6 common defaults when churches start working with young people (to try and avoid?)

It never really surprises me how often when churches, (and when i mean churches i mean, clergy & some interested congregation members) think about working with young people, that a number of fairly common defaults are evident. In this post I want to share some of these, not because they are wrong necessarily, but it might be that you if you’re reading this didn’t realise quite how much of a default it is, when there might be other alternatives to how working with young people in a faith setting might take place.

Default No 1. The best way to start any youth programme is when a whole load of adults sit in a room and have ideas about what to do and hope young people want to do them. 

How often is this repeated? There’s young people. There’s adults. Adults have a whole load of ideas, look up a whole load of resources from (insert UK wide faith based youth ministry provider) , who is trusted because (the leader used to work for them/leader used to receive them/the organisation is credible/its easier) . Then Adults use resource to shape a programme that young people maybe want , or don’t want, or are encouraged to do because they feel that the church is making an effort . But the only option for them is to opt in, or opt out. And opting out makes them look ungrateful.

Or the adults have a ‘big idea’ – now ‘big idea’ – could be a rock cafe, a worship event, a youth praise group, a choir, a football night, cheese on toast for Jesus, graffiti artist, Rap artist (yes its still the 1990’s in some churches). And its a great idea that the adults spend ages. I mean ages. shaping, promoting, deciding in meetings, risk assessing, getting an MP to praise it, organising prayer meetings for it, getting it blessed by the elders or PCC…. but yet when it happens… not a single young person is involved at any stage, and three turn up, the same three who already go to messy church, the same three who would have turned up if you have offered tea and a biscuit instead.

One of my most read pieces on this website is this one. Titled ‘what role do young people have in your church/youth group?’  The challenge in avoiding the default above, is to be brave and give young people a different role in the life of the church and youth group. One in which their role from the outset isn’t just as a consumer of an idea that is foisted on them, but that they are engaged in ongoing conversation, planning and creation. As i say often, usually 11 year old’s in primary schools have some say in small groups about spending school budgets on improving it, via a school council. Meanwhile the same young people in a different institution, church, are just given shapes of Daniel and the lions den to colour in. Or spaghetti towers to make to illustrate a moral point. Avoiding this default might require an approach taken in which space is created for conversation, and ideas from young people, and trusting in them to be able to shape and create something with adults. You never know…

Default 2. Young people who are bored in church don’t always want bigger,brighter entertainment to keep them interested and coming back.   They don’t always like it when their youth thing condescends, patronises and makes them feel like children, by just looking like a school disco. 

Avoiding boredom may well be the curse affecting most of youth ministry   so there’s constant re invention taking place, constant new song, constant new material, constant make something relevant. Making the programme more exciting might be the biggest long term turn off for young people in their ongoing faith development. Because, when the programme runs out, or they get too old for it, what then? even more boredom when the only option is real church. Sod that.

But if the signs of boredom are beginning to be seen in the groups you have, and 2 years of colouring Daniel, is going to start wearing thin, then it might not be ‘Daniel colouring plus’ that’s required. It might be to actually talk with, respect and give young people the space to contribute, to be involved, to have their say. This is linked to point one above. But its also more than that yes young people might, in many cases want to have their say and voice heard and participate. But it might also be that what they are being offered isn’t challenging enough, isn’t controversial enough (talk about ethical issues) , isn’t real enough (talk about health matters, cancer, periods, mental health, the environment) , maybe even… isn’t spiritual enough. When their friends are into meditation and mindfulness, and the church is offering a prayer spoken by an adult and a god slot- where might their spiritual awakening or curiosity likely to go?  Yes i said it…. youth groups might not be spiritual enough. Young people might be bored… but why might they be…?  Work that out with real conversations and then see… don’t resort to making it louder or bigger as a default. Deci and Ryan suggest that challenge, autonomy and relationship are key factors in personal motivation. Work out how these can be part of developing youth ministry, not just smoke machines and drum kits.

Default number 3. The God bit is the God-slot

Oldest chestnut of a conversation this. Id reveal my bias here when i say I am encouraged that there are some fabulous interesting practices of youth work around that are starting to think differently about how young people learn, engage with, form, and become involved in faith – and have moved away from a God slot. In this piece i provide 6 alternatives. In a way it says something about how we as adults view education, and view discipleship if the only part that of a youth group regarded as ‘God’ bit is that God -slot moment.  Which is a shame… because that can often be the most challenging, boring, difficult part of the youth group evening and yet that’s the bit where young people receive instruction about God. Hmm… God explicitly is getting a raw deal there i think. Its also the bit in the group where young people can often have the least involvement – even if there is an attempt to give them options in other aspects like food or games – and its also the time when the power dynamics shift – and bluntly- it looks like school. Anyway. Old chestnut resurfaced, nothing new in this paragraph. But its a fairly common default. Disciopleship isnt one way and faith isnt formed by just listening. Check out the FYT experiments resource to flip that one on its head. There’s more on the God slot stuff in Here be Dragons. See link above.

Default number 4 : Young peoples faith will develop even more if we get them involved in christian youth culture.  

This is often a parental pressure thing. The default is that once involved in church, a young person must immediately only listen to christian music, wear tshirts, go to christian summer festivals (cheap holidays for parents to send kids away on, and their ‘safe’) , and become a leader in church, volunteer in sunday school. And basically show their christian faith and discipleship through countless attendances and involvement in christian titled things.  Nick Shepherd is onto something though, saying that these things do help with a young person creating a christian identity for themselves. But its part of something bigger in constructing faith… read his book.   Though I wonder… is this what adults do as well… well of course.. . I am not sure its as prevalent – and i also know I pretty much chose to go along to all the things i mentioned there in the 1990s.. however… what might have been ‘good’ in previous generations… might not be now.. but the default remains. Especially when young people more than any other group are bombarded with messages about being distinctive from the world, about almost avoiding the world, about only being ‘in the world’ to evangelise to friends, only having friends.. so they can be invited to youth group (I’m sure this doesn’t still happen) – but what do these messages do?  Create divide. And unhealthy them and us, and put young people in the most difficult positions in schools, communities and homes.  I am sure this isn’t the default it might well have been before, but worth watching out for it.

Default 5. Working with young people is for some one else

There is a magical human out there, who is so radically different from the humans in the church, who will be able to do something magical with young people that they don’t know, but you have known since they were 3 and been in messy church or Sunday school (and got bored colouring in Daniel), and this magical person is about to be transported in under the false pretenses of needing to be innovative, creative and experienced (with the reassurances of being underpaid, under supported and poorly managed) to round up the previously bored from messy church group, the alienated from church 12 year olds, the 15 yr old daughter of the vicar (chosen specifically because they had a young family 12 years ago, and they could be the previous magic person ) – but new magic person is now needed.

This default, creates a thought that magic external person is the best person to connect with young people. The reality is that if you know the young people, and have done since they were 3, then you are. You just need to re connect, maybe apologise (for too much Daniel colouring in) ask and listen and rebuild a relationship.  Young people value relationship, authenticity and long term integrity. You’ll get that if you take the time and listen. value them and re connect. A magic person is starting from scratch. If young people are important, you don’t value them by employing a magic person to rescue them, you value them by giving them space, time and opportunities. You value them by creating a culture in a church where they are important. from the leadership, organisation, planning and decision making down. Where they are welcomed and participate. Thats value.

Default 6. Young people are all______________ – they’re just a completely different generation to us, they so different. 

This is ‘Young people are alien syndrome’. All of a sudden there’s a default position taken that goes along the lines of ‘young people have just arrived from outer space, they’re weird, unruly, into things we have no idea of, unpredictable, different.. etc’ and then someone clever, will recite a piece of research, or the bloody guardian, that talks about ‘Meellenials’ and how in order to reach ‘meeelenials’ the church has to do X and Y and Z.  An invisible ‘them’ and ‘us’ is created. Young people are all of a sudden different, difficult, hard to reach, unique- and yet no one has even spoken to any of them. Just looked at generalised research to make an opinion. Then someone will say ‘its just helpful to do research’ well.. yes it is. But if you want to do research, ask the young people in the community you are working in, and build up knowledge from actions, from conversations, from reality. There is no one else in the world like the young person who plays football in your community park, or the young person who is bored in messy church, or is a bit lost in church, but comes along with his Dad. Research and thinking of young people as alien, really isn’t going to help with listening, learning, empathy, time.  As Carl Rogers said, we cannot empathise if we prejudge, and we prejudge all the time, so lets not add to it with extra lenses  from adopted sociological research (used mainly to justify programmes that we’ve already said… perpetuate a default) . There is no such thing as a millenial young person. Can we dump the universality research, and thinking of young people as aliens. They’re just people (Christian Smith, 2003) . Like you and me. Its children, ironically who are less like adults. Think about it.

Theres 6. I could of added a few others, and yet as i thought about it, they all nearly stem from the concept of participation, and lack of – and these are covered in the post i shared in the link above. its almost as though the key default in churches, is not to give young people any involvement in aspect of what goes on, for them, or for anything at all. Or that they wont be interested if its made too difficult, challenging. For the few young people left in churches…we have to do better. For starting work with young people, churches could start from a different place, and not go straight to these defaults. Expecting different results from the same actions.  I am sure you can think of others too. But these are the ones i see, and have also been guilty of doing myself too.

Some references and additional reading

Christian Smith, 2003, Soul Searching, his 15 recommendations for christian youth groups from research of 1500 church is well worth a look.

Nick Shepherd, 2016, Faith Generation. Still one of the best critical, thought provoking, books on youth ministry in the UK.

Carl Rogers, 1972, A way of Being. On person centred therapy.

Andrew Root, 2017 Faith formation in a secular age, isnt referenced directly, but some of the links do.

Chap Clark, 2018, Adoptive church. Chap suggests churches should be places of participation where young people flourish in the whole community. Id recommend this one.

 

 

Advertisements

Is youth ministry just about survival?

I put a ‘thing’ out on twitter a week or so ago, amongst the youth and community work fraternal, ‘ share your top tips on how to survive in youth ministry’ and waited for the responses. I got a few, and i will share them below. But in the course of asking for the feedback, and writing this, I started to think about the reality that usually there is only talk of surviving in youth ministry – surviving with your calling intact, surviving with your mental health intact, surviving with your family intact, surviving so that you might be able to be in a church for longer than 3 years.

Maybe the talk is of survival because the boulevard of youth ministry is littered with broken dreams, lives and people that have been hurt. But could ministry – in particular youth ministry be a space to thrive or flourish in at all, when talk is of survival and the myriad of issues that cause it to feel like that.

And yes i am as guilty, repeatedly in these pages sharing pieces about ‘why youthworkers leave churches‘ and my own journey that felt like surviving youth ministry, its as if surviving is the only game in town.

I was almost going to write a pessimistic piece on why its impossible to thrive in youth ministry – given the fairly usual suspects of short term contract, generally grossly under paid, employed in false pretences, high expectations, not to mention stuff like mission/ministry contradictions between parents, youth workers and young people, and most of them are featured at length in the piece above. But, ill not do that. No. Because there are examples of thriving. There are youth workers who are thriving in churches. Though i imagine there will be a number of key factors as to why this might be. And their testimony might suggest that being in a role long term, having influence in decision making about young people, maybe not being too unrealistic, having personal values that are closer to the organisational values (rather than a purist youth worker), maybe thriving happens when there is a genuine regard for young people in a church as participants and contributors, so a youthworker, can be a youthworker (not just an entertainer) . Maybe thriving happens where there are volunteers, or where there’s good management – or maybe where a youthworker has the fucking determination to do a bloody good job in a space for the sake of young people- despite all these things not being in place.

Rant over.

So, if thriving is going to happen in youth ministry – what might need to happen for it to?

These are some of the thoughts of the youth work and ministry fraternal:

As with any job, have an understanding and exciting/motivating line manager. Most church leaders have no training or significant experience in managing staff, yet most churches are packed with people with those skills. That knowledge needs to be utilised

Having an amazing youth worker friend to pray, share the load with you, who understands, who is willing to be on the other end of the phone when things are tough, or when you just don’t know what to do.   (avoiding being on your own – yet how many churches appoint 2 youthworkers? – notice that ‘not feeling alone features in a few others comments below)

Separate work and personal phone. Learn how to say No. Ensure line management is effective. Embrace ecumenism – sharing is better! Spread the load, develop your team. 

Do not answer emails when you should be off/working with young people. Make sure everyone knows you are away. Also a good idea to have a nighttime curfew on contact.

Find/develop close friend/s for support. i.e. can give them a call and speak openly and freely without worrying about what they will think of you when you hang up.

Seek out mentor/coach/director

Read fiction regularly
Use all annual leave each year
Learn how to organise yourself – work and life. i.e. calendars, to do list, project management, note taking processes, life administration etc.
Slightly different slant – but realise that you are sort of a team, likely to not be there forever, and supporting someone else’s dream &vision. Advocate for yp but also be a team player and build the wider vision.
(Thank you to all who contributed to these)
Of course, thriving doesn’t happen without often the need to survive the first few years, and whilst it has a few points, Doug Fields context of the mega church doesn’t always equate and his ‘first two years in youth ministry’ though sometimes, any advice on how to make it past what can be a fraught first two years is welcome. Often without realising it, we need to manage those above us, and manage people into managing us in a way we find most effective. But there is more to it than just management (and there’s a series on management on this site)
So- What will it take to thrive in youth ministry – or are many of those involved in it clinging on by their fingernails and just waiting for the next crisis to hit. And if that’s the case, forget thriving.

 

