From the UK to the US: Youth Ministry Observations

1 June 2011 — 7 Comments

I was recently interviewed by Jeremy Zach for his website REYouthPastor.com.

Jeremy has been a youth pastor in the states for a number of years and currently works for Orange in the Student Ministry department. His writing on his personal blog has always been passionate and not afraid to put things out there to try something new. For the interview (conducted via email), he asked me about UK youth ministry and the differences between here and the US. You can find the original post on his site here. This is how I responded:

  1. What are some of the challenges youth workers are facing in the UK?
    To answer that question, you need a little context! Youth Work as a profession has grown and diversified greatly in the UK. For many years the government has financially supported their own (non-faith) youth services, while charities and Christian community projects also gained funding for their work by showing they could achieve prescribed targets. Now we have hit a funding crisis, much of that youth provision has been stopped with many workers losing their jobs and young people left with no support. The big challenge is for youth services, youth workers and young people to simply survive without the structure and security that was there before. 

    However Christian ministry within youth work has traditionally been given little recognition despite being one of the biggest areas of work supported by thousands of churches and volunteers. It seems to carry on regardless as it is financed through the local church and is far more sustainable. So the challenge and opportunity for churches is: how can they continue to be distinctively Christ-like, yet develop key support services and opportunities for young people with nowhere else to go?

  2. How supportive are churches/organization of youth workers and youth ministries?
    My personal experience has been very good. I’ve worked with some amazing churches and organisations who simply love people and want to see youth thrive. In these places (including my home church) there is an attitude that although individual activities, events, or people might not work out, it’s still worth doing it anyway! 

    Of course, that’s not always the case. I’ve talked with many youth ministers who feel burnt out, misunderstood, depressed and sometimes even victimised in their churches. This is not solely a UK problem, but I believe it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what youth work is and does. When youth work is seen as a babysitting service, it has already failed.

  3. What are the best ways to deal with teens who don’t care about God, church, and youth group?
    Love them, love them, and love them some more. I spent 8 years working for a Christian-based community project. On my first day I was introduced to a very troublesome young person, yet it was four years later that they finally trusted me enough to tell me the terrible things they’d been through. This individual wasn’t interested in God, church or a youth group, but needed a safe and consistent presence in their life. Through the years, we’ve had many conversations and experiences of God together. As a result I’ve become passionate about serving the ‘church-grown’ young people develop their relationship with Jesus, but also to bridge the gap with the ‘community kids’ who have no connection with our faith.
  4. What are 2 clear features that separate UK and US style of youth ministry?
    Our countries have a lot in common. We eat similar foods, listen to similar music, wear similar clothes. Our culture is influenced by yours and we speak a common language. But while the majority of the US still recognise church attendance as a normal practice and would quote Christian values as their own, the UK has changed. We are pretty much a Post-Christian nation now with faith seen (at least through the media) as largely irrelevant, and a very aggressive atheism trying to denounce faith as dangerous! This may seem like a bad thing, but it gives us GREAT opportunity for ministry and evangelism. While most children may have heard the name of Jesus mentioned somewhere, very few have any understanding of Him or have had an opportunity to hear the Gospel explained clearly. This is our privilege. 

    The second feature that is different to the US is the potential freedom we have within schools. It is still law in England that schools have a regular act of worship, which is largely problematic for non-faith teachers who will often ask local ministers to come and do “something religious.” There are thousands of youth workers who have built positive relationships with schools and who spend their time going in and taking lessons, presenting assemblies, and doing support work – all with a clear Christian purpose. So there is some very creative work happening in schools, including large interactive prayer spaces and art installations.

  5. What advice would you give US youth workers?  What can US youth ministry learn from UK youth ministry?
    My observation is that the US have the youth ministry thing sewn up pretty well. You have great conferences, resources and speakers, and I regularly read books, articles and blogs from some amazing US youth ministers. So I’m not sure I’m in a position to give advice, but I would be very encouraged to start hearing more stories of churches, youth workers and young people challenging and transforming their communities. There’s a lot out there on practically supporting youth pastors, and running a ministry, even going on mission trips. But grass roots community engagement with young people seems to be an element that’s missing from the US youth ministry world right now. 

    Aside from correct grammar and spellings, I believe US youth ministry could learn a couple of things from the UK! Firstly is the vast creativity in engaging with young people. I am constantly amazed by workers I meet who are thinking differently about church and young people, and experimenting in different ways with amazing results. I think there is more of a freedom here to try new things, which would be great to see happen in the States.

