10 Reasons why young people leave youth groups

Over this weekend I have been leading training with the EQUIP NORTH EAST students on the Unit entitled ‘working with young people’  (for details of the equip course see the above menu.) One of the questions I asked the students on Friday evening was,

When you were a young person, what were some of the reasons you kept going to the youth activities that you went to?  

Most of them went to things like Boys brigade, church groups, sports clubs, music related activities, after school groups, and this list of things was fairly obvious; it was things like;

  1. I was made to feel welcome
  2. I met my friends
  3. I met other friends who i wasnt at school with
  4. It was safe
  5. I learned stuff
  6. I had new experiences

In a way, most of the research about young people and groups, fitted these answers, however, I also wanted to ask them, and develop more of a discussion about why they didnt stay in certain groups, clubs and activities.

These might or might not be that obvious, but are worth reflecting on further:

Responses to ‘why did you leave the youth provision?’

  1. I was told i had to leave as I was too old for it -ie the max age was 11
  2. It was boring after a year – It didnt change at all – so i lost interest – it was like groundhog day.
  3. It was boring after a year – I felt too old for it because it didnt change – unlike Harry Potter films, It didnt grow old with me.
  4. The groups kept changing and i was forced to go in a group i didnt want to – so i left
  5. For things like sports activities, cost and travel was mentioned
  6. I felt like i needed to be taught stuff differently, it felt too much like school.
  7. The leaders kept changing, so i didnt know who to trust to speak to
  8. I was the only person that age, so the church decided they couldnt do anything for me, so i left and found a different church to go to.
  9. Other kids seemed to be favourites and get responsibility.
  10. I was too busy and had to prioritise, usually school work came first from the age of 15….

None of the group of adults in the training are over 25, so all of these experiences are in the recent past, ie in the last 15 years of being involved in youth activities in churches and sports clubs in the UK, its not an exhaustive survey, by any means, but similarly I would think there is enough even in these responses to reflect on the experiences of young adults in churches. The questions that arise are:

  1. Does Youth Ministry grow old with the young people – or are young people supposed to make the transitions themselves – ie hop from group to group as they get older?
  2. If Youth Ministry is meant to be significant to young people – why is it the first, it seems, to go when other things take priority? There is due reason for school work being so, but if sports clubs clash – why do ‘they win’? – if they have more meaning, does ‘youth ministry’ need to find ways to mean more than what could be a free social night and a few games.
  3. Young people are hugely perceptive of changes, and because they are constructing their identity ( Wyn/White) they make interpretations of the decisions made on their behalf – especially ones they dont control or feel an injustice.
  4. Young people wont stay to something that makes them feel younger than they are, but are happier to raise their game and be challenged.
  5. Young people felt quite sad that they have to leave things for reasons out of their control.
  6. Young people want responsibility and opportunities and find these elsewhere if they’re bypassed from them in the church groups.
  7. It shouldnt remind them of school, but they want to be challenged, we have got to make our youth ministry and work provision around different educational methods and approaches ( informal), learning styles , and if its a faith group use a variety of ways of forming about faith – can faith be ‘taught’ in all learning styles? 
  8. Connecting with adults on a consistent basis matters. No one said that the person has to be young, trendy, or relevant. Consistency was far more important.

So, a few thoughts on why young people stayed in youth groups & provision, why they left, and reflecting on these. They may not be rocket science. But as youth provision is a voluntary attendance, then its not about always trying to make it bigger and better, but to make it meaningful, consistent and better.


The emotional reality of the exits in Youthwork and Ministry

Sometimes i wonder if the way in which young people are treated we think that they are some kind of alien species. Often it is because various institutions and maybe even youthworkers to justify their own existence and specialism, have created a narrative about young people that gives them special status, using terms like transition, or identity, or others to describe the age group. However, i wonder whether in the treating of young people as an alien species – we forget that their capacity or the effect of the actions or youth work & ministry on their emotions. Forgetting that they have them.