Being aware of the introvert young people in the youth group

Over the last few months, I have made a starting discovery about myself. I am 41, and I have started to acknowledge, embrace and identify as being more of an introvert. Most of you who know me well might have known this a while, it’s like that classic scene in the film pride when one of the characters has been thought of as being gay for about 20 years.
I guess when I look back on my life, I realise the moments where my being more introverted has been more helpful, positive and an advantage, like all things, it has maybe been a disadvantage. I look back at the various aspects of my growing up, my youth ministry and work with young people and reflect through a lens of Introvertion.. what do I find?
I find that I loved spending time with people and talking at depth (so maybe empath not just introvert) , including my youth leaders, pastors.
I often preferred the car journey to the activity, space to talk, more than the activity.
Small groups of less that 5 I remember fondly, large groups trying to learn in a classroom I felt quiet and pressured. These are just a few examples for me, and actually when I look positively back on my youth ministry upbringing, it was the quiet, not the noise where I found a place, energy and home.
So if it’s true that more than 1/3 of all people are more likely to be on the introverted side of an extrovert/introvert scale.. how might this be reflected in the way children and young people are part of education, society, and maybe specifically for here, the faith groups and churches?
One example, and although discredited, I began training in youth ministry in the mid 1990’s and so, stuff on communication and learning styles was deemed important, and how people learn.. I can’t remember that any real attempt was made to look at or focus deliberately on young people’s learning for the more introverted. Much of trying to be attractive to young people focusing on gathering larger groups, making more noise, and this could be hard work for the more introverted. It’s not that they wouldn’t do it, but it’s not where, necessarily they find energy.
Thinking about different approaches to youth ministry, schools work, detached, centres, groups, who amongst even those who lead, develop and shape youth ministry, do we have an awareness that some young people will find some aspects difficult and tiring, not because they are bored, fed up or annoyed, or that it’s rubbish (Though these aspects could be true)
But that it’s not feeding them and giving their natural introversion space to thrive and be validated. Especially if noise, large numbers and energised worship is the deemed norm.
Even thinking about group work, an introvert might needs time to think about a theme or topic, how does that work if the youth worker doesn’t know themselves the theme before the Friday before the Sunday?
There may well be countless other examples, in Sunday groups and evening clubs, where the expectations that young people like the noise and competitive thinking, drowns out the quiet, the thinkers and possibly even those who do know the right responses.
By having or defaulting to the extrovert in youth ministry, if we do, well.. Susan Cain, in ‘Quiet’ would argue that for 120 years society has shifted in this way too, and youth ministry has often followed culture to be relevant, then we might be in danger of implicitly excluding the young people who are already growing up and not fitting in, not because their not intelligent, thoughtful and perceptive, but that it takes even more energy to contribute into spaces defaulted to an extrovert ideal.
Tell me, who are the usual head boy or head girl? The popular and outgoing or the clever quiet one? Which young person in the youth club gets more heaped praise or expectation of leader, than others? Just a thought..
When we show films with young people, do any involve quiet methodical thinking and working alone? I mean.. has anyone shown ‘The theory of everything’ to their youth group, or highlighted the power of individual thinking and someone’s mind, in the discussion?.. something to validate a type of young person who may feel invisible and also may not be having their needs met or validated. Most young people won’t want to be given the bible passage or theme, the week before, to give it some thought.. but I’ll bet that the 1/3 who are discovering and needing to have their introvert side nurtured and energised might do. They’re likely to love you for it.
I look back at my growing up, and I have in a way the duke of Edinburgh award to thank for giving me this kind of space.
For, in doing the bronze section I had to do a skill, and as a lazy person, I chose something I knew alot about and would do easily, so I chose Bible study. And I was given 100’s of bible passages, questions and journals to write, over 18 months. And a leader to talk through them with. The work was all scheduled, and I had to work through them one to one with a designated leader. Honestly it was wonderful. For me, aged 12/3 to have my own space to develop thinking and have space to talk one to one about it.
Maybe that where my reflective practitioner stuff began. The funny thing was that I haven’t ever really thought about how much I enjoyed what I did for those 18 months, well it feels ‘geeky’ or ‘ christian’.. and its only now how much I realise that it fuelled my introverted side. Daily bible notes were one thing, but they didn’t get validated by discussion or further thinking unless I made the effort, weekly journal to write and bible study to do… well…
So.. you might do this already, the more introverted youth minister might have the lens opened and see it, but how might young people growing up lost in an increasingly extrovert world, find home in churches, groups and youthwork that gives them life, purpose and meaning? Its not just what a person believes, it’s how they are able to enact it and participate in it…

So, if 1/3 of the few children and young people, or dare I say it adults, in your church are introverts… where might they find life and a place?

How might their natural gift and character be recognised, validated and enhanced for its gift, and not swallowed up in the noise?

Is UK youth ministry too American, and too male?

I read with interest that Tim Gough, from the award winning youthwork hacks blog has listed his 11 most essential youth ministry books, from a collection of 113 in his study.

The list is here, 11 essential youth ministry books

What strikes me, though it’s not a surprise, is quite how influential American Christianity and youth ministry has on this list.

Theres at lest 5 of the 11 that are from American writers, though i confess a number i am not sure of. But the american influence is there.

What is equally as real to say is that are British based youth ministry writers, researchers and students, prophets without honour, in our own homeland? Though Tim mentions Pete ward and almost writes off his incarnational approach ( which cannot be out of place, as it is theologically grounded, yet has Ashton and Moon in there… wow, but Tim and I already know we disagree on ashton and moon..) – and Theres recent Pete Ward that needs to be taken seriously.

However, It might be easy to say that American Christianity has influenced youth ministry in the UK, by too far, and by too far, i mean that Doug Fields gets a mention in this list, what is of more concern, is that in a list of 113, no titles written by women make the short list of 11.

Thats 0.

So it begs the questions?

Is Youth Ministry male? Is it the all boys, old boys network? It looks that way.

It could be argued, that there are no female youth ministry writers, but thats bullshit.

It could be argued that youth ministry titles written by women dont make the grade in academia – but then academia discounts much of the male written stuff (including Doug fields too)

It could be argued that women writers arent given the publishing opportunities, or time, or encouraged to write.

It could be argued that the popular books are written by male writers, because they manage to create a machine our of their ministry and can then sell them. So thats a really great state of play.

As an addition. From the religious resources centre I was given this book today

Written in 2000. Over 30 different youth ministry leaders, leaders of various ministries, churches and organisations have 1 chapter each to make a contribution to a ‘youth ministry handbook’

Guess how many of those 30 are women?

(Answer at the bottom of this piece)

It could be that women writers dont write theological books, more ‘ministry’ books on a topic, though that hasnt stopped Doug Fields getting influence… and see above.. 30 ministry leaders got a space in that book..

Whilst great strides have been made to balance out the speakers and seminar leaders in conferences in the UK, thanks to the work of project 3;28, and where in the UK, youth ministry has been, possibly, influenced by youth work, which has tried to encourage equality, and anti-oppressive practice. But what about the leaders of UK youth ministry organisations, male or female? If there is ‘power’ who holds it…

But if books, and blogs, and writing still has some influence, then much of this is clearly still very much male orientated. And i know it. I know it, because I have few female youth ministry titles on my bookshelf (and yet i quote Kerry Young, Joan Tash, Jocelyn Bryan and Naomi Thompson, alot) – but they tend to be from a youth work perspective, rather than what i would say is youth ministry. I confess I havent bought a UK based youth ministry book written by a woman, sorry Sally Nash, Rachel Gardner, and others. I confess.

