6 common defaults when churches start working with young people (to try and avoid?)

It never really surprises me how often when churches, (and when i mean churches i mean, clergy & some interested congregation members) think about working with young people, that a number of fairly common defaults are evident. In this post I want to share some of these, not because they are wrong necessarily, but it might be that you if you’re reading this didn’t realise quite how much of a default it is, when there might be other alternatives to how working with young people in a faith setting might take place.

Default No 1. The best way to start any youth programme is when a whole load of adults sit in a room and have ideas about what to do and hope young people want to do them. 

How often is this repeated? There’s young people. There’s adults. Adults have a whole load of ideas, look up a whole load of resources from (insert UK wide faith based youth ministry provider) , who is trusted because (the leader used to work for them/leader used to receive them/the organisation is credible/its easier) . Then Adults use resource to shape a programme that young people maybe want , or don’t want, or are encouraged to do because they feel that the church is making an effort . But the only option for them is to opt in, or opt out. And opting out makes them look ungrateful.

Or the adults have a ‘big idea’ – now ‘big idea’ – could be a rock cafe, a worship event, a youth praise group, a choir, a football night, cheese on toast for Jesus, graffiti artist, Rap artist (yes its still the 1990’s in some churches). And its a great idea that the adults spend ages. I mean ages. shaping, promoting, deciding in meetings, risk assessing, getting an MP to praise it, organising prayer meetings for it, getting it blessed by the elders or PCC…. but yet when it happens… not a single young person is involved at any stage, and three turn up, the same three who already go to messy church, the same three who would have turned up if you have offered tea and a biscuit instead.

One of my most read pieces on this website is this one. Titled ‘what role do young people have in your church/youth group?’  The challenge in avoiding the default above, is to be brave and give young people a different role in the life of the church and youth group. One in which their role from the outset isn’t just as a consumer of an idea that is foisted on them, but that they are engaged in ongoing conversation, planning and creation. As i say often, usually 11 year old’s in primary schools have some say in small groups about spending school budgets on improving it, via a school council. Meanwhile the same young people in a different institution, church, are just given shapes of Daniel and the lions den to colour in. Or spaghetti towers to make to illustrate a moral point. Avoiding this default might require an approach taken in which space is created for conversation, and ideas from young people, and trusting in them to be able to shape and create something with adults. You never know…

Default 2. Young people who are bored in church don’t always want bigger,brighter entertainment to keep them interested and coming back.   They don’t always like it when their youth thing condescends, patronises and makes them feel like children, by just looking like a school disco. 

Avoiding boredom may well be the curse affecting most of youth ministry   so there’s constant re invention taking place, constant new song, constant new material, constant make something relevant. Making the programme more exciting might be the biggest long term turn off for young people in their ongoing faith development. Because, when the programme runs out, or they get too old for it, what then? even more boredom when the only option is real church. Sod that.

But if the signs of boredom are beginning to be seen in the groups you have, and 2 years of colouring Daniel, is going to start wearing thin, then it might not be ‘Daniel colouring plus’ that’s required. It might be to actually talk with, respect and give young people the space to contribute, to be involved, to have their say. This is linked to point one above. But its also more than that yes young people might, in many cases want to have their say and voice heard and participate. But it might also be that what they are being offered isn’t challenging enough, isn’t controversial enough (talk about ethical issues) , isn’t real enough (talk about health matters, cancer, periods, mental health, the environment) , maybe even… isn’t spiritual enough. When their friends are into meditation and mindfulness, and the church is offering a prayer spoken by an adult and a god slot- where might their spiritual awakening or curiosity likely to go?  Yes i said it…. youth groups might not be spiritual enough. Young people might be bored… but why might they be…?  Work that out with real conversations and then see… don’t resort to making it louder or bigger as a default. Deci and Ryan suggest that challenge, autonomy and relationship are key factors in personal motivation. Work out how these can be part of developing youth ministry, not just smoke machines and drum kits.

Default number 3. The God bit is the God-slot

Oldest chestnut of a conversation this. Id reveal my bias here when i say I am encouraged that there are some fabulous interesting practices of youth work around that are starting to think differently about how young people learn, engage with, form, and become involved in faith – and have moved away from a God slot. In this piece i provide 6 alternatives. In a way it says something about how we as adults view education, and view discipleship if the only part that of a youth group regarded as ‘God’ bit is that God -slot moment.  Which is a shame… because that can often be the most challenging, boring, difficult part of the youth group evening and yet that’s the bit where young people receive instruction about God. Hmm… God explicitly is getting a raw deal there i think. Its also the bit in the group where young people can often have the least involvement – even if there is an attempt to give them options in other aspects like food or games – and its also the time when the power dynamics shift – and bluntly- it looks like school. Anyway. Old chestnut resurfaced, nothing new in this paragraph. But its a fairly common default. Disciopleship isnt one way and faith isnt formed by just listening. Check out the FYT experiments resource to flip that one on its head. There’s more on the God slot stuff in Here be Dragons. See link above.

Default number 4 : Young peoples faith will develop even more if we get them involved in christian youth culture.  

This is often a parental pressure thing. The default is that once involved in church, a young person must immediately only listen to christian music, wear tshirts, go to christian summer festivals (cheap holidays for parents to send kids away on, and their ‘safe’) , and become a leader in church, volunteer in sunday school. And basically show their christian faith and discipleship through countless attendances and involvement in christian titled things.  Nick Shepherd is onto something though, saying that these things do help with a young person creating a christian identity for themselves. But its part of something bigger in constructing faith… read his book.   Though I wonder… is this what adults do as well… well of course.. . I am not sure its as prevalent – and i also know I pretty much chose to go along to all the things i mentioned there in the 1990s.. however… what might have been ‘good’ in previous generations… might not be now.. but the default remains. Especially when young people more than any other group are bombarded with messages about being distinctive from the world, about almost avoiding the world, about only being ‘in the world’ to evangelise to friends, only having friends.. so they can be invited to youth group (I’m sure this doesn’t still happen) – but what do these messages do?  Create divide. And unhealthy them and us, and put young people in the most difficult positions in schools, communities and homes.  I am sure this isn’t the default it might well have been before, but worth watching out for it.

Default 5. Working with young people is for some one else

There is a magical human out there, who is so radically different from the humans in the church, who will be able to do something magical with young people that they don’t know, but you have known since they were 3 and been in messy church or Sunday school (and got bored colouring in Daniel), and this magical person is about to be transported in under the false pretenses of needing to be innovative, creative and experienced (with the reassurances of being underpaid, under supported and poorly managed) to round up the previously bored from messy church group, the alienated from church 12 year olds, the 15 yr old daughter of the vicar (chosen specifically because they had a young family 12 years ago, and they could be the previous magic person ) – but new magic person is now needed.

This default, creates a thought that magic external person is the best person to connect with young people. The reality is that if you know the young people, and have done since they were 3, then you are. You just need to re connect, maybe apologise (for too much Daniel colouring in) ask and listen and rebuild a relationship.  Young people value relationship, authenticity and long term integrity. You’ll get that if you take the time and listen. value them and re connect. A magic person is starting from scratch. If young people are important, you don’t value them by employing a magic person to rescue them, you value them by giving them space, time and opportunities. You value them by creating a culture in a church where they are important. from the leadership, organisation, planning and decision making down. Where they are welcomed and participate. Thats value.

Default 6. Young people are all______________ – they’re just a completely different generation to us, they so different. 

This is ‘Young people are alien syndrome’. All of a sudden there’s a default position taken that goes along the lines of ‘young people have just arrived from outer space, they’re weird, unruly, into things we have no idea of, unpredictable, different.. etc’ and then someone clever, will recite a piece of research, or the bloody guardian, that talks about ‘Meellenials’ and how in order to reach ‘meeelenials’ the church has to do X and Y and Z.  An invisible ‘them’ and ‘us’ is created. Young people are all of a sudden different, difficult, hard to reach, unique- and yet no one has even spoken to any of them. Just looked at generalised research to make an opinion. Then someone will say ‘its just helpful to do research’ well.. yes it is. But if you want to do research, ask the young people in the community you are working in, and build up knowledge from actions, from conversations, from reality. There is no one else in the world like the young person who plays football in your community park, or the young person who is bored in messy church, or is a bit lost in church, but comes along with his Dad. Research and thinking of young people as alien, really isn’t going to help with listening, learning, empathy, time.  As Carl Rogers said, we cannot empathise if we prejudge, and we prejudge all the time, so lets not add to it with extra lenses  from adopted sociological research (used mainly to justify programmes that we’ve already said… perpetuate a default) . There is no such thing as a millenial young person. Can we dump the universality research, and thinking of young people as aliens. They’re just people (Christian Smith, 2003) . Like you and me. Its children, ironically who are less like adults. Think about it.

Theres 6. I could of added a few others, and yet as i thought about it, they all nearly stem from the concept of participation, and lack of – and these are covered in the post i shared in the link above. its almost as though the key default in churches, is not to give young people any involvement in aspect of what goes on, for them, or for anything at all. Or that they wont be interested if its made too difficult, challenging. For the few young people left in churches…we have to do better. For starting work with young people, churches could start from a different place, and not go straight to these defaults. Expecting different results from the same actions.  I am sure you can think of others too. But these are the ones i see, and have also been guilty of doing myself too.

Some references and additional reading

Christian Smith, 2003, Soul Searching, his 15 recommendations for christian youth groups from research of 1500 church is well worth a look.

Nick Shepherd, 2016, Faith Generation. Still one of the best critical, thought provoking, books on youth ministry in the UK.

Carl Rogers, 1972, A way of Being. On person centred therapy.

Andrew Root, 2017 Faith formation in a secular age, isnt referenced directly, but some of the links do.

Chap Clark, 2018, Adoptive church. Chap suggests churches should be places of participation where young people flourish in the whole community. Id recommend this one.

 

 

Church with no young people? 3 ideas to start ministry with them (without employing a youthworker)

Theres no point being a youthworker in this church, we dont have any young people

Only 8 churches in this diocese have a paid youth or childrens worker, and less than 6 have more than 10 over 12’s who attend at all

They caused too much damage 30 years ago, we’re not having young people in our building today.

Just some of the indicators, or reasons, why it feels as though churches have given up on young people. A church in a smallish town whose minister stated to me that there isnt a need for a youthworker in the church because theres no young people in the church. But theres a high school of 1200 pupils within a mile of it. But thats not enough of a reason for a church to develop something from scratch. It may be ten times that school will attend soul survivor over the next two weeks. But if there are about 40,000 churches in the UK (rough estimate) then that is only 1 soul survivior attending young person to 3.5 churches. And that’s just the soul survivor attending young people. Vast swaithes of churches have no young people, but I guarantee there are young people living in the parish, in the local area.

So – why have churches given up on young people? How did this happen?

One minute theres hundreds of young people, and then gradually one by one they disappear. Theres churches currently full of the over 60 yr olds, and its not just the under 14’s they dont have, its the under 50’s, 40’s and 30’s. Not even the generations of people these 60 year olds were nurturing when they were young leaders in their twenties have stayed. Generation vibrant youth ministry lasted only for only one period of time.

Those who possibly tried to engage in youth work – found that the buildings did get damaged, or young people loitered. In other churches the volunteers ran dry, and decisions were made that caused young people and communities to leave, such as changing sunday school times, youth group age bands or closing groups all together, because, well, it wasn’t worth it for 10 young people. It wasn’t worth it because the kids didnt come on a Sunday. It wasn’t worth it because the leaders would prefer to be in the service. Gradually, as the evidence about Sunday schools at least indicates, churches made decisions about groups and clubs without any consultation with participants and children and their families exited in their droves.  And for many churches, they just carried on growing older and older. The families didn’t stay, and neither did the teenagers. And Peter Brierleys stat about 300 young people leaving the church every week between 1968-1980, well, that’s where all the 40-50 year olds left.

So, you’re an aging church, with only the grandparents left, the Baby Boomers – and there’s no one under the age of 40, let alone 14 who is part of the church on a regular basis, aside from a few who attend during the summer holidays.

Assessing the cause of this problem is relatively easy, though it is more complex than the quick assessment above.

The encouragement of this piece is to think about what one thing you can do in your church to start thinking differently about young people, to start thinking about young people at all, and begin again. It is possible. Trust me. Three ideas are included below, but first theres a few challenging questions:

Is there anything you can do?

The first thing you can do is pay for a youthworker. Because they will immediately solve all your youth absence problems. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Thats like paying for someone else to deal with your problem. Nice attitude. But the reality is more complex, as I have said before, youth worker jobs in the UK are staying vacant, there is a supply and demand problem as the colleges and courses are closing, and housing costs multiply. So getting ‘a youthworker’ is not a straightforward option. It never was anyway.

So, no thats not the first idea. So, starting from scratch in thinking about working with young people, as a church congregation what would be your responses to these questions:

  1. What could you do to show young people in your town that you care about them? (how would young people know) 
  2. What could you do to value young people in your town?
  3. What cause might you be able to support local young people in?
  4. What talents do young people in your area have?
  5. What resources do you have that might benefit local young people?
  6. In what way might you need to make yourself vulnerable to young people?

Can you answer any of these questions as a church congregation? Would you be brave enough to try and work out responses to them, and responses from reality, ie real young people, speaking to them, consulting with them?

One of the main issues is that the way churches used to try and work with young people didn’t work, and the trying to attract young people and teach them stuff still hasn’t got a huge fondness amongst young people (ie they sit bored in the ‘god slot’). So with that method not worked, it becomes difficult to think about the alternatives. So, if you’ve got no young people, then you can afford to think differently, and start differently. Even Americans are saying that programme based youth ministry is broken, so why bother starting with it? If you want to start theological then head here for a really long post that i dare you to read, but has resources in it to help think theologically about young people and ministry. But then, on a practical level could you think about these questions?

What about thinking of these:.

  1. Where are young people already, during the day?  do they walk to schools, get buses, walk back through the town
  2. Where are there connections already locally – do young people congregate in places at certain times, or where are families active in dropping off and picking up young people?
  3. What are the rhythms of the day in terms of young peoples activities, and what about the weekends? do young people use the shopping area, parks, or prefer to be in small groups in neighbourhoods? 
  4. What might make the church both a spiritual space and practical space for young people?

(if you want a fuller community profile, then get in touch- see menu above)

One church i visited recently had almost no young people involved in its sunday activities, but over 200 used the scout hut during the week. Another realised that the local sixth form kids sneaked out of school to smoke in the grounds of the church. Another church had young people in its porch on a friday night. Another church had young people playing football in its adjacent car park. These are all ‘already’ used spaces that young people are in. One step would be to involve ourself in those spaces. Accidentally on purpose. Just to say hi, or have a conversation whilst needing to open up the church for no reason.

This isnt the only way, but these are opportunities to start making connections.

Idea 1 – Spiritual SpaceImage result for cathedral

There is a rise in spirituality in young people, there is a growing recognition of the positives of mindfulness and quietness in the culture of today. Does your church have a large open space thats often deathly quiet that can act as a place where young people can be quiet, reflect, think, pray even and just ‘be’ for a moment? You know, just like you might like to when you visit a cathedral. Would it be crazy to open up the church as a place where young people could ‘be’ during 4-5pm as they walk past the church to head home from school, or especially during mock and exam season as a space to help with stress, worry and anxiety. Forget the activity type of working with young people, lets treat them as humans with needs, and create a space thats respectful and open. Maybe even a space where they encounter God in the silence, or the lighting of a candle, or the reading, writing of a poem that they do in the space.

Recently i heard of a story of two young people who just wanted to sit in the back of the church whilst the evening prayer was being read. It was a safe space, and also a quiet space. Image result for indoor of church

It may connect the church to young people as a place where they can church weep and rejoice when young people weep and rejoice? Celebrate exam results, or commiserate – mark the anniversary of the death of friends, or relatives in tragedies.

Its one option – but why not give away spiritual spaces for young people. It may take time. Its taken cathedrals 400 years to be popular again…

By the way, no need for the high energy, flashing dancing well lit trendy youthworker – just an open space thats safe, regular and meaningful. hmm.

But what if lots of young people come – well then theres a nice problem to have

But what do we do next? worry about that afterwards

But ow will they come on Sunday ? theyre meeting God on tuesday – is that not enough? 

Idea 2- Church valuing young people

Another option might that the church congregation could find a way of supporting a local cause that young people are also passionate about and join in? Its good to give church money to missionaries, of course, but what about the local football team strip, or the music club, or a young persons bus travel or something else where the church could go out of its way to give to a cause that affects young people. Not for its own gain, but because it would be good to do. What if this equated to giving of time, support and fundraising activities over a year?  What if the church helped to fund the much needed resources that the schools are desperately short of, or where the church could help subside school trips so that even the less well off young people can go on them? Sounds bonkers, but what might it say in the community about who the church is for?  exactly.  Yes its embarrassing for the school, but its got the government to thank for its funding crisis.

Idea 3- Practical space

I was struck recently by the story of Boaz, and Ruth and Naomi. That Boaz left one side of his field open for anyone who needed it to work the land and take the crops. What if this principle was replicated, and that the church in the local area ‘leaves the land’ in order that local young people can work, earn or learn their trade? Can the local college hairdressing apprentices do everyones hair during the coffee morning? How might young people in the additional learning timetable learn gardening skills in the church garden and make a community allotment? what about getting the mechanics at the college to help fix the minibus? The list could go on. But what if the church was a place of work and learning for some young people, learning catering in the kitchen, or hospitality in the scheduling and event organising, or media in the PA/tech systems? Could there be gaps in the church where young people gain work skills? Is there a relationship to be had with schools and colleges that could generate this kind of offer or opportunity?  Again, it might be too much for some, or not even a reality. But one of you reading this might think that its a possibility. You have no young people currently, youve got nothing to lose…

Of course all of these require work and effort and a change in priorities. But they dont involve trying to entertain young people, or trying to keep them, but to try and give them a space where they can find meaning, or usefulness in the church and faith community. If theres no young people in your church, then trying something different, from a place of thinking differently about young people might begin developing something of value, of respect and that could be significant for young people. Making church spiritual for young people, making church significant and meaningful.

Maybe we might be surprised at how spiritual young people are and how spiritual they want the church to be. Got to start somewhere, and i think got to start differently. In short, we need as churches to do the things we should be good at, being spiritual, valuing people and offering practical space. Our place in the world as christians might be just to be prophetic and practical, so why not try this with young people.

As a follow up, 10 tips for starting conversations with young people might be useful, once those connections have been made, or they might make the connection happen.

Thank you for reading, and sharing, theres more ideas on this site, click on ‘youth ministry’ or ‘church’, if you want further training or conversation on starting right, or starting at all, then please do get in touch. Thank you

 

Why its Justice and not justi.c.e thatll give youth ministry a future

Prayer is like a telephone sang the old childrens song, that helps us talk to Jesus, it went on. Whilst the spiritual discipline of prayer, fasting and meditation seemed to be absent for much of my developing faith practice as a young person, the concept of ‘arrow -prayers’ was fairly common. That pray in an emergency type way, when theres a stressful moment going on. I grew up evangelical, it was about the busyness of attending things in a church. Image result for telephone

You will no doubt have a mobile phone, and a list of contacts as long as your arm, one of the ways in which we can help emergency services to know who to ring from our contacts is for us to write I.C.E before or after the persons name. For then they know who we want to ring in case of emergency. 

 

Developing a faith that causes God to be ‘an emergency’ call away, and not involved in the every day of life itself is one of the key findings that Christian Smith identified in his research of over 12 years ago in American youth ministry. God was more aloof, and only used when required. For many young people in evangelical/mainline youth groups – God was an add on to western living, and peripheral at best, contacted when there was an emergency. Or there to help me, a young person, feel good. In the UK, ‘the happy midi narrative’ was coined as an equivalent – in which God is to be for the good times, and helping a young person feel good about themselves. (Theres tons of other stuff on MTD in the archives) . Image result for i.c.e mobile phone

In a way – what does this say about discipleship for a young person – within a faith that seems to only exist around making them happy – or where God is nothing better than another contact in their phone, to call In case of emergencies. Its not the fault of young people. Its what they have been brought up in the faith to believe, and implicit in their faith formation. It is a faith of superstition, rather than a faith of action, and along with the M of MTD it is a faith of morality ( be good as God is watching you).

The Christian faith is not just in case of emergencies, surely?

God is described as a God of Justice, not just.i.c.e.

And we have a responsibility in youth ministry to ensure that the God of Justice of mercy and righteousness is the one for whom young people have an ongoing working relationship with. The personal relationship with Jesus their friend is almost a given. Its the faith in God who calls them to tasks, and requires us to join in within his actions in the world that is dynamic and dangerous.  Theres nothing tame about God….

And its not just the old testament, many many examples in the New testament where ‘good works’ are the responsibility of the faithful, good like God is good, good and just. One of the 7 churches in revelation was commended for it too.

There are some examples of young people across the UK involved in justice projects, from Tear Fund, Christian Aid and World Vision – but often these seem to be on the international scale. They are good none the less. They also seem to be the ‘one off’ thing in a youth group programme – or not at all. So, young people dont get experiences of ‘working’ with God on the stage of the world for themselves or in their groups – merely hearing about God and trying to live a moral life. I know its not always been top of my agenda when i have planned a youthgroup curriculum. Their faith would be about joining in with Gods actions in the world, rather than a discipleship that is about God in case of emergencies.

Helping young people to be ‘just’ in the world, rather than ‘good’ might help them to be energised by faith, by being part of a working relationship with God, rather than hope that God might rescue or help in times of emergency ( and leave life to be got on with).

In faith formation Andrew Root tries to get to grips with the MTD issue in an age of secularism. Ultimately he, and those like Kevin Vanhoozer are saying when they talk about Theodrama, is that Justice and social action on the stage of the world are not seperate acts by humans that might be acts of worship – but that in these human and divine act together in an ongoing relationship, where God prompts in the midst to do good works (as these are not always the natural thing to do). Youth ministry and Theology are both talking about Justice. When Millenials are asked about church, its performing the faith – not just hearing it that they want to do. Performing the faith – now what might that mean for young people?  Its less just i.c.e and more justice. More help to help them work with God to change the world.

Young people arent losing their faith, or losing out on being faithful by doing ‘social action’ it is an integral part of it. It is practical and prophetic in the local community that young people make a stand or protest or act in a way that is about Gods goodness in the world, prompted by God in the first place. We want to see a generation of young people make a stand for Jesus, then its not going to be at the £130 Jesus festival where there are 200 of them, it will be as in every youth group, every town, every church begins to help young people play an active part in working with God to seek justice and righteousness in every community.

Faith for young people should not be in case of emergencies. It is about life in all its fullness (that means giving up some for death) and life in its fullness for everyone.

If young people are only buying T shirts for Jesus, but not helping share their T shirts for Jesus at the clothing bank, then we might reflect in their faith. Faith isnt just bought like a T shirt, it is given away. Its not for emergencies, its to help prevent the emergencies of others.

Heres a few questions that might help reflect on this further.

What might Social justice look like in your community? 

How might young people be spurred on to think beyond themselves, and for others- through collective action? 

How might your youthgroup be both practical and prophetic in the world ? 

How might young people act along with God on the stage of the world- in your part of it?

How might young peoples prayer for others be acted upon, and they then read the bible as a guidebook for continuing social justice in the world? 

 

 

References

Faith Formation – Andrew Root, 2017

The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer, 2005

Faith Generation, Nick Shepherd, 2016 (on MTD and UKs youth Midi Narrative)

Soul Searching; Christian Smith , 2006

When Ministries & Organisations close; Can we be better prepared for it?

As the snowdrops begin to open in my garden, and lightness in the day starts to get a bit longer, and the early signs of spring are in the air, there is the sense of promise, the hope for something new. And hope, and waiting and growth are key phrases within Christian ministry and organisations. There is a pining for growth, new growth, revivial is what it used to be called. That something new is awaiting, dawning and ‘moving forward’ are part of this.

But my thoughts this week have been on where I was a year ago, and where I was about 5 years ago also. This time last year, my situation was anything but growth (as in the archived posts on this site for february 2017 will reveal). This time last year I was preparing myself, and preparing staff within a youthwork organisation, and making decisions about it that would put the process in place for its closure. That post on redundancy, closure and failure is hereImage result for closing down

One year on, and i think it needs to be said. There was no preparation for closure, what it would feel like, what i needed to do, what impact it would have on staff morale, spirituality and vocation – or my own. There was no preparation for closure, it doesnt appear in the youth ministry handbook. Theres 10 secret formulas for starting youth ministry, or 10 ways to tell kids about faith, or top themes for theological ministry amongst the urban youth. What there isnt is ‘how to survive when youve had to close someone elses ‘baby’? or ‘where is God when you feel like closing is whats needed’? . In training for youth ministry, there was none of it, in the writing about youth ministry there is precious little. After all its all about Growth- or desperately avoiding closure.

Image result for church closing down

 

But the more I talk to people, the more i realise quite how isolating it has been for others too. And not just isolating but also very common. Yet there is silence on the subject in the seminars, conferences, and blog spaces- mostly. No one wants to talk about closing down. Because no one want to talk about it, no one wants to help others be prepared for it. For some, more than me, it might have been their own project that they had to close – the pioneering ministry- that caught local or national attention, for others they are employed to rescue something – but that something might be beyond rescue , others are deliberately appointed with no idea that closing a ministry is what they may have to do within a short period of time.

Talk of opening, developing and making new things happen is easy to have energy over- but a stark reality also exists that closing ministries is all the more likely and common in the coming weeks and months ahead. It may be that you have never had to stop, close or end a piece of work, but my haunch is that if you have had to, it took a brave decision, to do so, and one made with little support. May be it is why churches and ministries dont like dealing with the honest questions like ; who is this ministry for? and ‘who is it benefiting?’ – it is easier to keep something going, and avoid having to make difficult decisions.

I think we do a disservice to many many good youth workers and ministers by not talking and preparing them for what might be the inevitable closing down. It is all well and good ending to have something new in mind- it softens the blow somewhat, but that doesnt really prepare for the process, both organisationally, personally, professionally and spiritually for the communication, questions, interactions, politics of closing.

Image result for church closing down

For the theologically minded, the metaphor of death, of closing, is part of the redemption story. Without it, there is no life beyond it. Andrew Root talks about faith being a negation (Faith Formation in a secular age) , faith itself is about a giving up, reduction and potentially a closing. It might be suggested that Jesus tried to prepare for his own death by communicating with the disciples so they knew – but they didnt want to hear. There might a time when you know that the writing is on the wall for a club, group, church or organisation – but that others do not want to hear (or neither might you want to either). There are theological premises for closing, The churches in Revelation report card details why some churches had ‘yellow cards’ and warnings that could affect their longevity. But even though there remains a distinct possibility of closing, and what could happen to churches – actually talking about practically, and in youth ministry practice is rare.

So, if you’re about to go into youth ministry, about to start a ministry through ordination – there might be little talk in the way of closing and ending a ministry. Maybe it not something you will ever have to do. It is fair to say that if you’re in the voluntary sector, and relying on funding, or volunteers from churches, or donations – then there may come a point where this might be a reality.

A Year on, and I begin to realise the effect of all this. I realise that it causes me not to want to have to close something down again – so fearing starting something new that i have responsibility for, losing confidence in my own strategic thinking, or in wanting to let young people down. Not things i thought of at the time. And what of me spiritually, or psychologically – or the others who were part of the organisation. It could be that we become hardened with tighter resolve for next time. It could be that some have found a space to be in ministry elsewhere, or that it confirmed for others that youth ministry and its politics and the management of it wasnt for them. It might be said that when one door shuts, another opens.

When it comes to the psychological or spiritual effects of closing or ending ministries – what might be done to help prepare others. For one we need to talk about it. Why not have seminars or sessions at conferences on it, or talk about it more.

If there is Drama in the Christian life – then the tragic and comic may occur simultaneously- the tragic of others might be easy too deal with – to stand alongside anothers pain, their loss and grief – it might be our calling to do so and be pastoral (and im thinking of a funeral here) – but that drama of christian ministry may also include the tragedy and ending of ministries to which we are responsible, or part of. Fortunately in the drama, God is still the key actor, fortunately there overall drama is one of redemption, but at times that hoped for redemption in the midst of current situation feels away. But God is no less present – if anything the crisis moment is where God is more likely to reside, if the biblical narrative has anything to say. It is not the proud, but the humble who are lifted up.

Being prepared for closure, a year on I realise quite how much I wasnt prepared for this at all. I was even doing an MA in managing youthwork – and closure was barely mentioned in the module! But barely was better than none. A year on i realise that many others have the same kind of unprepared alienating experience, and are disorientated in ministry because of it. Ill happily have a conversation with you about it, or talk to emerging leaders about what this can all be like, the one reality in ministry no one wants to talk about. Lets talk about it more.

Regaining transcendence in Youth Ministry

Ian Paul reflections on labyrinths reminded me of an unfinished blog post that I started last year. You might want to read Ian post, it is here https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/why-is-life-like-a-labyrinth/

At the Frontier Youth Trust staff retreat in early December we made the most of the snowy weather by heading out into the Staffordshire countryside on a snowy afternoon with a walk in the snow. True to the pioneer approach of FYT we did some of this walk following our nose and not Google maps. Looking for the cues and trusting in a sense of direction. Aside from muddy feet when we misjudged the softness of ground underneath our feet and snow we made it back.

Around the back of the farmhouse, was a flat ish piece of garden, covered in snow. With a bit of planning two of us turned a blank white sheet into a labyrinth.

Just before it got dark. (It was nearly the shortest day) we each spent time within the homemade route. Moving from outside to in, hearing the still crunch of snow on our feet, hearing the silence of the outside and birds chirping not far away, and focusing on the moment.

It was my first experience with a labyrinth.

And whilst I could give the impression it was an amazing experience. The amazing experience was had by the others who reflected on the profoundness of the experience afterwards, made more so because we had made the space ourselves. But I had to admit though I tried to be present in, to pray, to reflect, to give space to God in it. It was a real struggle.

It is only today that I have began to think that part of my own problem with this has been an acceptance on my own part towards the deconstruction spirit of the age. Call it a personal fear of the trancendancy of God and that divine action might be plausible and credible. Don’t misheard me, it’s not a lack of belief, more a lack of belief or vulnerability to the notion that God might still act or speak. In Andrew Root book he articulates this as part of a process of the secular age, and the current age of authenticity based on Charles Taylor.

It might have been that I couldn’t ‘switch off’ and let God be. It might have been that I didn’t want to. But there’s a broader point that the labyrinth reveals to me, is to wonder where the transcendent reality of Gods divine action might occur in our Youth work and ministry? For there could be a temptation to strategise, merchandise or franchise God in youth ministry practices, reducing God to programme,even prayer as a strategy, or singing in churches as as ‘warm up’ or because it’s it’s a ‘theme’. All examples where transcendent is reduced, because it’s not believed in or credible perhaps. We might also live in an age, writes Root, that the transcendent is easy to write off, as ’emotional’ or manipulated by bass drums.

So it becomes more difficult to believe in the transcendence, to incorporate spaces of divine action within ministry, giving young people a viable connection with the God they may already pray to. It’s a transcendence that as Ministers makes our role unique. Yet whilst we’re trying to minimise the damage or leakage of young people out of churches, it might just be that opening the possibility of transcendence into youth ministry might make it a theological and profoundly constructive task again in the formation of and performing of disciples who follow a call, action and way.

The next day. The snow had gone. There was only a short window of opportunity to do our labyrinth. That sacred space was temporary.

And I’m not sure how long the grass will have this funny pattern.

Let make the transcendance part of youth ministry, especially if it is temporary , unplanned and initiated by the young people. Like my own experience, it might not ‘work’ for everyone every time. But our ministry isn’t about what works, it’s about cultivating faith.

We need to talk about Clergy to Youthworker Line-Management (part 2)

We dont need to worry too much about Management, im sure we’ll be fine

or

Im meant to be your line manager, theyve asked to do it, im sure we can work it out as we go

Are words that I have heard on at least two occasions during the induction process (where there was an induction process) from Clergy in their role as line-manager to me, there might be other good introductory statements made by Clergy in their role as line-manager, though  I have a feeling these might be common.

Simon Davies argues that ‘Christian youthwork Management suffers from too little management, rather than its secular cousin which suffers from ‘too much” (Davies S, in Ord, Jon, 2012). Management within faith settings can often be the reactionary type, or ‘to be fitted in’, and without seeming patronising, I can understand why this is the case. For, its not often that Clergy are themselves given regular positive line management themselves, they dont see it in practice. The kind of management that might inspire them, educate, offer support and appropriate direction in the ministry they do ( as opposed to the plans of the affiliation to enforce as a county wide ministry) – so then for Clergy to attempt to be good Managers is to go outside not only their training ( see part one) but also possibly their experience of faith orientated Management. So of all the styles of Management, the one that becomes default can be ‘laissez-faire’ – ie leave the youth worker to it – when what might be more fulfilling and motivating for the youthworker is be give more management, direction, support and education (Davies).  Good supervision and thus line management has to have a clear focus the personal and pastoral needs of those to be supervised, and to highlight the development of faith commitment and spiritual expression. Image result for negotiation

What it sounds like is that it is important to establish a good Managerial/supervision relationship from the outset that entails some kind of contract. In Part one of this series I suggested that both the youthworker and the Clergy bring something to the relationship, it makes sense then that some kind of negotiation from the outset begins a process from which appropriate Management can occur. In one way, because both the line manager and youthworker give something to the relationship it can become something of a negotiated collaboration. This in itself can be a source of challenge as often the youthworker and clergy operate (dangerously) as the ‘lone wolf’ , collaboration, and working together might not be in their mindset, neither practice or value orientation. Related image

In the collaborative relationship between Clergy & Youthworker what needs to be negotiated? 

  1. The Style of Management – Kenneth Blanchard ( Management Guru) describes 4 styles of ever changing management/leadership style – and its less important what they are- more so that the context of the situation might dictate that a certain style is important. This is the ‘contextual’ leadership style.  (Leadership & the One minute Manager, 1986) The four styles are: Delegating, Supportive, Directive, Coaching. Depending on the level of support & direction given.  Without describing all of the 100’s of styles of management/leadership, it is probably enough to say that all of these 4 actions might be required at some point from the line manager. It is how these are done…. 
  2. The Practicalities of Line Management – It might seem irrelevant or trivial, but the venue, time & frequency of Specific line management are crucial. They all communicate to the Youthworker how valued they are. A once a month meeting might be too much for some, not enough for others, the reverse might be case for every week. How long is important, if line managers are checking their watch, or waiting for a phone call. Venues can be spaces of power, neutrality is good, but this would need to be balanced by the need for privacy for delicate conversations. 
  3. The Content of Line Management – So, when the allotted hour arrives at the decided time and venue – There should be negotiation from the outset of the relationship as to what the appropriate and expected content should be, so that both parties are prepared. Is it to report the weeks events? To talk through ideas and plans? to talk about personal/spiritual challenges? is it receive direction/guidance? to ask for help? to talk about what is not happening? Again, the content can change, but some kind of agreed pattern that can be negotiated ongoing might be a positive helpful. It is worth then negotiating what is expected of the line manager when they hear the report, suggestions or crisis – is it merely Support (high support/low direction), Direct (high direction/low support), Coach ( high direction/high support), or even Delegate ( low direction/low support) – because a line manager that ‘just listens’ might not be whats required – but neither might be a line manager who just delegates new tasks. Negotiating the Content and form that line management takes is crucial. 
  4. Handling Feedback, Criticism & Conflict. From the very beginning the clergy to Line Manager relationship needs to build in what will happen when there is both positive and critical feedback to be given. There is nothing worse that only being praised for everything, or either only being criticised for everything. But as the line manager the Clergy will have to bring to the table, and should bring to the table, the positive and critical feedback, and complaints that might be being aired about aspects of youthwork practice. Image result for criticismWhat is to be negotiated is how these will be communicated, and what the appropriate responses should be to them. To think that there wont be is ‘pie in the sky’- or that the youthworker is finding things too easy, and might be in a safe/comfort zone – where being challenged and making ‘mistakes’ due to inexperience might not be a bad thing.
  5. Expectations; When the Job role & Strategy says one thing, but culture determines another. They say that ‘Culture eats Strategy for breakfast’. If the following is true:

At its worst Christian youthwork is a context where innovation, creativity and diversity is being crushed because of the weight of established tradition and culture (Davies p154)

Where there is an avoidance of a church engaging politically -and youthworkers can have a political switch set to on, like often young people arent given credit for also do. Churches intend to be safe places – or even far too comfortable places – to find healing, hope, meaning and purpose – so they become places where peoples own needs are met. At worse to be exciting and attractive they can become safe and easy to go to – More ‘Moral Therapeutic deism’, than sacrifical, costly, challenging discipleship.

Image result for strategy eats culture for breakfastChurches tend to be places of nostalgia, reliving the past, and its glories, as a way of shielding themselves from the dangers of the present – a reality that youthworkers find themselves in throughout the week and ‘do mission’ in. But these desires for Safety within the church, transmits to conservative and safety culture being the key motivation for education and young people thus youth ministry. It is the culture of the church that might dictate the strategy of the youthworker, more so that the job description or hoped-for strategy – and so negotiating the culture is a key aspect of the Line Management relationship – especially as the Clergy have a role in challenging, conforming to, or educating the culture to create new ones.

6. Spirituality and Formation – If one of the unique contributions to the relationship that the Clergy bring to it is their awareness of Spirituality, Theological education and Experience- its would be a strength of this Line Management role to negotiate how ongoing spiritual guidance, direction, and learning could become a feature, in order for increased challenge, for learning. It might be appropriate for this to be a two way thing, up to date theological underpinnings, readings and thought that the youthworker may have just received might also be good to share with the clergy – again so the relationship is collaborative and shared. The reason this is to be negotiated is that within a line management relationship there are issues of power, and so theological thought and disagreement or discussion might be inappropriate in this context if other matters and its dynamic are unhealthy from a power or control perspective – ie how might a youthworker learn spiritual discipline from clergy if the clergy are perceived as a ‘control freak’…. where a breakdown in relationship might put spiritual advice to the back burner, and so its worth establishing where pinch points or conflicts of interest might be, and how to attend to the relationship itself, in context with other relationships in the church setting. 

Im sure there might be additional aspects of a Clergy-Youthworker line management relationship that will need attending to, especially as it progresses. Whilst I am all for creativity and improvisation, I’d recommend that there be some structures and agreement in place within the line management relationship, especially as this is one of the key reasons for a youthworker to be unmotivated and thus where they are likely to leave a post. There is more information on Management in the links above, or where training could be provided further. What kind of Management did Jesus do with the disciples? Education, Support, challenge, direction? , only he left did he ‘leave them to it completely’ And that was as a group of 12, not the lone worker.

Part one of this series is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Sj

References:

Davies, S ; The Management of Faith Based youth work in Ord, J – Critical Issues in Youthwork Management, 2012

Blanchard K; Leadership and the one minute Manager, 1986

Smith; Christian; Soul Searching, 2005 ( on Moral Therapeutic Deism)

 

MTD & 10 other findings about Young People and Religion from ‘Soul Searching’

There were 10 main points in the conclusion to ‘Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers’ by Christian Smith, but the main headline from the book referred to the concept of MTD.

Product DetailsBetween 2001 and 2005 , the National Study of Youth and Religion in American undertook research into the Spiritual lives of young people aged between 11-17, they conducted interviews, focus groups, and telephone conversations with young people all across the USA.

Whilst MTD got the headlines, and has been referred to in a number of publications, it is some of the other conclusions within the research that might be of equal interest to Youth Ministers, clergy, volunteers and parents of young adults, especially in the UK.

Ill get to MTD later.

So, after listening to and dissecting the information from the research, these were Christian Smiths conclusions regarding the spirituality of American young people:

  1. Religion is important: Religion is a significant presence in the lives of young people. Most have not dropped out of the religious congregations they were raised. Many profess religion to be important and has influence over moral choices. They might not be able to articulate their beliefs that well, but they do have some kind of religious identity.
  2. Young people arent as rebellious as we think! The Character of most young adults is extraordinarily conventional, they follow the religion of their parents in the vast majority of cases.
  3. Religion or no religion – spirituality is not the question; As part of religious conventionality, very few young people express a desire to be ‘spiritual and not religious’ many grant others right to persue religions, but  few would be interested in doing this themselves.  What they were raised with, religion or no religion is what they are most happy with.
  4. The USA is still predominately Christian; The shift in religious observance in 2001-2005 was of no significant difference to the previous 20, 30 or 40 years. Any claim to the alternative – ie the influx of Muslims, is simply overblown.
  5. Some religions are better than others at ‘helping’ young people; From a sociological perspective the young people who score highest on self esteem, and life choice factors were Mormons young people, conservative protestant and black pentecostal teenagers. It was identified that consequance and causality are reasons not to make astute claims, in this regard, and religions cant be compared like for like, however, from the data these three religions had a more positive effect on young people.
  6. Parents, Parents,Parents! The single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual life of a young person is their parents.
  7. Invest in training youth leaders! The greater the amount of religiously grounded relationships, activities, programmes, opportunities and challenges available to teenagers, the more likely teenager will be religiously engaged and interested. Religious communities that invest in training their leaders, teach adolescents are more likely to draw youth into their religious lives. The opposite is also the case, less investment by a church (not just financial investment) then young people are less likely to invest in their religious faith.
  8. I cant explain what i believe – I just do! Most US young people have difficulty articulating their faith, what it means and the implications of their faith on their lives. Many say they have no religious beliefs. Religion may play a part in a young persons life, but it seems confused, un-focussed and in the background, valued but not invested in, praised but not describable. Research pointed to a view that teaching and educating beliefs was weak.
  9. MTD has taken root! It is the new religion that is now worshipped within many of the main religious traditions. What is MTD? – it is Moral Therapeutic Deism – The belief that God merely gives, God expects moral behaviour, and that God is distant. MTD is covered in more detail here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-KS –  If ‘God’ helps a person ‘feel happy’, or ‘confident’, or ‘helps me do what i want’- then these are possible symptoms. God exists and watches, God wants people to be nice, fair and good, being happy and feeling good is central to life, God is only required when theres a problem to take care of needs and good people go to heaven – these were all central beliefs of young people and form the basis of MTD.
  10. Religion takes place in a social context – and these are powerful influences. The choices of a young person are very powerfully influenced by forces outside of religion, and where religion is adhered to is still marginal then it becomes v difficult for a young person to see these powerful influences and the influence they have. Expectations are that young people go against the flow, half the time they are powerless to even swim.
  11. Religious life is important and has a positive effect on YP; religious young people are not the same as non-religious, there are differences in life outcomes between adherents and non adherents, as religions ( nearly all religions) shape and influence a young persons life. The culture of religious practices has an effective influence.

Recommendations;

  1. Adults to help to understand to socialisation process a young person is going through, including the socialisation process in a faith community – rather than see the young person as controller of their own desitiny, more often they are being shaped by forces outside of their control
  2. Young People are not alien creatures, are less dissimilar than like adults. They are more unlike their 3 year old younger sister than us their parent. The continuities are far more prevalent than distinctions. There is no need to research youth culture.
  3. Adults need to be reminded of the similarities with young people.

These recommendations are squared at adults in churches where there can be unseen but said barriers to working and involving themselves with young people.

“Religious organisations and congregations are uniquely positioned to embrace, connect and strengthen links between adults and teenagers, though it will require intentionality and investment “- concludes Christian Smith.

What might Christian Smith have highlighted that might be of relevance to the UK youth ministry, the North East Youth Ministry, 12 years later in 2017?

Does it represent a different culture that of the USA and so some of this is barely relevant at all?  –

How might faith be something young people receive as being something ‘good for them’ but it not require sacrifice, a change in lifestyle, or discipleship.

How well to UK young people articulate faith and beliefs? What they actually believe about God? not just a moral opinion on gay marriage or abortion?

Just a few further questions from what was a fascinating read. MTD may have got the headlines, but theres at least 10 other helpful conclusions from Soul Searching that are good discussion starters in UK youth Ministry.

Thoughts?