What if we treated young people (in the church) as Human?

What is it about young people that seems to be that they’re treated as something other that human?

And, before someone in the church responds to say that they have a healthy and positive respect for young people, it’s the church that whilst it generates and maintains a good number of youth work and ministry provision, might also be in danger of regarding young people as subhuman.

My recent case in point is Neil O Boyles book ‘Under construction’ which – if you read my most recent two pieces, details and shows examples of where young people are patronised (told that sex is for having babies), given simple answers to complex problems (you’ll not become a child killer, if you don’t watch video games) , restricting their view of sin, shame and maintaining a cultural view that the individual is responsible (whatever the horror situation is dealt with) and infantalising young people (something is interactive because it has ‘puzzles’ and join the dots). On one hand I had many issues with that book. Not least its view of God. But its view of young people is equally as odd.

And if this is endemic – what does this say about how the evangelical church – and the wider church view young people?

Its as if young people are less than human people…- a few examples:

Talking of Sub-human – There can also be a view that young people (for arguments sake the over 11s- the post primary schools) are somehow a weird, alien, arrived from space species – this was picked up by Christian Smith in 2003 (p259), when he urged US churches to not hold this view, seeing that those who are over 11 upwards are closer to the adults who read or write blogs like this, or run churches or are congregants, than the children in Sunday school and messy church that seem to be viewed as treasures and darlings. All of a sudden theres a collective defeatist disempowering thst ‘we don’t know what to do with them’ yet, ‘them’ has been known for 6 years already. The challenges is the attitude fuels the approach, and approaches are often lacking. Of course changed young people aren’t going to like what they had aged 9, but they’re not necessarily going to like high energy games or simple bible stories or moral talks either. But they’re not aliens, just changed…

What they might like – is being treated as a human – not an alien

Or maybe even – not a project, or a puzzle to solve and then boast about.

These pages, articles and theres blogs everywhere on how to reach, teach, keep, pass on the faith to young people. Young people (once the church has stopped putting its foot in its mouth about sex) is also on high alert for the quick win, model, method, way for arresting the decline of young people in churches, and now that project ‘employ a youthworker’ has changed to ‘employ a resource church faith enabler for millenials’ or ‘an outreach worker for the 25-40’s’ its as if the church, worry stats included this week, has given up on trying.

However. Whilst young people (the 11-25’s) in this case are mentioned. What about the over 65s or under 11;s – are churches bursting their seams with them? No- thought not…

Then, as Andrew Root suggests, the desire for young people in the church is not for their sake anyway, its so that everyone else can feel not only that the institution may survive, its also that Youthfulness=Authenticity in todays culture – so increasing young people can help those involved in it to feel as though its up to date, its real. Somehow. (Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a secular Age, 2016) Young people then, aren’t treated as Human, but as signifiers of institutional relevance.

In few parts of these discussions – of church growth and young people , does the subject of actual young people, actual processes, mission, values, and human dignity appear. Its high reaction, responsive, soul searching and trying to do better. But what if the following…

Instead of trying to project, solve, judge , patronise or reach young people (no one talks about reaching the over 75’s…)

Because, as my most read piece, since it was published, suggests, young people are treated as human, when it has been established what role they have in it – just like everyone else – or more so.

Why not instead work on thinking about young people as humans? Fully human, fully who they are in the sight of God at this present moment- not in need of change, but as they are…

Think of them as not them – but us

Think of them as spiritual – and actually religious

Think of them as gifted – and our task to harness those

Think of them as having passions – and adding resource to enable these passions to be realised

Think of them not as without, not as deficit – but with character, with determionation – who already in the midst show a kind of resilience, resourcefulness that would put adults to shame

Think of them as not ‘the youth’ with a ‘youth’ room – but part of the church

Think of them not as tokens to be paraded, a group to have sympathy for – but like every other human – with a contribution to make within the places where contributions are made by everyone. Think of them as not done to, but those who create for themselves, and to be heard

Matt Haigs Book ‘Notes on a nervous planet’ says the following – in relation to all of us, and the state were in on the planet we currently occupy, what if we reminded young people, and we remind ourselves, of the collective humanity that we are all part.

‘Remind ourselves that we are an animal united as a species existing in this tender blue speck in space, the only planet we know containing life. Bathe in the sentimental miracle of that, define ourselves by the freakish luck of being alive, and being aware of being so. That we are all here on the the most beautiful planet we’ll ever know’

What if there was something about the very young people in your church and parish whose humanity imight be revealed to you? What if their place on this glorious planet was no more or less significant than yours – what if young people are aware of participating in something much bigger than they know yet – and they dont have those dreams and stories and actions quashed by the very adults who say that are working with them, because there’s a drive to be pure from sin all the time.

Maybe the first thing is not to talk about young people as if they’re not in the room. But they are. Not in the room about them…. and where their involvement is too purchase attendance tickets to the thing we think they might like. Hmm, some humanity there.