Why do i say this?

Well in the world of the street based youthwork, most people will talk about how it can be unpredicatable, and the connections superficial, irregular even. That the young people who are ‘most in need’ of detached youthwork might be said to be at risk, disadvantaged (and im only using these words as examples) , that they might act in certain ways, believe certain things – but what about the young person we meet on the street who might be a person with emotions?  (and im not ‘just’ talking about anger.)

But even these young people, a year or two later ask after previous workers, ones who ‘meant’ something to them. Ones they connected with, ones that left them after a year, or two. Even if there was only a few conversations a few shared memories, a few moments over a year – these meant something, two people connected in the public space. There was an emotional connection.

What of the youth group?

Might we stop to think about the emotional connections that young people make in their groups, clubs and churches with peers, workers and leaders?  Yet, when we think about young people as having emotional connections – how does this affect the styles of youth ministry that they experience?  So, not unlike above – does the church give young people temporoary connections with year on year workers? Or does the education structure of a church mean that young people are asked to move up to different classes and not maintain a long term connection with the same person for a long term ( in effect copying school) – so that one or two people develop deep connections – rather than young people making connections group by group.

Of course then there are situations where the youthworker is only around for 2-3 years. Again – does the church think about the emotional connections that could be built up – then affected when the 3 years is up..?

In Jocelyn Bryans book Human Being (2016)  she describes how that emotions are an important source of information and communication, and in addition the emotion displayed is linked to the cognitive appraisal of the situation. So for example, two different young people will react differently to the same mark in an essay paper because for one person it is evaluated against a need to have got a higher mark, the other by a personal desire to have passed. Their evaluation of a situation, in line with goals ( ie to achieve) or thoughts affects the emotions that are displayed. Then as obviously as our evaluations of situations change the way we react to the situations emotionally does too.

The problem occurs when the result of the actions we have taken in youth work and ministry has created hardened fearful and untrusting young people. There is much talk about resilience in regard to young people – the key factor in resilience isnt being able to cope – it is having connections and support structures that are meaningful in order that decisions can be supported or endorsed. Someone doesnt have resilience because they have it, it is a community factor.

So what kind of community does the world of youth ministry/youth work present to young people if it acts in a way that prevents depth, stability and inconsistency? If young people become hardened – because they once emotionally gave and trusted, and were let down – then has the person who was meant to be for them let them down even further – after all the teacher/social worker even Parent might be subject to their own agenda – but the ‘youth’ worker…

When our practices and Ministries promote the gaining of experience by the participants, gap years, college placements, short term projects, rather than thinking ‘this is about young people and they have emotions… how will this affect them, how will this help them.. how am i taking care of them..?’

There is lots of research done on youth Mentoring projects – whereby most of the data suggests that in a one to one mentoring relationship there needs to be a minimum of one year for real benefits to start to take place! A year – thats often 3 times longer than most student term placements! But there are even more benefits when this time is extended. At Durham Youth for Christ, I am so proud that we have been able to mentor young people for anything up to four or five years, with consistent staff in part, and even students who have volunteered for 3-4 years, and the effect on the young people – who now want to become mentors themselves is quite amazing. The young people have been treated in way that their whole persons, not just ‘attending school’ or ‘behaviour’ transformation, but that they are people with emotions who need to be tended to, respected, understood and to a point taken care of. Most young people leave being mentored with us in their own choice, again when they are ready, not when a programme ends, it is when they feel confident, independant. Sometimes, we as youthworkers find it harder to let go, and thats not an emotional crutch thing, but that we also feel emotional, and have invested in young people, giving of ourselves in the process, often giving and giving again. For neither should we be robots either.

