How evaluating youth work & ministry might be about performance

It’s a perennial question in youth work and ministry – how can it be evaluated? Measured or even- shudder – what are it’s measurable outcomes?

It’s a question that has been asked of me in a couple of settings recently. Not going to give away the details of where. But behind the question is a frustration that the wider culture of practice makes determinations of outcomes & success that make what seems good practice to be sidelined. It’s often a numbers game, or an improvement of the individual game, a rush to ensure a young persons CV is full up. All of which fuel a sense of conformity of those cultures, whether the church and attendance or the neo liberal agenda of funding.

But what is the alternative- how else can youth work & ministry be evaluated?

Shall we start with our beliefs about young people? Or even in faith based work- our beliefs about God and what dangerous discipleship is? 

I want to argue that we might evaluate youth work and ministry practice- by how young people perform it. 

Let start with youthwork practice. If theres an agreement about its core values then these include, anti-oppression, developing young peoples interests and gifts, Empowerment,  participation and informal education. 

If we’re brutally honest,   youthwork has been measured on how individuals find support within conversation and measurable outcomes like CV building certificates and activities.  But that ignores the bigger picture and also other values like anti oppressive practice,  challenging inequality, the common good. 

What might it look like to evaluate youthwork practice that encourages young people to participate in challenging issues, oppression and inequality that either they or or they see in others?

 Or evaluate according to the use of young peoples thus far wasted gifts and talents to create projects, activities, or  services for others (and countless other things) . 

It becomes about how values of youthwork are performed by young people.

Indulge me just a bit; but to the faith motivated workers, might we want to think about evaluating faith based youth ministry in terms of how young people ‘perform theology’ .  I contrast this to youth ministry in which attendance and morality is emphasised (being moral ties in with Christian Smiths, MTD). Which is also only about ‘knowing’ stuff. What if we can asked young people less with ‘growing the group’ by solely evangelism, but performing the complexity of Gods character in the world and evaluating accordingly?

The strange thing is that even young people who don’t know God yet, might be performing aspects of Gods nature without realising. The open youth group that does a homeless project,  helps with food bank or sets up a social enterprise for the good of the local community. May be acting Godly, unintentionally.  May be performing the love and justice of God.

If I was being controversial it might be to contrast the young people performing the character of God in the world and how performing theology occurs at the youth worship fun festival. (Insert name here). In a way though, that’s less the point. What the role of the worship gathering or group gathering is is to embed young people in worship , and increase knowledge of God for performance.

It may mean we need to agree on what it might mean for young people to perform values, or perform theology, either way, if these things motivate us to our youth work and ministry practice, then helping young people performing them and evaluating accordingly might be what’s needed. Otherwise we’ll still be in a situation where job readiness or numerical attendance drive practice. Or where young people just ‘know’ things. Or they are self improved by how much they know things.

Young people as performing learners? And practice that evaluates the ongoing possibilities of young peoples actions to love, liberate, challenge and create in their local communities.

Just going to youth group got a whole lot interesting…


7 not-so-Deadly Sins in Youth Ministry


The film Se7en came out in 1995, I watched it when i was 18, i think, just. Or i may have been nearly 18. And it was pretty graphic and shocking for me at the time. Unlike Trainspotting or Aliens it isn’t a film i have given a re-watch to ever since. If you’ve not seen it, IMDB describes it as “A film about two homicide detectives’ (Morgan Freeman and (Brad Pitt) desperate hunt for a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. The movie takes us from the tortured remains of one victim to the next as the sociopathic “John Doe” (Kevin Spacey) sermonizes to Detectives Somerset and Mills — one sin at a time.” Whether the film is in any way successful at telling this story is difficult for me to remember, but throughout its main story line is the effect of an ignorance of the 7 deadly sins:  pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

So, for some strange reason over breakfast I was wondering – probably because theres two conferences on youth ministry happening this weekend- is to think about what would be ‘the 7 deadly sins of Youth Ministry’ and focus on these 7 original sins, and i think there would be some merit in doing this to highlight areas of ministry that are prone to envy ( the successful ministry down the road), wrath (after the leadership meeting) , gluttony ( too many cream cakes during YF tuck shop) or Pride (‘its all about my ministry’). But I thought that would be a little obvious, and its likely that in the depths of time that Youthwork magazine probably did something similar.

So, instead of focussing on these 7 original sins, as I was out walking this afternoon, I thought about a different sin, linked to them all, ‘Ignorance’ and wondered if Youth Ministry, in part, or more in full, has been found to be guilty of ignoring the following aspects that have a real impact on the nature of youth ministry, the depth of engagement in young people, and how youth ministry might be threatened by what it accepts from the culture around,  in 7 key ways.

  1. Ignoring Theology for pragmatism. – Good theology helps give young people connection with a world story that they can assimilate as their personal story (McAdams 1997), Challenging Theology is what helps to keep young people in local churches so says recent research here: .  Settling for an easy night, of fun and distraction from the concerns of the world, might only be so helpful. Neither is settling for what Christian Smith calls is Moral Therapeutic Deism (2005) – connecting young people with a God who is ‘there for them’ to give them confidence, however, as a personal myth to believe in it will go so far, just it might need changing when it is tested.
  2. Ignoring young people. This seems strange as youth groups are full of them, but how many youth group evenings are judged as successful by the quality of conversations between youth leader and young person, and not by who and how many turned up? Young people can be ignored if they’re just to take part in the activities. What they need is a healthy place to be where adults take interest in them, listen and shape activities around their needs, interests and gifts. And that is on just a local level, and the local church.  Where do young people feature in the shaping of area strategies, of national programmes. Its also apparent when young people are counted as just numbers.
  3. Ignoring History. A bit like the Premier league, which only provides statistics of games back to 1992, as if football didnt exist before then. An understanding of History reveals christian youth work practice that nowadays would be seen as innovative, more risk taking and politically active. Meeting young peoples needs was core philanthropy in 1830, for example. Its what Sunday schools were developed for.  What might be one persons innovation might only show a blind spot for history, or good practice down the road.
  4. Ignoring the effect of culture.. What I mean here, is not the effect that culture has on young people. This is extensively researched, and if not the Guardian usually has something on ‘Millenials’ to reflect on most weeks. What I mean is the effect of the prevailing culture on Youth Ministry itself. The Sociologist Wolfe said:

In every aspect of religious life, American faith has met American culture, and American culture has triumphed… the faithful in the USA are remarkably like everyone else (Wolfe, 2003)

An example of this is in the marketing and programming of youth ministry resources, that are described as ‘almost Fordian’ (ie representing the process of making one size/colour fits all, mass produced motor cars) by Danny Brierley (2003) – It is an example of where the influence of Managerial theory and practice is inserted into the church. The same could be said for any youth ministry programme that claims to be efficient, calculated, predictable and be able to be controlled, for these are dominant tenets of the business model of Macdonalds. Without realising it, the prevailing culture wins, if a youth ministry seeks growth and transformational leadership to do this, then this again is from the management guru handbook, more so than Theology – however biblically justified. Youth Ministry is undoubtedly involved in the culture, it creates culture, but is also subject to it – it is worth being critical of the sources, methodologies and ideologies of practice – having filters set to ‘on’. Being predictable and efficient – might give 4 spiritual laws, but maybe not the complexity of a deep faith, and young people exploring difficult questions. Keeping up with culture isnt making Youth ministry more theological or relevant, its possibly only turning it into efficient organisations that are cost effective.  Managing a good youthwork organisation or it being managed well might not actually be having the best effect on young people.

5. Ignoring Youthwork (& Education) philosophy. What the Values and practice of Youthwork can bring to Youth Ministry is an increased focus, not only on young people and their needs, but processes shaped by values that are in their favour, such as empowerment, voluntary participation, inclusion & anti-oppressive practice, and informal education, what it also can provide, again according to Danny Brierely, is an ethical yardstick for youth ministry. Youth Ministry will only be improved by encompassing more of the discipline of youth work. Not only that but a refreshing of different concepts of education especially as young people participate in youth ministry in a voluntary way would be critical.

6. Ignoring Pioneers. For too long the biggest conferences are sponsored by the same people who select the same people to be the experts. Critical and Pioneering voices, generally are put to one side, unless they have been youth ministry flavour of the month in the past – and can still retain ‘Hero’ status. But in the main, those who are known for good, solid local practice are ignored. Those who lead ministries and have several lead responsibilities in organisations are the heralded experts. Some are the pioneers, but others are selectively ignored. Organisations, cultures and practices are only developed further through critical thinking, questions and dissent. Yes people will only keep the hamster wheel turning, critical thinking will ensure the hamster is travelling in the right direction. Pioneers are what the Disciples were, lest not forget, improvising in the new spaces what they had been taught.

7. Ignoring ourselves. Not unlike the film, the final twist is played on the main character and the audience. The final ‘deadly sin’ in Youth Ministry is when we forget about being honest and kind and generous to ourselves. We help define youth ministry and youth work through our very actions with young people, our communication with churches, partnerships, agencies and schools, we also define it as a practice through the cultures of the settings we create, the young people we invest the most time in, creating healthy spaces for young people also starts with being healthy ourselves – not perfect- just healthy, self-care is important, and probably the most ‘deadly’ of them all on an individual youth ministry level.

Could I have included others, possibly. But what might be yours? Excluding obviously ‘critical blogging’….


A Review of ‘All Joined Up’ , 13 years on – how does it fare?

There are some books in Youth Ministry that are light and fluffy. The 10 tools, or 30 programmes, or 50 innovative ice breaker type books. Some book in youth ministry that talk about a particular type of practice – such as Spirituality and youth Ministry, and others on something like Detached, or Mission or ‘what youth ministry’ should be in an ideal world. A few months ago I wrote a review for ‘Unattached Youth by Goetchius & Tash (1967) , a book i regarded as seminal in detached youthwork practice. ‘All Joined up’ has become something similar, or at least has been regarded as such from those who start off in youth ministry in England and venture into a brave world of youthwork and try and piece some of it together – so its less about how it fared, but more – is this even more relevant now than before?

So 13 years ago now, ‘All Joined Up’ launched a series of titles that were developed from a collaboration of a few faith based youth ministry organisations ( YFC, Oasis, Youthwork magazine, Salvation army and Spring Harvest) that were for the emerging practices of youth ministry as it was undergoing a professional turn. Without being too critical, the following titles didnt gain the same traction, at least not for the theorists of youth ministry. Though it seemed at though ‘All joined up’ became a key text for youth ministry in the UK, maybe more so in England, than in Scotland- maybe because youth ministry in the form it took in England didnt shape the discourse in the same kind of way.