I confess the twitter shouting on UK youth ministry is fairly male. And thats me too.

Yet, put it this way, if as many books on our bookshelves were written by UK females, as they are US males, then the shape of UK youth ministry may look far different. It may look like it was birthed from a UK context with a different perspective, not american mega church evangelicalism and a context so wildly different from the UK, it isnt almost worth bothering with. And we’re streets ahead in thinking anyway. We have to be, were dealing with post christendom, and have been for ages.

But if UK youth ministry also revered its female writers, contributors, as much as it revers and looks across the pond at its male ones, then, this has to make a difference.

It could be that I am having a pop at Tim, and im trying not to, what his list reveals is the ongoing influence of a male american youth ministry perspective that still pervades, and is popular. When there are many thoughtful, reflective, articulate female youth ministers in the UK whose voice and words and ministry needs to be as well received, regarded and be shaping the dying fragments of youth ministry in the next 50 years. Maybe it will do ‘it’ good. I cant write any more on this subject. Its not my voice that needs to be heard.

The answer….. 4.

Is the problem of absent young people taken seriously enough by churches? (enough, even to read a book?)

If only there were lots of books to read that congregations and churches could read to help them think through the pressing issue of trying to attract, trying to keep, and trying to disciple young people in churches. If only there were just so many, that there would be an exhaustion of so many to choose from.

But faced with the task, no, faced with the pressing need of trying to make church, discipleship and faith real for young people – where do churches and congregations turn? Well, its not books.

Therefore it is not those who think through, and do research about young people. For study

It is not the youthworkers of the past who have written up their experiences, shared their story and reflected it in way that makes it accessible for others.

And, without having an hankering for thinking and theory – what do current practices rely on? – just experience? just the latest fashion? just with the second hand learning of others? the youthworker youre about to employ, the student who is amazing, and just hope they know what to do.

What am i getting at? Whats my problem.

Well, i wish I was surprised. Im just a bit disappointed. I thought churches cared about young people, i really wish, the desire to connect with young people, and understand their world was really like. At least try.

At least engage with actual research. Published , verified research by one of the UKs leading statisticians on church numbers and data.

This is what I am getting at.

Are churches bypassing books to read up themselves and just employing someone to get their knowledge?

But reading a book might solve a lot of hassle.. mightnt it?

The following book was given to me last week for free.

(you can buy it for 1p here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Reaching-Keeping-Tweenagers-Peter-Brierley/dp/1853211478/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=reaching+and+keepping&qid=1555273495&s=gateway&sr=8-1-spell )

I was given it free from the North East Religious resources centre (RRC), as they were having a clear out.

It was in their youth ministry and childrens ministry section, yes it is a title from 2001. But why was it given to me free?

Because it had not been taken out of the RRC for 10 years.

Actually, the last person who did did so in 2007. That is 12 years.

12 years when no one from any church congregation in the north east took out a book that detailed statistics, findings, analysis, reflections on the lives of, the thinking of, the behaviours of young people aged 8-13 in the UK. Statistics and reflections from one of the UKs leading statisticians on churches and church growth. (his website is http://www.brierleyconsultancy.co.uk)

12 years where it doesnt appear that churches really wanted to do any difficult work around young people and think through things.

It may be out of date now, but it really wasnt in 2007,8,9, 10…

12 years where something else was more important.

12 years where research about young people hasnt defined or shaped practice in regard to young people – but something else might have done.. And im not saying general research is everything, on these pages you will know that i have issues about such general research and making generalisations. But at the same time, what might it say that this kind of book hasnt featured in any thinking about youth ministry, childrens ministry in the north east for over 12 years.

Maybe it also says something about how many people know about the fabulous religious resources centre, and please do register, connect and make use of the fabulous resources. And the books. The many 1000’s of books. Almost free, with an annual fee to join…

So, when youth work books are being given away for lack of use, what is going on? – what isnt going on?

What priority does youth work actually have ? And who might actually be prepared to graft, to read, to think about it, before embarking on the long term journey of it..

Books may be out of fashion, but come on, leaving them unused, unread and not part of the process of developing youth ministry practice… really?

Im not shocked, just a bit disappointed. When a resource this good has been laying dormant. What a waste.

Can youth ministry and youth work really be all joined up?

An article has just been published in Youth and Policy in which Andy du Feu from Moorlands college asks whether there needs to be a larger table for youth work and youth ministry could sit and converse together in dialogue. It is an interesting piece and builds on Allan Clynes article in 2015 on the professional narrative in youth ministry. To read Andys piece have a look at this link:  A Table for youthwork and Ministry . Do have a read.

Andys article didnt get me agitated. But it did cause me to think of two questions:

  1. Havent we been here before?  and
  2. What would that dialogue look like, and how would we know this had happened?

Both of which I explore later in this piece. But first it got me thinking about the levels in society in which Youth Ministry and Youth work operate, in the UK, at least and what is going on (that i know of) around collaboration and the opening of this dialogical table. NB this piece does use terms like secular and faith, to make points, I am uncomfortable with using ‘secular’ myself, but in the context of this piece i think it helps to quantify the discussion.

So firstly youth ministry, it has:

College courses (cliff college, NTC, CYM as examples)

Charitable Organisations /Affiliations (YFC, Youthscape, Urban Saints, SU – and all scottish equivalents, BB/GB)

Conferences

Magazine (C&YW), Journals (Journal of youth and theology, IASYM) a few rare books. The Bible as a sacred text

Social Media

Churches/Diocese/Deanery/Denominations

Practitioners, that include professionals, gap year students, volunteers.

 

On the ‘other side’ of the coin, Youth work operates via;

National occupational standards

Government policies

Colleges

Some Third sector organisations – significantly increasing since Austerity as CIC/CIO orgs take over the running of youth clubs in communities.

Charitable organisations – Barnados, YMCA, Princes Trust, Uniformed scouts/guides

Magazines (CYP), journals, Articles, a few books.

Social Media

Clubs

Practitioners, including professionals, trainees, apprentices, volunteers.

I note that I think there are a number of colleges, organisations and practices that straddle these – with FYT, YMCA’s and NTC Glasgow being ones that spring to mind. There is possibly a spectrum. But I couldnt fit a spectrum on this page. And theres alot more to both than above…

So the question is – how are either youth ministry and youth work currently undergoing dialogue- and where?

From the bottom up. Practitioners on the ground do often connect and collaborate. There arent the resources to go around to stay in silos. Partnerships locally are common. Not everywhere, but where there can be. Strangely the places where there are greater resources, the partnerships tend to be less across faith, more the faith groups and the secular groups separate. Possibly. Just a hunch and especially in evangelical areas.

There have been some opportunities in the last few years for christian youthworkers to be in conversation with their secular counterparts, especially via the ‘in defence of youth work’ campaign, one example was the ‘Youth work and Faith Conference in April 2015’ In which faith and non faith groups were participants. The Federation of Detached youthwork conference often hears from faith based contributions in seminars, articles and reflections (my own and Naomi Thompsons included) So, from this direction – where dialogue is a key component of its practice there seems a willingness to hear and listen.  But maybe thats because individual who believe in the dialogue push to be heard within the spaces- though being fair- there seems always a table at the FED or IDYW for a range of faith based voices. It was Naomi who edited with Mark Smith and Tom Wylie – Youth work and Faith – which brought together a number of voices to discuss faith and youth work, including Nigel Pimlott, Jon Jolly, and those from Jewish and Muslim youthwork. – Is this the kind of dialogue and perspective that could be included at a YFC or NYMW conference? – is that where there might be a ‘table’ ?

It is noticeable that Youth and Policy ( ‘secular’ journal) has opened its table to hear the voice of a prominent evangelical youth ministry person. Again, does this replicate in Youth and Childrens work – a length piece from ‘secular’ youthwork?

But – do non faith groups get a hearing at youth ministry conferences? – Ie does the dialogue on professional youth practices get a platform in youth ministry, at the YFC conference, at the NYMW or YWS or equivalents? I wonder…

Im not sure terms like inclusion, empowerment, participation and community development got any hearing at a YFC conference in the last few years, not by much anyway. It is interesting that  YFC themselves have strategically decided to lump their eggs into youth evangelism basket, and turn away from youthwork. So what might that say about dialogue? Is it dead in the water, sacrificed for serving churches and national programmes of youth evangelism? hmm… or has organisational survival (something everyone is suffering from) is playing its hand..?

I dont know how Urban Saints, YMCA or Scripture Union connect with ‘youthwork’ or ‘youth ministry’ – though FYT have in the past suggested that their approach has been to be at the connection between youthwork practice and emerging church and develop pioneer youthwork that has its value base in detached and value orientated youth work. It is notable that FYT representatives have largely been attenders or contributors to the IDYW conferences, blogs and discussion pieces.

There are a number of ‘christian faith based’ courses that include rightly youth and community work processes, practices, history and approaches. I wonder if the youth and community work course at somewhere like Durham university or equivalent used to include a session on ‘youth ministry’ just for dialogue purposes? Again, is the dialogue at this level only in one direction? but the other way? Where is the table in ‘secular’ colleges for the faith conversations? – im sure there is an its my blind spot to this… As there are christian youth and community workers all around…

So – at an organisation and conference perspective – is there still a way to go. Yet dialogue even between youth ministry organisations, and their collaboration is to be questioned too. The battle for organisational survival, kudos and significance rages, with many collaboration projects aborted for the sake of individual significance. At times.

The last significant published collaboration within youth ministry was the five book series that included ‘Joined Up’ by Danny Brierley in 2003, that collaboration included youthwork the conference, spring harvest, salvation army, yfc and Oasis.  Since then, a few collaborative ventures have been had across youth ministry organisations for the odd conference, but none that would be noted for providing material in the discourse of itself at least that which is published. (whether publishing via books is the only discourse influencer is open to another debate, but this is about collaboration even in youth ministry)

However, overall, the problem with trying to do collaboration and dialogue, is that there is no ‘one’ representative of ‘youth ministry’ in the same way that there is no one representative of ‘youth work’ to the dialoging. There are a myriad of fragmented conversations, occuring on blogs, books, chats calls and conferences, with pleas, urges and desires to do a kind of collaboration that seems to be impossible to ascertain or know what it would look like if it actually happened.  If Kerry Young (1999)  is in any way correct then Youth work itself, and youth ministry its counterpart, both exist as conversation in themselves – they occur as people determine what youth work or ministry is – as although attempts have been made to ground youth work in theory ( Jeffs and Smith) this hasnt happened in the same way in youth ministry – its practice that is determined more by its serving of local agency and church values and motivations – rather than common human values. (*which themselves emerged out of the faith context of their day).

In the same way that talking about youth ministry and youth work in itself contains both generalisations and universalisms of understanding, that actually are only realised through the actions of those who perform or enact it. In these pages i have talked about youth ministry but that could be directed at whole organisations, leaders of organisations, values/motivations of organisations, churches, affiliations, or even the youth minister themselves. ‘Youth Ministry’ not unlike ‘youth work’ is a catch all, and a ‘none of all’ term. It kind of hasnt been pinned down. Even if National occupation standards kind of know what aspects of it might look like.  Whereas everyone kind of knows what teaching, social work or Police is. Mostly.

So, a dialogue between youth work and ministry – it has been said to be being done before. Andys plea mirrors that of Naomi Thompson in Youth and Childrens work magazine of 2016   What is possibly significant about Andy, is that he represents one of the leading evangelical colleges in the UK, and it has often been the evangelicals who have avoided the ‘collaboration with youth work party’ . Though as he also says, his course has had to include the NOS standards, often the evangelical leaders have been absent from being part of the narrative and discourse on youth ministry, and the conversations about collaboration with youthwork from a practice perspective. It has been left to the academic practitioners to sit at the table. So, from Andy, from an evangelical perspective, this is significant as a leading influencer within youth ministry, the course and vocational course of Moorlands. That CYM and CMS as other faith based youth work & ministry courses have already been part of the table, and Moorlands possibly seen as too evangelical  in the past might also indicate a shift on his or his organisations part to open up that dialogue or a desire to join in with the discussions already occuring. At a time when the doom bells are ringing for both, but hope around the corner with labours pledge to refund statutory youth services.

But then again – what are these discussions if they are discussions and conversations about conversations, about approaches and approaches about conversations. Seems like the table might end not in a food fight but much noise.

There are debated, dilemnas and delights with the ongoing dialogue. Is Youth ministry as open to this? as youth work is?

In my piece on the back of the #ywaf15 conference, I suggest that there were a number of common grounds that faith and non faith youth work could easily share, that piece is here for you to peruse.

Collaboration for the sake of young people in the UK is i think crucial. The problem is that Neo liberalism and survival of the organisation fittest is affecting the potential for that dialogue to occur. It was noticeable that a paper presented to the government this week that highlight the effect of poverty on young people came from charities- with little mention of youth work or youth ministry organisations being part of this. If nothing else joining forces might help with the prophetic or critical edge needed to have a voice in these debates. For too long possibly though no one else has worried about the existence of youth ministry or youth work in society, both have also been as concerned about themselves than the young people they exist to serve for.

If everyone is starting to agree that dialogue is what is required… how might this be made to happen, when and where? some kind of young peoples conference that includes many approaches? collaborations on practice, journals and publishing?  could it happen?

But who is going to make it happen?  and how will we know when it is… 😉

 

References

Kerry Young 1999 The Art of Youthwork, RHP, Lyme Regis

Brierley, D 2003, Joined Up. SU publishing

Thompson, N (eds) 2015, Youth work and faith, RHP, Lyme Regis

 

 

 

Does Youth ministry need to stop trying to be innovative?

What do churches mean when the job advert says ‘pioneering & creative’ – has someone before ran out of ideas? – and its a new idea that is always required?

My previous post exposed the frequency in which youth ministry adverts require someone to have innovation and creativity within their personality and skill set. It has been quite a well read piece, with a number of ensuing conversations, especially as innovation and experience and passion and qualification might be a mix often required, but almost now impossible to find. But one of the questions from this is, what wrong with ‘non’ innovative youth ministry – and maybe more pertinently – are there risks to trying to stay innovative?

There has always been the drive for the new idea – since 100 best ideas for youth ministry, 50 icebreakers, 60 great ways to talk about Jesus, 97 stories that will make young people cry and come forward to Jesus all were published (sort of) – it seems finding ideas is tantamount to the style of education and teaching in youth ministry. And it doesnt still stop…. because the vicar is still asked to do an assembly, the youth minister is asked to do ‘a service’ or talk – the market for ideas is still there. Ideas driven youth ministry is still alive and kicking.

The risk might be to forgo the ideas, the challenge might be to develop different patterns for youth ministry. The reflection might be on why ideas are crucial, and what is this saying about what we think about youth ministry or the church and its message? Are we afraid of what the gospel requires of us and young people, and wrap it up into something quite different? Does a drive for innovation cause us to forget some of the good stuff and ways of the past that were good, and are as or more appropriate now than before. Why the trend for innovation? and its bed-fellow ‘risk taking’?  Image result for innovation

A youthworker in the south of England, Loyd, shared with me their story and reflection on ‘risk taking’ on ‘innovation’ and the effect this had on him, his youth ministry and church. His story is as follows:

A few years ago I was at Soul Survivor with my youth group.  At that time I’d been in my post for 8 years (10 now), and was feeling tired and praying for direction.  You know the sort  . . . is it time to move on? switch gears? or dig in and keep going?  I went to the youth worker morning seminar, which was being led by two prominent youthwork/ministry leaders in the UK.  The session was all about the need to take risks in youth ministry and push to be innovative.
While I think that message is needed, I left the seminar feeling very tired and wanting to hang up the whole thing.  Bear in mind, 8 years prior my wife and I felt the call to leave our home in America and do youthwork in a rural village in the south of England.  We then spent the next 8 years carving out a niche for youthwork in that specific context.  I had previously worked for a megachurch in Atlanta, GA (9000 members, 3500 in attendance on Sundays.  We could easily take over 100 kids to summer camp, to get some perspective).  We had already taken a huge risk in moving to another country, giving up all we thought we knew about youth work (at least in an urban, megachurch, American setting) and started over.  We were now reaching 60-80 kids per week, most of whom are non-churched/non-Christian, and loving life.
Fortunately for me, I had an encounter with the Lord that weekend and gained some renewal/personal revival and some clarity about why I do youthwork in the first place (that’s a story for another time perhaps), but what’s relevant for this topic is that while there is a much-needed conversation about risk-taking and innovation, there’s just as much a need for us to talk about NOT taking risks–being consistent with young people, staying somewhere for a long time when possible, building up a youth work programme/ministry in a community that is sustainable long-term, making a real felt presence in a community, etc.’

I wonder, is this some of our reaction when there’s a drive to be ‘risk taking’? In these pages on this blog, I know I have communicated ‘developing dangerous discipleship’ or shared ways of helping conversations with young people take more risks. Can it be tiring to keep trying the something new. Has entrepreneurship and ideas taken youth ministry into a specific rabbit hole of pioneering and ideas creation. with the fall out being the burn out of the youth worker, who eventually runs out, and hopes to read a book or go to a conference, like the story above, just to get a new one.

I asked Loyd a number of further questions, based on his story;

What might be the issues with innovation/risk taking? for the youthworker, for the church/agency and for young people & parents ? 
L: ​Risk-taking and innovation are really valuable tools for youth work.  However, they must not be the only tools in the box.  The youth worker who is always taking risks will risk (sorry!) personal burnout, or frustration for young people, parents and line managers.  For instance, a youth worker who is always changing programmes, or frequently taking on risky projects will lose young people or parents who cannot cope with the frequent changes, or may lose confidence in those supporting the youth work.
Why is there a fixation with taking risks and being innovative? – does it reveal something we might be afraid of? – (being settled/complacency/getting ‘old’/ our own boredom) 
​L: The fixation is driven by a lot of factors: by media/social media obsessions with anything new and shiny; by the fear/anxiety we are not doing enough (cf. Mark Yaconelli’s work on youth work that is driven by anxiety vs driven by love); and as you touched on, it can also be driven by our own boredom.  To this, I would counter–sometimes it is enough to journey with young people and lead them toward the love of God.  Sometimes (not always) boredom is ok.
What about with older young people – could actually growing ‘old’ and settled and having a youth ministry that is ‘grown up’ and not trying to be new could exactly be whats needed… ?
​I have the privilege of working in a rural setting where I often get to see young people grow up from primary school age into young adulthood.  Our youth centre has a trusted presence in the community, simply because we’ve now been here for a long time.  There are some things you can only do in ministry once you’ve been present for 10 years.  The flipside to that, of course, is that it can become ‘old hat’ and there is a real danger of complacency or a lack of self-awareness.  So there is always a need for reflection and evaluation.
What happened when you stopped trying to be innovative? (for you, for your young people?)
​I think there is a certain amount of freedom in not basing your youth ministry on gimmicks or fads.  Tools, resources, and even innovation are great if used wisely, but they will never replace the value of time spent with young people listening, offering prayer, unconditional acceptance, and offering your truest self in love and integrity.Image result for innovation youthwork
Maybe there’s something to be said about being innovative, what if the previous youthworker ‘lost’ all the young people, maybe there is a different way to do things, maybe also there’s a different way to do things that the management and church want, that a new youthworker has to do – that the previous one didn’t do. But innovation is contextual too. A drive to do something different than a God-slot, for example might be ‘innovative’ , yet a youthworker who already doesn’t do this, and has open spaces for conversation with young people, might be already doing the ‘innovative thing’ that is being suggested, already taking the risk. But from the front, from a blog piece and from the perspective of a resource, this isn’t always known.
Thinking slightly differently, what if innovation came not out from resources but from the conversations with young people anyway? What if its innovative to just be with young people in the present, what if its innovative to listen and do empathy? None of these are new, just good, solid, open, young people orientated youthwork that has been going for a very long time. But if that sounds innovative, then so be it. Maybe its innovative to value young people, not the programme, value young people as spiritual, not lead them to a spiritual place, to hope and dream with them and create provision together. Maybe its innovative to not think of the what next and just be. Innovative to slow… right.. down and offer young people silence instead of crazy busy change.
Should we take risks with young people- by doing youthwork we might already be. Sometimes we just need to stop and remember how risky working with young people already is. Sometimes we might remember that young people grow up with intensive change, one thing we can that is risky is to be the same.
Additional:  Having written and reflected on this for the last 24 hours or so, I have began to think on how improvisation might be whats required for youthwork practices, instead of innovation, for if our youthwork is about increasing participation, about conversation, about relationship (which may be the innovative step in itself) – then developing from within the space as the conversation occurs is the task of improvisation, building from where the action is. As Rev Hamilton said in 1967, we need strategy from the point of action, externally imposed ideas and strategies are not appropriate for young people who are nothing like us. So, If its improvisation, rather than innovation we need as youthworkers, then do have a look at the link on this above, and the ‘improvisation’ category tag on this site.