It would be odd for people to not care when someone leaves the scene of their lives. In a Biblical context – the Easter story contains many occasions where the Disciples were full of grief, or wept at the death of Jesus, or theres the desperation of Peter – where will I go Lord? – when the pending leaving of Jesus was announced. There are entrances and exits in the ongoing drama of redemption (Vanhoozer 2005; 39). Yet when some of the methods of youth work and ministry exacerbate the leaving, then what might that say about how young people are thought of – just for someones experience? just a step on a professional ladder? a person whose emotions dont matter – theyll get over it… but thats just the point – should the institutions and organisations expect that of young people?

Maybe the best leaders arent the ones that are paid. The best are those that stayed. Who stick with young people. And that is where i know i have failed. Knowing that being paid in youth ministry is so temporary it becomes hard as a worker to give, for their sake or my own. Fear or self protection. But if i feel it, what of the young people themselves when they experience may workers, projects, volunteers – why would they invest again – except to show anger against the systems and structures.

I hope its not a patronising thing to suggest that working with young people has got to recognise that it is an emotional experience, it connects people, it involves them, and in active choice young people will choose experiences, like we all do, that would seek to create the best emotional experience for them. If a young person knows that they might get hurt again – why would they bother? – unless of course they are forced to participate.




Do young people care about youthworkers? (probably not)

I wonder if it is a good premise to start from in youthwork, even youth ministry, even if its a painful realisation to come to.

That young people dont care about youthworkers! 

As youthworkers we might hope that young people actually like us, want to spend time with us, and we hope listen to what we might have to say. But fundamentally they dont actually care about us. 

Looking at this on the basis of street based youthwork this isnt particularly controvertial. At least at first glance it might not be. In most regular discussions about meeting young people where theyre at, in dealing with various forms of conversation, including challenges, questions or humour, boundary testing and provoke that young people give during the conversations – one of the easiest ways to deal with such questions is not to take them personally and to realise that if a young person asks a personal question ; usually a have you ever…..? type question (ie have you ever got drunk, gambled, had sex, that kind of thing) it is not usually a personal enquiry to discover something about the youthworker- it is more to find approval, to find acceptance, to assess consistency and tolerance of the youthworker for the young persons benefit. Fundamentally, even if it was that a young person, or group of young people did ask these types of questions more seriously, the meaning behind the responses, the purpose of sharing a personal give away response – is not usually to reciprocate an element of care – reality yes, authenticity yes – trust also. But not care.

Why might this matter? – In a way it means that the interaction we have with young people becomes less about feeding our ego with personal acceptance, and thinking about the young person, their dreams, interests and being interested in them for who they are – if young people really arent interested in us, then neither in the interaction should we be interested about us too, neither our story, our past, our experience – Young people , especially when we meet them where theyre at, just dont care about us! They care firstly about themselves, their friends and countless other things… 

Young people, especially, want to trust people, the youthworker – they can do this without actually caring about them.

They might care about the youth club – more that the youthworker, the programme that helps them get a job , more that the youthworker, whose job might be on the line because of the end of the programme.

This, i think, isnt a reality check for those of us on the streets – we know young people dont care about us- though when they do- or we give them chance to it can be an incredible moment. If we run the open youth club, the employment programme, the project – again it would be fair to say that the young people have their future prospects, their achievement is a higher priority that building up a real connection with the worker – though they might respect, listen and respond to them.

I wonder if the reality check for this is in the church and youth ministry.

Or if this type of working with young people gives young people more opportunities to actually care about the people that they trust. Is there an assumption in youth ministry situations, or Ministry, that young people default some kind of care or respect to a youth worker in a church setting? , which means that it becomes possible to inspire because young people in a church actually care about what a youthworker says to them in this context.

However, I wonder whether in churches, or in clubs, or on the streets, we can spend alot of time trying to be important and significant with young people and hoping that they might care about what we say because we hope they find us fun, interesting, relevant.

Often we’re imported in to a situation (church/club) in a paid role, and when this is the case we’re the professional come to help, to run the show. As volunteers in the church this might fundamentally be different, it becomes more of the family dynamic, friends of friends helping friends- there might be more intuitive care.

We probably shouldnt want young people to care about us anyway, thats not our role. But how often do we hope young people like us? find us interesting? or hope they follow us because of our likeability? – more so than who we stand for, our views, or our acceptance of them?

If we thought young people actually care about us, we probably need to get over it and realise the care we might have for young people is a one way street. It is probably better that way, after all we wouldn’t want to encourage dependency or favouritism – and even these moments could be determined as young people acting in ways to get what they want rather than to actually care about the youth worker.

When we meet young people for the first time, there is no rapport, there are few commonalities or shared experiences they have no reason to think anything of us at all. So if, as or when, young people give us space in their space to talk and give an opinion this is  semblance of respect – if they still give us that opportunity when they might have got to know us then even better. But in reality, and it is a reality – and it might be hard to take, young people don’t really care about their youth worker and what they say.

We dont do youthwork for young people to care about us – so maybe we should act as though its true that they dont – but continue to be interested, to educate, to inspire and to help them challenge the oppression they face anyway. How we enable young people to care about us to the point of reflecting, thinking and being respectful of what we say and do when we communicate with them is part of the respect building game – our well being is not the young persons game, neither is the respect for our opinion, our past, our story, our beliefs, or hopes – this is earned in stages. Young people, can be very respectful, and generous and considerate to us on the streets – they might even give space for conversation, but in the main, and rightly so, it is often about them.


Relational/Detached youth work – hamstrung by uncertainty

I remember a time between 2004 and 2008 when as a youthworker i wasnt worried about finances. Not that i had any, or much. But because the type of work with young people i was involved in was largely programme related groups, or short term activities, it was relatively easy to ‘go through the motions’ of the groups and activities, because in the main the depth of the relationship was at arms length. This isnt meant to sound harsh or callous, just the reality of the situation.

In detached youthwork there is nothing programmatic about it, it is purely about developing a professional relationship with a young person in their context (Sercombe 2010) and so it relies upon the worker and young person giving of themselves into the space to negotiate a relationship. It is an emotional act, because it is a personal , person to person one. It involves effort on both parties.

Because it is an act of relationship, it requires the capacity to go the distance, if detached has short term agendas, thats probably a different type of animal. But if its purely relational then i am beginning to recognise that the conditions for it to work effectively have to allow for long term connections to be possible from the outset. Because, and not unlike mentoring relationships, if either party knows that the relationship is finite then it might be less likely either will invest and give into it, and if one party doesnt then, the neither will the other.

In some detached youthwork, young people connect with the people, actually they nearly all connect with the people, for others they also connect with the brand, the project and accept different workers who appear in the same jackets. though I wonder if neutral space places of detached like parks/skateparks and slightly more well off areas (like Perth, and im thinking from experience but not proof generally) are more accepting of different workers, whereas the community estate is about connecting with the same people.

With the national uncertainty of funding, or where local centres of youthwork start to struggle to find funding for detached youthwork, and this started to happen in Perth, when the future became more uncertain, it became more of a challenge to rise above this to develop the possibility of a supportive relationship with a young person on detached because I knew that it only had so long to develop, it just meant that i gave less into it, almost as a psychological self protection, human nature not to want to get hurt, or emotionally invest, to let them or the relationship down.

In effect relational work is hamstrung by uncertainty. It occurs when young people who meet detached workers find out that the worker is only going to be there another few months ( ie in June when the workers are students) – the young people back off, but also so do the students- at least the ones who have tried to develop relationships, but even then they know theyre only going to be there a year, its still an uncertainty in the development of the relationship. Self preservation, especially for the most hurt young people who dont want to be hurt or let down again.

Its probably an irony that the most relationship orientated approach in youthwork, with often the most ‘at risk’ young people, is the one where the longest term relationships developed in such as way are the most impactful of the most ‘deemed’ at risk or where the young persons promise is fulfilled, is also the most difficult to fund and provide the certainty for it. Its why it becomes a signposting thing so young people jump from it to someone else, but thats not them in relationship, its them being passed on. Or where the best detached youthwork is done by volunteers who can commit to the long haul, not students or paid people who rely on funding and become hamstrung by funding or the direction of the funding.

I may be wrong, i often am, but the type of youthwork, which is most, and not just detached, that requires at its heart the building of relationships as a form of educating and supporting and growing groups is one that because of our collective human nature is hamstrung the most by the uncertainties of the profession. Please someone win the lottery and donate it to detached youthwork projects in the UK… then itll just be a matter of convincing volunteers to stick around (and with great training they often do!)

‘Confirmation’ as an opportunity to launch relational group discipleship.

A few years ago I had a conversation where I caused a Vicar to cry. I’m not proud of it. It wasnt clever of me, neither did i think i was being provocative, neither insensitive, or insightful.

The vicar was recalling the progress that they had in their local school and describing the process of advertising, ‘selecting’ and developing the confirmation group in a local cofe school, they were a few weeks into the course and getting ready for the ceremony itself, or it had happened a few weeks previous, i cant remember exactly, but you get the picture.

The church also had a youth group, which met on a weekday evening. A kind of open club, with largely social games, activities and some faith content or activity, nothing ‘heavy’.

The Vicar was talking about how the hope was that the young people who had been confirmed would start going to the youth group. for no other reason that he would let them know about it, and some of their friends in higher school years go to it.

What i said was ‘well, _________, the problem with that is that you have built the relationship up with them, created a group space for them as a group where they feel safe, and comfortable discussing possibly deeper spiritual things and after being confirmed, this group is dispanded and they dont have the opportunity, in this group to continue being discipled by you’ – The youth group isnt the place for the kind of discipleship, effectively, that the Vicar in this situation had actually started. Yet they had begun to create a group where young people trusted them and a space opened up to discuss things of faith. The most intentional faith group for mostly ‘unchurched’ young people in the diocese. It’s then that they gulped, took breath and were on the brink of tears.

I didnt think this was a particularly rocket scientist thing to say. But it revealed something of a ministry and activity first culture in the church and relationship second. As long as young people attend ministries, doesnt matter which ones, or how, then this is the requirement. Or a failure to recognise what was being created in the form of group discipleship, and relational connection with the member of the clergy, and no real desire to maintain this, or see discipleship through beyond a ceremony.

Practically; What if every confirmation group is started at a time – near the beginning of year 6 so that there can be a whole year of establishing a group dynamic before they head to secondary school. Can clergy dictate this with the school?

What if it occured outside of the school and in a local church/community centre – so that this space becomes familiar to the group and part of its identity – (when confirmation groups in schools become harder to maintain. )

What if the young people know from the outset that part of the confirmation is a continued process of learning and developing after confirmation ceremony and that they have to think of activities and discussions they want to discuss further once the formal confirmation group is finished.  Just so its not just to be thought about at the end..

What then, if every confirmation group (say there is 10 in the group) continues to meet with the clergy & volunteer once a month or fortnightly after the confirmation ceremony for 6-12 months – what kind of group work is developed, what opportunities for discipleship would this bring, what training for formational leadership could this spurn in them? (or alternatively they could ‘go’ to a youth group) 

What if this group continued to develop spiritual curriculum, relationship and faith throughout the next 7 years- building on what they started – yes a few might ‘drop off’ but it might be the best way of ensuring some kind of small group for young people of a certain age as they progress through the ages?

How do you go about helping the group continue? ask them, plan with them, pose scenarios and options. (dont buy a resource, every group will be different to the previous)

Then another group starts the next year.

And the next.

Until every year group has one group in it of 6-10 young people – all are different because of different interests, issues, choice of topics, learning methods. 1 group per year band. Yes they might mix and do socials together, but they have key group identity as the confirmation cohort of the year 20__. They neednt invite their friends to the group, in one way – that is what the open youth club is for, to a degree. (and inviting new people to this type of group rarely works)

Currently the church only keeps 1/3 of its young people.  If 6 year groups of 10 young people are confirmed at 11 (60) and say 2 of each group drop out, and only 8 of the 10 start. Then 6/10 in a group might just stay until they are 18. Especially if they are trained and discipled well, given opportunities to serve in the church (and change the world), develop skills and find their identity in the local church. I think from 1/3 to 6/10 might represent a 100% increase, and yes i know this is hypothetical. But if the scenario above is replicated then currently barely any who are confirmed are involved past 12.

Yes i know itll involve man/woman power and resources. But it might need 6 people (+ stand bys) to work with the clergy in each group, if they each meet once a month then this shouldnt be too much of a challenge. And if the oldest group – the ‘first’ ones once they get to 15-6, part of their discipleship is to mentor and help with the new ones… then theres a ready made cycle and further training ground for disciples.  What if this was core volunteering for the church, discipling young people. Not youthwork, not scary young people – but giving young people the opportunity to be discipled.

It might involve a change in culture. It might involve a re prioritisation of tasks, or a training of clergy in relational group work, education and some youthwork skills, or it might involve realising that the future of the church and young people into its future calling is staring at them in the face, but it means a shift to continually invest and build on the mechanisms in place, effectively building and using the young people who are effectively sent to us in the confirmation group and making the best of this gift. Honing and encouraging long term relational group work discipleship. The clergy cant be consumed with discipling young people , can they?  Well i guess this might have to be another culture shift, one like all the other ministries will yield long term results. And have more impact than a considerable amount of meetings and emails that clergy have to also deal with. Is it adding pressure to the clergy to do more, yes, well if people are concerned then they need to fill other gaps, to help out in this work.

It can work, ive seen it, it takes time, and desire and patience. Youth ministry isnt working, but confirmation as a ceremony and an opt in for young people to explore faith – might be an opportunity to develop, to reconise the gift horse that might be starring us in the mouth.

The disconnect from mission ‘to’, to church ‘with’

As far as i know, Christian youthworkers, volunteers, and many people across the United kingdom are involved very sacrificially in the lives of individual and groups of young people who find themselves struggling with the following issues for a variety of reasons:

Housing and Homelessness

Sexual identity, sexual preference, Sexuality

Learning difficulties

Behavioural difficulties


Addictions to alcohol or drugs


Perpetrators of crime

Domestic abuse in their relationships

Economic poverty

Mental Health

To be able to interact with young people, these youthworkers often go beyond their comfort zones, beyond the programmes and beyond their job descriptions because of a call to follow the nose of God into the situations and contexts that young people find themselves. They often use as inspiration Jesus mandate in Luke 4, a combination of christian values and what is said to be ‘liberal’ youthwork values of inclusion, valuing community and equality – and build relationships with young people where theyre at, in schools, on the streets, in clubs, in groups.

They present to young people an inclusive, a possibility that Jesus is interested in them, a Jesus that meets young people in their reality, a Jesus that can be grasped. A Jesus who is open. A work of the mission of God in the UK, as embodied by the social activists as described by Newbigin:

“What is true in the position of the social activists is that a church which exists only for itself and its own enlargement is a witness against the gospel, that the Church exists not for itself and not for its members but as a sign and agent and foretaste of the kingdom of God, and that it is impossible to give faithful witness to the gospel while being indifferent to the situation of the hungry, the sick, the victims of human inhumanity” (Newbigin 1989)

Most of these people doing this kind of work – and i also include those in conversation with people at foodbanks, or on the streets of Street pastors, or being a Prison Chaplain. Do so with the honest feeling, and unescapable reality that the local church that they represent personally will not be able to accommodate the complexities of this person or group they are missioning to in conversation, their needs, their learning capacity, their social standing or knowledge of their history. Yet its the language from the core that dictates that others have to adapt, whether people arent valid.

How might this disconnect be confronted head on – when will people we don’t understand, or who are not like the current church community in background, go from being ‘missioned to’ and ‘church with’ . The attractive option is to create other homogenous units of church (as described in Here be Dragons) creating church with young people in the chaos, enacting church amongst groups, amongst friends who share life & ceremony (Clapp)- but this seems to be relatively easy in practice, keep people who wont fit into church outside to create their own faith community that connects to other church communities. (For more examples of this listen to the Nomad podcast) Yes its far harder for an established church community to readily accommodate a different community, or people with a different identity, and if this is going to happen, because clearly the church is doing its best to do mission amongst people who are in the margins (foodbanks etc), what is the process and education needed for the church to disconnect from its own ideals, and expand faith and performance of church within the margins.

Yet for the sake of the life within the margins, the pioneers are staying there. Whilst they do so the so called core of the church remains unchanged and unchallenged. And their voice is ignored, because it does challenge, it does confront, it upsets the applecart, and doesn’t buy into the established structures. Yet, can we have more people who live incarnationally, and build relationships with LGBT young people, immigrants, people with Mental health issues, or disabilities to be inspired by at national conferences. Let the core be expanded. Lets dissolve the disconnections, and embrace and include. Its challenging, improvisory and real.

“Christianity then is not a religion of exclusivity, of a predestined group who are chosen for salvation. Instead it is the set of those who know/embrace this paradox of being strangers. We are the boundary, not the centre, we are the other, not the included, and it is out of this realisation that our empathy for the oppressed and marginalised spring” (Brewin 2011, Embracing difference in a fractured world) – Taken from ‘Here be Dragons (2013)

But at the moment, is there a personal conflict – for those who work with (young) people described as in the margins, and the possibilities that that person finding belonging in the process of finding faith and in the community of the established church. Its not a theological or missiological tension, this is continuously being restriven and reflected on by the soujourners in the margins. But why isnt space for that voice in the mainstream accommodated?

Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, said, “My experience has shown that when we welcome -people from this world of anguish, brokenness and depression, and when they gradually discover that they are wanted and loved as they are and that they have a place, then we witness a real transformation — I would even say ‘resurrection.’ Their tense, angry, fearful, depressed body gradually becomes relaxed, peaceful and trusting. This shows through the expression on the face and through all their flesh. As they discover a sense of belonging, that they are part of a ‘family,’ then the will to live begins to emerge. I do not believe it is of any value to push -people into doing things unless this desire to live and to grow has begun to emerge.”


Relationship building youthwork?

Several different conversations over the last few weeks, and a little bit of reading has prompted me to start to think about the purposes of youthwork, no seriously I mean it, what do we do youthwork for? in the grand scheme of things?  what is it that we are trying to affect in the moments that we have with young people, young adults.. people in fact?

Kevin Vanhoozer in the Drama of Doctrine discusses that we are in the midst of a redemptive drama, in which to be a participant it to be participating in the pursuit of human flourishing – “Following Jesus way promotes human flourishing (shalom) and leads to the summum bonum; life, eternal and abundant” he goes on to say, “Christian theology (and i would add the mission of God)  seeks to continue the way of truth and life, not admiring it from afar, but by following and embodying it” (Vanhoozer 2005)

Should youthwork pursue a Human flourishing intention? we may already think so but if so, does this lead to other questions like:

What might human happiness/contentment involve? what might it mean to be distinctively human? what constitutes flourishing?

And so, what would it mean, after all, its not that the John 10:10 (life and all its fullness) verse isnt often a mantra for the youthworker, but what would it actually mean for youthwork to have within it a sense that its greater purpose is for Human flourishing?

Of course, there are facets to what would be perceived as Human Flourishing, but what if every encounter we had with a young person was for their sake, their growth, their moment of change, an awakening of new perception to be someone different- what would it mean to (as a youthworker) enable  a young person as a social being to flourish in the relationships they already have? with parents, schools, and others.

Maybe theres something there too: back in 1969: The much overlooked community based christian youthworkers, Goetschius & Tash wrote this:

“The role of the worker, and the agency, is that of an outside resource person who helps to create a situation in which learning can take place, and who can pass on skills and help them to take effect in the life and work of those who are learning to use them. This kind of social education can take place in any circumstances, at any time….In all the examples the common factor is the attempt to help individuals, groups and social institutions understand, accept or reject, use and affect, their social environment.”(Goetschius 1969: 184-5, taken from http://www.infed.org/thinkers/george_goetschius.htm)

Whilst the times may have changed, yet young people, and us all are involved in many ways and exist as social beings in communities, a variety of, many of which are transitory, set by geography etc etc -yet we are generally inherently social, both phychologically and theologically.

At the same time, if our role is to be a resource to enable, endorse, encourage the possibility that the relationships that a young person has socially are changed for the better. How is the youthworker helping flourishing to occur in the existing relationships that a young person has – the ones between themselves and their parents ( who after all are still the biggest influence and go to for a YP- despite narrative fears to the contrary), or the school teacher, or the church leader. Its not as Goetschius and Tash would argue to replace the existing, but to be a mirror to allow reflection of, or a facilitator, or sign poster to those existing things, and allow these to be more flourished, positive, constructive…

How often have we as a youthworker stood in the gap between the young person and the establishment ( be it school, parents, church etc), and tried to endorse our position by keeping that link far too integral? Have we over emphasised the position of youthworker, for our own ego’s sake? and got in the way?

Recent criticism in USA has focussed on the place of the youth ministry who has effectively put their ministry/activities/support as an accepted substitute for the parents of the young people. Instead of chatting with mum or dad, they ring the youth leader… tension in the home caused by the youth leaders high influence, or desire to have the young people attend their groups, and endorse their ministry… is this a healthy thing? The ministry of the youthworker vs the family life perhaps… maybe a criticism too far… but a sobering thought…

Yet, even outside of the US, i am left with the question and convicted by the thought that if the overall purpose of youthwork is for Human flourishing, surely then the youthworker/minister should one one hand be aware of their own transitory influence, and  also be encouraging , endorsing and restoring the existing relationships that a young person has with family, with friends with the community. Healing those and facilitating community might be better for Human flourishing, rather than the youth worker becoming dangerously co dependent, for the sake of their own work or ministry.

I wonder – when will it be from the pulpit, the conference or the book that a youthworker would identify that they have helped in the flourishing of the social relationships of a young person, that helped with other factors, such as resilience, cohesion and confidence, and have improved family life, or hours of time in the school, rather than how many young people attended our events, or groups or projects. Is that because we don’t see the family as valid? or the young person as anything other than ‘ours’ in ‘our’ ministry. what have we given to enable flourishing, not what have they become to us?

How many less hours do young people spend because we need them to attend our groups, events and if they attend church – even then do they spend it with parents, is this still a separate thing? for whats sake? – how much ‘seperation’ of child/young person with parents is a good thing at all?  How much time is spent by families participating in the church life together?

With the intention of developing Human flourishing, and promoting human flourishing in the lives of young people, how might restoration and reconciliation be integral tools- or just we become less of in some situations, so that young people spend more time in family- and have to work out conflict, tension and feelings, and also given the tools so that families enable spiritual/faith development of the young person…

To do something good amongst families in our communities- is that not about Human flourishing in a communal way? Is this about following the way of abundance and building kingdom?  I imagine, that there are other factors in the way of Human flourishing for youth and community work- ie what of emotional, or spiritual flourishing, or does human flourishing negate this distinction/separation,  yet being ‘relationally’ minded – might cause us to consider how we support existing relationships in the communities we are called to serve.