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

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.



Challenges in detached Youthwork (1)- Managing Relationships

There have always been a number of challenges in regard to the delivery of and sustainability of the practice of detached youthwork, and i thought it would be good to share some of these here, but also begin a conversation about some current and what might be future challenges.

Detached youthwork by its own strength is hugely unpredictable, it is difficult to say for certainty what is going to happen, when and where and with whom. Not unlike a drop in session or club, every night is different, every young person interacted with has had different experiences in the preceding time. Yet, possibly, the variables for detached are that much greater – at least in a club setting a young persons attendance is more likely in the rain – not less ( of greater significance a factor in the last two years of our british climate- , so not knowing or being able to prepare for a session can be a challenge, and being ready for the unexpected is also part of the planning.

As a consequence detached youthwork, which starts from a position of meeting young people in their chosen spaces in their community, at their chosen time has a challenge to know when to be in the right places, what to do there and how to be appropriate.

Yet, the unpredictability of contact time means that often the relationship between the young person, or group of young people and the detached worker/team is more difficult to quantify, if anything it is de-constructed to being a series of spontaneous conversations, often in the context of the whole group, and in a public space.  Is this any different to club work? well it kind of is, given that the sharing of tasks, games, activities, and the process of decision making, or the politic of the club can be a method of developing purposeful relationships. Outside on the streets, there could be 3 or 4 fleeting chats, or a number of acknowledgements, or ‘playing the rules of the game’ for a while ( See Goetchius and Tash 1967:93-111),in which the young people are assessing intentions, trust, acceptance, testing boundaries, exploring authenticity of the workers, and this takes time, as does immersing yourself in their culture to understand their values, behaviours, attitudes and beliefs.  I wonder what space there is for this to happen in a club/centre environment or is all assumed? until things ‘kick off’?  However, i digress, and so the relationship is the cumulation of conversations, of actions and behaviour, of testing the water – and yet how in detached youthwork can we coherently articulate that that is a relationship that is developing, or the identify the strength of it – even at an chronologically early stage? – especially if there isnt the possibility of shared activity over a xbox game or pool?

Evaluating change and effect is one of the more notoriously difficult challenges in detached youthwork, though not too dissimilar to centre based work. If the nature of the contact is categorised by a series of actions then it may be able to say whether the relationship has reached certain points, but relationships aren’t linear, and often a time of trauma in a relationship occurs after the point when a young person might have dared to trust.  You may have a really detailed conversation with a young person one week, but then only see them with their friends, in groups for a number of subsequent sessions, and so things to you might stall – but for them, they are wanting you to be trusted with that personal information, and not talk about it- right now in front of their friends- but if you do the right thing with this information now, what about next time? 

Again, there might not be the quick moment in the kitchen or back room of the hall to have that ‘how did things go?’ moment, when on the streets. But does that invalidate the significance of the relationships, no not at all. If anything, because the young person has confided in you, at a time that is their own, in their ‘territory’ then it carries even more significance, given the effort, and ‘game playing’ that might have been needed to lead up to such a scenario- some of that random banter, where you have felt no where in control has in fact oiled the wheels of the developing relationship- from their perspective. The challenge is how to validate this with others, with our management, our trustees, and often our funders.

Theres the challenge; supportive, purposeful relationships, if the desired outcome of detached youthwork, will take time. Meeting young people where they are at, will mean playing the rules of the game for a while, gaining trust and acceptance, and realising that there may be unpredictable significant moments, as well as many evenings of just random banter, or acknowledgements, or no one. Sometimes it is enough to just ‘be there’. Sometimes in the relationships that start cagey or with offence are the ones that last the longest, as you have stuck in when others have judged and left. And then theres the challenge of identifying how your progress is going with a ‘group’ but also what the relationships is like between you and (all) the individuals within such a group.

Over the next few weeks i am going to have a look at a few other challenges in detached youthwork, if there is something that you would like to have a discussion on, then please send me a comment.  A few things that are planned are : social media and the planned activity of young people,  measuring change, and dealing with conflict.  Contact me if you would like to begin a discussion on a new topic…




Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

Being a professional (!) youthworker, or how shall i say it, the increase in professionalism in youth work training across britain has undoubtedly been a good thing, for the development of practice, for reflection and ongoing learning. Training in christian youthwork too has seen the increase in projects, development of theological thinking about working with young people, as well as whole lot more.

Currently i live and work in the same place. As a Christian, this could be said to be ‘incarnational’  – a word for modelling the closeness of being and ministry in the same place aka Jesus. However, given that i have children in the local schools, where i also work, and that 5-600 young people pass by my front door on their way to and from school, and to the local skate park, have i taken this too far?


I guess one of the things that people have said to me is that i have to be aware of my boundaries, in that when would it be appropriate to meet young people at the end of my drive, and thus make it aware to them where i live, or how should i be when i walk past young people in the local park when i am on my way to the shops? – do i go in disguise, just so they dont recognise me? (I used to be able to go to tescos at 3am, but hey… i am now in rural england)

Its also what i should do when i am not working and encounter young people incidentally, as per above, its one thing walking the dog semi deliberately during the evening, but when  i am doing the food shopping in sainsburys? appropriately its best to wait for the young person to acknowledge me the worker, or not to, aka a counselling relationship, yet i am still putting myself in an awkward position.

Living and working in the same area is different for other professionals, as i was speaking to a chaplain/teacher today, he was able to articulate that it was the institution of the school that defined the relationship with the pupils, and so as such there was no use/validity of seeking to further these relationships out of school, and this may be the same type of arrangement for centre based youthworkers, social workers etc, however, as detached youthwork is all about informal, often unintentional encounters, (though obviously some are deliberately actioned in ‘sessions’), how does that work, when maybe idealistically and dualistically, work and leisure should be distinct, and all the moments when i could be visible to young people i am being observed, in terms of integrity.

What for example, should i do when my children invite their friends round for tea?   after all, at the age of 10-12, they are no less ‘young people’ than the young people i now work with, in fact they may be the same ones? – for one thing its hardly ‘time off’ is it? when these moments will have an effect on the so called ‘professional’ relationships outside of the home, on the streets or in schools.

Ultimately there will always be grey areas, especially in a role so informal, so relational, and so in the community. the dichotomy of work/leisure possibly doesnt exist in a vocational professional, unless i go away from the context – head out on the bike, or go away for the weekend. Travelling through the grey areas , the so called boundaries, or borders, may be an ongoing exercise in reflection, or working out a new reality of being incarnational in a community, yet seen as ‘detached’ from the church, and with  the young people.

So, as a professional youthworker, theres a chance that we will all have to think about boundaries, of profession, or personal, and what we find to be acceptable either professionally or personally, i wonder also how we communicate these boundaries to and with young people, or maybe they are intuitive – maybe they know when we are ‘off’ or when we are ‘working’ – is it as simple as wearing an ID?  or alternatively pushing a trolley in Tesco?  (not that that stopped young people talking to me in Perth, NB lucky i didnt have too much alcohol in my trolley!)

Not only are physical boundaries to be thought about, but also social media, such as Facebook or Twitter, and who should be visible to us, and what we should make visible to young people whom we work with, and how and when it is appropriate to be contacted. For some, and i take my hat off to them, they have young people contact them at all times, for others its office time only, and even then on ‘work’ phones.. does personality or profession or family dictate this, and what is reasonable of an employee?

Each of us in the variety of contexts, and cultures that we exist, work, live and play as youth workers will have to negotiate and compromise through the boundaries of these often seperate, but indistinct paradigms of community boundaries.

Jesus gave time to the crowds, the disciples, and the religious leaders, he also took time aside to think – but he still did this in the vicinity of the others, walking distance, but far enough away to be away.  To be incarnational, and i use this term loosely, i guess to be with and amongst  young people in the community means that compartmentalized lives are a way of life not to be wished for, and what we need is to realise a new way of being.

Breakfast on the beach

Seaham Beach

I quite like Peter, ie the Biblical Peter. Not for his foot in mouth honesty at times or his renegade spirit. But I like it that we have a record of someone who has a relationship with Jesus, Jesus in human existence. I like it that its not a rosy experience, and that there are times when Peter felt on cloud nine, and when he was the scapegoat, and when he was given responsibility, a time to try things out, and yet the main event that most will think of with him is the moment when he denies Jesus three times, in that dark courtyard, only days before the Crucifixion itself. The tears of Peter at that moment (Luke 22:62) must have been very bitter indeed. The low point of their relationship, now as Peter is thrust from the limelight, ashamed, guilty, and all so aware that Jesus himself was in earshot of his denial.  So what does Peter do, at his low point, he is still in Jerusalem, still at the location of the action that weekend, but probably in the background, afraid that Jesus might give him that  look. For all the status he’d had previously Peter wasn’t even close, for it was the women who were there, and even they watched from a distance ( Mark 15:40).

