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.

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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.

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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. http://www.infed.org 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: http://wp.me/p2Az40-JK ) 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!

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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? 

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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


Does Youth Ministry suffer from an MTD?

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Sounds painful? And is there any protection? Can the church perform safe youth ministry to prevent it?  


Actually, that in a way is half of the problem. Safe youth ministry causes MTDs to occur in young people, signs and symptoms include prayer being used for coping when car parking spaces cant be found, and the belief that being good and moral is enough. So, less of the analogies to STDs, what am I talking about?

In 2005, Christian Smith discovered that the majority of American teenagers are still relatively religious, and are active believers in their churches, yet he realised that they were ‘incredibly inarticulate’ about their faith, the beliefs and practices and its meaning and how it plays a part in their lives. It wasnt that they dont hold on to doctrines, but the main one that he discovered that they implicitly had was MTD, or ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’  (a socially transmitted religious disease)

Young people afflicted with MTD are part of faith communities, but that these faith communities practice is a million miles from the practices of historic communities, the origins of the faith, a prosperity rather than a poor gospel (for example). A creed for the MTD would hold on to the view that God required people to be good, because God is like big brother always watching, that life is about being happy as God wants me to be happy and feel good about myself, God is always there, but mostly only needed in crisis, and good people go to heaven.

One of the benefits for young people who ‘suffered’ from MTD is that many young people who expressed faith in this way, and belonged to a faith community exhibited more positive outcomes in their personal life, from academic, health and social factors (Smith C, 2011, p28). Smith also discovered that social patterns were the biggest factor in the religious observance of a young person, the more connections a young person had with faith, the more ‘normalised’ it became. This is worth reflecting on further when thinking when young people with limited social patterns of faith encounter faith. However, I digress, here is a (damning) extract from Christian Smiths book:

However, it appears that only a minority of US. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. For, it appears to us, another popular religious faith, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness. Exactly how this process is affecting American Judaism and Mormonism we refrain here from further commenting on, as these faiths and cultures are not our primary fields of expertise. Other, more accomplished scholars in those areas will have to examine and evaluate these possibilities in greater depth. But we can say here that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition,’ but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the struct ures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctif ication, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christ ian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith. (Smith, 2011, p171)


But breathe deeply Youth ministry sisters and brothers from this side of the pond…  you might be reading this from the comfort of the shores in ‘post-brexit’ Britain (though i know there are some readers from the USA who might want to switch off now) , this was Christian Smiths research and it was done in the USA, and is now over 10 years old. In the UK things are different arent they?

The general consensus amongst youth ministry is that the UK is about 10 years behind the USA in a number of ways, usually because when the US develops practice, writes about it, publishes it and these publications have practice adopted in the UK its about 5-10 years, though this varies considerably in regions. But maybe it is about 10 years in the early adopting high youth ministry orientated focussed areas. But MTD isnt caused by youth ministry, or at least not solely by youth ministry, for youth ministry in a local church is only a vehicle for the education or discipleship of young people in accordance with the church’s theology and culture- with a few moments of prophetic challenging, and if not directly the church, the theologies the church subscribes to, whether evangelical, liberal or other. So, MTD as a disease occurs in the context of the whole faith community, but because the research has identified it in young people, youth ministry gets the awakening. Youth ministry is told to go on training to make preventative cure, when the church is the fostering culture, and church is only the fostering culture if it adopts, and forms its own culture within the broader culture. It is relatively easy to point to an American culture having strong therapeutic tendancies ( Smith, C p191), and the church has adopted something similar – a happiness religion to be relevant in a desire for happiness culture.

So, does UK youth ministry have an emerging MTD problem?

There have been many surveys in the last few years that have indicated that adults in the UK, even from faith backgrounds either hold a variety of or are unable to articulate doctrinal positions – is this an indicator of something?

What about what is expected from children and young teens as a result of, or in the application of Bible studies and talks – is it enough that they understand, learn and experience – or does some moral action become the tenet for Christian living as a response – the be nice to one another, help your parents, Sin is being ‘naughty’ (and Santa is watching)  And many many activities and groups and churches and sessions dont do this, but morality can become the highest call of the christian young person can’t it at times? …

What of the God of contemporary UK youth ministry? Is he too nice? too loving, too accepting – too bland?  Its no wonder the Old testament is avoided, let alone Ananias and Saphira, and talk of the martyrdom of the early disciples brushed under the carpet to a point. I have heard it said at an evangelistic event that Jesus wants young people to have their selfies taken with him, that’s the path of pure relevancy with no cost. Jesus is only a click away, and requires no sacrifice or cost. And this was one of those types of events that pretty much the only young people were there were linked to youth groups already. So, nothing very deep for those already living faith in a social context. However, it was just one example, and possibly a harsh one, however – the broader question – what kind of God does youth ministry reveal to young people?  thats not just what is told – but what is implied also.