    Secondly, I believe one of the big strengths in the UK is partnerships. Our church alone regularly meets with 7 other churches, runs a community centre, and works closely with 3 local government organisations. There is amazing opportunity to be had in drawing alliances and developing relationships with other groups outside of church. This is increasingly common in the UK and we now have people approaching the church with money, asking if we could start a dance group for the community, or employ someone for pastoral care! I would encourage US youth ministers to think carefully about how they might connect with other organisations to further the work of the church and make Christ known in those places where churches aren’t normally welcome.

So what do you think?

Is there anything I missed out or got wrong? Do you have a different perspective? Let me know in the comments!

Jon

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I am a qualified youth worker, writer and consultant based in Littlehampton, UK. I've worked in the voluntary youth sector for over 12 years, am married to Kirsty and we have two daughters named Hope and Eloise. Check out 'Journeying Together: Growing Youth Work and Youth Workers in Local Communities' and read my opening chapter.

7 responses to From the UK to the US: Youth Ministry Observations

  1. Jon-
    I learned so much for our interaction. I have been talking to loads of youth workers about this idea of partnership. Us USA youth workers don’t know how to do partnerships very well. We see partnership as competition.

  2. Jon

    Interesting conversation with Zach but I would want to go a little further/deeper in relation to this piece.

    I have had the amazing privelege of visiting youth specialties 2005/6 National Youth Workers convention and also the Urban Youth Workers Institute (even taking a few urbies from UK to LA in 08)and then a reciprocal trip for UYWI staff in 08.

    I have met the youth ministry brothers and sisters on both sides of the Pond in work and developed friendships.

    I have great love and respect for them. However, we must never be ignorant of history or culture of the US or ourselves and history’s impact in relation to geography and topography, let alone spirituality.

    The areas that both countries are not sharp on in my opinion is diversity and inclusion in relation to partnership, ministry formation and mission. I am afraid the same is done in this country with the evangelical WASP dominant culture that doesn’t do ‘other’ very well in my observation and experience look at the platforms of various conferences and what is signified.

    I have been encouraged a little more by what I have seen in the last couple of years (Soul Survivor) but we have in no way travelled as far as hoped in my two decades in youthwork and ministry and I think the US influence might also have a bearing to this fact and what is signified and bought into. If I asked UK colleagues to name me a specific non-white youth ministry titan difficult but white authors would come more readily…and that’s a key point that gets morphed into our context

    In the US, check out whether UYWI or NYWC connect and you see my case in point. I see a passing nod in the odd speaker crossover, but in no way the relational stuff. The culture wars have impregnated the church which has not been as missionally exciting as the entrepreneurial stuff that comes from the US.

    When doing the critical or uncritical reflection of the US stuff that has been given us, we sometimes fail to understand the lenses which our brothers and sisters are coming from. Andrew Marin’s ministry in engaging LBGT communities in friendship and missions is interesting in this respect. It is pioneering in its intentionality to engage and is the most exciting though not strictly youthministry but one that I would love us to engage further. Andrew has come to the UK a few times recently Easter at Spring Harvest.

    So much more to say but let’s engage the good and critique the other stuff.

    • Hi Dean, thanks for commenting again i love the additional insight you provide me with and appreciate the challenge!

      I don’t have the face-to-face experience you do of having worked alongside US ministries, my comments are based on a few short trips stateside and an eye from afar. Having said that, I think I agree that diversity is somewhat lacking in both nations from a youth ministry point of view. I am not sure if this is intentional (I.e. They’re not like us), or ignorant (I.e. I don’t know anyone from an alternative perspective/heritage and they probably think the same anyway).

      Regarding your point on the lack of UYWI and NYWC crossover, I’d be interested to hear from people in both those camps. Jeremy, have you been to these conferences? What is your take on the lack of diversity in youth ministry and the church as a whole?

  3. great post.

    You’re right that the US seem to have the money to finance big gatherings, conferences etc. I think there is now a slow change from programme based youth work to relationship based youth work.

    I think in the UK we caught on to that idea a lot quicker but i’ll be interested to see how the US moves in to that (with all the finances they have as well). I truly think we could see some exciting new types of relationship based youth work coming out of the US.

    I also def agree with the partnership aspect. I’m big on finding ways for the other churches and agencies to work together and we are supporting the local statutory youth work by letting them use our space as they no longer have the finances to rent council buildings. I think it is an exciting time for christian youth work as we are becoming more relied on to provide a service that the council no longer can.

    I think in that tho we have to mindful of the human aspect and that people are losing jobs and its important to stand with those youth workers and support them.

    Christian youth work in the UK is also becoming more academic, which I think is great. Before I studied for my degree in youth work and theology, I didn’t think youth workers needed to do that but I’ve definitely changed my opinions on it.

    I think it is vital that all christian youth workers become qualified youth workers. In the long run that will help us to be seen as having ‘proper’ jobs rather than simply babysitting.

    • Hi Smoorns,

      Thanks for the comment. There is certainly a “big” element to youth ministry in the US with the conferences, books and resources, but I think that’s more a cultural thing and a business strategy than anything else.

      I do agree that there’s definitely a move towards relational work again. Mark Yacconelli’s stuff on contemplation was a call to slow down and step away from programme based youth ministry, Andrew Root wrote revisiting Relational Youth Ministry which argued against programmes for being fully present in relationships even through suffering, then Mark Ostericher wrote youth ministry 3.0 which charted youth ministry through the past hundred years and suggested ways forward that included moving away from entertainment into more relational work.

      You’re also right that the UK caught on to that idea a lot quicker. Again it’s cultural. The big entertainment style stuff just doesn’t really work here (I’ve tried it at big Christian events). Young people find it false and embarrassing.

      The partnership stuff is absolutely key in moving forwards. I’m excited by what you mentioned with the statutory service using your centre – that’s where great youth work can be developed! I don’t know enough to see how this might work in the states, but would love to hear from workers trying it.

      I find your point on Christian youth work becoming more academic interesting. I believe training is vital and I’m a big advocate of studying as much as you are able. My concern is that the vast majority of workers are volunteers who do not have the time or desire to study and train. By making the field more academic are we excluding these people, or perhaps even setting ourselves up as experts simply because we got a degree? I’m quite wary of this push for ‘professionalisation’ because of the precedent it sets. I always want there to be room for passionate but unqualified people in youth ministry!

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment!

  4. Thanks Jon

    I am just sharing my experience. When we say things are just ‘cultural’, what do we mean. I wonder what ‘intimacy’ looks like in a large continent that has several time zones and cultures.My observation is intimacy is coming from some aspects of disconnectedness (maybe the flag and constitution are unifying factors but my american colleagues might offer a perspective. My guess is that the US/UK thing has a major thing that is not mentioned ‘topography’ – what does the land/space mean to people? It is no accident that Pete Seger sings the old folk tune ‘This land is our land’. It hints to something of a neighbourliness that continues to be worked through.

    If people in the US disagree there is space to move to another side of a state or a less populated one! In Europe, there is a lot of people in a small compact area that has some serious history and is not sided by two great oceans of 3.5k miles and 5k respectively.

    This is part of the entrepreneurial aspect of our brothers and sisters across the pond that has a key part of play in how youth ministry might need to be understood. I have glanced at Andrew Roots(Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry) thesis and he doesn’t seem to mention the ontological aspect of American culture in depth especially when he talks about place sharing from Bonhoeffer (chapter 6) and unpacks this a little in chapter 7. I find it interesting that this could be built on and might have come at the beginning rather than towards the end of the book but that is Brother Roots reasoning. I think we need to ask ourselves whether what we talk as ‘relational’ is the same understanding across both sides of the pond?

  5. Dear Beloved Brethren,

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    I am very much pleased to tell you that your teachings on your website are a great blessing to me, my family and the young independent christian fellowship
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    So, i, my wife , children and some few brethren from the commmunity we are
    serving the lord under this christian fellowship.

    The fellowship is of 32 members.
    I also take care of ten orphans whose parents died.
    In this i am requesting you to send us more teachings that will enable us, as a small church to grow spritually.

    As well it is my kind request that you also remember these needy orphans under
    my care in your daily prayers that God can open them ways for their needs both in
    physical and spritual growth.As well I kindly invite you to come here in kenya and bless our people with the gospel of our lord jesus.Kenya needs mighty people of God to lead her in to salvation and know the Living God. Please have a kind consideration to extend your kind cooperation for the extension of the Kingdom of God.
    Also i would be happy if you will accept us to be part of your fellowship.
    Pass our sincere regards and greetings to all Brothers and Sisters in christ.

    yours at His service,
    Pastor.jackson. Omari

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