So, feeling guilty, afraid and ashamed what does Peter do next. Well, give him credit he was with John in that moment when they ran to the tomb ( only to find ‘nothing’- a body that wasnt there) (John 20:3-4), but i wonder, what kind of reception would Peter have wanted should Jesus had been there? and what was Peter feeling as he ran? relief? fear?

And yet, despite the occurances of Jesus with them, the disciples at this point had not been with Jesus like that used to be, their new role had not been defined, it was a kind of in between stage, of chaos, of uncertainty, of the dawning of new reality but being unsure what it all means. I guess its easy to look back and say that , as NT wright, and Vanhoozer say that Jesus resurrection, and the emergence of the church are separate Acts in the stage production of the Christo-Theodrama ( Vanhoozer 2005:3), but at the time, what was this post-resurrection, pre-commission time like – and what was going through Peters mind at the time?

I like Peter, i get the impression he likes to feel as though he’s accomplished something every day, you know, tried to make something happen, or be involved to make a difference, quite a purposeful type. So in this uncertain time, what does Peter do? well, instead of ‘just sitting around’ he finds purpose for the day by rekindling something old and familiar, something that he once knew about and could rely on to give him purpose, a role and satisfaction “I am going fishing!” (John 21:3), and the others with him join him. For Peter, was the dream over, all hope gone? well no Jesus had been seen alive, but did think or know or want to be part of Jesus’ future plans? 

For Peter, going fishing was what he grew up with, what he knew, he was after all ‘a fisherman’  this was his role, he knew his tasks, the boats, the water, the nets and tools. This was a place he could feel comfortable, and until he met Jesus, this was a place he could feel alive, feel important, worthy and purposeful. I guess thats why i like Peter, no doubt we can all relate to wanting to feel purposeful, or busy when we’re in an uncertain place.  Not only is it nice to know that Peter didnt have it all rosy, but that he reacts in a way that we all might do, or maybe thats just me.., we all have things we do when our ‘principle’ work/mission gets a bit stodgy, directionless or difficult, those little jobs around that give us purpose, some DIY, cooking or a ride on the bike, even vacuuming and dusting..? Something that helps us feel important, and purposeful, but also something ‘of old’ that helps us be reminded of where and who we once were.   

It was also a place where Peter felt safe. However, it was also a place that would remind him of that first time, where he first encountered Jesus, near the boats, the nets and the fish, way back when.. and so Peter was not escaping the scene stage left, not like Jonah, trying to run away, but the actions of a guilty man, trying to relive something he was familiar with, avoid that moment with Jesus.

And yet, that nights fishing, the former fishermen caught nothing.  So not even the things of old gave them satisfaction, just piled on the frustration, at least it could have done. Maybe they were aware that ‘natural’ things are at best unpredictable, but i would have thought that they thought that they were likely to catch at least something.  And so, as the boat appears back towards the shore, just after dawn there was a man on the beach, unrecognised at first, who gave them a new instruction, after asking whether they’d caught anything, suggests that they place their nets in a new place, just the right hand side of the boat.  Although the text suggests an element of passive compliance in Peter, you could imagine the sense of furore in the boat, as the night had been wasted and some bloke tells them to use the other side, yet they do.

It was John that recognised Jesus first, and then Peter, Peter who lost the race to the tomb ( John 20:3) was not going to be beaten this time and jumped in, clothed and splashed his way up the shore, a 100 yards or so while the others rowed up in the boat, a little more serenely.

When the others arrived, the barbeque was on the go, the fish and bread were there cooking away… breakfast on the beach. Jesus is creating for the disciples a new memory, a new place, where the familiar things are being renewed, but also where he recognises that they needed to show their uncertainty, their feelings and try and go back.

Jesus and probably Peter too,  cooks for them , shares the food around… now what might this be a memory of… oh yes that final meal in the upper room…

Jesus is on the beach… what does that feel like.. oh yes that first time they first met….