What if there isn’t a new model, method or idea – but what if theres just something to be said for listening, inviting, sharing space and enabling young people to belong, to do, and to be challenged, and have opportunities to flourish and make decisions.

Maybe if churches thought about young people as the humans that the other humans would like to be treated – then this might be a good first step.

Do I really need to make a theological case for treating young people as Humans, from the biblical material? No thought not, most of you youth workers recite it all anyway, and adults hear the same messages…; Created and made in the Image of God, Loved, gifted, persons who can be in conversation with God, in community, capable of feeling, emotion, intellect, generosity.. and participants in something God is calling them to – and that needs a conversation, respect and time – not a programme, a method or a model.

What if we began to reflect seriously about the humanity of ourselves, and the young people who are part of our communities, parishes, churches and groups?

And took what we might find seriously..?

Bryan suggests that ‘We understand who we are primarily through reflecting on the story of our lives. Every day we share stories about what happened to us and what we are anticipating or hoping for in our future, but each of these narratives is embedded in the broader stories of our family, the social groups we belong to , society, and beyond that to the unfolding history of the world’ (Bryan, 2016)

Locating and regarding young people as Human, and developing their true humanity is what we are to do – again, and as Bryan writes, and I conclude, with this to reflect on

‘An essential part of who we are is rooted in human beings as co-creators and participants in the unending story of God. It is the living story of God which defines who we are and who we become’  (Bryan 2016, p5)

How might young people be part of the stories of the church as they are?

How might church be part of the stories of the lives of young people?

How might church encourage the stories of young people as they participate in Gods call in the world?

And not just that, creative, quiet, loud, questioning, faithful, determined, thoughtful, considerate, loyal, you know – just like the rest of us…

 

References:

Christian Smith, 2003, Faith Formation in a Secular Age

Bryan, Jocelyn, 2016, Human Being

O Boyle, Neil, 2019 Under construction

Root, Andrew, 2016, Faith formation in a Secular Age

Haig, Matt, 2018, Notes on a nervous planet

 

 

10 Commandments for Youth workers

And lo, as the great throng of youthworketh did gather on the plain, the sound of hail and thunder roared and a dense cloud overcame them as they camped, they were all covered. Then there was the smoke and the whole mountain shook, and the youthworketh did appoint two leaders,   managers facilitators , sorry i mean spent 2 more days developing junior leader to go upeth the mountain to represent the youthworketh to hear from the great gods about what their key instructions should be. Image result for 10 commandments

The gods of youthwork commanded the appointed ones (unnamed due to child protection and lack of consent, for they were now 2000 miles from their parents) to go up the mountain and wait for the commandments to be passed down.

After a short while, the junior leaders descendeth from the mountain and passed to the youthworketh community gathered there and gave them these commandments

We, Brew*, Jeffs and Smith, the great community of thy historic informal education have rescued thee from formality, the place of your slavery and command thee:

1. Thou shalt have no gods but youth work, though shalt not comprehend or understand what thee is

2. Thou shalt not make for thyself any form of statue or create systems of power for yourself, you are forever be commanded to empower young people and promote these

3. Thou must not misuse the name of youth work, some may call thee youth work, faith based youth work, detached youth work, centre based youth work, these will come and go, but the name youth work should remain

4. Remember to keep the notion of a day off, sometime. Just sometime, have a bloody day off. And use it well, treasure it, and dont feel guilty for having it, you may be rewarded for more should you enjoy this first one. 

5. Honour the values of your forefathers, of the great gods, of Aristotle, to promote Human flourishing, of the sacred texts to treat others better than yourselves, or from thy holy text in which we have made these things plain to you (Informal education (third edition revised and updateth 2005)) ; Respect for persons, promotion of well being, Truth, Democracy and Fairness and Equality.

6. Thou must forever more consider all experiences ‘learning opportunities’ or ‘learning experiences to reflect on’ – they are not in any ways to be termed as failures. 

7. Thou should where possible resisteth the temptation to cower away in enclaves and write reports on the darkness that swirls you, for thy great power of truth, of goodness can overcome. 

 

8. Thou shalt commit to build communities and networks for thyself, for it here where thy strength is held i commandeth thee to build up a collection of thee coffee shop loyalty cards for this very purpose. 

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbours mini bus (its about to disintegrate full of young people half way down the M5), thy resources and thy money, insteadeth write politeth letters to borrow and share thy resources, for thy hath provided sufficient for all the youthworketh around, for youthworketh is in the heart and mind and conversation, not in thy neighbours gold plated canoes, or thy neighbours 3 million pound buildings. Do not covet. Neither do not destroyeth thy neighbours resources when thy have undertake to borrow. 

10 Thou must not give falseth testimony to thy great stakeholders, the funders. No really. I will commandeth thee great fundeth to eventually understand the value of thy youthworketh practice, and thee has the great task to evaluate and review effectively, but thou shall not lie, no really.

And the great junior leaders sat down on the makeshift chairs that the youthworketh had laid before them. The youthworketh were stunned. They trembled at the great responsibility that they had now been given. The junior leaders did then say that a final command had been given, for all the youthworketh; ‘do not be afraid, for if you are to be obedient to these commandments, thou will realise that in conversations you will see beauty, and you will find deep satisfaction that is unmeasurable, and an pride that transcends all in the midst of purposeful relationships, this is a call that will fulfil no other, not teacher, not police, not social worker, for thee youthworker are thy great special people, thy will find beauty and significance in the small moments, be encouaraged’

And the greateth youthworkers assembly left the plain, as not only was the bar about to close, but thy holy Costa of the plain was offering free coffee, and they had papers to write.

(With apologies to anyone who thinks i murdered the original text in Exodus 20… )

*Josephine Brew wrote a book called ‘Informal education’ long before Jeffs and Smith – I referenced it here: https://wp.me/p2Az40-1Gd

Full of Character (Frances Ward, 2019) – A Review – Do the characters obstruct the education on offer?

Full of Character (2019) – A review

Although there may not be a rush to get book reviews out into the public space, this book is still only just released and is 2019, writing this review has felt as though it has been on my ‘to do’ list for over 4 months. I read it when i was relaxing and basking in the sun in Tunisia, in June, and so, was fairly chilled and relaxed in reading it, indeed, my copy now has a few suncream finger prints in it, and has been well travelled.  My other perspectives that i come to this book are as a parent of an 18 and 16 year old, who have experiences both Scottish and English Education systems, as a youth and community worker for 15 years and more recently as a worker for the Durham Diocese and involved in supporting a poverty proofing schools programme.

Opening the book itself, doing so, on day 2 of the holiday (it wasnt first book on the list), the contents page that includes sections on Thankfulness, Character education, Playfulness, Fruitfulness, and Hopefulness, I am immediately intrigued as to the angle that this book is about to take, given a wade into thinking about what seems Christian Virtues and how they might relate to Education, it brings to mind Danny Brierleys attempt to join up Youth and community work Values with Christian practices in 2003 (Joined up, Su Press, 2003)  So, given the breadth of the topics this book is about to cover, I am intrigued.

Following this. I would consider the strengths of this book to be, that it does make a useful, practical attempt at times to appeal that the christian values is extols are regarded higher in the process of education in the UK. My only misgiving with the list of 12 things that have been chosen in the 13 chapters (chapter 7 is a focus on the digital age, half way through) – there is an element that all of the 12 feel a little individualist, and about a persons individual process through life, so, whilst references like Community are featured within a few chapters, this seems lacking (especially as the whole platform of the discussion within is a community of people), as do aspects of the Christian story, including Justice, Peace, and Story itself.  This aside, and Ward does say that the book could be easily extended to include others.

What Ward does do successfully, is provide an accessible, easy to read (it is easy to read) text that gives insight into the 12 aspects that she has selected. Setting the context is done through a look as the cultural situation pretty much defined by the political news, so Trump and Brexit effectively, the digital revolution, and a number of films that the characters in the book have recently watched. Again, its all a matter of perspective, but there is a sense that the overarching media is the dominant lens of culture in this book. We hear little of local contexts of towns, cities, volunteering, the positive news that is easily not taken into consideration. This does mean that there is a sense that the book is rebalancing, or articulating an alternative to fear, a fear which has been said to dominate from the news, and the view of culture which is stated. It is the same in regard to the section on the digital age, it was as if only the negatives were realised. If only one of them had read Bex Lewis book Raising children in a digital age – instead of worrying about AI…the rest of the chapter may have been different…

Frances Ward then describes that Human Flourishing is at the core of the book. This is undoubtedly welcome, it has felt like Human Flourishing has been an ongoing topic to define, for well, the dawn of time.. but its is often proclaimed as a great unifier within youth and community work across the sacred/secular mythical divide (cf Smith, Stanton, Wylie et al, 2015), and theologically this is suggested by Vanhoozer as one key aspects of the entire Christian drama (Vanhoozer, 2005, p15) ‘Following the christian way promotes human flourishing (shalom) and leads to the summum bonum, life, eternal and abundant’ – The question I continue to have, and the book doesn’t address is how much of this is an individual venture or a community one. For, whilst Ward critiques Rousseau, proponents of critical and community education have been ignored within the development of these ideas. (Giroux, Freire to name two) and yet they also propose community and human flourishing through education.

It feels like I am already criticising, and these are the aspects of the book that I appreciated the most. There are other nuggets within this book that are useful. A chapter on self forgetfulness in an age of ego proclamation – is pertinent – and i wonder how this might lead to a broader self awareness of persons in education, the systems and structures – and how a school might self forget being competitive? not laying all the responsibility with the individual child. There are others.

However. Though it was an easy read, it is accessible. I struggled to like it. The problem for me is that, whilst it is easy to read, whilst it is accessible, and whilst a number of philosophies, theories, ideas and concepts are brought to the attention of the reader in a relatively simple way. The wider premise of the book was far too irritating. And i’m not sure why, overall it was needed.

The premise of Character Education is set at a New Years eve party, a party in which 6 ‘characters’ – apologies if they are real people – gather having had a year of watching movies, the news, and being super amazing people – though none with any children, except Maddy (who had just put Emily to bed). The premise for this book is their hopes and fears and the conversation that ensued (over ‘sweet potato and bean chilli and sticky toffee pears’, p12). Much of the book is framed as if its a conversation, activities and insight that each of these 6 people have brought to it. For me it irritated.

Craig and Maddy are very much in favour of free education and Maddy went to see the headteacher who ‘looked harassed’ (the thought that her conversation was about to be noted down and written about didn’t cross Maddys self awareness, and the headteacher was tired of avocado eating middle class parents helping her with educational discourse and having to regail the latest from the national headteachers conference and Ofsted- just so Maddy could add her post university insight on character education – page 80-81)

On other occasions, Craig would go to onto google and look up a theme, Maddy would research an idea, hear a lecture (p143), then they would get excited about what they found out, and be unable to have a lovely conversation about it, because the other ‘was engrossed with Emily, planting seedlings’ (p204) . Maybe its me, but this dinner party seemed to go on all year, and the book feels like an out-working of 6 peoples privileged to access meetings, research and have the time to do this. Call me an inverted snob, but poverty doesn’t seem to feature in their lives, they don’t have to go to the public library, and none of their friends loses their job, or needs a food bank handout. Whilst they have hopes and fears, they have considerable agency. And a privilege they seem blind to. I cant imagine a group of people in areas of the north east, south wales or (pick an appropriate town) acting in this kind of way. They don’t spend a lot of time in the queue at Asda or volunteering – other places to learn.

I’m left with the thought that the characters in the book Character Education are the main parts of it that let it down. They just appear to be floating on air and have all the time in the world to share and talk about these ideas, whilst also having perfect lives with time to do so, probably between dissecting an avocado. They couldn’t be more millenial or middle class sounding if they tried.

The problem… is that all this feels completely unnecessary, and for me, what Ward proposes has some merit, in terms of values, fruitfulness and human flourishing. The characters get in the way… and this context leaves me thinking that the Character education proposed might be more middle class and academic than it need be – merely because it is framed by these 6 people who go on a self learning adventure to benefit us all. Its like Eat Pray Love – but on education at times.

There are, within some fascinating insights into aspects such as resourcefulness (not that different from agency)

It is an ongoing seeking after wisdom (p137)

Resourcefulness is stronger than resilience, in enabling more creative engagement with what challenges people of all ages (p137) – though Ward steps short of challenging a resilience narrative (something youthworkers are keen to do) – there is merit here in suggesting an alternative.  Other chapters on Truth, Fullness and flourishing combine the theological, with the sociological and psychological, and are, generally, accessible, useful, provoking and pertinent. Ward proposes thinkers from a wide range and not all academic. Its because of these good solid theoretical chapters where I wonder if the whole book could be written like this, and the platform of the 6 characters is an unnecessary distraction.

The most frustrating when we are indulged in hearing an entire lecture that Maddy once heard which forms the basis of the chapter on fullness and receive her insights of it.  I just found the tone set by the 6 people irritating throughout, and clouded my view of what were some valid accessible concepts, and some theological thinking that would be useful in creating an education system that had at its heart, not fear, numbers and outcomes, but the kind of character, values and kingdom aspiration that might be considered christian.

It was that i didn’t want to offend Craig, Maddy, Sam, Natalie, Benji and Dan, that i struggled to write this review. Its probably 18 month since their new years party, and so they can probably take the criticism now…

This book is written for parents, according to Ward. I think the problem with this, is that a countless number of parents do not have the capacity to read something like this, with 3 children, trying to work, getting dress up ready for world book day, exam stress and merely survival on the next food bank handout to consider a future of education shown to us through the lens of toffee apple eating Craig and Maddy. As a parent reading this, and having had two children now complete education (at least to 16) i would know than in my deepest desires i might have wanted an education that could look something like what is described. The reality is that academies, the extensive data collecting through multiple series of exams in 4 years, and limitations of choice, mean that reality is so far from this ideal. Yet, as i have reflected before, i might have thought that some of these ideals were possible in my own education 30 or more years ago, when at least an individual child was the focus, not school competition and organisational survival, schools run as businesses.

Back to the book, if you can cope with these 6 people, and want an accessible book that looks at aspects of a christian education that has values and principles at its heart, then this will be a good starting point for that conversation. There is enough in here for that to begin.

References,

Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 2005

Freire, P, Horton – We make the Road by walking, 1990

Giroux H – On critical Pedagogy, 2012

Smith, Stanton, Wylie, et al – Youthwork and faith Debates, delights & Dilemnas 2015

Brierely – Joined up, SU. 2003

 

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy a copy of Frances Ward’s ‘Full of Character here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Full-Character-Christian-Approach-Education/dp/1785923390/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=frances+ward&qid=1571393767&sr=8-1  (other book sellers are available)

 

‘In an ideal world you could just get funding for building relationships with young people’

How many times have you said that in the last 40 years? (As a youth/community worker)

Not a relationship that had to make something else happen to justify the relationship, not a relationship where the young person ‘changed’, not a relationship in which entire decades of social harm, psychological damage caused by other relationship was solved in 4 months -type of relationship. Not a relationship in which the young person achieved something, said something, evaluated something like the relationship offered to them was worthwhile. Not a relationship that was needed so that the new 3m youth building wasnt closed.

‘in an ideal world we would get funding for building trusted relationships with young people’

Just a relationship.

Just being with someone for the sake of it

Just having someone to talk to

Just . a . conversation.

Just a moment to be valued

Just a moment in which time stood still, and there was an interruption to the norm

A moment where someone stopped and took an interest and for the young persons sake.

A relationship that may lead to action, a relationship that may be supportive, a relationship that could change the world of the young person – and the adult – but not a relationship that expects and targets that before its already happened.

I am reading ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey; within it he notes the reflections of a youth worker, Joe – reflections that have been echoed by the youth worker fraternal for decades. Its Joes boss that bemoans the lack of funding for relationships. Joe, goes on to say:

‘good youthwork can have a profound and positive effect on young people and it is a challenging and rewarding job. But I think we are a long way from this being understood or accepted by a fairly large element of funding bodies and the public sector. There is funding out there for targets, outcomes and issues. However many are not relevant to the work we do’

(which is)

‘ we are working to combat the effects of inequality and poverty has on the lives of young people, the cycle of insecurity, mistrust, lack of resilience. low self esteem and confidence. It is holistic, long term and multi faceted work’

This may not be the space to critique all of the above. Certainly there is an element of youthworkers clinging to the darkness as their natural habitat, and not necessarily seeing all the opportunities and options for funding and developing their work, and working in a needs based, and meeting emotional needs might be already fitting of a funding or social policy agenda. However.

The point remains to be said.

None of any of these things, any of these approaches, will ever come to fruition without the basic need to develop relationships as a core focus, no not core focus, as a reason to exist. Anything else is a course, a program or a ministry.

It may only be the voluntary or faith sector that has the capacity to do this, but the culture of outcomes and targets is fully pervasive, whether that’s in funding bids to charitable trusts, outcome promises to consortiums, or even, the final result of good youth ministry, have kids turn up on a Sunday. Its outcome orientated- no its outcome defined relationships. Its fully pervasive, because the systems are crumbling and in need to justify existence. Its fully pervasive because the value for money neo-liberalism default has made anything other seem radical, seem ‘non real world’, too idealistic. And Funding, and outcomes always generate a implicit direction of travel to the lowest hanging fruit, so that funding can be justified. The nearly christian who might go to church, the nearly got a job or capable to do a course- an easy quick win. But no one (as McGarvey writes) dare say this.

Yet, as McGarvey writes. Young people can smell outcome orientated rats a mile off. Young people in poverty can attune to being projected. Being rescued for a moment by the short term saviour (p83). The parachuted in for a funding season organisation that makes promises and delivers nothing, and has no actual involvement in the real needs, real situation of the community its is meant to be there for. And no one in the community has any involvement in any of it – except to turn up, and be a number.

Things young people want; (According to McGarvey)

Value ; The adult ‘ was passionate about the work they did and made me feel valued’ (p69)

Place and space: ‘working class folks receive strange looks when their groups lofty objectives are to want a place for the elderly and a space to drink coffee’ (p49) – or – ask a group of young people what they want to do – just want somewhere to go thats safe to talk.

Participation and Autonomy: ‘Joe and his team are one of many small (and chronically underfunded – my words) organisations that are dealing with the social and cultural legacy of decades of poor planning and tokenistic consultation with local people’ (p82)

Good youthwork is more than what Joe says it is, but then youthwork is an ongoing conversation that creates new definitions in each context, what is important is that relationships where young people are valued, where there is safety, space and place, and where there is a genuine desire for participation, and young persons autonomy to be at the forefront of it. Where honest means that its not a relationship for an outcome. A relationship that’s reduced to a trade.

So, yeah, in an ideal world,

‘we would get funding for building trusting relationships with young people’

And we will have realised the inherent good that there is in every single one of these. Whilst there are some ways of writing these down – the desire that relationships have outcomes at all virtually destroys their honesty, and their goodness. The ethics of the market reigns, and as Goffman says, the closer we are the trade, the less authentic the performance we play in our interactions. (Goffman, 1960)

But we must not give up. We will keep on going. There will be a way. It may be asset based community development, it may be in re framing and using different language to describe youthwork, it may be something else. Whatever we do, its relationships with young people that matter. after all…

Youthwork is a professional relationship in which the young person is engaged as the primary client in their social context (Sercombe, p27)

References

Goffman, Irving , 1960, The presentation of the self in everyday life

McGarvey Darren, 2017, Poverty Safari

Sercombe, Howard, 2012, Youth work Ethics

Why Evensong vs Guitars misses the point, in regard to young people and church.

How much is relevancy the reason why young people attend church?

If its about relevancy – then what does this say about what we think about young people? just carried along by a crest of a wave, but what If, and I realise only readers of a certain age will get this , that young people are thinking, ‘So you have a guitar band- that dont impress me much?’

Substance over style is also the conversation when quite a bit of research is being done that is showing that young people are finding faith in the spiritual practices of liturgy, evensong, choirs and these more traditional forms of church.  This tweet was doing the rounds:

Church army report asked unchurched teenagers what worship might attract them, the result it may surprise you, is not soft rock but candles and incense’ (Prof. Alison Milbank) @markrusselluk @ChurchArmy

One response to this on my facebook page was: ‘Somebody asked me about this just earlier today, and I referred them to the case studies in Marilyn Haskel’s book ‘What would Jesus sing?’ What I hear from young people is that you can get soft rock music at any concert, usually better music than the church version, but candles and incense take you into a different universe. I think a reason for this could be that candles and incense offer a contextualized spirituality inasmuch as they take some elements that we enjoy at a concert (lighting, smoke) but transpose them in a way that creates a space for transcendent meaning.’ (John Drane)

There is probably more to it than it being radical to be traditional, a look at culture will reveal a heightened nostalgia. Retro is in. We are living in nostalgic times, where Baking and Craft are popular, and the Churches of liturgies, gowns and choirs represent a long lasting, safe and possibly escape from a world of hustle, bustle and speed. Long live a wifi free zone.

But it could be more than this. Is it more substance over style?

Image result for style/substance

Young people in a big city told me that whilst they were interested in going to the large, new church plant in the town which for the purposes of this piece, rhymed with ‘Mill gong’ – they went along for three months, but then returned back to their home church, the one in their local area. Guitars and Drums didnt captivate this particular group of young people. What did?

It was that they felt at home in their local church.

It was where they connected

It was where they felt belonging

It was where they could make a contribution (and as volunteers in the sunday school/youth club) they were.

It was where they were significant – not just one of many.

It was as though the grass wasnt greener, or more sparkly.

There is another conversation happening, much more on a local level. It is that local churches feel that they have nothing to offer young people, in the face of the bigger churches, brighter buildings and, again, the drums and guitars. On one hand this is defeatist. The other is that there is no evidence that any young people who a local church does missional youthwork with, ends up finding a home in a church, that isnt the one that helps them find faith in the first place. The market for the bigger brighter contemporary churches is the christian young people spoonfed on a diet of consumerism and the attraction of a christian youth music scene. They may have young people – but theyre often a completely different group of young people to those who live in the flats opposite the church, or the ones you work with in a mentoring programme in a local school.

And thats half of the point. Young people are different. Breaking it down to two basic, and horrible mantras, keeping young people from leaving church, and creating an environment of belonging, hope and meaning where they want to be and stay, and start from scratch, makes for two different challenges. And these are crude. but you get my drift.

There may well be research conducted on young people attending evensong. There may be research conducted on young people attending contemporary guitar worship services. But both become a style war, when a substance war is much more complex. For both there can be meaningfulness and relevancy in bucket loads. But scratch behind the surface and theres something deeper often going on.

Psychology might help, the Psychologists Deci and Ryan propose that people gravitate to situations where there is a measure of one or all of these three things; Connection, Autonomy and Challenge/Competance (Bryan 2016). For a moment, think through then how young peoples experiences of churches as a people group, a faith community and as an organisation relates to all of these things. I would dare to suggest that these three things play a significant part in the decision making of young people and their continued attendance in churches.

When the church community doesnt know how to relate to young people – then they’ll find more connections elsewhere

When the young person feels like theyre a new person every week – then theyll find home in somewhere more familiar, and where it doesnt feel they have to make an effort every week to connect with someone

When the young person is one of a crowd and the only challenge is to try and stay standing for a long period of time – is barely mentally challenging, or involving. The same is said for the Evensong.

When the young person is not given opportunities to make decisions – about their youth provision (‘look we’ve employed youth leaders to do this provision for you’) , about faith, and about being involved, as contributors, creators not just consumers – then why stay? Maybe the rise in young people attending choirs, has nothing to do with glee culture, more to do with being part of a community that respects them, and gives them opportunities to contribute through choosing songs or the challenge of using talent.

If we think its ‘just’; guitars or evensong, we might be missing the point.

The point is, is that young people arent as superficial as we want them to be or make them out to be. Image result for style/substance

If we offer space for conversation, space for community and space that respects – and create opportunities for belonging, participation and decision making, this will be more than enough in a church for young people to want to be part of it. If we can be these things, and make young people significant, then, and there are no magic answers, it is more likely that young people will make their home there. So dont worry if this is what you’re doing, that young people will leave, it will take a huge sacrifice for them to do so and effort, given what theyre giving up on. Would they do this for soft rock? – probably not.

Substance over style matters, and I dont just mean a lengthy sermon. Substance that equates to values, community, acceptance, challenge and participation are featured more in reasons why young people stay part of churches, and an absence of these as to why young people leave, than anything else. Young people leave churches because the youthworker leaves – why ? because no one else connected with them. Young people dont go to church because theres no one from the church willing to help with the youth group. Thats a connection question. The same for autonomy- at least having some opportunity to have some decision making, and also challenge.

What about the transcendent? If worship is about helping young people connect with the grander story, this might happen in both settings, but one might create more meaning than the other, or help a connection to a grand story where a young person feels part. Both could feel alien or cold. An ongoing regular connection to the God of the creeds, the Lords Prayer and regular confession, cleansing, prayer and silence might facilitate personal and spiritual connection and challenge. It makes it tough, not boring.

How might substance over style be the conversation within youth ministry? might we recognise the complexity of young people and their increased perception of the faith community and how it is accepting, empowering and respectful of them as people, and wanting them to be participants, disciples and prophets. There is space for many styles, but can we stop assuming that young people only want one style, and focus on creating faith communities of substance instead?

if young people do value substance over style – then might we be thankful thats how God made young people in his image..?

How churches view young people is crucial. In my next post Ill be building on what a number of youth ministry specialists are saying at the moment. That youth ministry, needs to be about helping young people do ministry, not just be ministered to. So, keep an eye out for this maybe about Tuesday.

References

Jocelyn Bryan, Human Being, 2016

Shepherd, Nick, Faith Generation, 2016

 

Youthworkers may have disappeared from communities – but their legacy lives on (and is more expensive than before)

‘We have to find things that young people are interested in, and good for them, despite it not necessarily being profitable’ 

‘Recently we’ve been trying to challenge young peoples views on society and their contribution in it’

we have problems with the whole confidence agenda, its not a false confidence we want young people to have, but one based on competence, and being genuinely good at something’ 

‘its great to see young people contributing positively in the local community’

theres no point in putting things on for young people, those days are over, we need to find out what young people want to participate in

These are the kind of statements I might have expected to hear from a youthworker, or at least someone who had been trained as one. But they are not. What is more surprising is that they have been said to me in a town in the north east of England in the last few days, a town that hasnt had any paid youthworker involved in the town (from the council) since the cut backs. Cut backs that have desperately affected the town in a number of ways by the way. However, thats for a different post.

These were statements from either school teachers, representatives from the police, council or MP’s.

The unsaid white elephant in the room in many of the conversations with significant institutions in this town was that the best thing for young people in the town was to have youthworkers who were able to develop and work to youth work approaches and philosophies, of inclusion, participation, conversation and empowerment. What was revealed here, and probably occuring elsewhere is that the institutions were having to do themselves was fulfil the roles of a youthworkers , doing so without the disempowered status (one person was a integration officer for the police. another a school teacher) and try as they might, their intention was to ‘be’ or ‘act’ like a youthworker, but status, role and power and the ethics of the relationship prevented it. Despite knowing all the words, and having all the intentions.

But credit to youthwork.

Its what has been recognised as what is still needed in a town that has none, and its legacy lives on. And many institutions like schools have shifted towards it. Some might say trying to fill a gap, or having to, and doing so even more expensively than the youthworker previously. Or it might be said that schools have necessarily adapted for some young people, and common human values have been adopted, ones that youthworkers had as a badge of honour, such as value of the individual (not the system) and inclusion. However, being able to create the right kind of space for the magic of youthwork to happen is more than just words, its about the space being created that has integrity and an ethics that underwrites the relationship. However hard it might be to say otherwise a police officer is still one.

It is of course fascinating to see how a school has had to back fill and provide internally the kind of provision and support that voluntary or statutory youthworkers may have done so in the past (and not all schools had this) and police officers have removed the uniform and donned polo shirts to be ‘less official’. All done at the same time as when there are still youthworkers employed in the local council. But speaking to them they now say:

‘we’re helping out social workers by using our youth work manner to connect with young people social workers are unable to’

‘the youthworkers targets are about helping to support the broken families initiative’

Its as if the jigsaw pieces have been moved around and everyone is doing the back filling, but in the wrong places, and where square pegs and round holes and triangle pegs and square holes dont all match. Youthworkers are needed both in schools and on the streets, but theyre doing home visits for social work. And whilst they’re there, theyre not being youthworkers, when they could still be doing so, and the police and schools are paying double for the role. It doesnt make sense, economically or socially.

At the moment, not only are the services all losing out with the wrong people in the wrong places, but as are the young people, families and communities. Maybe the schools, police and others should just get together and employ youthworkers. Far cheaper than recruiting their own staff to try and do a ‘youthwork approach’ , which is currently going on, without the ethics of the relationship. Maybe the church or voluntary sector could pitch in too.

So, whilst youthworker have been one of the many great losses in many communities, what hasnt been lost is the need for the way in which a youthworker worked with young people, optimistically Id say that the ghost of youthwork lives on, as it is being realised that it is still what is needed where there are young people. Its just that it is all a bit blurred, and and the roles that adults are fulfilling in their lives lacking the clarity, going beyond the normal duty, but confusing the relationship and its nature. Youth workers are demised as social workers, teachers and police try and play less formal roles, some they might want to but its like playing out of position in a sports team. Itll take good management and support to stop trying to resume a default role into safety.

The sentiment of what young people need was captured by this person who said:

‘we can do as many short term interventions as we can, but its having a consistent presence with them them that’ll help young people the most’

Just a shame theres no youthworkers around then..

12 responses to the question; what is youthwork all about?

What would you say the basics in youthwork are? what is it all about even?

One of the things that has tormented many a youthworker is to establish what ‘youthwork’ actually constitutes. It may, constitute only as a conversation, being defined by youthworkers in their ongoing practice (this is also a view shared by Kerry Young, though this is not one her more popular concepts when she talks about the youthwork as an art, 1999) However, beyond what youthwork actually is, there can be a need to reflect on what the basics of developing a youthwork practice actually is.

This need can sometimes be realised when we forget what we actually do as youthworkers, as it has become ‘normal practice’ default in our brains but and we have to then share this with others, maybe even ‘young’ leaders, or teach others on an academic course. And so, for your benefit, I have tried to come up with 12 commandments of basic youthwork practice.

  1. Youthwork is about young people – but its not just about them, but putting them as the primary recipient and creating participatory agendas around them as central is part of it, yet it is about them in and part of their communities and how young people access, reject, use and change aspects of their local community for their or others good.
  2. Youthwork is about creating spaces for education through conversation – it is about conversation with them included and respected in them.
  3. Youthwork is about developing relationships –that help young people to learn, to use their talents and pursue collective and community action
  4. Youthwork is about negotiation and participation – with young people who are principle dialogue partners in the negotiated conversations
  5. Youthwork is about respecting young people and also the communities they are in and choose – it is about group work
  6. Youthwork is about challenging young people – not about just giving them what they want – its about negotiation
  7. Youthwork is about politics, because it in itself is political and young people are politicised- young people are given respect and trust – this is political in itself. Young people are marginalised through media derived policies and taregtted through an underlying current of neoliberalism. Challenging this is political.
  8. Youthwork is about opportunity- not outcomes- our strategies are to create spaces that expand possibilities, not reduce to youthwork to a process of enabling young person to get from A to B.
  9. Youthwork is about Hope and belief – that young people and ourselves collectively can and do enable something new to occur through the relationship.
  10. Youthwork is about taking risks- it is not risky in itself – because that says something about the believing the narrative of young people (to be dangerous etc) – but it is about taking a risk with young people.
  11. Youthwork is about being a youthworker and being a role model – not perfect, but persistent in ongoing learning, and maintaining a critical awareness of the world around, that young people themselves are also part of. Its about temperament, attitude and also about modelling professional boundaries, personal boundaries especially time off.
  12. Youthwork is about improvisation – its about the being ready for anything – but also being ready in the opportunities created to enable young people to take positive steps and changes. If we have a toolbox of resources that are to be ‘ready to use’ in case – not pre determined to use at all costs.

 

I have avoided, or at least tried to avoid using words that have become acknowledged as the ‘Values’ of youthwork – such as equality, as participation, as empowerment – because whilst they are implied in nearly everything ‘basic’ youthwork is all about – they are open to considerable interpretation, and at times need themselves to be challenged and critiqued, and their current use might not be what the intention of them was. Empowerment a case in point. So, instead, I have tried above to focus on the practices of what basic youthwork might be about, so that these are the starting point for developing further practical ideas, and activities for training others, optimistically so that youthwork has a conversational future.  Each of these 12 things might need breaking down further, and often things like communication skills, group work development, conversation, risk assessment, strategy, power, leadership and management are all part of all of these in different ways. It is not always the case the if we get the basics right we get everything else right, because sometimes in youthwork there is no one ‘right’- and why 12 basics might be better than 6, because youthwork practice can be broad, unwieldy and open. It is after all in many ways a continual conversation that includes conversations.  Critical conversations, hopeful conversations and inclusive, participatory conversations, but conversations none the less.

Anyway – Starting right- or at least trying to put words to what we might already do, What might else be included in the 12 basics of youthwork practice? – what are we trying to be about?