So – What about All Joined up – how has it fared, given that a whole teenager has been formed since it was published in 2003, I know, my son was born that year.

Lets go back to the orginal work – What was Danny Brierley trying to say?

20170124_145340_richtonehdr What Brierley did was to set up a dialogue, an intertwining of what could quite easily have felt like separate forms of practice, youth work and youth ministry. Pistols at dawn was the image, however from the outset Brierley is keen to call out the unnecessary dualism, created in part because dualism has at times become a default position in the church, out from which the world is sometimes viewed.

What Brierley realised is that the separate practices of youth work and youth ministry had created their own terminologies, infrastructures, publishers, career paths, training courses and conferences. And from behind the walls of each discipline battle lines were drawn.

Brierley then described the differences between youth work from a contemporary consideration of a few youth work books, good ones though, including Kerry Young Art of Youthwork (1999), though absent from his discussion at this point is a discussion on the underpinnings of youthwork – aside from a brief mention of Values; Voluntary Participation, Informal Education, Empowerment and Equality of Opportunity. How Danny Brierley could construct this chapter, and the whole book, that has references to youth work without mentioning Jeffs & Smith or Paulo Friere ill never know, but never mind.  Brierley also establishes youth work as a spiritual activity.

In his chapter on Youth Ministry he argues that Youth Ministry has been described almost exclusively in Spiritual and religious terms. It uses words like discipleship, proclamation, preparing young people for eternity or mission, and so those in youth ministry might be regarded as being more akin to Clergy, who use the same language and share similar vision, to that of youth workers. Other distinctions of within youth ministry are described as being the methods ( sometimes programmed) , a dogmatic approach to teaching that reflects a dogmatic approach to faith, and young people as recipients of programmes rather than initiators and developers of them.

The position Brierley wants to take is that Youth work is a ‘strong philosophical framework’ in which youth ministry can operate, as one specialism or approach within it. And as he argues, there are strengths to either approach that might support the other. Youth work in its ethics and values can help youth ministry to critique moments of manipulation, of box ticking, of coerciveness and controlling programmes – ‘Youth ministry, (sadly) needs youthwork if it is to be ethical and young person centred’ (p11) – this is somewhat of a sad state of affairs isnt it… that the lens of the ‘secular’ practice is a yardstick for ethical practice in a faith based, and hopefully Jesus orientated practice.  On the other side of the fence Youth ministry can contribute to the conversation about spirituality and young people, challenging self-determination and an over-reliance on person-centred approaches that could be too optimistic of the human condition, though might struggle to contribute in conversations about other faiths and youthwork, and the emergence of Muslim youthwork since 2003 to the conversation about faith in youth work has been critical ( more on faith and youthwork in ‘Youth work and faith‘ by Mark Smith, Naomi Stanton & Tom Wylie, 2015)

Sadly, the phrase that Brierley wanted to catch on probably hasnt. What he called for was a critical combination, a co-existance of Christian youth ministry, and youthwork – to be known as ‘Youthwork and Ministry’ – this didnt really take off, though much of the essence of what he described it as has become known in those who define themselves as Christian youth workers – those who navigate between the language of both sides of the discipline that Brierley describes, but who put youthwork philosophy and education and regard for young peoples empowerment centre to practice. This was evident when groups like ‘Youthworks’ emerged in Scotland – a space for Christians who were realising youth work practice that felt, looked and was articulated different to youth ministry practice.  Despite this, Brierley argues for Youthwork and Ministry to be Christian Mission (to the whole world), to be a designated vocation and calling, and this drive for training and vocation was reflected in the development – though also subsequent reduction- in courses for this.

In the 2 further chapters, Brierly intertwines the concurrent histories of youth ministry and youth work. Most of this has been done before.

Brierley then reflects on the Values of Youth work further, Empowerment, Informal education, voluntary participation, in light of the previous regard for a ‘youthwork and ministry’. He clarifies that without voluntary participation working with young people would not be considered a form of youthwork – there is freedom to opt in and out.

For each of the youthwork Values, Brierley develops a theological reasoning that they are adoptable in youth ministry. Its like the current validation debate about fresh expressions of churches, and if they are valid. What Brierley puts out there is that from a theological point of view the values of youthwork could be argued as identifiable with the Christian faith. So, the same for Informal education ( Was Jesus an informal educator) Equality of opportunity and Empowerment ( thats fairly obvious from the formation of the disciples, but also concepts of God and power, and the ethics of power are thought through)

Brierley then adds to these Values- from Youth work- to consider whether the Christian faith has more to add to ‘youthwork and ministry’ and he develops Incarnation ( being present in location, in attitude and within culture), Fellowship (spending time in groups), Worship (creating, forming and articulating places to connect with God) and Mission (being active in the world to transform it). Some of the language of these would be a challenge to the ‘youthwork fraternal’ – though the principle of being in location, of spending time and also connecting spiritually wouldn’t be. But in a way that’s not the point, the point is that these addition things, or core aspects of the church, if you will, also have a part to play within the framing of ‘youth work and ministry’ . There are a few further reflections to be made.