Its Bread and fish again…. whats that a reminder of …. remember that time when there was just a few of these to go round… and that big crowd…. it was so amazing we did this twice….

Maybe all these things were unspoken, or so frequent experiences that of course they’ll overlap… however i wonder what the conversation would have been like over breakfast.. and then after  the meal Jesus takes Peter aside,  maybe it was his turn to wash up?  but Jesus let the meal happen, the collective moment occur with the sense of wonder and peace, and then, afterwards continued the gradual process of reconciling Peter. So far, Jesus has tackled Peters past role ( being a fisherman) his present (the revelation of Jesus resurrected) and now Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to be part of the future. Jesus investment strategy in Peter is high risk, and clearly high maintenance and now the moment where Peter has to have that  conversation.

Its first name terms for Peter – “Simon, son of John” –  not Peter – the rock, that Jesus uses… “do you love me more than these?” (Jesus question is the same he asks of the crowds in Luke 14:26 – “hate everything by comparison”, or love everyone else a little less)

Jesus is asking of Peter, do you still love me, love me more that the others love me, more than you love the other disciples, love me more than fishing, love me… and if you do care for and feed my sheep.  Go, Peter and use what you know, coupled with the experiences you have had, be redeemed and reconciled to me and minister to others.  Dont forget what happened, but use it as a reminder of how much I, Jesus can love you, forgive you and still use you. Jesus is about reconciliation, thus Mission is about reconciliation, reconciling people to God as gently as Jesus did to Peter, reconciling the world to the great shalom. As Barth said:

Human acts of reconciliation are in accordance with the structure of reality which God in Christ creates and the existence of which the gospel  testifies: and therefore they are acts which tend towards the true end of creation that Gods reconciling act establishes once and for all in Christ’s  reconciling person and work (1953)

and similarly Vanhoozer (2005):

The church does not have to achieve reconciliation so much as display and exhibit the reconciliation already achieved through the death of Christ

So I love Peter, love Peter because he gives me hope, a hope because in Peter, Jesus is revealed as one who understands the need of the guilty to run somewhere comfortable, to pine after previous glories, to find purpose in the mundane, to react backwards during uncertainty, Jesus lets Peter have that time, those few days between the tomb and the beach, time to wrestle with his own thoughts, and the conversations of others.  Jesus knows that there will be a time on the beach, there will be a time where we run, a time when the wondering has gone on just too long, and where his work is the work now should do.






One step with

If you can allow me to digress and generalise just a little bit… Over the last few weeks, mostly whilst training either youthworkers or volunteers i have posed the question – What are the advantages or disadvantages to doing detached/outreach work compared to Centre based work in youth clubs/churches.  The usual comes back, with the obvious disadvantage being the weather, lack of control, resources, and the advantages being the freedom in the public space, meeting ‘unnattached’ young people and also meeting them in a place that they ultimately choose. However, i was wondering, and thinking about the advantages, as well as the thought that as a detached worker its rare that we would ever stop observing or researching the area a.k.a learning from the young people, from the community as i am with them.

And so i wonder whether one of the advantages is that detached work provides the worker with a constancy, or a plumb line, that he/she does not travel too far behind the young person, or jumps ahead. Given that the young person controls their reaction in that setting and their response to us. I guess it also means that by listening and learning with them that we draw resources from them in a collaborative way, rather than need to try and keep up or predict their level.

what i am trying to say is that because as a detached youthworker we are involved in the culture of the young person, and with them as this changes around them, as they develop, adapt, challenge or reflect upon it ( Goetschius 1969), then we become ingrained with them in this process.  When we clothe ourselves loosely with the structure of buildings then this distance reduces the withness  of the situation, and the vulnerability of the worker, but also means that the worker is one step removed from learning and living the culture, as seen by the young person. Maybe being detached is not enough, being truly incarnational is?

“in Cultural synthesis, the actors who come from “another world” to the world of people do not do so as invaders. They do not come to teach or to transmit or to give anything, but rather to learn, with the people, about the people world” (Freire 1970)

This withness also keeps us close to being responsive to the needs of young people as we interact with them, their ups and downs, their challenges and celebrations. Rather than impose, dictate or formulate agendas on behalf of them.  Maybe its just about being grounded in the knowledge of unpredictability, of real life young people in their real chosen contexts?

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: