This guest post is part of a series by youth work volunteers and practitioners writing about their experiences of working with young people in their particular context.Â Naomi Stanton has been doing her PhD research on the Sunday Schools movement from the eighteen hundreds to the twentieth century and has found some interesting parallels for youth ministry today which she explores below.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jon when he gave an enjoyable and well-informed presentation at the Youth and Policy conference on â€˜Young People and Faithâ€™ in Leeds earlier this year. My background is youth work and throughout my career as a practitioner I always kept one foot in the academic side of things through writing and studying, in an attempt to bridge the theory-practice gap a little. After spending several years working in the statutory sector I realised that the gap was in fact widening as target-driven, increasingly formal policy seemed to be drowning, more and more, the â€˜realâ€™ theory of youth work. Since then, I worked for the voluntary sector for a while before studying full-time for my PhD and recently coming to work as a lecturer for YMCA George Williams College in London. My current practice is as a volunteer for my local church, and I increasingly wonder if youth work (in its true form) is incompatible with professionalisation, and is perhaps returning to its roots as a faith-motivated, philanthropic venture (or at least a locally and voluntarily organised one). In my post below I outline some of the findings of my PhD research which looks at the decline of the Sunday School movement and the emergence of Christian youth work.
When the Sunday School pioneer, Robert Raikes saw a need in his community in the late eighteenth century, his response provoked a 200 year movement, the remnants of which still exist today. Early Sunday Schools were an outreach movement prompted by the numbers of young people working six days per week but lacking in basic educational skills; a need that could be met by Christian service. By the early twentieth century, Sunday Schools had reached their peak, with over 75% of children and young people in England and Wales on their registers. Rather than continuing as a needs-led movement however, they had become a highly structured organisation, centralised and attached to local churches and unions, with their original purpose made redundant by the emergence and growth of mainstream education. They faced rapid decline in the mid-twentieth century, as a rigid institution amidst societal change. My research considers some of the factors in their decline, as well as tracing the presence of these issues in church-sponsored youth work in the present day.
Through archival research into the records of the national and local Sunday School Unions, it is clear that these were rigidly structured organisations not allowing much freedom to individual Sunday Schools to define their work at local level or even choose their own materials. Publications around Sunday Schooling in the twentieth century call on teachers to take training courses to drastically improve their work. These teachers were subject to criticism both from the Unions and their churches, who suggest Sunday Schools were failing because the young people did not become adult members at church. The move to a family church model, moving Sunday Schools from the afternoon to the morning, to align them more closely with church services, marked the loss of children and young people from non-church families who had previously made up the majority of attendees.
For the contemporary study, young people from across the Christian denominations have been interviewed about their current experiences of organised Christianity. Transition to adult church remains an issue, and youth workers, in an echo from the historical study, often face church criticism for this. Tensions emerge over whether the Christian youth workerâ€™s role is to serve community or church needs. Young peopleâ€™s sense of of choice, voice, and community are key to their engagement with Christian activities. The study challenges the assumption that young people engage with religion as consumers, by emphasising the significance of volunteering to the young people involved in the research. Implications for practice include allowing for young people to belong, to question, and to participate. This happens in youth work settings but often not in the young peopleâ€™s experiences of church where they sense a division between their peer groups and church adults, often their only significant adult relationship being with the youth worker.
Feel free to contact me via firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to know about more about the research, and/or you can access recent presentations on my contemporary study at the following links: