Implications of Young People Opting in or Opting out of faith

In Youth Ministry, there have been 3 main schools of thought in regard to the approach taken, and these have centred on the nature of the role of the youth minister or ministry. Pete Ward in ‘Youthwork and the Mission of God’ (1997) describes them as ‘Inside-out’ and ‘Outside-in’ – and so depending on the starting point of the place of being ‘in’ – ie the church or faith – this determines which approach is taken. Both views have ‘church’ as the central point of it, so either the worker and young people start from the inside and connect with other young people ‘outside’ or start on the outside ( ie in a school) with the hope of gradually causing young people to become closer to the ‘inside’. A development to this has been in the last 10 years or so, as detached youthwork and fresh expression/pioneer practices have become more common, and also the realisation that faith, discipleship and even forms of church can occur ‘outside’ the walls of existing church – and so ‘outside-out’ has been added to the mix. Though it is a minority, it challenges to much of the establishment and centrality of church within the walls.  The Introduction chapters in ‘Here be dragons’ discuss these in more detail, follow this link to buy a copy, However, in the main – these wordings and phrases, inside – out etc, are more about the nature of the approach – rather than what is going on in for young people.

In regard to Faith – what are all young people doing all the time?

One of the key things that Wyn and White (1997) suggest is that ‘youth’ is a time of constructing. It is a time where people make assessments of, shape opinions of, and as Bryan (2016) , Macadams (1997) suggest from a psychological point of view – construct stories of – the world around them, including all the structures and people that represent those structures- so teachers, parents, schools, and ‘the home’. What Macadam also suggests is that young people want to, and start to adopt an ideology which best fits the story of their existence so far, and it needs to be a story that makes sense. This is interesting in a world where stories are told through films, through day to day vlogging, and through facebook timelines. Stories are being told. But this isnt about story per se. This is about the process of choosing story.

Are Young people making a series of choices in regard to Faith, Beliefs & Spirituality?

Of course they are. That point is fairly obvious. But I wonder how regular connections to faith shape this.

What about Young people who are ‘Reluctant Opt-outers’? 

So for example; Ben is 14 he has ‘christian parents’ who have encouraged him to go to church since birth, via sunday school programmes, youth groups and special residentials. All of a sudden, Ben starts asking questions, thinking about the faith story he had been told and accepted, and still does, but wants to know more. Ben has been ‘In’ the church – is he trying to find ways of ‘opting out’ – or is he trying to have a deeper more thought of faith that makes more sense to him from what he has heard and begin to tie together other stories in the world, maybe equality and wrestle with this in a church that doesnt allow women to be in leadership (for example) .  It could be feared that because Ben is ‘in’ – he could ‘opt out’. But this isnt usually what Ben’s want to do, but if they arent able to explore questions like this in a respectful manner, then they are likely to. (amongst maybe other reasons other young people might have for opting out) The sad thing is that, as according to Christian Smith, many young people who opt out dont want to, they just havent found enough reasons to stay. They have been socialised within a church setting and have formed an identity within it, and a story, they also know that this will annoy their parents, which isnt what every young person wants to do.

Therefore a large amount of energy is spent in youth ministry to prevent young people ‘opting out’. But what engages young people as the recent ‘Rooted in the church’ and ‘fuller instutute’ research indicates, is not relevant youthworkers who are taking photos on snapchat, but spiritually healthy places and opportunities for challenge. The links to this research is below.  Young people in the church want to make it their story, but it has to make sense when there are other stories in the world that vie for attention.

But do young people opt in too? 

Yes. And this is where the other main spending in youth ministry resides. It is in doing things that make faith attractive to people outside the faith. Anything from ‘youth events’ with flashy lights, to schools assemblies, to lunchtime clubs with faith content, church based open youth clubs. These will generally help young people to ;opt-in’ especially if they have a few good reasons to, ie they know a friend in the church, they are already inquisitive, they are asking questions of themselves in the world and want to adopt a ‘story’, or for the ‘less thinking ones’ it feels cool, energetic and exciting this church band youth event malarkey…

I know this is a simplistic portrayal, young people are more complex, and they are opting in and out probably all the time. There is a third category. But even with these ‘two’ categories in mind – what challenges might this pose for youth ministry?

For example: How does ‘group work’ work when there are ‘opting in’ and (potential) ‘opting out’ young people in the same club or event being treated the same? Yet the young people are needing something different from the experience.

Opting in young people and preventing Opting out young people has been where the lions share of investment has been in Christian Youth Ministry in the last 40 years. Big statement, but it is true. The focus has been on discipleship and evangelism, and not too long term hard graft evangelism at that – so friends or friends, those who might be interested after a one week rock school, or who would become interested after a school project. If they can be attracted by something interesting….

There is a third group of young people.

3. The Unknown ‘Opting ins’. These are the young people who have almost no familial connection with a faith community. So no friend, no family member, no neighbour, and no connection to physical church building in the vicinity – aside from the odd funeral or school carol service. The stereotype might be that these young people are on the ‘challenging estates’ but that neednt be the case. There are many many young people who are distant from opting in to faith. This week Scripture Union are holding a conference to think about the 95% of young people they dont connect with. Not all these 95% of young people live in areas of high deprivation. However, what is more likely is that there can be routes of engagement in such estates – such as detached work, or community based clubs and groups, as an example. But these young people are more distant from opting in, requiring significant time, significant resources creativity and flexibility. Yet at the same time, they are no less of a spiritual young person than anyone else. What tends to happen is that theres a presumption that because of factors which might include poverty, or family situation, young people who might be distant from opting into faith, do not want to, or are unable to, – when this is so not the case – it is more that the opportunities that they have to be able to have been prevented from occuring, because of circumstances, because faith has been shown in structures that they have been unable to cope with, or that the church has abandoned them, their estate and focussed on ‘other’ young people.  In an age of efficiency, calculability and effectiveness, that the church has also done so, working with the distant , the currently unknown young people who could opt in – in what might need to be pioneering, contextual spaces and communities as part of established peer groups seems a risk, a challenge and one not worth taking. Yet at the same time, it is where the Saints of the past would have wandered, and when a church with a bias to the poor might situate itself. If it serious about community transformation.

So, when there are conversations about Youth Ministry – or Young People and Ministry – who exactly do we mean? and what might be appropriate approaches to take depending on whether young people might be keen to stay but could opt out, are loosely connected and could opt in, and for the many young people who are unknown to the church at all, the unknowns. I guess the best thing with every young person, is to create spaces to have meaningful conversation, and let them guide us as youth workers to the places of faith, the questions of existence and opportunities of spirituality they want to go, and when we can we take a risk to push them further.

Oh and by the way, young people, can also mean people.


Bryan, J , Human Being, 2016

Macadams, The Stories we live by, 1999

Passmore, R, Meet them Where theyre at, 2003 & Off the Beaton Track, 2006

Smith, Christian, Soul Searching, 2005

Ward, Pete, Youthwork and the Mission of God, 1997

Wyn & White, Rethinking Youth, 1997

A link to the Fuller Institute research is Here:



How spiritual are young people on the streets?

I have spent the evening putting together some slides for a training session I am leading tomorrow with a group of detached workers in Newcastle. One of the topics they would like me to cover is that of ‘developing spirituality with young people during street based work. A few years ago i posted the following article ‘The Street as a context for Theology -which was quite popular, its here if you would like a read ( But this evening i was reflecting on developing spirituality with young people and it caused me to reflect on a few questions:

Are young people spiritual – and how, as detached youthworkers, would we even know?

Of course the answer is yes, but without the building to be a guide ( ie young people attend a church space, therefore they must be) , being confident that young people are articulating spiritual thoughts, reflections and ideas might only emerge in conversation – or as they react to things happening in the world, such as creation, or loss, or celebration. As i was thinking however, I wonder whether in regard to matters of faith, there needs to be a new typology describing them.

  1. The ‘Opting-outs‘ – these are the young people who have been part of church culture through family links and are ‘mostly in’ but could ‘opt-out’ – and a huge amount of energy is put in to ‘keep’ them in.
  2. The ‘Opting – ins’ – This could be a great number of young people who are ambivalent but could be interested in faith – and they go to open youth clubs, attractive after-school clubs, or messy church type activities – they could ‘opt-in’ and might not need too much convincing if there is a healthy place, positive relationships and they fit within the culture via friendships. Yes, they have friends who are ‘in’ – so these young people might ‘opt in’
  3. ‘Distant Opting-ins‘  – These young people have few faith connections, aside from statutory provision, such as RE in school, and have attended a few ceremonies in churches, their friendship groups have no faith adherents, neither do their family. They may have tried to articulate faith, but haven’t been given a space to do so. To become ‘religious’ they would have to go ‘against’ family and friendship values and would have to explain themselves.

Generally, young people I have ever met on the streets have been in category 3. They are ‘Distant opting in’, not through any fault of their own. Often churches have abandoned the estates they live in (or are only a gathered community in the estate), they have no connection with a local church, or faith community, through even a friend, or family member. The opportunity that detached youthworkers have on the streets is that they get the opportunity to connect with young people who are left aside by most churches, deemed too hard work, or ‘disengaged’ – and so the task is to give ‘distant-opt in’ young people opportunities to opt in. Image result for curiosity quotes

By raising awareness & curiosity, by engaging in conversation, by listening and meeting them in their space, by listening to the faith they already have in the world – such as gambling, or consuming, or competition – what might be their religion already? what do they worship? phones? friends? football? how is it displayed – in clothes, technology or tattoos?


Image result for tattoos of spirituality

Christian Smith in ‘Soul Searching’ (2005) says that “The religion and spirituality of most teenagers actually strikes us as very powerfully reflecting the contours, priorities, expectations and structures of the larger adult world in which adolescents are being socialised”

It stand to reason then, that a young persons situation in regard to faith and spirituality is most likely to reflect their parents. It could be presumed that a young person might rebel against these to join a faith community – but if this is what faith communities are encouraging without conversing with parents also, then theres something to reflect on. But if their parents have limited experience or sympathy with faith then its as likely the young person may not either – this isnt rocket science – but as we encounter young people on the streets and begin to explore and raise awareness of spirituality it is worth reflecting on further. But how might this happen? – well none of it happens without creating positive safe supportive relationships with young people – the basics of detached.

It might be possible to rely on the same ‘methods’ used for categories 1 and 2 above – but usually these look like programmes and buildings, and so these are less likely to be successful – they also tend to be packaged with high levels of expectations- ie ‘if you do x, then young people with think y’– so, we might need a whole new tool box of items for spiritual exploring on the streets.

  1. Trust in conversations – Young people will often , if they trust you, and are wanting to, take the conversation to a place where they are comfortable – if this starts to include matters of faith, of personal opinion, of religion, of ceremony – then organically prompt and provoke through questions and listening.
  2. Redeem spaces – Often the case is made to take young people away from their environment to explore faith, the residential, or the ‘event’ to be invited to – alternatively What we can do on detached is to help young people think about faith and spirituality in the space – in the urban landscape. Can we light candles on the footpaths, or create intentional spaces of silence, or something else appropriate to the space. From red lights in the traffic lights, bus shelters or barbed wire – all can be used in conversation to enable reflection on humanity and something about God.  Can we hold open ‘services’ in a place during an evening and see if young people who are also there might opt in.

Whatever we do to help young people to explore spirituality on the streets it will involve us taking a risk. We take a risk by being there in the first place – and to be receivers of young peoples curious or boundary testing questions, it is usually unlikely that faith and spirituality is the first thing on young peoples minds – unless we set the agenda for this- so, its going to take time, patience, listening and also be ready to take or pose an opportunity through a question or conversation, we learn first, and become attuned to young peoples spirituality first.

Developing Spirituality on the Streets – what ideas might you have? Theres more on developing Spirituality with young people on the streets in ‘Here be Dragons’ details of which are the menu above.

Questions and response to: “what young people want in a church?”

Finally – someone has bothered to do some actual research!

The Fuller Institute have just published some initial findings from a 4 year study into what goes on in churches that young people, young adults, like to go to, and which ones have engaged them.

I have copied the whole summary from the webpage, as it is isnt long- as it is worth reading in full, I’ve also copied the link at the bottom of this article:

In our recent posts we’ve shared the bad news about young people and the church and introduced you to some churches young people love. You might be wondering, “So what’s the secret of churches that are bucking the trend and engaging young people well?”

We wondered the same thing, which is what kicked off this four-year study in the first place. Like us, you might be surprised not only by what these churches do, but even more by what they don’t do.

The myths about what young people want

Surely churches that draw young people today must have a super-cool vibe, young pastor with skinny jeans, a laser light kit in a new multimillion-dollar facility, or some other hype. Right?


Yes, we discovered some churches that are flashy and hip, and as a result they draw lots of young people. But this was certainly not the case for all of the congregations in our study—not even most.

One thriving church actually prided itself on not being hip.

The pastor wanted to drive the point home and emphasized to our team, “Our church is nothing flashy; just a great healthy place.” Tweet that

After conducting nearly 1,500 hour-long interviews and analyzing over 10,000 pages of research data, we’ve discovered that much of what we often think we need to engage teenagers and young adults perhaps isn’t so essential after all.

In our latest book Growing Young, we counter several of these myths with the reality of what we’ve learned helps young people discover and love their churches. But there’s one BIG myth we want to do away with right now.

Myth: Young people want a shallow or watered-down teaching style.

You’ve likely heard plenty of discouraging news about young people’s faith habits, such as reading the Bible less, praying less, volunteering less, and attending church less than older Christians. Given some of the teenagers and young adults you know, maybe you’ve concluded that they just want feel-good messages that are easy, uncontroversial, and don’t require anything of them.

This means that if we want young people to show up to our churches, we should make the messages shallow and easy to swallow, right?

That’s not what we found. Engaging today’s young people doesn’t mean we refrain from talking about Jesus too much, or the very real cost of following him.

What young people say they want

Don’t just take our word for it. Reflecting on the “secret” to his church’s success, one young person explained, “Yeah, I think the goal for our church is not really effectiveness with young people but serving and following Jesus. And young people like me are attracted to churches that want to do that.

During the Growing Young project’s interviews, 40 percent of young people specifically mentioned “challenge” when they talked about why their church is so effective with their age group. They appreciate challenging teaching in their churches, even when it makes them feel uncomfortable and invites them to make changes based on scriptural principals.

40 percent of young people specifically mention wanting to be challenged by their church. Tweet that

Contrary to popular thinking that young people today want it easy, many told us they love their churches because their churches inspire them to act. This inspiration flows from leaders who model authenticity and humility and extend the challenge of following Jesus not from a place of superiority or power, but out of an invitation to pursue the way of Jesus together.

In short, teenagers and emerging adults in churches growing young aren’t running from a gospel that requires hard things of them. They are running toward it.

Still not convinced?

We get it – the myth that young people want a church that is shallow and easy runs deep. But our team kept hearing from young people who convinced us otherwise.

One twenty-something explained it this way: “I think many churches have fallen into a consumer mindset as a default mode. Churches have tried to appeal to people’s desire to feel good. But the problem is, if you’re just trying to make people feel good, church isn’t going to measure up to that.”

Another college student made it clear: “There is never a time, even in just catching a meal with someone from our church, that the gospel doesn’t come into the conversation. The quality of the conversation with people from my church is consistently Christ-centered. The gospel comes up everywhere.”

Let’s go deeper together

These shifts toward deeper teaching and ministry that appropriately challenge young people require time, and they are anything but easy. Additionally, there’s always the chance that some young people won’t like it. We want to equip you for this journey with all the information and strategy you’ll need, and you’ll discover a great starting point in our new book that is now available.

For now, we hope you’re encouraged that in churches growing young, it is the authentic teaching of Jesus’ message that meets young people’s desire for life-giving direction. Proclaiming Jesus as the centerpiece of the story of God, and seeking to live out his instruction in everyday relationships, the churches we’ve studied are reclaiming the very heart of the good news.

Your church can too.

Don’t buy in to the myths about what young people want in a church. Join us and we will journey together toward deeper, truer, more faithful ministry that engages young people and all generations well.


So – what do you think? – is this applicable to the UK context and the young people and adults you know in a church?

From the article – what are the headlines?

  1. Young people can identify a healthy place – thats where they learn, ask questions and survive risk taking.
  2. Young people dont want watered down, ‘relevantised’ or ‘simplifyed’ – they can do that themselves. Give them theology raw, deep and spirituality a challenge.
  3. Yes, a Challenge. Make it difficult and meaningful.
  4. They desire authenticity. (I think this has been on every ‘how to do effective youth ministry’ manual since 1980)
  5. They hope for community and space connected with the church not separate, all generations together.

There is much to think on.

a) What are the alternative assumptions that UK youth ministry has promoted since well, 1980?  – relevancy, simplicity and attraction, over challenge, changing cultures and authenticity?

b) No one is asking, aside from Peter Scuzzero, what an emotionally, spiritually, mentally, socially or even physically healthy church might look like. The task of youth ministry from now on is not to help disciple young people, but help clergy and faith communities create cultures of discipleship. A youth worker cannot do it alone.

c) The context is important, im assuming the research was done with american students in churches. What about young people in the UK who are no where near a church- what kind of culture, challenge and deep faith is an attractive thing for them. The watered down high energy youth event has been dead as an evangelism to discipleship method for a long time. Albeit not for any young people involved in it. Itll make them better leaders than any attender a future disciple. However, whats the alternative. Deep faith in conversations and relationship, improvising from the context, exploring faith in the margins and building church from the edges.

But in context – what would ‘church going’ young people in the UK – say they wanted and what kind of church engages them?  A small church where they are welcomed, encouraged and given responsibility might ‘win’ over a large church where they have a fight for a place. Might. not always.

What kind of church will keep young people? is still one where the culture of it is far more important than any new personnel like a youth worker. What kind of church do young people ‘want’ is still somewhat of a misleading question. Though it promotes a materialism – I can hear a few people say, it’s not what they want that’s important, its what God wants’ and theres a truth in that – but ‘what God wants’ isnt young people to be mistreated, ignored, belittled or infantilised by the church, in the way that no one should be. So – if a church is willing to improvise and accept the offers of suggestions from young people, develop deep learning and challenge, create culture of health and of respect then it might continue to engage young people, after all, research is now beginning to prove what youthworkers have thought for a while.

To click the link and find the article yourself- and the further resources you can do so here:

40 daily self-care tips for youthworkers & ministers during Lent. 

Just before Christmas I was reflecting on youth workers and self- care. I was doing this because at the time I was and continue to do a days lecturing for a small group of new youthwork students on the EQUIP course in the north east on preparing them for vocational work with young people in the faith sector. Next week is the start of lent, a period of 40 days of time symbolising Jesus’ time in wilderness, before, but also an integral part of his ministry. There’s no harm in reflecting on the need in the work we do as youthworkers to be more disciplined or give something up, equally it can be argued that the physically and emotional giving required in such a role might also determine that receiving could be as important as giving.

Already during lent there can be great resources for young people, or for churches. But I wondered about the workers in the fields, paid and unpaid, full and part time, and suggesting for 40 days of lent, 40 suggestions for improving self care during, in order to renew, recharge and be ready for the challenges of youthwork in the year ahead.

Above all, the challenge might not be just to do these things, but to love ourselves, be kind to ourselves and in doing so then look after ourselves, so by no means are these conclusive or things that I do myself they might even be things I need to do, its the sentiment that in the work that we do, self care, self love even, might be something to prioritise over Lent.

Image result for self care

Steven Covey in ‘ 7 Habits of effective people describes the human person as having 4 aspects, physical, spiritual, emotional and mental, these four are a good baseline to start from in terms of looking after ourselves.

Physical – i sense the biggest groan.. do i have to..? 

1. Choose the form of travel or route that requires more exercise. Ie walk instead of bus or tube. Plan the day accordingly

2. Replace a few unhealthy chocolatey snacks with something healthier, especially in an office environment.

3. On your day off, that you will take (!), do some exercise,  and it neednt be expensive, park runs are free, so it walking in the country or an hours swim at the local pool won’t cost too much.

4. Take that day off. and if possible take the night off the night before, so you can start to relax from 5pm, and have nearly 30 hours off in total.

5. Plan ahead with food a bit, it is so easy with work that is odd hours, long days, working lunches and youth group on the hop to forget to eat properly, or plan to eat decent food. Being physically well is going to help. So plan meals and food ahead of the game, in the week ahead. Even microwaved soup, or last nights left over casserole is better than a microwave meal itself!

6. Oh and if you’re due a weekend off (if you work weekends) – then take it! – and your annual leave – dont overwork your hours if you help it!

7. Combining physical and emotional/social – start going to an excercise class! – meet new people which also tending to your own physical condition.

8. Reduce unhealthy coping mechanisms, like alcohol, over eating, non sleeping, late night video games, drugs, addictions, aggression or what ever it might be.

1. On a day off visit a place of worship, cathedral, a monastery,  a mosque or temple, somewhere to contemplate in your own chosen time your place in the world.

2. It might be a spiritual exercise to be in the present moment, so take a walk in the countryside, near a beach, or in a park without your phone. Then stand a listen to whats going on around you, take some deep breaths, and let your mind unwind itself, and your eyes be open to whats going on.

3. As well as a physical activity, tending to a garden or an open space, growing fruit or vegetables might be a good spiritual experience to connect with something growing, at the pace that it is growing. Slow down.

4.  If you believe in a Holy Book, then spend time reading it, and if you dont believe in it or have one, then maybe start to read one. Either way it might be spiritual or educational.

5. Read some poetry, or great literature, appreciate an art form as a God given talent of someone, and listen to what it might be challenging you to think about and reflect on in your person, and in your practice.

6. The Bible talks about meditating ‘day and night’ on good things, meditating is nothing other than slowing down, and reducing what is being focussed on and it being something of purity and goodness, of Godliness even. Even a ‘prayer’ time might not be meditative – just another rushed activity. So, slow down, and be active in meditating on something, verses from the Bible, a poem, an art form, something natural.

7. Pray. To the known or unknown God you believe in, give away in conversation with God your deepest needs, desires, fears and frustrations, and if this for you is cathartic self talk (to an unknown God) then so be it, but in that conversation leave some stuff behind in it, and listen and be attuned to what the next steps are in response to the how your mind and spirit has received in terms of ideas, new plans, decisions or directives.

8. Read up on the Spiritual saints from before, the actual saints – such as Mother Theresa, or Saint Francis, William Wilberforce or those whos faith inspired justice and reconciliation, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, , their stories are well known and told through books, or film, connect spiritually and be renewed and inspired by their struggle and the trust they had in God during it.

Image result for self care
Emotional/ Social

1. Value a coffee or pint with a supportive listening friend. Do this once a week during lent!

2. Protect yourself from comparisons whether the resource than tries to help you create the perfect youth group or the statuses on social media of someone else’s great ministry or practice. Be pleased for them, encourage them, and avoid the comparison trap.

3. Give time to people who are outside of work and ministry, like your family.

4. Forgive yourself for the daft thing or mistake pretty quickly – especially if it was done in all innocence!  – we need not beat ourselves up – especially if we were brave to take a risk, or develop an idea.

5. Use Social media in a positive way, use it to connect with people and have a conversation with a ministry colleague wherever they are in the world, at least once a week. They might need the support as much as you do.

6. Get some kind of supervision, personal supervision someone who will ask you the difficult questions, but also support you through tough stuff, you neednt feel alone, there are plenty of people who can support you.

7. Spend some time examining your personal motives, dreams and goals, whilst walking or reflecting, once your youth work practice is in some alignment then there will be some kind of inside and outside integrity, when its out of sync its obvious to yourself.

8. Spend time away from the rushing around to deeply connect with another person, a colleague, friend or young person – in all the activities, stop and be present with them and attune yourself to listening, give of real emotions – not just active organising ones.
Mindful and creative

1. Take up a skill that involves a tangible end product and enjoy it, so cooking recipes, bread, wine, cake, making for example, needle work or sewing, diy or gardening.

2. Read up on a youthwork hero, get reacquainted with a person’s theory and practice since yours might have changed since you read them last. So Friere, Jeffs and Smith, Pete Ward or Kerry Young. There are others…

3. Start a journal of practice, renew a practice of reflection that might be been long gone since college days. Reflect on what you’re learning, and question why you might not be.

4. Watch the kind of movie that disturbs, challenges or invokes the senses and thoughts in a different way to your usual. Something different might be mind stirring.

5. Read a paper that’s different to your normal worldview. It may disturb,  irritate or annoy. But engage with it creatively, protest accordingly but at least be engaging in a different view of the world.

6. Read a few texts from an area of practice linked to youthwork but not an area you might know so much about, so a political leader, a philosopher, a uniformed organisation, social work, might be mine but what might be an area you might reflect on. might be a good place to start.

7. Commit to learning something new every day – whether its a skill, a piece of knowledge, a piece of history, or something from a young person, or something else, and be deliberating in looking for it.

8. Develop your own learning programmes with and for your young people, take time gathering resources for the programmes, and be creative – enjoying the thinking and learning through them.

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So, using Coveys four aspects, there are 32 ideas to help you as a youthworker/minister with self care during the upcoming Lent. You will have noticed that it is impossible to separate the four areas, simply because it is impossible to consider ourelves as sperate parts, all are connected, are interchangeable, and in another way it is why looking after ourselves is going to be positive for our work lives, and vice versa. So, here are 8 further self care tips and maxims that might be helpful:

  1. Do one thing a week just for you. And stick to it, and make sure its healthy/good for you too
  2. Take more of the credit when something goes well, God has given you gifts to use, use them and recognise that you have these gifts – dont give God all the glory for achievement, but only blame yourself for when things go wrong – this is a ministry condemnation/self image downward spiral.
  3. Visit someone elses practice, not to revel in what they’re good at but to spend time learning and appreciating what they’re doing, to be inspired,  and also how your practice is distinctive.
  4. Be realistic about what you can achieve every day. The phone will ring, the do list might be endless, but set realistic goals and try and focus on the not so urgent but more important things every day.
  5. If you feel like you’re continually fire fighting. Then you will burn out. Balance reacting with strategising and preventing. That’s not just you personally but also maybe the organisation/church you’re working for….
  6. Make a decision not to compare yourself with others, and challenge a comparative culture. Its your mission, your call, your context, find a culture of support and understanding for your ministry and person, not a place of comparisons or achievements
  7. Avoid the numbers game, and if others are playing it dont join in – value quality.
  8. Find a good way of being on top of the game in regard to personal organisation. I still use a paper filofax, it works for me like google calendar just doesnt. But thats just me. It you’re an organisational mess, then building team is very difficult.

So, for 40 days of lent – here are 40 hopefully realistic suggestions for you, busy, stressed out, youthworker than might enable you to renew yourself, care for yourself and create in yourself a measure of good practice. We might be good at supervising others, or managing them, but we have to do the same for ourselves too. If things need to be ‘got rid’ like the discipline of lent might awaken us to then great, but most of all, how we love and look after ourselves is crucial.


“Shut up back there, I’m trying to tell you that God loves you”, 6 alternatives to the ‘God-slot’

Its been such a great evening. A good group of young people have come along to the youth club, they’ve played games, chatted nicely, made a pizza, and had a great time, theyre buoyant, nothing has been broken, and theres no shards of wet toilet paper on the toilet walls. But its 20 minutes before the end of the session, and theres a tension in the air. Its that time. The time when the fun stops, the time when the atmosphere shifts, when the bubble of energy in the room is changed. Sean goes and hides in the toilets. Shannon leaves for a fag, the boys start a play fight. why? Because they know its God-slot time.

The workers can feel it too. Its the time where they have to do a talk ‘in front’ of the young people, up to now they’ve been involved with them, chatting, making pizza, playing football, but now they have to be separate, powerful, teachery even. But its the deal isn’t it, the young people get to have fun, play games, make pizza – often for free, so that the payoff is that they listen. isn’t that the deal?

I wonder if theres a difference between what is communicated during God-slot time, and what is said. The obvious example above, is that whilst young people are shouted at they are also told that God loves them. Whilst being told a moral story, they are being controlled and disempowered, often, this bit is the important bit for the workers, but the least important bit for the young people. Often its the most parent/child dynamic moment – and it as this point where faith/spirituality/morality/ is inserted – and so God can become only associated with being told something. There is some evidence to suggest that young people leave this kind of youth ministry practice with a view of God different to what is said about God, because of the way that God is presented – so it might be at best something listened to, but its content isn’t heard. At worst it might propagate an MTD type faith, where God is perceived as only interested in a young persons moral behaviour.

Ive heard it said that ‘without the moment of the epilogue then the club would be nothing different to the youth centre up the road’, or ‘the young people should expect it, we do it every week’ or ‘ without me telling them about God, how will they know about God’ or ‘its the only opportunity they might have to hear, and they must be told’  If there is a desire to do something spiritual, but the ‘God-slot’ isn’t the thing that’s – So, on the premise that young people are in the space that has been created and its in some kind of religious building, ie a church, and something of faith is what is deemed a requirement- what might be the alternatives?

  1. Create opportunities for young people to opt in to Spiritual activities through the evening. So, on a table near to where they normally chat, theres an object and piece of paper with ‘prayer requests’ on it. Its there and young people could find it, and opt in as they choose. Somewhere else theres a Bible for them to pick and read for themselves. Theres plenty of resources for prayer, (see prayer spaces), but just leave them around now and then and see if young people opt in. What about an area with some natural items like shells or stones, or tree bark, and a few printed bible verses, again, not to teach, but for them to explore and ask questions, to provoke.
  2. Let the young people have knowledge of the theme the week before, so they can think about it and be ready to ask questions throughout the evening. its disempowering to teach them ‘blank’ – even if that is what church is like.. then from the beginning of the next week there can be discussion about it in the conversations, there might not be need to talk from the front, because the education has been done in the conversations and moments. alternatively have aspects of the theme around, again for the young people to engage with it, such as a bible verse with a question to stimulate conversation, or a magazine or other ‘prop’ .
  3. Create a culture where the young people make decisions about their ‘spiritual curriculum’ – so do they want prayer, teaching on themes, questions, dilemas, stories, or to participate in mission, in community work, or worship – this may take time, if theyre not used to having the opportunity to make decisions about this, but its time worth investing, as then they are active in their discipleship, or their spiritual exploring (same thing), they needn’t do it alone, they could work in small groups to plan a theme, or a months worth of sessions – and the earlier they do this – ie from 11-13, the more its part of the culture of taking responsibility. As Nick Shepherd says in Faith Generation, Young people need to not be only learners, but deciders, and in this way also creators, creators of the environment in which their spiritual discipleship occurs.
  4. Trust in conversations. If the culture of the session is one that is thriving with many conversations between young people and also between volunteers and workers, then focus on allowing these conversations to be informal moments of sharing, of connections, and where in which the volunteers take risks in the conversation to suggest praying for the young people, or prompting with a question about faith, or where the young person reflects on something of their week, or their thinking about faith from the previous week. Why have 1 ‘telling’ moment at the end, when 15 conversations have occurred during in which faith is active, and real, in the moment and connected to and with the ongoing relationships. If the culture of the session is informal, conversational and about relationships, then it stands to reason this can be the right space that faith can be explored within. Faith becomes connected with integrity to the context.
  5. Encourage sharing times. From pit and peaks, or ‘where has God been in your life this week?’ to ‘what can you be thankful for’ or whats been the struggle? creating an open sharing space or a place in which the young people can be honest with each other, then allow them to help by sharing advice to each other, and praying for each other, or praying in silence ( so they might hear God) – create a routine of care, or friendship that enhances the group, and so that then they are happy to share or lead each other and together in spiritual direction. Traditions are good, but the right one might be to share and chat and pray during the food time, and not at the end, or that every now and then theres participation in a form of a reflection, liturgy or communion as part of the session
  6. Ask the young people. Nothing will happen overnight, plan to make shifts gradually, in conversations with young people and develop their decision making. maybe even say ‘we’ve decided to stop the ‘god-slot’ what would you like to do instead to explore faith?’ That’s going to be the best thing to do. and see what ideas they have…and develop their ideas with them, or just let them take over this aspect. a risk worth taking. let them do so, being supported and guided and allowed to fail, but let them…

If none of these are how ‘church’ is modelled on a sunday. Then theres a possibility that the work with young people will become prophetic in the life of the church, if youth ministry starts producing better disciples over the next 20 years, then the sometimes ‘pew fillers’ that church might have created, then so be it.

There is plenty of ready to use material out there, and use the odd idea as a compliment to the culture of the group, an illustration to provoke thinking during the ‘open time’, a form of prayer, the danger is when an entire group shifts to a programme formula, like ‘play this game, then use it to say this verse, then ask the kids about being loved’ – it has its place – and if the group was set up with that programme in mind, then so be it, but shifting what might be a really good open group where young people have good conversations (and a god slot) to something formulaic – is doomed, especially without actual consultation and decision making from the young people. An opt in space – needs opt in, informal creative spaces to explore faith through a variety of means, and yes it requires effort and a shift, but its a shift worth making and investing in the long term, and investing in the long term in developing relationships. Anyone can turn up and tell young people something for 10 minutes, but ask the young people what they actually get out of it, and itll be realised that its a waste of time. God is for being explored by young people, not just presented to them.

Why should the school teach all the best doctrine?

I had a really fascinating conversation with a young person the other day. They were describing how they went to church and a youth group on a Sunday, and during the week were involved in doing RE at GCSE level in a pretty bog standard north-east secondary school.  The young persons opening conversations were mostly about football, and the like, but then as the conversation progressed they realised that I was of faith and wanted to chat through what they had been doing during RE.

In the past I have been involved in schools work in secondary schools where the RE lessons can be related to philosophy and ethics, where young people aged 11 are dealing with Plato and Socrates. But in this instance the young person was telling me that they had been learning about Christian beliefs, about the Trinity, about Creation, and about Eschatology, for some youth ministry people, that’s the ‘end times’. It was a fascinating conversation. The young person described how the teacher had used a mars bar to describe the trinity (brings a new meaning to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good, boom boom)  The young person was relaying to me about the different thought about all of these things, and also different perspectives on them, yes it came across a little simplified, ie ‘all conservative’ Christians believe x,y and z, whereas ‘liberal ones’ don’t, and yes – whilst I responded to the young person in terms of questions to reflect that there are spectrums and a scale, that wasn’t the point. What I asked the young person then, was  – so, given that you are learning about these things – How does knowing this help you with Church on Sundays and youth group?

Their response was that they hadn’t necessarily made a connection, or couldn’t articulate it. But what they did say that was they seemed to do on a Sunday was to think about how to behave, or how to believe, but the rest of the time was about having social space in church, about space to have fun and it be a good club. And theres nothing wrong with that. When I asked them about the learning on a sunday they described it as someone telling them something to think about, but with little interaction. What they couldn’t do was correlate their learning of the faith in RE to the table of their youth group. School was awakening their interest in something deep and thoughtful, about the knowledge of the faith, about doctrine, and giving tools to explore it further, yet church was about morality and fun. Not that much different to Moral Therapeutic deism, something I describe here: Does Youth Ministry suffer from MTD?

In the 1970’s Larry Norman wrote the song ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?’ – I’m not going to propose that Christian music has improved since then, the point being that whats the alternative to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and the rest, what this paved the way for was the alternative Christian music scene.

But should the question be today…, ‘why should the school teach all the good Christian doctrine?’  This wasnt some progressive or well resourced faith school, it was an ordinary secondary. Neither was it a particularly well resourced or progressive church that the young person attended. The point is that some aspects of youth ministry are trying on one hand to improve RE teaching ( Ie YFC’s ‘RE:quest, resource) – but at the same time resources that equip Christian young people to explore deep faith, deep doctrine – ‘going beyond the god slot’ are hard to find. The school has to teach Christian beliefs as part of its curriculum, and also forms of belief, and give spaces for questions, for discussion and also exploring. But doesnt the church too have an obligation to help young people explore, question and develop opinion and belief of God too? I am not going to judge every youth group experience on the basis of the one that was described to me, that really wouldn’t be fair, but from some churches it is seen that what is taught in RE might be ‘liberal’ or ‘not real Christianity’ ( hence the desire to give schools a ready made resource) – but actually what schools might be doing is awakening the curiosity of young people to think about the faith, to know God further, to not be afraid of asking the question.

Whilst young people are curious and questioning their minds need feeding. When it comes to doctrine – youth ministry and even the Sunday church might be catching up with the school. We wonder why hundreds of young people leave the church, when their intelligence is ignored, or their capacity to learn is sidelined its probably not surprising.

What about thinking that each year the group of young people will consider and develop a deeper knowledge of one doctrine? so doctrine of grace, of incarnation, of the Trinity, of salvation or something else. Then if young people become followers of Jesus, they do so with knowledge of Jesus, knowledge of their place in the story, of how the pieces fit together. Its not just a bible verse to justify a theme.

Be brave with our young people, take a risk. In a recent survey only 22% of churches are talking with young people about basic Christian beliefs. (See ‘Losing heart’ stats, link is via here: ) or  That’s 78% of churches who have young people aren’t. Statistics can prove anything, and they can be a stick to batter the church with, or justify youth ministry practices or resources. What the conversation revealed to me is that even secular schools are potentially doing a better job of this than the church.

Can Biblical doctrine direct organisation strategy?

We need our organisation to be effective!

It needs to be ‘moving forward’ ,

Stagnation is capitulation! ,

Growth is good, efficiency is the name of the game,

Organisations needs to be outcomes orientated!

Image result for effectiveness

Does anyone else wince that these get said in places of work, you know the corporate lingo to often mean job cuts, or reschuffles, or changed focus. Its not far off transformational leadership or management styles. In a way these kind of things are more acceptable in the supermarket chain, the factory or even a building site, but is it appropriate that this kind of language, and the ideologies behind ‘effectiveness’, ‘efficiency’ , ‘growth’ and ‘reinvention’ have become virtually staple language to the faith-based educational organisation like youth work, and even more so the church.Doesn’t it seem a bit weird? that the maxims developed from Henry Ford, Apple and Macdonalds are adapted in and used in the church? Maybe it doesnt seem that weird anymore.

Such as:

 we want the church to have a ‘growth’ strategy,

or a church that gives value for money…

What becomes weird is that the language of business and economics has infiltrated not just the process of organisations, and their strategies, but also in the faith settings become justified as theology.

So, for example, In John Nelsons book ‘Leading managing ministering (1998) he looks at a number of models of management (including those mentioned above, transformational leadership and begins to consider how this type of management can be used in the church, using verses of the bible peppered throughout to seal the models approval to a faith orientated audience. And then as a result it becomes valid to use certain styles of leadership/management in organisations and their associated behaviours because there are biblical resonances. Related image

What i am saying then is the culture of business, and its adopted language becomes the main driver for the theology that is interwoven into faith based organisations. There becomes a need for a ‘growth’ theology, or a theology of decline, or a theology of innovation. Reflecting on organisations, reflecting on how the performance of an organisation in community is mirrored in the character, knowledge, themes or actions of God.

I wonder if this is back to front. Just a little bit.

In Drama of Doctrine,  Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that Doctrine, and theology is for the purpose of directing the performance of the church in the ongoing theodrama, the 5 act play of Creation, Covenant, Christ, Church, and Consumation, which the church and present is in the fourth act of five. Theology is for directing and guiding the action, it may also be a dramatic endeavour in itself. Vanhoozer contrasts the kind of Theology that is absolute (epic) and that which is found in community action (lyric) with a directive theology that is dramatic, that maintains Biblical primacy but is for ongoing community participation and is for in real time. The live drama.

So, instead of organisations adopting Business langauge and delivery as the starting point for theological reflection – what about the faith based organisation that performs the doctrine of atonement, or doctrine of love, or doctrine of grace in its organisation culture and structure?

In a simplified example, at some point last year in our team reflections at DYFC we looked at the passages in 1 Corinthians 13 about love. They are fairly well known and get read at most weddings, even 4 weddings and a funeral i think. As a group we looked at the question – is it possible to be an organisation that performs as much as possible the call to be loving, kind, faithful and unfailing whilst also being on the stage of the world in which funding, competition, outcomes, communication, projects, attendance, are all part and parcel of practice? 

Image result for love is patient

This wasnt us trying to perform a theology of love, or atonement not by any means, but it was at least starting to make space for the kind of theology that we might want to direct our organisation, to embody in it, and ultimately to perform. So we did ask – what would it mean to ‘love’ young people – genuinely – how would we do this, what would it mean to ‘love’ each other, to trust and be kind to young people and each other. From these conversations it becomes easier to develop a culture that is theological, and directed by not only propositional statements that show truth, but also the sense that being and performing loving, generous and compassionate propel the theodrama, they reveal and embody God in action, especially in the mini series’s of the drama of every day life in the myriad of conversations. The critical reflection was that it would difficult, and there would be considerable adjustments to be made, but that would only be inevitable. But Theology directs the performances in this way.

In my last piece i was talking about the culture created in a youth ministry setting. Culture creating is a big thing, understandably, Morgan talks about organisations as cultures. So again, in faith settings how might a theology that is performed be culture shaping and creating, even prophetic of others. For in a way what is a faith based organisation that has culture but not love – might it be the crashing symbol?

What would happen in an organisation or church that embodied, or performed a theology of the cross? Its marks would be self sacrifice, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection- there would not  just be ‘acceptable’ behaviour, or ‘enough’  – but beyond compassionate behaviour, laying down life for friends behaviour and respect for others. All actions that propel God at work in people, and the ongoing drama, that foretaste a future existance in the present with shadows of the past.

If churches and organisations are full of saints (rather than heroes) Wells, Improvisation, 2004,  then the saint is someone who is faithful to their call, but also develops community around them. They are faithful to the nature of the call, being gracious, humble and not taking the limelight – that is after all Jesus space in the drama. For many saints they have no choice who becomes part of that community for like St Francis, they identified with the poorest, most needy and shaped theology of the sidewalk, of suffering in the moments of identifying with people. Communities of saints take the rough with the rough and journey alongside and with, because ultimately our Human actions of faith are collective and the land is to be explored together warts and all. Can this happen in organisations who might have other motives, like growth, or innovation, or strategy, or success? where might sainthoodness fit in? or a theology of the suffering of Jesus? But as Christians in groups and organisations, our starting point isnt working out how to biblically adopt Apple or Macdonalds into an organisation – it is that we perform in real time the drama as directed, being wise as saints on the stage of the world, yet start with theology that speaks into cultures.

Maybe Theology as it is dramatic,  comes first after all or least has an ongoing part in being performed.



Newman – Leading, Managing Ministering, 1998

Vanhoozer, Kevin, The Drama of doctrine, 2005

Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, 2004