Brierley does warn that once a guideline, or standard is developed – such as ‘youth work and ministry’ then it can become a yardstick to judge other practices. Ie its easy to identify that police officer might not be ‘doing youthwork’ if voluntary participation isnt open to young people. Yet what Brierley also, from a Christian perspective does is challenge some of the key protagonists of working with young people in the UK from a Christian perspective and holds up a youth work lens to them, maybe even a ‘youth work and ministry’ lens. He is as highly critical of the mass evangelism methods perpetuated by Billy Graham, and still evident recently, in YFC (p 46-47), as he is of the Statutory sector who become engrossed in bidding wars and commissioning processes for funding, who place young people as numbers in a funding game, or in tightly programmed Jobs clubs. So, whilst he wanted to avoid making judgements, he sort of ended up doing so – maybe some of these things are on the edges of youthwork & ministry, but if voluntary participation is an essential….

If there were omissions in the piece, it would be that some of the Theological aspects need updating, it might be a surprise to some, but progressions in theology move quicker than the church… another omission is might be that youthwork and ministry is inherantly a political activity if it develops informal education- for what it does is raise the consciousness of young people to see the world differently – this is political, and maybe even Political. The likelihood is that this practice will cause challenge and offence – for it asks different questions of young people and the structures around them that they engage with.

Whilst it is political, what youth work and ministry will also be is prophetic. it will challenge, and cause reflection, and learning. Some of that has undoubtedly cost people jobs, or caused the structures to reject youth workers for stirring, prompting and provoking.

A call for reflective practice is also sadly absent within ‘All Joined Up’ its pretty obvious that its a requirement, but strange it is lacking, given that in a way thats what Brierley asks of the practice – to critically reflect on its own history, its own values, its own organisations and young people.

So if these are a few omissions, what else might have shifted. Well sadly it goes without saying that Brierleys forecasts for statutory youthwork have in 10 years been underestimated, the kind of youthwork that had a history in the youth service has all but gone, though it always had to adapt to government policy and changes in cultural focus. What has also happened has been a shift in the titles for Youth Ministry – and this was not forecast – in 2003 youth ministry was on a crest of a wave, churches were employing, organisations were growing, funding was obtainable. Now this isnt the case. Not unlike the farmers who diversified after foot and mouth in 2000, youth work & ministry is pushed into entrepreneurial methods to survive – whether thats self employment, running charity shops, consultancy, conferences, part time work – all are common place – and this is a shift.

What has occured, is that there have been open spaces from the youth work sector to those who are acknowledged as delivering similar practice. So there are people from faith backgrounds given space to have dialogue at ‘statutory’ youth work conferences, such as In defence of Youthwork, or the Federation of detached youth work, books relating to faith and youth work have actually been produced. If Brierley regarded there to be walls – i dont see them as evident from the statutory side, in fact id say the communities of these practices have been more than, if not more welcome to critical dialogue from a faith perspective, than often critical dialogue in a faith setting of the practice from within. A similar call for being ‘joined up’ and respecting the disciplines was made by Naomi Thompson in a recent Premier Youthwork magazine (September issue i think), on the basis that if there are two sides to the ministry both are in need of each other at a time of cultural shift, change and reduction.

let me end with Brierleys final directive: ‘The churches buildings are available for use in almost every city and town, furthermore it is able to support young peoples spiritual quest without succumbing to indoctrination. The Church’s work must once again be taken seriously. Youth work and ministry ( Christian youthwork)  serves as a challenge to both the church and the state. The church is challenged to look beyond its walls and to develop effective practice. The state is challenged to drop ideological interventions’ (and this has been done, where a Christian youthwork approach is in practice)  The challenge is for the church to faciliate good youth work practice, never more so than now, beyond its current provision.

The world has shifted, but ‘All Joined Up’ has remained significant, challenging and insightful. It started to broker a conversation, that has been beneficial for those who have sought to be involved in the conversation, and might still be worth getting a copy if you’re a new youthworker or edging into pioneering practices of youth ministry. Its definitely worth having a copy on the bookshelf.



Brierley , Danny, ‘All Joined up’ 2003

Jeffs & Smith (eds) ‘ Youth work Practice, 2010

Passmore, R ‘Meet them where theyre at’, 2003,

Smith, Thompson, Wylie ‘ Youth work and Faith’ 2015

Young, Kerry, The Art of Youthork, 1999









Can Biblical doctrine direct organisation strategy?

We need our organisation to be effective!

It needs to be ‘moving forward’ ,

Stagnation is capitulation! ,

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

Organisations needs to be outcomes orientated!

Image result for effectiveness

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

Such as:

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

or a church that gives value for money…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for love is patient

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

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

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

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

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



Newman – Leading, Managing Ministering, 1998

Vanhoozer, Kevin, The Drama of doctrine, 2005

Wells, Samuel, Improvisation, 2004


Making the Bible Inspiring (not insipid) in Youth Ministry

Have you ever noticed that when it comes to describing the Bible and its uses, there is the tendency to drift into dualist language? So, for instance, someone might say that the Bible needs to be ____________, but not ____________. I use the term Inspiring and not insipid above, which isnt one i have heard, but others in the first column can include Authoritative, Proclaimed, Revered, Obeyed, Transformational and in the second category comes things like Informative, illustrative, imagination ‘just self help’ , ignored, – and some of these for good reason. No one thinks the Bible should be ignored in Youth Ministry I hope. However I wonder whether these kinds of distinctions are helpful, especially when it is quite clear that the Bible is a complex book, sorry, collection of many books and there needs to be a renewed thought about how the Bible becomes part of the ongoing practice of faith based youthwork.

In response to the above, what would be the problem with thinking that the Bible in its entirety needed a long list of imperatives for it? So, whilst it is rightly authoritative it is also to be imagined, and illustrative, and metaphorical, and Inspiring, and challenging, and provoking, and directive, and informative, and reflective, and poetic, and soulful, and  and.. well the list goes on, but the point it that with such a large text, how it invokes Human behaviour in accordance with it takes a variety of stances. And a variety of interpretative positions, such as historical, literary or narrative.

Image result for the bibleHowever, what if the Bible wasnt a book anymore? What if it was an inspirational script to be followed and improvised from?

Samuel Wells (and Richard Carter) put it like this;

Before the Bible became a book, it was a collection of scrolls. It was not a vehicle for private devotions, it was a script for performance, a rallying cry for Mission, a tirade seeking repentance and a chorus of comfort (and discomfort too). It was a community forming sacrament, and reading it aloud was a church-creating event. It was not reduced to static meaning or easily memorised fundamentals. When Jesus said in the synagogue “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ he set a template for reading it ever since. For us our response might also be “make our lives and deeds a scripture for the blessing of your people in days to come” (rather than ‘thanks be to God’)

In other words, The Bible is always a Drama. (2014; p224)

If you picture the dynamic of the relationship between an actor, the director and an author in the preparation and performance of theatre, this may help to illustrate it further. Especially as Von Baltasar suggests, we, as Humans are drawn onto the stage of the dramatic arena, where we find not a God to be looked at, but one in action engaging with the world and our free duty is to respond.  However, going back to that relationship, the author, actor and director have a complex symbiotic relationship. All are reliant on each other, all contribute to the success and failings of the individual project and all play different parts, yet in the performance the eyes of the audience, and their participation falls solely on the creativity and performance of the actor to fulfil both the authorial intention (what is to be performed) and directors contextual suggestion ( ie how it is to be performed). Though the Author and director play a huge role in enabling the actor to perform appropriately- but in the real performance, a good actor wont be re-reading the script, they are performing it.

The Bible itself might not just be the script, it also points to a bigger drama, the bigger story of Gods drama that we become part of – known by some as a Theo-Drama ( see my previous posts on Theodrama in the subject index, or Vanhoozers Drama of Doctrine, 2005), one that started with Creation and ends with the Consumation.  It is a drama which doesn’t just communicate to the world but involves and engages it, God communicated to the world throughout, this communication culminating in Jesus who became an actor along with humanity. The Biblical text is a script not to be told, but also acted, and story not just to be told, but embodied. The Script and the Theodrama create a new reality one where many become called into, not just a self help for this world.

If the Bible was ‘originally and should have always remained a drama’ (Wells, 2014) It then stirs the imagination, it is illustrative, it evokes not just the mind, or the heart, but also the body, the senses, and requires a new rehearsal for performance and improvised performance in every new setting, in order that it is fulfilled. The question is not, for the Theodrama proponents like Vanhoozer whether the Bible is authoritative, for it is, it is also the source material for a Dramatic production and an ongoing improvisation for actors as they respond to it and also the holy Author in their midst. But it also must stir the imagination, must stir the feet for action, must stir the eyes to see the world differently and must stir up the call to respond.

The Bible is drama – lets keep a dramatic play of it going on the stage of the world – and not reduce it to classroom testing, moral reasoning or propositional analysis. And Drama is action, Theatre is drama with a live audience. So, when thinking about the Bible and Theology in Youth Ministry lets evoke action responses and embodied re-enactments, of love, of peace, of forgiveness and of reconciliation- and also the stories.

For children and young people lets give them ways of developing creative imaginative views of the Bible, so that its not just an epilogue, or a test, or a stick for morality – but a script of God speaking, and a drama of Gods purposes that they can be responding to. So that their lives are in call and response to him in their dramatic existences.

Before the Bible became a book, it was a story that many people acted in response to Gods call. It is our ongoing role in the drama to do the same.



Richard Carter & Samuel Wells Holy Theatre, enfleshing the word in Theatrical Theology (edited Lugt/Hart, 2014)

Hans urs Von Baltasar, Theodrama 1, Trans 1980

Vanhoozer, K, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005, also Remythologising Theology (2010) Faith Speaking Understanding (2014)

Trying to survive after falling off the evangelical cliff

I grew up Evangelical. There I said it.

I actually went to a church called __________ Evangelical church. The label was pretty much die-cast into my being from a child. My parents had been to and then escaped brethren roots. So, I was evangelical in identity, but in a way, aside from a continual statement that it meant a ‘belief in the Bible’ it was difficult to pinpoint what actually being evangelical meant, as I was, as they say, ‘growing up evangelical’. I was part of its culture, from festivals, language, ceremonies, adherence and regularity of church going, bible reading, prayer and rites like baptism, this was my world growing up. Being part of church meant, and only meant being ‘evangelical’ traditions were to be followed, or others derided, being kind of right was important. But discussion about what couldn’t be right didn’t happen, it was just what other people thought, and they weren’t right. However.

Sociologically theres a few challenges the church, especially the evangelical one needs to consider. For, what it has a tendency of doing is using language as a powerful force to have the twin ability of on one hand talking down the faith/beliefs of another church, in the hope that this builds up and strengthens their own. Ive heard it often, like in small groups when someone says of another church in the town; ‘they dont really believe in the Virgin Birth at that church’, as one example. It reinforces a rightness within the group, a security, a group dynamic, and shuts down potential discussion of beliefs, in order that only one is deemed right. Ok this is a little extreme, but i hope you get the point. But leaving it accompanies with it the rejection of those claimed truths.

The tragedy with this is that people then within the tradition become less able to hold in tension a variety of theological opinions, or cope when questions about such held opinions are put to them, like for example stuff about the validity of Jonah, ethical dilemmas, leadership, sexuality to name just a few. Now, that’s not to say that these discussions arent had over social media, via articles and blogs, they are, but do they happen in the local church in open forums to discuss them? and with young people who might be asking the questions…

A few months ago I was working with a young person within a well known evangelical organisation across the UK, the young person was struggling, but was being supported by their church and others around them in quite a difficult pastoral situation. What was quite interesting was that the opinion in the prayer of the youth organisation was that the person needed to be prayed for so that (and i quote)  ‘they didnt lose their faith’ . I found this an odd thing at the time, and only now have begun to reflect on this. Because the person had in a way no intention of losing their faith, their ministry and calling – just that an evangelical organisation was not able to continue to facilitate it. So – what was communicated was more well intentioned that i am suggesting here, but there was something in the sentiment that leaving the ‘evangelical’ world of a ministry could mean losing their faith completely, and there were prayers that this wouldnt happen. What was implied by this was interesting. Can a person be rejected by the ‘evangelical’ tradition and not have to have a complete faith overhaul? or was something else implied…

Maybe leaving the evangelical arm of the church – might only result in a dramatic cliff jump to certain liberalised death splatter below… or does it…?  After all, from within it the dagger of liberalism get pointed at those from within whove now apparently turned ( Steve Chalke, Rob Bell to name but two)

In a conversation with a fellow youth worker recently, we discussed what it was like to fall off the evangelical cliff.

Or more to the point, to know what resources there are for maintaining faith when you think that you’re falling off it, what rungs there might be on the cliff face, or platforms half way down.

What it feels like at times to have different aspects of your life trying to gravitationally pull you back to the cliff and to the green grass at the top.

In a way the same resources are there for surviving in faith when falling off the cliff, as they are before. God is still God, but the safety of the box he might have been in has changed. And so, this still includes prayer, and ritual, and reading the bible from a different perspective, church feels different (but i am still there most weeks) but people who have been through the same will be friends. Its hard not to be bitter, really hard, actually it is so easy. The same other resources include reading theology, and philosophy, sociology and politics, as The Bible often demand not just a spiritual response, but is all of those other things as well, not to mention drama and literature. God is in all of these things. There can be many clinging on times though. Because theres a hurt that we were once connected emotionally and socially to the people of it.

As importantly, the key resource is that you are not alone, many others before have began to reflect on the evangelical culture of their faith and, not just especially now due to the perception of evangelicalism in 2016 as Trump voting & immigrant hating, but because of a number of other things.

The easiest thing also is for the evangelical world to label you, you successful cliff leaper who didnt lose their faith. You’re now a ‘liberal’ or a ‘socialist’ or ‘not as Biblical’ and the trick here is that is that it does that thing of earlier, maintains their own deemed strong position whilst negating your own, and any argument you put forward if you try to is discredited, being from the ‘fringe’. Or that your faith is in some way inferior. What is failed to see is that because of having to maintain faith outside the evangelical culture, faith might actually be stronger because it has gone broad, or deep.

I write this because the two different conversations or incidents recently highlight what has been a personal journey for me, and countless others. Maybe in my 20’s and 30’s I had to find an ‘owned’ faith ( as James Fowler would say)  or that faith in God continually is changing. For the more I delve deeper into theology, into knowledge, into different practices of rituals the more I deepen not just in knowledge of God but experience God communicating and worship him in challenging new ways, the simpleness of a complex God doesnt add up anymore. Discipleship involves learning and having to learn from different positions.

In a way what I would think I was now is being more evangelical than i was then, as this belief in the truth of the Bible means that this includes acts of Social justice, the dramatic acts of God communicating to his people, a belief in God who gives Human freedom, God that asks people to follow his way authentically, a Kingdom that is near, graspable and far, is now and also to be sought. An evangelical that acknowledges that knowledge of God might not actually be God, a graspable God might not be God in majesty at all. I still believe in a God that transforms societies and individuals, who Loves unconditionally and gives. Actually what I still believe looks like the creeds of old.  Falling off the evangelical cliff means shifting the how of the faith, but not necessarily losing the heart, soul and spirit of that faith, and searching continually for God who finds us on our search in the craziest of places.

Losing my evangelical faith, or faith in practices of evangelicalism is more accurate.

Regardless, Being a disciple from within or outside the evangelical borders involves as Vanhoozer suggests : ‘becoming christlike and doing more than learning lines, disciples must develop their characters, disciples must do more than go through the external motions of saints, they must also be sanctified, sanctification is ultimately Gods work, yet God works not simply ‘on’ but ‘with’ his saints’  (Vanhoozer, Faith, Speaking and Understanding, 2014)

Even having fallen off the evangelical cliff, christlike sanctified discipleship is a possibility as a response to Gods ongoing call and direction.
(Examples used with grateful permission)

Why might the quality of youthworkers decreased in the last 25 years?

There’s been two articles doing the rounds , one in youthwork magazine by Mike Pilavachi, the other, a response to it by Martin Saunders as a response – which is here:

In the response Martin tries to discern what Mike Pilavachi is on about when he says that the quality of youthworkers has decreased, trying to do so before a barage of critique heads in the direction of Mike who Martin refers to as a leading UK youth pastor for over 25 years as part of Soul Survivor.

Martin argues that :

I think he’s (Mike) getting at something else, something more fundamental. If you know anything about Mike, you know that he’s passionate about Jesus, and about leaders developing a close personal relationship with him. For Mike, a good quality leader is one who is walking alongside and modelling the radical path of Christ to young people. And I think that’s where he sees a decline.

and after describing a stereotype of what a youth minister in 1990 and one in 2016 might be like, then suggests that:

The rest of us naturally hate the challenge, but I think Mike’s got a painful point. As a general rule (yes, obviously there are many exceptions), we’ve loosened the expectations on holiness in the modern church; we’ve relaxed the requirements for character development and spiritual discipline. Grace, as it does, has covered a multitude of sins, but perhaps we’ve allowed it to do so too cheaply. Many of us are just – as the brilliant Katie Dowds puts it – just living a PG-certificate version of what the world is doing; recognising that’s also shifted dramatically in the last 25 years.

So for a moment, what if we didn’t bother getting offended by Mike’s statement. What if instead we saw it as a challenge from a prophetic voice who has earned the right to say something a little bit outrageous? What if we recommitted ourselves to re-developing our passion and our personal relationship with Jesus? I think generally, the quality of youth workers might go up dramatically.


The critical question to be asked, given that it kind of feels like I might be a product of 1990s Youth Ministry – I am 38, is the following?

What kind of youth ministers and Youthworkers has 25 years of Youth Ministry produced?

For some people, like Mike and Martin and others, these new leaders, born and honed and developed within the current form and method of Youth Ministry in the UK are said to be under-spiritual and need to have more knowledge of faith, spiritual disciplines, and the Bible.  Now call me a cynic, but as i argued about a year ago here:, The Bible is often a token gesture in Youth Ministry, as are the tools required to interpret it, discern it and perform it- why- well for a number of reasons, probably. In the main Youth Ministry amongst christian young people in the church has operated as an entertainment, relevancy mindset, and hoping that fun will keep them. Youth leaders dont need to know or do depth, when fun is only what is required.  This has become the norm, part of the culture, everything is louder, bigger, newer, and many young christians ride the crest of a wave that might be event after event after event. It could be said that Soul Survivor might have caught that crest of a wave and continued it.

And, its grabbed these young people as part of the culture and they have found identity in it. But whilst churches organizations clamber over themselves to offer the next biggest youth ministry event for whatever justification- do these events in the long term, creating the kind of leaders that are fit for prophetically leading the church? Or are they fit for people who want to keep repeating the same events over and over again…

Maybe the actually prophetic youth leaders are the ones that have the guts to challenge the status quo that is being observed about the quality of youth ministers in 2016. Genuinely prophetic youth work is the stuff that is invisible. Where one young person from the most challenging background is given time, and helped. This is the Kingdom at work. If a youth leader or worker I employ at DYFC doesnt read their bible that often, but will go out of their way to interact with a young person and give them time, then theyre embodying Jesus’s words. I cant ask for more than that. Jesus doesnt ask for more than that.

I am sure neither Mike or Martin have attendance at soul survivor as an agenda for the article, but maybe its is the Charismatic bent that occurs in youth ministry that is under threat. Other forms have gone under the radar, as evangelistic/charismatic youth ministry has dominated and influenced – and they have been no less faithful, just a bit less loud. If the Charismatic type of youth ministry is producing less spiritually developed or disciplined youth leaders who are coming through its own system, the ones that Mike is observing and then commenting on, then what of its own practice? of its own success and the culture it has created?

Mike is right, in one way, As i have said in previous articles, Discipleship is key and youth Ministry might have to be practical and prophetic, both spiritually, socially and politically, challenging the structures, powers and systems that prevent the encouragement of authentic real faith and the flourishing of young people, often oppressed by agencies, including the church, it has to cause people to be alongside young people who interpret the world and church in the world in their existence on an ongoing basis and walk with them, on the proverbial road to Emmaus. Discipleship is a prophetic adventure. It is Dramatic and performing Youth Ministry is thus very much a theological, prophetic and practical task.

Next 25 years – can youth ministry attempt  to produce socially prophetic and theologically grounded young people and youth leaders?

NB; Subsequent to the original article and its reaction, Mike Pilovachi has written the following:  in a blog on the youthwork magazine website.


Youth Ministry: In Praise of the Beards

There is an interactive site that Youthscape are running at the moment, in which people involved in youth ministry are able to design through a basic picture, and then name and describe a person who has greatly influenced them, or their ministry. The link is here: Design your inspiration.

Alongside an impressive list of activities, ministry leaders, determined souls and unsung heroes stands the stuck out on a limb theologian that is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thus far he is the one theologian that has been uploaded as being an inspiration for this so far unscientific poll of youth ministry contingency, and i wonder, slightly cruelly if that is only because Andrew Root recently wrote a book about him. This isn’t anything against any of the people uploaded, though Jesus isn’t mentioned, strangely (maybe he was off limits), as there are other Biblical Characters, and contemporary leaders, who are genuinely inspiring. Yet, repeatedly, even in these pages, and even in youth ministry conferences, there are calls to ‘Go Deeper’ with young people – and the question for us in that, yes it can be to go deeper by acting more ethically, more appropriately- but can going deeper also mean thinking and being inspired Theologically and Philosophically about ideas that might inspire youth ministry practice, about intrinsically who we are as humans, who we are in the place of the world and in this way enable young people to be inspired by depth too.

So, whilst ‘in praise of the Beards’ is totally sexist, it does tragically represent the lack of female philosophers and theologians on my bookshelf (unlike my ‘youthwork bookshelf’). What I would like to do, over the next few weeks is to outline the key ideas of a small series of Philosopher/Theologians to whet your appetite for thinking more in depth about Faith, about the Bible, about Humanity and because of all these things, about Youth Ministry. You might be bored, you might be inspired. If nothing else, it might help put some of the current thoughts of theology in some context.

So, as a marker for the future, these are the Beards that the practice of Youth Discipleship and Mission might draw from their richness further:

Paul Ricoeur

Paulo Freire

Hans George Gadamer

Kevin Vanhoozer

I would add Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but as i mentioned above – he is already inducted in the hall of fame, and Andrew Root has made his work accessible to the Youth Ministry market. What i would like to do, therefore in the coming weeks is give some time to describing and outlining the incredible insight of these ‘beards’ to the philosophical and theological landscape. I will not be able to do them justice, but try and share a few key insights and how their work might apply to youth work/ministry.

If you are inspired by a theologian or philosopher and would like to write a guest blog (1000 words max) on their key ideas, their inspiration to you and youth work/ministry, then please get in touch (above) , happy to add to this list, from the list thats on my bookshelf, to those who are on yours…

So, in Praise of the philosophical beards… Paul Ricouer coming up in a few days…

Discovering Youth Ministrys implicit Theology

“So belief is not some kind of arcane metaphysics, it is performed – much as one would perform a play”(Percy, 2010)

Many of the books and articles I’m reading at the moment refer to Missiology and Ecclesiology, not surprising given that this is the title of module I’m currently writing an essay on (in between some distracting posts here) , the reason I say this is that there may be huge amounts of writing out there already that refers to how implicit, or performed actions in youth ministry reveal its operant theology – just that this is a blind spot for me at the moment which I am yet to explore.

However, as I have began to explore the writing of Healy (2001), Percy (2005,2010), and Vanhoozer (2005,2010), in relation to lived, an ordinary, implied Theology – for the church – i wonder whether the same could be said for the practice of Youth Ministry and its own implicit theology.

Just taking a small step back – a traditional view of Theology, and Ecclesiology is that these are both in some ways revered – ie if we know the ‘pure’ theology of say Paul, or the Ecclesiology of Barth, liberation theology, or even a Trinitarian ecclesiology – then we might seek to apply this to the practice of church, or mission, or indeed Youth Ministry. The Theology or Ecclesiology becomes the ideal blueprint (as Healy, (2001) would determine), and practice plays second fiddle to it, never quite being able to match the ideal.

Contrastingly, Healy, Percy and Vanhoozer, all in slightly different ways argue for a theology is viewed implicitly as it is practised, for example:

“By Paying attention to the sensed and experienced dimensions of day to day ecclesial life, one begins to gain some insight into how style might matter just as much as substance, and behaviours as much as beliefs” (Percy 2010)

“The church is local in that wherever the community gathers, it does so to demonstrate in its embodied life a particular way of being-in-the-world” (Vanhoozer 2014)

For Healy, Ecclesiology should be “practical and prophetic” (2001)- and thus birthed in reality of performance.  Whilst all of these refer the the acts of the ‘church’ – this can, obviously, also refer to the ministerial practices of the church, such as as people minister with young people in all the variety of labels, such as youth ministry, detached work, messy church and so on.

The question is then – what is revealed about the behaviours of those who realise & perform youth ministry about its theology?  or as pertinently What kind of God is revealed in how it is performed?

To take on Healys view that the grounded and real nature of the church is something to be recognised in the outworking of how it is ecclesiologically thought of – what about the lived and real practice of Youth Ministry as a source of discovering theology, rather than thinking- what theology should be applied to youth ministry – instead, what attentiveness and observations might be made about the lived, and real performance of youth work & ministry so to determine its also local, lived theology?

For example – what is revealed about God in the way a youth group might shape its activities? or the way the leaders interact at different times with the young people?

What is revealed about the theology of a detached team who are open to receive the questions about faith from young people – but close down their questions with simple answers? Or differently in the tone of the voice of the conversation, the questions asked and the interactions?

It may be even more subtle than this – as what might it say about  the implicit theology of youth work whereby the first thing a youth leaders does is say hello individually to every young person as they enter?  or the kind of space where a young person is comfortable enough to make their own cup of tea? or other activities, the weekend away, the worship event and you can fill in the others..

What is implied in the theology of the practice if it encourages young people into social justice projects?  forms of prayer, or liturgy.

Where in the practical of the often most practical of ministries might the theology of youth work & ministry be most implicit – without us even knowing it, but in the actions of the way these things are enacted, performed – and not just in their content.

Call it performance pedagogy, or praxis, or participation in enacting church – strangely all p’s-  and as youth workers/ministry – we have been attuned to its vocational and ethical /integrity responsibility for some time. Yet might the live performance reveal something of a theological integrity, one that young person might make connections with, and might reveal as much about our theology as the narrations and declarations of God that we might do within.

Shaping Youth work & Ministry in whatever guise might involve taking seriously attention made to what theology is implied and embodied in its performance.



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