probably only in local papers do good news stories exist about young people ( which is great) but young people are unfairly generalised to be wary of for the actions of a few, in a way that all motorists aren’t thought of for a serious RTA or others.  Think it doesn’t matter? When churches start using the words ‘disengaging’ to describe how young people aren’t involved in church, then the proof of this is evident. Or other phrases like ‘young people outside society’ then its clear where this influence comes from. Its not a biblical view of young people, or society. Language shapes understanding, and so words like ‘Youth’ ‘Chav’ ‘Disengaged’ portray meaning, which can cause churches to close ranks, and avoid being involved, and creates distances.

The ‘precious’ perspective

‘We need to keep them safe’ is the cry! So because the world is pronounced as a scary place ( because it is full of other ‘youth’ who act Scary) – then Safety measures are brought in to keep young people in the church away from these horrible horrible things that might damage them. Tactics such as busyness ( be at 3 youth services a week), alternatives (lets go to Soul Survivor, instead of Reading & Leeds), Guilt ( Jesus wouldn’t want you to mix with those friends)  all very subtly are out-workings of the precious perspective. It fits a youth alternative culture form of youth ministry that Brierley attributes to Billy Graham (2003, All Joined up), when avoiding the youth scenes of the day (in the 1960’s-1970’s) was done through the development gradually of Christian youth subcultures and was continually fed. It is not that these things aren’t important, but if they stem from churches, church leaders and even Christian parents who themselves were part of the same scene- having a ‘precious perspective’ of young people then this has implications for the young person themselves.

So, whats the alternative?  Have I got the right answer waiting at the bottom of this article? not yet, ive got two examples.

When I was early into youth ministry 20 or so years ago, as a training team we had a question for someone, I cant remember who, who was talking about evangelism and youth ministry back then. We asked them “what do you do when you don’t know the faith position of the group, and you’re giving a talk? , when some have become Christians, others haven’t? (I’m embarrassed by the question now..) the response was – just treat them all as disciples and you wont go far wrong.

There was a discussion on Radio 5 the other day about Dev Patels new film, ‘Lion’ and why the younger Dev Patel (in the movie) and also Dev Patel when he was a child (playing the child character in Slumdog Millionaire, a few years ago) aren’t likely to feature in Oscar nominations. And there are other child actors that could easily be mentioned, such as those in ET. The response from one of the contributors, Danny Boyle, was that it is very difficult to distinguish with a child actor their performance and also what the director of the film is enabling to be seen in the shot. There is no doubt that a child has to perform, but the person who creates the right environment for that performance is given more of the credit. It also wants to protect young actors from the limelight too early. However, the view in the industry is that the acting of the child is the directors responsibility.  The director helps the young actor rehearse, to act accordingly in the scene, to feel their way through the props, context and environment and be guided by the other actors around them. how might this be translated as a metaphor for young people in the church.

What if young people are Saints called  and being directed by God?

Already. Now and in the present.

Being called by God is one aspect that makes a Human distinct from the animal world (amongst other things, Baltasar, Theodrama pt 2, Vanhoozer, 2005). And if young people are saints called by God, then the responsibility for the church and youth ministry is to create environments (direct scenes?) where rehearsal and performance of the saints in the church and the world can occur. Undoubtedly Biblically young people receive the vocal call of God.

The Saint, according to Wells (2005) is someone who knows their place in the drama, in the sidelines but also with purpose (what purpose in the Kingdom are young people acting towards?) , a saint gathers community (is not alone- essential for young people, and us all), a saint is faithful instead of violent, a saint is aware of failings and these give God glory, a saint is in the world where its tense to show an alternative, loving way.

What if young people are treated, not just as disciples but also as saints, directed by God?

Maybe the view of young people as ‘not there’ ‘feared’ or ‘precious’ have clouded a view of discipleship and sainthood available for young people in local churches across the UK, a safe religion is not an attractive one, neither is one that is only about avoiding the good things that exist in the world. What those of us responsible for young people in churches have the responsibility for is not equipping young people for saint hood, but realising that they are already saints, already being directed by God and so our responsibility is to create environments where their acting as saints can take place, and their role of saints, often prophetic saints in the church, is welcomed and encouraged.

Young People as people called as saints currently under the directorship of God.

As CS Lewis said : ‘Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbour, act as if you did. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him’ . We need to act in churches as if young people are called as saints of God.

References

Shepherd, Nick Faith Generation,  2016

Wells S , Improvisation, 2005

Vanhoozer, K Drama of Doctrine, 2005, Faith Speaking and Understanding 2014

 

Youthwork: the importance of developing young peoples narrative identities

Johanna Wyn and Rob White say something, i think, quite profound about the views of adolescent development; one that certainly youthworkers in faith based settings, and schools should reflect on, they propose that:

Product Detailsa relational concept of youth offers an approach to understanding the social meaning of growing up that can take into account the diverse ways in which young people are constructed through social institutions, and the ways in which they negotiate their transitions (Wyn and White, 1997)

What they compare their approach to is many of the psychological, and physiological theories of youth development which can objectify this period of time for a person as a stand alone moment, and more significantly can imply that there are correct, uniform ways of completing this phase of life, and by not being ‘correct’ a young person can quickly be deemed at risk, deviant of different.

So, what Wyn and White are suggesting is that instead of  ‘youth’ being a period of transition, instead it is a time of construction.

Some of you might have more likely come across David Elkinds book, All grown up and no place to go (1998), in it, following work by Piaget, Elkind suggests that at some point during adolescence a young person will begin to create personal fables of themselves, doing so with a concept of past, present and future experience. It might only be when the person has the capacity, mentally, to do this that it occurs, but at this point something shifts in a young persons thinking. But they can start to go beyond the here and now, they might be able to describe themselves differently and play around with word play, however, it is the fable construction that i think is interesting, especially as it ties in with Wyn and White above, that youth is a time for construction and negotiation of social institutions, because at the same time, this negotiation involves a young person being able to narrate their own fable for coping/surviving/flourishing within it.

We are heading towards thinking about narrative identity.

A Narrative is another way for saying story. Bruner says that as humans we either reflect on our lives pragmatically (the facts and figures) or we understand the world through stories (human wants, desires, goals, motivations). It is part of ourselves to tell ourselves stories during every day to help us through incidents and experiences, it is a story of a memory that is positive that might help us through something unpredicted, it might be that we survived something previously that means we can do it again. Some of these stories have themes, such as agency ( i survived with purpose and confidence), Redemption ( it was tough but i made it through, or something happened to rescue me), Communion (i was helped and we got through the ‘love’ of someone motivated me) and without probably realising it, we tell ourselves these stories, as adults all the time. However, when it comes to difficult or trauma situations, we can find ourselves only being able to tell half a story  (as we are still living it in the moment) or a contaminated one – (all was going fine, then this happened, and i lost it, got angry and i am never going to go and see that person/dentist/doctor again- for example).

However, the stories we tell, that shape our narrative have a huge impact. For if we can tell ourselves positive redemptive stories of past experiences, then we are likely to be courageous or confident about a situation. (after all it didnt go too bad last time, or the pain was worth it..) The narrative identity provides us as with a unity of the horizons of our past, and our future in order that we can make sense of actions in the present. McAdams and Mclean state that; ‘Narrative Identity is a persons internalised and evolving life story, integrating the reconstructed past and imagined future to  provide life with some degree of unity and purpose’

If any of you have seen the film Inside Out (2015) by Disney,  you will have seen an example of how a traumatic event brought chaos to the narrative identity of a young person, all the thoughts about their life that were in positive joyful stories became affected by one event. The trauma became the lens, and the young person struggle to renegotiate and reconstruct new stories, redemptive, agency stories about how she could cope in the future. What you might have noticed was that it was not the events per se that cause the negative emotions, and what might (if it wasnt a Disney film) have resulted in depression or mental health concerns, but it was the narrative created by the young person towards the event. They had disunity of themselves and couldnt cope, and no experience of a similar situation to overcome.

So, Youth is a time of construction. Constructing narratives about 1000’s of interactions, about 5-10 institutions, about friends, about heroes, about hobbies, about skills.

But where do they get the tools to create stories, well, easy, for many young people it is from their childhood, the stories they hear, the archetypes of characters, the arc of storylines from Mr Men books to Harry Potter, to watching films. Crucially a young person may conceived of many narrative types and assimilated their own to it, before that have the mental capacity in adolesence to construct their own stories.

At this point it is worth reflecting on the roles of the people then to support young people. If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions,

If the young person is in a period of time where they are constructing narratives of their principle institutions, care givers, friends and the like – what might be the best role for a youthworker to take in this? especially when a young persons mental health ( and incidents of mental health issues amongst young people are rocketing) is at stake?  There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church

There is the temptation to ‘be another institution’ – so an employment group, a schools lesson provider, or something else similar, maybe even the church sunday school – it could have the same institutional feel. Quite interestingly if a young person doesnt have power or autonomy in a situation then they are more likely to construct a negative narrative about, one that demotivates- and to a point we all know what that is like. So, even though it might be a personal narrative, socio and economic factors are in play, for not only might less opportunities for a young person be available if they are from a ‘poorer’ background, but the ability for them to have choice about their destiny is reduced, as is their autonomy, agency or power. What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it

What might this mean for their narrative identity? what kind of stories will they continue to tell themselves? – so it isnt that there is a scheme for disadvantaged young people and they are labelled as such, it is that they might have no choice but to go on it… or be sanctioned by the job centre, or be forced to leave a care home. Even if something deemed positive is presented – are they as likely to have choice in the matter..? its so important..

The key ways in which a young person is given affirmative tools for narrative construction are, yes the stories from an early age, but also the space to reflect and talk, someone who will listen and affirm them, and some one who will help them to understand their experiences and reappropriate them in their own story.

It like being what Coburn and Wallace say youthwork should be – a ‘border pedagogy’ (2010)- someone who is  between the institutions, in the gaps, to help learning across it all. Someone who helps a young person by asking them reflective questions and helps them make sense of the world. The tragedy is that those who want to fund youthwork want to put youthworkers in institutional roles, in delivery agencies- rather than in the gaps where they can be most helpful and helping a young person form constructive, and reappropriate negative- narrative identities.

What is additionally interesting, is that young people assimilate their narrative identity, like we all do, with an emerging larger story about their place in the world, of life purpose or goal – or ideology, meta narrative (dont tell me they dont exist)

If you’re not that interested in faith based youthwork/ministry – then maybe look away now – but the ideology could equally apply as something like socialism, marxism or agnosticism.

During the period of narrative construction, the young person is also trying to discover how their life story includes, resonates with and is part of the bigger life stories in the world, such as religion, ideologies, beliefs or values. The mind of the young person is trying to make sense of the world and therefore is asking questions about faiths as they see contradictions, or inauthenticity – but also because they want it to make sense, and be true enough to adopt, and form their narrative identity around the ideologies that they are part of.

So, let me ask these questions –

  • For the young person who has been brought up a faith – and leaves the ‘church’ before the age of 12 – are they likely to incorporate the ideology of that faith into their life narrative?  maybe – maybe if they find an alternative, or had a bad experience of ‘leaving’ .
  • Alternatively how might a young person adopt a faith as a life narrative if they only join it at 14-15?
  • What damage is done to a young persons narrative if a church rejects them, but they wanted and needed the ideology of faith to motivate and guide them? –
  • How might the young person narrate the church as an institution, verses its story of faith as an ideology..?

These arent easy questions – but have we ever considered them in youth ministry in relation to a young persons narrative identity, and what it might mean that their identity becomes wrapped up in the story or stories of the faith?

For a young persons narrative identity in youth ministry – what kind of story do they feel part of when they join, or as they have been part? – is it a story at all – or moral propositions? what purpose does having faith have in the long term and how might that create motivational goals for a young persons identity and behaviour? It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith

It is worth then reflecting on how the narrative identity construction of young people is directly affected by their relationship with a faith institution, or an ideology. I remember at school, lots of people became vegetarian aged 15, because a teacher could show a video of cows being inhumanely slaughtered and animal welfare being shoddy, it sickened enough of my friends not to eat meat for a few weeks, but it wore off. But a very simple ideology and message had a two week effect for most, and one or stuck with it and became green party activists. Is that the same effect of simple presentations of other faiths? Or do young people maybe want something they can believe in and find purpose and meaning in for their life story, purpose and future. I guess that’s what costly discipleship of any faith might look like.

As youthworkers, maybe our role on the streets and in the schools, is that helping young people make sense of the world, but it is also to help them to reflect on their life’s experiences to form positive unifying stories that enable themselves to have confidence, agency, purpose and determination, and that often used word resilience ( but i think i am using it right) . If we’re working with young people who have less opportunities and choice, then this will affect their life narrative – and so regardless of the scenario we need to promote autonomy and choice as much as is possible, as a way of helping their mental health. And then, as an addition, the philosophical questions of life may be significant to a vast number of young people, how might faith become coherent as part of their story, so that they play a role in whole community and human flourishing through it.

Youthworkers in the spaces, all the more reasons why its good to have conversations with young people.

References:

Coburn Annette, Wallace, David, Youthwork in schools and communities, 2012

Elkind, David, All grown up and no place to go, 1998

McAdams, Dan, The stories we live by, 1993

McAdams Dan, Kate McLean Narrative Identity, Current Directions is psychological science Vol 22 issue 3, pp 233-238, 2013

Wyn J and White, D, Rethinking Youth, 1999