3 questions that are critical to ask of all our youth work and ministry practice.

Shall we start with a reality check?

There is no magic answer, solution, gravy train, resource, method, model for youth work and ministry. There really isn’t. Anyone telling you this is merely on the hard sell, of their particular brand, style, event or model. Anyone telling you this is is hoping that they have it, that they experienced it and they’re clinging on to keep their particular dream alive. Or organisation. And i have been as guilty or complicit in this too. Though Id hope not because id peddle my own faith upbringing as the only path for others to have..

But I know you’re probably reading this because you want an answer, a style, a method or a model to solve the current problems, concerns you may have about your youth work practice. Whether it is about children leaving messy church, or young people on the streets, or the YF being boring and running out of ideas.

And running out of ideas is one of the main issues isn’t it? A key factor in youth worker burnout. They run out of ideas.

Yet, youth ministry isnt an entertainment industry… is it..?

If you are reading this hoping for the magic answer, then you may well end up being disappointed, but well done for getting this far. The questions are coming.

Because on one hand I am slightly tired of the models and methods, the research, and the moaning, about why people leave their faith, or why a model didn’t work because it worked elsewhere (or in 1983), yet without looking at what is going on at a deeper level with young people, then models, methods are still unlikely to work. But they kept being tried… Working doesn’t mean attendance, or young people paying for something. Because.. its not the values of the entertainment industry that we’re looking for.. is it?

So, what are the 3 questions that we should ask of all our youth work and ministry practices? And ask repeatedly and all the time. They are:

Does what we do/are about to do increase young peoples belonging?

Does what we do/about to do increase young peoples autonomy?

Does what we do/are about to do increase young peoples sense of competence?


What you say – no  mention of Jesus?  no mention of values? no mention of ………(fill in the blank)

Yes. Agreed. No mention of those things. Because, look closely and you will find those things in these three questions.


Relationships have been front, centre and under pretty much all of youth work and ministry practice. You really dont need me to pull out all the references for this. But relationships are one thing. A sense of belonging and connection is another. If we hope that ‘our relationship’ with a young person as a single youth worker or volunteer is crucial, we may be misguided, because its a sense of belonging that young people crave, (secret: we all do).  So… do young people feel they belong in the church family, do they feel they belong in their school, do they feel they belong in their public park, do they feel they belong in their town. Our relationship with a young person might be critical, especially if it helps to help them have a greater sense of belonging.

How might the whole church help a young person (s) belong? How might the town help young people belong who also want to express their anger at austerity through anti social behaviour?

So – how might what we do/ what is bout to be done – help young peoples sense of belonging?



This may seem to stand in contradiction to belonging and connection. But it isnt. Autonomy may mean that young people can make their own decisions, and as an individual, however, autonomy can also become something that our youth work and ministry should create, in order that young people can have a say in decision making processes, in decisions that affect them, affect the youth ministry/work itself and also the wider faith community and organisation. Autonomy is a key motivator for us all, we all like to be kings of our own castle. Yet at the same time, reflect on the situations where young people in the group, or organisation had any autonomy over the activity, process, style and nature of the group.

We might use the term participation, and that in a way is a graded scale of how young people do have increased decision making/autonomy.  Because after all, increasing young peoples participation is not that far from helping them to meet some of their self determined goals. Their goals about the club, group, community.. their dreams, visions, their collective passions for these things

I have written extensively on participation, some of these are my most read pieces.. its clearly a need, to think through and reflect.

Though i have suggested this one is second in this list of three. I think its the most important. Especially in churches and youth ministry.


Thirdly, Competence

What can your youth work and ministry do – to help young people feel that they acheieved something, they made something happen, they did well?

And it doesnt need to be personal – but it could be

It doesnt need to be social – but it could be

They did well doing the reading in a service is one thing, they did well speaking up at the leaders meeting another. They did well writing to their MP on climate change, they did well showing generosity and grace to others in the group. They did well…..

Nothing like doing well isnt it.

You know what that feels like?  probably not.

Will you only tell young people they did well at something when you get positive feedback for all your efforts, your hard work, your job? Id hope not.  You might have to give and continually give praise, even if you dont receive it.

But its not just the praise. It is the situations in which there is a possibility of being able to. When working on the streets its easy to affirm young peoples football skills, or how they ct with each other. It is their environment. So, how might the space of the youth group, club or project also be a space that encourages competence, encourages risk taking activity that stretches our known behaviours and praises the actions that are taken.

Youthwork that has craft activities are brilliant at this, if we can encouraging the simple making of things that are fairly easy so that everyone can do something well. the same with cooking, or fixing bikes, or sports or video games… its not quite the same with movies.

