Lets get Theological! On making Theology, not models & strategies first in Youth Ministry

You wont read this post. I guarantee you, no one will read this post. Even with a sneaky reference to an Olivia Newton John lyric in the title, you wont read this, because its got Theology in the title as well. I should have put sex, or masturbation, or something witty, clever or clickbaity, but no, in the spirit of honesty this piece is what it says it is. It is about theology and youth ministry, and I am aware no one will read it.

So, in that case I am going to go full on, deep and thoughtful, safe in the knowledge that it wont be read. I know this because nobody attends seminars on youth ministry and theology. Or conferences on theology and youth ministry. Very few people talk about theology when it comes to solving the problems of young people ‘leaving the church’. Instead its about practices, making practice better, trying to find a missing piece, a magic formula, a new way, or method. It can be that there isnt a conversation about theology, that doesnt only exist in place of formal theological conversation, the college. And for many others thats where it often stays.

So, because there is no grafting, searching and desire from the ‘top’ to do theology about youth ministry, there can be very little appetite from the ground to see it as being worthwhile. Its easier to drag a resource off the shelf, or do what we think works, or uptake business models like ‘develop strategies’. If you want to read the part one to this post, it is here in which i suggested that youth ministry needed to turn to performance theology, rather than business strategy. This is the long awaited, and probably grossly under-read, post that follows that one.

We have inherited a practice of trying to get things right to save and keep young people, and this puts practice and strategies first over and above theology.   Image result for theology?

Youth Ministry needs Theology first. – and that takes work.

However.

The first thing to say is that we are all theologians. Thats every volunteer, youth pastor, helper, leader involved in youth ministry in a church/faith setting. We are all theologians already, because, and this isnt the only reason, young people are reading us and our practices to glean theological insight through them. What we do is a theological act – it is being performed as youth ministry is done. Theology is transmitted in the way we operate.

So think about that for a second. Everything? yes…

In the way we talk about young people behind their backs, in the way we give responsibilities, in the way we decide, in the way we hold or give away power, in the drive to the bowling, or how we stay in the kitchen and dont get involved, in everything to do with youth ministry, every act is theological already. Our beliefs are already affecting our behaviour, but regardless of those beliefs, young people are reading us as if we’re the book. Our Theology is implied in what we do.

We are already in one extent performing it.

But that doesnt mean we get away with just acting it out. For, how do we know we’re acting out theology appropriately, or fittingly?  (its not about effectiveness, effecacy is a reductionist business term that we should ban in churches)

Thats where at least ‘thinking theologically’ about youth ministry also is important. If we’re in the ‘business’ of doing theology. The two go hand in hand. Theres also the theology within our institutions… however,

So, what do we need to thinking theologically about?

We need to think theologically about young people. Who they are in the sight of God, how they are created and loved, accepted and made in his image. And so much more besides….

We need to think theologically about discipleship. If this is the game of the church – to make disciples- then its not a bad idea to think theologically about what being a disciple is all about, and how a disciple is ‘formed’ and what a disciple does ‘performs’ .  What kind of discipleship? Action first or learning first, or both? So we need to think theologically about learning, about study, about actions (and the actions of God in our actions) Theres some stuff of discipleship in the categories section, and resources below.

We need to think theologically about Culture. About the place of the church in the culture, and what the role of young people is participating in the church in the culture – for, against, within, above or to transform it (Neibuhr) or something else – to offer an alternative, creating something new… What is Christ offering young people in discipleship? (and how might the church follow this)

We need to think theologically about Mission – and what we do and what young people do, what is Mission, What is God like if she is missional? How might young people play parts in mission, and who decides whether they can or cant?

There needs to be thought around theology of worship – what is it? Is only ‘christian’ worship worship? What worship doesnt need a band, a stage or a PA system, what worship is pleasing to God? What worship creates opportunities for young people to transform the world? Is worship a gathered experience or an emerging one, a public one or private one?

We also need to think theologically about how young people have faith; What is faith, how is it tested, how do they use it, act on it, and practice it in the every day, – where do they do faith?Related image

We need to think theologically about sex and relationships, about gender, about LGBT, about mental health, depression,  about drugs and alcohol, about education and ambition, about power, greed, globalisation, about politics, about technology, communication, about inclusion, money and fame. Because young people arent looking to us for the answers anymore, because half the time these are difficult subjects that we leave to one side. It is not and never enough to pick stuff up on these subjects off the shelf. Young people also dont want us to give one answer, and presume that culture has another answer, theyre far too clever for that. We need to know how to answer these things, and give tools for interpreting and navigating. There is no ‘one thing’ the bible says, or ‘one thing’ the world says about these things. To say this to young people would be patronising. But that doesnt mean to say we dont have responsibility to think theologically, biblically and ethically about these things to help young people share in and lead us in that exploration of learning.

What about what we do with young people? Might we stop and think about the activities and think theologically about these? About Residentials, gatherings of worship, games, gap years, funding, about festivals and the like, about group work, if everything we do implies theology, then what kind of God is being transmitted through these – what kind of church is? God of attendance and watching? God of large groups (where God is communicated as ‘always being’) God of challenge and risk, God that is ‘felt and experienced’ away from home, away from the local church – Thinking theologically about these things might mean that taking young people to an experience might create a view of God that might actually be unhealthy or even unbiblical. But then, if theology isnt important, then it doesnt matter..does it?Image result for theology?

Thinking Theologically about youth Ministry, might mean more than being motivated by the faith. Though its a good start. Working out how Faith and Beliefs motivate us in youth ministry is definitely a first step, we can spend too long busting a gut to get this bit right, and in reality, we’re never going to get this perfect (theres no such thing). What we need to do in youth ministry is live with the imperfection and the ongoing drama of it, but theologically thinking about youth ministry, given that as youth ministers, volunteers, pastors, workers and leaders, we are urged to be both theological and practical, reflecting and active. Part of the tool kit for us is Theology, our story, our church’s story, and the story we are called to live, the story which we perform and encourage others to. It shouldnt just motivate us like a bad head teacher with a stick (thinking Miss Trunchbull in ‘Matilda’) – but well at us from the deep, call us to something higher, take us (and others) to the margins, where likeness of Jesus is an ongoing task.

Theology emerges from the deep, from the margins. Theology might emerge through conversation between friends (Emmaus), might visit unexpected to give peace, might be present in space of the unlikely. We dont need to try and think theologically if what we’re doing is already good, loving, kind, faithful, generous, and working towards peace, wholeness and restoration – these marks of the kingdom need no law. But we might need to develop new theological language, reflection and resources for the road on which these travels take us. Theology from the streets, like St Francis’s ‘Sidewalk Spirituality’ or Ignatius, or other Saints of the Past. Thinking theologically about ministry might itself call us in new directions, new learning, new faith, thats where we might need to take risks, having experiences of God in the space of the margins, might cause us never to go to the gathering to find God – and thats ok. Youth Ministry is, like any ministry, an ongoing dramatic act. And in the drama, what kind of God is needed for the ongoing walk? One that Speaks and Acts – one that is present and urging, as Kevin Vanhoozer describes – is the holy author in our midst. 

Always speaking. Always giving us reference points. Always giving us things to relate to. Always prompting and provoking.

Image result for theology?

Where is the space for the Holy Author in the Midst of Youth Ministry? In every conversation – possibly, in every approach – possibly, in every action – maybe. The truth is we cant model our Youth Ministry on God – we’re not perfect enough for this. God isnt a model to be copied. God is a mystery who speaks, a creator who does as he pleases (Daniel 4:35) and is not restrained. We need to think and act and listen theologically. Its that Holy Author who will communicate and save. Its that Holy Author who is happy for an ongoing communication, whether this is ragged or poetic, praiseworthy or problematic. Its that Holy Author who is present in, with and amongst. God who might, just might not be white, distant and male – and that might change everything.

In conclusion, Theology needs to go first. Not just because we’ve tried everything else, but because thats where it should be, and not even because by doing this ‘it will work’ – no- because ministry is a risk taking endeavour not an exact science. We dont need to just ‘get on with the job’ of youth ministry, and neither is theology ‘just for the college’ and no one can avoid being theological. Putting this off does a disservice to young people, it does a disservice to ourselves. We can try and find a perfect method, strategy, model, process and practice. And that could consume us (and we can nearly always ‘do’ better) but that search is a painful one and full of frustration, comparison and frailty. Lets ditch the models, and have meaning, mystery and mission first.

Oh and some of this is only the tip of the iceberg….. directions to start, not journeys of discovery along the way hence some resources below:

References and Resources

Talking about God in Practice (2010) by Helen Cameron

Youthwork and the Mission of God (1997) by Pete Ward

What Theology for Youthwork?  by Paul Nash (Grove Booklet Y8)

Faith Formation in a secular age by Andrew Root (2017)  

When Kumbaya is not enough by Dean Borgman (1997)

Models for Youth Ministry by Steve Griffiths (2013)

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root (2007)

Starting Right – Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry by Dean, Clark et al (2001) 

Remythologising Theology by Kevin Vanhoozer (2010) (more on theodrama in the categories section)

Faith Speaking Understanding by Kevin Vanhoozer (2014)

The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean/Andrew Root (2013)

Faith Generation by Nick Shepherd (2016)

Here be Dragons; Youthwork and Mission off the map by Lorimer & Richard Passmore (and me) (2013)

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf (2007) 

 

Advertisements

Where is Jesus in your practice? & 9 other difficult questions to reflect on in Youth Ministry

At the beginning of the week, I wrote probably my most dull, but most important article. No witty banter, ironic title or clickbaity picture. It one reason no one read it. Also it is summer holidays and so no one is really wanting to read a reflection on, well, reflection. In that piece I asked the question ‘‘Where has reflective practice gone in youth Ministry?’ and click on the link to give it a read. Warning it is a little long, but could be of profound help in your youth ministry practice.

This is a follow up to that one, where that suggested that reflective practice was needed more in youth ministry – in this one I put out there a number of questions that might help you reflect in your ongoing youth ministry, for you as a worker, team or volunteers or even more so, for the young people themselves.

The first one is taken from Andrew Roots book, Thinking Theologically about Youth Ministry; it is 

Where is Jesus in your Youth Ministry? 

How might Jesus be ‘with’, be ‘for’ , be ‘against’ what your youth ministry is all about? Is Jesus a thing to be learned, an experience, a Spirit, a mystery or an activity far more predictable. Is Jesus in the persons present, or the persons absent, in the interactions and in the silence.

What am i learning about the young people? 

The ongoing learning in youth ministy isnt one-way. We as leaders and volunteers need to stop an be open to learn about, learn from and learn with the young people. So, it is worth asking – what are we learning about the young people – especially whilst we are with them in conversation. It might also be that conversation is the space of ideas. (stop press!) It might be that they have gifts, resources, and character that needs to be identified and not wasted in the life of the group, church or local community. When i say ‘might be’ i mean ‘will be’.

How will I recognise Faith?

More than just crying at the end of a worship session, think about how faith might be evident or found within your youth ministry practice over the next year, because if you start looking for faith in a variety of ways, then its likely that you will create spaces so that young people to show this, and that this will be what is found. It may involve young people leading, asking questions, taking responsibility – it may also be young people being disruptive and challenging, or young people getting passionate about social justice, or keen to learn more that a God -slot wont suffice. All indicators of desire for more, and desire that faith is important.

What Questions will i ask at the end of each session with young people? 

Ok, its a bit ‘meta’ asking a question about asking a question. But it is needed. You are the only person in your situation, in your church, with the young people you have. So, you are the right person to work out what would be appropriate reflective questions to ask in your team at the end of the session. The stuff that you put down on the review form ( i hope you do one) . The reason that these questions are important? – they embed behaviour. If you ask at the end of the session ‘did the young people enjoy the activity’ then our focus will be on ensuring young peoples enjoyment, which is fine, but it can be a continual spiral of meeting interests and keeping them happy. If you ask ‘did we have any conversations’ then the focus is on how your team connected in the space with young people – this becomes the driving force. So what you decide to ask is important, and worth spending time reflecting on.

Am i creating the right kind of space for healthy youth ministry?

What makes your youth ministry a ‘healthy space’?  are young people free to have questions, promote ideas and suggestions? are they able to explore dangerous topics (see, the latest issue of youth& childrens work magazine for a few to reflect on https://www.youthandchildrens.work/  )  Aside from the controversies, (though they are important) – If youth ministry is all about relationships and conversation , and not just relationships and conversation as a strategy for ministry, it is ministry ( Pete Ward, 1997) – then a healthy space is needed for conversations to be honed, created and nurtured. A space that had social boundaries, that accepts contributions, gives equality to voices, and allows for different spaces of conversation. From the conversation when a young person makes their own tea (if they’re allowed in the kitchen), to the conversation sitting at the edge of the hall when there a sports game, to the provocative one in the ‘teaching’ or learning activity. A healthy youth ministry is where young people feel safe in conversations, and it is in conversations where safety is possible. It isnt the building or what it stands for.

Is my youth ministry challenging enough?

In a post a while ago, What young people want in a church?  Research was done that showed that in 1400 churches in the USA, that for 15 year olds, the thing that kept them in the church was that it was a healthy space, and that it was a place of meaningful challenge – young people in effect said that church was a place that needed to mean something to them. What if tasking young people with the challenges of costly discipleship was actually attractive? ie it causes them to take risks, take a stand, create spaces of hope in the world, give, share and love their enemies. – more than a moral code of behaviour… So – what about making youth ministry challenging? And creating a culture where challenging, risk and helping young people use their minds, to learn, and also be given tools to explore further – rather than be ‘given’ answers. Young people will only be given space to develop challenges if we ourselves as leaders continually learn and be challenged. So – how are you going to develop in your own thinking/learning this year too?  any theology/youth work books needing to be added to your actual reading ? (not just the bookshelf so they look pretty)

In what way does the youth ministry enable young people to become learners who create & perform?

Young peope, like us will not possibly learn everything. So theres no point waiting until that magic moment happens so that they ‘are ready’ to act or perform. If they have the idea, or desire or given space to create opportunities, such s those above, then young people also need space to create and perform. Beyond what theyre told they can do. Imagine how they might run the church website… or the media channel, or develop a community resource, or serve the local community, or write to their MP about an injustice… They need leaders who say ‘you can’ – and provide resources and space. And if you give young people space to develop their own, then its likely that as a church you will keep them in the space. Become facilitators, as part of leading. Still lead, just change style. Young people will only stay consumers of the product of your youth ministry for so long. It is not their fault it hasnt changed as their needs for it to change have occurred.

How am I going to look after myself this year?

This is tough work, especially if you do this as a volunteer, have family, full time job and also try and have a social life. It is tough if youth ministry is full time. So, looking after yourself and sustaining yourself is important. Make sure that if you do give yourself the odd evening off the rota that it is used to sustain yourself and sharpen the sword. Keep a hobby going that is distracting. Do exercise. Experience faith from a different perspective and learn in the space. Keep learning. And take time off. And not forgetting how your own faith is to be honed in the ongoing.

How will i avoid classic youth ministry temptations? 

Like Joseph – run away from the unhealthy stuff of ministry or challenge it head on – like the ‘comparison’ game, the ‘numbers game’ ‘ the success game’ and the ‘growth game’ – all take away from the value of the young people in your group, in your space with which you have been given to do ministry. Your young people are unique, and what you do with them is create memories, and opportunities for them to enact goodness in the world. Nothing else. They’re not your success story, or to be used as a trophy to display on your travels. But also avoid comparing yourself to others, and this goes for ministers too…  there is also the ‘safety game’ – in which you have to fight against the role you have in making the young people ‘moral conforming citizens’ which is often what the parents think your role is. Its been the watchword for youth ministry for decades.

What do I hope for young people by the end of this academic year? 

We all know youth ministry is about to start again after the summer. But if you had a hope for the young people you have interactions with- what would it be – and what would it look like for each of them individually – the young people in school, after school clubs and churches. They wont all make it to a universal point, but could you dream something for them, hope and desire something for them, to help? maybe its to harness one of their gifts? maybe it is that they ask questions? maybe it is that they challenge us? maybe it is that they desire to explore further? Yes it might be about ‘following Jesus’ – but what might that mean in your context so its a challenge?  So what would you realistically dream for, and dream with your young people from this term..? What about for young people you dont know yet…?

None of this is easy to reflect on, but doing real life, proper ministry with people is difficult, the fact that the people you do ministry with are under 18 (probably) , is no way to think of it as any less valued (even if there is still that tendency in some churches) . If we value the young people in our churches, then they deserve it of us that we think deeply and meaningfully about our practices, about their faith, and about how we form them in the place of the world. So 10 questions to get you thinking about the practice of youth ministry – to begin and continue reflecting on throughout your ministry.

 

What makes the Christian Youthworker distinctive?

At the moment, amongst a few other books, I have been reading ‘The Pastor as Public Theologian’, by Kevin Vanhoozer.  Within it, he asks the question: ‘What is the distinctive role of the Pastor’? describing that there is a problem of identity not just for pastors, but all associated with a Christian vocation, such as Youth Ministers, worsh
ip leader and so on.I’ll come to his responses in a bit but it might be worth exploring for a moment, some of the identity and role challenges that a Christian Youthworkers might have.

This is not a new query, the God-fathers of modern theoretical Youthwork, Tony Jeffs and Mark Smith, wrote in 1987, in ‘Youthwork’  that Youth workers not only have to conduct a number of roles, but also, because ‘what a youth worker is’ is such an ill-defined term that they often use these following as a guide or starting point:

  • Youthworker as Caretaker (puts the chairs away)
  • Youthworker as Red-coat (entertains)
  • Youthworker as Social Worker (1:2:1 support)
  • Youthworker as Character Builder (resilience improver)
  • Youthworker as Community worker, and finally
  • Youthworker as Educator

And so- this plight to not only understand the role of the youthworker, using more well trodden paths of understanding is not new. A youthworker might need to use another profession to define themselves against, their role might even encapsulate all or some of these others, but in a distinctive way. When Jeffs and Smith were writing this, it was very much to and within what might be considered the statutory youthwork sector. Kerry Young (1999, 2nd ed, 2006) expanded this list somewhat, by reflecting on Youthwork as an art form, in The ‘Art of Youthwork’, suggesting that

The Art of Youthwork is the ability to make and sustain such relationships with young people. In so doing, youth workers themselves develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to engage with young people in the process of moral philosophising (Young, 2006)

So, adding to the list, of the roles of the youthworker became self-awareness, examination of their own values, critical skills and enlargement of their own capacity for moral philosophising.Product Details

In addition, she also suggests that Youthworkers do not just deliver youthwork, they define it, interpret and develop it. She argues that youthwork is a ‘distinct practice’ – not unlike what Jeffs and Smith were suggesting. So, the question is, for the Christian faith based youthworker – if indeed, this in itself is a distinctive practice – what is it that makes it distinctive?

We’re 30 years (ouch) since Jeffs and Smith’s ‘Youth work’ Book, above – I wonder if there might be other additions that could be made to their list? That youth worker could be defined as. I guess I am waiting for a different professional to say – ‘Im a bit like a youth worker, but less structured’ or ‘if you imagine a youthworker, then I do such and such’ – as if there is a profession that defines itself as one step from youth work – 30, 50 or 70 years into youth work as a distinctive practice – it hasnt captured the public imagination in the way, teacher, nurse, police, social worker or redcoat might have done… (‘hi-de-hi’ has alot to answer for in the latter of these)Image result for butlins red coat

Because there hasn’t been new people-orientated professions I cant think of another new profession to add to this list. Though one of the oldest professions could be – The Priest/Vicar/Clergy? In a way this is not that different to what Kerry Young is suggesting. The Youthworker as Clergy is one who has a sense of values, of practices according to values, is someone who would guide to moral decisions, maybe even challenge some too. Now, probably a few of my clergy friends might dispute that Clergy have time to do the kind of pastoral work required for this, but thats not the point im making, for the youth worker, a nod to the role of Clergy might at times be appropriate.

The slightly worrying thing about this, is that if Vanhoozer is to be believed, Clergy might be in the same kind of identity predicament. What he suggests is that there have been a series of images and metaphors that have shaped the understanding of ‘Pastor’ which were created in the social context/culture, been retained and have held the role captive – such as ‘The Pastor as CEO‘ , as ‘psychotherapeutic guru’, as ‘political agitator‘ , (all of these could easily be transferred to youth worker)  – different times in history shape the nature of the role of clergy and models, and so ‘master’ (of theology), ‘Builder’ (of church congregations), ‘Revivalist’ (in the 19th C) , and ‘Manager’ (of programmes, buildings, people- a 20th Century concept) – additions in the 21st Century include ‘Social media mogul’ and ‘community activist’ – and thats before others such as life coach, agent of hope, story teller, midwife (Vanhoozer, 2015, p7-8)

A look to clergy might not be that profitable, in this sense, though there is an element that Clergy are able to shape their practice in a way that defines it, interprets it and develops it, the many examples of books on the role of being a pastor are testiment to this, but this also occurs in the local setting, as clergy encounter people through visiting, groups, wandering around their parish, in schools. There are times when Clergy are as much the youthworker, as vice versa, doing assemblies, being governors, leading groups. The fluidity of role definement remains.

It is not a semantic question to try and define the ‘Christian Faith-based youthworker’ – or at least suggest how this is distinctive as a role and in practice.  Carole Pugh locates ‘youth work with a spiritual content & ‘youth work based on Christian (or other faith) principles focussing on a social action/youth work values approach’ in between the deemed extremes of ‘youth work with no spiritual content’, on one side, and ‘Christian youth work adopting an evangelical approach’ on the other.  (Pugh, 1999) This is similar to that of Danny Brierley in All joined up ( 2003) or Richard Passmore (and I) in ‘Here be Dragons’ , in which we argue that at the heart of Symbiotic youthwork are the core principles of education, equality, participation, empowerment and group work within an understanding of Mission, of improvisation, of ‘valuing culture, traditions and the Bible’ (Passmore, 2013, p60)

So, if Core to ‘Christian faith based Youthwork’ is Youthwork and its values – how might a developed understanding of Christian vocation help. For, as in ‘Here be Dragons’,’ Youthwork and the Mission of God’ (Pete Ward, 1997) and others – one of the key attributes to the Christian youthworker has been a mission prerogative – to ‘meet young people where they’re at’, to ‘be incarnational’ and so, as a result ‘understanding the culture’, and forming practice around Mission has been essential, and has in many cases driven practice; often with Vincent Donovan ringing in our ears. Mission may have taken the youthworker thus far in their thinking, Fresh expressions and emerging church is developing new avenues for youthwork ( see also Here Be Dragons again..), but if Mission becomes swallowed up and synonymised by Evangelism, as the church in ‘Status Anxiety’ might cause it to be, and the Church of Englands national youth person has ‘evangelist’ in their title, (one example amongst many) – then the Christian youthworker, may become even more distinct, but not only that Mission becomes reinterepreted as ‘church grower’ – leaving the Missional christian youthworker without a theological discipline to call home.

Enter, metaphorically, stage left, Kevin Vanhoozer again or at least a paraphrase of him, as I ask ‘What does the Christian faith based worker do, that no other institution can’?

On one hand they might be the only living remnant of youthwork practice soon – much to the thanks of the Conservative government slashing local council funding and with it universal youth service provision – so that might be one distinction- with a youthwork underpinned practice – this might be a future distinction.

But what else – at least from a faith perspective – what might the Christian youth worker be called to be and do?

Vanhoozer suggests the following:

  1. A Theologian- ‘To be a Christian Theologian is to seek, speak, and show understanding of what God was going in Christ for the sake of the world’- theology is not just a job for the professionals, the qualifieds or academics.
  2. A Public Theologian- This is someone who reacts against the privatisation of the faith, restricting it to individual salvation – it is someone who is able to discern truth and justice, able to discern how and where in the world the traces of truth and justice may be unveiled, it is to be communicative of the story of God in the public domain, to be as Volf suggests a ‘witnessing presence’ or as Sam Wells (2005)  ‘Saints’ (See my post ‘Theodrammatic saints..) –
  3. To be in Public: It is to be involved with the public, being present, working with people to have conversations, to raise questions, address big issues of life, death, hope, fear, meaning and despair. To have much knowledge, and but also have general knowledge, to encourage places of connection, and environs such as homes (see my previous post on ‘home’ here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-S5)

Now these three things are directed by Vanhoozer, firmly and squarely with the role of Clergy, and in his words the ‘Youth Minister’ – and he has Christian Smiths (2005) research on Youth Ministry in the USA in mind as he makes this point (2015, p116-117, 154) and so this might have more resonance or direction with the ‘Youth Minister’ role in the UK. But what is interesting is that the ‘Christian faith based youth worker’ is probably more used to be doing these three things, as they have an adopted language of youthwork (universal), are involved in conversations that invoke witnessing, are discerners of truth, justice and equality (even if youthwork values drive these) and also value space for conversations.

Maybe ‘Christian faith Based youth workers’ might be Public Theologians after all…  

 

References

Passmore R, Ballantyne  Here be Dragons, 2013

Pugh, C Christian Youthwork or Social Action, 1997 in Youth and Policy 1999 no 65

Smith, M, Jeffs, T, Youthwork, 1987

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

Vanhoozer, KJ The Pastor as the public Theologian, 2015

Young K, The Art of Youthwork, 2nd ed 2006

 

Are Echo Chambers dangerous for the church & youth ministry?

In Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis picks up on a theme which has been banded around for the last few years, in relation to social media and perspectives, especially politically. Its that as technology, especially social media, has become very clever, it is now able to carefully select the news, stories and perspectives on the news feeds of Facebook or Twitter that are suitable to the person who is wanting to view them. Its the kind of thing such as algorithms and advertising, especially when it freaks people out, as soon as i go on to the Evans cycles website all i see on Facebook is adverts for new bikes. It is known as an echo chamber.  My previous piece on Hypernormalisation is here, including a link in which you can access the programme: http://wp.me/p2Az40-Ix.

What happens in the echo chamber is that then people believe a version of the world that is most suitable to the people that they like, share stories and opinions of, forgetting that there might be other points of view. This was particulalry the case, it is argued in elections when countless people from one side thought that a message was being communicated in the world through social media, when in actual fact it was only being communicated to the already receiving and supporting people. not the ‘non’ voters.

One of the questions that is raised by the concept of  the Echo Chamber is one i feel that the church should be aware of in itself. For a number of reasons.

  1. Dissention and Divergence

It is argued that both dissention and critical thinking are good for organisations, helping them to propel forward because all the while they are being confronted with challenges that those external to an organisation will also be asking of them. Yet psychologically dissention and divergent thinking are difficult to hold in balance in groups that are already strong, or conversely weak, and in groups where there might be a culture of acceptance or conformity. Yet it could be argued that Jesus surrounded himself with strong minded disciples who were comptetant in their professions, and did stand up to him, such as Peter (Stoddart 2014, p135-140). Did Jesus need Peters interjections of challenge – well he knew by then that his character was strong and so he didnt dismiss Peters often challenge – even if the content of it was to be desired.  But have a think – what does a church do with those who present dissenting, or divergent, or different thinking?  are they ignored for the majority? the leader view? or politely asked to leave..?  – and so what kind of church is left – one that might in itself be an echo chamber of its own perspectives, theologies and practices?  – yes ‘all in agreement’ but at what cost?

2. Strategy thinking

The echo chamber of the church, its ministry and organisations is most prevalent in its current drive for developing strategies. Theres a mission strategy, a funding strategy, a publicity strategy and probably a few others. Strategies are great, especially if you’re a business and you want to achieve higher sales and want people to buy your products. A good strategy will be based on consumer buying patterns, consultations and market research. For food products it might include taste tests, advertising and a whole host of techniques. At many aspects of the process of developing a new product, a good supermarket will have involved many selcted people from outside its organisation to test it, pilot it and evaluate it. The Church might have adopted management and strategy thinking from the world of business, but that world is different, the church in its local form, might be a different type of organisation, one that is a social reality, a learning organisation or a culture.

How much of a church, or faith organisation or denominations strategy is based solely on people from within it? Ie created by only a few people, who might all be in agreement, or create a strategy that endorses their own views, and their own experiences of faith. Can church strategies for mission only reflect the popular, the known or the copied from elsewhere – endorsed by the wider echo chamber of the church.

3. The Same social media trap.

When the church adopts the same communication methods that are as manipulated by the media giants, then its messages will thus only be heard by those who are like it. Do our own facebook groups involve ‘outsiders’ to give critical opinion? do our church websites get shared or developed by those outside of the faith group? Who are we speaking to on social media, on the internet – ourselves?

One danger is that the approaches that churches have for the activities of community and mission don’t shift – they stay as ‘event’ and ‘attractional’ based – but they are then, because of social media, are advertised to less people and people who might already be in the know. The appropriate medium for the message might need to be found. Of course it would be great to discover what the local channels of communication are in a town or village and be part of these. But that means talking with people and discovering what peoples lines of communication are. If it something that a community wants, needs or is good for them, they will spread the word, they will be its own evangelists. Anything that we have to continually advertise might not be…

And, at a time when the church’s position in the world is perceived to be under threat, then being safe, and creating holy huddles of similarities might feel the most appropriate thing to do, to self protect, to shelter from the storm. Its understandable, yet is it suitable in the long term. Is that what the church is called to be in thw world? safe from it – or incarnationally with and amongst it?

So, if Churches are in danger of being echo chambers, how might they avoid it?

  1. Invite people to speak and preach who they dont agree with.
  2. Engage in discussion and Q & A sessions that are created to have open conversation and framed appropriately.
  3. Allow spaces for critical reflection and to be taste tested by outsiders – ‘ the mystery worshipper’ on http://www.shipoffools.com is one example.
  4. Develop spaces of learning from other similar organisations, philosophies or approaches – in order not to dilute but to learn from then.
  5. To discover what God might be saying through the arts, the media and film for the church, what are various forms of culture saying to the church.
  6. To be active in reading theology and practice books that challenge, not just endorse, thinking.
  7. To welcome the stranger, with the strange views in their midst.
  8. To Trust that God is in the world, and that she can be found in more places that are already thought.
  9. To take risks in loving a local community and learning from it.
  10. To spend less time doing activities for itself, and more in proximity with others, not just other christians.

I am sure there are a few others, and its not just churches, youth work & mission organisations, but all organisations that benefit from outside opinions, from disagreements, from divergent thinking. But in a world where the Echo chamber is a dangerous place of entrapment for the ideologies of this world to fester in and circulate, then it might be worth thinking about how the church can avoid falling into a similar trap. Being in the world but not of the world doesnt mean only being in our own world.

 

I wish Jesus spent more time completing funding bids!

Image result for funding applications

 

Or for that matter other tasks that seem to pull on the day to day strings of the youth work organisation manager. Like trustee meetings. Or Payroll. Or Policies implementation. Or emails. Or publicity photos, Or liaising with churches and agencies. Or recruiting staff.

But Funding bids and finding funding in the youthwork organisation is what ive been doing for what seems ages now, in fact it has been all summer since June.

Finding funding is such a key aspect of youth work organisational life, of the management of youth work in organiations, as it affects staff security, performance, vision, and also the desire to want to invest in young people because without long term security it can make it humanly challenging to want to commit to a young person and invest in them in time, because its not great to feel that they might be let down.

But funding is only one aspect of Management in faith-based Youthwork, and is one of many aspects that it sometimes feels as though it is a role that is difficult to find direct correlation with the example and ministry of Jesus. Its not impossible. But it can at times seem that those involved in face to face practice have a wealth of Jesus orientated examples – given that Jesus was involved in many conversations with people in the gospels – and theres only scraps for the faith based youth work manager to theologically reflect, or reflect on. Ive written before about whether management is the appropriate term, and discipleship or supervision is better, and im not going to go over the same ground here.  (see other articles in the ‘youth work management’ category on this site, theres a link above)

The limited correlation is one reason for thinking about a discipline like Practical theology that can be helpful in adding another discipline into a theological reflection, when the Bible might not give an obvious answer to not just a complex situation, but also one that is befit of a contemporary issue.

When it comes to Money specifically Jesus has much to say, and the early church have much to learn and grasp – but what they have is a network channel of funding, so for example in Corinthians 16 v 1-4 there are pleas from Paul for the churches to provide to the ‘mother’ church in Jerusalem and obviously tithing, but in these cases the churches are supporting other churches. The aspect that changes this is that rarely does church see faith-based youthwork as another church – and merely a mission activity, and sometimes this means it can be well funded across a number of churches, on other occasions these organisations close because they get meagre rations even from large numbers of churches in an area.

It is difficult to read the Gospels and think at all that Jesus had issues with finances, with sustinence, with resources to enable his ministry to continue, and what he didnt seem to do was have the need to send off funding bids to charitable trusts.

In many ways there are clues to good management of the disciples by Jesus throughout the gospels – but maybe it just doesnt look like what we think management to be in the organisations, even churches, that exist in todays environment.

He did recruit those who fit the criteria he was looking for

He spent time educating them through conversation, and gave, no embodied examples

He listened to their gripes

He gave them opportunity to question (Peter usually)

He respected their weaknesses, but challenged them to be better

He was in contact with other groups – such as John the Baptists disciples

He knew of the ruling authority and how ministry was being thought of ( ie the beheading of John)

He knew of the resources available – peoples houses ( Peters mothers) – their ability to work and find food – ie Fish.

So maybe he didnt have to deal with a group of trustees – but im sure the suppers in the upper room might have got heated, and he didnt have to deal with policies – but the pharisees were trying to make him stick to the ‘Law’, and he knew there would be provision for the disciples, and it arrived from surprising sources, such as the boy with his lunch, from the crowds. But its not as if we hear that the disciples went without. Did he manage their resources, well it can be presumed. Maybe as they walked around Galilee they could pick off the fruit trees, and receive the hospitality of the stranger in the village, and they could gather the local produce from the market.

I find it far more difficult to reflect theologically on ‘faith-based youthwork management’ as it seems as though the pressures are from all sides, from local and national policies, from young people, parents and volunteers (or lack of) from staff, trustees and agencies- with varying degrees of expectation- not much of the tasks involved in management ever feel to me as if they are as theologically understood, or underpinned, and not that things have to be all the time.

Often it boils down to ‘how’ something is done, in a situational ethics kind of way, rather that what it is that is done.  And yes, i am aware that 1,000’s of people in all walks of life are performing roles that might not be anything like the roles Jesus performed, even those in the Clergy – how would Jesus do PCC meetings? or deal with the administrator who makes spelling errors in the pew sheet?’  Not everything is a straight copy- and actually we’re probably not meant to copy anyway, we’re meant to imitate. What Jesus needed to do in 1st century Galilee was appropriate for his time, so must we as managers in faith based organisations also try to act as appropriately in the situations were in. We manage well, by discipling people well.

Actually im glad Jesus didnt spend all his time in ministry writing funding bids. It would have made for the dullest gospel narrative, one littered with ‘copy’ and ‘paste’ and endless searches on the charity commission website.

Freeing the theological Cat

This morning, at the lovely Tea at Hart tea shop in Hartlepool, I began reading for the two year MA which i have just started at St John’s College, Durham. In the study guide on theological refection there is the following story;

“When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshippers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship. 

Long after the guru died the cat continued to be tied during the evening worship. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought the ashram so that it could duly be tied up during evening worship. Centuries later, learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the essential role of a cat in all properly conducted worship” ( De Mello 1983)

Maybe this resonated with me due to my own prejudice against cats, and that centuries of cats havent fared well in this place of worship. It reminded me of a different story that id heard in the mid 1990’s, a story that takes place in the furore of the various outpourings of the Spirit across mostly the western world. As a confession piece, i have read some of John Wimbers work on Healings, the Spirit etc, dont judge me, but i did grow up evangelical, this was part of the so called renewal movement at the time. However, Johns  Wimbers Vineyard church was regularly visited by people from other western countries, to return with the movement/blessing back to say the UK. (when writing this it seems so so odd, wrong and difficult to explain some 25 years on…) – his church would regularly pray by the laying on of hands, very physically. But because the building that the church congregation was so hot, the laying on of hands became v uncomfortable, sweaty and quite unpleasant, so they encouraged the practice of laying on of hands, but to remain about an inch away from the persons body, and still pray. This is according to his Wimbers own words in ‘Power Healing’. However, the first time i saw this ‘laying on of hands but an inch away from the actual body’ type move, it was said that this was a new way to generate more of the Spirit, and cause Spirit sparks between the two people.

I’m reminded of this, with the Gurus cat story, not to single out the charismatic church in any way, but to highlight in a more recent situation the reflection needed on practice, on routines, on traditions, and what caused them to start, and remain, from essential contextual practice to become theologically (and universally) reasoned.

Before suggesting that youth work or ministry might have Gurus cats lurking in its dark corners, I’ve spent the rest of today thinking about my own practice of detached youthwork, of supervising youthworkers, of managing an organisation, of diligence in work and thinking about the possibilities – even in something as unplannable as detached of upholding contextual traditions and maybe not being aware of them. I guess in detached, in an area it can be easy to use similar routes around an estate,  to try and have easy conversations with young people, to make similar interpretations of the culture, of values or community beliefs. I might, and often refer to my previous experiences with the volunteers. Maybe fortunately I wasn’t exposed to detached youthwork as a young person, and so there is not a reference point to copy/model or shape things – which might not be the case in other forms of work with young people, the young people who lived through 1990’s youth ministry and are youth ministers or Vicars now. The student interns who have only just left ‘being a young person in a church’ themselves. Thats not to say in any way that there arent benefits to recent experience – but like the Cat that gets tied up for generations because it was a necessity once, so might a practice of youthwork been so contextually appropriate to its context and culture, that to try and replicate it might not do justice to the nature, needs and interests of a whole new unique group of young people. The cat in the corner might need to be freed. The times they are changing. The Cat which once was bound by a context of practice can be freed in the universal. Where are, or what might be the theological cats in youth work, mission and ministry? How might they be freed, and who has the power to untie the ropes?

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: