It comes as almost no surprise that there has been a backlash to the cultural messages of safety, harm and avoidance of risk that have been prevalent in culture, and also I might add the church over the last few decades.
Talk now in youth ministry is of taking risks with young people.
Or maybe more pertinently, talk is of ensuring that risks are important in the relationships with young people.
It was the focus of last years Youthscape conference in which 1000 youth workers attended. Its been the focus of FYTs resources also. But – is it ever the subject of clergy conferences?
This risk provoking goes against one of the key principle cultural and organisational implicit drivers of organisations, notably church based youth ministry, which has, as said by Pete ward in 1997 – been more about safety and conformity within the church, than the kind of radical discipleship offered by Jesus. (Ward, 1997, Youth work and the mission of God, p16)
It is a theme I have spoken of before in this post ‘Young people will go elsewhere if youth groups are too safe’ and Why a risky church might be the right one for young people?
Taking risks was a key aspect of Jesus’ ministry – don’t you think?
Taking a risk with us as humanity was a risk taken by God overall – don’t you think?
Pushing the disciples to risk taking – and even exposure to difficult situations- was a key element of how Jesus pushed the disciples- agreed..?
At the end of this piece I will refer you to a resource which has been collated by Frontier Youth Trust to help you develop risk taking in your youth ministry, do take a risk and have a look at it – the link is here: (and no I don’t get any commission) 101 Risky Ideas for your youthwork
But before you do that, Id like to offer a short reflection on risk taking within youth work and ministry, basing this on two principal ideas. The first is a chapter in ‘Youth work Ethics (YE)’ by Howard Sercombe, the second is the 9 stage process of youth work as developed by FYT a number of years ago. I hope you find both useful.
In ‘Youth work Ethics’ Howard Sercombe identifies 19 areas of youth work practice that he gives insight and reflection to, on the basis of suggesting that youth work itself is an ethical endeavour based upon itself as a profession, and a definition of youthwork as a ‘professional relationship in which a young person is engaged as a primary client in their social context’ ( YE, p 27, 2010). What this does, is form the basis of youthwork as a negotiated, limited, yet professional relationship – that transcends the plethora of activities, venues and delivery agencies- but frames it as a relationship. Something i think that is music to the outcome bleeded ears of the youth worker.
Before going further with Sercombe, here is the 9 stage group work process that once and still is core to the FYT Streetspace community, note especially the element of Risk, that its needed and where it is located.
You can download the whole document here: http://www.fyt.org.uk/downloads/
The logic being that, over a period of time developing the relationship that you as a youth worker (especially as a detached worker) will be able to take a risk with the relationship that you have with a group (as you may by then have developed small group work, gained their trust etc) and been able to make suggestions to enable them to do something they maybe wouldn’t have done other wise. A push too soon may indicate that the relationship has been perceived differently from youth worker and young person/group. But note, that from the process of developing spirituality – a ‘test’ is whether ‘risk’ can be taken with other maybe easier concepts – like travelling to watch a football match, trying to raise funds for an activity, undergoing a personal change like quitting smoking (as an example) – gauging how risks in these areas might be seen as some kind of indication of how risk taken to think spiritually might be perceived. For more explanation of these – you might want to buy the Here be Dragons resource, in which all 9 stages are explored further. This is here: https://wp.me/P2Az40-4t
But lets just say from this example that Risk is needed in the youthwork relationship, and possibly even that Risk is needed for faith.
Back to Sercombe. Helpfully in a chapter on ‘taking care and managing risk’ , Sercombe identifies that in the main there has been a confusion about ‘harm’ and ‘risk’, but also that a number of risks are needed in youthwork, more so, there are a number of hidden risks that we would do well to help young people avoid.
A few summary thoughts from the chapter:
· Because we want to develop, transform even, the lives of young people through the relationship we seek to have with them , and they to some extent put themselves in our hands– this is an engagement that is inherently risky because we could get it wrong, create defensiveness, create exclusion or be a disappointment
· We expose young people to other relationships with other adults, professionals or services – there is a risk here, as these too may end up being destructive.
We are as youthworkers responsible for the intervention in other peoples lives and have a duty of care, and Sercombe goes on to describe the influence of a number of legal decisions and oaths that have an impact on how youthworkers are responsible, and ultimately states that:
‘The first responsibility of the professional is to make sure that nothing worse happens to the person than has already happened’ – though this is obviously difficult to promise – especially in medicine.
This is key ‘we need to do the best we can to help a young person in their journey. That may involve harm. It may involve greater harm. We don’t know that our assessment of that, even in consultation with the young person will be accurate’ We might want to avoid it, but harm is almost always a possibility in any intervention we might take, whether its helping them across the road to the ‘safety’ of the bus shelter on detached, the football or table tennis match, the cookery group, or game of pool. All can be harmful, and minimising harm is key, but it cant be avoided completely.
Whilst a few high risk activities have reinforced a tendency to avoid risks due to fear and litigation (such as PGL disaster over 20 years ago), and insurance companies dictating which activities youthworkers can and cannot do, there has become a tendancy, as i stated above, for risk avoidance. The real issue is being sued and avoiding harm to the organisation.
‘often it is our job to increase risk’ (YE, p110)
Whilst the risks that get banded around for young people are the usual list of subjects; drugs crime, unemployment, homelessness etc and these get the usual attention. There is a range of risks for young people that don’t: passivity, resignation, fatalism, cynicism, low expectations, isolation, and you might add a few others here. Like lack of political engagement or community participation. Our role, according to Sercombe, is to help the young person assess the risk as best they can and help them decide through the possibilities. In the short term there might well be harm for the young person, a better life might, controversially, not be a safer one. (YE p110)
The role that Sercombe suggests we take in this risk manoevering profession is that of a guarantor. We manage the risk, think about it, we assess it, and consider it. But what we also do is hope, believe and project. We want to believe that young people can do, will do, and might just rise to the risk, because we see them as capable, confident and want to give them the opportunity to be the adults that they want themselves to be. By treating them as adult – they become adult. Right? Isn’t this a risk in itself? – but not an entirely non altruistic, positive one?
For despite the best interests at heart, best support and best conditions – there is still a chance at ‘failure’. This is the guarantor, and our role. We hope and help to provide the best conditions, resources and buildings in the hope that this will help young people develop agency, confidence, to be adults to make decisions. This is why this puts us at risk.
Thats why we take risks in youth work – because we still believe in the possible, we still have faith in the potential, we still dream. We take risks, and need to receive good management on their risks. ‘Risk is a key resource in youthwork’ (YE, p111). It frames the logic of our intervention. Without it there would be no change, no transformation, no improvement, no new reality being explored. Whilst young people ‘at risk’ can be seen as an issue. Many of these occasions are when young people themselves do not have the capacity or resources to prevent being exploited, exposed or manipulated, by populist politicians, tabloids, sexual predators or extreme faith groups.
It is our role to defend young people, and take risks in preventing what might be a default pathway into these risks. Yet, risk is not the same as harm, it is not our role to decrease the risks, as arguably young people need risks so that they can exercise sound judgement, and we need to push young people to new experiences for their learning. We take responsibility for the process, we might consider ourselves lucky at times for the risks we have exposed young people to and the lack of assessment thought through. When young people enter into a relationship with us, it is a risk in itself, they entrust us, the information we give, and for them to push back on it. We might do well to recognise where we might have failed young people and their development because of our own reluctance or avoidance of taking risks, we need to be skilled enough to know and make the possibilities open, and resourceful in encouraging young people to take the risks. We might need to take risks to challenge barriers in organisations which hold young people back, we need to be as brave and courageous. We need, as this suggests, not to be content in only bringing young people to our beautiful place – but pushing them through the barriers we create to the somewhere new.
We have to take risks. Faith is about taking risks. Life is about taking risks.
Whilst the section above is less about faith, and more about risks in general. It is not difficult to make connections about barriers in churches and providing the support for young people to develop an adult faith.
As a reminder: Those 101 risky ideas for faith based work are here
At random – these are numbers 41-50 on the list and are aimed at helping to develop spirituality in young people, if you like these, why not download them all..for free. i mean what kind of risk is that, even…
41. Rewrite a parable and base it in your local context. Tell the story to young people without revealing its biblical origins. What are their interpretations?
42. Get up early to watch the sunrise and pray for the day ahead.
43. Ask young people to write a new parable.
44. Go to a cathedral or ancient church. Do some research about the the faith communities that have been there over its history.
45. For an experience of awe and wonder, sleep out under the stars.
46. Identify some of the metaphors used to describe God (ie Lion, Teacher, Tower, Rock). Ask young people to come up with some new metaphors based on the local context.
47. Cancel youth group or church in order that young people might find God outside the spaces you can control.
48. Arrange a visit to the building and community of a different faith. Use the time as an opportunity to dialogue about what values are important to you all.
49. If you meet with young people to explore and discover God start calling it church rather than Bible study or youth group. How do young people react? When is church, church?