The question is for individual contexts to reflect on. It would be difficult to diagnose MTD from a distance. Are there warning signs that UK youth ministry in places is a one night stand from getting the disease? or has it got it abundance in some places, ministries and churches?  And if so what might a cure be?  Maybe MTD is beneficial to young people for themselves, but what it means is that the bible is little more to young people than the kind of self help manuals that pepper WHSmiths bookshelves. Im not going to venture back into saying again that in youth ministry the bible is treated as little more than a proof text justification tool, and that how it is read and interpreted is more important that what is read (ive said that before here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-L6) , but where might doctrines and liturgies be explored, meditated and reflected on with young people? How might these be meaningful if they are absent?  What kind of doctrines might youth ministry explore with young people to overcome being materialistically consumed by MTD?

What kind of authenticity might young people want?  People in church who have sinless lives, or people in church whose dramatic life of faith takes them to the brink of societies pain, suffering and edge in order to witness to Christ? People who act out a faith they believe, who love abundantly and generously not counting the cost?

MTD and UK youth ministry – is it a problem? is it a reality? what are its effects?  once caught can it be cured and by whom?



Smith, Christian: Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual lives of US Teenagers (2011)

Vanhoozer, Kevin, Faith Speaking and Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine ( 2014p 

Mission in the edges; developing a Sidewalk Spirituality

Following on from my recent reflection, in which I considered the possibility of decorating St Francis of Assisi as the Patron Saint of Detached youth work ( see http://wp.me/p2Az40-KD if you understandably missed it in the pre-Christmas festivities) , I was reflecting on one of the phrases that Richard Rohr used to describe St Francis and his way:

Franciscanism is truly a Sidewalk Spirituality for the street of the world (Rohr, 2014;4)

In the remainder of the book Eager to Love, Richard Rohr describes the life and considerable impact of St Francis, and how the franciscan movement derived from St Francis himself. As someone who has spent alot of time being a detached youthworker over the last 10 years, even working for a project called ‘The Sidewalk Project’, its seems wholly appropriate to glean some of the principles from St Francis in the honing of a Sidewalk Spirituality.

The Infinite in the Finite

Francis believed that the finite manifests the infinite, and that the physical the doorway to the spititual, then all that is needed is right here and now in the world. Heaven thus includes Earth. Stating that there is no Sacred and Profane, places or moments, there are only sacred and desecrated places, where humanity has caused the desecration.  The mystery of Christ becomes specific, because everything is a revelation of the divine – from rocks to rocket ships, or on the streets, grass to graffiti.

Within this space of seeing God becomes mutuality of the one who sees and what can be seen. The ones who see Christ are those paying the right attention. Francis regarded the dignity of others he was in proximity with, and included also the animals, because he honoured his own dignity as a son of God. As Augustine said: what you seek is what you are (Augustines confessions).

As Francis commended to his followers; ‘we must remain in love’ for, it is only when we are eager to love that we can seen love and goodness in the world around us. The same for peace, hope, and beauty. To remain is not to remove, or to isolate, it is to encounter and to see.

I wonder what this sense of love for others compares with current faith based youthwork practice – thinking specifically of ‘values’ that are often retrieved, such as empowerment, and individual dignity. These are as inherently Christian, as they are professional, yet might any of them matter if there is not ‘love’ than is eagerly sought. On a personal note, I am so aware of the times I have felt that deep compassion, call it love, for young people on the streets, it caused me to take volunteers the extra mile, (literally) or to the next hour, because the conviction was there from feeling compassionate to young people, to want to be in proximity with them. I say this because I also know when i have felt like i was performing values but not that deep compassion or conviction.

As Francis Schaeffer said; “Our conscious relationship with God is enhanced if we treat all the things he has made in the same way he treats them”

One Sacred World

This follows on from the previous. In only a sacred and desecrated world, everything is potentially sacred if ‘you allow it to be’ . ‘Our job as humans is to make admiration of others and adoration of God fully conscious and deliberate’ (Rohr, 2014) . There becomes no centre if God is everywhere, and most paramount at times as far from the centres created by religion, in the weakest, in the fugitive, the frog or the freak, it is about looking for God. Its is how to look and be attentive in the searching for God.

Francis began to divert from the Bishops in removing from the dinners and gatherings, instead preferring to stay close to the ‘cracks in everything’ in the day to day social fabric of the proximity of people on the streets. As Rohr suggests ‘not only were we Franciscans not to be prelates in the church, but we should not hobnob there too much. you tend to think like those with whom you party’ 

Proximity Spirituality

Francis emphasised the identification with the suffering of the cross, solidarity with the poor, and with human suffering in general, this is the starting place for his spirituality – not the private introverted search or self help. Francis recognised that Spirituality without service of others was a prelude to ego inflation and delusion. The Franciscan Spirituality recognised the possibility of the divine in the everyday encounter with the other person, in the hard, soft or broken edges of life, and that suffering and tragedy might be the quickest doorways to encountering God, depending on honesty.

Image result for francis of assisi walking

It is the kind of Spirituality which allows commonality of suffering to be the human leveller in the travelling on the road. like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24), the Disciples on the boat ( John 21) , Sidewalk spirituality places itself on the road, respects the other, and asks those it encounters to begin to recognise God at work. Starting by being in proximity.

As a result of holding , reflecting on a living in the reality of Christs suffering in everyday life in costly discipleship, the consequence will be to be much more compassionate and patient. ‘A spiritual leader, writes Pope Francis, who lacks compassion, has almost no power to change people, because people intuitively know he or she doesnt represent the divine truth’ (Rohr, 2014) A powerful Christ is also a weak one, and only those who join him there and come out the other side will understand, like Francis and his followers, for they ‘rule’ from the edges and reign from what is no longer the bottom. It is just where God already is.

Holy extreme disorder

‘He’s Wild you know’ So those who knew of Aslan described him to the children in CS Lewis Narnia Series. As humans we like order, things not necessarily simple, but ordered, systematic even. We even require or revert to order after Christ himself promised disorder post resurrection. Yet we like faith to be controlled, ordered even in the buildings and be able to locate Spiritual and Sacred in easily definable points. A Sidewalk Spirituality is chaotic, it is improvised, it is disordered. As GK Chesterton put it ‘what Benedict stored (in monastries), Francis scattered’ Francis approach is riskier, led to little discipline, clear direction or proper boundaries. This disorder is both a strength and a weakness, clearly. Gospel freedom is always a risk. There is vulnerability in the risky travelling, a cost to personal order, monetary possessions and security.

The Heart of a Sidewalk Spirituality

The Franciscan evangelization principle writes Rohr, is

‘not to preach at or to people, but just to make the truth beautiful, attractive and warm’

And this can only be done if we are eager to love, and look for God in the world, in proximity with others. We dont take something we take ourselves to find God amongst others in places. Jesus becomes someone ‘to imitate’ and not just to worship. Francis took prayer onto the road and into the activity of life itself. The whole world was his cloister! and the message of love and the medium of its message was the same thing.

Image result for francis of assisi

A Sidewalk Spirituality starts with the heart, a heart that takes feet to the places of people, is one that seeks God in all he created, respects those broken and builds community in and amongst them. That’s what Francis did, his communities developed from the roads, from the deemed edges.

What of a Sidewalk Spirituality for faith based detached youthwork – who’s up for this costly pilgrimage?



Rohr, R Eager to love, The alternative way of following St Francis of Assisi, 2014


St Francis of Assisi: The Patron Saint of detached youthwork?

He was always new, always fresh, always beginning again

Is what one of the recent biographers wrote of St Francis of Assisi, one of the early proponents of the order of the franciscans in the 13th Century. (Aside from the extract below you can google yourself his life plan) . Last week I picked up for £1 in a charity shop a little book on this most celebrated, but also sometimes forgotten about saints in the movement of the early church, and as I read the book, and have since looked up a few articles I began to wonder whether St Francis in his actions, his temporality and attitudes possessed something in order that the righteous title of Patron Saint of detached youthwork might be bestowed (assuming I have the right to bestow such an honour)

Image result for francis of assisi

Francis (and his wife Clare) had an agenda for Justice which was foundational, living outside the society of production and consumption and a continued vow to identify with the marginalised in society, they chose to live a life of peace and justice and not just do acts of peace and justice. 

Thomas of Celano wrote of St Francis ‘Towards little worms even he glowed with great love.. he picked them up from the road and placed them in a safe place, lest they be crushed by the feet of the passerby’ St Francis picked up even the worms from the road, because he was known for his travelling, walking, and journeying, it was said Francis was more at home in the yard than in the sanctuary. Maybe a methaphor of the (faith based) detached youthworker that is more at home on the street than in the church perhaps..?

Writes Richard Rohr; Franciscan Spirituality – that which formed from St Francis- is a ‘sidewalk spirituality’ for the streets of the world and the paths of the forest. Francis spent most of his time on the road and in the dwelling spaces between the towns in the small gatherings, his own life was further outside the walls of church, than the Franciscan orders that succeeded him. As GK Chesterton said’ what benedict stored ( in buildings) , Francis scattered’  Francis was risky, little discipline clear direction or boundaries – where life in the orders maintained these.

From his life span we read that these events happened:

Year 1208: Francis is back in Assisi; during the spring he listens to an Apostolic Mass inside the Porziuncola, and the evangelical, apostolic vocation grows up inside of him. In the same year, the first followers (Bernard, Peter Catani, and Giles) start gathering around him, building the first embryo of the first Franciscan Order.

1209 He writes a first version of the Rule. He goes to Rome with his 12 companions to ask the Pope for his approval, receiving an “oral” acceptance. On the way back to Assisi they stop in Orte for a while, then they arrive at the Augustinian hovel in Rivotorto. Francis and his companions are friars (“brothers”) rather than monks, because they continually travel from place to place, living among the very poor.

They walked in small groups, yes three small communities (orders) were formed, but Francis spirituality was honed from the walking and formed through the experiences of life there. For those sympathetic with faith and detached youthwork; Francis it was said ’emphasised an imitation and love of the humanity and suffering of Jesus, and not just the worshipping of his divinity’ . This was how he acted to the poor he encountered on the roads. And his faith underpinned what we would now define as empathy:

‘In seeking peace through right relationships with God and others, we become much more open, non-judgmental, and inclusive with those who are different from us. Francis admonished his followers not to look down upon or judge others but to look down upon and judge themselves first. God sanctioned judgment, and therefore, he seldom referred to damnation and did not condemn anyone or any particular belief (L3C, 58). In a modern sense, seeking peace means moving out of one’s comfort zone to understand a perspective and way of being that is different from one’s own. It means to be comfortable enough with one’s differences to try not to change or condemn them. True peace cannot occur without opening oneself up to the differences of others.’

and Murray Bodo (1995) writes of St Francis:

There he [Francis] embraces another kind of leper, a young nobleman who has been excluded by the other prisoners because of his constant bickering and complaining. By his cheerfulness and patience Francis is able to bring this person out from behind those walls of his own making. And this becomes a bold pattern in Francis’ life: by love he helps people to find the opening through their walls; then the gates of the cities begin to open. The lepers, even symbolically, always live outside the walls, and you have to pass through armed gates to embrace them. That is Francis’ formula for peace: You have to come out from behind your defenses and risk embracing what is seemingly repulsive and dangerous.

Rohr again; ‘Francis created a very different classroom for his followers, sort of an underground seminary if you will, where you had to live faith before you talked about faith, our rule was initially ‘tips for the road’ an itinerant lifestyle’ We might call that correct ethics or personal conduct – what it also was how to connect with those on the road in accordance with the beliefs, and a classroom which emphasised the doings not the knowings – informal education – well definitely experimental….

St Francis of Assisi – the faith filled, non judgemental, walker across Europe who identified with the poor whom he met, who found home outside the walls, yet still recognised from within. Maybe he was the patron saint of detached youth work. But if not, still an inspiration none the less.




The leadership story of St. Francis of Assisi: Toward a model of Franciscan leadership Holbrook, Peter J.Author InformationView Profile. Cardinal Stritch University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2008. 3313852.

Rohr, Richard; Eager to love, The alternative way of Francis of Assisi, 2014


Detached youthwork: Having faith conversations on the streets.

Its one of the main criticisms levelled at detached youthwork from the ‘established’ christian community, or its youth worker contingency – ‘all that detached work is ‘good’ stuff, but when does it produce/become orientated around faith? ‘  and it is a valid question, it has to be a valid question as it gets asked often enough. Behind the question might be the drive that everything a ministry does is to communicate faith, or that every moment must have faith significance. It could be said that at times even in churches that people don’t talk about faith that often, they are talked to about faith, and in detached youthwork, young people are engaged with, in their space, so its rarely a talked to moment, in that classic adult/child psychological way (and if it was adult/child, the young person wouldn’t be listening) n – so in the moments of detached a different approach is probably required.  From the 1000’s of hours of detached youthork hours with/for faith based organisations, here are the most common examples that have arisen for me when faith becomes part of the conversation.

Young people may actually direct the conversation to something about faith when they ask ;

  1. Who do you work for? or Who do you represent?

The response you give might (though not always be) unavoidably – ______ Christian organisation/ group of churches/ YMCA/YFC – and then a description of what that means might be given. 

The young people might then make a comment, sing the YMCA song (as always) or ask a further question.

another one is:

2. Why are you here, you must be mad, paid alot or christians? 

Dont laugh at the back, i have had this very question thrown at me by a young person whilst on the streets. 

Again, a chance to say that probably all three are the case. ( I joke, but 2 out of 3 aint bad)- and then there’s a conversation about faith – one that technically they started…

From this kind of enquiry, I have had conversations where, when the young person has known that i am a Christian,  (which incidentally is a moment of honesty in the disclosure/power game of detached) then the young person may then have given away something of themselves – and these include:

I used to go to a Sunday school but i hated it as they locked me in a cupboard and made me sing songs

I was dragged on to a Jesus bus once with school and people plied us with sweets till we prayed a prayer. 

I dont ________ believe in God. 

My Gran goes to church. 

Because in the real space on the streets, and from a real space of genuine enquiry from a young person, being honest about having faith, is often enough to start a conversation. It may not be always the response you might want, but its to be taken if it is a disclosure of belief, or interest as a positive. Often RE lessons comes up – ie ‘In RE today my teacher said ______’ ;It is in that moment that they have been honest with you about faith. It is a starting point, and one to build on, in that moment – so ask a bit further – from what they’ve said.

I have written before about other questions young people may ask on detached, but the two above are the most common in relation directly to faith, and they can occur as you imagine fairly early on into the interaction when the young people are trying to suss out the workers. Actually, given the sussing out, they could ask the same kind of questions as a challenge:

3. I bet youre all christians just trying to tell us something to believe  or

4. I hope you’re not like those other Christians who made us do something or were ‘false’

These are trickier ones, because obviously the young people have made astute/incorrect/valid interpretations of the behaviour of other Christians, our brothers and sisters, and so, whilst it might be an opportunity to talk about faith, its starting from a point of being slighlty defensive, and apologetic on behalf of them. Its funny how astute young people are when they feel badly treated. The easiest thing is encourage them to talk about the scenario more, and empathise, as well as apologise if necessary.

These incidents above are when young people initiate the conversation, though in a way, it is our presence that has initiated it, as we arrive into their scene, they are merely asking our intention and trying to assess our authenticity in the space.

From the questions they ask- yes responses we can make can take the conversation back to them so we can hear about their faith. But in these initial moments usually only a few things are given away, but as the relationship between the worker and the group changes and develops, the opportunities might emerge. The cry for help from the young person might imply trust. acceptance is occurring, and if they’ve known about your faith from the outset then they have accepted you along with the faith that you have into the space of the group.

Once this does start to occur – what of faith then? 

If its not the response to the question as above – from the young people – then it involves a risk, a risk from us that the relationship is ready for it. Now this could happen in the course of one hour with a young person on an evening, or over a longer period of time drip drip drip feeding the relationship, nothing is the same with any young person. But the risk is to be the one to ask the question about faith, about thinking about faith, or doing something about a scenario that involves faith.

So, offering to pray for a young person and the scenario they describe, asking if a young person prays, or talks to a ‘higher power’ – or ask about them connecting with nature in the activity they are doing. Yes these might be vague spiritual concepts – but if there’s been no inclination of spiritual conversation thus far with them (ie they haven’t even asked one of the above questions) then you’ve got to start broad, or somewhere. Again, RE lessons in school, a ceremony in a church – ie a funeral/wedding, Christmas service are possible starting points, depending on whats been going on locally, faith of their parents, opinion about a faith news article (women bishops) are possible points of interaction.

In a way, faith emerges in the conversation , and involves a commitment to explore with young people their starting point, from a point of honesty that isnt preachy, but is responsive to questions. Remember you might be the only christian that young person has had the chance to ask questions to about faith, in their terms. Remember also the young person might also have experiences of faith, of church and memories that prevent them being of faith that they want to share. Remembering also that you might be a starting point, meeting them where they’re at. Faith from point zero.

There is faith on the streets, its faith that God is in the conversations, faith in leaving the building to go and spend time with young people in the open spaces. Faith in God ahead of us, and ahead in the lives of young people. Its for us to discover God in their lives already. If young people talk about their faith on the streets, or lack of it, its honest and real, no holds barred. Its real and dangerous, its risky for them. They deserve a way of being discipled further from that honesty, curiosity and risk. Where might God meet them as church – where they’re at ?, I wonder… – where, unless you journey with them, in that faithful, relationship you have started.




(For more information about the faith conversations in the process of detached – see ‘Here be dragons’ -details of which are above and you can purchase it fro FYT – thank you)

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