Its no coincidence that uniformed youthwork organisations with badges and awards continue to be very popular.

How might young people feel, if they are part of a group or project in which they leave each session feeling like they have achieved something, have developed a skill, have something to take home, have created something? Yes.. exactly…



If you need to think further about these three things through a faith lens, then do so. If you want to think about them in the context of the divine relationship between humanity and God, in terms of divine and human action, in terms of free will, prayer, and being made in the image of God, then do so. I would encourage it. It would be good to have that discussion. if you want to have a look at these things through discipleship or mission, through church then do so. You should also be able to see where these things mirror core youthwork values, like participation, empowerment and valuing the individual. Some of those reflections have already been done by Jocelyn Bryan in her excellent book, referenced below.

So, faith and theology is not my starting point for these. It is psychology.

If this all feels a bit more on the psychological side of things then it is. But thats ok isnt it. Because psychology could help us in youth work and ministry in a way couldn’t it. After all, we’ve tried sociology to death with all the generationalism surveys, and that hasn’t got anyone anywhere. Aside from selling resources.

But, you want to make a real difference in your group, your church, you organisation with young people. Don’t worry about second guessing their interests because they’re millenial. Try instead looking at the deep things that motivate them. Try looking at how belonging, autonomy and competence are part of their lives, try seeing where they find these things already. Try doing what you can to find them in the group, project and activity that you run. Of course this is hard work, of course this might require shifts. Who said this was in any way easy…

The reason these questions are crucial – because they’re the same one we ask of ourselves. Young people, are no different to us.


Further Reading: 

Human Being, Jocelyn Bryan, 2016.



What Role do you want young people to have in church?

For the majority of churches, the idea of having any young people being part of the church is a bit of a luxury. The task for many is to find them, attract them, and often this task has seemed to have fallen to the ‘christian organisation’ such as YFC, YMCA or FYT – the challenge where this happens is how the integration from organisation to church occurs.

But thats not the subject of this piece. I raised the question about the role that young people play in the church in a piece last year (here is this piece) , a piece that since April has been read by at least 10 people worldwide per day since. The role of young people in church is clearly crucial and something widely needing a discussion on.

So, what about progressing the conversation on a bit:

If its one thing to state ‘What current role do young people play?’ – and consider how passive, consuming, entertained they might be – the progressing question is :

What Role do you want young people to have in the church?

Because there is no point just assessing what kind of role they currently have, its what kind of role those who work with them want them to have, and how this might happen is key. So, this is yet another piece on young peoples participation. So, it might be worth thinking through why participation is important, and what might need to change, from the point of view of the cultural norms of church, of youth leadership and the perception of young people in the church which proceeds the development of their role. I have written before (and so have others) about the various historical perceptions of young people in churches, that needs to be changed in order that participation is increased. From the social rescue of the 1800’s, to the ‘protection and safety’ and creation of alternative culture youth ministry subsequent to the 1960’s. Throughout it all, there remains a high expectation of young people being involved in church to ‘learn’. Nick Shepherd in ‘Faith Generation (2016) suggests that shifting culture from learning to deciding is key. And I agree.

But why is increasing participation required?

On one hand, Theologically, participation is core to faith and the gospel itself. But I dont think I need to expand this here. Just look up ‘Bible Gateway’ and search participate or participation. And where there are no references, think about how God involves humans in the task of his mission, or loving and caring for the world, and developing the work of the church. Participation, and increasing it is core.

I want to look at this from a psychological basis as well. The psychologists Deci and Ryan have suggested that all of us are motivated by, and seek out continued spaces in which they feel they have:

  • Connection/Belonging
  • Competence
  • Autonomy

And, to be reasonable, developing relationships has been one of the key principles of youth ministry over the last 30 years. It may be something that still needs work, but ask a whole load of young people who have had the same leaders for more than 3-4 years, and they will remark on the depth of friendship and the value of them. Developing connections and relationships is undoubtedly key. From a young persons point of view – they will also be seeking out opportunities to create and have these connections – its worth bearing this in mind.

The second of these things is competence. It can take a number of facets, but essentially, being good at something, being confident in it and then also receiving the feedback for it. So think about it – in what ways do young people ‘do’ something in the church, that they can be praised for – that is quite meaningful? Colouring in a picture and showing it, really isnt competence inducing for a 12yr old. (especially when they’ve been in a committee in primary school)

The third is Autonomy. Which on the face of it might infer that they want to be independent, and this is partly correct, but it is a sense that they have responsibility and possibility to make decisions on aspects of things that directly affect them, having influence in the important. So – what about the youth group, or the church that young people might be important that young people could or should have influence over? Well if theyre an integral part of the church, then i might suggest almost everything. Only having a say in whether to play table tennis or indoor football may be a start, but its barely an important one. Chap Clark (Adoptive church, 2018) suggest that young people could have a say in the content or subject matter of the sermons in church. Maybe with that level of participation, young people might invest in church further. With a direct line to my youth pastor as a tennager, the youth group would make some suggestions to him, back in the 1990’s. It was great to hear on a sunday what he knew we thought was important. And not be patronised or ignored.

Think about all the aspects of the youth group, or the aspect of church – what role do you want each of the young people to play?

What might you need to do to open up the space so they can? challenge barriers? challenge assumptions? create spaces where young peoples voice can be heard? (and this not be a one off) If any church is serious about young people being more than token, more than passive consumers, then as adults, youth leaders and volunteers our role is to create the space, it is also to provide the support for developing the risk taking.

As a reminder, here is Roger Harts ladder of youth participation, which helps to give the rungs and grades of participation for young people.

Image result for youth participation

It might be said then, that increasing young people’s participation isnt just a nice to do – its actually what they need. Beyond connection, competence and autonomy are shot through the participation ladders higher rungs, decision making, doing stuff, creating things, taking risks – all deeply connected to a young persons needs (whether they know it or not).

Naturally, there are some areas in a youth group in which young people can have more participation than others (the games rather than the faith content..often) – it can also be said that some young people are more likely to be given roles than others – its usually the:

  • ones with the leadership potential
  • Right gender, race or ability…
  • extroverts
  • the oldest
  • the loudest
  • those known the longest
  • the most well behaved.

But what about the others? might a church be setting itself up to be accused of favouring the strongest (rather than the less visible) for participation, – is this theological ? After all – who did Jesus prefer. The irony is that ones who are likely to have participation opportunities in church, are as likely to be those who have them in school. So – the least get left out twice. The opportunities for participation might need to be adapted to the persons in the group. fancy that.

So – what kind of role do you want young people to have in their local church? or their youth group?

You might be content with them only having a token role in the life of the whole church, then dont be surprised if they only seem to have a token faith, or a token investment back. ‘The more we invest in young people the more they are likely to invest in their faith’ is a paraphrase from Christian Smith seminal 2003 book. Do you, does the church have increased and full participation as a main aim – but what kind of participation is actually possible for the 11 year old or 14yr old?

If you want young people to stay, and children beyond messy church and sunday school – then increasing participation in the local church is crucial. Its almost the only way. Its why when they have experienced it, ‘just going’ to a ‘event or festival’ might seem boring in comparison. Its participation free.

Without participation young people might get bored. And thats not because they need greater entertainment, its that they need greater respect and involvement. Relationship, Competance and Autonomy – might churches, and youth groups be places where these deep needs of young people are met? They might only be met through increasing participation. So – what role do you want them to play in the faith community? – what role do they want?


Joined up – Danny Brierley, 2003 ( a chapter on participation)

Human Being, Bryan, Jocelyn, 2016 – On personal motivation/goals and a consideration of Deci and Ryan.

Adoptive Church, Chap Clark, 2018

Faith Generation, Nick Shepherd, 2016

Soul Searching, 2003, Christian Smith/ Denton

The following Anvil Journal has pieces on Participation and Empowerment – might be worth a read.

What if our youth practices are the trigger for young peoples challenging behaviour?

When i was delivering detached youthwork a few years ago and develop thinking about young people and their alcohol misuse, i developed (though probably more likely lifted from other similar processes) a diagram which tried to explain it that looked a bit like this : (excuse the quality, its a photo from a power point screen, i didn’t have publisher to develop it originally)

A short note of explanation. We sort of worked backwards.

We saw young people drinking on the streets and asked them why and how they came to do this behaviour. There was often a trigger for it, and at the same time this could coincide (though not always) with a ‘vulnerable time’ that the young person was going through. And some, no, nearly all, the vulnerable times were significant. From anniversary of friends death, family bereavement or exam time. The triggers ranged too. From ‘it being what we always do’ or ‘its friday’ (so same as the adults in town too) , to ‘shit week at school’ . But the two, a trigger, met with a vulnerable time – as well as a combination of collective planning via social media, and the desire for escape, collective social gathering and fun created for them the perfect reasoning for drinking on the streets. That just moving them on wouldnt make much difference.

Image result for challenging behaviour

Yesterday I used this slide – and a number of other similar ones (inserted in this piece) to help youthworkers reflect and help to create responses to challenging behaviour that they might have experienced in a youth club scenario.

Within similar models and processes of thinking about challenging behaviour a number of common questions arise (youll see them on the diagrams)

Image result for challenging behaviour

The questions tend to be:

  1. What is the behaviour – what types are being expressed?
  2. Are there patterns to it? – ie are situations more common
  3. In the situation – what are the moments that trigger the behaviour?
  4. Are there any underlying causes?

And these, as the above shows, often retain in a cycle. One of the things about the alcohol use and challenging behaviour that is different, is that the trigger and vulnerable time happen or during the decision making of then going drinking. So, as youth workers we could work backwards with them knowing that the patterns and triggers where proceeding. Though sometimes drinking could be a trigger for further drinking (again same for everyone..?)

With responding to challenging behaviour in the youth club environment, whilst there is still a very good chance that underlying issues and some community activity prior to the youth club may have been trigger ( ie being bullied, a social media message, family issue) – and this could be met head on at the door (rather than in the club) – there is a more than likely possibility that our youth provision is the trigger for their challenging behaviour.

There is a saying that for many issues in a youth organisation, most can be traced back to the governance.

The challenging behaviour in a youth club expressed by young people, might have some of its cause, and some of the patterns and triggers for it, could similalry be traced back to within the youth club itself.

But for a short moment, Ill scale back a bit and ask – who is the youth provision for? Who is there for the benefit of who?

If young people are the primary client – as per Howard Sercombe’s definition:

Youth work is a professional relationship in which young people are engaged as the primary client in their social context’ (Sercombe 2010:27)

then this means that young people are the people who the youth provision is for, it is they whom we as youth workers serve. It is less the programme, the activity, the building and the funders or trustees – albeit all do have a part to play. If the youth club is a youth venue, then young people, unless they are told differently and given the option of not attending it because it is not about them (ie it is a religious service that they did know about and self opted out). But the open youth club, that seems to be an open space for young people to chat, choose to do activities, create, make and develop purposeful relationships through conversation is intrinsically a space that is for the principle purpose of serving young people. ‘Client’ may be a not very nice word, but if it helps us to think about the practice of youthwork as serving (and empowering and enabling to participate, and valuing young people) then it suffices.

So, in that case – there is an issue if the very spaces that should be about serving young people – are the places where for one reason or another , because human interaction is complex and challenging – might be the very places that are the trigger for the challenging behaviour.

Of course it would be easy to say that its all the young people ‘triggering’ each other… like

  • one of them crushing the table tennis ball
  • someone shouting insults
  • one of them threatening the other
  • and this list might go on…

But what if its not them, or maybe, even if it them doing the above – what is it about the way in which the social space has been created where we as leaders and workers havent attempted better ways of reducing challenging behaviour even between the young people?

The same goes for the challenging behaviour that seems to triggered by our actions.

On one hand, whether through negligence or accident – we did not communicate the codes of behaviour very well, or how the evening was going to be different to ‘normal’, or spent time with a volunteer who was struggling before the session ..and they then said something a bit provocative to a young person… – a myriad of ‘small ish’ things that we could have done differently to aid and create an enironment that may have maintained more calm spaces than ended up. (And it usually is a myriad of small things)

But it is our challenging behaviour if our reflection is ‘weve always done things this way and no one complained before’

or ‘if they dont like it, they can leave

Who has the challenging behaviour then?

And these are more obvious. As one contributor to my session yesterday considered. What if it is the raising of awareness of a different way of being, acting and behaving- that this challenges young people outside their comfort zone? where, the kind of example might be that young people dont know or say they cant ‘no fight back’ in an argument – or are learning a new way of being in situations like group work, open club spaces. So a task we have, in working with them is to create small steps of trying out new behaviours, and rewarding them (probably), with lots of affirmation and encouragement (even if this in itself might be hard to take) .

The obvious triggers for receiving challenging behaviour are easy to spot and possibly do something about (we need to up our game or change it, or stop doing something).

But what if its much deeper than that, what if the different way of conceiving the world – is too outside the norm, too far removed for a young person to want to buy into, or is threatened by? And before you jump in, its not just young people. organisations who dont collaborate as a new way of being, or see a new way but find this too difficult to comprehend may also act as if threatened.

To note, some of this is fairly likely as it will question the young persons internal narrative – how they made sense of the world up to that point made sense to them. By presenting a new way of being this has to be tried, tested, or ignored, disregarded or accepted (Dan McAdams, 1993, 2001) to become part of the young persons narrative identity. An identity they are continually constructing (and so, but it takes a slower time, are we) . Young people are trying to make sense of the world and their part in it, through the receiving of information – our information through conversations may ultimately expand and add to that story in a good way – but there are tension points for them in allowing it to. Then again we should get this… after all we all have beliefs and deep opinions that take a while to change, whether its the acceptance of Female Bishops or the belief that young people aren’t the disobedient lazy oafs the daily mail present them as.

So – in a number of ways – what if we are the key triggers of the young peoples challenging behaviour? – after all we might actually need to be to ultimately help them or support them into thinking more positively about themselves and their futures.


Sercombe, Howard Youthwork Ethics, 2010.

MacAdams, Dan The Stories we live by, 1993, another piece i wrote on Narrative identities is here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-LA

Young people need autonomy and connectedness, can Christian youthwork provide it?

I Saw this on social media the other day:

A great tension for young people is their desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves while making their own rules. Impossible. (Michael Wear)

Think about it for a moment, then think about what being a young person was like for you in regard to these two things. At the point of wondering about an individuals place in the world, comes a desire to also be in control and make their own rules.

It might be fair to say, the more privileged a young person is, the more opportunity they have to make their own rules, or at least have more autonomy about their own future. But that doesn’t take away their desire to be a rule maker, or have autonomy in situations

It might also be fair to say, that the less day to day responsibilities, stress and turbulence a young person encounters in daily life, the more opportunities that they might have to contemplate the ‘bigger story’.  But again, that doesnt mean to say that it is absent. Neither does it mean that it isnt speculated – just often might not be given the opportunity. Thats the Maslow hierarchy, its only when basic needs are met that actualisation can occur – well thats not quite accurate.

Maybe the question for young people might be how they place themselves in the great Universe, do they consider themselves free – to do what they want – or controlled – as if God already knows therefore humanity is merely puppetry. What if these questions are the ones young people are contemplating in their deep recesses of their soul – beyond or during the distractions from technology?

There might be an argument, that there is a lack of coherent stories in the western world that young people can metaphorically attribute to their own existence. Young People  (as they grow, psychologists tell us) form a narrative identity (probably) to piece together all the parts of their life as a story – yet the most common stories about their existence dont hold water, even if they want them too, such as Disney or materialism. For each generation of people, the founding stories and sacred myths lose their half life. The problem here is that once the story collapses, and there is confusion amongst the personal identity, as well as reduced autonomy and connection, then there are higher levels of mental health problems. Young people dont have a story to live by (McAdams, 1997), just a day to day existence in which accumulation of stuff, of popularity or personal display of images is what derives meaning. Its not a story to live by, but a station on the journey that might be full of mirrors., that gets adopted as a story.  Even via technology young people are not setting the rules, its adults who shape the apps, create the platforms, sell the games and keep young people attracted/addicted/manipulated by them. Young peoples autonomy is temporarily met, as might be their connection. If Studies show that getting a ‘like’ or a ‘follow’ is equivalent to a drug hit, then its no wonder alcohol sales have reduced amongst young people. (To be honest, I’m just the same when a person reads one of my articles -its nowt to do with young people.) Its temporary connection repeated often. Everything louder than everything else.

In their narrative identity, should they be able to adapt one that suits their being, the best one that young people choose is likely to allow for them to have autonomy, and probably also give them purpose, its also likely to provide self worth, confidence and also meaning, and it orientates the person into society in a way that enables them to connect, to function and to be purposeful in their history and that they can have consistency in their previous, current and future recognition of self (Bryan, 2016, p95). What is significantly interesting is that areas of stronger folk religion, of tribes and of community history have lower, almost invisible, incidents of mental health issues. (see: https://newint.org/columns/essays/2016/04/01/psycho-spiritual-crisis) Ie they have a story that they can live by that is not subject to constant challenge, crisis or breakage.

This was published today (21st December.) An existential crisis is impacting mental health. https://opendemocracy.net/transformation/john-f-schumaker/demoralized-mind 

In a much acclaimed study that discovered that MTD was the faith position of many american young people. What Christian Smith also discovered was that belonging to youth groups and believing in a sacred story that gave young people meaning was a ‘good’ thing in terms of their social, mental and physical health. (Smith, C, 2005) I have sidetracked somewhat. Believing in something sacred might be better than believing in nothing.

The question from the outset was whether young people can have both autonomy and connection. I wonder whether young people leave churches and groups because they feel that neither of these things are met. At a time they want connection, they get passed from group to group, at a time they want autonomy they dont have choice. But that could of course all change. Change because we might begin to realise in working with young people that these two factors, in tension, are at play all the time.

When young people challenge me on the streets, asking ‘why are you here?’ what they actually mean is can I trust you. 

They are searching for connection, a connection they can believe in. When young people give up on church, is it because theres nothing for them, or nothing for them. They spot a rat from a mile off and will protect themselves accordingly. Why invest in something not worth investing in. If playing football gives more value and provides more meaning. Or homework does, because the ‘story’ of school and achievement within education has ‘higher’ meaning. But often no more rule making or connected ness, just a rung to place that might lead to this. ‘Having a job, Having a house’ the promise of future autonomy.

So, what about faith. No Sacred story conveys all the human being might require at least not to what psychologists suggest. If the story does, then often the community that practices it might not do. We have to take seriously that young people, especially young women might not have any autonomy in a church, often ignored for the ‘leader’ privileges within youth ministry.. -so why stay? even if the Bible can be read in a way that values women (because it does) – a limited interpretation and power dynamics might say otherwise in a local congregation. So it is stay and believe it and accept submission, or challenge (which many young people do) not find a ‘home’ where challenge is possible, then leave. Leaving as an exercise of autonomy.

It might be more key that young people, do not just hear stories of the gospel, but believe that they are part of the story, performers of its drama. Narratives go so far. Young people can be connected to the story of the past, and yet also have agency in the drama in the future to act in response to God in the midst. Being connected and autonomous at the same time.

Considering the Christian story as a drama to perform, might provide the Connnectedness and Autonomy that a young person is looking for and needing. Youth Ministry, as i suggested in my previous post, would do well to reflect on the possibility that it has the task of the formation of performers who need to know their part, their location in the drama and to be attuned to hearing the ongoing voice of God who prompts in the midst. If young people feel that they are only a number

or one of many in a queue in the church, then they’ll search elsewhere for the autonomy and connection that being a young person is all about for them. Its what many gangs provide. Can Youth Ministry appeal to young people tense need for connection and autonomy? – it could. Why doesnt it?

Its our role to be witnesses of the Story, and maintain not its believing and telling, but its participation and performing. What might Theodrama offer youth ministry? A whole story to participate in and view the world through, and a task of human flourishing, the reconciliation to perform along with the principle actor Christ in the midst. I see no better way of a young person finding connection and autonomy than that. So how might our practices do the same?

Maybe values of empowerment and participation are psychologically important after all.




Bryan, Jocelyn, Human Being, 2016

McAdams Dan, The stories we live by, 1997

Smith Christian, Soul searching, The rise and fall of faith of American Teenagers, 2005

Vanhoozer Edification, Volume 4 Issue 1, 2010, The transdisciplinary journal of Christian Psychology. Vanhoozer.

Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, 2010.

Forget growth strategies for church & youth ministry; meet (young) peoples needs.

I am happy to be corrected by this. But I am struggling to remember an occasion in the last few years where a church or youth ministry organisation who has adopted or created a strategy for growth, has included the notion of ‘meeting peoples needs’. I wonder if this has been bypassed somewhat; for the sake of ‘evangelism strategy’, or ‘social action project’ or ‘organisation objectives’ , i only wonder as i am happy to be corrected. But it feels a little as if meeting peoples needs has got out of fashion. Especially in a climate of organisation survival of the fittest.

Before a few of my esteemed colleagues point out that meeting peoples needs has been usurped by ‘developing their gifts’ , ie Asset Based community development. I am already there, as you might tell, this isnt about developing work from a needs based approach, this is about what it actually means to meet peoples needs, at least getting that part done might be a minimum requirement, or at least recognise that developing gifts and meeting needs go hand in hand in meeting peoples psychological meaning. And this isnt just spiritual needs, I mean human ones. Meet their deepest psychological needs and their gifts might also be part of the equation.

At this point, you might expect me to refer to Maslow. And, i will. Only to say that despite the criticisms of his hierarchy, there is something critical not to be overlooked in what he proposes. Forget the hierarchy for one moment, as these get us into knots. But what if the levels were summarised:

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs

So, consider them as these, starting from the bottom up:

  1. Survival and Security
  2. To know and to live
  3. Affiliation and relationship
  4. Achievement and purpose needs.

So, how many growth strategies for organisations start with ‘meeting the needs of people’, a bit of me wonders whether some initiatives dont get further than ‘base level’ – providing a social service, a valid and meaningful one – like food, or money advice or youthwork conversation, but there become a bottle neck, blockage or barrier to preventing persons starting from this point to have other needs met in the structure of the church or organisation. But what of the people who are already in our youth clubs, churches – in what way are their ‘creativity’ and ‘affiliation’ needs met – in more than status? 

However, moving on from Maslow, Over the last few months I have been writing an essay for my Psychology class on Myth Making, one of the books that I read during this was Jocelyn Bryans reflections on Christianity and Psychology book; Human Being (2016),  in it she argues that Humans develop a narrative identity that provide themselves with a meaning of life that has to consist of all four of the following for a person to consider their life as meaningful:

  1. Purpose – our lives have to have purpose, eg getting a job, raising family, buying a home, being successful
  2. Value and Justification – our lives must be in some way in accordance with a moral standard, and we can present ourselves as a good person, (often we’ll re narrate past events to assert that we have acted morally)
  3. Efficacy – This is where we have the capacity to achieve something, to make something happen, to be in control of that achievement, to contribute to society, a community
  4. Self-Worth – This could be in the achievement of something, the feedback of something, and having a stable sense of self which is evidenced by stories of others and their admiration of us.  (2016, p62, based on Baumeister, Wilson)

If theres an underlying reason that people go to church, or church related activities: that ‘it provides things the world doesnt dish up’ (Marschall, 2004, Youthworker magazine, US)  i wonder whether of all the summaries of human needs described here, that churches, youth groups and youth work organisations have focussed on to the detriement of others.

On one hand it would be easily argued that is the Christian faith that has the capacity to provide a persons needs (and Bryan suggests this) – and so the story that is told, the way it is told and how young people acknowledge their place and purpose in it is crucial. Yet it is not the Christian faith that young people leave when or if they leave the church, it is the organisation of the church, so which of the human needs of young people isnt being met and how might meeting peoples needs become a focus. In recent research, The fuller institute discovered that a ‘healthy place’ was where young people stayed in a church beyond the age of 14. I would be confident that a healthy place might be where young people, and their family and others needs are intentionally met.

This is not a selfish proposition. It is about how communities of faith act as community to enable all the flourish within in it. But we have to take into account in church that human drives, urges, motivations, personalities and goals play a significant part of decision making and being part of a social group. Its not about getting what I need, but being in a space to flourish so that I can contribute in a healthy way. Surely thats ultimately not selfish.

If i had a haunch, then most people leave churches or youth groups because 1 or more of their needs isnt being met. A disagreement leads to loss of belonging, being cast as sinful/guilty/shame doesnt endorse a personal morality, it doesnt fit with life purpose, or what I am beginning to think more and more. Church doesnt fulfil a need to be challenged (healthily), or to build on and use creative gifts for a larger purpose (with the exception of a few creative gifts/music being one). People will stay if church and youth ministry is able to give them meaning and purpose, you can fill in the blanks regarding the opposite. Church is to be a place of deep meaning and where people flourish.

So, if the church is serious about keeping people, or attracting people, our strategies need to include being able to meet peoples human needs in the functioning of the community. What might that mean

  1. Creating places of welcome and belonging
  2. Teaching that provides people with value and purpose
  3. Opportunities for meaningful and ongoing challenges appropriate to the person and for them to have some control over them (and not limited by age, gender, disability)
  4. People have positive feedback. yes thats positive feedback in a church. (uh oh, heres the impossible one, i think i was ok up to point 3 ;-))

There are tons more, that you could probably think of.  And I know this is completely impossible etc etc, but start with the small group you might already be involved in, the youth group, house group, knit & natter group – think ; in what way can we improve on helping people to flourish through meeting their life meaning needs?  do they need to be part of a challenge and stretched, or be commended, or just continue to belong and give them opportunity for this.. – the way that people belong… it when they make the tea in your house. 

Church might offer something different to the world – when it develops peoples needs, facilitates and fosters creativity, purpose and challenge – as well as create spaces of welcome. Its what people need.

Lets have meeting peoples needs, that enable them to flourish in their community as the church mission and youth group strategy. Lets have meeting peoples psychological needs so that the spaces are created so that their creativity is harnessed, their gifts used and as persons they are contributors.

Oh – and youll find Jesus did most of this with his disciples. So its pretty biblical too. He probably over worked the challenges, and that didnt do the worldwide church any harm from those 12.



Rethinking young people and ‘low self esteem’

These Young People have just such low self esteem!  

This week I have been attending a 3-day block of lectures on Psychology and Christianity as part of my MA course at Durham University. It has been absolutely fascinating. During the three days each of the 17 of us in the room have been given the chance to present to the others a 20 minute presentation on a recent paper in psychology and relate it to ministry, again, fascinating the variety, and even if many of my colleagues applied their papers to other work and ministry, what was insightful was being able to reflect on what it might mean for working with young people.

One paper, and an accompanying lecture on Self Esteem was i thought worth reflecting on further.

Firstly, a few points about Self-esteem. Self-esteem is contested. However, Self-esteem and the Self have been part of the ongoing conversations in Psychology from almost the dawning of Psychology itself.  For James (1890) Self-esteem can be linked to our nature, can rise and fall as a function of achievement and set-backs and notably, not all successes and failures have the same effect on self-esteem. There can be a ‘State’ Self-esteem (one that fluctuates as a person ‘feels’ about themselves) and also a ‘Trait’ self-esteem – almost like a ‘resting pulse’ its the normative state, but how such a resting state of self-esteem exists is open to debate.  There is an element of cognition required for self-esteem, for it depends on the person in their ‘mind’ to interpret themselves in light of the events to then make assessments of themselves, against the situations. One of the functions of self-esteem which is valuable to youth workers is how self-esteem helps a person to achieve their goals, to indicate self-determination and also maybe realise dominance over others. Self-esteem that fluctuates is highly linked to contingencies of self-worth  (CSW) – which have been researched, albeit in America by student samples, to include things like appearance, others approval, competitiveness, academic competency, love and support of family, virtues and also relationship with God (again, American students) – this study was done in 2001, and was with a predominately white student population. But Some of these CSW are important to reflect on as these can be filters to look through ‘life goals’ through, as well as be motivations in themselves.

So, enough with the definitions, the thing that caught my eye was from one of the presentations by a colleague…

In an academic paper which had brought together a large number of data regarding the changes of Self esteem along the lifespan, Robins and Trzesenski in 2002 produced the following graph that makes a stab at trying to bring a uniformity to the conversations about self esteem as it changes through the ages.

I have taken a photo of it, and so the quality isnt great, and im aware that you might not be able to access the paper without permissions, but here it is.

From left to right is the age of people from 9-12, 13-17, 18-22 and right the way through to 80-90. The scale is based on an accumulation of data sets from a large range of previous papers. The data sets are the shapes, and a trend line is plotted through them.

Yes there are caveats with taking data from a cumulation of other samples.

But as a youthworkers, this is interesting isnt it?  How the level of self esteem changes through the ages.  There are reasons why it changes, and changes dramatically at certain points, they’re sort of obvious (linked to the description above)

We need to recognise a ‘change’ in self-esteem – but is it actually a ‘low one’? 

Of course, because everyone is different, making comparisons between young people might cause us, teachers or others to compare levels of self-esteem. But what is noticeable (aside from the distinction between males and females) , is not that young people have ‘low’ self-esteem – it is that there is such as significant change  in self esteem, for virtually all young people.

What we need to do, as youthworkers is to be aware of a ‘change’ in self-esteem levels with young people, that might feel like ‘low’ self-esteem. 

Actually – by telling a young person they ‘have low self-esteem’ is hardly going to make them feel better about themselves anyway is it?  The only thing this might do, is increase the propensity that our work as a youthworker or programme might have to be heroic to increase it. The reality is that it is far more complicated.

Maybe as youthworkers and youth practitioners it is more helpful to talk about a drop, or a change in a young persons self esteem -caused by the cognitive capacity increasing to consider themselves in respect to the CSW’s above ( ie “am i good looking, am i successful, am i important”) and do against their goals of being important, successful or attractive.

The graph is interesting though on a number of levels.

Yes there is a drop at 13-17- but it is hardly low. And the lowest point for many young people isnt 13-17, its 19 – when they leave home, and go to university. Especially indicated and ‘support or love of family’ is important, as recognised in the student surveys. In what way then, might youth workers who work with 15-year-olds help them to prepare for being 19 and this shift. And, as student life kicks in in regard to alcohol, socialising and being away from home, what strategies might there be to help them to cope in that time, learned from when they were 13…?

The reality is, then that may 15 year olds, probably have on average about the same level of self-esteem as many youthworkers- aged between 25-40. And its probably higher if that youth worker is worried about job security, is away from home, is overworked and stressed or their goals arent being realised.  There is a case for 50-60 year old youthworkers, those who have high self esteem and might have better capacity and confidence to help others. When 30 year olds are still ‘trying to make it…’

Maybe we should forget ‘low self-esteem’ and reflect on ‘changing’ self-esteem in people, not just young people, though young people often get tarnished as having ‘low self-esteem’ the easiest. It might not be the case… and either way its not helpful.

Just a few thoughts on Young people and self-esteem i thought were quite useful and worth sharing, it is such an important aspect of a young person and how they construct a view of themselves, and us, their parents and others, so reflecting further on self-esteem might be important in that changing positive relationship we have with them.

Id love to know your thought – and please let me know if this is helpful, especially in work relating to young people and mental health, in terms of young people as leaders, school achievement, alternative provision or mentoring type situations.


Self-Esteem Development across the Lifespan Author(s): Richard W. Robins and Kali H. Trzesniewski Source: Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 14, No. 3 (Jun., 2005), pp. 158-162 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of Association for Psychological Science Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20183012 Accessed: 15-02-2017 18:52 UTC

James (1890) The Principles of Psychology

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.


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